COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - We're breaking down film this week from the Patriots' temporary headquarters in Colorado Springs.
Last night in Denver, New England's offense and defense enjoyed solid efforts versus the Broncos, but it was the Patriots' special teams units that stole the show.
…The first big play on special teams Sunday night came when Bronco punt returner Isaiah McKenzie muffed a Ryan Allen punt on the game's opening sequence. Gunner Jonathan Jones did a nice job of taking McKenzie to the ground, which prevented McKenzie from going after the ball. This allowed rookie Jacob Hollister to recover for New England in Denver territory and salvaged the drive, leading shortly thereafter to the Patriots' first of many scores last night.
…Tom Brady's 14-yard touchdown pass to running back Rex Burkhead looked a lot like a route that Julian Edelman usually runs. The formation was balanced, with Burkhead (flanker) and TE Rob Gronkowski to the left, WRs Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks to the right, with FB James Develin in the shotgun backfield with Brady.
At the snap, Amendola ran a short out, Cooks a fade to the right corner. On the other side, Gronk ran down the seam before turning his pattern into a corner route. Along the way, he drew double coverage from Denver. Develin initially chipped OLB Von Miller, to give help to backup RT LaAdrian Waddle, then flared out to the right, which drew a Denver defender. Amendola and Cooks were single covered as well.
This left a gaping hole in the middle of the field, and that's where Burkhead was headed on a shallow crossing pattern, the kind we've seen Edelman run so many times.
Burkhead made the catch around the 8-yard line and raced to the end zone with safety Darian Stewart climbing on his back just as he reached the goal line.
Excellent play design to expose a very fast and talented Denver defense, and wonderful execution by all 11 players on offense
…On the other side, Malcolm Butler struggled against WR Emmanuel Sanders, who caught five first-half passes for 114 yards, starting with a 31-yard pickup on Denver's first play from scrimmage. Sanders got wide open by running a text book out-and-up route that began with Sanders appearing to want to go on an inside pattern. It was, in effect, a triple-move that Butler thought was just a double. At the last moment, Sanders turned his out up-field, leaving Butler too far behind to make a play on the ball.
Because the game got out of hand for Denver, Sanders only had one grab in the second half, but he dominated Butler on this night, right from the get-to.
…A few plays later, on 3rd-and-4, Sanders again ran a precise route (a curl) that gave him just enough separation to pick up the first down against Butler.
…Burkhead and fellow ball carrier Dion Lewis had tremendous nights in Denver, both on offense and special teams. Lewis led New England in rushing with 55 yards, but it was his spectacular 103-yard kickoff return that really sparked the Patriots early.
After the Broncos kicked a field goal to close out their opening drive, kicker Brandon McManus sent the kickoff three yards into the end zone to Lewis' left. At around the 10-yard line, Lewis got his first key blocks on this return from Develin, co-captain Matthew Slater, and TE Dwayne Allen. Those three players opened up a huge lane for Lewis to pick up speed.
A fourth Bronco was bearing down on Lewis just ahead of them, but he overshot his mark, and Brandon Bolden, trailing that would-be tackler, did a nice job of restraining himself from blocking the Bronco in the back, which would have nullified the play.
Lewis then picked up another key block to his left, while three other teammates walled off two oncoming Broncos.
Lewis is now at his own 30 and makes a nifty move to dodge McManus' diving tackle at the 35. Lewis must now out run Devontae Booker, who appears to have a favorable angle of pursuit, but when Booker arrives, his shove of Lewis in the back isn't strong enough to drive Lewis out of bounds. Jordan Richards then arrives to help the last potential Bronco, Bennie Fowler, from catching up to Lewis.
Special teams coordinator Joe Judge must have been satisfied with his unit's overall discipline and execution on this momentum-clinching play.
…Butler left Sanders once when Sanders lined up in the slot. Jones was responsible for him, but Sanders made quick work of him as well, by running a slant on 3rd-and-5 that left Jones chasing badly.
…Allen had his first touchdown – his first catch, in fact – as a Patriot at the end of this quarter, but he should have come down with it much earlier. On a play-action pass on 2nd-and-goal from the Bronco 1, Allen ran across the back of the end zone from left to right. He had a step on Bronco safety Will Parks and Brady delivered the ball on time to Allen. It initially looked as if Parks knocked the ball out of Allen's hands, but close replay footage shows Allen never had a good grip on the ball and was already losing it when Parks came in to finish off the inevitable incompletion. Just looked like Allen misjudged the catch, something that's plagued him all season.
…Overall, the o-line did fine work protecting Brady from Denver's formidable pass rush. The one time they gave up a sack, it was mostly the fault of RB James White, who whiffed on his blitz pickup assignment. Safety Justin Simmons was White's responsibility, and the normally dependable White just didn't get his hands on Simmons properly. This allowed Simmons to proceed virtually untouched to Brady and bring him down for the six-yard loss on 3rd down.
…We didn't hear much from CB Stephon Gilmore in his first game back from a concussion, but his holding penalty against WR Demaryius Thomas was deserved. The ball wasn't going in that direction, but Gilmore still grabbed hold of Thomas and prevented him from following through on his route, thus wiping out an otherwise incomplete pass on the other side of the field.
…The third huge special teams play led eventually to three more points for New England when Burkhead blocked a Bronco punt in Denver territory. Burkhead was the second man from the right of the punt-block formation, with Bolden as the man on the far right edge. Bolden went wide at the snap, which drew the tackle with him. Burkhead rushed to the inside of them, and the Denver player assigned to him simply gave him a shove to the upper shoulder – not nearly enough to impede Burkhead's progress.
Denver's personal protector would have been the last person to prevent the block, but he was preoccupied with another Patriot coming up the middle at his legs, so, Burkhead had a free path to the punter. He then used textbook technique to smother the ball off Riley Dixon's foot. New England took over on downs at the 30.
…I've watched the replays (numerous times and in super-slow-motion) of Gronkowski's "non-catch" at the goal line that was reviewed and upheld as such. I think he was robbed of a tremendous grab. Looked to me like he had at least one of his hands under the football the whole time and never lost control of it. Should have been ruled a completion.
…To be clear on Butler, he wasn't always out of position on Sanders. He had good coverage at times, but the receiver also made a couple of tremendous adjustments on the football.
3rd & 4th Quarters
…One other time Gilmore stood out was when he surrendered Denver's only touchdown of the night. Thomas was QB Brock Osweiler's second option on the play, as evidenced not only by Osweiler's looking to the left side of the field as soon as he took the snap, but also Thomas' half-hearted route on the other side of the field. It wasn't until Osweiler turned to look Thomas' way that Thomas reacted by cutting across the goal line in front of Gilmore, who was playing a few steps into the end zone.
Gilmore immediately looked up at safety/co-captain Duron Harmon in what seemed to be a plea for assistance. Harmon was then seen gesturing some sort of explanation that Gilmore had to handle that responsibility on his own. Communication in the Patriots secondary was a big problem earlier this season and it appeared to contribute in part to the lone Denver touchdown.
…All night, New England controlled the line of scrimmage on offense, particularly when they ran the football. The Patriots' o-line, along with Develin, was aggressive at the point of attack, particularly at the end of the drive following Denver's touchdown. The last 20 yards of that drive, the line plus Develin helped Lewis bulldoze his way for 6,6, and 8 yards on three consecutive plays up the middle. That last run, a touchdown, looked the easiest, perhaps because Denver only had 10 defenders on the field at the time.
…Equally impressive, the o-line's performance (again, with an assist from Develin) in pass protection. The vaunted Miller ended the night with his name hardly ever being called. Aside from being beaten on Allen's touchdown catch, Miller finished with one tackle and a single QB hit on Brady. Whether he lined up on the right against backup tackle LaAdrian Waddle or on the left against LT Nate Solder, Miller was ineffective. Develin frequently slid to whatever side Miller lined up on and would chip him to help either Waddle or Solder slow down the great sack artist.
…I don't understand how referee Walt Coleman's crew didn't flag CB Chris Harris for pass interference on Cooks when the receiver ran a go-route in the early 4th quarter. Harris clearly grabbed and yanked Cooks' left arm, thus slowing him down and altering his movement as Cooks entered the end zone and the ball sailed over his head. An official was right there and somehow either didn't see it or chose not to penalize Harris.
New England was thankful the non-call didn't prove fatal, though. That same drive concluded with Brady tossing a simple 6-yard touchdown pass to White, who shook safety Will Parks with a great feint to the inside before pivoting to the outside on a flare out of the backfield.
…Safety Patrick Chung's well-read and well-timed interception on the ensuing Bronco drive – jumping in front of an Osweiler pass just after the midpoint of the 4th quarter – was a fitting end to a night that saw New England dominate from virtually start to finish. These kinds of Patriots performances don't happen often in Denver, which makes this win, even against a flailing Broncos team, a special one.