Happy Sunday, friends. I had some time materialize on my calendar yesterday, so I used it to watch the Patriots’ last two games.
In Week 9, they hung a franchise-worst 55 points on the Steelers, and won 55-31, and in Week 11, they lost a hard-fought game to the Panthers, on what was frankly a screwjob call by the officials as the clock expired.
The Steelers game was a clear outlier among a ragged group of offensive performances this season, and everything worked well in that game, as they had for Patriots teams of past years. Against the better Panthers defense, the Patriots had a harder time stringing together the drives they had two weeks earlier.
Here are some observations from the last two New England games:
1. The offense and defense are very well-schemed, as you’d expect from the coaching staff that the Patriots employ. The Patriots particularly keep doing what they’ve been doing on offense since Josh McDaniels began his first stint as offensive coordinator in 2006.
They use a lot of subtly different formations, and they like to run the ball out of passing personnel. They continue to strongly favor the screen game, mainly as a way to keep defenses honest in defending the whole field.
2. The Patriots clearly miss Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, and it made me scratch my head that neither the Steelers nor Panthers committed to the inside running game in order to exploit their absences.
I expect the Broncos to really test the middle with Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball Sunday night.
3. Both the Steelers and Panthers were going after Sam LB Dont’a Hightower in man coverage as a clear goal within their game plans.
Hightower is another one of these Alabama guys who hasn’t lived up to his draft slot, and he really struggles in coverage.
MLB Brandon Spikes also struggles in man, but he’s got good skills in zone, and as a blitzer.
4. If I were going to design a defensive game plan against New England, I’d start out being worried about their running game first.
Their offensive line is better blocking for the run than in pass protection, and they have a nice matched set of RBs in Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount, and Brandon Bolden.
Ridley needs to quit fumbling and getting doghoused for it, but when he plays, he’s one of the most explosive inside runners in the NFL.
Vereen had been hurt since Week 1, and just came back against Carolina, but he’s a dangerous space player. The Broncos will need to be aware of Vereen, despite not having a lot of film on him from 2013.
5. In terms of coverage, it’s a fool’s errand to play zone against New England, and both Pittsburgh and Carolina did so a good deal (admittedly, it’s in their DNA as teams).
The Broncos, though, are a man coverage team, that has been sometimes raising my blood pressure by dabbling with some zone looks, and this isn’t the week for that foolishness.
Rob Gronkowski needs be doubled high-low, and Danny Amendola needs to be manned up by Chris Harris. The Patriots’ other receivers are pretty non-threatening, and can be handled with single coverage.
6. Tom Brady has looked better throwing the ball the last couple weeks, after looking like his skills were in decline earlier in the season. His footwork and ball placement were particularly impressive against the Steelers.
He is taking too many sacks this year, and a lot of that is on him, for holding the ball too long, and lacking escapability.
7. Retired for John Elway.
8. Defensively, I think the Patriots are really going to struggle Sunday night. They have one good cornerback in Aqib Talib, a good free safety in Devin McCourty, and then a bunch of replacement-level guys (at best) in their secondary.
The Patriots tend to mix it up between man and zone looks, but it’s just as dumb to play zone against the Broncos as it is against the Patriots. I don’t see what their answer is against the Broncos' group of four receivers.
9. The Patriots also aren’t too great in the pass rush. Their best rusher is Chandler Jones, and he’s not what you’d call a fast-twitch explosive guy. He’s more of a counter-rusher, who plays with good technique, leverage, and length.
Rob Ninkovich is also good for a sack here and there. If the Broncos protect like they did against Kansas City, Peyton Manning should keep a clean uniform Sunday night.
10. Julian Edelman is a pretty dangerous punt returner, but for some reason, the Patriots have been using Blount as a kickoff return guy lately. He’s not fast or shifty, and I don’t see it as a very good idea. The rest of the special teams are pretty average, and not noteworthy.
In conclusion, the only thing that I see the Patriots having in their favor is that they’re going to be playing at home. Does that really matter enough to overcome the significant talent deficit that they face? I’m going to say no; I expect the Broncos to win by 10-14 points, and to avoid being seriously tested.