Monday, November 13, 2017

Pats Coast To 41-16 Win Over Denver

In case you went to bed at the half, the Patriots finished off the Broncos last night, 41-16. The win ran their record to 7-2, tied atop the AFC with the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are two games clear in the AFC East now, with the division crown looking more inevitable all the time. Next week the Pats take on the reeling Raiders in Mexico City.

The story line today will be how the Patriots special teams totally outplayed Denver's, which led to an easy victory. But that misses the point; special teams was a mismatch to be sure, but the Patriots improving defense and diverse offense outplayed Denver's units as well. All that said, here are some of the special teams highlights...

The Pats kickoff team executed its usual strategy of kicking high/short and covering well. This forced returns (because the ball wasn't in the end zone) and allowed the coverage team to keep the opponent inside the 25 yard line. But when the Broncos tried it, they gave up a 103-yard touchdown to Dion Lewis. And frankly, there's no way they should try that -- it isn't their game, and Lewis had a huge return in the Patriots previous game, too.

Denver also fumbled the Patriots first punt of the night, turning the ball back to the Pats who promptly scored a touchdown. And Pats running back Rex Burkhead blocked another punt. But the last special teams disaster was probably the sweetest of all: a five-yard penalty for too many men on the field, which negated a Pats punt and gave them a first down instead. Naturally the Patriots scored a touchdown on that drive.

On offense the Pats started out by exploiting their running backs in mismatches with Denver linebackers. But by the end of the game, the leading receivers were wideouts and tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The final stats were very impressive; quarterback Tom Brady completed passes to nine different receivers, with eight of them catching multiple passes. No team can stop that kind of diversified attack, because no team has enough talent across the board to do it. Denver needed heavy pressure on Brady but had only one sack and four QB hits.

Brady finished 25 of 34 (74%), 266 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 125.4 QB rating. He is currently the highest rated quarterback by Pro Football Focus, a site that breaks down the All-22 video of every play in every game. Brady's longest pass was 27 yards, but the short- to medium-passes over the middle were open early and often. The team never bothered to attack the outside corners, the strength of the Broncos defense.

The running game was effective in spurts, with Lewis (14 carries for 55 yards, and 1 TD) and Burkhead (10 of 36) carrying the bulk of the load. Most impressive was the blocking of the offensive line and especially fullback James Develin. He blasted linebackers multiple times, and never once in the game whiffed entirely on a block. A stellar game for an under-appreciated player.

The O-line deserves a lot of credit for keeping Brady clean and blocking well on running plays. But you should temper your enthusiasm a bit; the lack of pressure on Brady was largely due to quick-release passes. He did stand in the pocket a few times, but he mostly avoided pressure by hitting receivers on-time and in rhythm to keep the Denver rush at bay.

The Pats secondary didn't always look great. Corner Malcolm Butler gave up a few big plays to Denver's Emmanuel Sanders, with whom he was matched up one-on-one all night. It was a tough draw for him, but he battled all game long and made more plays later in the game to stop third-down conversions and force Broncos kicks.

Fellow corner Stephon Gilmore returned from a concussion and played much better. Of course, the defensive scheme was mostly man-coverage, which is his preferred way to play. So it won't be clear how much progress he's made in learning the defense until they play more zone. One other note on the defense: they had six passes defended by six different players. So they are playing very good team defense, at just the right time of year.

At linebacker, David Harris is actually playing better, which is astounding. He was invisible early in the year, but he made plays against both the run and the pass last night. Kyle Van Noy led the team with five tackles, and Elandon Roberts even played well in the absence of Cassius Marsh. I also noticed lineman Trey Flowers dropping into coverage again on a few plays; makes me wonder if they are moving him into Rob Ninkovich's former role as lineman/linebacker.

Speaking of the defensive line, the Pats don't have any supremely talented players there, but they have depth, depth, and more depth. Malcom Brown was out with an injury, but Alan Branch improved his play to make up for it. And they have semi-interchangeable parts all across the line: Lawrence Guy, Branch, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise, Jr., Flowers, and newly added Ricky Jean Francois. They just keep coming in waves, mostly the same type of player, but fresh every new set of downs.

The coaching was solid if no spectacular. The Patriots obviously used the bye week to put in a few wrinkles with running backs in the passing game, which worked perfectly. But mostly it was a game of making Denver settle for field goals (four of them) while the Pats scored touchdowns.

Not to make light of the defensive coaching -- the Pats have given up 17 or fewer points in each of their last five games. But most any defense would look good against Denver's current offense. It's time for the Broncos to remake their offense, starting with getting a real QB under center.

So where does that leave us? 7-2 isn't bad at all, even better is the two-game cushion in the AFC East. The Patriots play the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a few weeks; that game could determine home field throughout the AFC playoffs. (That's right, I said "Playoffs!")

Non-Brady MVP: Running back Rex Burkhead had some nifty runs, caught a few passes (including a touchdown), and blocked a punt. A pretty good day.

Statistical Oddity: The AFC South is the only NFL division with a first-place tie. The oddity is that the 6-3 Jaguars have a +92 point differential for the season, while the 6-3 Titans are -8 on the year. That's an impressive 100-point difference between two teams with identical records.

And the -8 Titans are technically in first place because they beat the Jags earlier in the year. Tell me *that* isn't an oddity!

Weekly Water-Cooler Wisdom: "With Bennett in the fold, and Burkhead growing into his role, the offense looks unstoppable."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-2!

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