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Patriots Take 2: Lack of weapons, running game among reasons for loss to Broncos

Posted by Erik Frenz  January 22, 2014 08:00 AM

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Some observations on some hot topics from the New England Patriots' 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game on Sunday.

Broncos sold out to stop LeGarrette Blount, running game

Running back LeGarrette Blount rolled over every defense the Patriots faced for a month, but he came away with just six yards on five carries against the Broncos.

The Patriots didn't do a very good job of hiding their tendencies when he was on the field. His five carries all came from an offensive formation with either two backs or two tight ends.

blount carry 2.png

Any time the Broncos spotted him in the backfield, the defense crept up to the line of scrimmage. They would often have eight or more defenders in the box. This way, they had more defenders than gaps, which helped them plug up the running lanes.

Who could blame them? Blount had 26 snaps against the Colts, and had 24 carries. When he's on the field, it's pretty close to certain he's getting the ball.

Above is his first carry of the game against the Broncos. The Patriots wanted to run a weak-side zone, but the numbers were never in their favor. Three blockers on the right were supposed to account for four defenders. Even with the offensive line blocking down to their right, they were still inadequately suited to block the run.

blount carry 5.png

Above is a power run on 1st-and-10 at 7:20 in the second quarter. Blount was supposed to follow the lead block of fullback James Develin, but Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan did a fine job of absorbing the block, shrugging it off and making the arm-tackle.

The trend continued throughout the game, and as expected, it presented the Patriots some opportunities.

The Broncos' aggressive tendencies nearly caught up to them, on 1st-and-10 at 3:06 in the first quarter. The Patriots ran a play-action pass, with receivers Julian Edelman (11, circled in blue) and Aaron Dobson (17) running vertical routes. Tom Brady faked the hand-off to Stevan Ridley, and the offensive line made it look like a run as they geared up to block downhill.

The entire defensive front seven bit on the run fake. The group of biters included safety Mike Adams (20), who came up hard and left the left side of the field open. That just happened to be where Edelman was headed, and the receiver blew right past the coverage of the deep safety, Duke Ihenacho (33), who assumed Adams would get back in position.

Following the play fake, Brady waited just barely over one second before releasing the ball. He likely got anxious and put too much under the throw. No one was near him, with the entire front seven focused on the run. If he had waited another split-second and set his feet, he might have hit this throw.

The running game can still have an impact, even when it's not as effective as possible. Even though the running game fizzled out in the key moment, the balanced approach on offense should continue to be the approach in 2014.

Brady's lack of weapons at the forefront once again

In the past, it would have been lunacy to suggest that a defense should focus on stopping the Patriots' running game. With Brady at quarterback, the passing game has always been the bigger threat.

These days? Not when the first four passes are thrown to Edelman, Austin Collie, Matthew Mulligan and Matt Slater. Of course, some of their lack of weaponry was due to attrition — Rob Gronkowski could have had a big impact in this game — but this offense still lacks the same thing it's lacked for years: a consistent vertical threat.

On Sunday, Brady went deeper than 20 yard downfield five times, and hit just one. Three of them were open throws that Brady missed, to Edelman, Collie and Slater. One was to a double-covered Dobson.

dobson 8.png

The lone completion was on a deep curl where Dobson (circled in blue) stopped his route near the left hash mark, capitalizing on two defensive backs who expected him to run vertical.

You could make a chicken-or-the-egg argument of this, though. Does Brady struggle to get the ball downfield because of his targets, or do his targets struggle because he can't get the ball downfield? I think, at this point, the Patriots need to treat Brady like a mix of Peyton Manning and John Elway toward the end of their careers. Brady should benefit from a balanced offense, and he still has the arm to go downfield sometimes, but that's not a big part of his game anymore. He's still one of the game's most cerebral quarterbacks; his brain is just as powerful of a weapon as his arm.

That being said, more weapons are necessary. Big, tall, fast receivers are valuable no matter the quarterback, as the Manning brothers have taught us in two of the past three postseasons.

The development of Dobson hit a snag when he injured his foot, but after just his first season, he's not yet hit his ceiling. Kenbrell Thompkins was slowed to a halt by a hip injury, but was inconsistent throughout the season, and is far from a sure thing; Danny Amendola tore his groin in Week 1 and was never the same, but he should be able to make a full recovery and be fully effective again in 2014. All the uncertainty makes retaining Edelman that much higher a priority. If we learned nothing else about the Patriots this season, it's that the Patriots need to put more value on two traits at receiver: dependability and chemistry with Brady.

patriots tight ends.pngFor all the injuries the Patriots suffered this year, the loss of Aaron Hernandez has been vastly underrated. If the Patriots still had him when Gronkowski went down, Brady wouldn't have been throwing passes to Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui. The difference in the offense was night and day for the Patriots when Gronkowski was in and out of the lineup. They scored 7.5 more points per game and converted on 25 percent more possessions in the red zone. Gronkowski hasn't finished a season healthy since 2010; finding an insurance policy for their All-Pro tight end should also be a high priority this offseason.

Ryan Wendell and Logan Mankins struggled with Terrance Knighton

The Patriots offensive line has been one of its main keys to success in recent weeks, but seemed to have some of its worst moments in the biggest spots in 2013, and over the past several years, those worst moments and biggest spots have led to early exits from the playoffs.

The main culprit behind many of New England's failed runs was center Ryan Wendell, who was beaten handily by Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton on several occasions on Sunday.

Blount's final carry of the game came at 4:57 in the second quarter, and was stuffed for no gain by Knighton (94). This was the only run by Blount in which the Broncos' defense didn't have eight men in the box.

It didn't matter, because Knighton won his matchup with Wendell (62, circled in blue) at the snap of the ball, with perfect bull-rush technique by getting his hands inside Wendell's shoulders and keeping him at arm's length, then tossing him to the side and making the arm tackle.

Wendell wasn't the only one that struggled with Knighton. On the biggest play of the game, it was the Patriots' best offensive linemen, Logan Mankins, who was on the wrong end of the play.

The Patriots lined up in the 11 personnel — one tight end, one running back and three wide receiver — and sent all five out into a pattern. That left the five offensive linemen to block four defensive linemen. You wouldn't expect a linemen with the nickname "Pot Roast" to use this kind of juke move to get past his blocker, but Knighton faked to Mankins' (70, circled in blue) left, and then burst to the right with a swim move, his right shoulder rotating over Mankins' head.

The Broncos had good coverage on the play, but Brady might have found Dobson coming open on the in-route 10 yards downfield, or he might have seen Vereen in the flat out of the backfield as a checkdown, if he had the time.

It's hard to hold Mankins and Wendell at too much fault; Knighton graded out as one of Pro Football Focus' best interior defensive linemen all season, and had one of his best games of the entire year against the Patriots. Still, these interior trench battles had a big impact on the Patriots' inability to move the ball, whether running or passing.

Aqib Talib trickle down effect

As I wrote shortly after the game, losing Aqib Talib in a second straight AFC Championship game once again had a major ripple effect on the secondary. The film study held up my original assessment.

Demaryius Thomas had one reception on two targets when Talib was in the game, and had six receptions on eight targets after he left. Alfonzo Dennard did the best he could, and there were a couple of ridiculous catches by Thomas and perfect throws by Manning.

Thomas just seemed to do a good job of fighting through Dennard's phsyicality. It's not surprising, considering he's 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds. Toss in Manning's supreme accuracy, and life was tough for Dennard on Sunday. He gave up five receptions to Thomas for 90 yards and a touchdown.

Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan won his matchup with wide receiver Eric Decker in Week 12, but Ryan had a bull's eye on his back on Sunday, and was targeted seven times, allowing five receptions, including three receptions for 47 yards to Decker.

Talib's value was on display without him even being on the field. The Patriots secondary is a different group with him than they are without him. The good news for them is, his lengthy injury history could lower his price tag. The bad news for them is, they'd be investing in a player with a lengthy injury history.

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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »


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