Patriots showcase too much depth for one-dimensional Broncos to contain

Monday December 19th, 2016

The last two weeks have emphasized why the New England Patriots are as difficult to prepare for as any team in the league. Last Monday, facing a Ravens’ defense that thrives against the run, the Patriots turned to the power-run work of LeGarrette Blount and attacked toward the perimeter—a touchdown for Malcolm Mitchell, 129 yards and a TD for Chris Hogan, etc.

Sunday, pitted against a Denver unit that can dominate at cornerback and off the edges on defense, New England took a page from the book Atlanta used in a Week 5 win at Mile High. It wasn’t so much Blount vs. the Broncos as scat back Dion Lewis and the versatile James White.

That ability to adjust week to week based on matchups is part of why the Patriots have been so good for so long. And Sunday, it also helped emphasize what a one-dimensional mess Denver’s offense has become in 2016.

The Patriots did not score many points vs. Denver’s excellent defense, but they still coasted to the finish line in a 16-3 win.

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As has been a painful theme all season, the defending champion Broncos were limited by their own awful run game to putting the game on QB Trevor Siemian’s shoulders. He played well, but made one critical mistake—a second-quarter INT that led to New England’s only touchdown—but was otherwise undone by those around him. The Broncos couldn’t do anything of note on the ground (58 yards on 17 attempts), couldn’t protect Siemian (four sacks) and shot themselves in the foot when there were plays to be made.

Teams with explosive offenses can make up for a miscue here or there. The Broncos cannot. So, Jordan Norwood’s early muffed punt (and late fumble) or Demaryius Thomas’s drop on a beautiful Siemian deep ball stand out. There just is no room for error the way Denver’s offense has played this season.

The Patriots, on the other hand, wrapped up the AFC East and a first-round playoff bye at least in part because of the abundance of ways they can come at you. It was true with Rob Gronkowski and, amazingly, remains so even though he is out.

“They spread you out a lot more,” Baltimore safety Eric Weddle told SI’s Greg Bedard this week of the Patriots’ post-Gronk offense. “With those backs, they’re like receivers. You saw (James White). Put him out at No. 1 and he runs a slant for 60 (yards) when we’re playing man and we’re doubling (Edelman) and we’re playing 2-man away so it’s like, you can only take away so many (options) and they made a great play. That’s just the matchups that they present on a play-to-play basis. Very rarely do they give you a chance to take advantage.”

Indeed, White nearly sprung for an 81-yard TD against Denver out of one of those sets Weddle mentioned, with the Patriots’ back split wide to Brady’s left. He ran a slant toward the middle of the field and only a shoestring Darian Stewart tackle kept him from going the distance.

White and Lewis combined for five receptions for 33 yards, while Lewis rushed for 95 a career-high 95 yards in his fifth game back from injury. Brady also leaned on Julian Edelman, as he usually does in spite of any extra coverage attention—Edelman caught six passes for a game-high 75 yards.

When the Falcons scored their win over the Broncos, it was due mainly to RB Devonta Freeman out of the backfield and fellow back Tevin Coleman exploiting Denver’s linebackers and safeties as a pass catcher. New England did not get as much receiving production out of its backs as Atlanta got that day (132 yards from Coleman), but Blount’s limited early workload and Brady’s willingness to almost completely ignore areas outside the hash marks struck a similar beat.

The Patriots could bring a game plan like that Sunday because their roster allows it, and their coaching takes advantage of it. Few teams have such a luxury.

Denver clearly does not belong in the same category at the moment. Sunday, the Broncos tried and failed to establish an offensive balance—to get their run game rolling so they could set up Gary Kubiak’s favored play-action passes. There have been blips when the run/pass mix has been there. More often than not, the plan devolves into a Siemian-heavy approach.

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That’s no way to live against a team like the Patriots, who look more and more like a Super Bowl favorite by the week. The offensive skill positions can mix and match, sure, but take note of what else is happening for Bill Belichick’s team. Save for a handful of looping pass rushes by the Broncos’ standout edge defenders, the Patriots’ O-line has improved each week. The defense has played four strong games in a row.

Maybe there is not a “complete” team in the league this season. The Patriots are close, though, and Sunday made apparent again that the Broncos—at least on offense—are nowhere near that level.

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