Balanced playcalling led to Pats runners having wide lanes to work with all game long.
The lucky 13th match-up between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady ended the way many of the previous games between the two had: with number 12 coming out on top. Brady won for the ninth time in comparison to Manning’s four victories, his team picking up the 31-21 victory, further solidifying the quarterback’s dominance in the back-and-forth chess match between the two. Manning may have performed better than Tom on Sunday (345 yards, three touchdowns) along with in the past, but Brady has been able to manage the game in a more effective fashion, leading his team to a greater time of possession as well as controlling the pace of the action. For the second consecutive week, Tom received a lot of support from the running game which helped him to be in such control, with Stevan Ridley rushing for 151 yards and a touchdown while Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden added 47 yards and 54 yards, respectively. The Patriots ran to counter the nickle and dime packages Denver was sending New England’s way, with covering the pass a more important priority for the Broncos than playing for the run. The plan worked to perfection, with Denver’s secondary having trouble consistently making tackles on ball carriers, most notably on a 3rd-and-17 run by Woodhead that netted 19 yards, giving the Pats the first down and extending the drive. Once again, the offensive line did a great job creating holes for runners; protecting Brady was another story, as they allowed five total sacks. Still, Brady managed to stay upright enough to operate the hurry-up offense extremely effectively, mixing pass and run calls so well that Denver linebacker Joe Mays even admitted after the game his defense was “surprised” by the strategy and didn’t know how to stop it. Clearly, the recent emergence of the Pats running game has added a whole new dimension to this offense, one that makes it virtually impossible for opponents to stop moving forward. OC Josh McDaniels, HC Bill Belichick, and Brady all seem to be on the same page that establishing the run is vital to winning another Super Bowl, and so far the adjustment in playcalling has paid dividends.
The impressive nature of the offense’s performance was nearly overshadowed by the defense’s problems in the secondary, especially with Patrick Chung getting over to help on deep balls. Three times Chung failed to get over for Sterling Moore, who was so far behind Demaryius Thomas he once dove for his ankles to try and catch him. Moore was so bad that he was replaced by rookie Alfonzo Dennard and outplayed. Granted, Dennard was typically lined up across from Eric Decker rather than Thomas, but his performance still deserves positive recognition. Moore did manage to cause a fumble, one of three Patriots turnovers, after he was burnt on a 43-yard deep post by Thomas. The cornerback punched the ball out from behind and scooped it up before being bumped out of bounds at the 17. That early play signified what would become the story of the game for the Pats defense: timely turnovers. Following a one-yard touchdown run by Brady to put the Pats up 24-7 in the third quarter, Rob Ninkovich planted Manning on the Broncos’ first play of the next drive, jarring the ball loose for Vince Wilfork to recover at the Denver 14-yard line. One play later, Ridley rumbled in from eight yards out to give New England the 31-7 lead. Then, in the fourth quarter, with Denver at the Patriots eight-yard line, Ninkovich forced a fumble by knocking the ball from Willis McGahee’s right arm to all but end the game. His forced fumbles were reminiscent of the more consistent play he’s showed this season, especially in tackling and rushing the passer. The defense forced multiple turnovers for the second consecutive game, giving them 13 total now on the season and putting them in the NFL’s top three in the category. The fumbles certainly helped the Patriots win the game, but what if they hadn’t been caused? Would New England have held off Denver’s late rally?
Those questions obviously can’t be answered, but one thing is for certain: this defense is still shaky at the back end, with the secondary still causing heart attacks almost every time a ball is thrown past 20 yards. They almost failed to close another game Sunday, letting Peyton throw at will in the fourth quarter. Their recent performance has allowed 300-yard passers in the last three games, but as the yardage has gone up so have the turnovers for the defensive unit. The team may have troubles with deep passes as they did last year, but at least they have a better, more aggressive defensive line which has shown the ability to go get the QB a few games this season. Their strong line, along with their talent-laced linebacking core of Hightower, Mayo, and Spikes, can make up for the secondary’s struggles if they play up to their potential; the question is, can they do it on a consistent basis? Maybe not at the moment, but I think as they improve their play will become more steady. The same can be said for the secondary, especially with it still being fairly early on in the season. The team still has 11 games to straighten out its defense and get them playing well as a collective unit, and with Belichick at the helm I’m confident he and the coaching staff will be able to diagnose (and hopefully fix) the problem. This defense is young and talented throughout, and with proper coaching and development they can become a reliable unit for the future. Whether this is sooner rather than later, we’ll have to wait and see.
Besides the running game, the passing game of the Pats’ offensive attack was also impressive. The numbers don’t demonstrate that, with Brady going 23-of-31 for 223 yards and one touchdown, but the way Tom picked apart the Denver defense and drive his team down the field showed such precision that no coverage could stop his throws. The Broncos had no answer for Brady’s short throws turned first downs, and had notable trouble stopping Wes Welker. The wideout caught 13 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown against Denver, often finding comfort in the middle of the field and on third-down plays. With Aaron Hernandez and Julian Edelman out, it seems Welker had regained his form along with his role in the offense. It’s as if the performance against Baltimore fueled him, as he has racked up over 100 yards receiving in the last three games. Depending on the status of Hernandez and Edelman going into Sunday’s game against Seattle, Welker could once again be a large part of the Pats’ offensive gameplan. I’m hoping he is, because seeing him perform the way he has lately has been fun to watch.
At 3-2, the Pats will face an interesting test when they go to Seattle to play the Seahawks this Sunday. Seattle has a skilled secondary, with tall corners and aggressive safeties coming in pairs on the field. The Seahawks have also had success stopping the run due to their defensive line and linebacker play this season, often swarming opposing running backs behind the line of scrimmage. The Pats will have to mesh their playcalling well and use the hurry-up to keep Seattle off-balance, or else it could prove difficult to put up points. The Seahawks aren’t a team to be taken lightly, as the Green Bay Packers have found out, so I’m sure Belichick will have his team prepared to avoid the letdown scenario. With the way their offense is currently going, I’m confident that they will go into Seattle and pick up the victory. I don’t see the Seahawks having a definitive solution for stopping the hurry-up, and I think the combination of it along with Brady’s game management skills will have them confused whether to spread out or come up to the line. One of the most balanced offenses in the league will once again have its way, this time at Pete Carroll’s expense.