FOXBORO — The Patriots put up a stinker at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon, after a fourth-quarter comeback attempt fell short in an 18-12 loss to the Denver Broncos.
Two fourth-quarter gifts by Broncos quarterback Drew Lock made things interesting, but the practice-less Patriots didn’t play at an acceptable level against the Broncos.
“We didn’t do anything well enough today to win. So got a lot of work to do, and we just need to get back to work and improve and perform better than this,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said after the loss.
New England only scored 12 points while turning the ball over three times, even with the return of Cam Newton, leading to two major concerns on offense.
One, the lack of practice time with multiple injuries and COVID-related absences gave us a glimpse of life without a dominant offensive line, and it wasn’t pretty.
The Patriots offense doesn’t have the skill players to overcome a lack of blocking; if they can’t run the ball or protect the quarterback, it’s going to be a long season.
Secondly, New England’s systemic failure to develop skill talent is truly remarkable. The Patriots drafted a wide receiver in the first-round (Harry), traded a second-round pick for a wideout that’s currently a free agent (Sanu), drafted two tight ends in the third round who have a total of zero targets through five games, have two top 100 running backs, and took chances on several reclamation projects (Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon).
Despite all those resources invested in recent seasons, they’re one of the most talented depleted offenses in the league in terms of pass-catchers, and the discrepancy was apparent even against the rebuilding Broncos.
Blaming the Pats’ underwhelming receivers on poor drafting is only the tip of the iceberg; the more troubling truth is that the coaches aren’t developing players once they arrive in Foxboro either.
There’s no way to know how N’Keal Harry or Devin Asiasi, for example, would fare on different teams. But they’re not improving enough here, which is just as bad as lousy talent evaluation.
Luckily, the Patriots will be whole soon on the offensive line and can get back to their bully ball style. Still, the failure in all areas of the organization to develop pass-catchers is troubling.
Here are ten things we learned from as the Patriots fall to 2-3 on the season:
1. Cam Newton Struggles in Return From COVID-19
Patriots quarterback Cam Newton didn’t have much help from his teammates in this one, but his play, especially in the second half, wasn’t up to his usual standards.
Newton’s expected points added was in the red at minus-7.1, and his completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) took a nose-dive as the game wore on this week.
After coaches gushed about his improving mechanics, Newton’s time off due to the coronavirus, along with a lack of pass protection, caused his throwing mechanics to regress.
Here’s the big miss of the game that Newton will certainly want to have back, a deep ball to Damiere Byrd. Byrd gets behind Broncos cornerback Michael Ojemudia for a chance at the go-ahead touchdown. However, Newton’s front leg steps to the side rather than towards his target, he loads up on his back foot and throws with his old backward tilt we saw in Carolina. As a result, Newton breaks the chain, meaning he’s only generating velocity from his arm, and the ball falls well short. If Newton gets more on the pass, that’s six and the lead.
I asked Cam after the game if he felt like his throwing mechanics were off due to a lack of practice time, and his response said it all, “Just have to be better. That’s all.”
The Patriots quarterback gets a pass with such limited practice time and a makeshift offensive line protecting him, but Newton wasn’t good enough either on Sunday afternoon.
2. Patriots Offensive Line in Shambles Due to Injuries, COVID-19
The Patriots’ offensive line, which is disseminated by injuries and illness, looked completely different than the dominant unit it’s been this season.
New England played most of the contest with (from left to right): Justin Herron (rookie), Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, Hjalte Froholdt (first NFL action), and Michael Onwenu (rookie) on the OL.
“It was a big challenge. Playing without guys, getting guys hurt, moving around, had some guys that haven’t played together much, hadn’t practiced together much. So we need to get on the field, we need to practice, we need to develop some continuity as a team, but especially there,” Belichick said.
The five-man combination New England finished the game with barely practiced together and had several guys playing out of position, including the two remaining starters, and it showed.
Newton was under pressure on 39.4 percent of his drop-backs with eight quarterback hits for the Broncos. The Pats also struggled to run the ball, averaging 2.7 yards per rush on their running back carries.
Denver’s underrated defensive line, which we tried to warn you about this week, was resetting the line of scrimmage and getting into the backfield.
One of the biggest culprits for the Patriots was Wynn, who was playing his first NFL snaps at guard, moving over from left tackle, out of necessity, and allowed a team-high four quarterback pressures.
The biggest difference between guard and tackle is that things happen much faster inside. Guys get on you quickly, and the game’s speed on the interior caught Wynn by surprise.
On Newton’s first-quarter interception, Shelby Harris got a good first step and used a swim move to go over the top of Wynn’s punch. Harris immediately got in the backfield and tipped Newton’s pass at the line into the hands of teammate Deshawn Williams.
We’ll get a better feel for the issues along the offensive line after reviewing the tape, and they’re one group that can easily use the lack of practice time as an excuse, but that wasn’t good enough.
3. Pats Wide Receivers Non-Existent in Sunday’s Loss
Another aspect of the game that will make more sense after reviewing the tape was the Patriots’ struggles at wide receiver.
Newton was six-of-13 for 62 yards with an interception throwing to his wide receivers on Sunday, a passer rating of 28.4, and another reminder of their inferior skill talent.
Broncos head coach Vic Fangio mixed things up as he always does, but there was plenty of man coverage with weak side safety rotations that weren’t exactly reinventing the wheel.
Still, there were too many instances of Newton holding the ball waiting for someone to get open, which was likely on both quarterback and receiver to make quicker decisions on the field.
The Pats’ final offensive play was a microcosm of the issues with New England’s wideouts.
The Broncos brought a zero blitz at Newton with no safety help for their five defensive backs in man coverage on the play. As is usually the case with cover zero, the outside corners play with inside leverage because they don’t have help in the middle of the field, yet N’Keal Harry breaks in on his route instead of curling outside and isn’t where Newton expects.
“I knew I was going to get hit. So I just tried to find a spot to give him, so he could make a play on it. There was a defender on the interior part stealing the field, so I still tried to give him an opportunity. So that’s what it came down to,” Newton said of the play.
Although he tried to deflect blame from Harry and even said his confidence level was “extremely high” in his receivers, even Newton hinted at the corners’ leverage in his answer.
The Patriots need to be mentally sharper at wide receiver to have any chance with this group.
4. Ryan Izzo, Devin Asiasi Add to Pats Offensive Woes
Patriots rookie tight end Devin Asiasi has now gone 81 snaps without a target in his first five NFL games, and we are still waiting for him to run a vertical route.
With Ryan Izzo fumbling away his best catch of the day, Asiasi got an extended run in the second half, but Newton, and the Patriots, seemed dead-set on avoiding passes to the rookie tight end.
Heck, we’ve yet to chart Asiasi running a route of over ten yards outside of scramble plays.
Everything the rookie tight end does is either a release into the flat or a chip block followed by a release into the flat. As the example above shows, Asiasi is often open underneath (right flat) the defense, but Newton is holding out for deeper throws rather than taking the short throws. In this instance, it works out for Newton on a completion to Byrd.
In college, Asiasi was a vertical threat who can stretch the seam and make big plays off play-action, and yet he’s not being used in that way.
The learning curve for young tight ends is a steep one, as the NFL game is an entirely different animal for tight ends than college, where they aren’t used as much as receivers.
But Denver got two big plays from rookie Albert Okwuegbunam by merely allowing him to attack vertically between the numbers, yet Asiasi is still waiting for his first target.
There are no excuses anymore from this scribe: throw the damn ball to the rookie.
5. Pats Red Zone Defense Avoids Blowout Loss
The offensive side of the ball was a disaster, but the Patriots defense kept the Broncos offense out of the end zone to keep the game close.
Denver drove the ball inside New England’s 40-yard line six times in the first half and came away with six field goals, including going 0-for-2 in the red zone thanks to great defense.
Here, the Patriots take away Lock’s first read to his right by dropping Kyle Dugger into the passing lane off play-action. With all his receivers covered, Lock tries to take off, and Devin McCourty comes from the deep-middle to win the race to the pylon, an excellent effort.
New England also got excellent play from cornerback Jonathan Jones on several targets in the end zone, and we’ll come back to Jones later.
On this play, Jones does a tremendous job of recovering from out of phase when he’s beat initially on the corner route. Instead of panicking or looking for the ball too early, Jones plays Okwuegbunam’s hands and knocks the ball out when it arrives to force an incompletion.
The coverage also worked in tandem with the pass rush once Denver got into scoring range.
Here, Patriots edge defender John Simon executes a T/E stunt perfectly with Lawrence Guy, plowing over Broncos right guard Graham Glasgow on his way to Lock, setting up a third and forever. Denver made a 52-yard field goal two plays later, with Simon killing the drive.
Along with the two fourth-quarter interceptions by Lock, holding the Broncos offense to six field goals gave the Patriots a chance to recover.
6. Pats LB Ja’Whaun Bentley Makes Huge Impact in Loss
Although it came in a losing effort, Bentley led the team with 12 combined tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits, and two tackles for loss, doing his best Dont’a Hightower impersonation.
Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur tried to attack Bentley in coverage, putting him in run-pass conflict often, but Bentley was mostly up for the task sans a few completions.
Plus, his run defense was excellent as he came aggressively downhill at the line of scrimmage several times and was able to knife his way into the backfield on run blitzes as well. The Pats didn’t make Bentley sit back and scan too often, allowing him to be in attack mode most of the game. As the play above shows, Bentley’s aggressiveness worked.
The Pats linebacker also did a decent job holding up in coverage, where he’s usually limited.
Here, Bentley helps JC Jackson on a mesh concept (intersecting crossing routes) by clearing out the crosser and then contains Lock as he rolls out, forcing a throwaway.
New England needs more of what they got out of Bentley against the Broncos.
7. Jonathan Jones Up to the Task in Highly-Targeted Game
Patriots corner Jonathan Jones is routinely among the most targeted cornerbacks in the league, handling the slot for Belichick.
If you were an opposing quarterback, throwing at Stephon Gilmore and JC Jackson is asking for trouble, so teams attack Jones, where there’s more room to operate in the slot anyhow.
On Sunday, the Broncos went after Jones, and he was up to the task the entire game, allowing only one catch on seven targets into his coverage.
Here, Jones has a difficult assignment as the Broncos motion into a bunch formation. As the ball is snapped, Jones needs to match Okwuegbunam’s corner route from an out-leveraged position. Instead of overreacting to his poor starting position, Jones plays off his safety help and makes a great play with his back to the quarterback as the ball arrives.
The Pats corner plays through the catch point with terrific awareness and aggressiveness. Plus, he’s comfortable in man coverage with his back to the QB, which isn’t easy.
There will be weeks where Jones’s coverage stats won’t be friendly due to the high-volume of targets he sees; sometimes, you get beat, it’s the NFL.
However, he’s one of the most consistent competitors the Patriots have in the secondary and is always around the football.
8. Tim Patrick Burns JC, JMac on Two Pretty Deep Balls
The Broncos are wide receiver Tim Patrick’s third NFL team, as the 2018 undrafted rookie is finding a home in Denver.
Patrick, 6-foot-4, is a big-bodied target who knows how to stack defensive backs on go balls and makes it difficult for them to contest the catch point with his boxing out abilities.
On Sunday, Patrick’s two long catches of 35 yards and 41 yards were Denver’s two biggest plays on offense based on expected points added.
Patrick’s most significant reception came on a third-and-21 completion, where JC Jackson got caught looking back for the football too early. When Jackson looks back, he slows down and loses ground, opening the passing window for Lock. In all likelihood, Jackson expected Jason McCourty’s help over the top to arrive sooner, allowing Jackson to make a play on the ball. Instead, Lock’s dime fell perfectly into Patrick’s lap for a massive third-down conversion.
The Patriots secondary, especially Jackson, doesn’t give up many big plays on straight go balls. But Patrick got them twice on plays that made Pats fans say, “why can’t we get receivers like that?”
9. Patriots Ride “11” Personnel in Loss to Broncos
The Patriots rode their three wide receivers sets for most of the afternoon, especially in the second half when they were down in the game. One of my biggest gripes with Josh McDaniels’s game plan was a commitment to early-down runs out of either 21 or 12 personnel. The Patriots were gaining 0.37 expected points on first and second-down throws yet were heavily favoring the run in those situations, where they were losing 0.49 EPA in the first half. New England, as we said earlier, is a bully ball offense. They want to ground and pound. But it was clear that this iteration of the Pats OL was too overmatched for that today.
10. Play of the Game: Jonathan Jones’s Fourth-Quarter Interception
Two interceptions from the defense spearheaded the Patriots’ late-comeback attempt. On Lock’s second pick, Jones was in man coverage and simply tracked the ball better in the air than Patrick to make an incredibly acrobatic interception. Jones had himself a day.