January 25, 2021

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Any Given Sunday: Broncos over Patriots

7 min read
Any Given Sunday: Broncos over Patriots

The Cam Newton Patriots are a little like a small college team that somehow lucked into a generational quarterback on the recruiting trail. OK, it’s great that you have a good quarterback — but what have you surrounded him with otherwise and how do you make that work?

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has installed a run-heavy offense with an emphasis on Newton’s abilities as a rusher. While it hasn’t been perfect, it has made the Patriots a tough out as an offense as long as they can rely on opponents having to take the run seriously. The problem in this game, naturally, was that the Broncos didn’t have to take to the run seriously as their field-goal counter continued to inch up. The Patriots were also put into wildly disadvantageous situations thanks to a couple of major negative plays while they were driving. Newton took a sack on second-and-9 at the Denver 39 that forced the Patriots into a punt. A flubbed snap over Newton’s head on the next drive created a second-and-25 at the Denver 34. Down 18-9 with the ball deep in Denver territory after a turnover, Newton took another sack to create second-and-15 and force another field goal. Add on a fumble in the open field and two tipped interceptions.

The problem is just that Newton doesn’t really have a lot of help around him when the team has to pass:

This is that second-and-9 sack I mentioned above: a max protect scheme with Newton trying to get the ball to one of just two receivers downfield, each of whom are single-covered deep. The back is blocking and the two tight ends are blocking and then releasing. Josey Jewell (47) comes on a rush and just whips rookie tackle Justin Herron (75) to the point that when N’Keal Harry actually breaks open deep, Newton has no real throwing angle. Jewell throws his hand up to further disrupt the lane, as do a few other Broncos. By the time Newton is able to reset and get Harry later in the route, he has been taken down by the rushers that the tight ends originally picked up.

Harry may have been able to cut this route shorter or use the defensive back’s leverage better to help his quarterback out if he’d suspected there was danger with it or that he could just pick up some cheaper yards. He didn’t. The Pats are depleted at both receiver and offensive line. The virus and injuries have taken their toll on the line, with only Joe Thuney and Isaiah Wynn currently playing from among the projected starters. David Andrews is back on IR after surgery on his snapping hand. Marcus Cannon opted out before the season. Shaq Mason missed the game on the COVID-19 list. Meanwhile, the Patriots just never fixed the wide receiver position. Damiere Byrd — someone with 44 career receptions prior to this season — has played 93% of the snaps. Julian Edelman is getting load-managed. Harry played 89% of the offensive snaps in this game and was targeted twice, catching neither ball. Not only has this team not replaced Rob Gronkowski, they haven’t even replaced what Antonio Brown was supposed to be for them. The Mohamed Sanu trade was a disaster and the Harry selection is trending towards going right up there with former Belichick draft flubs such as Chad Jackson.

What happened at the end of this game is that the Patriots had the ball down six with a chance to drive and score. These are three of the plays they ran on that drive:

  • Lateral to Julian Edelman, who threw back across the field to James White for 22 yards.
  • Screen to James White on second-and-10 for 6 yards — with 2:09 left in the game.
  • Second-and-13, 1:27 left, double-reverse pass from Edelman to Cam Newton for 16 yards.

Now, in and of themselves, trick plays are great and it was fun to watch. When an offense’s two-minute drill drive is made up of trick plays? That’s a team that flat-out doesn’t trust its passing game. Some of it is the players around Newton, for sure. Some of it is also Newton’s chemistry with those players.

They’ll get Mason back, but the Patriots are liable to be game-scripted pretty hard going forward. To the extent that any team with Cam Newton is operating with moxie, that’s kind of the design of the offense by necessity right now. There’s a lot going against them getting a real passing game going.

Where the Game Swung

Chart 1

Where the Game Swung
Event Time DEN GWC
C.Newton incomplete 4th down 1:03 Q4 80.7% 100.0% +19.3%
D.Lock pick by J.Jones 3:14 Q4 85.8% 70.9% -14.9%
D.Lock pick by J.Jackson 5:15 Q4 95.9% 81.0% -14.9%
C.Newton sacked on 2nd down 1:14 Q4 63.0% 75.7% +12.7%
C.Newton interception No. 1 9:38 Q1 35.5% 47.7% +12.2%
D.Lock converts third-and-21 to T.Patrick 9:52 Q3 70.3% 80.1% +9.8%
D.Lock to A.Okwuegbunam on third-and-8 13:35 Q2 54.6% 63.7% +9.1%
R.Izzo fumble 2:08 Q3 83.2% 91.9% +8.7%

The Broncos just sort of steadily built a real lead in this game and nothing really started unraveling until the end of the fourth quarter. There wasn’t a huge swing on any one particular non-turnover, with the biggest play being a third-and-21 that converted on a sideline gap throw to Tim Patrick.

By the (D)VOA

DEN -27.5% -52.5% 14.4% 39.4%
NE -62.7% -18.8% 11.8% -32.2%
DEN -31.2% -60.5% 14.4% 43.7%
NE -69.6% -28.1% 11.8% -29.8%

If you ever wondered what the might of six field goals would look like, well, here you go. Great special teams game for the Broncos and it was enough to overcome a ghastly offensive game.

A Dearth of Caution: The Drew Lock story so far

One of the hot mean-nothing phrases of our COVID lives is “an abundance of caution” — it doesn’t really convey anything that “in the interest of caution” wouldn’t, but because the word “abundance” sneaks in, it somehow winds up appeasing the idea that COVID isn’t all that important. There have been several NFL “abundance of caution” notices so far.

Drew Lock? Drew Lock doesn’t know what that’s about. He’s here to take chances on literally every throw he can. It’s how he fit in that 35-yarder to Patrick.

The Pats play with two deep safeties and a third defensive back stalking the middle of the field with one-on-ones on all three receivers on the line. I don’t want to say that it’s a bad decision to take this throw — Lock hits it and it’s an important part of his playing personality. It’s certainly the only way you’re converting a down-and-distance situation like this. But I rarely see throws in this area in today’s NFL because if it’s not dead-on perfect, Lock is going to put the ball in harm’s way. He wound up doing just that later in the game on his last non-kneeldown drive.

It’s first-and-10 here. There’s pressure coming up the middle. You can drain a lot of the clock up. The intended target is well-covered. This one you’ve gotta eat if you can’t find a checkdown.

The worst part about this season for the Broncos is that it almost feels like we can write-off on any kind of notion that we settled on what Lock is. He has played just two games. The receiving corps that was supposed to be newly fitted to help him succeed and serve as his litmus test is largely not healthy. You can tell he has chemistry with Patrick and that’s the guy he mostly spent this game targeting. That’s about it. The Broncos are in wait-and-see mode, which means they are more patient than Lock’s on-field persona as a general rule. Does this buy him another year? It probably depends on him playing a lot better than he did against the Patriots. This isn’t the same Patriots defense it was last year, which makes this a lot more accurate of a litmus test than the turnover-heavy persona would indicate.

The Broncos have largely figured out defense, as you’d expect from Vic Fangio. They have had a negative offensive DVOA in every game they’ve played this season. Lock has eight turnovers in three games and that would probably be higher had he played a full game against the Steelers. The offensive line seems to be playing better than they did last year. There are a lot of elements of a good offense here long-term, but through two-and-change games of Lock, there’s little sign that he’ll be pulling those elements together into something functional.

Out of an abundance of caution, we’d say that Denver might want to be making plans to move on from yet another John Elway high-round quarterback.


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