Patriots Travel to Denver, Week 12 Preview

The New England Patriots will be playing their second straight prime time football game Sunday night in Denver.  Just like Monday night football versus the Buffalo Bills, the Pats can expect a  challenge.

New England suffered another injury to an offensive weapon last week as Danny Amendola sprained his knee and will not be playing in Denver.  The loss of Amedola combined with Julian Edelman being out for the foreseeable future, and Aaron Dobson being placed on season ending injured reserve. have the Pats scrambling for skill position players to step up. The Patriots are down to three true receivers in Brandon Lafell, Chris Harper and Keshawn Martin.   The task of playing an aggressive Denver defense was already tough enough, now with the injuries Harper and Martin will need to step up.  We already know what LaFell can do, as he proved it during last years championship run.   What can we expect from the young duo.

Chris Harper. 

Harper is an undrafted free agent out of Cal.  He had a productive college career with 163 receptions for 230 yards and 13 trips into the endzone.  Despite the production Harper was a combine snub.  At his pro day Harper ran a 4.52 forty yard dash, to go along with a 7.03 time in the three cone drill, a practice the Patriots love.  Harper showed good promise in the preseason catching 15 balls and making the initial roster.   In Harper the Patriots have another pygmy type wide out.  He has very good ability as a run after the catch receiver.  At Cal the Bears used the wide receiver screen to get him into space.  Expect the Patriots to try to get him involved this way against an aggressive Broncos secondary, that includes Chris Harris and old friend Aqib Talib.

https://gyazo.com/a4e7f95ad4a0e1f362ba5608cb611ed9

The loss of Julian Edelman hurt the Pats “Z” receiver position.  The position is vital to the Pats offense.  The “Z” or off the line receiver is able to motion over the field to help quarterback Tom Brady quickly decipher the defenses coverage pre snap.  In the above we see Harper in a game versus USC in  2014. Harper motions in tight before running a crossing route that ends with great YAC and a touchdown.  One of the bigger issue the Patriots had last week was the ability to quickly diagnose the coverage. This led to Brady having to hold the ball longer.  While Amendola had a good game before his injury, after he went down, the Patriots offense slowed as Brady did not have a check down “Z” receiver he could count on.

https://gyazo.com/5d77710d72c28872a6237d59bdf9330c

Harper had one catch in the slot on Monday night down the seam, it was negated due to a holding call on Marcus Cannon.  Here in a game from 2013 against Northwestern, Harper uses his good speed down the seam to gain separation and catch the ball in stride to score  a touchdown.  While we should see plenty of short passes and screens to get Harper into space, we have seen the Pats use Edleman and Amedola in deep pass situations to try and keep the defense honest.    With his ability and speed Harper may have more success deep for the Patriots.

Keshawn Martin

Martin was coming along well until he injured his hamstring and has missed four straight games.  Jeff Howe asked Martin how he felt this week and Martin said he felt good.

Martin was called out as a player who could replace Edelman by Brady.  One of the signature plays for Martin came in the Jacksonville game.  He started the scramble drill when Brady was able to get more time in the pocket.

https://gyazo.com/ebf31c3eedbbee1c59e51fee2a685132The above video shows Martin making an adjustment to the play. Former Patriots wide out Deion Branch use to say that during the scramble drill you have to work yourself into position for Tom to get you the ball.  Martin was able to do that on this play.  Hopefully on Sunday night he does the same.  Martin reminds me a lot of Deion.

Between Martin and Harper the Patriots should be able to move the chains, the question will be can the young duo adjust to coverage the way Edelman and Amendola did?

What to know about Brock Osweiler and the Denver Offense

Brock Osweiler is a better quarterback than Peyton Manning.  No that doesn’t mean that Brock is better than Peyton all time.  It means that Brock gives the Broncos a better chance to win.  I’ve Patriots fans say this week, “the Broncos were conservitive with Osweiler”.  That is not the case.  Finally this season the Broncos ran Gary Kubiak’s offense.  The offense they couldn’t run with Manning, because Manning wanted to be in the shotgun or pistol.  With Osweiler at QB the Broncos went to the staple of the Kubiak offense the inside zone run and the play action role out.

https://gyazo.com/63018b2c0eb76c5010d08fc0548e4e51Make no mistake Osweiler has a gun and can throw into tighter spaces than Manning has this season.  With Brock, Kubiak has the type of QB that can run his offense, the way Kubiak wants it done.  Short slants, curl routes and plenty of inside zone runs and play actions off of such runs.

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Here we see the staple of the Kubiak offense.  The Broncos set up the play action with the run game. Osweiler fakes to running back CJ Anderson before tossing a short pass off a back side bootleg to Owen Daniels.   This play is extremely dangerous and with Jamie Collins again being ruled out the Patriots do not have the linebacker who has the best chance to stop this play.

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Last season while Kubiak was the offensive coordinator with Balitimore, he gave the New England defense fits with the inside zone, play action pass combo.  The Patriots ultimately beat the Ravens in the playoffs, although they did fall behind by 14 twice. As you can see by the video above the roll out is very effective.     https://gyazo.com/9cbba1d8ca9e57036e4f89f2d562e35d

The reason the bootleg works so effective is because of the inside zone run.  As you can see in the above,  Justin Forsett takes the ball and gets great cut back blocking allowing him to gain good yardage. The play drives the defense to the left allowing the QB to roll out and complete a pass in the flat should this be play action.  Former Patriot Vince Wilfork was victimized  by a delayed double team.  The center chips Wilfork before the pulling guard seals him off, allowing Forsett to cut it back.  The Patriots rush defense has been suburb the last three week and they now are third in the league against the run.  It will be up to the defensive tackle rotation to really hold the interior of the offensive line.

One on One Match-ups 

This will not be Brady-Manning XVII, instead it is Brady/Brock I.  While the QBs do not actually go head to head, there are plenty of things to watch for.

The Patriots offensive line versus the Denver front.  The Broncos have statistically one of the best defenses in football.  They are a big reason that despite a horrible start to the season by Peyton Manning, the Broncos stand at 8-2.  If the Patriots hope to win they will need to attack the Broncos.  The Patriots will need to take the heat off of the offensive line. They will need to run the ball well to set up play action and allow Brady time in the pocket.  The Pats get a break with DeMarcus Ware will not be on the field.  Ware is a great pass rusher and without him the Patriots get a little breathing room.  While we have talked about the loss of the skill position players, the offensive line is also to blame for the slowing of the Pats point scoring.  The Pats were handcuffed with what they could do with Cameron Flemming at left tackle and Bryan Stork at right tackle.  The hope here is that Sebastian Vollmer gets the start on the blind side with Cannon or Fleming working the right side.  I would expect Stork to be back at his center position as he helped solidify the interior of the line after David Andrews had a tough time.  Josh Kline and Shaq Mason will flank Stork at the guards.

The Broncos have great linebackers in Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall. They will be the key along with TJ Ward in slowing Rob Gronkowski.  The Bills were able to bottle up Gronk with multiple coverages. Expect Denver to do the same.  The Broncos will use the trio to slow Gronk and count on man to man coverage on the Patriots inexperienced receivers by Talib and Harris.If the Broncos go to zone expect them to flood the middle of the field with their athletic linebackers to limit the options Brady has.

We know what the Patriots need to do on the defensive line, but when the Broncos pass the ball watching the Patriots defend Denver will be interesting.  Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders give every defense fits.  The play here will be very interesting.  Malcolm Butler has been awesome the last three weeks and the question is who will he be lined up against.  Originally I thought the Patriots would stick Butler on Sanders and cover Thomas with Logan Ryan and a safety.  Now I believe that Butler will be locked up one on one with Thomas.  The play makes sense.  Butler is playing with huge confidence and shutting down Thomas will be the same as taking on Odell Beckham Jr.  Against the Giants Butler was up to the challenge and I believe he will be here as well.  That will leave Ryan on Sanders.  Ryan is having a very good season, underated in my book.  Ryan will get safety help over the top, as we will most likely see a cover 2 shell over the top.

The Patriots will want to put the ball in Osweilers hands and make the young quarterback beat them by having to march down the field.  Expect the Patriots to use linebacker Dont’a Hightower in tight end coverage.  The Patriots will need Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich to get after the passer and disrupt Denver’s timing.

The Pick

A few weeks ago after the Broncos defeated the Packers, I had this to say.

That was before the Patriots became the walking wounded. That was before they were going to be without Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola.  Looking at these two teams now, I am not sure how the Patriots go on the road and win.  Last week he Patriots had a very hard time against a good Bills defense, that sold out to stop Tom Brady.  The defense stood up and the offense made enough plays to win the game.   This week it will not happen. The Patriots will as always fight hard, but ultimately New England will lose its first game of the season 23-17.  The Patriots offense will be held under 20, it is hard to fathom.  Tom Brady is human and even he will not be able to go into Denver with this rag tag group on offense and score enough to beat the Broncos. We have seen Brady vs Manning turn into shoot outs.  Brady vs Osweiler will be decided by the defenses.

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