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Patriots defense isn’t quite as bad as it was earlier in the season

We asked Rich Hill from Pats Pulpit for the inside scoop on the New England Patriots as the Denver Broncos look to take them down on Sunday Night Football.

Los Angeles Chargers v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos have a tough task ahead of them in the New England Patriots as they look to end their four-game losing streak. That’s a tough draw to need to beat the defending Super Bowl champions to do it, but Denver has been able to play Tom Brady and the Patriots tough in previous years.

We asked Rich Hill from Pats Pulpit five questions about the Patriots to see if there are any weaknesses the Broncos could exploit in this game.

1. What caused their early season defensive struggles, and how did Belichick fix it?

The Patriots were integrating a few new pieces into their defense and there were simply a lot of communication errors. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore and free safety Devin McCourty were not on the same page with assignments, which led to numerous blown coverages. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower suffered an injury and was sidelined for a few weeks and the linebacker depth was tested as Cassius Marsh had to take on a bigger role, despite joining the team early in September. The edge defenders were also mostly new faces as the Patriots replaced veterans Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, and Chris Long with a pair of rookies in Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler.

So there were a lot of growing pains that seem to have been ironed out during their short week of preparation in week 5 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They’re still not an elite defense, but they’re “average” in my book and that should be good enough to keep New England in most games- and it’s a marked improvement over the disaster on the field for the first four weeks.

2. Which running backs does Tom Brady like to get the ball to in the passing game?

Running back James White has 53 targets, which puts him up with tight end Rob Gronkowski (56 targets) and wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan (54 targets, each). White actually leads the Patriots with 43 receptions and he’ll be the Patriots’ go-to running back on third down, obvious passing downs, and in the two minute drill. If the Patriots want to go with the spread, White will be the top option.

Dion Lewis has seen his role expand, although he’s not receiving the number of targets that he could probably take advantage of; in Lewis’ breakout 2015 season, he recorded 50 targets and 36 receptions for 388 yards (10.8 yards per catch) in just seven games. He has just 10 targets for 58 yards this year. But Lewis’ ability to both run and catch the ball should net him roughly a third of the running back snaps on the day as his touches have increased from 5 in week 4 to 9, 11, 14, and 17 in consecutive weeks. Lewis is likely to lead the running backs in touches, even if White leads in yards.

And then there’s Rex Burkhead who recently returned from injury in week 7. He field 7 receptions for 68 yards in his last game and adds a handful of touches on the ground. He and Lewis will likely split drives.

Mike Gillislee is the final running back and despite having the ability to catch the ball, he has seen zero targets all year. He’s the Patriots short-yardage and goal line back, but he’s had an up-and-down season. Gillislee’s seen an average of 11 carries for 40 yards in recent weeks, but his playing time has been cut in half over the past three weeks. Of his 39 snaps over the past three weeks, he’s been given the carry on 29 of those snaps, so there’s roughly a 75% chance he’s getting the ball for a run when he’s on the field. The playcalling just simply not good enough to take advantage of Gillislee’s skills.

3. What little known player has become a big contributor to the team this year?

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy might not be a household name, but he’s taking on a large role with the Patriots defense. New England acquired him from the Detroit Lions in the middle of the 2016 season and he played a rotational role on the Super Bowl winning defense. That role expanded to a starting and full-time job in 2017 and now he’s leading the defense with Hightower out for the rest of the season. Van Noy isn’t a perfect linebacker, but he’s pretty good in all facets. He’s making more plays against the run, which he wasn’t doing earlier in the year, and he’s good enough as a blitzer and in coverage. He’s third on the Patriots defense in snaps.

4. Are you worried about the post-Brady era? We sure aren't enjoying the post-Manning era here in Denver.

Well, the Patriots just punted the post-Brady era another four seasons when they traded Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers. Brian Hoyer is definitely not the future of the team, but he received a three-year deal with the Patriots to help them transition to whatever player is drafted in 2018 or 2019 to become Brady’ heir…or to be the next Garoppolo who is eventually traded when Brady is still completing 63% of his passes for 4,500 yards, 30 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions at the ripe age of 45.

Life does come at you fast, though, so everyone is holding their breath that the Garoppolo trade doesn’t come back to bite them. All it takes is one serious injury and everything will come crashing down.

5. How can the Broncos win this game? And give us your actual score prediction.

First, the Patriots likely won’t have Chris Hogan, so the Broncos can focus on erasing Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. Phillip Dorsett will be the Patriots third receiver, so Bradley Roby has to make sure that he doesn’t give up a big play. The Denver secondary is doing a good job of covering receivers, but if they allow a huge pass to Cooks or Dorsett to flip the field, the Patriots could copy their 2016 strategy of getting a lead and just running out the clock.

Second, the Broncos need to cover Rob Gronkowski. Tight ends have given the Broncos a lot of problems this year, but Gronkowski’s import is elevated with Julian Edelman out for the season and Hogan likely sidelined. He’s going to see 10 or so targets, so the Broncos can’t let him go off like other tight ends.

Third, the Patriots offense has been more vertical this year, with Tom Brady holding on to the football to try and target players further down the field than at any other point in his career. So the Broncos pass rush has to win their assignments and hit Brady as often as possible to get him jumpy in the pocket, then drop into coverage and try to take advantage of errant throws.

Fourth, try to confuse the Patriots defensive backs with bunch packages. The biggest problems with communication stemmed from their inability to coverage bunch formations, with two defensive backs often covering the same player, leaving one receiver wide open. The Denver offense has to stress the Patriots communication.

Fifth, run the dang ball. The Patriots run defense hasn’t been great and they’ll probably be missing their best run-stuffing defensive tackle in Malcom Brown and they won’t have their best run-stuffing linebacker in Hightower. So run the ball to control the clock and set up the play action.

If the Broncos can do all of that and win the turnover battle, then they’ll have a chance to win. That said, I think the Patriots do just enough to win a close one 24-19.

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