Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Can Drew Lock best Bill Belichick? The Patriots represent a sort of new beginning for the Broncos.
The Patriots represent a sort of new beginning for the Broncos. The 1-3 injury plagued start is behind them. If they can emerge from this second quarter hovering around .500 the playoffs may remain a possibility. It won’t be easy with Kansas City looming, but at least Drew Lock returns.
Here’s what I’m looking for today.
1. What does Fangio throw at Cam?
2. Will the Broncos’ be “powerful?”
4. How will McDaniels attack Josey Jewell?
5. Can the secondary tighten up?
6. Eye on the run defense.
The delayed start means Cam Newton will play and the Patriots are a different team with him at the helm. Part of this is because Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham are certifiably bad. The other part is once Broncos’ Country can move past the Super Bowl 50 memes, they’ll realize Newton is on the short list for most talented quarterbacks in the NFL.
The physical gifts are obvious. Standing at 6’6 and weighing about 250 lbs. Newton’s bigger than Malik Reed and has the strength to shirk off would-be sacks in a similar fashion to Ben Roethlisberger. I’ve already written about how Newton’s legs give the Patriots a QB-power game that is essentially a cheat code in short yardage, but the 10-year veteran isn’t just a runner. He does what he can to keep his eyes locked downfield and will use his strength and mobility to buy time for his receivers.
As will be the case all year, how the Broncos can pressure the opposing quarterback hangs over everything. Last we saw the Broncos, Vic Fangio was calling the most aggressive gameplan I’ve ever seen from him. It worked. AlexanderJohnson, Josey Jewell, Bradley Chubb, and Shelby Harris beat the ever-living tar out of Sam Darnold in week 4.
They’ll have to work harder for it Sunday because New England has an entire offensive line of NFL caliber players. Making things even more challenging is how Josh McDaniels and Newton will be ready for the heat. The Patriots’ quarterback isn’t afraid to check it down when he’s under duress, and the former Broncos’ coach knows how to use hot routes and crossers to attack the spaces linebackers leave when they rush.
Since he entered the lineup Josey Jewell’s had a target on his back. The Outlaw‘s been an asset as a blitzer and looks better against the run than he did in 2019. It’s pass coverage where he’s been a liability and every coordinator’s tried to test him. To his credit, he held up on two different wheel routes in New York. James White is a completely different animal than Kalen Ballage, however.
The Patriots have the weakest receiving corps Denver’s faced this year so far. Julian Edelman’s had issues with drops and spent the week banged up, while N’Keal Harry’s been a disappointment. Their tight ends are rookies and Ryan Izzo, a blocking tight end. The hope here is inserting Da’Vante Bausby as a boundary corner and sliding Bryce Callahan inside combined with favorable matchups out wide gives Fangio an opportunity to mostly hide Jewell from White.
Most weeks I don’t focus too much on an opposing running game because you pass to win in today’s NFL. This week isn’t most weeks though. I’ve already mentioned how the Patriots are really good in short yardage. They also rarely allows tackles for no gain or a loss and have shredded opponents once they can get to the second and third level.
This is a good rushing offense with the kind of gap blocking scheme that’s given the Broncos a ton of issues over the last couple years. As a large swath of the NFL has zigged towards more and more spread concepts, the Patriots have zagged. Only San Francisco and Green Bay utilize 21 personnel more, and the Pats will mix in heavier looks with two backs and extra offensive lineman to overwhelm the opposing front. Add in the threat Newton presents on the ground and it’s going to be worth keeping an eye on the ground game.
7. Can the line hold up?
8. Who does Belichick try and erase?
9. How does Shurmur help his personnel?
10. What will Phil give the offense?
11. Is Drew Lock the guy?
Belichick’s defense will look different than any the Broncos have faced so far. They’ve played snaps with six defensive backs on the field and routinely deploy just one tackle on the line of scrimmage. It’s commonplace for New England to ask a defender to line up over a reciever and chuck them as they try to release into their route. You’ll see this from corners like Stephon Gilmore and Joejuan Williams, but also the linebackers.
The blueprint is out there for how to wreck the Broncos’ pass protection. Until Lloyd Cushenberry and Dalton Risner, or Drew Lock do something to punish opponents they’ll continue to send stunts and extra rushers at the interior.
Even still, in New England there’s a decent chance the Broncos’ offensive line has a “good” performance. Bill Belichick prioritizes coverage over pressure and New England doesn’t have the kind of individual pass rushing terror each of the Broncos’ first four opponents had. Lawrence Guy is a talented defensive tackle, but he’s no Quinnen Williams or Vita Vea.
New England’s shells are usually single high and there’s going to be plenty of man coverage, which is going to make today a test for the Broncos’ receiving corps. Jerry Jeudy’s route running has been as advertised so far, but in Gilmore he’ll find himself matched up against the best corner of his life.
Belichick famously builds his gameplans around taking away an opponent’s best strength, so it’ll be fascinating to see who gets extra attention. Mark Schofield believes it will be the rookie receiver who finds himself bracketed by the secondary. It wouldn’t surprise me if Tim Patrick winds up leading the team in receiving yards one again.
With Drew Lock’s return to the lineup, the onus falls on Pat Shurmur to help him succeed. Motion before the snap could help the 2nd year passer identify the coverage, while play action will help to make it obvious where to attack the defense. Neither of these two adjustments requires anything but a commitment from the offensive coordinator. Let’s hope the Broncos get that.
The other obvious way Shurmur can help his young quarterback is by calling an effective run game. Belichick’s defensive personnel preferences should create an opportunity to do so. New England’s been pretty stout down the middle of their defense through four games and weaker on the perimeter.
With Phillip Lindsay’s return to the lineup, it’d be a great time for the Broncos to mix in the run designs he had so much success on last year. We discussed this on Cover 2 Broncos, but it’s been strange to see Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow pull so little when it’s a strength of both their games.
I will admit I’m more focused on Drew Lock’s performance than the final results of this game. Bill Belichick will have two weeks to prepare for the Shurmur offense and has a little more than six games of tape on Lock. I doubt he’s taken by surprise.
With 12 games left this season and a 1-3 record, the Broncos need to see what they have in their starting quarterback. Is he the guy to build around long term? The truth is, we don’t know yet. Facing off against such a talented secondary with a Hall of Fame coach is a prime opportunity for him to quiet some of the doubts.