After re-watching the first half of the Patriots' Week 5 victory over the Broncos, passing along some observations.
1. Facing a 3rd & 5 on their opening drive, the Broncos motioned from an empty offensive set into a spread look, with running back Lance Ball returning to the backfield (he was previously split out). Cornerback Ras-I Dowling mirrored Ball's motion, an indication to quarterback Peyton Manning that he would be facing man-to-man coverage. That's exactly what he saw, with safety Tavon Wilson as the over-the-top defender. Manning hit receiver Demaryius Thomas in stride on a post pattern, after Thomas had forced cornerback Sterling Moore to man-turn his hips, and Thomas generated at least a step of separation. Wilson, the last line of defense, bit heavy on the underneath route concepts shown by other Broncos receivers, and was out of place to serve as a rearguard behind Moore. We don't know the exact specifics of the Patriots' coverage on that play, but it appears Wilson erred in letting Thomas behind him, as did Moore. Credit Moore, however, for sticking with the play and forcing an early game turnover. He could well be the Patriots' top defensive back as it relates to ball skills.
2. Jerod Mayo recorded his first sack of the season in the first quarter as he stormed Manning on a carefully disguised blitz, running over Willis McGahee along the way. Mayo was often used as a blitzer and rusher early in the game, and the Patriots experienced success pressuring Manning with five or more players. One thought as to why the team was able to employ Mayo as a blitzer so often: the lack of a running threat from Manning. In sending Mayo as a blitzer, the middle of the Patriots' defense, where he would typically drop to, was also subsequently vacated. When facing an opposing quarterback with the threat of hurting a defense with his feet, vacating that area is a risky proposition, in the event that he breaks the pocket to scramble. With Manning, a player who has limited mobility, the threat of a run isn't quite as resounding, which may have prompted the Patriots to implement the additional rush player in Mayo.
3. The Patriots are without a fullback on their roster at this time, but that doesn't meant the team isn't capable of being a power running team. One play that has become somewhat of a running-game staple (and is for almost every NFL offense), is what is known as a linebacker trap. On a 1st & 10 with roughly 6 minutes to go in the first quarter, the Patriots ran the play to near perfection, with Stevan Ridley picking up 15 tough yards. The play involved tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Daniel Fells, aligned to the left side of the offensive line, walling off their defenders to the outside, left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins double-teaming the defensive tackle to their side, center Ryan Wendell blocking back, and right guard Dan Connolly pulling to his left and squaring up the linebacker in the hole Ridley was intending to hit. Each block was executed proficiently, and the play serves as a very good example of the team's ability to play power football between the tackles.
4. Another strong day from the Patriots' offensive line, leading the way for 444 yards of total offense. But in the first half, it looked like Denver linebacker Von Miller gave right tackle Sebastian Vollmer all he could handle. Vollmer, a mountain of a man at 6-feet-8, looked to be getting caught up right in his base, which could have been a byproduct of Miller's quickness off the edge. It once resulted in Miller pushing Vollmer backwards and into running back Brandon Bolden for a negative play. A couple of notes to add to the observation: Given his stature, it's harder for Vollmer to sink in his hips and hold up against a talented player like Miller than players with a more compact frame. Additionally, Vollmer is battling through a back injury that has limited him in practice of late (he also left the game on Sunday with a knee injury). Despite the battles with Miller in the first half, Vollmer and the line receive high marks for the first half.
5. Little bit of a rough day for cornerback Devin McCourty, who was flagged for a pass interference call in the end zone and later dinged up while returning a kickoff. On the pass interference call, McCourty was not in poor position neccessarily, but let himself down in his fundamentals. McCourty was checking receiver Eric Decker in coverage and stayed with him stride for stride, but failed to turn his body around when the ball presented itself near Decker's hands. McCourty did well to drive his arm through Decker's and break up the pass, but refs will not hesitate to call a defender for interference when he fails to turn his head. It's not an easy task for McCourty, or any defensive player to accomplish, but necessary with the current rules relating to coverage.
6. Quarterback Tom Brady has discussed the notion that the hurry-up offense involves dissecting the defense and taking what it gives to him. Perhaps no drive illustrated that more clearly than the Patriots' second touchdown march. Brady was surgical in checking at the line of scrimmage, precisely deciphering when to run or pass, and keeping the Broncos' defense in flux. The balance of run and pass opened up the play action passing game, and the conversion of critical third downs looked like it deflated Denver. That offense was a theme of the first half, as the Patritos masterfully dictated the tempo and Broncos personnel on the field, subsequently exposing it on three scoring drives.
7. Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard didn't show any signs of the NFL stage being too big for him on Sunday, as he debuted in strong fashion. Critical to Dennard's success was strong ball skills, evidenced by his pass break-up to end the Broncos final drive of the half (excluding the take-a-knee play as time ran out). Playing in middle of the field zone coverage, Dennard spotted Broncos wideout Brandon Stokley attempting to cross his face, and carried Stokley for a step before chopping down on the intended pass. Those ball skills were part of Dennard's billing coming out of college, and what made him a player that many projected to a be much higher draft choice than his seventh round selection (which was likely affected by his arrest just prior to the draft).
8. It was just a week ago that Brady was able to extend a third down play and find running back Danny Woodhead for a critical touchdown, and on Sunday, the two hooked up on a nearly-busted third down play again. Brady broke his pocket on 3rd & 14, darting a throw to Woodhead who took it for the first down. Brady is so good at feeling and avoiding pressure, and Woodhead so good at finding space and framing a target for his quarterback to throw the ball to. Extending that play allowed the Patriots to extend their drive, and keep the pedal to the metal offensively.
9. Facing a 3rd & goal from the 1-yard line at the end of the half, there were some questions as to why the Patriots did not use a timeout and instead opted to hurry-up the play and run the football. Simply put, the team was so effective in running their hurry up-tempo throughout the half, so rather than over-thinking a play in the huddle, Brady stuck with what got him there and called for a run from Brandon Bolden. Miller blew up the play with a surge across the line of scrimmage.
10. We've already expounded upon the hurry-up pace of the Patriots' offense in the first half, but just how fast did the unit move? Fast enough to generate 45 snaps in less than 18 minutes of possession. Considering how many runs were incorporated into that mix (which quickly drain the clock), that total of 45 is just incredible. The Patriots were efficient, productive, and dedicated to their plan. Though the running game included a handful of negative plays throughout the half, coordinator Josh McDaniels did not shy away from sticking to it, and positive results were yielded.