FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots' normally sturdy run defense didn't play to its potential in Sunday night's 30-24 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos, and one line of thinking was that the struggles came primarily as a result of losing linebacker Dont'a Hightower to a reported sprained MCL late in the second quarter.
Hightower's absence didn't help things, but what stood out to me in film review was how safeties struggled to tackle and shed blocks on four key plays in the running game.
The game-winning 48-yard touchdown run by C.J. Anderson was one obvious breakdown in this area, with Duron Harmon having a chance to bring Anderson down at the 30 and failing to do so because of poor technique. Fellow safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung were blocked in 1-on-1 matchups on the play as well (McCourty might have had a case for a holding penalty).
There was more of the same on Anderson's 15-yard touchdown run at 12:44 in the fourth quarter, when McCourty missed a tackle in the backfield, then Chung and cornerback Logan Ryan were beaten to the edge, before Harmon bounced off Anderson while attempting a touchdown-saving tackle inside the 5.
Harmon's poor angle on Ronnie Hillman's 19-yard touchdown run in the second quarter also stood out in film review, and a 15-yard run by Hillman in the third quarter (11:48) came as he slipped through multiple tackle attempts at the line of scrimmage, then one from cornerback Malcolm Butler before Ryan and McCourty teamed up to bring Hillman down even as Hillman's momentum kept him charging forward.
The Broncos totaled 179 rushing yards, and 97 came on those four plays.
Credit first goes to the Broncos, but there is no doubt the Patriots are a better tackling secondary than they showed Sunday night. Some fundamental tackling drills will likely be on Bill Belichick's practice agenda this week.
A few more observations from film study:
The 1-2 defensive tackle combination of Malcom Brown and Alan Branch distinguished itself with several disruptive plays. Brown's ability to hold the point while two-gapping continues to develop, but he's a bit unique in that he can also dip his shoulder and penetrate effectively. With those dual skills, it's no wonder his playing time has risen in recent weeks. His growth has been notable. Meanwhile, when Branch is motivated, he can be one of the tougher defensive tackles in the NFL to block. I see Brown and Branch separating themselves from defensive tackles Akiem Hicks and Sealver Siliga, with Hicks having probably his toughest game Sunday since arriving in a trade from New Orleans.
The Patriots' second offensive play from scrimmage, a 9-yard connection to Rob Gronkowski, looked like the same play in which Gronkowski was penalized for offensive pass interference in the fourth quarter. That stood out to me as an example of the inconsistency of those calls in a game.
Where has the YAC gone? The Patriots miss this aspect of their offense considerably. The Broncos tackled well, but the lack of yards after the catch on a consistent basis served up a reminder that Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis weren't playing. Specifically, there was little after the catch from running back James White and tight end Scott Chandler.
Ryan deserved the kudos given to him by NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth. His movement and ball skills are improving, and even when he doesn't make a play, he is often in good position. It was too bad for Ryan and Butler that they gave up big plays late in the fourth quarter, because overall, they played competitively and remain one of the bright spots in recent weeks.