The Patriots’ defense deserved a victory over Denver on Sunday, but the Patriots’ offense didn’t “do its job” at all in a shocking 18-12 home loss to the Broncos in Week 6.
Now New England (2-3) has the same record as Denver and is well out of AFC playoff contention after blowing a chance to gain ground on first-place Buffalo (4-1) in the AFC East before the Bills play the Chiefs on Monday night.
Really, the Patriots shouldn’t have had a chance to win Sunday’s game on their final drive with Cam Newton. That opportunity came about only because of two head-scratching interceptions late by his young Broncos quarterback counterpart, Drew Lock.
MORE: Cam Newton finally recovers a fumble vs. the Broncos, four years too late
In the end, however, Newton (17 for 25, 157 yards, 84.9 rating, 5.8 yards per attempt, two interceptions) had a rough passing afternoon that was at the level of Lock’s mighty struggles (10-of-24 passing, 189 yards, 69.6 rating, 7.3 yards per attempt). Even more elite running from Newton — 10 carries, 76 yards, one TD — couldn’t save the day.
Newton’s 38-yard burst early in the fourth quarter to help get the Patriots back in the game was telling, because it was the offense’s most explosive play in the game, by far.
Through the first four games of the season, the Patriots worked through finding a new offensive identity with Newton replacing Tom Brady. Coming off a forced bye after their matchup with the Broncos was postponed from Week 5 to Week 6, you would have thought Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels would have found more answers. Instead, New England’s coaches are left needing to dig much deeper.
New England’s 26-10 blowout loss in Week 4 to the Chiefs in Kansas City was chalked up to Newton missing the game after testing positive for COVID-19. Brian Hoyer had a rough night and Jarrett Stidham came in too late to provide any real relief. Newton’s big passing duel with Russell Wilson in a 35-30 Week 2 shootout loss to the Seahawks in Seattle seemed closer to what the Patriots’ offense should be.
Now we have no idea how the Patriots really want to operate under McDaniels with Newton in control. The thought is that they would have an amoeba offense, adjusting to a specific strength or weakness of a defense, or their typical M.O. in the Belichick era.
Against the Broncos, that would have suggested a pass-heavier approach. Instead Newton threw as many passes (25, along with four sacks) as the Patriots had combined rushing attempts.
When Newton wasn’t running, Damien Harris, Rex Burkhead and James White added just 41 rushing yards on 15 attempts. When Newton was passing, White was easily the leading receiver with only 65 yards on eight catches.
Newton is stuck grinding for whatever yards are there, and there aren’t many. The run blocking and pass protection are struggling because of shuffling related to injuries. Center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason did not play against the Broncos. During the game, the line’s weakest link, right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor, suffered an ankle injury.
The Broncos are naturally strong up front against the run and even minus Von Miller, they got to Newton four times from the edges, with outside linebackers Bradley Chubb, Anthony Chickillo and Malk Reed getting the sacks. The Patriots want to be an effective run-heavy team to complement their defense, knowing that their passing game is compressed, and not being able to run will guarantee teams aggressively come after Newton.
Julian Edelman, save for his career-best receiving game against the Seahawks and 38 yards passing against the Broncos, hasn’t been nearly the same factor all over the field without Brady as he shows his age a bit at 34. That has made White the only reliable entity as an elite outlet receiver.
Damiere Byrd, who played with Newton on the Panthers, has flashed as a big-play receiver, but that’s about it. N’Keal Harry, the second-year first-round pick, continues to disappoint, stamped by his catchless two targets against the Broncos. When a team really needs guys such as Isaiah Zuber and Ryan Izzo to deliver in the passing game in 2020, you know it’s in trouble.
Newton is essentially on an island. When he’s not rushing for chunks of yards, either by design or from scrambling, there’s little on which the Patriots’ offense can lean. If he had some time to throw and some receivers who could separate and get open for him, then there were plays to be made against the Broncos’ secondary and shaky linebacker coverage.
The biggest problem for real AFC contenders such as the Chiefs, Steelers, Ravens, Bills and Titans is figuring out how to get all their backs, wide receivers and tight ends involved. All of those teams are getting creative with their superior overall skill personnel and scheming for big results.
In relation to those teams, the Patriots are trying to duct-tape together viable production to make a defense sweat. There’s evidence of how much more limited their offense would be without Newton’s running: the Hoyer-Stidham disaster against the Chiefs.
The Patriots loaded up on defense in the offseason as it needed to compensate for a lot of linebacker departures, rebuild the pass rush by committee and bring more coverage versatility to their back seven. As for the offense, there was limited investment, led by a free-agent flyer on Byrd and two non-factor rookie tight ends. They also tipped their hand that they really weren’t sold on Stidham as Brady’s unquestioned successor by signing Newton in July.
Could the problem be rust with Newton missing two weeks because of his illness? That can’t be ruled out for his individual play, but for a team as well-organized and well-coached as the Patriots, the systemic breakdown and post-Brady dysfunction related to talent is a real concern. McDaniels is trying to adapt with his play-calling and get as creative as he can — see the two passes from Edelman to try to create a spark — but it comes down to having enough players doing their jobs to execute.
The Patriots’ scoring outbursts against the Seahawks and the Raiders seem more like the anomalies, while the games against the Dolphins, Chiefs and Broncos seem more true to who they really are. In this state, despite Newton doing what he can, New England doesn’t have a playoff-caliber offense.
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