Broncos vs. Patriots: Final Report Card, Player Grades for New England
The New England Patriots improved to a winning record for the first time since winning their first game of the season, by winning their second consecutive game with a victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday. In the process, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady improved to a 9-4 career head-to-head record against Peyton Manning, who played his first game against the Patriots as a Bronco.
How did Brady and the rest of his team grade out in the team’s victory? Read through the following slides to find out.
Tom Brady: A-
Tom Brady had a tremendous first half, completing 17 of his first 20 passes for 165 yards, but he did not do too much passing in the second half, completing just 6 of 11 passes for 58 yards, with a net gain of only 28 yards in the half due to the four sacks he took.
Nonetheless, Brady did a great job leading the Patriots’ offense in this game, and finished completing nearly 75 percent of his passes for 223 yards through the air. He also added a rushing touchdown in this game.
Brady’s passing was great for the most part, but he still struggled with taking sacks under pressure, an area that will continue to haunt him if he continues to panic and duck when the pocket collapses.
Stevan Ridley: B
For the most part, Stevan Ridley had a terrific game. He was the team’s bell-cow at running back on Sunday, carrying the ball 28 times for 151 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown. He consistently gained positive yardage on his runs, many of which were power runs betwen the tackles.
Ridley, however, had one horrible mistake that dropped his grade.
With his team trying to preserve a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, Ridley fumbled. This fumble did not end up costing the Patriots thanks to a fumble that went the other way, but nonetheless, the team’s only important task was to take care of the football and run off as much clock as possible. Ridley’s fumble was a big step in the wrong direction from that goal.
Ridley also had an interesting celebration dance following his touchdown run.
Brandon Bolden: B-
Brandon Bolden had a solid game against the Broncos, but he did not come close to matching his performance one week earlier against the Buffalo Bills, finishing with 54 yards on 14 carries.
Bolden finished with decent numbers, but he was quite inconsistent in this game. He had three runs of 10 or more yards, but he was also tackled for loss on four attempts. While many of those big gains and losses were a result of great or poor blocking, they show that he was not a consistent gainer of yards on Sunday.
Danny Woodhead: B+
Danny Woodhead only ran the ball seven times on Sunday, but it may have been his best game yet of the season. Woodhead was not used too often, but when he was, he was effective.
Woodhead ran the ball seven times for 47 yards, highlighted by a 19-yard rush on which he used his great vision to find a hole on the left side and convert a 3rd and 17. Woodhead also got open for Tom Brady to make a tough throw under pressure on a 3rd and 14, and ended up with a 25-yard gain off that play.
Woodhead is at his best as a situational, 3rd-down running back, and when the Patriots used him in that capacity on Sunday, the result were great.
Shane Vereen: B
Fourth-string running back Shane Vereen only ran the ball one time in this game, but that one time was a one-yard touchdown.
Vereen was also targeted on a pass where he drew pass interference against Broncos middle linebacker Joe Mays. Vereen was not a major factor in the offense, and probably will not be anytime soon barring injuries, but he was effective when he did get in the game, which is positive progress for him.
Wes Welker: A
Remember when we wondered if the Patriots were “phasing out” Wes Welker after he was barely a factor in the team’s Week 1 victory over the Tennessee Titans? Those thoughts seem like a distant memory now.
For the fourth consecutive game, Welker was the Patriots’ leading receiver against the Broncos, catching a season-high 13 passes for 104 yards. Welker did not have any big plays in the game, but he was exactly what the Patriots expect him to be: a reliable, intermediate target for Tom Brady.
Brandon Lloyd: B-
Matched up against a very talented cornerback in Champ Bailey, Brandon Lloyd had a very quiet game, catching just three passes for 34 yards. One of those catches was a very pretty diving 10-yard catch right on the doorstep of the end zone, but Lloyd did not play as big of a factor as usual in this game.
Deion Branch: B+
Deion Branch caught one pass for 25 yards in this game, but he gets a B+ for reasons other than his receiving.
Branch’s biggest asset to the Patriots in this game was his run blocking, which he did tremendously. The Patriots were very effective running the ball out near the sidelines, and a big reason for that was the terrific blocking by Branch on many plays in those areas.
Rob Gronkowski: B
Rob Gronkowski made very little impact as a pass receiver on Sunday, catching just four passes for 35 yards, but like Deion Branch, Gronkowski’s biggest impact in this game was his terrific job as a run blocker.
Like Branch at receiver, the Patriots often lined up Gronkowski on the side to which they were running the ball, and he used his size and strength well to lead block for the Patriots’ power run game. Gronkowski is more than just a receiving threat, and can be valuable to the team without making big receiving plays, and he showed that in this game.
Daniel Fells: C-
The Patriots have been counting on Daniel Fells to step up in Aaron Hernandez’s injury absence, but it just hasn’t happened.
Fells did help out some as a blocker in this game, but not nearly as much as Gronkowski. On the one accurate pass that was thrown his way, a short pass on a 2nd and 14, he dropped the ball right off his hands.
Nate Solder: A
Nate Solder has gotten better every game this season, and even for as good as he was one week earlier against the Buffalo Bills, he was even better again against the Denver Broncos.
Solder is quickly emerging as a star on the Patriots’ offensive line, both in pass protection and in run blocking. He did a great job keeping Brady’s blind side clean in this game, while the Patriots frequently went back to the running the ball up the left side, a direct testament to how well Solder blocked in the ground game.
Logan Mankins: B
Logan Mankins was good, but not dominant, at left guard in this game. While the Patriots had a great day running the football to the left side, most of their runs were wide of the offensive tackle, and less a result of Mankins’ blocking.
One great play by Mankins came on a 19-yard Danny Woodhead run to convert a 3rd and 17, where he opened up a big hole on the left side to make that big play happen. Mankins, however, had to leave the game early due to injury, and was replaced by Donald Thomas, who played solid in his place.
Sebastian Vollmer: B
Sebastian Vollmer did a good job in the run game, as the Patriots were often successful running to the outside right, but not as often as they were running to the left side.
Vollmer, however, had more issues in pass protection. He was responsible for multiple sacks allowed, including one early in the fourth quarter where Von Miller ran straight around the edge on him.
Vollmer also left the game in the middle of the fourth quarter, and was replaced by Marcus Cannon. Cannon did a good job in run blocking in Vollmer’s place.
Ryan Wendell: B+
For the most part, center Ryan Wendell had a very good day at center. The Patriots often looked up the middle to run the football, and got some big power run gains led by great blocking from Wendell in the center of the line.
Wendell did have some issues in pass protection, allowing interior pressure to break through on multiple pass plays, and was blitzed through a few times on run tackles for loss. He made up for that, though, with consistent run blocking success for the most part.
Dan Connolly: B-
The entire offensive line had a good day run blocking again, and right guard Dan Connolly was a factor in that, as the Patriots had some success running the ball up the right middle.
Connolly did struggle, however, with blitzes on his side from outside linebacker Von Miller. This is understandable, considering Miller is one of the NFL’s best defensive players, but he was a source of trouble for Connolly and the Patriots’ offense in this game.
Rob Ninkovich: A+
One week earlier against the Buffalo Bills, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes forced two fumbles to lead the Patriots’ defense. Against the Broncos, Rob Ninkovich accomplished the same feat.
Ninkovich’s first forced fumble came on an impressive pass rush into the backfield, where Ninkovich rushed ahead of Manning, but then tracked back to the quarterback to hit him from behind and slap the ball out of his grasp.
The second forced fumble was even bigger. With the Patriots’ defense struggling to put away the Broncos in the fourth quarter, Ninkovich made a big play at the end of a 3-yard gain inside the red zone for Willis McGahee, by tackling McGahee and forcing a fumble in the process.
Both fumbles were recovered by the Patriots, and that was not all Ninkovich contributed to this game. He had a very consistent game both stopping the run and bringing pressure against the quarterback, and was the star of New England’s defense in this victory.
Chandler Jones: B
Chandler Jones did not make any resonating big plays in this game, but as always, the rookie’s athleticism showed as he was very active up front throughout the game.
Jones did swat down a pass at the line of scrimmage in the second quarter, and hit the quarterback twice, so his pressure did make an impact on taking Peyton Manning out of his comfort zone in this game.
Vince Wilfork: B-
Vince Wilfork’s big play of the game was a fumble recovery on the first of Rob Ninkovich’s two forced fumbles. Overall, however, Wilfork did make as big of an impact as usual in this game.
Wilfork had no solo tackles, although he did combine with Jermaine Cunningham on a tackle for loss. The Patriots’ run defense played a good game, and Wilfork’s play was certainly a factor, but he did stand out as he usually does on the defensive line.
Kyle Love: B+
Starting defensive tackle Kyle Love had a very solid game. He did a great job of holding his gap strong on the left side on the Patriots’ defensive line, and came up with three combination tackles.
Love’s push was the more noticeable of the two Patriots defensive tackles in this game.
Jermaine Cunningham: B
As the Patriots’ third defensive end, playing mostly on pass-rushing downs, Jermaine Cunningham had a strong game. Cunningham did a good job of bringing pressure when he was on the field.
Cunningham got to the quarterback for one hit in this game, and he was the player who made the crucial fumble recovery on Willis McGahee’s fumble in the red zone. He also combined with Vince Wilfork on a tackle for loss.
Jerod Mayo: B+
With the Patriots’ other outside linebacker, Dont’a Hightower, out of action in today’s game, Jerod Mayo had a big day to step up.
With the help of an outside rush by Rob Ninkovich, Mayo brought inside pressure and ended up with a sack on Peyton Manning to end a first-quarter drive. He finished the game with a team-leading 13 tackles.
Mayo did not exactly stand out with his play, but at the end of the game, he had proved to be one of the Patriots’ most productive defensive players on the day.
Brandon Spikes: B-
For the first four games of the season, Brandon Spikes alternated horrendous games with fantastic performances. In this game, Spikes was closer to middle ground.
Spikes made a big play early in the game, with a fast blitz into the backfield to shut down Willis McGahee for a 4-yard loss, a play where McGahee really had no chance of getting out of the backfield. The rest of Spikes’ game, however, was average at best.
Spikes continued to struggle in pass coverage, including a fourth-quarter play where Spikes was able to make no play whatsoever on McGahee on a pass route out of the backfield, leaving McGahee open and able to run for a 22-yard gain. Overall, Spikes finished the day with six tackles.
Tracy White: B-
Tracy White filled in as a starting outside linebacker in Dont’a Hightower’s place, and had a solid first half, including a nice tackle in the middle of the defense on a run stop.
Unfortunately for White, he left the game with a foot injury in the third quarter, and did not return. Following White’s departure from the game, the Patriots primarily used defensive sets with five or six defensive backs.
Devin McCourty: C+
This was not a strong showing for cornerback Devin McCourty.
McCourty was beaten twice to the end zone by Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker. On the first instance, McCourty pushed Decker down, drawing pass interference which set up a 1-yard Broncos touchdown. On the second time, Manning hit Decker with a back-shoulder fade for the team’s second touchdown.
On another play in the fourth quarter, McCourty allowed Demaryius Thomas to run a deep curl against him, and catch a 28-yard pass on a 4th and 1 situation.
McCourty did make one very nice tackle at the line of scrimmage at run support, and did not have any total busts in coverage, but he left the window open for plays to be made against him too often.
McCourty did leave the game for a period of time in the third quarter after being injured on a kickoff return, but would return.
Kyle Arrington: B+
Starting cornerback Kyle Arrington had his most solid game of the season to date versus the Broncos. Arrington did get beat badly at all in coverage, and made some good tackles throughout the game, including one where he took a stiff-arm to the face.
The Patriots’ pass defense gave up 332 yards through the air in this game, but Arrington was not responsible for much of that.
Sterling Moore: D+
Today further proved the point that it is time for the Patriots to make a change at nickel cornerback, because Sterling Moore’s play has not been up to par.
Moore did make the game’s first big play when he forced a fumble from Demaryius Thomas, but it came in a position where he never should have been in anyways, for he was beaten on a fly route by Thomas, but made a nice play to knock the ball out from behind after giving up 43 yards.
Later, Moore was beaten for another big play by Thomas, this time a 38-yard gain, and Moore did not even make the tackle on that play. Missed tackles were also an issue for Moore in this game.
Simply put, Moore has been a liability in coverage, and another cornerback proved himself worthy of joining the top cornerback trio in this game.
Alfonzo Dennard: A
Rookie seventh-round pick cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was active for the first time on Sunday against the Broncos. With his performance in the game, I would suspect he will become a regular member of the 46-man active roster from here on out.
Dennard’s first big play came in the second quarter, where he came in from behind to break up a pass intended for Brandon Stokley that would have converted 3rd and 5. Later, Dennard stepped up big in the fourth quarter, forcing two deep balls intended for Eric Decker incomplete with shutdown, physical coverage.
The Patriots may have gotten a steal on Dennard due to pre-draft character issues, but he has the potential to be as good as any cornerback in the Patriots’ secondary, and that showed in this game. Dennard deserves to take over for Sterling Moore in the nickel defense.
Ras-I Dowling: B-
With injuries piling up on the Patriots’ defensive back seven, Ras-I Dowling did receive more playing time in this game, both as a nickel cornerback and as a “star” safety in the Patriots’ dime package.
Dowling has shown that he can be a very sound tackler, and he had one very nice tackle immediately after a 7-yard catch by Joel Dreessen near the left sideline in the third quarter of this game. Overall, however, he did not make too much impact, but was not burned by any big passing plays when he was in the game.
Tavon Wilson: A
With Steve Gregory out of the game with a hip injury, Tavon Wilson was called upon to start in his place at free safety. Wilson proved that he deserves to be the team’s starting free safety with a terrific performance on Sunday.
Wilson was beat on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to Brandon Stokley in the fourth quarter, but was otherwise the star of the Patriots’ secondary in this game. Wilson had a tremendous game in tackling, making sound hits and wrap-ups for a total of 10 tackles, while he did a good job of holding his zone in coverage.
The Broncos did not have any big passing plays through their tight ends in this game, and Wilson’s play was a big reason why.
Patrick Chung: B-
Patrick Chung did not make a big impact in this game. He had five tackles, but four of them were on passing gains beyond 10 yards, including two beyond 30 yards.
Those statistics show that Chung was basically the clean-up man in the secondary, and he did not make any big plays in run support or pass defense. He did not get beat badly, but he failed to make his presence felt.
Stephen Gostkowski: B-
Stephen Gostkowski is usually known for his superb kickoffs, but he was not at his best in this game. Gostkowski only managed two touchbacks on six total kickoffs, although one of those kickoffs was intentionally squibbed at the end of the first half.
Gostkowski made one field goal, but it was a 23-yard chip shot.
Zoltan Mesko: B
Zoltan Mesko had a solid day punting the football, with an average of 43 yards per punt on three punts. Mesko did have one punt downed within the 20-yard line, although the Broncos got 10 more yards on that punt due to a holding penalty called against Nate Ebner of the Patriots.
Coaching Staff: B+
The Patriots’ coaching staff came up with a great gameplan that worked on offense, with a no-huddle, quick to the line, pound the ball up the middle strategy that worked consistently through three quarters. When the Patriots abandoned that strategy in the effort of killing clock in the fourth quarter, they became much less effective.
The best individual coaching decision of the game came on offense in the second quarter. One yard out of the end zone, everyone in the stadium was expecting Tom Brady to run a quarterback sneak (which he did for another touchdown later in the game). Instead, the Patriots turned to seldom-used Shane Vereen for a surprise run into the end zone, catching the Broncos’ defense off guard.
The one real questionable coaching decision of the day was Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th and 5 in the fourth quarter, a decision that backfired. The Patriots’ coaching staff takes a drop out of the A range for the team’s struggles in the fourth quarter, but overall, they had a game plan that worked against the Broncos on both sides of the ball.
Dan Hope is the New England Patriots game day correspondent and an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. For more coverage of the Patriots, follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.