FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots held Peyton Manning to just 150 yards in more than 73 minutes of action on Sunday night.
All week it was pondered whether the banged-up Patriots secondary could at least help contain Manning, since there was no way a group with Alfonzo Dennard (knee), Kyle Arrington (groin) and Aqib Talib (hip) on the injury report could stop the future Hall of Famer, right?
Manning came into the matchup averaging 357 yards per game. He couldn’t even get halfway there in nearly five quarters against New England. That’s a pretty good job of stopping Manning.
Of course, even while the Patriots were in nickel or dime, they had an extra teammate helping them — the wind. Gusts were blowing more than 20 mph from north to south.
Manning had 62 of his 150 yards when he was throwing into the wind. His biggest quarter, the fourth, he was throwing against the big gusts. So the Patriots were able to hold Manning whether the conditions were favorable or not.
The Broncos certainly went out of their way to run the ball more than they typically would. They gained 280 yards on the ground as New England’s defense was an absolute sieve up the middle.
But even when Manning was passing, he was having a tough time. Manning threw the ball 36 times, just four down from his season average. The most glaring number on Manning’s stat sheet is his yards per attempt. He was averaging 8.73 yards per pass coming into the week. He only threw for 4.17 yards per attempt against the Patriots.
So, how did the Patriots do it? First of all, this is a very talented and deep group of players. The only defensive back they were missing was safety Steve Gregory, who is still sidelined with a broken thumb. Rookie Duron Harmon took all of Gregory’s snaps and had his second impressive start in a row.
Alfonzo Dennard was out there in the first half, but he obviously wasn’t at 100 percent, attempting to go on a recently scoped knee. Dennard got banged up midway through the second quarter and did not return.
So the Patriots used a rotation at cornerback to keep guys fresh. Arrington played the most snaps (85 out of a possible 90), while Talib (80), rookie Logan Ryan (69), Dennard (21), Justin Green (eight in his NFL debut) and Marquice Cole (seven) also played a role.
No player on the Patriots’ roster allowed more than 31 yards on Sunday night. Harmon allowed 31 yards on three catches and four targets, Talib allowed three completions on six targets for 30 yards and a touchdown, Dennard allowed five yards on one catch and one target, Ryan had an interception while allowing one catch on four targets for four yards and Arrington didn’t allow a catch on two targets. McCourty, Cole and Green were not targeted.
Everyone shined in the Patriots’ defensive backfield, from Talib, who was obviously not at 100 percent, to Ryan, who filled in for Dennard admirably and continues to make huge plays when the Patriots need them.
But the stars of the game were the mainstays, McCourty and Arrington. Even while throwing into the wind, Manning obviously didn’t want to mess with McCourty. The safety wasn’t just not targeted — Manning didn’t even throw near him.
I wrote on Thursday that McCourty had a chance to vault himself into the “elite” safety group with a couple of big plays (I think he already belongs in the conversation). McCourty wasn’t granted those opportunities, but his presence on the field was enough.
Arrington shut down his old friend Wes Welker. On Welker’s four catches for 31 yards, Arrington was lined up across from the slot receiver to start the play then dropped back into a zone to let a linebacker pick him up. Arrington followed Welker around the field a good amount, though.
“It was different,” Arrington said about playing against a former teammate. “Things like that happen all they time. They have new guys, we have new guys. That’s the nature of the league. You still have a job to do.”
Arrington laughed and said it was “more or less” like playing against Marques Colston, his former Hofstra teammate.
There’s something to be said about this secondary that it was able to play through so many injuries, face a 24-0 deficit and still put forth a dominant performance against one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL.
“Just a valiant effort across the board,” Arrington said. “Through all our guys. We got some guys banged up. Just to come out and just battle the way we did, especially facing a deficit like that, speaks a lot about guys’ character.”
Taking Julius Thomas out of the fold helped New England. But that just made it a fair fight against the ailing secondary. While the Broncos had to go to Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen and Virgil Green, the Patriots had to send out Justin Green, Cole and Harmon.
From being in the locker room so often, the one group that really seems to click is the secondary. McCourty, Talib and Cole do a good job of keeping things loose whether they’re talking NBA or Kardiashian-related reality shows.
“The chemistry we have off the field is just so great,” Arrington said. “I honestly think it helps chemistry on the field. I can’t say enough great things about the guys in this locker room. I’m just proud to be a part of it.”
Harmon said the biggest similarity between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning is their ability to read defenses. McCourty also spoke about Manning’s intelligence during the week, saying he knows defenses better than the defenders do.
Harmon has seen his snaps increase over the past two weeks while Gregory has been down. Bill Belichick has missed on drafting safeties in the past, but it looks like he found a good one in the Rutgers rookie, who was a surprise pick in the third round. Harmon said these last two games have been even more valuable than the rest of the season for him.
“Yes. Just because I’m out there in all situations,” Harmon said. “Not just third-down situations. So, I’m learning. That’s the main thing. I’m just learning and getting more experience. I’m trying to learn from everything I do out there: mistakes, good things. Just trying to continue to learn and be a student of the game.”
It took years to build this secondary up to Belichick’s liking, but it appears he’s finally done it, top to bottom. If they were able to limit Manning to 150 yards with players banged up and missing, it’s a wonder what they would be able to do fully healthy.