Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders made waves in New England on Monday when he challenged claims that Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler shut him down.
Technically, Sanders was right. It was a group effort that shut down the Broncos wideout, holding him catch-less until the fourth quarter in New England’s 16-3 win Sunday in Denver.
The Patriots rarely played Cover-1 man coverage against the Broncos on Sunday. Their defense played Cover-2 on 25 of Denver’s 45 drop backs with nine of those plays coming in Cover-2 man. New England was in Cover-3 zone on 13 plays, Cover-4 zone on two plays and Cover-1 man on just five plays.
Sanders, who caught just three passes on six targets for 48 yards, only was targeted twice in man coverage. Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian was picked off by cornerback Logan Ryan on one of those passes, and the other one might have been intercepted by Butler with a better throw.
The Patriots’ game plan to stay mostly in zone coverage and Cover-2 zone was smart. They got out to an early lead and didn’t fear the Broncos’ rushing attack or Siemian’s ability to make plays with his feet. New England mixed its zone looks in an attempt to confuse Siemian, effectively eliminating the deep part of the field with its Cover-2 looks.
And it worked: The Patriots allowed just three points and forced a turnover out of Siemian. It was a team effort, not individual achievements by Butler and Ryan, to limit Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, who had seven catches on 11 targets for 91 yards..
While the Cover-2 helped take away Sanders, he also was able to exploit it on occasion. Sanders caught two of his three receptions against the coverage by finding holes. He caught one pass against Cover-3.
Here’s an incompletion thrown by Siemian with Butler lined up against Sanders.
Here is another Sanders reception against zone coverage with 7:52 left in the fourth quarter. Ryan, circled in blue, was caught between Sanders and the shallow receiver, while Butler was protecting over the top.
Was Sanders’ tweet accurate? Sure. Butler didn’t individually shut him down. But that doesn’t mean Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and the Patriots’ defense as a whole didn’t limit Sanders, who had more than 40 percent of his yards come on one garbage time catch.
Here are other notes from our film review.
— The addition of Dion Lewis doesn’t make up for the loss of Rob Gronkowski, but it might be closer than some people think. Lewis was fantastic against the Broncos and regularly was picking up extra yardage with either quick cuts, lowering his shoulder or a combination of the two.
— Defensive tackle Malcom Brown is becoming one of New England’s best, most dependable defensive players. He contributed a sack and multiple run stuffs Sunday.
— Trey Flowers also has improved by leaps and bounds in the second half of the season. He led the Patriots in pressures and added two sacks to his season total. He now has seven sacks in seven games and three sacks in his last two games. He’s doing most of his pass-rushing damage from inside, which is a harder position from which to generate pressure.
— Julian Edelman also is continuing to make a second-half surge. He’s seen his snaps decrease but his production rise. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell actually led Patriots receivers in snaps.
— Linebacker Kyle Van Noy has come back down to earth after a very impressive three-game start to his Patriots career. He missed a few more tackles and let up some big plays in coverage Sunday.
— Ryan’s big game wasn’t limited to his game-changing interception. He also was solid as a tackler and had one of his best games in coverage. Ryan, Butler and Eric Rowe all were solid Sunday.
— Rookie Jonathan Jones drew the start at cornerback over Rowe but struggled in zone coverage and as a tackler. He was yanked after 11 snaps.
— Tons of credit goes out to Marcus Cannon for neutralizing Von Miller. He had help from tight end Martellus Bennett too, however.
Thumbnail photo via Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports Images