The seventh-round rookie had an impressive debut on Sunday. The former Cornhusker was targeted four times in the game and didn't allow a single reception. He also made two plays where he showed off his ball skills by deflecting two passes. Dennard was not originally destined for the last round of the draft, which is why this impressive performance comes as no surprise. He made a costly mistake during the pre-draft process, punching a police officer on April 21st — just five days before the first day of the draft.
That run-in with the law wasn't the only issue Dennard had leading up to his pro career. Dennard struggled in front of scouts at Senior Bowl practices in January and eventually left Mobile before the week was over with a hip injury. He was never expected to be one of the fastest players at the scouting combine, but a 4.55 40-yard dash was below expectations for a high-round corner. On top of it all, Dennard was thrown out of the Capital One Bowl for fighting with South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery, the last game of his career at Nebraska.
If Dennard can get his head on straight and stay away from pesky injuries, he could be one of the biggest steals in the 2012 draft. The Patriots essentially got a second-round value with one of their last picks.
So where was Dennard for the first four games of the season? He was nursing a hamstring injury, but with the Patriots' depth at cornerback, it's possible he has been healthy enough to play before Week 5. Dennard entered the game in the second quarter in New England's nickel set, replacing Sterling Moore. The two players rotated for the next couple drives before Dennard seemed to steal the role from Moore.
Moore had a solid start to the 2012 season but struggled against the Broncos, allowing six receptions on six targets for 138 yards. Moore made a heads-up play after allowing a 43 yard reception by Demaryius Thomas, as he knocked the ball loose and recovered it. But it was likely Moore's weakness in preventing the deep ball that precipitated Dennard's playing time. According to Mike Reiss from ESPN Boston, Moore played 33 snaps, while Dennard played 31.
Starter Devin McCourty played all but four snaps in the Patriots' win, only missing time briefly following a kick return. McCourty was targeted six times for four receptions for 54 yards, a touchdown and a costly pass interference call. If anything it was a glimpse into his well-documented 2011 struggles. McCourty failed to turn around and play the ball on an Eric Decker touchdown and absolutely mauled the Broncos' receiver in the air for a 19-yard pass interference call. Kyle Arrington was only targeted twice and allowed two receptions for 13 yards as he played all but one snap at right cornerback and in the slot in sub packages.
Ras-I Dowling was targeted once and allowed a seven-yard reception. Dowling mostly played in the "money" position as a hybrid safety/linebacker in dime sets. That role is usually taken by Tavon Wilson, who was thrust into a starting role due to Steve Gregory's injury. Wilson allowed three receptions on three targets and a touchdown. Patrick Chung was targeted twice and didn't allow a reception. Both safeties had up-and-down games. They looked fine when they were targeted, but were out of position a couple of times and bit too hard on inside routes when they should have been helping out deep.
With Peyton Manning's questionable arm strength in his return to the game, the Broncos have been focusing on shallow passes, which gave the Patriots' linebackers a lot of work in coverage. Jerod Mayo allowed seven receptions, 37 yards and a touchdown on nine targets. Brandon Spikes allowed five reeptions for 53 yards on six targets and Rob Ninkovich allowed one reception on one target for 17 yards when he was asked to play linebacker, rather than his usual position of defensive end. Tracy White only played six snaps in Dont'a Hightower's place, but was targeted once and did not allow a reception.
Defensive end Chandler Jones was even sent out in coverage a couple times. On a Mayo blitz, Manning threw to Jones' man, but it traveled well out of bounds. The Broncos completed two passes that went uncovered due to Bill Belichick's defensive scheme.
In all, it was a mostly impressive performance by the Patriots' pass defense. Jones, Ninkovich and Mayo were able to bring pressure, which helped the players sent out in coverage. The Patriots seemed to put an emphasis on hurrying Manning's throws, as Jermaine Cunningham, usually only used at defensive tackle as a situational rusher, played more snaps than starter Kyle Love.
There always seems to be one New England defender that struggles in pass coverage, and this week it was Moore. With Dennard breathing down his neck, he might have to impress coaches in practice this week to grab his role back from the rookie.
Photo via Facebook/Alfonzo.Dennard.14
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