Patriots Film Review: Dont’a Hightower Injury Was Defensive Game-Changer


December 1, 2015

So much had to go wrong for the New England Patriots to lose their first game of the 2015 season.

Penalties, injuries and poor decisions led to the Patriots giving up a 14-point lead to the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t all bad for the Patriots, however.

Several players had spectacular games, allowing the Patriots to take a big lead and then force overtime despite being without six of their best players.

This week’s film review focuses on some of the biggest plays and performances from Sunday night’s Patriots loss:

— Quarterback Tom Brady went 23 of 42 for 280 yards with three touchdowns while missing starting running back Dion Lewis and two of his top three targets, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. He also led the Patriots on a game-tying drive without tight end Rob Gronkowski.

— Brady struggled throwing the deep ball. He was just 2 of 9 on passes that traveled over 15 yards through the air. Brady threw five deep balls to Chandler, which is odd since he’s not exactly a speed demon on the outside. Brady probably figured he could use Chandler’s impressive 6-foot-7 frame to his advantage on mismatches against linebackers.

— Chandler and wide receiver Brandon LaFell had drops on deep passes.

— Running back Brandon Bolden impressed on a 63-yard reception down the sideline. He gained separation from linebacker Danny Trevathan on a wheel route and broke a tackle on the way into the end zone. Bolden could emerge as Brady’s more dependable third-down target over James White, who had just two catches for 5 yards. Bolden had four receptions for 84 yards.

— Gronkowski had one of his patented long catch and runs for a touchdown in the first half, breaking two tackles on his way into the end zone. When he gets rumbling, he’s nearly impossible to tackle, which is why players go for his knees. That, of course, is how he suffered a game-ending injury in the fourth quarter.

— The Patriots’ offensive line held up much better against the Broncos than they did in Week 11 against the Buffalo Bills.

— Sebastian Vollmer, who took over for Marcus Cannon at left tackle this week, didn’t allow a single pressure.

— Cannon had trouble at times against Von Miller, who’s one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, allowing three quarterback hits. Overall, however, Cannon played much better at right tackle in Week 12 than left tackle last week.

— Rookie guard Shaq Mason allowed a sack and three quarterback hits. It was his worst pass-blocking performance of the season. Guard Josh Kline and center Bryan Stork also allowed sacks.

— Check out the Patriots’ pass-protection charting statistics.

— The Patriots’ rushing attack has been anemic since Lewis tore his ACL. The Patriots either need to find a way to get LeGarrette Blount, White and Bolden going or they need to look to free agency for another running back.

— Blount didn’t have a ton of space to run, but in the times he did have a hole to run through, it had closed by the time he found it. He appears to be hesitating at the line of scrimmage and is having trouble creating yards on his own by breaking tackles.

— White tripped on a 1-yard carry early in the second quarter and fell down for no gain later in the second quarter. He’s not standing out so far since grabbing the third-down role and is having trouble making defenders miss in the run and passing game.

— Bolden had the best run of the night for the Patriots, when he carried the ball 9 yards midway through the third quarter, side-stepping a tackle and dragging defenders. He had just 2 yards on his other three carries, however.

— The Patriots’ offensive line was able to open holes in the Broncos’ defensive line, but they weren’t able to maintain them long enough for the Patriots’ running backs to take advantage.

— The Patriots had little success when they went with a seven-offensive line set, playing Mason at fullback, Tre’ Jackson at guard and Cameron Fleming as an extra blocker.

— Guard Josh Kline, who has been a standout this season, had back-to-back rough plays midway through the third quarter on two Bolden carries, allowing defenders into the backfield.

— Cornerback Logan Ryan had a strong performance against Demaryius Thomas, one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. Ryan tracked Thomas and allowed just one 36-yard reception to the big wideout. Ryan also allowed a 4-yard touchdown catch to Andre Caldwell — an unfortunate cap to an otherwise dominant game. Ryan was in the right place on both receptions allowed but quarterback Brock Osweiler’s passes were perfect. Ryan allowed the two receptions on 10 targets with four pass breakups.

— Check out Ryan’s four pass deflections:

— Ryan tracked Thomas down the sideline on the receiver’s 36-yard catch and was in solid position to make another play, but the wideout used his 6-foot-3 frame to reach over the 5-foot-11 Patriots cornerback.

— Ryan actually got his hand on the ball on Caldwell’s 4-yard touchdown, but it wasn’t enough to force an incompletion.

— Malcolm Butler was solid but not spectacular against Emmanuel Sanders, allowing four catches on seven targets for 85 yards with a pass breakup.

— Safety Patrick Chung allowed a 7-yard catch on six targets with a pass breakup. Chung played every snap despite being a late addition to the injury report with a foot ailment.

— Third cornerback Rashaan Melvin played just four snaps and allowed an 8-yard reception.

— Check out the Patriots’ pass-coverage charting statistics.

— The Patriots’ pass rush had one of its most consistent performances. Jabaal Sheard and Alan Branch led the way with five and four pressures, respectively. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown, linebacker Jonathan Freeny and defensive end Rob Ninkovich had sacks.

— Sheard forced an interception in the second quarter, when he hit Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler’s arm while he was throwing. The ball careened into Chandler Jones’ leaping arms. Sheard started out with a double team, then guard Louis Vasquez shifted over to Jones. That allowed Sheard to overpower Michael Schofield on his way to Osweiler.

— Branch was able to get into the backfield for three pass deflections. The big man proved he can still move, rushing Osweiler from nose tackle.

— Linebacker Jerod Mayo and Freeny each played well as pass rushers, replacing Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. Mayo had two quarterback hits and a hurry as a blitzer. Freeny also had a hurry.

— Check out the Patriots’ pass-rush charting statistics.

— The Broncos averaged 2.9 yards per carry while Hightower was in the game and 8 yards per carry after he left in the second quarter with a knee injury. Hightower rotates between playing an edge role and inside linebacker and is stout against the run regardless of his position. Hightower wasn’t perfect, whiffing on a tackle on a 9-yard carry by Broncos running back C.J. Anderson midway through the first quarter, but otherwise was solid and has the strength and range to prevent big plays.

— The Patriots allowed four rushes of over 10 yards, all of which came after Hightower left the game and three of which went for touchdowns. The Patriots have allowed 25 rushes of over 10 yards this season, and 10 came with Hightower off the field.  This game wasn’t so much about what Hightower did when he was on the field for two quarters but what the Patriots couldn’t do when he was off of it.

— Branch had his best game of the season as a pass rusher and run defender. He dominated the Broncos’ offensive line all game and was able to consistently get into the backfield, using his combination of power and athleticism. His most impressive play in the run game came when he stuffed Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman for a 1-yard loss in the first quarter.

— The Patriots missed a lot of tackles in the slippery, snowing conditions. Mayo and safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon each had missed tackles on the Broncos’ three touchdown runs.

— Chung, Mayo and Freeny initially were sealed off by two wide receivers on running back C.J. Anderson’s 48-yard game-winning touchdown. Branch whiffed on a diving tackle, McCourty appears to have been slightly held, Butler was cut down, Freeny couldn’t get away from pulling guard Evan Mathis and Harmon couldn’t line him up for a form tackle.

— Freeny also missed a tackle in the run game and doesn’t appear completely comfortable in the Patriots’ defense yet, filling in for Jamie Collins and Hightower. It’s a lot to put on Freeny’s plate in his first year with the Patriots. He has never had a starting role as a linebacker as a college pass rusher and NFL special-teams ace. He’s making strides, but he’s not consistent yet.

— The Patriots’ defensive backs had a rough game as run defenders as the Broncos were able to cut outside and pick up big gains.

— Rookie defensive tackle Brown played well and seems to be improving every week.

Thumbnail photo via Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports Images

Thumbnail photo via Nov 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos tight end Owen Daniels (81) is brought down by a group of New England Patriots defenders including outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) during the first half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
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