FOXBORO, Mass. — Some assorted notes and nuggets from the New England Patriots 18-12 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
— With center David Andrews on injured reserve and right guard Shaq Mason and backup center/guard James Ferentz both on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the Patriots rolled out their fourth offensive line combination in as many games against Denver.
This one featured one major surprise: Isaiah Wynn moving from left tackle — where he’d played every snap of his NFL career — to left guard. Sixth-round rookie Justin Herron started at left tackle after filling in for Jermaine Eluemunor at right tackle in New England’s Week 4 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Week 1: Wynn-Thuney-Andrews-Mason-Eluemunor
Week 2: Wynn-Thuney-Andrews-Mason-Eluemunor
Week 3: Wynn-Onwenu-Thuney-Mason-Eluemunor
Week 4: Wynn-Thuney-Ferentz-Onwenu-Herron
Week 6: Herron-Wynn-Thuney-Onwenu-Eluemunor
The Patriots were forced into another reshuffling after Eluemunor suffered an ankle injury on a Cam Newton sack late in the first quarter. He needed to be helped off the field and did not return.
When Eluemunor exited, Hjalte Froholdt, who hadn’t played a regular-season snap on offense before Sunday, entered at right guard, pushing Mike Onwenu to tackle. The Patriots deployed that alignment until halftime, then rearranged things yet again.
New England’s O-line in the second half featured Wynn back in his usual spot at left tackle, Onwenu at left guard, Joe Thuney (usually a left guard) at center, Froholdt at right guard and Herron at right tackle.
The Patriots were able to withstand injuries to key O-linemen in Weeks 3 (no Andrews) and 4 (no Andrews or Mason), but this unit finally reached its breaking point Sunday.
The Broncos sacked quarterback Cam Newton four times and hit him eight times, and outside of Newton’s 38-yard scramble in the fourth quarter, the Patriots managed just 79 yards on 24 rushing attempts (3.3 per carry).
“It’s just football and the next-man-up mentality,” Thuney said after the game. “We’ve got a lot of trust in the guys. Everyone in that room — the coaches, players. It always comes down to execution. You’ve got to execute on Sundays. Regardless of positions, people — our whole room has that mentality of next man up. We’ve just got to execute better.”
Wynn’s issues were particularly glaring. He surrendered the pressure that produced Newton’s first interception while playing at guard, then was bulldozed by Bradley Chubb for a strip sack while playing at tackle. Wynn also allowed another sack on the game’s final drive.
During the two-week lead-up to Sunday’s game, which originally was scheduled for last Sunday, the Patriots practiced just twice. Head coach Bill Belichick said that lack of on-field work was especially detrimental to the O-line.
“It was a big challenge,” Belichick said. “Playing without guys, getting guys hurt, moving around, had some guys that hasn’t played together much, hadn’t practiced together much. So we need to get on the field, we need to practice, we need to develop some continuity as a team, but especially there.”
The severity of Eluemunor’s injury is unclear. The lineman posted the following on Twitter after the game:
Andrews, New England’s starting center, will be eligible to return from IR this week.
— Newton’s return from the COVID list wasn’t the Patriots’ only change at quarterback.
For the first time, second-year pro Jarrett Stidham was active as Newton’s backup. Veteran Brian Hoyer was a healthy scratch, demoted to third string following his ugly Week 4 performance in Kansas City.
Stidham did not see action Sunday.
— Cornerback Stephon Gilmore also returned from COVID reserve Sunday and played well, allowing zero catches on four targets. He did pick up an iffy penalty for defensive holding in the end zone, but the Patriots’ defense held Denver to a field goal — one of six Brandon McManus kicked in the game.
Gilmore spoke with reporters after the game for the first time since testing positive Oct. 6.
“I didn’t (have symptoms), but it’s still a process we have to go through,” he said. “It was unfortunate, but I’m past it. I was able to come out suit up and play. … It wasn’t easy, but a lot of things in life are not easy. You’ve got to be able to take it on the chin and be ready to play. You can’t hold your head down, and you have to be mentally strong and go out there and compete for your teammates.”
— Rookie tight end Devin Asiasi saw an uptick in playing time after Ryan Izzo lost a fumble in the third quarter, but he remained uninvolved in the passing game. Five games in, Patriots QBs have yet to target the third-round draft pick.
New England’s other first-year tight end, Dalton Keene, has yet to see the field. He was a healthy scratch Sunday for the third consecutive game.
— Wide receiver N’Keal Harry finished without a catch on two targets. One resulted in an interception, and the other fell incomplete on fourth-and-10, ending the Patriots’ comeback bid.
Harry showed promise during New England’s final drive in its Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, but he’s provided minimal production ever since.
On that one drive in Seattle, the 2019 first-rounder caught three passes on four targets for 42 yards. Across every other Patriots drive this season, Harry has just 15 catches on 26 targets for 124 yards and one touchdown.