The rubble of the 43-21 loss at New England is palpable, but there are moments the Broncos can dig up and use as foundations for the weeks to come -- and, perhaps, another chance to face the Patriots, if both teams can earn their way to a second consecutive January showdown and third in four seasons.
We'll start with the play that helped clear out the offense after a pair of three-and-outs to start the game, Peyton Manning's 17-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders.
Facing second-and-three, the Broncos needed to find a way to exploit the Patriots' aggressive coverage. Only one defender did not align himself within four yards of the line of scrimmage (a single high safety) and the Patriots showed blitz with linebacker Dont'a Hightower up the middle before dropping him into short coverage, where he helped Brandon Browner against Demaryius Thomas.
Check out the best shots from Sunday's game in Foxborough.
The key to opening up the play is Ronnie Hillman, who made sure there was not anyone to block, and then moved into the right flat, drawing Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins to him. That freed Sanders to run a drag route past the spot Collins vacated to cover Hillman.
Because New England cornerback Darrelle Revis allowed Sanders a free release to cut inside on the drag route, he lagged a step behind and back, which put him right in position for the Thomas/Browner/Hightower cluster near the left hashmarks to force him to adjust his path.
With Revis trailing and Hightower slow to react as Sanders ran in front of him, the receiver had only to make the catch in stride to have a big play. He grabbed the football just inside the numbers at the 29-yard-line and cut up the left sideline. Hightower was able to recover and took a good angle to get Sanders out of bounds and prevent any further damage beyond the 14 yards after the catch.
Manning also deserves credit for his patience here. He could have led Sanders and thrown him the football between the hashmarks, since Hightower appeared engaged with Thomas; Sanders already had separation from Revis by this point. Instead, he let Sanders get outside and past both defenders, turning a potential moderate gain into the one that ignited a scoring drive.
The Broncos' second touchdown would not come until the third quarter. Julius Thomas' 18-yard catch past Patrick Chung momentarily got the Broncos back into the game. But that play would not have happened without the Broncos' first third-down conversion of the day, on a well-executed route by Demaryius Thomas for a 27-yard gain on third-and-6 from the Denver 47.
He hesitates before beginning his route, cutting inside before sprinting up the left seam. This allows Wes Welker to break toward the sideline on a quick out. Welker does not come into contact with Browner, who aligned himself at the line of scrimmage across from Demaryius Thomas, but creates enough of a distraction to give the wide receiver a jump as he gets downfield. By the time Manning's pass arrives, he is three steps past Browner.
Another key is Manning looking off Devin McCourty, the single high safety. Manning's glance to his right forces McCourty to step outside the hashmarks to the opposite side from where Thomas will catch the pass, giving him the space he needs to make the catch before McCourty can arrive. Three plays later, the Broncos crossed the goal line.
The defensive front pressured Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, hitting him eight times. It did not always rattle him, but it did buy the offense more chances to come back.
A play that could have been huge came with 5:21 left in the second quarter, and the Patriots in third-and-1 at their own 40 with a 20-7 lead. Derek Wolfe, lined up at left defensive end, made a perfect read of the Patriots' intentions, identifying Brady's move away from the flow of the offensive line, which moved left prior to his playfake.
Wolfe glides past Julian Edelman and is in position to chase Brady from the center of the field all the way to the sideline. Aided by coverage from Nate Irving and Brandon Marshall -- who bracketed Edelman -- and Chris Harris Jr. on Shane Vereen to the outside, Brady had nowhere to turn by the time Wolfe hit him near the sideline.
This three-and-out appeared crucial at the time. After the Patriots stopped the Broncos on downs on the ensuing series, its value diminished. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the degree of Wolfe's comeback from his cervical spine injury last year. His power is back, evidenced by the push he gets up the middle when he moves inside in sub packages. Here, he shows the speed you expect from a defensive end.
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