Not enough ‘quality skill players,’ and other thoughts on the Patriots’ 18-12 loss to the Broncos

"The Patriots still don’t have enough quality skill players in their passing game, at wide receiver or tight end."

Denver's Albert Okwuegbunam tries to run away from Kyle Dugger after catching a pass in the first half of Sunday's game.
Denver's Albert Okwuegbunam tries to run away from Kyle Dugger after catching a pass in the first half of Sunday's game. –Steven Senne/Associated Press
  1. There is plenty of blame, an assortment of excuses, and even some legitimate reasons for the Patriots’ loss, which drops them to 2-3 and opens up a whole lot of questions about what expectations should be in the coming weeks, if not the rest of the season. We’ll touch on all those in a moment, but the No. 1 takeaway from the Patriots’ loss, which leaves them below .500 after five games for the first time since 2001, is a holdover from last year: The Patriots still don’t have enough quality skill players in their passing game, at wide receiver or tight end.
  2. It might be worse than last year, just because Julian Edelman is either injured to the point of ineffectiveness (he had as many completed passes Sunday – 2 – as receptions). N’Keal Harry didn’t have a reception, and Patriots’ fans envy of teams that have drafted helpful-to-excellent receivers recently grows each week. Damiere Byrd is OK, but limited, much like Philip Dorsett was. Ryan Izzo had one catch, a 17-yarder, and promptly fumbled. The rookie tight ends, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, don’t have a catch between them all season. A trade is necessary. Maybe two.
  3. There were some situations where it appeared Newton held on to the ball too long, most notably on the final possession when he took a bad sack on second down as the Patriots were trying to drive for a win. After watching Tom Brady get rid of the ball quickly all these years (sometimes when there were still plays to be made), it’s frustrating to see Newton look like Drew Bledsoe at his worst. But film review will probably reveal he had a good reason to hold it: No one was open. This group is making me miss the Jabar Gaffney/Reche Caldwell golden years.
  4. The Broncos didn’t seem to have any respect for the Patriots’ receivers. They blitzed even on obvious running plays, took away the Patriots’ ground game (Damien Harris was the leading rusher among running backs with 19 yards), and dared Newton and his underwhelming receiving cast to beat them via the air. Byrd had a 19-yard catch on the Patriots’ lone touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. He finished with 38 yards on three catches, which is both mediocre and enough to be the Patriots’ most productive wide receiver Sunday.
  5. Those of us who predicted a Patriots blowout win (ahem) didn’t give enough consideration to the degree of difficulty the Patriots faced this week. They’ve had two practices in two weeks, with Newton participating in just one. COVID-19 has affected eight players. The offensive line, which has been so good this season, was in shambles. Shaq Mason went on COVID-IR, Justin Herron started at left tackle, Isaiah Wynn moved to guard, and, during the game, Jermaine Eluemunor got hurt.
  6. But there are no moral victories here. The season quota of those were spent in the loss to Seattle, when Newton was stopped at the goal line on the game’s final play, and two weeks ago against the Chiefs, when the Patriots led in the third quarter despite Brian Hoyer, who played like he’d retired in 2017, starting at quarterback. For all that the Patriots have dealt with and endured over the past two weeks, they still should have beaten this mediocre Broncos team.
  7. Newton was rusty early, and it seems his mechanics get out of whack when he hasn’t had a lot of reps. He had a couple of passes tipped at the line by Shelby Harris, including one that was intercepted by defensive lineman DeShawn Williams. But even when’s he having an off-day, Newton has his dazzling moments. He finished with 76 rushing yards on 10 carries (including a 37-yarder), and even caught a pass, picking up 16 yards when the offense showed signs of life in the fourth quarter.
  8. The Broncos seem to be invested in Drew Lock as the quarterback of the future, but he was only slightly more impressive than the various failed quarterbacks of the future during John Elway’s front office tenure. (Where have you gone, Paxton Lynch?). Lock finished 10 of 24 for 189 yards, with two interceptions, and never got the Broncos into the end zone. (Brandon McManus did all of the scoring with six field goals.)
  9. Lock also threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, including a boneheaded one to J.C. Jackson with 5 minutes and 15 seconds left. I thought Jackson was taking that one to the house, but he got knocked out of bounds at the Denver 25. The Patriots ended up settling for a field goal. The other interception was hauled in by Jonathan Jones, who played a terrific game. He was credited with three passes defended, but it seemed like twice as many, all in the end zone.
  10. Ja’Whaun Bentley had the best statistical game of his career, with a team-high 12 tackles, two tackles for a loss, two quarterback hits, and a shared sack of Lock with Shilique Calhoun. While the statistical performance would suggest the inside linebacker deserves an A for his effort, the Broncos’ Philip Lindsey did run for 101 yards on 23 carries. So a B it is.
  11. Sunday was not the first time James White has been the best thing about the Patriots’ offense. He had 8 catches for 65 yards (on nine targets), including the longest reception of the day, 22-yarder from Edelman. Still mystifying why Bill Belichick didn’t challenge what looked like a lousy spot in early in the fourth quarter after White had apparently lunged for a first down, only to have it marked a yard short.
  12. Kick returner Gunner Olszewski has a knack for making tacklers miss, but I wonder if Belichick is OK with his decision-making. Olszewski returned three kicks Sunday, all from a few yards deep in the end zone. He got to the New England 17 on the first one, the 32 on the second, and the 19 on the third. That’s not the success ratio you’re looking for there.
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