Friday, September 23, 2016

Patriots Dominate Texans, 27-0

The Patriots crushed the Houston Texans in Foxboro last night, dominating all three phases of the game for a 27-0 shellacking. The win puts them at 3-0 and they are 1.5 games ahead of the second-place New York Jets in the AFC East. In 10 days the Buffalo Bills come to town for the last non-Brady game of the year (we hope!).

This game wasn't a fair fight. The Patriots did everything right and the Texans did everything wrong. From game plan to in-game coaching to offensive efficiency to special teams to defensive energy and speed, it looked like an NFL team versus a pee wee flag-football team.

There are far too many superlatives to go around the entire team this week. Even I don't want to write a 25,000 word blog entry. So instead, we'll go five-for-five. Standout performances in four different categories by the Patriots, and a fifth category for bad plays/decisions by the Texans.

Offense

Running back LeGarrette Blount gained 105 yards on 24 carries to take away the NFL lead in rushing yards for the season from Houston's Lamar Miller. His 41-yard touchdown burst through the left side clinched the game.

Quarterback Jacoby Brissett had pedestrian throwing numbers (11 of 19 for 103 yards and a 72.9 QB rating). But he never turned over the ball, had several scintillating QB runs (including a 27-yard touchdown), was only sacked once, and did not make any critical errors.

Receiver Malcolm Mitchell's lone catch came on 3rd-and-2, and he broke a tackle to to turn the short throw into a 27-yard reception (over 1/4 of all the yards Brissett threw for on the day). He also did a great job blocking downfield, including on Brissett's touchdown run.

Tackle Nate Solder gets a mention that could have gone to three or four offensive linemen. Against one of the better defensive fronts in the NFL, the team averaged 4.7 yards per carry and gave up one sack. Since Solder returned, most of the running plays are to his side, and his run blocking has been superb.

Martellus Bennett had only 2 catches for 10 yards, but his blocking continues to impress, both in pass protection and the running game.

Defense

Jabaal Sheard had 3 tackles and 2 sacks for 21 yards lost. He was the man on defense this week, seemingly around every time there was a big play made.

Alan Branch was critical to stuffing early runs by the Texans, which forced them to rely more on an unproven quarterback. 

Chris Long got consistent pressure on the quarterback, made some nice plays forcing runs back inside, and batted down yet another pass. He thrives when lined up on the right side, not so much on the left. So he will likely be even more productive once Rob Ninkovich returns to take his normal position on the left (still scheduled for a Cleveland game return).

Jamie Collins' 14 tackles doubled the number of any other Patriots defender, and he had a pass defended and a nice interception. He is the glue holding together the linebackers until Dont'a Hightower returns.

Logan Ryan covered the best Houston receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, all game long. And though he didn't shut him out, his 4 receptions (for 56 yards) were nearly inconsequential, and every one of them was an acrobatic, tough catch against coverage that was right there.

Special Teams

Punter Ryan Allen was the game's MVP. His seven punts went for a 47.6 yard net average (0 return yards), and he pinned the Texans inside their 20 yard line all seven times. It would be nearly impossible for a punter to have a better game.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski executed perfect kickoffs. They were high (so his teammates could get good coverage), short of the goal line (so the Texans had to return them), and towards the sideline (making them even easier to cover). It's no accident the Texans' average starting position was their own 16 -- with Allen and Gostkowski both on their games.

Brandon Bolden and Nate Ebner both forced fumbles on those short kickoffs, both times the Patriots recovered them, and both times the Patriots offense scored touchdowns.

Cyrus Jones returned two punts for 23 yards and one kickoff for 24 yards. This is significant because it removes pressure to use Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman on kick returns, which keeps them fresher for the offense.

The only down note of the day was the long-snapping of Joe Cardona. He had one bad punt snap, one sub-standard one, and two iffy snaps on field goals/extra points. The special teams coach has done a nice job with the return games; it's time to get back to basics with Cardona before he blows an important snap.

Coaching

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had a phenomenal game. His plan to roll Brissett with misdirection and compliment that with option runs was brilliant. It kept the Texans off-balance, never knowing to go with Brissett or away from him.

You could see it on Brissett's touchdown run. The entire Texans front-seven went for the fake pitch to the left, Brissett rolled right, Shaq Mason cut the lone defender on that end, and it was all green pastures for 25 yards.

Bill Belichick never gets as much credit as he should when they debate NFL Coach of the Year. This season, he might have won the award already. "Ignore the noise" and "do your job" were never more important than this week, and he had his players ready to dominate.

Special teams coach Joe Judge has done a marvelous job with Gostkowski, Ryan, and the coverage team. His game plan changes per opponent, which is should. Best example is that the Pats kicked off through the end zone against Miami, obviously more afraid of the Dolphins return game than that of the Cardinals or Texans.

Matt Patricia earns a gold star for putting the game in Brock Osweiler's hands, and knowing those hands would not beat him. He calls a great game, anticipating what is coming and dialing up just the right counter.

Cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer and safeties coach Steve Belichick did a great job improving the secondary play against Houston. They had second-half let-downs against both Arizona and Miami, but not this week. The secondary played with smarts, passion, and great communication.

Texans Mistakes

It's unfathomable that the Texans were not ready to handle the running attack of the Patriots in general and Jacoby Brissett in specific. It's as if they never watched the Dolphins film. You could see in that game how limited Brissett was on long throws, so why wouldn't you bunch the line and dare him to throw long?

The Texans' first possession ended when they ran the ball on 3rd-and-8 (and then punted). Late in the first half, they punted with about 90 seconds on the clock on 4th-and-2 at the 50 yard line. They should have been more aggressive in both those situations, especially with a rookie QB on the other side.

More a curiosity than anything else, but once the Pats got a first down with 1:05 left, why would the Texans take a timeout? If the Patriots tried to run out the clock, Houston didn't have enough timeouts to make them punt. And if the Patriots tried to score, that timeout only helped them.

They wasted a challenge to gain 7 yards on a punt midway through the second quarter. Note to coaches, unless it's over 25 yards or changes a first-down situation, most yardage challenges aren't worth it.

After the aforementioned challenge, the Texans had the Pats in 3rd-and-15 at their own 13 yard line. This was their chance to pin the Patriots back and change field position. So what did they do? Amendola caught a pass 8 yards short of the first down, ran around two defenders and split two others to get the first down. Pathetic.

Bonus mistakes, fumbling on two kickoffs, which led directly to 14 Patriots points. Once maybe, but after that, every player should have been drilled over and over about ball security on kickoffs.

(Note: the second fumbler had a towel in his left hand instead of having both hands on the ball. Credit to my wife, Lori, for catching that one!)

So where does that leave us? Thumbing our noses as the NFL. 3-0 without Brady, without Gronkowski, without Ninkovich, and without much resistance from the opposition. Ten days hence will be the league's last chance to get its pound of flesh during the Brady suspension. And with ten days to prepare, any doubt the Patriots will be in a position to win that one?

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Texans had two plays in Patriots territory all night. Decades ago they kept Buffalo from crossing the 50 for an entire game, but I don't remember anything this dominant in years.

Non-Brissett MVP of the Week: Four words: Ryan Allen was magnificent.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Goodell is just the latest to take on Belichick and lose."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-0!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Patriots Handle Dolphins, 31-24

Your New England Patriots sprinted to a 24-0 lead and hung on to defeat the Miami Dolphins 31-24. The win keeps them atop the AFC East, one game ahead of the 1-1 New York Jets. Next up is the Houston Texans on a short week, this Thursday night -- which could be a problem, given a shoulder injury to staring quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (more on that later).

This game was a blowout when Garoppolo was in there, and rookie Jacoby Brissett did enough to get the W. The defensive game plan stymied Miami the entire first half, but was slow to adjust in the second half, giving up three consecutive long drives for touchdowns. Fortunately the defense got it together in time to save the game with a late interception that sealed the win. And between you and me, the Pats would have lost if they hadn't won the turnover battle 4-1.

Quarterback Garoppolo made excellent decisions and showed surprisingly good pocket presence. On one play, he stepped up to avoid outside pressure, and realizing the timing of the play was now off, he threw to receiver Chris Hogan's back shoulder to avoid leading him into the safety. That saved Hogan from a big hit on a ball that might have been intercepted if he hadn't adjusted so well. Jimmy G. ended up 18 of 27 (66.7%) for 234 yards, 3 touchdowns, no INTs, and a 130.8 QB rating. Here's hoping the injury isn't serious.

In relief of Garoppolo, rookie Brissett was understandably lost. His two best plays were a run for a first down and a quick throw to tight end Martellus Bennett for what appeared to be a game-clinching first down. Though given their inexperience, it's pretty amazing the Patriots field two quarterbacks with 100+ QB ratings and zero interceptions in two games.

As for the running game it's time to tip your cap to LeGarrette Blount. He's fourth in the NFL in rushing yards with 193 (Sunday he had 123 on 29 carries). Against the Dolphins, he ran through, over, around, and even hurdled a would-be tackler. (Trivia question: Name the last Patriots player to finish in the top 5 in rushing yards for a season. Bonus question: Name the last Patriots player to lead the NFL in rushing yards for a season. Answers below.) He is great in blitz pickup, and the running game has been key to protecting young quarterbacks during Tom Brady's suspension.

The receivers saw Mr. Reliable Julian Edelman with 7 catches for 76 yards, Danny Amendola with 2 tough touchdowns on 4 catches (50 yards), and tight end Martellus Bennett with 5 catches for a 114 yards (22.8 yards per catch), and a touchdown of his own. Add Chris Hogan's 4 catches for 59 yards, and you can see how tough it is to defend this group. Wait until Gronkowski comes back, it'll be even tougher.

The offensive line played better this week, crushing the Dolphins right defensive side with punishing runs and wham blocks from the tight ends and receivers. And Nate Solder returned and showed why he was considered the best Pats O-lineman. He had some big blocks, as did rookie guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews.

Miami exploited holes in the mid-range zones in the Patriots defense. They really missed linebacker Dont'a Hightower, as fill-ins Shea McClellin and Barkevious Mingo weren't quite ready for prime time. Mingo had a few good plays, especially those where he ran down ball-carries from behind. But they definitely could have gotten more hits on receivers and covered much better in intermediate zones.

Unlike last week, it was not a good sign that the top three tacklers were in the secondary. Cornerbacks Malcom Butler and Logan Ryan led the team in tackles (with 8 and 7, respectively). Ryan also had a forced fumble, and two safeties, Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty, had an interception each.

Overall the secondary looked great in the first half and had trouble in the second half. Corner Leonard Coleman isn't a great third-corner, and the team's tackling was terrible, allowing Miami to make short gains into long ones.

Chris Long stood out among the defensive linemen for the second straight week. He had 2 tackles, 1 for a loss, got 2 QB hits, recovered a fumble, and even knocked down a pass. The D-line stuffed the run all day (quarterback Ryan Tannehill was the Dolphins top rusher, with just 35 yards). But the team could use some more pressure on the quarterback.

Look for the Patriots to rotate their defensive linemen in future games. This would keep them fresh and allow for a better pass rush. It will also be a lot easier when Rob Ninkovich returns in the week 5 game against Cleveland.

Special teams were fine until crunch time. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski simply can't miss a 39-yard kick that would have iced the game with 1:08 to play. No excuses; it just can't happen. Someone in that three-man operation screwed up, and they have to get back to basics so this doesn't happen again this year. And note that punter Ryan Allen is quietly fifth in the NFL with just eight total return yards this season.

Despite how well Garoppolo played, the coaching was a tale of two halves. The offense and defense were hitting on all cylinders in the first half, repelling the Dolphins at every turn and scoring at will. But Miami made excellent halftime adjustments and scored touchdowns on three straight possessions to make the game close. Meanwhile, the offense bogged down with Garoppolo on the side line, but you'd expect that with a rookie taking over.

So where does that leave us? 2-0 is good, but the concern is about Garoppolo's injured right shoulder. No official details yet, but with a game on Thursday, I wouldn't expect to see Jimmy G. out there. Of course, the team just has to make it to game five without imploding; they can probably do that.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Jimmy Garoppolo is the first quarterback the Patriots drafted to win his first two starts for the team this century. (Bonus trivia question: name the quarterback last quarterback to do it before Garoppolo. Answer below).

Non-Garoppolo/Non-Brissett MVP of the Week: It's Martellus Bennett yet again, a beast run blocking and led the team in receiving yards.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Split the next two games, 3-1 when Brady returns, I'll take my chances with that."

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

PPS. Trivia Answers
#1: Corey Dillon was third in the NFL in rushing yards in 2004, with 1,635 (a team record).
#2: Jim Nance led the NFL in rushing yards in 1967, with 1,216 yards. This topped both the AFL and NFL, so it led the entire leaguew even though it was pre-merger.

PPPS. Bonus Trivia Answer
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#3: Scott Zolak won his first two starts with the Patriots in 1992.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Patriots Outlast Cardinals, 23-21

The Patriots used excellent game-planning and some luck to beat back the Cardinals in Arizona, 23-21, on Sunday night. Combined with losses by all other AFC East teams (shocker!), the win puts them in first place in the AFC East all alone after one week. Next up is a divisional home tilt with the Dolphins, where they should hope to have more of their starters back.

Not to denigrate the players, but the hero of this game was defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. His game plan took away the deep pass and made Arizona beat them with running plays and short passes. Not only did he force the Cardinals away from their preferred method of attack, but it took Arizona for-EVER to adjust.

Of their first eight possessions, Arizona punted five times and the first half ended, and their only two scores came on short fields after turnovers. They finally changed strategies with about 12 minutes to go, but it was desperation time by then.

Patricia's plan worked nearly flawlessly, and Arizona's bumbling incompetence on their last drive sealed the deal for the Patriots. They were in field goal range but had a holding call and then a short pass for a loss. They finally got close enough to try a field goal on fourth down, but the long snapper botched the snap and the holder placed the ball in the wrong spot -- field goal attempt wide-left.

The result, a close game that went the Patriots way when the other team failed to adjust and then made the critical errors at the end. If that sounds like a familiar refrain, it's been repeated over and over for the last 16 years.

The biggest stars on defense were one guy you saw and someone you probably didn't notice. You wouldn't think a 6' 6" 350-pound guy could be missed, but because Alan Branch plays inside with lots of other big players, it can happen.

Branch was crucial to stuffing the Arizona running game and pushing the pocket back into the quarterback. He had the most consistently good game of any defender. And even though he only totaled 2 tackles and no QB hits, he was my defensive star of the week, mostly because everyone else was more up-and-down.

Chris Long also stood out on the defensive line. He ended up with 3 tackles and a sack, and also hit the quarterback once. Long mostly replaced Rob Ninkovich (serving a four-game suspension), and if Sunday night's game is any indication, the defensive line is going to be a real strength with Long complimenting Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard on the outside.

The secondary was the next best defensive unit, though it wasn't always pretty. Three corners, starters Malcom Butler and Logan Ryan, and nickel back Justin Coleman, made big knock-downs but also gave up plays. Though the team mostly played zone, so sometimes it's tough to tell who was responsible in that situation.

Safety Devin McCourty had nine tackles, and the secondary overall accounted for over half the total tackles (25 of 47). Usually that's a bad sign, but the defensive game plan allowed for short pass completions and the secondary made sure tackles to keep those gains short.

At linebacker, Jamie Collins had one of those impressive stat lines: 4 tackles, 1 sack (8 yards lost), 1 tackle for a loss, 1 QB hit, and 1 pass defended. Although he mis-timed his attempt to block an extra point and ended up with a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff. So we might not be seeing that play again. 

On a side note, LB Jonathan Freeny is in danger of losing his starting job. He played just 10% of the snaps, while newcomer Shea McClellin grabbed 39%. And with Barkevious Mingo waiting in the wings, it looks like Freeny will be a special-teamer only soon.

It's only one game, so not time to gush about quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo just yet, but he did a nice job in this one. He was mostly poised, only threw the ball into harm's way once, and stayed with the game plan of making positive plays each time, even if it was a short gain. He ended the day 24 of 33 (73%) for 264 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, and 1 lost fumble.

His average of 7.3 yards per attempt was fairly good, too, and he used his legs to buy time on a few plays (and to run for an important first down). However, he has to learn not to run backwards 10+ yards trying to get free. Defenders will hunt him down and the loss of yardage isn't worth the risk. But overall, an impressive debut.

The receivers made Garoppolo's job a lot easier, starting with Julian Edelman. He had 7 catches on 7 targets for 66 yards and 3 first downs (he also ran for a first down). If Wes Welker was the original "slot machine," Edelman is the 2.0 version, and is vastly improved model. He can't be single-covered, and even when bracketed, he can shake free with unmatched quickness, which was on full display Sunday night.

Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell showed nice timing with Garoppolo, too, with Hogan getting the first touchdown of the game (and 2 other catches, for a total of 60 yards), and Mitchell making 2 catches and almost getting to a back-shoulder (or back-thigh) throw from Garoppolo.

The running game was another key to the win, and blocking by tight end Martellus Bennett, guard Ted Karras, and tackle Marcus Cannon were key to its success. Bennett sealed the edge very well, and there were multiple plays where Karras got two blocks inside.

The average wasn't great, 3.4 yards per carry, but it helped the Patriots maintain control of the ball for almost 34 minutes of game time. LeGarrette Blount was the only running back who had many yards (70, on 22 carries), but back James White had a terrific night catching passes out of the backfield. He had 5 catches for 40 yards, including a great reach-back grab at the shoe tops.

In last year's AFC Championship game, White and Tom Brady missed their timing in several potential game-breaking passes. So it's nice to see the hard-working White improve his speed and get more in sync with the QB in the passing attack. The Pats have missed Shane Vereen in that role, and would benefit from White stepping into it.

The offensive line was a mixed bag. Center David Andrews got pushed around and had a tripping penalty. And although Karras and Cannon were decent in the running game, the pass blocking overall was only good enough for quick-hit passes.

Emergency tackle Cameron Fleming had some nice cut blocks on outside passes, but he got man-handled by outside pass pressure all night. A work in progress, as they say. But of course, they have the man to do it in new/old offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. (Trivia question: Scarnecchia has worked for the Patriots under six head coaches, how many can you name? Answer below.)

Special teams were interesting, especially the kickoffs. Most times, kicker Stephen Gostkowski booted it high and just to the goal line. This forced the Cardinals to return the kicks, and with the high trajectory, the Patriots coverage team was there to stop the return cold.

On non-touchback kickoffs, Arizona's average starting field position was the 15 yard line, so it worked out well. Also of note; rookie Cyrus Jones was great in kick coverage, getting to the returner before Matthew Slater did on every kick I recall. And of course, the Patriots didn't miss any field goals, and AZ did, so that is a victory.

The Pats coaching staff was vastly better than Arizona's on Sunday. They formulated a great plan entering the game, and it took far too long for the Cardinals coaches to adjust. This was one of those surprise victories, when everything looked to be going against the Patriots, yet Belichick and his staff pulled one out with guile and guts.

So where does that leave us? The Patriots are the only 1-0 team in the AFC East, so they are in first place by a game already. The Dolphins are traditionally much tougher to play in Miami, so the Pats should be able to handle them this week in Foxboro.

Non-Garoppolo MVP of the Week: Martellus Bennett, who was instrumental in the running attack that kept the Cardinals offense on the sideline.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In one start, Jimmy Garoppolo's one reception is already half as many receptions as Tom Brady has in 225 regular-season starts (2).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Add Gronkowski, Dion Lewis, and Brady to this offense and it looks scary."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

PPS. Trivia answer
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Scarnecchia worked under these Patriots head coaches:
Ron Meyer
Raymond Berry
Dick MacPherson
Bill Parcells
Pete Carroll
Bill Belichick
(Luckily he missed the dreaded 1-15 season with Rod Rust at the helm.)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Patriots 2016 Primer!

Tough to believe it's go time, but the Patriots are in Phoenix already, starting the season sans Brady for the first time this millennium.


Lots of changes this off-season, with some exciting new players coming in and a few good vets gone. Here’s a breakdown of what those changes portend and how the team will bounce back from the loss in the AFC Championship game.


Offense

1. Brady takes a powder


No one expects Jimmy Garoppolo to supplant Tom Brady while the incumbent serves his four-game suspension for being on the Commissioner’s bad side. And this is less a test of Garoppolo than of the coaching staff, specifically head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.


The last time they were without Brady, they turned Matt Cassel into an 11-game winner. But bear in mind, the prior year the Pats won 16 games, so it dropped five games in the standings when Brady went down with a knee injury. Putting in plays that work to Jimmy G’s strengths will be the key, along with leaning on a rising defense.


Garoppolo’s job is to hold things steady until Brady returns. He will likely lose the first game of his career -- Arizona is a very good team, and road games haven’t gone well with the Patriots offensive line woes. If he goes 2-2 he will have done his job (to coin a phrase). Anything less and it’ll be an uphill battle for the division.


2. Two Tight End Offense, Round FOUR!


2016 is literally the fourth time the Patriots have tried to replace Aaron Hernandez in the two tight end offense. Michael Hoomanawanui, the Tim Wright Trade, and last year, Scott Chandler from Buffalo. All hoped to be the answer, none turned out to be.


But this year it appears the Patriots got it right. Two seasons ago, Martellus Bennett caught 90 passes for the usually run-heavy Chicago Bears, and he made the Pro Bowl that year. In limited preseason action, he had seven catches and showed good timing with both Brady and Garoppolo.


The team kept four tight ends and a fullback, indicating they plan to run the ball more. And with Bennett to compliment G.O.A.T. Rob Gronkowski, the two tight end offense could hum like it did when Hernandez wasn’t in the clink.


3. Running Back and Wide Receivers In Flux


Electrifying back Dion Lewis is out for at least the first six weeks after undergoing a second procedure on his injured knee. In the preseason, rookie D.J. Foster made the strongest case to replace Lewis, but rookie running backs rarely get significant playing time under Belichick.


The smart money would be on James White, who looked better this preseason than he did last year, and Brandon Bolden. It looks like LeGarrette Blount will be the first- and second-down back. And that will be especially true if the team protects Garoppolo with more running plays early in the year.


At wide receiver, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are working back from injuries, free agent signee Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell looked good, and they really only carried four wideouts (Matthew Slater is more of a special teamer). All of this probably means a re-emphasis on the running attack.


Even so, questions surround whether Amendola can hold off Hogan, and how Mitchell will look when he returns from his elbow injury. Decent play in the preseason doesn’t always translate to regular-season success. And if I had to guess, I’d say Hogan might take snaps from Amendola, and the tight ends take some of Edelman’s catches this year -- just so he doesn't risk re-injuring himself.


4. Offensive Line Transition


How much uncertainty is there on the offensive line? Two of last year’s starters were cut, both starting tackles from last year are injured, they have rookies backing up center, right guard, and left guard, and Marcus Cannon is your starting right tackle. They also traded Chandler Jones for former #7 draft pick Jonathan Cooper, but of course, Cooper was injured most of the preseason.


Long-time O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia returned, and he has his work cut out for him. The line looked mediocre in the preseason, but the hallmark of a “Scar” line is that it improves as the season goes on, even in the face of injuries. It’ll be a work in progress the first month, but if you see improvement in October, chalk it up to Scarnecchia.


Defense

1. Three-Headed Linebackers


With tight end Bennett in the fold, the biggest talent drop-off on the team was from starting linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower to journeyman Jonathan Freeny. Enter Barkevious Mingo, former #6 draft pick acquired from the Browns. He has the athleticism to make it tougher to pick on him as the weak link in the linebacking corps.


His only preseason action was impressive, as he was a one-man wrecking crew against the Giants. He did miss some assignments, but seemed to understand the basic defensive calls pretty quickly, which is important. Being an athlete is only half the equation; you can’t stay on the field in New England if you don't know where to be on the field.

Mingo might not start week one, but he’ll be an able fill-in, and he should be starting by week three or four. When that happens, teams won’t be able to attack any weak link at linebacker, because the starting three will all be studs. Expect Hightower to move back inside, so Mingo and Collins can roam free outside.


2. Defensive Line Transformation


Two years ago the Pats had bruising plodders along most of their defensive line, anchored by longtime nose tackle Vince Wilfork. They still have two large bodies in the middle, in Alan Branch and Malcom Brown. But outside, they are all speed and athleticism.


Chris Long was brought in from St. Louis, and Jabaal Sheard starts his second season with the team after an impressive 2015. Trey Flowers and Anthony Johnson both impressed in the preseason, with strong bursts and penetration that broke up plays before they started. And when Rob Ninkovich returns from an PED suspension, that will up the speed ante even more.


Brown looks ready to break out this year, and if he can push the pocket back, the outside defensive linemen could have a field day against indecisive quarterbacks.


3. Third Corner a Question


Cornerback Malcom Bulter continues to impress, making the absolute most out of his opportunities in the NFL, and Logan Ryan was decent in the preseason. The third corner position is the one up for grabs, and it’ll be nail-biting time when Cyrus Jones or Justin Coleman covers the third best receiver on the other side.


The team traded for Eric Rowe, but don’t expect anything great from him. The team might have to count on getting to the quarterback, especially when their opponent has more than two dependable receivers.


Special Teams/Coaching

1. Three-Man Operation


The kicking unit had a rough preseason, with two missed field goals, at least one on a bad snap. It appears long snapper Joe Cardona has regressed a bit, and it’ll be up to special teams coach Joe Judge to get him back in sync for the regular season.


2. Jones To The Rescue?


Cyrus Jones was drafted at cornerback, but his most exciting plays in the preseason were punt returns. He had two exceptional punt returns, showed great instincts, and perhaps most important, is patient with the blocking (not easy to do when people are running toward you at 25 miles per hour).


Just having Jones return punts relieves some pressure and danger from Amendola and Edelman. If he does it well, all the better!


3. The More Belichick The Better


Bill Belichick’s son, Steve, took over as safeties coach this season. The unit was decent last year, but did fall back some from the 2014 campaign. If the younger Belichick can help return Devin McCourty to his Pro Bowl form and get a better year out of Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, he will have proven this wasn’t just a family hire.


The Schedule


And here is my annual attempt to predict the results of each game before the team takes its first snap, as always, with the season broken down into quarters.


BTW, not that I’m bragging, but I’m 27-for-32 predicting the last two seasons :)


First Quarter
  • Expect the Patriots to lose their first game of the year in Arizona. This would have been a tough spot with Brady at QB, never mind with Garoppolo, problems on offensive line, and no Gronkowski.
  • Game two is the home opener against Miami, and I don’t see any way they lose the first two games of the year. Season splits between these two are common, but usually the home team comes away with the victories.
  • Next up is the Houston Texans, who fly in for a Thursday night game in Foxboro. Thursday night road teams have a terrible record, as do the Texans against the Patriots. Mark down win #2.
  • The following game is at home against Buffalo. As with last year, the Patriots have 10 days to prepare for this one, so I won’t make the same mistake I did in 2015 -- Pats win this one.

Second Quarter
  • The return of Tom Brady presents a tougher challenge than many people foresee at Cleveland against the Browns. The Browns have four road games bracketing this home tilt, so you know they’ll want to win one in from of the home crowd. But I don’t see any way Brady doesn’t come away with a win in his first real game action of the season, so put this down as win #4.
  • Cincinnati comes to Foxboro the following Sunday, and until they prove otherwise, the Bengals can’t beat the Patriots unless they are in Cincy. 5-1 after this game.
  • Next up is a trip to Pittsburgh, and I smell a loss here. Tom Brady has basically owned the Steelers for 10+ years, but Pittsburgh morphed from a run-first, defensive team, to a throw-first passing attack team. And they have the weapons to win that kind of game, especially when the Pats offense has to put up with crowd noise and tough pass rushers.
  • The Pats then travel to Buffalo, and frankly, Brady owns the Bills in Buffalo. 6-2 at the halfway mark of the season.

Third Quarter
  • After a bye week, the second half of the season starts with a barn-burner, the Seattle Seahawks! The biggest danger here is that the Pats offense often starts slow after a bye week, so it could look bad early on. But i don’t think Seattle is who they were a few seasons ago, and the Patriots defense showed they can shut them down in the Super Bowl. Patriots win.
  • If Seattle doesn’t worry me, you know going to San Francisco to play the 49ers doesn’t. Make that 8-2.
  • The next game is dangerous, in New York to play the improving Jets. New York has a bye the week before, so they’ll have two weeks to plan for the Pats. And Jets head coach Todd Bowles has them heading in the right direction. Even if the Patriots are fully healthy, these division games are brutal, so I’ll give them their third loss.
  • The Rams are finally back home in Los Angeles, but the Patriots are unlikely to show them any hospitality when they come to Foxboro. Jeff Fischer likes to win with defense and running; but that never worked for the Steelers, and it won't work here. Sounds like 9-3 to me.

Fourth Quarter
  • The Baltimore game is up next, and that’s a tricky one. The Ravens have been down for two years, but they always get up for the Pats. Also, the Patriots have to travel to Denver the following week, so they could overlook Baltimore. But it appears the Ravens just aren’t as good as they used to be, and the Pats defense should be able to give them fits, so put down a win and keep your fingers crossed.
  • In Denver on a short week, crowd noise and pass rush versus the Patriots offensive line --  sounds like a disaster. But the Pats have something to prove after last year, and if form holds, QB Trevor Siemian will be making his 14th start in this game. And the last time a young QB beat Belichick in his 14th start was Chad Pennington, 14 years ago. That sliver of hope has me predicting a Patriots win.
  • J-E-T-S on the road just aren’t that good. Put the Patriots down for a win over New York the following Saturday.
  • Patriots play in Miami to finish the season. And while that is often a recipe for disaster, I suspect this game will mean something. Patriots win comfortably in south Florida, for one of the few times in Brady’s career.

That puts the Patriots at 13-3, a game better than last season. That would put them in the running for a playoff bye and perhaps the #1 seed in the AFC.


Enjoy the season!

- Scott


PS. 0-0!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Four Reasons To Watch The Preseason


August already, and you’re wondering why to spend a beautiful summer evening inside watching Patriots preseason football. After all, you could be at a BBQ, an outdoor concert, or maybe getting a cool treat at your favorite ice cream place.

Oh wait, this year you don’t need an excuse to watch the preseason! Tom Brady, in case you hadn’t heard, will sit out the first four regular-season games. So Patriots fans everywhere have all the motivation they need to crank up the A/C and watch all four preseason games.

But just in case watching Jimmy Garappolo tune up for the real games isn’t enough, here are four things to watch in the four preseason games.

1. The Most Important Position in Team Sports

Naturally fans are curious how third-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will perform in the regular season. And dissecting his every preseason snap is the closest they’ll get to figuring out whether to bet the over or under on Pats season victories.

But I’ll actually be watching the rookie, Jacoby Brissett more than Garoppolo. I know about what to expect from Jimmy G. He breaks the pocket a bit too quickly, and he will have a tougher time with complex defenses than Brady. That’s to be expected.

However, if Garoppolo struggles in the regular season, I’ll want to know if Brissett is ready to step in. And he should see plenty of action in the preseason. After all, if Garoppolo is expected to start opening day, the Pats will limit his exposure to injury in the preseason.

2. Two Tight End Offense, Round III

This is literally the third season in a row the Patriots spent significant energy trying to find a second tight end to pair with superstar Rob Gronkowski. And after some mediocre production from Tim Wright and last year’s disappointment, Scott Chandler, they might have gotten it right with former Chicago Bears TE Martellus Bennett.

All reports out of camp say he has developed a good chemistry with both Garoppolo and Brady. And Bennett's 6’ 6” frame will give the Pats another great weapon in the red zone -- if he works out.

I’ll be watching to see if the QBs throw to Bennett on time and in rhythm, which would show he’s earned their trust. Other things to watch are whether they target Bennett in the end zone, and if the two tight-end formations bring smaller defensive lineups (for coverage) or heavier lineups (to stop the run).

3. Reshuffled Lines

The Pats traded Chandler Jones, their top sack-man from last year, to the Arizona Cardinals. His departure seemed inevitable, both because of some off-field issues and because his longer, leaner frame just didn’t seem suited to play outside on the Patriots line.

Newcomers Terrance Knighton (6’ 3”, 355 pounds) and Chris Long (6’ 3”, 270 pounds) are more like traditional Patriots linemen -- shorter but stouter against the run. Jones will likely thrive in Arizona (bet the over on number of sacks he has this season), but Knighton or Long will likely be the most important off-season defensive pick-ups for the Patriots.

The offensive line added perhaps its most important piece: 68 year-old O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia. When Scar left, the line quickly went from a strength to a weakness. And departed coach Dave DeGuglielmo couldn’t patch things together -- even when the team spent higher draft picks on linemen.

It will help if tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer can stay healthy. But if Scarnecchia can work his magic, he could be this year’s Wade Phillips -- the most important non-player signing in the league. And that worked out well for Phillips; he oversaw a Denver defense that led them to a championship.

4. The New and The Returning

The two most important players returning from injury are wideout Julian Edelman and running back Dion Lewis. And you can’t overstate the importance of either. There is no replacement for Edelman on the roster, and there is no one behind Lewis who comes close to his burst or ability in the open field.

If Lewis hadn’t been injured at mid-year last season, the Patriots likely would have gone to the Super Bowl. And if the Pats plan to tread water during Brady’s absence, they’ll need Edelman and Lewis healthy enough to make the offense click with Garoppolo.

Guard Jonathan Cooper came via the Jones trade, and he’s already first on the depth chart at right guard. If he comes close to reaching the potential that convinced Arizona to draft him seventh overall, that trade would be a blowout win for the Patriots. If he can just provide stability and stay healthy, it will go a long way toward reestablishing the O-line as a strength on the team.

The Pats also have six backup linebackers on the roster, all trying to unseat journeyman Jonathan Freeny. Freeny is okay, but it’ll be a welcome development if they can build depth behind rising stars Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, because the talent drop-off is significant after those two. It would also give them the flexibility to switch between 3-4 and 4-3 defense situationally, something head coach Bill Belichick always strives for.

Summary

And there you have it; four reasons to watch the four preseason games, only one of which was the obvious choice.

Enjoy the games!

- Scott