Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Patriots 2019 Mid-Season Review

So we are just a little over halfway through the season, and the Patriots have a well-earned week off. They are 8-1 so far, a game better than I thought they'd be at this point (7-2). And they and the Ravens have separated themselves from the AFC pack. The Pats are two-games clear of every non-Baltimore team in the AFC, and the Ravens are at least one-game clear of everyone else.

Also, somehow the Patriots gained ground in the playoffs last week, despite not playing. KC lost, Buffalo lost, and the Colts lost. So just by not playing, the Patriots improved their potential playoff lot. Thank you to the terrible AFC.


It's been a weird ride so far. The defense looked historically good through eight games, but it appears the schedule was about to get harder. And sure enough, those same Ravens put up 37 on the Patriots (30 on the defense), bringing those expectations down a notch.

But the reality is they could still be historically good. The team that holds the current record for fewest points given up in 16-game season gave up 36 points in a single game once. So if that was an aberration for the Patriots, then they could still stack up favorably.

Where do they stand at this point? Read on to find out:

Offense

1. No Running Game Bailout In 2019

Last year the running game came to the fore as the team moved toward the playoffs. The passing attack was middle-of-the-road most of that year, so they needed to run to stay in games. And they rode that and an attacking, confusing defense to a Super Bowl victory.

But they've suffered too many losses on offense to duplicate that formula this year. Here are the key players who are not available anymore:
  • Tight end Rob Gronkowski (retirement)
  • Tight end Dwayne Allen (cut)
  • Center David Andrews (blood clots)
  • Left tackle Trent Brown (free agent, signed with Oakland)
  • Fullback James Develin (neck injury)
Given how key those players were to the ground game, this season's inconsistency isn't surprising. And it is unlikely the Patriots will be able to duplicate their run-and-defend playoff metamorphosis from last year. They are averaging a full yard less per carry this year than they did last year (3.3ypc vs. 4.3ypc in 2018). So don't bank on the run game for a post-season bailout.

2. Diversifying The Passing Attack

Given the lack of a dominant running game, the Patriots will likely rise or fall based on their air attack. And as is usually the case, it will depend less on who is catching the passes and more on how many different targets are actual threats in the passing game.

When the Pats have a diversified passing attack, it usually bodes well for post-season success. Teams just have trouble when they have to cover 4+ legitimate receivers. It's especially true when New England can keep the same personnel on the field, go no-huddle to limit substitutions, and find the weak spots in the defense.

The past few weeks have shown that that is exactly what they are trying to do. In recent games, nine different receivers have caught at least 2 passes in at least one game. And spreading the ball around is the best way to attack defenses that don't need to worry about the run.

If Ben Watson and Mohamed Sanu continue to work their way into the offense, then the Patriots could make some playoff noise. If not, then it'll be Edelman, White, and patching it together after that -- not a great formula to beat good teams.

3. QB Questions

Tom Brady is on pace for his worst QB Rating since 2013, the year before Jimmy Garoppolo arrived in New England. The more worrying thing is that his 93.7 rating this year has been compiled against some of the worst teams in the NFL: Dolphins, Jets (twice), Giants, Browns, and Washington. Those performances don't predict that he'll light it up against better teams the second half of the year.

He didn't exactly set the league on fire last year. But he had a very good defense and an efficient running game to lean on. This year, the running game is pedestrian. And while the defense has looked very good, it's still tough to win without excellent QB play.

Brady has always shined most brightly when the games get more important down the stretch. However, this year I would not predict any great increase in his stats starting now. The teams they face coming up are better, and he does happen to be 42 years old. The decline might have begun at this point.

Defense

1. Talent All Over The Field

The defense is loaded this year. They started the season on an historic pace, giving up just 6.8 points per game. (And that included several scores given up on special teams or on offensive turnovers.)

The last game always looms large in the NFL. But don't be fooled by the 37 dropped on the Patriots by Baltimore. The defense has very talented players at all three levels, some playing the best of their careers at the same time. That is always a lethal combination.

There is little chance the Patriots D will set any NFL records. But they'll probably be good enough for a 14-2 or 13-3 record.

2. Size Matters

The only concern on defense is how they hold up against good running teams. The Pats like to play with two or three down-linemen and four or five linebackers. That's because they are loaded with LB talent.

The problems come when teams commit to the run. It can be harder for smaller linebackers to hold up against large offensive lines with good blocking tight ends. We saw that on display against Baltimore. Here's hoping we don't see it again this year.

3. Who's The Boss

For those who wondered who would call the defensive plays this year, the answer is in. It's Belichick. Not Bill -- his son Steve is calling the defensive signals. He's done a great job so far; but needed to adjust quicker in the Ravens game. Baltimore had a better plan that day, and they jetted to a 17-0 lead -- and the won by exactly those 17 points (37-20).

The Pats need a better plan coming in and also need to adjust better than they against the Ravens.

Special Teams

1. Added Talent

New punter Jake Bailey has been great kicking, tied for second in the league with 21 punts downed inside the 20 yardline. He also has been kicking off since Stephen Gostkowski got injured (out for the year), and Bailey had only one misstep in that area -- a boot out of bounds.

The Patriots also brought back Brandon Bolden to help on Special Teams. Unfortunately ST stalwart Brandon King went down, but the team brought in Justin Bethel -- one of the best special teamers in the entire league.

Special teams has more big plays this year, and with Bailey punting, they are always a threat to pin teams deep.

2. Kicking Game Ups-And-Downs

One other addition was Mike Nugent, who lasted just four games in relief of Gostkowski before being cut. Nick Folk did fine in relief of Nugent in his first game with the Pats. But that situation bears watching, as he was out of the league since missing three kicks for the Buccaneers against the Patriots.

Also of note: Bailey hasn't been clean on his field goal holds. At least twice he put the laces toward the kicker -- a big no-no. To quote Pete Carroll: "Gotta clean it up."

Quick Hits

1. For all the bluster about the much tougher the up-coming schedule, here are the aggregate records of the Patriots opponents:

First 9 games: 30-52 (36.6%)
Last 7 games: 30-34 (46.9%)

Better for sure, but not exactly a barn-burning sked.

2. The 2019 record of the four QBs drafted by Bill Belichick is 25-6 (Brady, Jacoby Brissett, Brian Hoyer, and Jimmy Garoppolo). I heard somewhere that BB stinks at the draft; guess not :)

3. I don't pay much attention to Fantasy Football, preferring the real thing. But I was made aware that the Patriots defense has outscored all but a few of the top-scoring players in the league. In fact, before the Baltimore game, they had outscored all but two players! (Trivia Question: can you name those two players? Answer below.)

And yes, this is unprecedented. Currently, the Pats D ranks 16th in Fantasy points. Annually, the best defenses usually rank about 50th!

Summary and a Look Ahead

The Patriots are in position for a playoff bye, as usual. The second half schedule is more difficult, but it doesn't look too daunting. I'd predict a 14-2 or 13-3 record to finish the year.

They'll have to keep the passing attack diversified. And everyone in New England will be keeping their fingers and toes crossed that no games come down to Nick Folk's right foot. He looked good in his first week, but better not to tempt fate on that one :D

Next week at Philly, the Eagles are missing two key ingredients of their Super Bowl win over the Pats: QB Nick Foles and offensive coordinator Frank Reich. That makes it a much tougher game, and also Carson Wentz' first action against a BB defense. Could be entertaining to watch!

I hope you enjoyed the first half of the year as much as I did. I like blowout wins over the Dolphins and Jets, and even the Baltimore loss was entertaining.

Enjoy the rest of the year!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-1!

PPS. Trivia answer:
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The Patriots D trailed only Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson in Fantasy point production prior to the week 9 loss to the Ravens.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Patriots Undressed By Ravens, 37-20

The 2019 Patriots lost for the first time last night, 37-20, to the Baltimore Ravens. The win leaves them 1.5 games up on Buffalo for the division lead, and also 1.5 games up on those same Ravens in the race for AFC playoff seeding. Next week is a Bye, so no game but keep an eye out for a mid-season update/review.

The Ravens won this game because they were better prepared. They jetted out to a 17-0 lead in the first 16 minutes of the game. And after that, the Patriots got two turnovers and scored 20 points, and the Ravens got two turnovers and 20 scored 20 points. So if the Pats were better prepared at the start, they would have been right there.

Baltimore confused the Pats defense with their diverse running attack, using their confusion for the first three scores. But after that the game settled down and the New England offense and defense played markedly better.

It was a great adjustment to go no-huddle to wear down the Ravens D and then run it down their throats later in the game. And it helped that Baltimore fumbled twice (a punt and the running back). But after the blistering Ravens start, it was too-little too-late.

As with all close games, there were maddening moments that could have turned the tide.

The first Ravens TD came after the Patriots were offside on a field goal attempt. The Ravens got unneeded help from the officials on a few other plays (two examples: Hightower's offside should have been a false start on the long-snapper, and a killer non-call on an obvious pick play -- both of which gave the Ravens easy first downs). And James White was inches away from a TD at the end of the first half. 

But most frustrating of all was watching the Pats offense. Multiple times they had easy plays for short gains but went for long passes. With the almost the entire fourth quarter to play, the Pats were down 10 and had a first-down in Baltimore territory. Here is what happened next:

Play #1. Brady did not audible when there was an unusual 10-yard cushion on an outside receiver (I think it was Phillip Dorsett). A change of play, or just a knowing nod to the receiver, and a quick-throw outside picks up at least 5-7 yards easily. But instead, it was a throw to a covered Mohamed Sanu.

Play #2. Instead of taking a short gain over the middle, Brady forced the ball deep to tight end Ben Watson down the seam. It's the kind of pass Rob Gronkowski sometimes made; a low pass where he had to dive, catch, and roll to get it. But Ben Watson isn't Rob Gronkowski, so it fell incomplete.

Play #3. Knowing they were in a four-down situation, the Patriots should have tried to gain some yardage to give themselves a chance on fourth-down. Instead, Brady dropped way back and under pressure threw one up for grabs at the 5 yard line. Interception! It was so badly underthrown that the "intended receiver," (Sanu) couldn't even get to the intercepting player to touch him down at the 5, so he returned it to the 33 yard line.

In summary, the Patriots were unprepared, the defense was confused and overmatched, the offense was inconsistent and turned the ball over, and the referees helped the Ravens. Hence a 17-point loss.

Positives from the game:

1. Sanu had 10 catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. With the Pats in desperate need of diversifying their offensive attack, adding Sanu to Edelman, James White, and Ben Watson is what the doctor ordered.

2. The overall plan of going up-tempo to wear the opponent down worked pretty well. Given that they started slow running but ended up averaging 4.4 ypc, it was impressive. And being able to run or throw to White against a tired defense actually helped.

3. The defensive adjustments were good, if not geat. Even though they came too late, the Patriots D settled down and slowed down the Ravens O. In the mid-game the Patriots outscored the Ravens 20-7. Unfortunately it wasn't enough to overcome the two turnovers.

4. Nick Folk > Mike Nugent. Not that he was great, but you have less fear with Folk coming out to kick than you had with Nugent. Most of the kicks were right down the middle; only one real exception moved to the left, but it was still good.

5. A big-picture positive: the Ravens beat both the Chargers and Browns the first time they saw QB Lamar Jackson -- and both trounced the Ravens the second time they played him. It might take that one game to see what you are up against. And the Patriots just got that out of the way.

Where does that leave us? 8-1 still isn't bad, but it does make things tighter in the AFC. I predicted they'd lose this game when I made my Preseason Picks in September, because it was a big spot and the Ravens had a Bye week to work on it. So take it as a given they would lose and move on. The Patriots Bye will give them a chance to regroup and better integrate Sanu.

Biggest on-going issue: If the kicking game holds up, then it's a tie between the O-line and wild INTs from Tom Brady. They need to give help to Marshall Newhouse at left tackle. And even more, they need Isiah Wynn to return to take his place.

As for Brady, I agree with Al the Weather God, who wrote that he'd like TB12 to look less like Brett Favre. Take what the defense gives you and live to play another down. It worked for your first three Super Bowls, it can work again!

Non-Brady MVP: Punter Jake Bailey, who had three of his five punts downed inside the 20, and who gave up an average return of 1.4 yards. He also kicked off and held on all those perfect kicks.

Statistical Oddity: The Patriots defense had given up just 40 points in the first 8 games. And they gave up 30 last night.

Water-cooler wisdom: "That game was bound to be tough; things should get better as they get healthier."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-1!

Monday, October 28, 2019

Patriots Top Latest Pretenders With 27-13 Win Over Browns

The Patriots rode another dominant defensive performance to a 27-13 win over the Browns. When coupled with Buffalo's loss, the win gives them a 2.5 game lead in the AFC East and coincidentally, the same 2.5-game lead over three other AFC contenders for playoff seeding (the Colts, Ravens, and Chiefs). Next up is a road tilt against those Ravens, who will be hungry for a win that could put them back in the hunt for regular-season supremacy in the conference.

The New England defense continued its turnover festival, recovering two Nick Chubb fumbles on consecutive plays -- the second of which was a great strip by Jonathan Jones. And on the *next* Cleveland play, QB Baker Mayfield threw the shovel pass right into the gut of lineman Lawrence Guy.

Mayfield is getting a lot of heat for that play, but it was really a timing throw where Guy blew up the blocking and made a great play. That should not be overlooked. (Trivia question: Two Pats defensive linemen have interceptions this season, when was the last year the Pats pulled that off? Bonus points if you can name either, or both, of the players that year. Answer below.)

The defense didn't have its best game though. It lost outside contain on Chubb a few times, and missed a bunch of tackles when he ran inside. They also showed that any defense can be vulnerable against a team that can run and pass effectively. It's long been the achilles heel of the Bill Belichick defenses, teams with balanced attacks. But it's probably an issue for any defense.

Linebacker Jamie Collins continues to be a monster on the field: 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2 QB hits on Sunday. And he was joined in the "plus" group by Adam Butler (4 tackles, 2 sacks, and 3 QB hits), and Jonathan Jones. The rest of the defense looked a bit slow and somewhat poor at tackling.

I'm hoping their performance had to do with the short week, two weeks of prep by the Browns, and them looking ahead to the Ravens game next weekend. But I fear they will look like that when facing better, more balanced offenses.

Offensively there were both hopeful and worrying signs. New receiver Mohamed Sanu made some nice blocks and had a big fourth-down converting catch. Not bad for a guy who arrived late last week. And rookie Jacobi Meyers appears to be in the Brady "circle of trust," as is veteran Ben Watson. These additions to stalwarts Julian Edelman (8 receptions, 78 yards, and 2 touchdowns) and Phillip Dorsett indicate a bright future for the passing game.

On the worrying side were things like their inability to line-up and just run the ball. They ran better out of spread formations, and with blocking back James Develin out for the year, they might be stuck with that. Also, their third-down conversion rate of 31% isn't great. And that's made worse because their kicker is a basketcase and they have to keep going for it on fourth down.

The inability to line up and run, along with a dropping rate of conversion on third- and fourth-downs is something to worry about. Perhaps O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia can't work his magic without more talent. If so, it might be time to trade for reinforcements.

On the plus side is Josh McDaniels' coaching. He called the play of the game in the third quarter. Cleveland had just scored to make it a one-score game, and the Patriots faced a third-and-10 at their own 16 yardline. If they failed to convert, they would have given it back to the Browns with good field position and momentum swinging their way.

But McDaniels' call was outstanding. There were two receivers stacked to the left, and he had Sanu motion in that direction to create a three-bunch. It looked like a typical Patriots wide-receiver screen pass to Sanu, and at the snap, that's exactly what Brady faked. That drew enough of the defense to have James White slip out to the right for a screen pass that went for 59 yards!

Four plays later, Brady threw a touchdown to Edelman and it was pretty much game over. McDaniels is overrated, IMO. But he earned his keep on that play; working against tendencies to switch field position and ultimately take a two-touchdown lead.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the continued struggle in special teams. Punter Jake Bailey booted a kickoff out of bounds, giving the Browns the ball at their 40 yardline. And the Patriots took a delay penalty on another kickoff.

Also, kicker Mike Nugent had a kick blocked and missed a 34-yarder wide left. And his missing ways caused the Patriots to go for a fourth-down conversion instead of taking a 41-yard field goal attempt. This might not hurt against the 2-5 Browns, but eventually, when they face a good team (perhaps in the post season), it will come back to bite them.

For all the complaints I heard over the years about Stephen Gostkowski, I'm guessing most all of us would take him back right now, even if he was just 80% of his normal, reliable self.

Where does this leave us? 8-0 is quite an achievement, so revel in it. But don't overlook those Ravens just because the Bye week is the Sunday after.

Biggest on-going issue: The kicker. The Pats need to bring in some competition to see if they can fix this before the playoffs.

Non-Brady MVP: Jamie Collins, who is having an absolute monster of a season. Welcome back, Boogeyman!

Statistical Oddity: The three starting NFL QBs whom were drafted by Bill Belichick are 20-2 this season. Brady is 8-0, Jimmy Garoppolo is 7-0 (49ers), and Jacoby Brissett is 5-2 (Colts).

Water-cooler wisdom: "Here come the Ravens to finally test how good we are this year."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-0!

PPS. Trivia answer: In 2014, nose tackle Vince Wilfork and defensive tackle Dominique Easley each had one interception.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Patriots Destroy Jets, 33-0

The local NFL entry kicked ass in NYC last night, drubbing the Jets in a 33-0 beatdown. The win keeps the Pats ahead of the surprising 5-1 Buffalo Bills, and puts them a full two-games clear of all other AFC contenders. Next up are the surprisingly bad Cleveland Browns, a 2-4 team that just hasn't lived up to their preseason hype.

This game might well have been over before it started. New England's defense has been so dominant against NY, the last time the Jets scored an offensive touchdown against the Pats was four meetings ago, in November of 2018. (Trivia question: Name the QB who threw that touchdown, or the receiver who caught it... answer below.)

The Patriots defense has morphed twice in the last two seasons, and the results have been spectacular. For about 17 years, Bill Belichick employed a bend-but-don't-break theory most defensive snaps. His belief was that if you made offenses drive for 10+ plays, they would make a mistake along the way. He also was a firm believer in avoiding giving up big plays at all costs.

But in 2018, they changed when Brian Flores took over for Matt Patricia. They covered up for talent deficiencies by playing more exotic defenses: the amoeba, the bullseye, 9-man fronts, 2-man rushes, man/zone concepts, zone/man concepts. They also stunted and blitzed up front more often than any other season, by far. And it paid off: they ended the year seventh in points allowed and rode their confusing defense to a Super Bowl win.

However, this year Belichick has taken over the defense. And they have changed 180-degrees from bend-but-don't-break. They added enough talent in the secondary and linebacking corps to play man-coverage almost exclusively and to blitz like maniacs from the first snap to the last. Last night, they blitzed with no safety help more than they probably did in the first 18 years under BB.

They had just one sack last night but got a fumble recovery on the play. And they added four more interceptions, and held the NY QB to 34% completions, and a QB rating of 3.6 (not a typo, 3.6). As of today, the Patriots are on pace for 59 sacks, an astonishing 48 takeaways, and only 110 points allowed. The first two would be the most under Belichick. The last would be a Super Bowl-era NFL record.

It looks a lot like Belichick is throwing caution to the wind, at least against the scrub teams they've played so far. It'll be interesting to see if he continues to attack against the Ravens, Cowboys, and Chiefs, all of whom can hurt you with long passes against blitzing defenses.

I hate to say it's tough to give individual credit on defense. But it is. They play such a disciplined team concept, it makes Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, and the entire secondary look great. But without the guys up front and the inside LBs, none of it would be possible.

On offense, the team appears to be developing some help at receiver. Rookie Jacobi Meyers stepped up with five catches, Ben Watson added three more (including a big third-down catch), and even running back Brandon Bolden got into the act with four grabs.

Their running attack needs the return of a real fullback. Last night they used a linebacker, a tight end, and an extra offensive lineman, mostly to no great result. I keep hearing they are looking to sign a receiver. But they should concentrate on getting some offensive line help. And if James Develin won't be back at fullback this season, they need to develop or find someone to replace him.

Special teams was just fine. The only question mark is that they tried to make a fourth-down when they could have tried a 49-yard field goal. So that appears to be the outer range of Mike Nugent, the replacement kicker. Punter Jake Bailey had four kicks downed inside the 20 in last night's contest -- and two of them were placed perfectly, one going out of bounds at the 2 and the other bouncing just before the end zone and kicking back.

The defensive and special teams coaching has been outstanding. But the offensive coaching could use some work. Though it did appear they used the second half to practice a few things, which will come in handy as the season progresses.

Where does that leave us: 7-0 isn't too shabby. Before the season, I predicted the Pats would lose to the Browns... but that doesn't appear likely now. Even though Cleveland had their bye last week and the Patriots have a short week, it's tough to see how the Browns come into Gillette and grab a win.

Biggest on-going concern: It's the offensive line. The Jets couldn't make this a game, but the Pats O-line just isn't as consistent as in past years. Time for Dante Scarnecchia to work his magic.

Non-Brady MVP: Devin McCourty, with an INT and several pass-pressures that led to other INTs.

Statistical oddity: McCourty leads the NFL with five interceptions. Only one other Patriots player ever led the league in that category for a season. (Trivia question: Name the player and the year... answer below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "8-0 is likely. If they beat the Ravens, 16-0 is possible."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-0!

PPS. Trivia answer #1: QB Josh McCown threw the touchdown to wideout Jermaine Kearse.

PPPS. Trivia answer #2:
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Cornerback Kyle Arrington tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions in 2011.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Pats Top Washington Easily, 33-7

The Patriots pulled away in the second half for an easy victory in Washington, 33-7. Their 5-0 record keeps them atop the AFC East, one game ahead of the 4-1 Bills. Next up are the New York Giants, on a short week, this Thursday night in Foxboro.

Often there isn't much to learn from blowout wins. But there was today.

After the game, Tom Brady was understandably unhappy with the offensive performance in the first half. They came out throwing, and throwing, and throwing. Brady threw a personal high 31 passes in the first half, and the offensive imbalance led to neither a high completion percentage nor a great QB rating. He had one TD but also one INT in the first half.

And suddenly in the second half, it was all run all the time. They fed the ball to Sony Michel, James White, and even special teamer Brandin Bolden. After 7 rushing attempts in the first half, the Pats rushed 20 times after halftime.

What all this tells me is that they themselves don't know their offensive identity yet. They hoped to have Antonio Brown to stretch and challenge defenses, but that didn't work out. Then they wanted to be a run-first team, but their starting center, left guard, and blocking back all got injured.

They lost Rob Gronkowski to retirement, and they've gotten very little production out of the tight end position. And I think they used this game as a test run; to see what they have in the different phases. (Or maybe they tried testing the passing game first, but when the game was only 12-7 at they half they decided to win it.)

Additionally, the offensive line is having trouble protecting Brady. But that doesn't excuse his two horrendous red-zone interceptions the past two weeks. Take the sack or throw it away, TB12, but don't give the ball away when points are on the line.

At the moment they'd be lost without Julian Edelman. He wasn't perfect on Sunday, but his 8 catches (110 yards and 1 TD) five first downs (one by penalty -- a big 40-yarder) were crucial. It's no surprise they won recent Super Bowls without Gronkowski but not without Edelman; he is the indispensable cog in the machine.

Over the next few weeks it'll be interesting to see who steps up at receiver. Everyone knows Edelman, White, and Gordon are there; but who will make the big catches when those guys are covered? If I had to guess, it would be Ryan Izzo or Jacobi Meyers. But at this point, it's still a guess.

On defense, they caused two more turnovers; an interception by Jason McCourty and a fumble recovery by Jamie Collins. But there wasn't much to learn on defense yesterday; we already knew they were great. However, it's starting to look like they could be historically great.

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens hold the record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season, and the Patriots are ahead of their pace. The Ravens gave up 10.3 points per game; the Patriots so far have given up 6.8 points per game. And after five games, the Ravens had given up 55 points, while the Pats have given up just 34.

Now the Patriots still have to face the Chiefs, Eagles, Cowboys, and those same Ravens. Those are some potent offenses. However, they also face the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills again, who mustered 10 total points against the defense (the Jets got 14 on defense and special teams). But it's interesting to note where this defense stands historically at the moment.

The kicking game is shaky though. Stephen Gostkowki's replacement, Mike Nugent, pushed an extra point wide, and then hit the upright on another one that ended up going through. The Patriots also eschewed the field goal after the first PAT miss, opting to go for it instead on fourth-and-one. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the kicker. If they haven't sorted this out in a few weeks, expect them to bring in another kicker for competition.

On the other hand, the punting has been excellent, and the team has been validated for letting go of longtime punter Ryan Allen. Jake Bailey is tied for the second-most punts downed inside the 20 yard-line (12 of them). And he hits them out of bounds often, neutralizing the other teams return game.

No commentary on the coaching except this little tidbit: apparently Bill Belichick himself is calling the defensive signals. Apparently he wasn't happy with how that went in the preseason, with Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick sharing that duty. So he took it over.

Where does that leave us? 5-0 is good for now, and the schedule doesn't really start to get tough for another few weeks. Hopefully the hamstring injury to Phillip Dorsett doesn't keep him out for long.

Biggest on-going concern: Lack of targets in the red zone. The Pats really struggled when they got deep in the red zone. They used to have Gronkowski and Edelman, both of whom demanded double-coverage. But without Gronk, the rest of the field isn't quite as open as it used to be.

Non-Brady MVP: Dont'a Hightower. Led the team in tackles (8), sacks (1.5 for 10.5 yards), tackles for a loss (4), QB pressures (2), and even threw in a pass defended. That would probably make him the non-QB MVP in almost any game this year!

Statistical Oddity: The Patriots lead the league in sacks with 24, putting them on a pace for 77 on the season, which would break the NFL record. (Trivia: which team set that record? Answer below.)

The reason it's an oddity -- the Patriots have never led the league in sacks since the stat became official in 1982. Not. One. Damned. Year!

Water-cooler Wisdom: "Nice to get a win, but it'll be weeks before we learn much about the team."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-0!

PPS. Trivia answer:
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The 1984 Chicago Bears set the record with 72 sacks in 1984. The next year, they won the Super Bowl, over the upstarts from Foxboro :(

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Patriots Hold Off Bills, 16-10

The Pats scurried out of town with a 6-point win Sunday, topping the Bills 16-10 in Buffalo. The win puts them at 4-0, a game up on the now 3-1 Bills. Next up is a date with Washington, who might have a worse quarterback than Buffalo. (I know, hard to believe.)

You've no doubt read all about it, given that the update is late. Here are some quick thoughts, and some overarching themes for the team.

The Offense

The Patriots offense struggled on Sunday, and it was mostly due to Bills head coach Sean McDermott. His defenses have given Tom Brady trouble since he was in Carolina. In two games against the Bills last year, Brady had 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions, and two of his worst four QB ratings of the year. But it isn't Brady that worries me; his struggles against that defense are understandable.

It's the running game that is of most concern. It has been inconsistent at best, for three main reasons.

First, fullback James Develin is on IR for at least eight weeks, and maybe more. His blocking can't be replaced easily. And when teams tried to avoid contact with Develin, he was an actual pass-catching threat out of the backfield. No doubt the next man up won't be a dual threat.

Second, the offensive line is in flux. They lost left tackle Isiah Wynn to IR, too. And that change, coupled with the preseason loss of center David Andrews seems to have put the line in a funk. Coach Dante Scarnecchia will likely get this worked out by mid-season. But for now, things aren't clicking like they usually would.

And third, Sony Michel is hampering things because he apparently can't get involved in the passing game. So when he comes in the game, the other team knows he will either run it or stay in to block. He had just seven catches last year, but zero so far in 2019. The opposition simply doesn't worry about him catching a pass.

(Also of note in the running game, the Pats seem to want to keep feeding Michel the ball. Even though both James White and Rex Burkhead can run or catch passes, and give them a lot more flexibility.)


As to the passing game, it was poor versus the Bills for some of the reasons mentioned above. They do need more weapons, and I suspect the return of Ben Watson this week and continued growth for Jacobi Meyers will help there.

The Defense

The Patriots D is scary good this year. They've given up 13 points in four games (14 were scored against the offense and on special teams). Even with the offensive and special teams miscues, they are on pace to give up 108 points -- which would be the lowest total in a 16-game season by a wide margin. The current record is 165 points. (Trivia: name the team and the year that pulled that off. Answer below.)

The media finally caught up to my blog in noting how great the Patriots D was in the first half of games last year. And since they seem confused by how they improved their second-half defense this year, I'll save them the work of looking at film and everything and just give them the answer: it's the players.

Last year, they had okay players but came into games with consistently great gameplans. But once good teams got a look at their plans, they could usually adjust and then score in the second half. (Best example is the Chiefs, who scored 9 total points in two first-halves, and then scored 62 in two combined second-halves.)

The Pats always had the schemes, and last year had a great play-caller in Brian Flores. But this year, they added veterans Michael Bennett and Jamie Collins, got Ja'Whaun Bentley back from injury, and brought in rookie Chase Winovich. They also have Jonathan Jones, top-rated corner in the game, shutdown corner Stephon Gilmore, and JC Jackson and Jason McCourty playing great.

They team has so much depth that linebackers captain Elandon Roberts can't even get on the field. He's been on the field for just 61 of 258 defensive snaps; 23.6%.

In case you can't tell, I have no concerns about the D. Sure they haven't played great teams yet, but holding the Steelers to 3 points with Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup sold me. They have a chance to be historically great.

Special Teams

Remember in the preseason primer, when I noted the Patriots lost their best special-teams coverage guy in Brandon King (link). If so, maybe you recall Matthew Slater taking two dumb "run out of bounds and stay there" penalties trying to make up for King's absence. And if you realized that, then you probably took notice of the re-signing of long-time Patriots special teamer Jordan Richards this week.

The coverage has been okay so far. They clearly miss King, though his trip to IR barely drew any attention. The new punter sometimes outkicks his coverage. That's only a problem if the boot doesn't land out of bounds, but that does happen sometimes. And Slater is working too hard to make up for King -- sometimes to his detriment.

Slater needed help in coverage. Maybe Richards can provide that.

As for the rest of special teams, the big story is the team placing kicker Stephen Gostkowski on injured reserve. He's likely done for the year; reports are he'll get season-ending hip surgery.

His replacement is in already. And he can't do much worst than Gostkowski through the first four games. But he should do better -- after all, Gostkowski was injured!

Coaching

So far, whomever is calling the defensive plays has proven to be an excellent replacement for Flores. Bill Belichick gets a lot of credit for the Pats D (and well he should). But as we saw with the difference between Matt Patricia (gave up 41 points to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII) and Flores (gave up 3 to the Rams in Super Bowl LIII), the defensive coordinator makes a real difference.

My only gripe with the coaching was their clock mismanagement at the end of the Bills game. In a game where they had trouble throwing the ball, it made no sense to attempt passes when Buffalo had no timeouts and their offense had been putrid all day.

The game was a one-score affair. And in fact, if the Bills had somehow scored a TD, they could have won it with an extra point. So rather than "go for the kill" with two passes, the Pats should have run the ball and take the clock to the 2:00 warning. After punting it back to Buffalo, they likely would have had to go 80+ yards with zero timeouts in about 1:50. And their offense was awful (and down to it's second-string QB).

Just a little thing. The game worked out anyway, but for future reference, don't pull an Atlanta and lose a game doing it.

Where does that leave us? 4-0 is pretty good after 4 weeks, so enjoy it. The Pats still rank near the top of all the power rankings around, and the offense should play better as the O-line gels and the younger receivers and Ben Watson work their way in. Washington is the next sacrificial lamb for the Pats; plan to relax for the second half this Sunday :D

Biggest on-going issue: For the moment it's the field goal kicking. It might not risk costing them a game for a while, but eventually they'll be depending on an unproven kicker in a big spot. Keep your fingers crossed.

Non-Brady MVP: Kyle Van Noy, who led the team in tackles (8), had two sacks (for 17 yards lost), three QB hits, and two forced fumbles.

Statistical Oddity: Devin McCourty tied the NFL record with an interception in four straight games. (Trivia: this record was originally set by another Patriots player, can you name him? Answer below.)

Water-cooler Wisdom: "Why not just cancel the rest of the AFC season and redo last year's AFC Championship game with the Chiefs right now?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-0!

PPS. Trivia answers:
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#1: the 2000 Baltimore Ravens set the record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (165).

#2 McCourty and Mike Haynes are the only two players to intercept at least one pass in four consecutive games. McCourty goes for five on Sunday!

Monday, September 9, 2019

Patriots Dominate Opener, Top Steelers 33-3

In case you missed it (and how could you?), the Patriots wailed on the seemingly hapless Steelers, wiping them out 33-3 in a game that wasn't even that close. The win put them in a tie with Buffalo for the AFC East lead, one game up on the losing Jets and Dolphins. Next up is those same Dolphins, who are 14.5-point underdogs at home next week against the Pats.

As is often the case, it's tougher to learn a lot from a blowout win than a close game. But here is what I gleaned from the victory.

1. This might be the deepest linebacking corps the Patriots have had under Bill Belichick. They were missing Kyle Van Noy (out for the birth of his son). But the fill-ins stopped absolutely everything in front of them. No short passes, no running game, multiple tackles for a loss, and multiple stops on third- and fourth-and-short.

This had been an area of concern since the victory in Super Bowl LI over Atlanta. And they probably lost the SB against the Eagles because the linebackers were a weak spot, and barely had a linebacking crew last year. But now it's a clear strength on the team. Team Captain Elandon Roberts didn't even play enough to make a single tackle -- shows you how deep they are.

2. Seems like the media concerns at receiver were overblown. Julian Edelman had 6 catches for 83 yards; Josh Gordon 3 for 73 (and 1 TD), Phillip Dorsett 4 for 94 (and 2 TDs), and the running backs combined for 10 catches and 97 yards. Even rookie Jacobi Meyers got into the act with his first NFL catch (more on that later).

And all this before Antonio Brown arrived. Yep; I'd guess the receivers will be just fine.

3. Tom Brady started slow but still torched the Steelers. TB12 ended the day going 24 for 36 (67%), 341 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a 124.9 rating. Not bad considering he was off a bit to start. Pittsburgh did get more pressure as the game progresses, but he was only sacked once and made two of the TD passes as he was getting hit.

4. The field goal unit was perfection in action. Stephen Gostkowski went 4-for-4 on field goals (longest 41 yards) and 3-for-3 on extra points. There were no signs of uncertainty or issues with holds were evident in the preseason. And the kicks weren't just edging in, all were good with room to spare.

5. So much for slow starts. The team started 2-2 in three of the last five seasons. Not much chance of that in 2019 -- they have the awful Dolphins next week, the terrible Jets the week after, and the team they always beat, the Buffalo Bills the week after. (Note: Brady is 33-2 in games that mattered against the Bills since becoming a starter... a 94.3 winning percentage.)

Things to watch

A) Meyers is close to being in the Brady circle of trust. He made the right move and was open on his one catch. But if you watch the replay, the throw is just a touch late because Brady waited to see if Meyers broke the route inside before he let it go. Once he's fully trusted by Brady, the ball will come out earlier and he won't get hit just as he receives the ball.

(Although it was nice to see him hang onto the ball after the hit.)

B) The Pats really do have a three-headed-monster at running back. The star last night was Burkhead (8 carries for 44 yards), and he and White were important to the passing game. Michel got bottled up because Pittsburgh loaded up to stop him. But he'll get his as the season progresses.

C) The punting game is in good shape, on both sides. New punter Jake Bailey averaged 45.6 yards a kick and had two downed inside the 20. And return man Gunner Olszewski returned two kicks for 35 yards -- impressive enough that Edelman shouldn't be called on to do much of that this year.

D) The back-seven of the defense looks really good in pass coverage. It might have owed to a bad Steelers receiving corps, but the DBs and LBs knocked away nine passes total, the most I remember in a long time. Every Steelers receiver had a guy right on him, and at least one got away with a push-off that should have been penalized.

E) I'll say it again here, new team captain Roberts will not be a starter by October. Their best linebackers are, in order: Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Ja'whaun Bentley, and maybe then Roberts.

So where does this leave us? The win should have been expected, based on the Pats history of dominance over Pittsburgh in this century. The Dolphins might give the Patriots a tougher game next weekend, because a former assistant is running the show there. But they should still win.

Biggest on-going issue: The shotgun snaps of new center Ted Karras. (The fact that this is the biggest issue shows you how great they played last night.)

Non-Brady MVP: Dont'a Hightower. Dominant early in the game, setting the tone with multiple hits, and helping shut down the Steelers while the Patriots pulled away.

Statistical Oddity: The Steelers have been held to 3 points just 3 times in the last decade (2011 vs. the 49ers and 2016 vs. the Eagles). The last time they had fewer was 2006, when the Ravens shut them out.

Water-cooler Wisdom: "If Antonio Brown actually works out, the Pats could be looking at 16-0 again."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!