Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Patriots Bye Week Update (10/26/2005)

So 6/16ths of the season is the books, and as you might expect with a 3-3 team, there's good news and bad news. Let me give you one piece of good news for each win and one piece of bad news for each loss.

Good news #1: They are 3-3, not 1-5. The Patriots could easily have lost the Pittsburgh and Atlanta games, and they'd have a huge hole to climb just to get to the playoffs. But at 3-3, they are atop the weakest AFC East I ever remember, and with an easier remaining schedule look poised to be in the hunt come January.

Good news #2: They can't help but get healthier. The names expected back soon are sorely needed: Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Randall Gay, Tyrone Poole (at least I hope so), Kevin Faulk, Corey Dillon, and Troy Brown. Add to that some of the recently signed players who haven't played much, and this was the perfect week for a bye. The hurt players get extra time to heal and the new ones get extra time to prepare for the complexities of the offense and defense.

Good news #3: The offense and defense are still very good at in-game adjustments. Aside from the San Diego game, the Patriots are still the masters of in-game defensive adjustments, giving up 75 points in the first halves and only 48 in the second halves. Conversely, they scored only 48 points in the first halves of those games, and 73 in the second halves. They need is to do a better job with their game plan and/or early adjustments, but they still get better as the game go along.

Bad News #1: Big plays are killing them. For four years, the Pats have forced the opposition to work the ball downfield slowly. That worked because the more plays the other team runs, the more chances for a penalty, turnover, or for the drive to just stall. But when you give up plays of 50+ yards... well, all that planning kind of goes out the window, and the other team usually scores quickly. The Pats are in the middle of the pack, allowing 35% of third downs to be converted (15th), but when your opponents take big chunks of the field, they don't have very many third downs.

Bad News #2: They are producing no turnovers. What do Rodney Harrison, Asante Samuel, Duane Starks, Randall Gay, Eugene Wilson, Monty Beisel, Chad Brown, and Willie McGinest have in common? They all had at least one potential interception in their hands, and they all dropped it. After six games last year, the Pats had turned the ball over 10 times; this year it's 9. So why has their turnover differential gone from +2 to - 6? Plain and simple, this year they haven't made the play when turnovers were available. And they need to start making those plays.

Bad News #3: Rodney Harrison isn't walking through that door. Every team has injuries, but the Patriots started exactly half their Super Bowl starters in the same position against Denver, and that's just ridiculous. Last year, the national media cited injuries when praising the Carolina Panthers for coming back from a 1-5 start to make a run at playoffs. Without a doubt, the Patriots have had it worse this year. Fortunately, they're 3-3 and still have a realistic chance of making the playoffs.

So for the Patriots to use that opportunity and actually *get* to the playoffs, here's what I think has to change:

1. More running. Tom Brady has dropped back to pass 67% of the time this year, and the team's 494 yards rushing projects to 1,317 for the year. Compare that to the Atlanta Falcons, who have exactly 1,317 rushing yards in seven games, and you know the Pats need to run more. In their three wins, they controlled the clock, averaging 33:23 in time of possession and 98 yards rushing. In their three losses, it was 26:22 and 67. More running means more time of possession means more control of the game. Simple as that.

2. Utilize the tight ends in the passing game. The tight end position has accounted for only 15 catches for the year -- six of them coming in the Atlanta game. And forgotten man Christian Fauria has zero catches. The Pats need Bethel Johnson in the game, running a fly pattern every down, just to clear out some of the underneath coverage so the tight ends can make hay over the middle. I didn't think the Pats would miss David Patten, but with Johnson out so often (reports are he's in Bill Belichick's dog house), it's difficult to keep defenses honest.

3. Protect Tom Brady. He hasn't been sacked much, but he has been beaten up a lot. A stronger running game and a defense that doesn't put the Pats in a hole would be a nice start. But overall, the three new O-linemen need to pass block better. A good sign was how well Russ Hochstein played after Logan Mankins was thrown out of the Denver game. I expect to see more of Russ in the second half of the season.

4. Get healthy. This is especially true in the defensive secondary, where they barely dress enough players to use the nickel or dime defenses. But the absence of Seymour and Bruschi left two gaping holes in the front seven, leading to less QB pressure, more holes in the running game, and fewer turnovers. Get these two healthy, and the D-line will be fresher because they can rotate, Chad Brown or Mike Vrabel can return to outside linebacker, and the safeties can stay back in coverage rather than over-commit to stop the run. Bruschi can't play D-line or safety, but his presence can inspire enough confidence among the other players to allow them to just do their job and not worry about doing anyone else's.

5. Take the ball away. The football belongs to the team ends the play with it, not the one that starts the play with it, and a negative turnover ratio spells trouble for any chance the Pats might have to go far in the playoffs. There have been too many missed opportunities, and those misses have extended drives, which in turn tires out the defense, and all that snowballs into losses like the 41-17 Chargers game. Take the ball away, and get yourself off the field.

6. Don't panic. They lost the Denver and Carolina games because they did little things wrong. The linebackers over-pursued and opened up running lanes, and David Givens & Deion Branch dropped passes late in Denver. And Ben Watson fumbled away their chance to tie the game late against Carolina. A break here or there and they could have been 4-2 or 5-1. So don't panic; make small adjustments and when you're in a position to make the play, make it.

Change all that and the Patriots probably run the table and go 13-3. But chances are, they won't get everything fixed in a week, so here's how I see the rest of the schedule:
vs. Buffalo, the Bills just aren't good enough to present much of a threat. W
vs. Indianapolis, the Colts will be a touch challenge, especially if the Pats secondary isn't healthy. L
at Miami, this one feels dangerous, but I'm hesitant to predict two losses in a row. W (unless they beat Indy)
vs. New Orleans, Patriots win simply by outclassing the Saints. W
at Kansas City, balanced offenses have given them trouble. L
vs. New York Jets, division game at home against an inferior opponent. W
at Buffalo, the Bills just aren't good enough to present... wait, I think I already said that. W
vs. Tampa Bay, the Bucs are always, always terrible when the temperature is low. W
at New York Jets, late road division games are tough, but NY has no QB. W
vs. Miami, unless it means nothing to the Patriots, pencil in a win. W

That would get them to 10-5 or 11-5 (depending on the first Miami game), either of which should win the division. The AFC East just isn't that good right now.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Gotta love the AFC East. Patriots take the week off and they gain ground on all three of their division rivals."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-3!

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