Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Patriots 16, Chiefs 26 (11/27/2005)

For those of you with little time, let me summarize Sunday's 26-16 loss to the Chiefs. Re-read my Patriots/Broncos recap from earlier this year (10/16) and substitute the starters from both teams. In both games, the Patriots: (a) gave up tons of first-half points to fall into a huge hole; (b) turned the ball over early; (c) could stop neither the pass nor the run; (d) gave up a lot of QB pressure and created none of their own; and (e) lost by a score that was not indicative of how thoroughly they were dominated. Welcome to the land of 6-5... a mysterious place where the Patriots are a model of mediocrity and are almost certainly destined for an early playoff exit.

It was a team loss, and as such, here are suggestions for just about everyone on the team:

Tom Brady, too many high passes that landed in KC's hands (three on deflected balls); try stepping into the throw. O-Line, not enough pass protection or run blocking (three sacks and a lot more hits, and too many one- or two-yard gains); you should learn how to do at least one of them well. Ben Watson and Daniel Graham, learn how to get open in traffic -- otherwise the team will draft yet another tight end next year. Patrick Pass, after six years in this offense, you should know where to go on a screen pass. Heath Evans, blitz pick up is "Job #1" and don't ever forget it. Bethel Johnson, you're not at talented as Terry Glenn, so you can't get away with the same crap -- get off the bench and out of the dog house and contribute. And to David Givens, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light, and Corey Dillon, get well soon.

Michael Stone, if you are supposed to stay deep, then stay deep; the team is better off giving up a 10-yard run than a 52-yard touchdown. Same to you, Ellis Hobbs. Eugene Wilson, you were a cornerback in college, so covering a tight end should be right up your alley. Tedy Bruschi, a quarter-step slow is too slow against good teams; but keep trying, you're almost there. Rosevelt Colvin and Willie McGinest, no matter what you do, you guys aren't getting pressure on the QB, so stop blitzing yourself out of running plays. Vince Wilfork, work harder next off-season or you'll be on the street in two years. Ty Warren, Richard Seymour, and Mike Vrabel, nice game.

To the kickoff coverage team, you can't give up big returns in critical situations. After the team's last touchdown on Sunday, you promptly gave KC the ball near midfield, thus making any comeback next to impossible. Same thing happened against New Orleans last week, and it almost cost you the game. Wake up out there!

To the coaches, Bill Belichick is right, you have to coach better. This season, the Patriots have been out-scored 149 - 92 in the first half, but they've out-scored their opponents 151 - 130 in the second half. So clearly, the in-game adjustments are pretty good; it's the preparation during the week that's falling short. The game plan is something the coaches can impact every single week, and they have to do a better job if the Pats have any chance to make noise in the playoffs.

So where does that leave us? Well, the team is riding high in the QB-starved AFC East. 6-5 is two games better than the next best record in the division -- Miami and Buffalo are tied at 4-7, and the Patriots have already beaten each of them. They go for the trifecta this weekend with a winnable game against their other division foe, the New York Jets. The Jets have no offense at all, so the Patriots should be in good shape at home. Protect the ball and don't do anything stupid, and they should walk away with a win.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The AFC East had two playoff teams and one that just missed the post-season last year; this year three teams are just about guaranteed non-winning seasons. Miami and Buffalo won't run the table, so the Pats can win the division with only three more wins and a 9-7 record."

Keep whatever faith you can,

- Scott

PS. 6-5!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Patriots 24, Saints 27 (11/20/2005)

You may have heard the rumors, and of course, they turned out to be partially true. I was indeed a late addition to the Patriots injury list last Friday, having suffered a throat injury in the Colts game when I yelled myself silly for all 36:41 of Indianapolis possession time. I was hopeful that the doctors were wrong and I'd be in peak form by game time this past Sunday, but alas, I was in the same boat as Troy Brown -- made the trip to the stadium, suited up, but was never a factor in the game. Fortunately, I brought along a friend loud enough to bellow for two, and he did an admirable job making up for my absence. My medical staff has assured me that I'll be ready to go by the December 4 game against the Jets. Thank you to everyone who sent along their cards and well-wishes. With your support I'll be healthy in no time.

Now, on the the game. The only thing pretty about Sunday was the weather. But the Patriots thrashed the Saints early and held on for a nail-biting 24-17 victory. They are now in the midst of their first winning streak of the season, and coupled with losses by all other AFC East teams, the Pats are two games ahead of their nearest competitors for the division title. That home playoff game feels closer and closer every day (and so does the playoff ticket invoice -- yikes!).

The offense started well, with a 16-play, 98-yard drive for a touchdown and a drive about half the size (5 plays, 48 yards) for another touchdown -- the first time they've gone touchdown-touchdown to start the game since the last regular season game of 2003 (31-0 win over Buffalo). The running back tandem of Heath Evans and Patrick Pass went for 127 yards on 29 carries (a healthy 4.4 yards a rush), and the O-line provided some gaping holes, which were combined with timely play-calling that gave them 4 carries of over 10 yards. Ben Watson had one of his best games, leading the team with 66 receiving yards and making his second outstanding catch in two weeks (a back-twisting stab in the first quarter). No TDs for Ben, but he's taking up Daniel Graham's slack nicely.

Tom Brady was Mr. Mediocre, with okay stats and no interceptions. He had a fumble that was mostly not his fault, and his play-action fakes are improved. But he over- or under-threw about six long passes, and if he connected on just half of them the game would have been a laugher. It was windy out, but that doesn't explain the passes coming up short and long going in both directions. He was just off, and the fact that those long strikes were simple incompletions meant the Saints didn't have to adjust their defense. And while the long ball was obviously part of the Pats game plan, someone needs to tell them that a 50-yard bomb isn't called for on third-and-four. Get the first down and take your shot on the next play; but above all GET THE FIRST DOWN. In that situation, something short and certain beats a 50-yard incompletion, so some of those stalled drives were the coaches' fault.

The defense helped Aaron Brooks look better than he really is, just like they helped Gus Ferotte last week. But in both games, the Pats worked hard to stop the run and they let up more passing as a result. Sure, the secondary is injured and in disarray, but for two weeks they've bent but not broken -- which is how the Patriots won all those games the past four years. I'm starting to like the improvement I see from new safety Michael Stone (seven tackles) and cornerback Ellis Hobbs (not afraid to hit); and as they improve, it seems like Eugene Wilson is playing a little better. Not Harrison/Wilson/Poole/Law yet, but better than previous weeks (although I admit it's easier to do this against the Saints than the Colts). Hobbs and his partner in crime Asante Samuel played okay but not great games. No picks, and some missed coverage, but overall they made the Saints work the ball down the field slowly. And often enough the Saints self-destructed; just like the Dolphins did last week.

Willie McGinest had a nice game (a sack, five tackles and two passes defensed), and Mike Vrabel, Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, and Tedy Bruschi clogged up the Saints favorite running lanes. The Saints had been averaging 122 yards rushing a game, and the Pats held them to only 87. The front three/four needs to get more pressure on the quarterback, but I don't think that was a big part of the plan for the Saints game. And if you'll indulge me for a moment, Tedy Bruschi is a football genius. I watched him on one play, and he faked the blitz and then dropped back two yards and cut off a slant route at the *exact spot* where Aaron Brooks almost tried to deliver the ball (Brooks pulled it back at the last second and then threw it away). Bruschi's instincts are outstanding, and he's getting to his spots quicker every week.

The special teams were quite something in that wind. Adam Vinatieri kicked well into and against the wind, they had *zero* penalties on special teams, Josh Miller continued his Pro Bowl-caliber season with five boots for 47.5 yards a kick (while New Orleans averaged only 32.2). Their only blemish was a 46-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter; a play that helped the Saints get back into the game but did not prove fatal. But overall, with the wind swirling around, a very good day.

One coaching note: in case you hadn't heard, Steve Belichick (Bill's father) died of heart failure this past Saturday night. I hope you'll join me in sending my sincere condolences to Bill and his entire family.

So where does that leave us. Well, at 6-4, the Patriots are clearly the class of the AFC East. Leading the division by two games and having a 2-0 record within the division is about as much as you could hope for in a season like this. Next week's contest against the Chiefs in Kansas City is their toughest game left this year. KC has a balanced offense (which has given the Pats fits), so they can't load up to stop the run or the pass. Getting more pressure without committing more blitzers will be critical, so Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Rosevelt Colvin, and Willie McGinest will be on the hot seat. So enjoy the streak while it lasts; it could easily be over by next Sunday.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "In the first 8 games, the Patriots averaged 78 yards rushing a game. The last two? 112 yards. Thank you Miami Dolphins for Heath Evans. Now if they could just release a few defensive backs, we'd be in business."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-4!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Patriots 23, Dolphins 16 (11/13/2005)

What a difference an opponent makes. Last week, the Colts go pass happy, rack up 453 total yards and score on nearly every possession, and they smoke the Pats 40-21. This week, the Dolphins go pass happy, rack up 437 total yards, but score on hardly any of their possessions, and lose to the Pats 23-16. Not exactly a barn-burner for most of the game, but the Pats defense showed signs of life and their offense woke up just in time to claim the lead twice in the fourth quarter and hold on for the win. A win is a win, and 5-4 sounds a lot better than 4-5.

The offense was almost as beat up as the defense for this one. The following players were inactive: running backs Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass, linemen Tom Ashworth and Matt Light, tight end Daniel Graham, and wide receiver David Givens. Recent addition Heath Evans (cut by Miami in October and signed by the Patriots two weeks ago) was the game's leading rusher, with 84 punishing yards. He also picked up the blitz well and had blocks on two screen passes. The Dolphins double-teamed Deion Branch the entire game, and Tim Dwight and Ben Watson helped pick up the slack. Dwight had his best game as a Patriots, out-muscling a defender for a 59-yard pass on the game-winning drive and making two other tough catches in traffic. Ben Watson had only three catches, but two were for touchdowns, and the second TD was one of the best catches you'll see a tight end make this year.

The O-line appeared to figure out how to run-block, but it was more likely that they had a healthy running back for a change. In fact, there were some gaping holes, with Evans running 10 to 15 yards untouched. And Russ Hochstein filled in well when center Dan Koppen went down with an injury in the third quarter. (Note: with both Koppen and Corey Dillon injured during the game, the Patriots ended the game with only four offensive players from their starting 11 in week one.) Pass blocking was more of an adventure, but considering that they had rookie Nick Kazcur alone against pass-rushing specialist Jason Taylor, I thought the line did a decent job in pass protection. Tom Brady waited until the end to pull his traditional heroics (that's 21 fourth-quarter comeback wins). But he did cut his interceptions in half from the last time they played (from 4 to 2), and he made the gutty throws when he had to. Not his best performance, but enough to win once the defense clamped down.

And speaking of that defense, they improved for sure. It helped to play the Dolphins, with Gus Ferotte and Chris "I can't believe I dropped another one" Chambers in the starting lineup, but you can't dismiss what they did against the run or the red zone. For the first time this year, the Pats stopped an opponent from scoring when they were inside the Patriots 20 yard line. I wish they'd started eight games ago, but with their divisional schedule coming up, I'm glad they started it now. Tedy Bruschi still looks a step slow to me, but he turned back one drive with a touchdown-saving tip near the endzone. And rookie Ellis Hobbs played well in the secondary, with an interception, a fumble recovery, 7 tackles, and some huge passes defensed late in the game. He also brought a lot of attitude and emotion to the game, and it was an even bigger lift because his counterpart, Asante Samuel, played the best game by any Patriots DB this season. Samuel had several nice plays in pass coverage, was important in containing the outside run, and just leveled Ricky Williams on one run. He has three of the best four hits by any Patriot this season.

Richard Seymour returned, and suddenly the Patriots stopped the run with ease. Miami averaged 116 yards rushing prior to yesterday; the Patriots held them to just 77. Vince Wilfork played better, and the linebackers (Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel especially) did a great job of taking away the cutback lanes. Colvin had a huge game, with an all-important forced fumble (with Miami driving toward a 14-0 halftime lead), some serious pressure on the QB, and some nice coverage and tackles in the passing game. The Patriots never sacked Ferotte, but they were in his face and got him on the run often enough. Willie McGinest knocked down a pass at the line and the Pats had several other tipped balls (one of which was intercepted by Hobbs). And even though it's scary to watch him flying through the air, Tedy Bruschi got Ferotte out of the pocket twice.

As for special teams, it was up and down. All-world punter Josh Miller killed another two kicks inside the 10 yard line, and all-time-great Adam Vinatieri nailed every field goal and consistently put his kickoffs deep. In fact, now that I think about it, special teams weren't up and down, they were an overall strength. I recall a couple of penalties, but on balance, they were a net positive.

My coaching gripes aren't specific to this game but more general. They are not adjusting in-game as well as they have in the past. Too many long spells without decent offensive production, and not enough defensive adjustments during the first half. They usually come out with better plans on both offense and defense after the half; but in the past they made those adjustments *during* the first half. Maybe it's the absence of Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, but somehow they aren't getting the job done until the half. Which doesn't make them bad, it just makes them like the rest of the league.

So where does this leave us? Well, for the fifth time in ten weeks, the Patriots are one game over .500. And for the tenth consecutive week, they are in first place in a very weak AFC East. I was frankly surprised that so many people picked Miami to win because their offense is so bad. I know the Dolphins have had success against us in Miami, but if Tom Brady didn't throw four INTs last year, this would be three straight wins down there. Next week, the Patriots will break their "W-L" pattern with a victory over the Saints at home, and that will give them six victories for the season. Four more and they'll most certainly be in the playoffs; so all is not lost yet.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Of the two new players in the Miami game, (defensive back) Ellis Hobbs is more important to the Pats playoff chances than (running back) Heath Evans. All three of the Patriots injured running backs could return this season. But none of the five DBs on injured reserve will be back this year, so they need help in the secondary more than they need running back help."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-4!

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Patriots 21, Colts 40 (11/7/2005)

For those not keeping score at home, it is now WWWWWWWW vs. WLWLWLWL. Look up consistency in the dictionary and you're bound to find reference to the Colts (for consistently great play and eight straight Ws) or the Patriots (for consistently mediocre play and four straight WLs). Either way, the game came out as a 40-21 loss for the hometown team, and the Patriots slipped perilously close to the pack in the AFC East, with a big "showdown" next week against Miami (one game behind).

Over the years, I only remember one other game that was basically decided on single play. On 12/2/1990, the Patriots lined up against a Kanas City Chiefs team with a punishing running game. I thought the Pats only chance was to hold that running game in check, and make the Chiefs pass to win. So on the first play of the game, KC's Steve DeBerg hit Stephone Paige on an 86-yard touchdown bomb, and thus, after only 25 seconds, the game was essentially over (KC prevailed, 37-7). Well, after 15 years, it happened again yesterday. Trailing the Colts 14-7, the Patriots Mike Vrabel intercepted Peyton Manning, and the Pats had great field position. They drove the ball to the Indy 17, and then the Colts recovered a Corey Dillon fumble with 2 minutes to go. Predictably, the Colts drove for a touchdown, 21-7, pretty much the ball game.

Sure, the Patriots lost for a ton of other reasons, but a 14-14 game at the half, with the Patriots getting the ball to start the third quarter, and Peyton Manning perhaps questioning whether it was about to happen to him again -- all of that was the Patriots only realistic chance of winning. They had no pass rush, the secondary was alternately mediocre and terrible, and the linebackers couldn't stop anything for fewer than five yards. So the Patriots had to beat them in a shootout; stop the Colts for a field goal once or twice and make sure their own offense scored nothing but touchdowns. Their last possible plan to win fell from their grasp with that fumble.

On offense, the line pass protected okay but not great and run blocked poorly for the game. Dillon had some 10-yard gashes, but that would be followed by a 3-yard loss when four Colt defenders would come through unblocked. I don't think the Colts run defense is so much better than last year as much as I think the Pats O-line just blew a lot of assignments. Too many bad passes and dropped passes, too many tackes for a loss, just too many problems. I don't even know who to blame for the offensive woes; the whole offense was subpar. Guess I'll just move on.

Oh, that's right... the defense was worse than the offense, so I should probably skip them, too. But I won't. It was nice knowing you, Duane Starks, but it's time for Ellis Hobbs to show what he can do. Randall Gay, Asante Samuel, and Eugene Wilson were all huge contributers in their first years, so let's hope they got it right again with Hobbs. Time to see what he can do, 'cause Duane "The Pain" Starks isn't the answer, long- or short-term. With Randall Gay back, the Pats now have three secondary players who at least know their assignments (Gay, Samuel, and Wilson), so put them out there with Hobbs and see what happens. Can't be any worse than this, can it?

Tedy Bruschi looks a step slow (which is to be expected), and the D-line just can't get enough pressure on their own. The Pats best pass rusher last night was Rosevelt Colvin, but the more I watched him, the more I realized he was guessing run or pass and hoping he was right. He blitzed himself out of running plays as often as he pressured the QB; so even though he looked like the defender of the night, he was like the rest of the team, up-and-down. I give Asante Samuel a lot of credit; he at least kept close coverage -- sometimes the passes were just too good. But the entire secondary (Samuel included) gave way too much pre-snap ground. On third-and-three, you can't give a seven-yard cushion. You just can't.

The one nice part of the evening was watching the special teams in their limited-engagement revival of "The Keystone Cops." When your kickoff returner runs into his own teammate more often than the other team makes the tackle, you've got trouble. I wonder if Larry Izzo got credit for those two tackles on the Patriots kickoff return team. Could put him in line for some kind of bonus... from the Colts, that is.

As for the coaching... nevermind. No wait a minute. I said before the season that Belichick is the only head coach who would change things in mid-season if they weren't working out. Well, guess what, we are now exactly halfway through the Patriots season. Bill, here is your mission, should you choose to accept it: (a) elevate someone to offensive coordinator, (b) ask special teams coach Brad Seeley how he intends to fix things, and if the answer is "I don't know," fire him and take over the job yourself, (c) hire someone to coach Vince Wilfork one-on-one, (d) start scouring the league for a new defensive backs coach, because Eric Mangini's replacement is no Eric Mangini.

I know I usually have more stats, so just to keep you happy, here are a few: first downs 28 to 17 Indy, third-down conversions 71% to 36% Indy, time of possession 36:41 to 23:19 Indy, turnovers 2 to 1 Indy, total yards 453 to 288 Indy, rushing yards 132 to 34 Indy, passing yards 321 to 254 Indy, yards per pass 8.7 to 6.0 Indy, sacks 2 to 0 Indy... hold on, I'm out of breath. Want to know the only significant category where the Patriots outplayed the Colts? Penalties, 4 to 7 Patriots.

So where does that leave the team? Aside from being in first place at 4-4, the Patriots are basically biding their time. They will win the division but it's highly doubtful they'll get a first-round playoff bye, so they'll have to go on the road if they want to repeat as champions. But the question of how they'll do in the playoffs is basically one of health. If January brings back Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk, Patrick Pass, and the 2004 versions of Corey Dillon and Tedy Bruschi, then they have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs. Otherwise, expect Tom Brady to suffer his first playoff defeat in 2006.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats are still going to win the division, bank on it. But if they don't get healthy by the playoffs, it could be one and done."

(Try to) Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-4!