Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Patriots 7, Broncos 17 (9/24/2006)

"Patriots offense fall down and go 'boom!'" Sorry if I've taken any action over my lifetime that made you more likely to watch that poor excuse for a football game. The Broncos scored plenty to keep an inept New England offense at bay, and notched a 17-7 win over the hometown 11. The loss dropped the Pats to 2-1 and into a first-place tie with the NY Jets, and with a tough game against the 3-0 Cincinnati Bengals next Sunday, it might be difficult to maintain that first-place status. More on that later.

The Pats actually played well in two of the three phases of the game. The punting unit often pinned the Broncos deep, and allowed minus-3 yards on 3 punt returns while gaining 32 yards on their own 3 returns. The kickoff stats were closer, but the Pats gave up a big return late in the game and had a field goal blocked in the first half (Stephen Gostkowski's plant foot slipped). On balance, the kicking advantage went to the Pats; but the Broncos made plays when they had to.

And the Patriots defense was sorely tested all night, with the offense unable to move the ball for nearly three quarters. They gave up scores on only three of eleven drives, slowing the run just enough to make the Broncos pass, and then frustrating Jake Plummer just enough to hold them to 17 points. Sadly, it was the first time in Brady's NFL career he'd lost a game as a starter when his defense held the opposition to 17 points or less (he is now 50-1). In fact, the defense has been a model of consistency, giving up exactly 17 points in each game this year. Most times, that's enough to win, but the Pats offense is a work-in-progress, and they didn't have nearly enough to pull it out this time.

The offense was anemic, making only 4 of 16 third-down conversions and rushing for a mere 50 yards. Heck, they had more penalty yards than that. Trying to work in a new receiving corps during the year is taking it's toll, and the margin for error is so thin that the pressure on Brady to hit every open receiver is immense. With Ben Watson and Troy Brown getting most of the defensive attention, Daniel Graham and Doug Gabriel have to step up their games. Gabriel finished the game with six catches, but he was shut out in the first three quarters. Oh, and it would be nice if the 36th pick in the draft (Chad Jackson) could get on the field. Maybe it's time to bring preseason standout Bam Childress off the practice squad.

I also have a few suggestions for the offensive coaching staff. Guys, when I can correctly predict if the Pats are about to run or pass, the play calling needs more imagination. That predictability, coupled with a receiving corps under construction, allowed the Broncos to load up against the run and cover the pass on the fly. Under that scenario, the passing game should have destroyed Denver; but it still looked bad. Do some self-scouting and figure out how to break your patterns, or you might be outta here at season's end.

The defense is improving week-to-week. Better tackling and pass defense this week; but some inopportune run blitzes that backfired and a pass rush that got there a fraction too late about half the time. On Denver's 83-yard touchdown pass, Richard Seymour was a milli-second late to Plummer and the coverage was a half-step late to Jevon Walker; and it cost them seven points and sealed the game for Denver.

The only players I thought played well the entire game were Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, and (surprisingly) Junior Seau. If Seau continues to improve at this pace, the Pats front seven will be the best in football by year's end. Asante Samuel played well most of the time, as did Mike Vrabel and Ellis Hobbs. On the minus side, James Sanders is not an adequate starter -- I'd rather see Tebucky Jones out there. And they gave up over five yards per rush, which will lose you the game 49 out of 50 times. With all the talent on the defensive line, I'd like to see them switch between the 3-4 and 4-3 multiple times a game, just to keep the other team off balance.

And with all due respect, Bill Belichick should hire a former NFL coach to break down every game he's ever coached against Mike Shannahan. Have someone make a database of all those games with tendencies, areas that each play attacked, how the game plan changed from year to year, and which schemes frustrated Shannahan's offense. The Pats built their great teams to take a lead and pounce on teams when they tried extra hard to come back. But he's 2-5 against the Broncos, and in four of those five losses, the Broncos held the lead at the half. Something should change the next time they play.

So where does that leave us. The Patriots best hope for a win at 3-0 Cincinnati is that the Bengals are emotionally drained by last week's division game against the Steelers. Cincy has surrendered some sacks and their run defense is suspect, but their offense gives the Patriots fits and their defense will have an easy day unless the Pats offense can turn it around. The other thing to remember is that rarely does a Belichick-coached team lose two in a row. Doesn't that give you hope? Yeah, me neither.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If things go according to form, the entire AFC East could be 2-2 by next Sunday. The 2-1 Pats and Jets have tough games against Cincy and Indianapolis, the 1-2 Dolphins have an easy game at Houston, and the 1-2 Bills have a home game against a dome team, Minnesota."

(Try to) Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Sorry this was late; I was sick on Monday.

PPS. 2-1!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Patriots 24, Jets 17 (9/17/2006)

Well, I hope you've been good boys and girls while I was gone. The Patriots sure were, pulling out wins the first two weeks to lead their division at the crucially important one-eighth-of-the-season point. Sunday's scintillating and then nerve-wracking 24-17 win over the Jets came courtesy of early defensive domination and late defensive incompetence -- sprinkled with a nice ground game and a sporadic passing attack.

You've got to give the team credit; they saw what happened last year when Tom Brady led the league in passing -- an early playoff exit. So they drafted Laurence Maroney and made sure Corey Dillon got healthy, and it's working out perfectly. Dillon (153 yards) and Maroney (151) are #14 and #16 in the NFL in rushing yards, respectively, and that puts *both* of them on pace to exceed 1,200 yards for the season.

The offensive line blew away the Jets defense most of the day, and surprisingly, they ran to the right behind rookie Ryan O'Callahan just as often as to the left behind veteran Matt Light. The line gave up only one sack and only a few pressures, and the holes were gaping early on and still big enough when the Jets knew the Pats were going to run late in the game.

It was nice to see some new receivers get started, but Doug Gabriel needs to either make a catch (he dropped two catchable balls) or knock down a potential interception (which he didn't on Brady's only pick). Rookie Chad Jackson had a touchdown grab and not a whole lot else. Brady himself needs to improve a bit. He floated a few early passes and on a few third downs he forced passes to his more familiar targets -- even when they were well covered. And on his INT, I think he was expecting Deion Branch to jump higher than the defenders and make the play. Take note, Tom: Deion is gone, time for him to be forgotten.

On defense, the Pats line dominated like I've rarely seen. They went with a 4-3 alignment and overpowered the Jets offense all day. Richard Seymour was his usual monstrous self, Vince Wilfork was rarely controlled by New York, and Ty Warren is becoming a real force. Jarvis Green even got into the act; and all that superb line play made it easy for the linebackers.

Tedy Bruschi was back (and even had a late interception), and he played well. Junior Seau improved from the Bills game, and apparently, he's doing more film study than anyone else on the team. Pretty obvious he wants to win a championship and retire on top. Mike Vrabel had an up-and-down game, blitzing himself out of a few plays and slamming right into the heart of a few others.

But when it comes to inconsistent play, no one topped the Patriots secondary on this day. As a unit, they held the Jets to 97 net passing yards through 38 minutes, only to give up two times that in the final 22 minutes. The coverage was okay, they simply forgot how to tackle, with Eugene Wilson suffering the ultimate indignity when he missed the tackle twice on the same play (a 46 yard touchdown by Laveranues Coles). Rest assured that Belichick will hammer the fundamentals all week.

Special teams were also up-and-down, with a decided advantage in punting and punt returns, a slight deficit in kickoffs, and a blocked field goal that would have sealed the game. A bit more work, to be sure, but I think Brad Seeley's up to it.

Note #1: for the record, the Patriots could have won both of these games much more handily. They had the ball in prime scoring position at the end of each game, but played clock management to seal the wins. The passing game is a work in progress, but the running game is third best in the league.

Note #2: even though Deion Branch was traded, the Patriots will feel the loss of David Givens more this year. He was more dependable on third down and had the speed of a wide receiver and made the tough catches you'd expect of a tight end. He is what Keyshawn Johnson was supposed to be, only quieter and harder working. I can't remember the last time he dropped a pass on third down.

Note #3: the Bills are a more dangerous team than the Dolphins this year. Young teams win with special teams, ball control offense, opportunistic defense, and mistake-free play -- and that is Buffalo so far. The Dolphins have a new QB, new offensive coordinator, new offensive system, and one fewer running back (Ricky Williams is suspended for the year). It will take them until at least November to get their offense in sync (if they ever do), and by then, they will barely be in playoff contention.

So where does that leave us. Well, the Pats have the best record possible after two games, and their first stern test will be this Sunday against Denver. The teams are #3 and #4 in rushing yards so far, and Denver always, always plays tough in Foxboro. I won't be there, but my more-than-capable brother will take up the slack.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Bills and Jets play each other this week, and one of them will end up 2-1. So if the Pats want to stay ahead of the pack, they have to beat the Broncos."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

Friday, September 1, 2006

Patriots 2006 Season Preview (9/1/2006)

Hi all,

This is going to be a shortened version of what I usually send around before the season (I can hear the applause from here).

Quickly, here are the important changes the team underwent this off-season.

The Draft

The draft brought improvements at running back and tight end. Laurence Maroney stood out all preseason, running, catching, and blocking. And even undrafted rookie Patrick Cobbs is threatening to make the team. And with Ben Watson's improvement and two draftees to join him and Daniel Graham, tight end could be one of the strongest positions on the team. Lastly, kicker might not be better than when Automatic Adam strolled the sidelines, but rookie Stephen Gostkowski hit one from 54 yards last night and his kickoffs have been consistently deeper than Adam's were.

The Offense

It'll be more running and less passing than last year; you can bank on it. They've got the horses to run (though Maroney missed last night's game with a reported knee injury) and don't have the horses to pass all the time. Of the significant 2005 receivers, only Troy Brown returns -- that is until Deion Branch comes back.

The O-line kept its most important component, coach Dante Scarnecchia. There will be some plug-and-play with lineman moving in and out; but the team ran pretty well and protected Tom Brady very well in the preseason. The balance on offense and depth at running back will help keep Brady healthy, which is important since the plan appears to be to have only two quarterbacks on the roster.

The Defense

Junior Seau played in only a few plays in the preseason -- and he ran himself out of about half of them -- so he'll have to buckle down and play his role to be of much help. Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel kicked hiney so far, but the team really needs Tedy Bruschi to return to form. Monty Beisel just hasn't worked out (and he could reportedly be cut by Saturday) and Tully Banta-Cain hasn't improved enough yet.

The D-line is dominant when they all play (as they should be -- they were all drafted in the first round). They completely stymied the Giants run and pass games last night, right up until they took out Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour. Seymour remains the most important player on defense, but with Wilfork's play improving and no backup, he is getting to that same status.

The secondary hasn't improved much, and they will depend on the front seven to slow down or stop other teams. Asante Samuel continues his solid play, and with Rodney Harrison back at strong safety, Eugene Wilson looks more confident back at free safety. But Ellis Hobbs hasn't improved over last year and Randall Gay looks lost out there.

Special Teams

I don't want any whining about Adam leaving. I think he wanted to leave, so he got what he wanted (and is reportedly nursing a broken bone in his left foot, injured on the turf at Indy -- does that define "karma" or what?). The coverage teams have been very good in the preseason, and we will just have to wait and see how Gostkowski performs in the clutch.


They named an Offensive Coordinator (Josh McDaniels) and a new Defensive Coordinator (Dean Pees). McDaniels had some fun with multiple tight end sets in the preseason and Pees called a good enough game to shut down the first offense of every team they played so far.

Time will tell on this one, too.

The Schedule

The Pats start off easy, with Buffalo at home and the Jets in NY. The Buffalo game could be dangerous because it's a new coaching staff and offensive and defensive systems; but I give the win to the Pats, who have 10 days to prepare against a team with a bad quarterback. The Jets are rebuilding, and I don't expect them to beat the class of the division right away. I'm a little iffy about Denver, because they play so well against the Pats. Let's just say the Pats will go 1-1 against Denver and Cincinnati, but I can't decide which game they lose. Denver has an easy schedule prior to this one, but the Pats have revenge and home field on their side. Cincy's balanced offense has given the Pats fits recently, and the game in in Cincinnati. But the Bengals have two division games leading up to the game in New England, including an emotional roller coaster at Pittsburgh the week before.

The Pats should handle Miami at home. I'm not sold that the Dolphins are as improved as many say they are; and the Pats nearly beat them with second stringers last year. And Buffalo has the unenviable task of playing the Pats with 10 days to prepare (to start the season) and 14 days to prepare (after the Pats bye week). At Buffalo? still no problem -- pencil in another W. At Minnesota? Again, no problem. The Vikings are a trainwreck of a team, with uncertainty at just about every offensive position. Indy at home should be a good game. Pats have a short week, but the Colts play in Denver the week before. Pats haven't improved the secondary since getting waxed 40-21 by Indy last year, but the Colts lost Edgerrin James (and now James Mungro). My gut tells me the Pats will win, even though it might be time to put them down for a loss. Okay, it's a win ::crossing my fingers and holding my breath::

On November 12, it will still be 2006, so the Jets will still be rebuilding, so that's another win. At Green Bay should not be any problem, the Packers have been bad lately and the weather there won't be to the extreme yet. Chicago at home gives Belichick something he loves -- a one-dimensional offense to stop and a small-but-quick defense to plow through. That sounds like a win to me. Detroit at home? Try again next year -- it's a W.

The home stretch begins with a game in Miami. Given the easy games they should have had prior to this one, I'll give the Pats the nod. Houston hasn't improved enough to make things tough on the Pats in Foxboro, so that should be a win. But something tells me the team might finish with two losses. The Patriots destroyed Jacksonville at home in last year's playoffs, but that was with a hobbled Byron Leftwich in freezing Foxboro. This one is a home game for the Jags and they will have revenge on their side, so I can see the Pats dropping this one. Furthermore, if form holds, the game in Tennessee against the Titans won't mean anything by this point in the season. If it counts for something (playoff position or a bye week), then the Pats will win. If not, I think Tennessee will pull it out.

One last piece of information; something tells me the Pats will lose a game somewhere between the Indy game and the second Miami game. Beyond the Colts, the teams in that stretch shouldn't give the Pats too much trouble; but something is telling me they'll lose one. Maybe it'll be the Colts and that will end the suspense.

So with one loss mid-season, that makes the Pats 12 - 4 (or 13 - 3 if they can avoid the letdown). That will easily give them another division title and put them in the running for a playoff bye week.

My personal schedule in September is very busy, and I'll be semi-incommunicado for the next two weeks. So there won't be any summary after the season opener in Buffalo and might not be one after the Denver game. I could always send out an archival summary those weeks, just to keep you on your toes. Let me know if you want that, and I'll let popular demand decide the issue :)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Announcer: 'Deion Branch, your holdout netted you nothing and you're far from being in football shape, what are you going to do now?' Deion Branch: 'I'm going on injured reserve!'"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!