Monday, September 28, 2009

Patriots 26, Falcons 10 (9/27/2009)

I'm going to make this short and sweet, because I predicted pretty much what happened in my 2009 Season Preview. And the only thing more boring than writing it again is you having to *read* it again.

The Patriots beat the Falcons 26-10 yesterday, with an offense that ran the ball well and started finding its bearings in the second half, coupled with a defense that slowed the Falcons running game and confused their second-year QB. At 2-1, the Pats are a game out of first place in the AFC East.

The Falcons scored on two of their first three drives and then the Patriots adjusted and it was lights out for the game. Mostly it was the Patriots defense doing what it needed to do, two examples being the Brandon McGowan's forced fumble and Adalius Thomas' tackle for a loss -- both of which killed drives.

Overall the defense played very well, shutting down an excellent running attack even after Vince Wilfork went out, which when combined with Jerod Mayo's absence could have been devastating. But Mike Wright and a combination of the two rookies (Myron Pryor and Ron Brace) and some linebacker patching held the Falcons to 58 yards, about *half* their average yards.

The most encouraging defensive news of the day was how the secondary played, because Atlanta can be very dangerous through the air. They gave up some of those third-and-seven plays early, but they are consistently breaking up about 30 - 35% of the passes, showing very good closing speed and some nice combination coverages that probably confuse both the QB and receiver. I like the way Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden are picking things up, and even though Jonathan Wilhite didn't play yesterday, I think he will continue his progress toward becoming Asante Samuel II. And the surprise of the year might be Brandon McGowan, who bring a lot to this defense, including the huge forced fumble on Sunday.

The Falcons don't blitz much, so they were the perfect cure for what ailed the offense, giving Tom Brady time to rebuild coordination with the receivers. Wes Welker was out again, so it fell to Randy Moss and... well a bunch of other guys. Moss had ten catches, and the other seven receivers each had three catches or fewer. Brady did overthrow Moss and Ben Watson, so he wasn't perfect. But it's nice to see him get back to spreading the ball around. BTW, even Joey Galloway seems to be running the correct routes now, though he had at least two big drops on Sunday. Maybe he'll round into form; but I'm not holding my breath.

The Falcons are also undersized on defense, so I don't read a lot into the 104 yard day for Fred Taylor. One thing you can read into it is that Laurence Maroney might be edging closer to the bench, due to injury and ineffectiveness. Taylor is the perfect fit, giving them the option to go five-wide with their base offense, keep him in the backfield in the shotgun, power run, or stretch a run to the outside where he can use his elusiveness. It's sort of like having Kevin Faulk on the field all game without having to wear Faulk out. So don't be surprised if you see #39 on the bench more and more this year.

And of course, there is no running or passing game without the offensive line. They did a much better job this week, plowing ahead on running plays and keeping Brady upright almost the entire game. The official stats have Brady being hit twice and not sacked at all. Tackles Matt Light and Nick Kazcur were outstanding in pushing the speed rushers past Brady, and with 4.3 yards per rush it's clear the O-line had a great day. One last note: the offensive line did not commit a single penalty on the day -- a big change from the previous week in New York.

The biggest concern on offense is that the Patriots continue to struggle in the red zone -- going 1-for-5 yesterday, and now 4-for-13 on the year. The hope is that as Brady and the receivers develop better timing and coordination they will get touchdowns rather than incompletions and field goals. But they were 3-for-5 the first week, which makes them 1-for-8 the last two games, so they might be headed in the wrong direction on that. Perhaps better play-calling might help. No offense to a team with no offensive coordinator -- just saying :)

Special teams are a growing concern. They helped win the first game with a timely fumble recovery, and Gostkowski is his usual self in field goals and kickoffs. But the punting has only been okay, and the coverage teams are playing poorly. The first returns of the second half this week and last week featured porous coverage and the kicker making the tackle. And in the Jets game the return led to the only touchdown; this week the defense bailed them out with a stop.

With a new special teams coach and lots of new personnel, it can take time to gel. But if they can't cover kickoffs consistently, they should have Gostkowski kick higher/shorter so the players can get down to cover it. Giving the opposition the ball at the 30 every time is preferable to making them start at the 20 half the time and the 40-or-beyond the other half.

And as for the coaching, it was another nice job of confusing a young quarterback. The offensive play-calling was a bit better and they were flagged only twice on the day (for ten yards). So just about everything that went wrong against the Jets was fixed this week. Hope that translates into having things go well again next week.

So where does that leave us? At 2-1, the Patriots are a game behind the New York Jets in the AFC East. And they face another blitz-crazy team this week, when the Baltimore Ravens come to Foxboro. However, young quarterbacks who have played more than eight or nine games usually struggle against the Patriots, because Belichick has plenty of film to study to break them down. Also, the Ravens had a division game last week and have another one after the Patriots, so this would be a classic "trap" game for them. Only time will tell, but it should be interesting.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Two guys with bad backs had great days. The first guy, Randy Moss, nabbed 10 catches for 116 yards. The second guy, my friend Al, attended the game with a bad back, but was still able to be the Weather God -- commanding that there be only slight rain for very little of the game, which is exactly what happened, despite forecasts of up to two inches of rain. (Note: If you have an outdoor celebration and need to bright sunshine, let me know and I'll pass along your request to the Weather God himself.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Did you see Fred Taylor on Sunday? Yep... might be time to sell that #39 jersey." (Note: say it with a wry smile.)

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-1!

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