Monday, October 26, 2009

Patriots 35, Buccaneers 7 (10/25/2009)

It's official; all winless teams must quake in fear before the mighty New England Patriots! The Pats laid the smackdown on the Bucs, sending their second consecutive oh-fer team home still oh-fer. The win kept them a game ahead of the Jets in the AFC East, and with the bye week to recuperate and reassess, it will seem like a long time until there's more football. But don't worry, yours truly doesn't *take* no stinkin' bye weeks, so the mid-season report will be forthcoming sometime soon.

Even though the score wasn't as bad, this game might have been unofficially over even quicker than the Titans game. Tampa's first two possessions were ended by Brandon Meriweather interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and the Pats led 14-0 in the first quarter. Tampa fought longer in this game, but Tennessee didn't start getting blown out until the second quarter. Brandon McGowan continued to impress, with two passes defended and five tackles, while Leigh Bodden added two passes defended but let up a few, too. More often than has been usual, the secondary was a step late, specifically Darius Butler on the Bucs only touchdown. But it isn't going to be perfect every week.

The rest of the defense played extremely well. It is always impressive to hold a team to 27% on third down conversions, 89 yards rushing, 26:45 time of possession, and a QB rating of 36.6 (with 3 interceptions). The line did a great job pressuring the QB, and it wasn't all Wilfork this time. Ty Warren played inspired, getting back to his 2006 form, and he was helped by Mike Wright and rookie Myron Pryor. The team also moved Derrick Burgess to down lineman and played a lot of 4-3, and that energized Burgess. He wasn't dominant, but he had his first sack in six weeks and didn't crumble on the point against the run.

(Suggestion for Phil Simms and Jim Nance, yesterday's announcers. When you tout a player before the game [in this case Tampa left tackle Donald Penn] at least have the guts to admit you were wrong when he is consistently beaten. Penn didn't hold up well on running plays or passing plays. Maybe he had a bad game, but you guys weren't shy in your criticism of Patriots rookie left tackle Sebastian Vollmer -- so you might want to be a bit more even-handed about it in the future.)

The linebackers were all over the place, and might have been the real story of the defense. Jerod Mayo continues the Medical Miracle Tour, gutting out 8 tackles even without his full strength or explosion of that injured knee. Can't wait until *he* gets back to full speed. Gary Guyton was solid as usual, and recently benched Adalius Thomas did a great job holding the end against the run.

But the real linebacking star was Tully Banta-Cain. A few weeks back I wrote that Banta-Cain "gets fooled on screens and is a non-factor when the play isn't to his side, even though he's fast enough to run those plays down." Maybe he reads this blog because he made two tackles for a loss and on one screen pass he almost got the QB and then ran down the receiver from behind, even though it was to the *other* side of the field. A great game from a player finding his way in a new defense. Tully, if you feel it necessary to throw any egg my way, I'll be sure to catch it -- face first :)

On offense, it was all about the precision passing game.Tom Brady completed almost 72% of his passes and had another ho-hum 100+ QB rating (107.3, for those keeping score at home). The one complaint is that under pressure he threw two interceptions; though neither proved costly in a blowout. Wes Welker continued to be Mr. Reliable (10 catches for 107 yards and a touchdown), and though Moss got dinged up early, he came in when needed to get first downs. Ben Watson made a nice read on his touchdown, running up the seam when the safety dropped coverage. And Sam Aiken turned a short pass into a long touchdown when he broke a tackle and raced 50 yards for the longest Patriots play of the year.

The running game was decent, breaking 100 yards for the second consecutive week. Laurence Maroney wasn't quite as good as he was against the Titans, but he was decent and was well complimented by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The one concern here is that the team is running dangerously low on running backs, with only Kevin Faulk available beyond Laurence and BenJarvus. If they don't get Sammy Morris or Fred Taylor back from injury soon, they should consider adding a running back now, so they would have two weeks to teach him the offense.

The Pats biggest problem on offense was the penalties. Four false-starts in a neutral-site game? And three offensive holding calls, not to mention two more motion penalties in the kicking game. Tsk tsk tsk... for shame. You guys have got to get this straightened out and fast; two of your next four games are on the road in domes (Indy and New Orleans), so it won't get any easier to hear the snap count.

Special teams played well, with Gostkowski forcing touchbacks on almost all of his kickoffs and the coverage teams neutralizing Tampa's strength in returns. The Bucs did get one partial block of a punt, and almost got another one, so there is some work to do in that area.

So where does that leave us? As previously noted, first place in the AFC East and enjoying a well-earned weekend off. Here's hoping for weather stays as nice as it was Sunday we see a few Yankee losses in the Soon-to-be-Winter Classic.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: So far the season the Patriots have run two fakes out of kicking formations and both times they were called back on motion penalties. Yesterday Logan Mankins was called for a false start on a fake punt; brownie points if you can identify the culprit and game of the other penalty (answer below).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "84-7 the last two games. Okay... now that they fattened up on cupcake teams, let's see how they come out of the bye. The next five games will determine whether they are built to go deep in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-2!

uiz answer: Chris Baker against the Ravens -- and he was the intended receiver on the play!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Patriots 59, Titans 0 (10/18/2009)

You can't possibly need an update on this game, can you? Okay... the Patriots pounded the Titans into the Gillette Stadium turf, scoring almost a point a minute and giving up exactly zero. The win put them at 4-2 atop the AFC East all by their lonesome (Jets lost to the Bills), with their next winless opponent flying to London where New England meets Old England for the first time.

How bad was the beating? There are so many stats, many of which were repeated ad nauseum during the game. But here is a comparison they didn't mention:

2 of 14 for -7 yards, 2 INTs, and a QB rating of 14.3
8 for 11 for 52 yards, 0 INTs, and a QB rating of 86.4

The first numbers are Tennessee's total passing on the day. The second numbers belong to Patriots rookie free agent QB Brian Hoyer, in his first NFL start. Sort of tells you the kind of day it was for the Titans.

Need more? Okay, how about these stats: first downs gained via the pass, Patriots 21, Titans 1; time of possession 39:00 to 21:00; net passing yards 426 to -7; average per completion 9.1 to -0.5; offensive plays 77 to 50, with the average yards gained 8.0 to 3.7.

It was obvious that Tennessee wasn't prepared for the weather, dropping almost ten passes, including four when they were still in the game. The Pats had a few drops, too, but when your team attempts 45 throws you might miss one or two. Add to that 6 turnovers to zero and 6 touchdowns to zero and you pretty much know the game wasn't going the Titans way.

To save time, here are the Patriots offensive stars on the day:
Tom Brady (29 of 34, 380, 6 touchdowns, 0 INTs)
Brian Hoyer (stats noted already)
Randy Moss (8 catches for 129 yards and 3 touchdowns)
Wes Welker (10 for 150, 2 TDs)
Laurence Maroney (16 carries for 123 yards and 1 touchdown)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (7 for 67 in mop-up duty)
Sebastian Vollmer (filled in admirably for the injured Matt Light)
Logan Mankins (just a nasty guy who hit everything he saw)

What I noticed specifically on offense was Laurence Maroney running hard and playing out of multiple formations, which is key. In the past teams knew that Maroney in the game meant a likely running play, so they overcommitted to stop the run. Nice to see the team mixing it up (and Maroney himself taking advantage of the playing time). I also liked the way they stacked Wes Welker and Julian Edelman to the same side, often getting the rookie open when multiple defenders covered Welker. And of course, the O-line blocking was superb, on downfield passes, screen passes, quick outs, and in the running game.

And to save time, here are the Patriots defensive stars on the day:
Brandon McGowan (7 tackles, 1 QB hit, 1 forced fumble, and 2 special teams tackles)
Pat Chung (6 tackles and his first INT)
The entire D-Line (plenty of pressure and mostly stopped the run)
Jonathan Wilhite (2 passes defended and a fumble recovery)

The reasons this list is so much shorter are that they didn't have as many plays and after the turnovers got rolling there wasn't a lot to distinguish stars. But seeing more press coverage and knocked down and intercepted passes was a big step forward from the week before against Denver. Glad to see the coaches adjusted their scheme after making Kyle Orton look like Dan Marino.

Special teams still look like a work in progress, but they were decent. Gostkowski missed one (semi-bad snap) and got one, but his kickoffs were consistently high and deep. And given all the kickoffs, the coverage team did okay, with an average starting position of the Titans 30 yard-line. Not great, but not terrible either.

So where does that leave us? At 4-2, the Pats are back where they belong, first place in the division. The 0-6 Bucs are next week, and if the Patriots take care of business they'll enter the bye week at 5-2. And they will need to do just that to keep pace, because the Jets play the lowly Raiders in New York next week.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Julian Edelman is the leading rookie receiver in the NFL with 21 catches. The Pats haven't pulled that off for a full season since Terry Glenn in 1996. Of course, they have two players on the current roster who led NFL rookies in receptions their first seasons; give it your best guess (answer below).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Totally kicked Tennessee but the real schedule starts after the bye -- Miami, Indy, the Jets and Saints, and then Miami on the road. That stretch will show how good they really are."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-2!

PPS. After the blowout score, doesn't it feel like 40-2 :)

PPPS. Quiz answer: Randy Moss (1998) and (gulp!) Joey Galloway (1994).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Patriots 17, Broncos 20 (10/11/2009)

How I convinced myself that the Patriots would beat the Broncos escapes me. The team *never* seems to escape Denver with a W. The Patriots missed too many opportunities and were shut out in the second half as they fell to Denver 20-17 in overtime. The loss puts them at 3-2, a half-game behind the 3-1 Jets (who play tonight) in the AFC East.

The offense was a tale of two halves. In the first half, the Pats had 12 first downs, converted 63% of their third downs, went 2-2 in the red zone, and completed over 73% of their passes. In the second half, they had 6 first downs (2 by penalty), did not convert a third down, didn't get to the red zone, and completed 36% of their passes. That is a really bad second half, folks.

The Patriots continue to have some trouble running the ball out of running formations, but they are getting better, with a few successful off-guard plays out of the I-formation yesterday. However, their best runs still come out of the spread formation, when teams are expecting the pass. With Fred Taylor out, Sammy Morris lead the team (17 carries for 68 yards), with Laurence Maroney looking decent in limited action (5 for 21). Those two averaged four yards a carry, which is acceptable.

I thought the offensive line did a terrific job. Aside from opening up some holes in the running game, they gave up only one sack and for the most part the Broncos had to blitz to get any pressure on Brady. I also thought their performance on screen passes was excellent, a good job "selling" the screen and then blocking it. And Matt Light deserves specific praise for his superb technique in dominating the NFL's leading sacker, Elvis Dumerville. Light hooked his arms under the shorter Dumerville's shoulder pads and pushed up, and that neutralized the Elvis' speed rush. On the minus side, Logan Mankins committed a late hit penalty that pushed the Patriots out of field goal range -- and in a game that went to overtime, you can't have mistakes like that.

Speaking of mistakes, Mr. Brady, will you please step forward... Tom Usually-Terrific did not have a great day. His throws were off a bit, and on this day they were mostly his mistakes. He overthrew a wide open Randy Moss (would have been a touchdown), and heaved one to Moss when his tight end was open for a touchdown opposite Moss. He also made Wes Welker dive to catch a short pass that could have been much longer if he'd hit him in stride, and of course, he had Welker open for a long touchdown and hit Wes in the foot instead of the hands. The end result was an okay passer rating but 115 fewer yards and a lower completion percentage (73% to 57.5%) than his counterpart. Not a great day, but I think we need to hope this is part of the adjustment period with his receivers. (BTW, don't blame him for the fumble, it came on a quick strip-sack from his blind side. Though the timing was unfortunate.)

Wes Welker was his usual self, leading the team with 8 catches and stretching for the Pats first touchdown. However, Denver started double-teaming and jamming him, making it less and less certain that he'd be open if Brady got in trouble. And trust me, the rest of the NFL will see what happened and do the same thing, so other receivers will have to step up their games and be ready for outlet passes. Speaking of other receivers, no one else had more than three catches, though I'd put most of the onus on Brady. By the way, seventh–round pick Julian Edelman has more catches (15) in his first 5 games than former second-round pick Chad Jackson had in two years with the Patriots (12). And he got rid of that unfortunate haircut :)

The defense was a tale of two formations. When the Patriots played press coverage on the wideouts and pressured the quarterback they were fine. But when they gave a big cushion, free releases to the tight ends, and rushed fewer than five, Kyle Orton picked them apart. Perhaps they thought they had enough of a lead to play it safe; but the defense gave up play after play in soft coverage, and it's beyond me how the coaching staff couldn't figure it out if me and Phil Simms (commentator for the game) could.

The man of the day was Vince Wilfork, who dominated the line, blowing up lots of running plays and getting after the quarterback like nose tackles almost never do. With Seymour gone, teams are more likely to double Vince, but he continues to make plays, which is why he's been to the Pro Bowl. I barely noticed the rest of the line, which is usually a bad sign. Denver had some decent rushing gains, but mostly they beat the Pats through the air, so the lack of pressure from the front four hurt.

The linebackers were very much up-and–down. Jerod Mayo returned to action, and even in a part time role he led the 'backers in tackles. He was obviously not his regular self, getting pushed around by linemen and making most of his tackles down the field. Though he did force a fumble on Denver's second possession. Still not getting enough from Adalius Thomas, at least for the paycheck he's getting. Tully Banta-Cain made two tackles for a loss and had a key sack, but he gets fooled on screens and is a non-factor when the play isn't to his side, even though he's fast enough to run those plays down. Gary Guyton had a clean day, but I don't remember anything special from him.

The secondary was the same as the rest of the defense. When they played press coverage they were very good; when they backed off, it was one five- to ten-yard completion after another. They continue to tip passes and come oh-so-close to interceptions. Happened twice yesterday, and on one play the ball was batted up by Brandon McGowan and then three Patriots ran into each other trying to get it before it was caught by *former* Patriots player Jabar Gaffney. Oh, and note that no team wants their secondary players to lead the team in tackles -- but the Pats top *four* tacklers were all in the secondary. Not a good sign.

As for specific secondary play, Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs mostly impressed, with 2 knock-downs each and 11 and 8 tackles, respectively. Brandon McGowan continues to be a very pleasant surprise, contributing 9 tackles, 2 passes knocked down, and yet another fumble recovery. Brandon Meriweather had his worst game of the year, whiffing on two open-field tackles and drawing a questionable (but ill-timed) penalty for taunting.

I think the Patriots won the special teams battle. Gostkowski's kickoffs were of two varieties: deep, deeper, out-of-the-endzone. But he missed a 40 yard field goal, a critical mistake in a close game. The punter pinned the Broncos deep in their own end, but ironically that just lead to touchdown drives of 90 and 98 yards. And Kevin Faulk did a great job making sure one Denver punt wasn't downed inside the 5. But the reason they won is that the Broncos had the Pats backed up and *twice* in the same drive committed penalties with the Patriots punting that gave the New England the ball back. Not that the Patriots scored on that drive, but it helped them change field position.

There were a few problems with the coaching. First, once they saw the Broncos couldn't handle press coverage they should have stayed with it. And second, no offensive djustments and some questionable play–calling in the second half. Other than that, it was pretty good; the game plan worked well until the half, and the defense held Denver to 17 points in regulation, so it's hard to complain about that.

So where does that leave us? At 3-2, the Pats schedule looks like it's easing up a bit. Their next three opponents are a combined 1-13, and they have a bye week thrown in. So they should be able to get to 6-2 if they play they pay attention and take care of business.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: When something happens for the first time in 9 years, it's an oddity -- Tom Brady lost his first overtime game yesterday.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "First half Patriots, second half Broncos, coin flip goes their way and that's the ballgame."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-2!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Patriots 27, Ravens 21 (10/4/2009)

You'll pardon me if I'm Ravin' about this victory (cue laugh track). Lots of big plays, momentum swings, scoring on offense and defense, both teams attempting fourth down conversions, trick plays and force fumbles in the kicking game, and finally a victory for the locals. Patriots won the game 27-21 to improve their record to 3-1 and pull into a first place tie in the AFC East.

On Sunday, the defense suited up seven starters who were not Patriots starters at the end of last season, and yet they continue to be the story of the young season. They rank third in the NFL in time-of-possession against and third in total plays from scrimmage against, and that includes two games against clock hogging teams (Jets and Ravens). They give up just north of two touchdowns a game (14.75 points), and the best part is they are young and have tremendous upside. Should be a lot of fun to watch them develop throughout the year. And remember: key inside linebacker Jerod Mayo has yet to play since game 1.

The Brandon twins (Meriweather and McGowan) are *everywhere* on the field, hitting anything that moves and hitting it hard. They are your first and third leading tacklers (respectively), and are rounding into form as a devastating safety combo. And after years of missing the mark with free agent corners, the Pats hit twice this off-season with Leigh Bodden (one INT on Sunday) and Shawn Springs. Between those two and youngsters Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley, the team now has a lot of closing speed and ball skills in the secondary -- something they've lacked since... well, honestly, since Ty Law left in 2005.

It's a good sign that they knock passes away rather than just tackling the receiver after the catch... which happened way too often the past two years. And even though they have only one interception so far (an outstanding grab by Bodden on a terrible throw), they knocked five or six passes into the air yesterday, any of which might have been intercepted with better luck. If they keep up their aggressive play, eventually some of those will become turnovers.

Four weeks into the season the D-line conversion to a 4-3 is still a work in progress, but it showed some great signs yesterday. Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork is still working through an injury, but when he was on the field he was a force against the Ravens. And Mike Wright applied consistent pressure on QB Joe Flacco, getting the teams only two sacks (though he negated one with a penalty). Overall, the line hit Flacco eight times, forced an intentional grounding penalty, and flushed him from the pocket at least four other times. All of that had to factor into his sub-par game, and that's what wins you games in this league -- keep the opposing QB off balance and you're halfway home.

It appears that the linemen they have are better suited to the 4-3, and with the shackles off, Wilfork and the other extremely large men (I'm talking to you, 6' 8", 355-pound Terdell Sands) can stuff the run (though not yesterday) and collapse the pocket with regularity. It's not perfect, and it'll take time for Ty Warren and Jarvis Green to internalize the switch from the 3-4, but again, the change already paid dividends and allows for improvement, too.

And let's not forget the linebackers. With Mayo out, undrafted free agent Gary Guyton is proving to be a decent replacement. Though he lacks Mayo's speed in coverage and instincts against the run, he is currently second on the team in tackles and I haven't noticed him out of position at all. He can't take on O-linemen and win, but few linebackers can. They work best when the D-line handles the big guys and the 'backers are free to roam. Heck, even the god of all linebackers, Ray Lewis, was repeatedly pancaked and pushed seven to ten yards off the play by linemen in yesterday's game.

The rest of the Patriots linebacking crew is a mixed bag. Tully Banta-Cain didn't work out in San Fran, but he's doing well in his return to the Patriots. Pierre Woods and Eric Alexander are really backups that switch time starting, so don't expect much out of them (except on special teams). On the outside, Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess haven't lived up to their reputations, but at least Thomas makes a play now and then and Burgess showed yesterday that he can rush the passer, as long as you don't ask him to do anything else -- like cover a screen or play the run.

On offense, it was nice to have Wes Welker back, but he's obviously not 100%. He still comes out of the game for one-third of the plays, and even when he is out there he and Tom Brady just aren't in sync yet. Speaking of Brady, he is getting better and better in tune with his receivers, beating the blitz for a touchdown to Moss and using play-action fakes to set up quick seam routes and slants. For the second straight game, the opposing linebackers and secondary only knocked down two passes, and got no interceptions (by comparison, three weeks ago the Jets had six and one). All of which means that Brady is hitting his receivers where defenders can't get the ball or throwing it away effectively.

BTW, much maligned Benjamin Watson had two outstanding catches yesterday, acrobatic grabs that helped change field position twice when the Patriots were backed up near their goal line. Neither drive ended in points, but the catches were really remarkable for any tight end, let alone one who's been so often criticized.

Sammy Morris was my offensive star of the game. He got tough yards on fourth-and-1 and third-and-1, scampered for a 12-yard touchdown, and converted two other first downs on scoring drives. The running game wasn't much to behold (2.8 yards a carry), but Morris, Kevin Faulk, and Fred Taylor continued to carry the load. Meanwhile, starter Laurence Maroney didn't do much to help his cause yesterday: 7 carries for 6 yards -- yuck! One great catch-and-run and a lot of run-for-a-loss. He needs to spend more time with Taylor to find out how to get a few yards on plays that are stacked up.

Despite the lackluster running attack, the O-line did a decent job. The Ravens employed surprisingly few blitzes, but when they did bring the heat it was usually picked up (save for Terrell Suggs' strip-sack that went for a defensive touchdown). The best part was that the line gave Brady enough time to put the hurt on the Ravens when they did blitz. Not every time but often enough that teams will think twice about trying the overload blitzes that the Jets used so well.

Special teams played a lot better this week, which is to say they were average instead of awful. Only one bad kickoff (Gostkowski's last one, a low kick that allowed a 38-yard return), but very good coverage other than that, including a forced fumble that led to the Patriots first points. Also, the Ravens didn't get a single yard on punt returns. However, with the good came the bad, not a lot of great returns for the Patriots, and Kevin Faulk fumbled on a return (fortunately recovered by Leigh Bodden). Oh, and they tried a fake field goal that appeared to fool the Ravens and went for a first down... but Chris Baker (Pats tight end) was called for illegal motion.

I don't know for sure how the new special teams coach will work out, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt since his units are improving. The fake field goal call was gutsy and well designed, and they are forcing special teams turnovers. Hate to say we'll have to wait and see... so maybe I'll say "we'll have to see and wait" instead :)

So where does that leave us? You've heard the old line about how the regular season is "a marathon not a sprint." Well, the Patriots appear to have taken that literally this year. By week 9 or 10, I'd expect Brady and the receivers to be in better sync, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to be healthy, the special teams coverage to be even better, and the defense to turn tipped passes into interceptions.

Next week it's the 4-0 Broncos in Denver. I think those are the scariest nine words I've written all year. But here's our chance to find out of the Broncos or Patriots are for real, and if head man Josh McDaniels is really drowning (as I wrote in my season preview) or if his undefeated team is for real.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Among all NFL teams, the Patriots are tied for first in forced fumbles (6) and tied for last in interceptions (1).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Ben Watson made some absolutely spectacular catches, but he needs to be more consistent. And we need more from him in the red zone."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-1!