Thursday, November 5, 2009

Patriots Mid-season Report (11/3/2009)

At 5-2, the Patriots are exactly where I thought they'd be at this point (link). And playing in a bad division, they are well on their way to the playoffs. How bad is the division? The Pats took last weekend off and *still* gained ground in the AFC East. The Jets lost, so the Pats have a 1.5-game lead. Buffalo certainly won't contend, so the battle for the crown will come down to the floundering Jets and perhaps-resurgent 3-4 Dolphins.

But that will be played out over the coming months, and the injury factor always looms in the NFL. So rather than look too far in the future, here is my take on where the team is right now.

The Offense

Is Brady Coming Around?

He hasn't been horrible, he's just been human in coming back from a very bad knee injury. He missed easy touchdowns against the Jets and Broncos, either of which would have won the game. But without his great play down the stretch against Buffalo or his superb performance in the snow against Tennessee, they could have lost either of those games. (I know they beat the Titans 59-0, but early on it was a lot closer than people remember.)

The good news is that he's missed fewer passes lately and continues to develop chemistry with Sam Aiken and Julian Edelman, before Edelman was injured. When Edelman returns, it will be interesting to see if that chemistry comes back quickly. If it does, the Pats will be poised to do some real damage down the stretch. But in the meantime, Aiken an Benjamin Watson need to step up their games to make defenses pay for double teaming Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

Attrition on the Run

The Patriots two best running backs are Fred Taylor and Sammie Morris. Both are injured, with Taylor out for a while and Morris more week-to-week. That doesn't leave them much at the running back position.

Featured back wannabe Laurence Maroney still runs hot (Tennessee game) and cold (Tampa Bay game). BenJarvus Green-Ellis at least runs the play as it is designed, but he lacks Fred Taylor's talent to avoid direct hits and still runs standing up too straight.

I would feed BenJarvus the ball, though. Maroney returns kicks and Kevin Faulk is too valuable as a third-down/spread formation specialist, both blocking and on draws and screen passes. So until Morris returns, for the time being it's important that they protect Maroney and Faulk, so maybe some additional carries for BenJarvus.

But keep an eye on this position; one more injury and there could be real trouble, because the Patriots blocking schemes are too complex for a new back to learn quickly.

The Defense

No Substitute for Youth

Meet the new Tedy Bruschis and Rodney Harrisons of this defense. Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton, second-year linebackers. Brandon Meriweather, third-year safety. Jonathan Wilhite, second-year corner. Rob Ninkovich, fourth-year linebacker. And two rookies: Darius Butler (corner), Myron Pryor (defensive lineman).

All had two things that the players they replaced did not -- youth and upside. Mayo is the cornerstone of the defense, and Guyton's play when Mayo was injured was crucial to getting wins those weeks. And Ninkovich has more tackles in 7 games (12) than he had in three previous seasons (6).

Wilhite and Butler aren't perfect, but both have knocked away big passes at critical times and both will improve with more playing time. And Pryor has looked good in the D-line rotation. Here's hoping he can help pick up the slack with Jarvis Green out for 2-4 weeks.

We're #3! We're #3!

You might be surprised to know the Patriots have the third-rated defense in the NFL, giving up exactly 14 points per game (slightly behind Indy and Denver). I know it surprised me; I thought they'd need more time to gel. But with their young talent and how the secondary has come together, they could be even *better* by the end of the year.

Given the players lost in the off-season, and the gloom and doom of the local media, that's impressive. They ranked #8 last year when all the media faves were still around. So it looks like a good move to go young and develop, rather than stay old and try to hang on. I'm glad they tried something new; the old way didn't work in any of the last four years.

Defensive MVP

There's a real horse race for defensive MVP. Vince Wilfork is on the field for fewer plays (coming out in a rotation with Mike Wright and Pryor), but he has been a destroyer when he's out there. He constantly blows up or redirects running plays and is getting consistent pass pressure, even when doubled. Vince is making one of the greatest contract-year pushes we've seen from a Patriots player.

Competing with big Vince are the two Brandons, McGowan and Meriweather. The secondary is easily the most improved area of the team, and in his third season, Meriweather is the clear leader in the backfield. He has taken Rodney Harrison's old role and keeps the the secondary on the same page, delivers huge hits and makes key INTs.

McGowan came out of nowhere, a free agent afterthought by most people (including yours truly). But he wasted no time making an impact, helping forcing a crucial fumble in a close game with Atlanta, making special teams tackles, and hitting anyone who hasn't said "Uncle!" He instilled a new attitude, and every time you see the defense gang tackle or force a fumble, he's sure to be in the center of the action.

The nod for defensive MVP goes to Wilfork at this point, but it is a very close call.

The Kicking Game

Replacing Experience

Lonie Paxton left, but there hasn't been a single hiccup in the long-snapping game. Rookie Jake Ingram nailed every single one. 2008 special teams captain Larry Izzo left, but they haven't missed him much. Brandon McGowan and Matthew Slater are the big special teams hitters now. And I think that was Larry Izzo whiffing on an easy tackle last week, when Ted Ginn Jr. returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

Special teams coach Scott O'Brien replaced Brad Seeley, but they haven't missed a beat. The return and coverage games were a work in progress but both have been solid the last three weeks. And they are forcing more special teams turnovers than they did even in their heyday (2001 - 2004).

So the reviews are clear: change is good!

The Coaching

I said it before and I'll say it again; Belichick changed his mode after 2006, going for every win early in the season at the cost of not developing enough young players to get him through the playoffs. This year it's back to the 2001 - 2006 mode -- build your team throughout the year, even if it costs you a few early games, and be playing your absolute best late in the year and into the playoffs.

It worked so far. He has a younger team that's playing over its heads, hitting everything that moves, and showing off speed we haven't seen on defense since 2004. The defense is also causing more turnovers: the Pats forced only 22 turnovers all last season, this year they are on pace for 34.

He and his staff have done a great job putting together a stout defense and working through some early problems on special teams and offense. The schedule gets tough for the next five weeks, and this is when they will make their mark on 2009. Go 4-1 and they are Super Bowl contenders. 3-2 makes them a legitimate playoff threat. 2-3 or worse and they might win the division but won't do much in the playoffs.

The Schedule

My predictions from earlier in the year stand. The only two changes I thought about making were the Colts and Saints games. The Colts are still rolling; but there are factors in the Patriots favor. First, the Colts have only 1 win over a tam with a winning record (can you guess? answer below), and came dangerously close to losing to a mediocre San Francisco squad. And second, the Colts have won 16 straight games, which makes them a threat to eclipse the Patriots record of 21 straight. Don't think that's lost on Bill Belichick, who cares more about football history than most anyone. He will pull out all the stops for this one.

As for the Saints, their defense is better than I thought it would be, but there are two factors to consider here, too. First, New Orleans has started to turn the ball over more, and the Patriots defense and special teams are turnover-happy lately. Second, the new defensive coordinator in New Orleans is Gregg Williams, who the Patriots almost always beat. In their last five games against Gregg Williams, the Patriot have averaged 29.6 points per game, and they've gone 4-1.

So even though the complexion of those games has changed, I will stick with my original predictions; which went like this:

11/8 vs Dolphins (Win; Pats coming off a bye week, too much talent, I'm attending the game)

11/15 @ Colts (Win; about time for a Pats victory in Indy)

11/22 vs Jets (Win; Jets QB imploding, no Leon Washington, defense exposed last two weeks)

11/30 @ Saints (Win; Saints turning the ball over lately, and Pats feast on Gregg Williams' defenses)

12/6 @ Dolphins (Loss; short week followed by division road game)

12/13 vs Panthers (Win; Panthers are awful, cold weather game for southern team)

12/20 @ Bills (Win; Bills are awful and getting worse, Brady flourishes at Buffalo -- look it up!)

12/27 vs Jaguars (Win; read Panther game above)

1/3 @ Texans (Win or Loss, depending on whether or not the game means anything to either team)

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots and one other team have scored more than twice as many points as they have allowed. Without checking online, can you name the other team (answer below)?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "3-2 over the next few games sets them up nicely. But 4-1 would be better!" ::wry smile::

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-2!

PPS. Trivia answer #1, Colts beat the Cardinals, a 4-3 AFC West "powerhouse."


PPPS. Trivia answer #2 , the Indianapolis Colts (no points off if you guessed the Saints).

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