Tuesday, September 28, 2010

When will the Patriots cook up some defense?

On the lighter side of things, Tavolino Restaurant at Patriots Place is in a Bon Appetite list of the best chocolate chip cookies in the America.  And given that there were only 7 spots on the list, it wasn't exactly an easy thing to do.

For what it's worth, I got tickets to the Club Seats at Gillette Stadium a few years back and had one of the best pieces of chocolate cake I'd ever tasted.  So there might actually be something to the foodie-ness over there in Foxboro.

My question is, when will the Patriots use their fine culinary skills to cook up some defense?  They currently rank 28th in the NFL in scoring defense, 27th in yards given up, and 28th in opponent passer rating.  And last week made a pathetic Buffalo Bills offense look absolutely stellar -- allowing 23 points to a team that had 17 total in their previous two games.

Maybe they should talk to the chef at Tavolino, or the cake vendor in the Club Seats.  They might get some decent tips on how to whip up a good defense for next Monday in Miami.  But if they don't do something soon, their goose may be cooked (sorry, I couldn't help myself).


- Scott

Monday, September 27, 2010

Patriots 38, Bills 30 (9/26/2010)

The Patriots held on for a 38-30 win over their long-time whipping boy, the Buffalo Bills.  The game looked a lot more like people thought their games would this year -- the Pats offense put up a big number and the defense struggled but was good enough to hold on for the victory.  The win puts the Patriots at 2-1, in a three-way tie for first place in the division.

The offensive line was the biggest star of the day, dominating the line of scrimmage to the tune of a 142.6 QB rating and 200 rushing yards.  Rarely will you see a Patriots game with such offensive balance.  Matt Light, Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal, and Sebastian Vollmer won just about every battle, did a great job in pass protection, and combined with tight ends Alge Crumpler and Rob Gronkowski to open big holes and get down field to attack the second level of the defense in the running game.  There were a lot of great offensive performances, but it all started up front.

Tom Brady played much better this week.  He had the luxury of fantastic protection and a good running attack, and he literally made only one bad decision -- the long incompletion in the direction of Matthew Slater on second-and-9.  Other than that he sparkled, 21 of 25 for 252 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions, and the aforementioned 142.6 QB rating.  He even ran for a first down, and he spread the ball around to seven receivers.

Speaking of receivers, short passes to rising star Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski, kept the chains moving, and two deep bombs to Randy Moss went for touchdowns.  Gronkowski added a TD of his own, on a perfect quick-out, and his role near the goal line is likely to grow in the coming weeks.  And even though he didn't catch any passes, Alge Crumpler should get special mention for his blocking in the running game and in pass protection.  Brandon Tate fumbled for the Patriots only turnover of the day, and frankly his 29-yard grab before the half didn't really make up for it, since the Bills converted the fumble into a touchdown.

The running game did not suffer with the loss of Kevin Faulk, at least for a week.  With Fred Taylor nursing a toe injury, the Pats featured BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and he acquitted himself nicely -- 98 yards, a 6.1 per carry average, and a weaving 22-yard touchdown.  Faulk's replacement on the roster, Danny Woodhead threw in his own 22-yard TD, and averaged an impressive 14 yards on 3 carries.

Overall, the defense did not perform very well.  Not a lot of pressure on the quarterback, the Bills gashed them for 134 yards on the ground, and they were a poor pass away from giving up the lead.  It wasn't all their fault; the Bills scored on several short drives and got a touchdown on special teams.  But the defense obviously has a long way to go when the worst offense in the NFL put up 23 points.

It can be difficult to quantify defensive line play in this system, but when it moves backwards on running plays, you know it's getting beaten.  Couple that with just one sack (and the fact that most of their pressure came when the Bills O-line blew an assignment) and not a lot of stops up front, and the D-line didn't really do the job.  Ron Brace was the one bright spot; not that he had a great game, but that he was "okay" instead of his usual "really bad."  But he is improving, so that's something.

Among the linebackers, Jerod Mayo and Tully Banta-Cain were their usual solid selves.  Jermaine Cunningham continues to improve, so there is potential there, too.  But Brandon Spikes is still about a step behind most plays, and Rob Ninkovich and Gary Guyton give up a big play for every play they make -- generally not a good trade.  This group needs to make plays against either the run or the pass, otherwise teams can choose how to move the ball and the rest of the defense isn't good enough to stop balanced attacks.

The secondary did have two interceptions, Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather.  But Chung's came on an overthrow Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick -- and on that play, the receiver was open at the 2 yardline for either a first-and-goal or a touchdown.  So in reality, the defense was a few feet away from letting the Bills tie the game, and if not for a missed throw, the outcome could have been a lot different.  On the bright side, Devin McCourty plays solid corner, Chung lead the team in individual tackles, and Meriweather and Kyle Arrington laid the lumber on a few guys.  But one last bad thing; James Sanders is playing worse now than at any point in his career -- making just about zero positive impact on the defense, and sometimes looking like a lost rookie rather than the six-year veteran he is.  Maybe he was only good when Rodney Harrison played next to him.

Special teams are just weird.  Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 43-yard field goal, but he got in the way on a 95-yard Bills kickoff return touchdown, shielding his own player away from the tackle.  And punter Zoltan Mesko's inconsistency is troubling.  Early in the 2nd quarter, the Patriots needed a good kick to get out of their own end, and he shanked a 33-yarder.  And with three minutes left in the game, they needed a good punt to pin the Bills back, and his kick went just 36 yards and was returned for 6.  Neither kick lost the game... but like I said, troubling.

The biggest coaching improvement was the offensive play-calling from Bill O'Brien.  He mixed the run and pass very well, got the ball to Aaron Hernandez on an end-around, and did a good job integrating Woodhead quickly.

So where does that leave us?  The win bring the Patriots into a first-place tie with the Dolphins and Jets, putting even more importance on next week's showdown with Miami.  That game will be interesting, since the heat won't be as big a factor as usual (because it's a night game), and longtime Tom Brady nemesis Jason Taylor isn't on Miami any more.  Enjoy the game, though -- the next week is the Patriots bye :(

Statistical Oddity of the Week: With the victory, the Patriots have sole possession of the longest winning streak over another team, having won 14 in a row since Lawyer Milloy declared: "I got some numbers *now* -- don't I, Mr. Kraft?!"  (Trivia question: how many playoff games has Milloy won since leaving the Patriots -- answer below).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Eking out a win against Buffalo isn't exactly a stepping stone on the way to a division championship.  But I guess we'll take it."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  2-1!

PPS.  Trivia answer:

Semi-trick question -- Milloy has not won a playoff game since leaving New England.  His only playoff appearance since 2003 came with Atlanta in 2008, and the Falcons lost 30-24 to Arizona.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Short-sighted Patriots have no viable replacement for Faulk

It is official: Kevin Faulk is out for the season with an ACL injury (story).  Faulk was underappreciated by most; he knew pass protection as well as the offensive line and rarely screwed up a blocking assignment, missed only three games in the last four years, and was underrated as a running threat out of the spread formation.

Anyone who doubts Faulk's value should remember that his absence led to Tom Brady missing almost an entire season.  Faulk was suspended for the first game of the 2008 season, and Sammy Morris got only a partial block on blitzing safety Bernard Pollard.  When Pollard dove for the QB, he collapsed his knee, ending Brady's 2008 before it really began.

For the last ten years, the team counted on Faulk to squeeze out the extra yard for a first down, pick up a blind-side blitzer, and even return punts -- not something a lot of veterans do.  He will be missed on a team struggling on offense.

That the team has no realistic replacement for Faulk is a problem -- and a self-inflicted one.  Longtime Patriots back Laurence Maroney would have been a good choice to replace Faulk.  In fact, just two weeks ago I wrote this about Maroney's future with the team:

Laurence Maroney will have a job here for years to come. Maroney is very good in blitz pickup, has good hands, and can gain decent yardage on outlet passes because he's better in space than between the tackles. He will replace Kevin Faulk when Faulk retires because they are both ideal third-down backs -- but in the meantime, he'll have a job here as long as he's healthy enough.

I had no idea the Patriots would trade Maroney (story), and given the age of their running backs they should have considered this more carefully before pulling the trigger.  Moving up two rounds in the 2011 draft might have seemed like a big deal at the time, but with three 30+ running backs (two of whom are injury prone) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis left on the roster, Maroney would have been a nice insurance policy against injury.

As it is, Fred Taylor (who missed almost all of last season) starts, Sammy Morris (who missed 17 games in his 3 years here) is the likely successor to Faulk on third downs, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the closest they have to a short-yardage back -- but frankly not much more.  Some have suggested that Julian Edelman might play more running back, but he's too small to take on blitzing linebackers on third downs, though he could probably handle safeties and cornerbacks.

Let's just say I'm glad I don't have to fix this problem.  Although if I'd been in charge, I would not have traded Maroney, so my solution would be waiting on the bench.  Most Patriots fans would disagree, but it is time to consider trading with Denver to bring Maroney back.  If pride does indeed goeth before a fall, the Pats should admit the mistake and bring Maroney back before something disasterous happens.

- Scott

Monday, September 20, 2010

Patriots 14, Jets 28 (9/19/2010)

The key word in yesterday's loss was "unanswered."  The Jets scored 21 unanswered points to notch a convincing 28-14 win because their offensive and defensive adjustments went unanswered by the Patriots coaching staff and because the physical play and improved execution of the Jets players went unanswered by the Patriots players.

The loss left the Pats with a lot of unanswered questions.  Will Tom Brady stop risking interceptions by throwing to a well-covered Randy Moss?  Will the Patriots older running backs survive the season?  Will the young defense mature in time to get the team to the playoffs?  Will the coaches ever figure out how to make in-game adjustments as well as their opponents?  Will they every stop using the spread formation as their base offense?  Will the Patriots spend the rest of Tom Brady's career with coordinators-in-training instead of qualified coaches?

The only numbers that mattered yesterday were 0 and 3, the number of turnovers committed by the Jets and Patriots, respectively.  Twice the Jets intercepted Brady when he threw jump balls to a blanketed Randy Moss, and once Moss batted a ball down that could have been INT #3.  Last December I wrote: "Brady to Moss is the most dangerous combination in the NFL -- dangerous to the Patriots chances of winning, that is. It has become Brady's lazy play." 

Unfortunately, Brady hasn't re-learned the lesson of his early career -- that he should throw the ball away and move on to the next play instead of flirting with disaster.  And as long as he tempts fate, the Patriots will be a winning team with no real chance to make noise in the playoffs.  It's as simple as that; here are the numbers from yesterday; and you can see the turnovers were just about the entire story.

First downs: Jets 23, Pats 20
Third-down conversions: Jets 46%, Pats 45%
Total yards: Jets 336, Pats 291
Average yards per play: Jets 5.2, Pats 5.1
Penalty yards against: Jets 58, Pats 79
Time of possession: Jets 32:32, Pats 27:28

The only other statistical discrepancy that contributed to the loss was red zone percentage (Jets 75%, Pats 33%), where Stephen Gostkowski missed yet another makable field goal (might be time to try Brian Hoyer at holder), and Brady was strip-sacked as the Pats tried a late comeback.

Lets do a quick list of people who got better or worse and then do the usual stuff and we'll call it an update.

The only offensive player who got better this week was Aaron Hernandez who caught 6 passes for 101 yards, unless you include "getting on the field" as improvement, in which case Julian Edelman played this week after missing the first game.  On defense, rookie Jermaine Cunningham played okay and Gerard Warren continued his improvement, Bradon Spikes actually played better, and when Tully Banta-Cain wasn't taking stupid penalties he was okay.

As for who was worse, I'll limit it to who was much worse.  Tom Brady can't lose his concentration like he did this week.  His second INT was terrible, especially since it came on 2nd down from their own 38 and the game still in the balance (it was 21-14 at the time).  Brandon Tate committed a rookie penalty that called back a 38-yard run in the first quarter, and that really hurt given that they had just 52 yards rushing on the day.  The lack of a Patriots running attack was probably more due to a better Jets defense than O-line or running back problems, so they get a pass this week, although Sebastian Vollmer and Matt Light both blew several blocks during the game.

Worse on defense: Rob Ninkovich (whiffed on LaDainian Tomlinson's only long run), Jerod Mayo (much less impact than week 1), Kyle Arrington (if you can't play, at least don't commit penalties), Darius Butler (two pass interference calls and gave up two of the Jets longest plays of the day).  The defense actually got decent pressure in some situations, but lost their discipline when facing certain formations, and at least twice did not wrap up ball-carriers when they should have stopped them short of first downs.

Also much worse were the offensive and defensive coaches.  Why do other teams continually play better than the Patriots in the second half?  Rhetorical question, actually -- it's the offensive and defensive adjustments, or more to the point, the poor job making those adjustments by the Patriots coaching staff.  Think it isn't that bad; read the following statistic:

The Patriots have outscored their opponents in the second half of just 6 of their last 18 games (since the start of the 2009 season) -- 6 of 19 if you include the playoff loss.  That is just a 33% success rate, for those counting at home -- one-third!!.  (Trivia question: Of the six teams the Patriots managed to outscore, only one finished 2009 with a winning record -- name the team [answer below].)

That is not an aberration, that is most definitely a pattern.  And a destructive pattern at that.  It is born from years of refusing to hire the most qualified coaches instead of promoting ill-prepared men from within the organization.  It comes from Bill Belichick taking on too much responsibility in the face of mounting evidence that he needs to delegate and manage his staff better.  And frankly it comes after the league has had over a decade to decipher and game-plan against the offensive and defensive schemes that were innovative in 2001 but at this point might be stale.

So where does that leave us?  Scrambling for answers after a 1-1 start ties the Jets for second in the division behind 2-0 Miami.  Fortunately, the poor relation of the division is coming to town next Sunday; the Patriots favorite opponent, the Buffalo Bills. The Pats have beaten the Bills 13 consecutive times, and there is little evidence that they won't make it 14.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Aaron Hernandez' 101 yards receiving is the first time a Patriots rookie tight end has broken the century mark since... wait for it... Russ Francis in 1975.  That is a loooooong dry spell.  (Note: I would have made that the trivia question, but who would have guess that far back?)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I think Brady played pretty well... for someone sleep-walking" (insert wry smile here). 

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  1-1!

PPS.  Trivia answer:

Atlanta Falcons (9-7).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Answer to trivia question

For those who are curious about this week's trivia question, the Patriots also scored touchdowns on offense, defense, and special teams in just one other game since Bill Belichick arrived on the scene (for a total of three times):

On January 6, 2002, Antowain Smith and Jermaine Wiggins scored offensive touchdowns, Troy Brown returned a punt for a touchdown, and both Ty Law and Otis Smith returned interceptions for touchdowns against the Carolina Panthers.

It is potentially noteworthy that the two previous years in which Belichick's Patriots pulled off this feat they won the Super Bowl (2001 and 2004).  I supposed that at the very least it's a good omen that they did it in 2010 already.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  1-0!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Patriots 38, Bengals 24 (9/12/2010)

Now that is how you win a football game!  The Patriots got touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams, and dominated the Bengals to the tune of 38-24, though the game probably wasn't that close. They owned the first half and came up with plenty of plays in the second half to salt away the victory.  The win ties them with the Dolphins for first place in the AFC East, with the Jets game pending Monday night.

In the first half, the Patriots offense scored two touchdowns, and got three field goal attempts in five possessions, while the defense forced three punts, recovered a fumble, and returned an interception for a touchdown on the first five Bengals possessions.  The Bengals temporarily turned it around in the third quarter, but the Pats offense constructed a long touchdown drive in the final quarter to put the game out of reach.

On offense, the running game employed a real team effort, with Fred Taylor getting the bulk of the carries (14 carries for 71 yard), while Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis pitched in with timely gains and Sammy Morris had only one carry, but for an important third down conversion.  And both Faulk and Taylor had key blitz pickups to keep plays alive.  A 5.1 yard per carry average is nothing to sneeze at, and that number forced the Bengals to respect the run, which can only help open up the passing game.

Brady reverted to his 2007 MVP form; 25 of 35 for 258 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions.  Also bear in mind that he built those numbers despite several dropped passes and some penalties that called back passes.  The O-line did an outstanding job keeping Brady upright, even in the face of 6-, 7-, and 8-man blitzes, with Brady completing passes to seven receivers and only once putting the ball at risk of a turnover.  His only transgressions were a couple of passes off the mark; but that's to be expected this early in the campaign.

Wes Welker caught 8 for 64 yards and 2 touchdowns... in a debut coming back from a major knee injury.  He isn't as quick off the line or out of his breaks yet, but he is still plenty effective at keeping drives alive with sure hands and a knack for the first down marker.  Randy Moss dropped one pass and bobbled another along the sideline.  But his effect on the defense was evident when he cleared out the left side of the Bengals secondary, leaving rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez wide open for a 45 yard gain.

On defense, the young secondary acquitted itself quite well, thank you very much.  Pat Chung played easily his best game as a pro, with 16 combined tackles, several that stopped third down plays and forced punts.  The other revelation was Darius Butler, who showed outstanding instincts in guessing correctly and stuffing several plays; he also contributed 8 tackles of his own.  First rounder Devin McCourty knocked away the first pass to Terrell Owens, and did not appear confused on a single play.

The linebackers started Rob Ninkovich, which was a surprise.  He did okay holding the point in the running game, and forced a fumble, which he recovered.  Jerod Mayo starred for this unit, notching 12 tackles and doing a nice job in pass coverage.  Brandon Spikes didn't get embarrassed; he remains a half-step behind some plays, but that should improve as he plays more.  And I can't forget to mention Gary Guyton's INT return for a touchdown -- a beautiful undercut of the route and dash down the sideline.

Aside from the receiver play, the D-line is the most interesting facet of the team right now.  The rotation obviously isn't set, with players seeming to enter and leave the game at random.  Sometimes they went with one D-lineman, sometimes only one had a hand on the ground and the others shifted around pre-snap.  And for the most part the mix worked well..  As expected Mike Wright gets more pressure on the QB than Ty Warren did; but his side was run on frequently.  None of the young linemen did anything outstanding or tragic.  And given the bad performances some of them had last year and in the pre-season, that counts as improvement.

The D-line will be a work in progress, but one thing is crystal clear from this game.  Bill Belichick trusts his secondary enough to call man-to-man coverage and start blitzing again.  It's been a while since the team consistently used blitzes to overload one side of the offense or brought defensive backs from unexpected angles.  But if this game is any indication, you will see a lot of that this year.

Special teams produced the most inconsistent results of the day.  Brandon Tate electrified the crowd with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and the kick coverage teams did a great job all day, starting with a swarming tackle on the opening kick.  But Stephen Gostkowski made only 1 of 3 field goal attempts, one of which was a 47 yarder that he has to be able to hit.  So Gostkowski has some work to do; though the rest of the special teams should be proud of their performance.

The Patriots coaches clearly outperformed their counterparts on the other side.  They took full advantage of the new offensive weapons and improved speed on defense, whereas the Bengals failed to utilize their new receiving corps to their fullest potential.  However, the Patriots failed at halftime adjustments, much like last year.  They gave up two long touchdown drives before coming up with something to slow down the Bengals, and their only drive during that time was a 3-and-out.  That is only good enough when you have a four-score lead -- it can't continue against the likes of Baltimore or Indianapolis... those teams will make the Patriots pay.

So where does that leave us?  1-0 and flying high for the moment.  The Jets play tonight, and the Patriots play them in New York next Sunday, which is a key early matchup in the division.  But for now, rest easy and enjoy the win.  The schedule is tough this year, so every victory must be savored :)

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For only the fourth time since Bill Belichick took over as head coach (161 regular season games), the Patriots scored at least one touchdown on offense, defense, and special teams.  (Trivia question: can you name the last year they did that?  Bonus, can you name the team?  Double-bonus, can name any of the players who scored touchdowns that day?  Answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "People can doubt the secondary all they want.  But they probably won't face a tougher wide receiver tandem all year, and they controlled Ochocinco and T.O. pretty well."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer:


On December 5, 2004 against the Cleveland Browns, Corey Dillon, David Patten, and Kevin Faulk scored offensive touchdowns, Bethel Johnson returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, and the immortal Randall Gay returned a fumble 41 yards for a touchdown. 

Note: if you figured that one out, how about telling me the two other years/opponents/players involved in these types of games under Bill Belichick.  Good luck!  (I will post the answer later this week.)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

2010 Preview: The Schedule

Having written up sections covering the Offense, Defense, Special Teams, and Coaching, here is my final submission of the 2010 Patriots Preview -- the dreaded Schedule.  This is where I try (in vain) to predict which games the Patriots will win and lose before the season even starts.  And as always, broken up into quarters of the season with 4 games per quarter.

Please don't ask what I'll do if they expand to 18 games; maybe expand the predictions with the last two games in an Overtime section or something.  And let me tell you before I start, this is by far the toughest season to predict.  Not because of uncertainty about the team, but because the schedule is very difficult and their opponents all play tough schedules, too.  So it's brutal to figure out how one team's schedule will impact them, before or after they play the Patriots.  In any event... here goes.

First Quarter

New England hosts the Bengals to start the year, and the Bengals brought back important defensive starters and added talent at wide receiver that makes them a very dangerous team.  Couple that with the Patriots inexperience in the secondary, and you'd expect a blowout by the Bengals.  But don't forget that the Patriots added offensive talent, the play-calling was a lot better in the pre-season, and Tom Brady looks like his old self.  But the Bengals have trouble scoring and winning on opening day unless the other team is bad.  And I don't expect the Patriots to be bad, so the Patriots sneak out a win.

The next game is the much anticipated tilt with the "Hard Talks" Jets.  Unfortunately for New York, they got worse on offense since their last game against the Patriots -- a 31-14 loss.  They did bring in long time Tom Brady nemesis Jason Taylor, and might have a slightly better defense than last year.  But the second meeting of 2009 was telling -- Wes Welker played in it and the Patriots destroyed the Jets.  Add to the NY negatives that they play a Monday Night game the week before, giving them a short week to recover from a physical game against the Ravens, and it looks like the Pats should win.

Pats/Bills follows the next week, and it's a no-brainer.  The Patriots haven't lost to the Bills since opening day of 2003 (13 straight victories), and after a disappointing season last year, Buffalo is in full rebuilding mode.  The only way the Pats lose is the old "trap game" scenario... but they only have to stay half-focused to beat their favorite whipping boys.  Put it in the win column... but don't bet on it, given the "trap game" possibility.

The Monday night game against Miami is a tough one to call.  Miami has a tough road prior to the game (at Minnesota and at home against the Jets).  This is their second consecutive prime time game, and that actually works against them because the Florida heat won't be nearly as bad at night.  However, without Jason Taylor the defense will have a tougher time stopping the improved Patriots offense.  And that probably turns the game in the Patriots favor -- close but probably a Patriots win.

Second Quarter

After the bye week, the Pats start the second quarter of the season against the Ravens.  The Pats eked out a win against Baltimore in the 2009 regular season.  But the Ravens defense dominated in their playoff victory in Gillette Stadium.  Baltimore has added significant offensive talent, and QB Joe Flacco should be better in his third year.  The Ravens defense is old and has some injuries coming out of the pre-season, but they should be up to the task this early in the season, so put the Patriots down for their first loss of the year.

Next up is a trip to the west coast to play the Chargers.  San Diego always sports a balanced offense, with upper-echelon QB Philip Rivers and a good running game.  They also play the 3-4, which historically gives the Patriots more trouble because it is designed to stop the pass.  The additional problem for the Pats is that the Chargers have a very easy schedule before and after.  Coupled with the Pats physical game with the Ravens the week before, the Patriots will likely lose this one.

The week after, the Patriots return home for a tilt against Minnesota.  Brett Favre didn't do very well opening night against the Saints, but he should round into form by this game.  And in combination with Adrian Peterson and the running game, the Vikings should have a good offense.  They also have a good defense, that gets a lot of pressure on the quarterback.  So why am I choosing the Patriots to win?  Because the Vikings have two road games in a row, including a division game on Sunday night the week before.  And the Patriots haven't lost to an NFC foe in Foxboro since 2002 (trivia question: name the team, answer below).  So I'm crossing my fingers and marking down a Patriots victory.

Fortunately, the Pats get their second bye week after that -- that is, they play a rebuilding Cleveland team.  The Browns feature QB Jake Delhomme, who will likely have trouble tamping down his gunslinger instincts for the team's short-and-controlled passing attack.  Note that the Browns have a bye just before this game, and the last time Eric Mangini took on Bill Belichick after Mangini had a bye week, the Jets surprised the Pats with an upset win.  The Pats will have to keep their concentration against this lesser opponent, but it should end in a Patriots win.

Third Quarter

The Pats open the third quarter of the season at Pittsburgh on a Sunday night.  Ben Roethlisberger will return from his suspension four weeks earlier, so he should be doing okay by then.  But the Steelers have a very tough schedule just before this game, with two division contests and a trip to New Orleans to take on the defending champions.  All that should work in the Patriots favor, and I don't think Pittsburgh is quite the club they were two or three years ago, so expect the Patriots to pull out a late victory.

Then it's on to the Colts, at Gillette this year for a change.  Indy plays Cincy, New England, San Diego, and Dallas in a row, and this is their only road game of the bunch.  Last year's game should have gone the Patriots way; the defense played well enough to win but the offense turned the ball over twice in the red zone.  Don't expect that to happen again.  And even though it won't be easy to come back on a shortish week from the Pittsburgh game, this feels like a year the Patriots take the Colts down.

That brings us to Thanksgiving at Detroit, which could be a letdown game under normal circumstances.  But by this point in the season Belichick will have enough film on rookie QB Sam Bradford to attack his weaknesses.  Or Bradford will be benched in favor of the dreck they have behind him.  Either way, the Pats have enough talent to overcome the very short week, and should leave Detroit with another win.

When the Pats and Jets meet again in Gillette on Monday, 12/6, both teams will have had 10 days off to plan and prepare for the game.  But the storyline should be the same; can the Jets muster enough offense to keep up with an improved Patriots offense.  The answer is probably not, but it is tough to sweep a good division opponent and at this point in the season the Jets will need this game more.  This is my surprise upset of the season, with the Jets using full-on emotion to will themselves to the win.

Fourth Quarter

After the emotion of the Jets game, the last quarter of the season will start with a loss to the Packers at home.   Green Bay has a very good team, balance on offense and a physical defense, both things that give the Patriots trouble, and that Jets game is bound to take something out of the Patriots.

Next up are the Bears, who have big trouble on the offensive line and unfortunately face the Patriots after two straight losses.  Belichick must be licking his chops at the thought of facing Jay Cutler, the turn-over machine.  Pats offense will put enough pressure on Cutler to perform, and he will fold under that pressure.  Pats win.

The Bills are the Bills, so the Patriots win the next game at Buffalo.

And the Patriots finish up against the Dolphins in Foxboro the day after Christmas.  This game must have been a gift for being so good over the years -- it's always great to watch warm weather teams come north to get their butts kicked.  Should happen again; Patriots get 'em down and let 'em start thinking about warmer climes.

The Pats defensive inexperience could cost them a game, so probably 11-5 or 12-4 for the season.  Not bad given the very difficult schedule, and 12-4 could put them in contention for a playoff bye week.  Here's hoping.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

PPS.  Trivia answer: the Green Bay Packers beat the Patriots 28-10 in October of 2002.

2010 Preview: Special Teams & Coaching

The final factors in how the Patriots will do this year are special teams and coaching.  So as a follow-up to my posts on the 2010 offense and defense, here is a breakdown of the Patriots special teams and coaching changes and projections for the upcoming season.

Arrivals and Departures

Regarding special teams players, say "bye-bye" to Chris Hanson, replaced as both punter and place kick holder by rookie Zoltan Mesko.  It also appears that Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk won't be returning punts anymore, letting younger players Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate take on those roles.

Replacing Hanson was inevitable; he ranked 36th in punting in a 32 team league last year, so he had to go.  Mesko had one difficult pre-season game punting (27.2 yards a kick against the Rams), but overall is a vast improvement at the position.  He also handled the kick placement duties well, and even had a few punts downed inside the 10 yard line.

Welker's injury made it equally inevitable that he would not be returning kicks this year.  Edelman showed nifty moves in tight quarters on a few returns this pre-season, and Tate took one the distance and notched several other long kickoff returns.  So overall, it looks like the special teams are improved.

As for coaching changes, the Patriots finally parted company with Dean Pees, the supposed defensive coordinator who basically implemented what Belichick told him.  BB named no replacement for Pees, although Matt Patricia is widely viewed as the de facto DC.  They also let got of their two tight end coaches, Pete Mangurian and Shane Waldron, and reportedly installed Brian Ferentz to coach that position.

Pees departure will only be a positive if Belichick trusts Patricia enough to manage the defense on game days, and frankly it isn't clear that is the case.  If he doesn't trust Matt, Bill will spend too much time on defense and not enough overseeing the entire team on Sundays -- and that won't be much of a change from past years.

The team needed to upgrade the tight end coaching.  They've gotten just about zero production from that position for years, and they wear out slot receivers (e.g. Troy Brown and Wes Welker) trying to compensate.  If the pre-season is any indication, this change will pay huge dividends -- the two rookies look really good, Hernandez as a receiver and Gronkowski as a well-rounded tight end.  And even stalwart Alge Crumpler made some noise when he got on the field.

All in all, the coaching changes are positive; just not sure how positive yet.

Gostkowski Somehow Gets Even Better

The only things that is essentially the same in the pre-season as they are in the regular season are kickoffs, extra points, and field goals (note: not kickoff coverage, just kickoffs themselves).  Not a lot of mixing and matching new long snappers or holders -- what you see in the exhibition games is what you get when the games count.

So it was great to see that Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski was even *better* this pre-season than he was last year.  About 28% of his kickoffs were not returned (and a few others should not have been), bettering his best year by 7%, and the return yards against him got lower and lower with each pre-season game.

His field goals appear to be much more down the middle (save the one that hit the goal post and went through), although three attempts is a small sample size.  Last year he sported his lowest field goal percentage, and even though he is the most accurate kicker in Patriots history it was nice to see his place kicks stay down the middle.

Now if he could just improve his tackling technique, he'd be the perfect kicker.  (Note: if you don't get that reference, you don't watch the pre-season as obsessively as I do.)

Great Scott!

Many people around here hold a soft spot in their hearts for all players and coaches who helped the Patriots win those three Super Bowls.  But even so, it was probably time to replace Brad Seeley when he voluntarily left the team after the 2008 season.  His special teams coaching was crucial in the 2001 Super Bowl run, but it was time for some new ideas in that phase of the game.

Enter Scott O'Brien, who instilled an aggressive attitude in his coverage teams that led to forced turnovers early in the 2009 campaign.  With a full off-season to implement his system (for which he won awards and praise in Cleveland, Carolina, and Denver), you can expect a better return game and better kick coverage.

All the attitude aside, O'Brien shows great attention to detail and the ability to coach players in the finer points.  For example, rookie punter Zoltan Mesko had a bad game against St. Louis, but with coaching from O'Brien he got things straightened out for the final pre-season game, with two kicks downed inside the 20 and an improved average.

He also oversaw the transition from long snapping veteran Lonie Paxton to rookie Jake Ingram last year... and Ingram was actually *better* than Paxton, delivering nothing but perfect long snaps all year.

So don't forget when you see big returns by Brandon Tate or Julian Edleman, or perhaps a long field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, that O'Brien is the man behind the curtain.

Making a Difference-Maker

Everyone knows that when the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, they got just enough offense to compliment a stingy defense.  But what they also got was plays on special teams.  In their 2001 AFC Championship Game, they had both a punt return and a blocked field goal return for touchdowns.  And that was a week after Adam Vinatieri's miracle kick in the snow.

It has been a while since special teams did much for them in the post-season, or helped them get there in the first place.  But with a new-ish coach and new returners, this year could be different.  Julian Edelman had a nifty 40 yard punt return through traffic, and Brandon Tate outran everyone for a 97 yard kickoff return touchdown.

Add to that the improved distance on Gostkowski's kickoffs and much improved punting from Mesko, and special teams could be an actual weapon for the Patriots this year.  It's been a while, but it could help cover a lot of issues while the inexperienced defense gets its bearings.  Never hurts to get a short field for your offense or force the other team to drive a long field.


Definite improvement in the punting and return games; though there were some hiccups in kick coverage, and no turnovers in the pre-season.  But overall I think Gostkowski will be more accurate and his kickoffs will be longer, and Mesko is a fine replacement for Chris Hanson, so this unit will be improved in 2010.

As for coaching, no guarantees.  The new tight ends coach has a lot to work with, and it all looks good so far.  However, if Belichick can't trust someone to manage the defense on game day, that will hurt all other aspects of the team on Sundays.  Last year they had a lot of issues with clock management and personnel groupings, both of which are problems they rarely had in the past.  And that comes back to the head coach, who was probably busy with the defense when some of that happened.  He has enough to handle during the game without having to diagram Xs and Os when Matt Patricia should be doing it.

If Bill can let go, then we'll see significant improvement.  If not, it'll be more modest improvement.  But improvement either way.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

2010 Preview: Defense

The 2009 Patriots defense played better than most media mouths seem to think, finishing fifth in the league in points allowed (18 points a game).  Not bad for a unit with more first-year starters than veterans.  But things have changed a *lot* this off-season, and not all of it for the better.  Read on for details on those changes (click here for my preview of the offense).

Arrivals and Departures

This section is almost long enough to constitute an entry of its own.  Let's start with the defensive line.

Ty Warren was injured during camp and is out for the year, and Jarvis Green left in free agency.  To counter that the team signed Damione Lewis from Carolina and Gerard Warren from Oakland.  Not exactly what I'd call an even swap.  And you might notice two guys named Ron Brace and Myron Pryor on the field.  They aren't newcomers; both were seldom used rookies in 2009.

Ty Warren was good but not great the past few years, but he was held up well against the run and never complained about his role.  He is reportedly a good locker room presence, and will be missed for certain.  Jarvis Green's departure compounds the loss of Warren, as Green excelled as a spot starter and fill in.  Green never dominated (save for one playoff game) and his weaknesses were obvious when he had to start last year.  But he brought depth and experience, and he was valuable when someone needed a rest.

Mike Wright could actually be a decent replacement for Warren.  He played in place of Vince Wilfork last year, but his size projects better at an outside line position.  He might not shut down the run like Ty, but his speed could mean more pressure on the QB.  Gerard Warren looked decent in the pre-season, and frankly replacing Jarvis Green it isn't exactly trying to fill Hall of Fame shoes.

Linebackers shuffled around as much as the D-line.  Junior Seau retired again, the Pats cut semi-disappointment Adalius Thomas, and they cut then resigned then cut Derrick Burgess.  The team brought in Marques Murrell from the Jets, traded for Tracy White at the 11th hour, and cut Shawn Crable so they could put him on the practice squad.  And if that wasn't enough change for you, they also drafted Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham (who played defensive end in college but projects as a linebacker).

To boil it all down, your opening day starters are Tully Banta-Cain, Jerod Mayo coming back from injury, the rookie Spikes, and free agent Murrell.  Banta-Cain was last year's defensive MVP, though it's still a bit of a mixed bag with him, and Mayo was NFL defensive rookie of the year two years ago, so those guys can play.  Spikes showed flashes of talent in the pre-season, but there will undoubtedly be growing pains, and Murrell plays best in a 3-4, so he was out of sorts with the Jets switch to a 4-3.

If Mayo stays healthy, then either Spikes or Murrell has to step up their game this year for the linebackers to work well together.  The four of them can combine to make up for a problem in one spot, but they can't cover up if both Spikes and Murrell fall on their faces.  Gary Guyton is a decent backup, and the team also cut longtime backups Eric Alexander and Pierre Woods, so the coaches must have faith in the newcomers.

On the back line, Brandon McGowan and Leigh Bodden are both out for the year with injuries and Shawn Springs was cut in the off-season.  They drafted corner Devin McCourty in the first round.

Bodden was their best corner last year, so he will be sorely missed.  The starting lineup projects with McCourty (rookie) and Darius Butler (2nd year) at corner, with Brandon Meriweather (4th year) and James Sanders (6th year) at safety.  Backing them up are Jonathan Wilhite (3rd year) and Terrence Wheatley (3rd year), Pat Chung (2nd year), and Kyle Arrington (2nd year).  So as you can see, it's a youth movement like nothing we've seen from the Patriots under Bill Belichick.

McCourty played well in the pre-season, and Butler was solid last year, but their backups (Wilhite and Wheatley) haven't shown the ability to cover top flight receivers.  So health will be key at corner, where they have potential with the first team but the second team hasn't shown the ability to compete at the highest level.  James Sanders is underrated as a safety, almost as much as Brandon Meriweather is overrated.  But don't expect the problems to come at safety -- those two are solid enough to take care of business.


The real issue with this defense is depth.  On the D-line, Wilfork was injured last year, Warren is out this year, and Jarvis Green -- well, he's out there as a free agent but he is not on the Patriots (yet).  Ron Brace looked terrible last year and Myron Pryor only looked a little bit better.  Both appeared a bit improved in the pre-season, but the team has an awful lot of "ifs" on the D-line, a unit that ranked among the team's strongest and deepest just two years ago.

At linebacker, Mayo and Banta-Cain should be fine, and Spikes should excel despite some early hiccups.  But if any of these guys get injured, only Gary Guyton can step in as a decent backup.  Cunningham is a rookie project, and veteran Rob Ninkovich always looks good in the pre-season -- against the other team's second string.  Maybe the plan is to bring back Derrick Burgess to cover injuries, but with the players on the roster, this is a concern.

And in the secondary, the Patriots are counting on unproven young players and the current crop of backups haven't displayed enough talent to instill confidence.  They have some depth at safety, with Pat Chung, but if you see Jonathan Wilhite or Terrence Wheatley covering #1 receivers it will not be a good year.

Out of Their Depth

The Patriots defense is young, and that is probably a good thing.  They kept too many older players in 2007 and 2008 in an attempt to go for it all, and it did not pay off.  So at some point they had to rebuild with young players, and apparently last year and this year are that time.

But on defense the Patriots need contributions from 13 players who haven't been to their five-year college reunion yet.  Heck, some of them haven't been to their five-year *high school* reunion yet.  This list would frighten any hardcore fan, and any organization that banks on so many young players is risking a lot...

Starters: Devin McCourty, Darius Butler, Brandon Meriweather, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, and Marques Murrell.
Backups: Jonathan Wilhite, Terrence Wheatley, Pat Chung, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, Gary Guyton, and Rob Ninkovich.

To be fair, some of the players would find a place on most any team (Mayo and Meriweather), and some showed glimpses of solid or even great play last year (Butler, Guyton, and Chung).  But it would be an understatement to call it unnerving to have this much youth on the field at once.  Not a normal situation for a division winner with aspirations to greatness. 

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

Dean Pees "retired" last year, and the Pats did not name a new defensive coordinator.  But the fact is that Bill Belichick was the de facto DC the entire time Pees was here, and that won't change no matter which assistant takes the pseudo-DC role this year.

And Belichick did pretty well last year, turning over more than half of the defensive starters and finishing fifth in the league on defense.  But he will have his hands full in 2010 -- with even more young players to integrate and much less depth at each position.

This approach has not yielded a Super Bowl yet; but few coaches in the NFL do a better job with a defense than Belichick.  However, it remains to be seen if his hands-on defensive approach will cost the offense the time and attention it needs (as it did in Super Bowl XLII).

Maybe more balance on offense (as written yesterday) will mean a more balanced head coach ;)


This is a difficult defense to figure out, given the uncertainty of the backups.  If Jarvis Green is healthy the Patriots should try to sign him to provide some D-line depth.  And the offense should go great-guns this year, which will tend to make the Pats opponents more one-dimensional, and thus easier to defend.  The Pats will likely slip from fifth in points allowed, but the question is how far they fall down the list.

By the end of the year, the young players could be coming into their own -- but with the lack of depth and number of injuries they traditionally face, this will be an area of concern all year.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

2010 Preview: Offense

Since the updates are getting longer and longer, I decided to split the 2010 season preview into four sections, one each for offense, defense, special teams/coaching, and the schedule.  Last year's season preview clocked in at 2,850 words, and it can be tough to read through it all at once.  Let me know how you like this year's bite-sized portions.

Arrivals and Departures

At the end of 2009, the Patriots cut both of their active tight ends, Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker, leaving them with no tight ends at all.  They signed veteran Alge Crumpler and drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to shore up the position.

Letting Watson and Baker go constituted addition by subtraction.  Watson never lived up to his pre-draft hype, and had fewer catches than Crumpler last year (even though Alge didn't have a future Hall of Famer throwing to him).  And Baker's best work came in the pre-season; he was mostly invisible once the real games started.

Crumpler did indeed outperform Watson last year, even with Vince Young at QB.  But he will mostly be a blocking tight end here (though he might be used in the red zone) and brings years of NFL experience to help the rookies.  It appears that experience has already paid dividends.  Most observers think Hernandez had a great camp and made some highlight-reel catches.  And Gronkowski showed great blocking, route-running, and receiving skills throughout the pre-season.  The team needs to take pressure off Wes Welker in the short/middle passing game, and the new tight ends should fill that bill.

The only new face at wide receiver is Brandon Tate, who was sort of invisible as a rookie last year.  And of course, Wes Welker returns from his knee injury in record time -- he is likely your week 1 starter.

The improvement at WR will come when they pair Tate's speed opposite Randy Moss.  With two legitimate deep threats, things should open up even more underneath for the new tight ends and "slot machine" Welker.   Add to that a full off-season as a receiver for Julian Edelman, who does a pretty good Welker imitation underneath, and this part of the offense could be much improved.

There are some changes along the offensive line.  Logan Makins continues his holdout, and Nick Kazcur is out for the year with an injury.  They added Quinn Ojinnaka via trade from Atlanta.

For the time being, Sebastian Vollmer swapped to right tackle, with Matt Light returning to left tackle.  And with Kazcur's injury, Dan Connolly would be your starter on opening day, unless Mankins decides to return by then (which seems less and less likely).  This is not a good situation, and they could really use Mankins back.  Connolly played well in the pre-season, but the team has little O-line depth with Mankins at home.

There are virtually no changes at running back or quarterback.

Old Coach, New Tricks

Even though RB and QB remain the same as last year, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien is not using them the same way.  In three of the four pre-season games, he featured more of Brady under center (rather than the shotgun), a *lot* more two- and three-tight end formations, and more running plays.

This balanced offense, coupled with Brady's re-commitment to play-action fakes, gave them more time in the passing game, and it also kept Brady upright most of the pre-season (sacked only twice in four games).  Defenses were on their heels, trying to cope with the Patriots quick-strike passing game and this newfound running attack.

In the St. Louis game they reverted the shotgun/spread formation, and the offense produced a lot more three-and-outs than scoring drives.  O'Brien appeared to learn from this, mixing in more under-center and running plays in the last game against the Giants.

If the run-pass mix is more than a pre-season experiment, it bodes well for the Patriots.  It always pays to keep the defense honest, and with the shakeup along the offensive line, a more balanced offense will keep Tom Brady healthy a lot longer than the pass-happy offense of 2009. 

Running Afterthoughts 

For the second straight year the Patriots did not bring in a young running back to challenge for playing time or help shoulder the burden.  In fact, three of their five backs have more than 10 years in the league: Fred Taylor (13), Kevin Faulk (12), and Sammy Morris (11).  Other than that, they have hard-working but under-talented BenJarvus Green-Ellis and first round disappointment Laurence Maroney.

Some in the media wonder what is going on at the position, and a few even predicted Maroney would be released.  But the answer is clear if you know football and think about it carefully.

Even with a re-dedication to the run, the primary job of backs on this team is to pick up the blitz and provide an effective outlet for Tom Brady.  It's a passing league, so running backs who can't learn the protection schemes, can't get the timing on outlet passes, or can't catch the ball are of no use here.  That's why young running backs don't play here; the pass protection is difficult to learn, so it's safer to bring in more experienced backs like Taylor.

That is also why Laurence Maroney will have a job here for years to come.  Maroney is very good in blitz pickup, has good hands, and can gain decent yardage on outlet passes because he's better in space than between the tackles.  He will replace Kevin Faulk when Faulk retires because they both are ideal third-down backs -- but in the meantime, he'll have a job here as long as he's healthy enough.

Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris are injury prone.  They will start the season carrying the most, but once one or both break down it will fall to Maroney and Green-Ellis, who have not missed significant time to injury.  That makes a sort of symbiotic sense.

Again, don't expect the Patriots to return to elite status by running all the time.  And don't expect a lot of first and second year running backs to get significant playing time.  It just isn't going to happen.


The Pats made substantial offensive improvements, and if offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia can hold that unit together the Pats could be much more productive on offense.  Brady had an almost perfect pre-season -- the lone blemish being a lazy "bomb to Randy Moss" that was intercepted.   But overall, the offense showed more balance and trickery, and frankly, a lot more skill at the skill positions.

With the new tight ends, more outside speed with Brandon Tate, and a better run-pass mix, the Patriots could improve by 5 points a game this year.  And they scored 27 a game last year -- so that would be impressive.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!