Friday, August 19, 2011

Tom Brady, Defense Shine In Patriots Victory

The New England Patriots cruised to a 31-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Thursday night, improving to 2-0 in the preseason. They also gave key starters their first action of the year, and the Patriots dominated the first half with a well-tuned offense and an attacking defense. Overall, a nice win that appeared to be mostly injury-free and provided a few clues to how the new players will integrate with 2010’s 14-2 squad.

As with last week, there will always be more good than bad when the team wins.

The Good

Quarterback Tom Brady sliced up the Tampa Bay defense with a line of 11 for 19, 118 yards, 2 easy touchdowns, and no interceptions. He was almost untouched on the first two drives, which looked like 7-on-7 drills. Brady was comfortable in the pocket and deadly accurate, and when the defense started to get some pressure he mixed in the run very effectively.

Defensive end Andre Carter tore up the Tampa Bay offensive line all night long. He consistently beat his man to the outside, either forcing the quarterback up in the pocket or into an early throw. The Buccaneers never slid more protection his way, so Carter just kept coming, and for one game he looked better around the edge than any Patriots pass rusher since, gulp... Willie McGinest. (BTW, how Carter ended up with zero tackles on the stat sheet is beyond me.)

Linebacker Jerod Mayo played inside and outside, blitzing off the edge for two sacks and some stops in the running game. He was sharp, showed the explosion and instincts of his rookie campaign, and was better in pass coverage than he’s ever been. Impressive improvement from the 2010 league leader in tackles.

Tight End Aaron Hernandez moved out of “The Bad” category from last week, scoring a touchdown on a nice route early on and catching 3l passes for 42 yards. Most important, no fumbles, despite taking a big hit on one catch.

The committee of running backs all contributed in their own style. BenJarvus Green-Ellis gave Brady a break from the increasing pressure and brought the hammer 11 times for 51 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and 2 touchdowns. Scatback Danny Woodhead ran 5 draws out of the spread formation for 63 yards, a whopping 12.5 YPC. And though Stevan Ridley played against the second string, his 14 carries for 84 yards are impressive nonetheless -- as is his continued decent job in blitz pickup.  No drop-off from the rookie so far.

Receiver Wes Welker caught 5 passes for 56 yards in the first half. And those catches included a 14 yard grab on second-and-goal from the Tampa 15 (Green-Ellis scored on the next play), a tough catch over the middle, and a third-down conversion from the Patriots 3 yard line just before the half. In other words, he picked up right where he left off last year.

Punter Zoltan Mesko finally got in 5 kicks for an average of 45.8 yards (41.4 net). And not only were his punts high and long, he held on a 44 yard field goal in the rain... and that one went right down the middle. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski will make this list again when they let him kick more than one field goal -- or when he starts kicking off again.

The entire offensive line should take a bow. Multiple running plays saw rookie Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer blocking 5 or 10 yards down field. And in pass protection, Brady had all the time he needed on the early drives, with a perfect pocket and not a Tampa Bay Buc to be found anywhere nearby. Tight end Rob Gronkowski also did a nice job of run and pass blocking.

(Note: the secondary obviously played well, given the numbers, but the small number of camera angles and lack of replays didn’t really allow for analysis of that unit.)

The Bad

Quarterback Ryan Mallett’s first interception was the worst throw by a Patriots quarterback since Scott Secules left the team. In an obvious mis-communication between him and a receiver -- who incidentally never even appeared in the television shot -- Mallett threw a duck up for grabs that was picked and returned for a touchdown. His play wasn’t all bad; he adjusted and went short after that, but the INT was a bad mistake that even a rookie should not make.

Defensive back Darius Butler makes the list again for showing up milliseconds late on at least three passes, allowing completions when he should have broken up the play. He was a little better than last week, but not good enough to escape judgment on “The Bad” list. And if rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling ever gets to play, Butler’s days on the team could well be numbered.


The defense attacked more than they have in years. Flush with talent on the front seven, they went after Tampa quarterbacks with abandon. They only got two sacks, but had the QBs on the run the entire game. This unit could be scary if defensive linemen Shaun Ellis and Albert Haynesworth are healthy enough to play when the season begins.

As for the first team offense, it was much like last year, when they led the NFL in scoring while setting a record for fewest turnovers in an NFL season. Chad Ochocinco got his first two receptions and seems to be learning the routes well enough, though with Welker and Hernandez playing well, they might not need big contributions from Ochocinco. Ridley’s excellent play continues to impress. He literally looked like a man among boys when he was running over the Tampa Bay second stringers.

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