Monday, September 19, 2011

Patriots Capitalize on Chargers Miscues, Win 35-21

The Patriots took another game from the fumbling Chargers yesterday, winning 35-21 over Norv Turner's mistake-ridden and unprepared team. They capitalized on four San Diego turnovers to turn a close game into a comfortable win. (Trivia question: when was the last time San Diego had four turnovers against the Patriots? Answer below.) The victory helped the Patriots keep pace with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, all three tied at 2-0 atop the AFC East. And the division race will start to take shape with a showdown in Buffalo next week.

Tom Brady completed passes to five different receivers on the first drive, and didn't slow down much all afternoon. He ended the day 31 of 40 for 423 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a 135.7 rating. He was sacked twice, once on a blown play by Rob Gronkowski and the other was a coverage sack. Other than that, the offensive line did a terrific job keeping him clean.

His favorite receiver was Deion Branch, who had 8 catches for 129 yards. Most importantly, his yards after the catch got first downs three or four times, and his two sideline grabs late in the second quarter allowed the Patriots to tack on three more points before the half. Wes Welker pitched in his usual workmanlike 7 for 81, and the seemingly unstoppable Aaron Hernandez notched 7 for 62, and 1 touchdown. Even Chad Ochocinco caught 2 for 45 yards, one a nice open field grab and the other a critical third-down conversion before the Hernandez touchdown.  The receivers and tight ends also did a great job blocking downfield for each other and in the running game.

(One parenthetical note: the referees don't seem to call pass interference on plays against Patriots receivers as quickly as they call it against the Patriots defense. Rob Gronkowski was clearly interfered with on a crucial third-down early in the second half, but the refs let it go and the Patriots had to punt. But they had no problem throwing a flag when faced with a similar situation involving Antonio Gates. They were both clearly interference; so it would be nice to see equal treatment. End of rant.)

The running game retains its "afterthought" status, but as a unit they averaged 4.0 yards a carry. BenJarvus Green-Ellis continues to be the workhorse, with 17 carries, 70 yards, and 1 nice touchdown run. The Patriots lined up rookie tackle Nate Solder as a tight end, and ran around end a lot, with some success. Danny Woodhead was less effective than usual out of the shotgun, and as noted by my friend Al (The Foxboro Weather God), he always uses the cut-block on bigger players, which limits what Brady can do when the other team brings bigger blitzers. Kevin Faulk possesses the size to take on those blitzers, but he is still weeks away from playing.

Overall the offensive line played well, giving Brady time to survey the field and mostly keeping him clean. Gronkowski counts as a linemen in run blocking, and he regularly pancakes guys five yards downfield. Newcomer Brian Waters fit right in from the start, picking up the offense quickly and doing a nice job in pass protection and screen passes. Matt Light had a double-block on Green-Ellis' touchdown, and Dan Connolly hasn't blown a snap since taking over for the injured Dan Koppen at center. So much change and such good results... that earns line coach Dante Scarnecchia his first shout-out of the year.

No shout-out for defensive backs coach Josh Boyer, though. The Patriots secondary gave up too many easy yards, especially after cornerback Ras-I Dowling went to the sideline with an injury. Leigh Bodden looked like he was directing traffic, not playing defense. And Devin McCourty got out-schemed, out-jumped, and out-smarted on too many plays for the second straight week. If not for safety Sergio Brown's first interception and decent tackling by Brown and Patrick Chung, the entire game would have been an unmitigated disaster for the secondary.

The Chargers also exposed a critical lack of depth in the Patriots linebacking corps. Jerod Mayo led the team in tackles, forced a fumble and made an absolutely critical stop on fourth-and-goal at the Patriots 1 yard-line. Rob Ninkovich, a spot starter at OLB, recovered that fumble and got at least some pressure on the quarterback. However, the rest of the group could have taken the day off. Dane Fletcher is making progress but still learning, and Brandon Spikes looked absolutely lost. Coverage in the underneath zones was terrible, the secondary had three of the top four tacklers on the team, and the run defense consisted of tackles at the line or by Mayo -- or long gains stopped by the secondary.

Tough to run a 4-3 defense when you only play 4 or 5 linebackers. So they better call up someone from the practice squad or start getting production out of Spikes or playing time out of Jermaine Cunningham. Otherwise they'll be force to a 5-2 defense before you know it.

The defensive line held up well, though they did not get much pressure. This is to be expected -- until the secondary shows it can handle man-coverage when they blitz, there won't be any extra pass rushers, and so not as much pressure as you might expect with all the talent up front. But for this game, the lack of pressure did not bite them. The rotation of players keeps them fresh, and clogged up the running game, forcing San Diego to pass (not that that bothered the Chargers).

Vince Wilfork had the defensive highlight of the game, intercepting a screen pass and getting enough return yards to allow the Patriots to score a field goal late in the second half. Wilfork made a great read and tipped the ball to himself, and he looked pretty nimble for a lineman. The entire line had only 4 tackles and assisted on 3 others, but they held the line against a very good Chargers offense, and they are working their way into shape so their best players can be on the field together in crucial game situations later in the season.

Special teams specialists Matthew Slater and Tracy White had three big tackles between them. They seem to feed off each other's energy, topping one another whenever possible and celebrating big hits like rookies. And after last week's uncharacteristic missed field goal, Stephen Gostkowski was a perfect 2-2 this week, so if there was a problem with the long snapping it appears to be straightened out.

The biggest worry on special teams is the health of punter Zoltan Mesko. He hurt his left leg when one of his own players was blocked into him after a punt out of the end zone. And reportedly because of the injury, the Patriots eschewed a punt from their own 50 yard line, instead going for it on fourth-and-four -- and failing. Mesko's average is low, but that's mostly because he's been kicking to a short field. The Patriots could survive if he was out for a while, but he's the holder on field goals, so his absence would be doubly felt.

The offensive coaches should take a bow for their well-designed and executed plan. Obviously an offense ranked third in the league is pretty potent, and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien deserves credit for that. As mentioned, the secondary looks like the least prepared part of the team, though with all the new faces it is a work in progress.

So where does that leave us? 2-0 and tied for the lead in the AFC East is a good place to be. The Patriots head to Buffalo for a divisional showdown with the surprising Bills next Sunday, and if history serves, they should leave with a win. The Bills generally play the Patriots tougher in Foxboro than in Buffalo, but then they usually aren't leading the league in scoring offense, so this game might be a different story.

Play of the Game: With apologies to Wilfork, it was Mayo's stop on fourth-and-goal. A Chargers touchdown there would have put them in the lead, and instead the Patriots drove it 99 yards and built a 10-point advantage that they never relinquished.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots scored on 99-yard touchdown drive for the second week in a row. I don't have the resources to find out the last time that happened in consecutive weeks; but I'm sure it's an oddity, because I can't remember even one 99-yard touchdown drive in the last decade.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: The 2011 Patriots are on place for 8 turnovers for the year... that would break the record for fewest turnovers in a 16-game season (10), set by the 2010 Patriots.

Double-bonus Statistical Oddity: There are four undefeated teams in the AFC right now, and three of them are in the AFC East.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Miami's offense isn't good and the Chargers always self-destruct early in the season. Let's see how the Patriots handle a real juggernaut... the always tough Buffalo Bills :)"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer: of course it was the last time they played -- the Patriots got four turnovers from the Chargers in a 23-20 victory last year.

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