Monday, November 28, 2011

Patriots Roar Back To Beat Eagles 38-20

The Patriots scored on multiple long drives to overcome an early deficit and emerge with a 38-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. The win gives them effectively a three-game lead over their nearest division rivals (three games over Buffalo, two games and a tie-breaker over New York). And they enjoy a psuedo-bye with a "contest" against the absolutely pathetic, 0-11, Manning-less Colts. At home, at 1:00 for a change.

This one didn't look good at first, with a quick 10-0 lead for Philly on two quick-strike scoring drives. The defense was reeling, couldn't make a play, and on the second drive they were lucky to stop Philly for the field goal. But just when the game could have gotten out of hand and the defense needed some rest and time to regroup, the offense stepped up with a 12-play, 70-yard, 6:52 touchdown drive.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, the Patriots used that time to rest and make adjustments, and Philly scored on only two of their last nine possessions (including a garbage-time touchdown to make the score more respectable). The linebackers and secondary stopped going for play-action fakes, and combined with a Eagles' miscues (ill-timed penalties and dropped passes), the Pats rode a machine-like offense to an easy win.

The defensive line did a credible job up front all day; moving Eagles quarterback Vince Young around in the pocket without giving him too many big running plays. Inside linemen Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love applied pressure up the middle, while Andre Carter and Mark Anderson (and occasionally linebacker Rob Ninkovich) looped around the outside to keep Young in the pocket. Young made them pay with big plays early; but after making the necessary adjustments, the pressure harassed Young enough to knock him off his game.

The linebackers were confused and out of position early on -- biting on play-action fakes and leaving huge gaps in the defense. But once things settled down, they let the Eagles run; and of course, once the Patriots got a big lead, running the ball wasn't going to do it any more. Still without Brandon Spikes, Gary Guyton (2 tackles) and special-teamer Tracy White (4) were pressed into service, and it showed. Both let backs and tight ends run away from them, but in their defense (no pun intended), they did battle to stop receivers short of first downs and competed on pass plays when they were close enough.

Ninkovich is blossoming, now that the defensive ends are getting pressure on the quarterbacks. He obviously does well on his first read, so when the opposing QB doesn't have time for a second- or third-read, Ninkovich looks a lot better. Jerod Mayo was uncharacteristically quiet (3 tackles), obviously affected by the active Eagles offensive line and plays that seriously took him into account. Pass coverage is not Mayo's strong suit; and it showed with a couple of coverage problems.

Julian Edelman helped the secondary immeasurably. That's right, the wide receiver -- he had a pressure that caused an incompletion late in the game, made a first-down-saving tackle with the game still in doubt, made a perfect tackle on Vince Young's attempted touchdown scramble, and shut down -- that's right -- shut down Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson. He covered Jackson three times that I saw, and each time Jackson couldn't shake free.

The other defensive backs were pretty good... after the first ten minutes or so. Kyle Arrington got beaten a few times, but had two passes defended and ten tackles. His compete-level is off the charts; I'd hate to play "chicken" with him, because he'd never give in. Antwaun Molden has played 43 NFL games, and he had his second pass defended and his first interception in this one. And the interception came in the second quarter, with the game still very much in doubt.

Bill Belichick said recently that even though the secondary players weren't drafted high and they didn't come from renowned schools, he'd go to battle with them. He stated that they take coaching, do what they are supposed to do, and compete hard on every play, and that is true of the whole crew. They might even help him to a 12-4 record. But even Belichick will feel a lot better if Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty return to the lineup.

On offense, it was another slow start for quarterback Tom Brady. He took some serious hits on the first drive, and the Patriots mixed in an effective running attack after that to slow down the Philadelphia pass rush. The stat sheet lists only one sack and two quarterback hits of Brady, but he got hit at least ten times in this game. However, you have to give the Patriots credit for using the run and the no-huddle to slow down the pass rush.

Brady had three spectacular plays that deserve special mention. On the first one, he made a free blitzer whiff and stepped up, directing Deion Branch down the sideline, and he completed the pass for 63 yards. On the second, he threw a perfect hardball pass to Wes Welker in the flat, and Welker turned quickly to reach out for the touchdown. The third was a perfect pass over the middle to tight end Rob Gronkowski, just after he broke free and just before the safety got in to break up the pass. On the day Brady completed 24 of 34 for 361 yards, 3 touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 134.6 passer rating. He also had two scrambles (and two divots).

Welker (8 catches for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Branch (6 for 125) led the receivers, with tight ends Gronkowski (4 for 59 and 1) and Aaron Hernandez (6 for 62) doing their usual "matchup nightmare" thing. Philly is the third team to cover Gronkowski with their best corner (Nnamdi Asomugha in this case), but to no avail. And it looked like Brady could complete a pass to Hernandez whenever he wanted.

Branch and Welker were in total sync with the quarterback, a good thing as the team heads into December. However, a word of caution from someone who's seen this before. Completing passes to only four receivers is not a recipe for playoff success. The running backs and other receivers need to be more involved; because in the post-season, defenses are usually good enough to stop the #1 and sometimes #2 receivers.

Brady was also the second leading rusher, complementing BenJarvus Green-Ellis (14 carries for 44 yards). Danny Woodhead was more involved, and Shane Vereen got into the act late (7 for 18). Overall not a lot of production; but every running play was crucial, because they got enough yardage to keep the Eagles defense honest, and that slowed down the pass rush (which was killing  Brady early on).

The offensive line didn't do very well. Only 2.9 yards a rush, the aforementioned hits on Brady, and Brian Waters had his worst game since joining the team. Waters committed two consecutive holding penalties, he completely missed his man on a sweep, and at least two QB hits that were his fault. He has been rock-solid, so no doubt he'll improve again. One other O-line note: Ryan Wendell is the third player to start at center, and at least his snaps were perfect. 

Special teams didn't break one like last week. But most important of all, they neutralized the Philadelphia punt return game. DeSean Jackson can break one for a touchdown every return, but punter Zoltan Mesko kicked 'em high enough to get two fair catches. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski did miss another field goal -- this time from 39 yards. Something tells me he might be affected by the relative revolving-door at long snapper. The team has had three long snappers in the last three years -- two of them rookies.

The coaching during the week is a bit suspect, because of the slow starts. The Patriots hadn't scored a first-quarter touchdown in five games; and almost didn't score one yesterday. However, the offensive and defensive adjustments were outstanding during the game. Any time you are down 10-0 and then go on a 38-3 run, your coaches did a fine job of fixing what was wrong. 

So where does that leave us? An 8-3 record is good enough for a share of the lead for #1 seed in the AFC. As stated above, the Patriots have what amounts to a three-game lead in the division with five games to play. It isn't really a Bye week against the Colts; but the Patriots should handle them at home next Sunday. 

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Wide receiver Matthew Slater has one career reception and one career rush... and two fumbles lost. (Trivia question: name the only other non-quarterback on the Patriots 2011 roster with more than with more than one lost fumble... answer below.) 

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Everyone said this game wouldn't show us much about the Patriots, but it did show the Pats coaches can out-adjust the best of 'em -- even Andy Reid.  Though it helps to be facing Vince Young."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  8-3!

PPS.  Trivia Answer:

Longtime Patriots running back Kevin Faulk has lost 16 fumbles in his career, although he does have 1,567 touches.

PPPS.  Note on fumbles: current non-QBs on the Patriots have lost fumbles only 0.65% of the time they ran or received the ball. In 3,683 touches (in a Patriots uniform), they have just 24 fumbles -- here is a list of how it breaks down:

Kevin Faulk: 1567 touches, 16 fumbles lost (1%)
Wes Welker: 628, 1 (0.16%) 
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 503, 0 (0.0%) 
Deion Branch: 352, 1 (0.28%) 
Danny Woodhead : 210, 1 (0.48%)
Rob Gronkowski: 103, 1 (0.97%)
Julian Edelman: 121, 1 (0.83%)
Aaron Hernandez: 96, 1 (1.04%) 
Stevan Ridley: 50, 0  (0.0%) 
Matthew Slater: 27, 2 (7.41%) 
Shane Vereen: 15, 0 (0.0%)
Chad Ochocinco: 11, 0 (0.0%)

Sort of puts into perspective how disappointing Matthew Slater is.

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