Monday, December 31, 2012

Patriots Down Dolphins, 28-0

Yesterday afternoon, with a chance at a first-round playoff bye, the Houston Texans laid an egg and lost 28-16.  Last night, with that same chance, the Patriots and Broncos won by a combined 66-3.  That's called finishing, folks, and the Patriots did just that, earning the #2 seed and a week off before hosting a playoff game.  The Patriots play on January 13 at 4:30, and potential playoff opponents are the Ravens, Texans, or Colts -- but all won't be revealed until after next weekend's games.

In Sunday's tilt, the Patriots offensive game plan stood out.  Coordinator Josh McDaniels called for short passes on a windy day, and the Patriots receivers were outstanding in yards-after-catch.  In the first quarter alone, they had "short passes" that went for 23, 24, and 25 yards; with most of those yards gained after the catch.  In contrast, the Dolphins tried deep throws, and some passes were badly off the mark, some were knocked away, and one was intercepted.

The defensive game plan repeated their earlier performance against rookie QB Ryan Tannehill.  They blitzed from every angle, knowing from the previous game that he'd make critical mistakes under pressure.  Tannehill might be fine in the long run, but his rookie numbers in two games against the Patriots will never impress anyone: 33 of 64 (51.5%), 421 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, 10 sacks for 36 yards, and a 66.0 QB rating.

The Patriots defense dominated, holding Reggie Bush to 3.25 yards a carry, sacking the quarterback 7 times, getting the early interception, forcing a fumble, and knocking down 6 passes.  Chandler Jones had his best game in months, with 7 tackles and 2 passes defended, and he held the edge well on running plays.  His fellow linemen did a great job against the inside run, and the other outside rusher, Justin Francis got 3 sacks of his own.  Unfortunately, starter Rob Ninkovich left the game with an injury; here's hoping it doesn't keep him out of the playoffs.

Linebacker Jerod Mayo applied good pressure on blitzes and was stout against the run.  Additionally, he made a nice play to knock down a pass, a rare pass-coverage success.  Dont'a Hightower is very up-and-down, but when the playoffs come, if Brandon Spikes returns, Hightower can return to his more natural right OLB position.  Spikes did play some yesterday, and they need him back for the playoffs, especially if Ninkovich can't go.

In the secondary, Aqib Talib missed the entire game (after missing most of Jacksonville game last week), and Alfonzo Dennard was out, too, both of which are worrisome.  The team's best secondary lineup is Talib and Dennard at corner along with Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory (or Patrick Chung) at safety.  With Talib and Dennard out, McCourty shifts to corner and Kyle Arrington joins him there.  McCourty is better than people give him credit, but Arrington plays much better against slot receivers.

The Patriots need either Talib or Dennard back for the playoffs.  They can survive with McCourty at corner and Gregory/Chung at safety, but Arrington at the second corner spot is a time bomb against teams with two good outside receivers.  And in the playoffs, there are plenty of those teams.

On offense, Rob Gronkowski returned and was effective, even if he played with only one arm.  He grabbed 2 catches for 42 yards, and had a nice seam route for a touchdown.  And even with the injured wing, he blocked better than Michael Hoomanawanui -- who was blown off the ball twice, blocked no one while a corner ran past him for a sack, and whiffed on two other blocks.  Not sure why he's in the game, but if Gronkowski isn't fully healthy for the playoffs, the Patriots offense will be... how shall we say, limited.

As for the other receivers, Wes Welker had his routine great game: 8 catches, 94 yards, 1 touchdown, and several great blocks.  Aaron Hernandez made nice yards after the catch, and the only other receiver who had a big day was running back Danny Woodhead.  As my wife pointed out, Woodhead seems to be useful situationally.  He can't pass block consistently, so he has to be used sparingly in that role.  And against some teams, he tears it up running (San Francisco and Miami), while against others, he can't seem to get started at all (New York Jets and Houston Texans).

Woodhead had a very good game this week, but the rushing star was Stevan Ridley: 20 carries for 74 yards, and 2 touchdowns.  Ridley ran hard, making multiple tacklers miss and gaining yards where none appeared to be there.  Woodhead (3-18), Brandon Bolden (6-26), and Shane Vereen (8-38) contributed to a team total of 167 yards and 4.4 yards a carry.

You don't get numbers like that without good play from the offensive line, and the Patriots line did a great job against Miami.  They gave up only one sack (and as mentioned, that was the tight end's fault), and Tom Brady was hit only twice all game.  Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer were especially active on sweeps and downfield on screen passes.  And there was almost no inside pressure, so the very good Miami outside pass rush was simply pushed past the pocket to little effect.

Brady's best qualities came out in this game.  His decision-making was nearly flawless, with audibles to a run when the Dolphins flooded the passing zones, and hot reads that beat the blitz.  How well he controlled the game is belied by his ho-hum stat-line: 22 of 36, 284 yards, 2 touchdowns, and a 104.4 QB rating.  But his focus was keen and he got the Patriots into the right look about 95% of the time, which is outstanding against a defense that knows him as well as the Dolphins.

Special teams did pretty well, although the windy day limited their opportunities.  Punter Zoltan Mesko placed put 4 of his 5 punts inside the Miami 20 yard-line.  Wes Welker had some nice punt returns, but the only Miami kickoff was downed in the end zone.  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski didn't attempt a field goal, and with good reason, if you saw how badly the Miami attempt went wide-left in a gusting wind.

As mentioned before, the coaching on both sides of the ball was very good.  The Patriots had a solid plan, and the players executed it flawlessly.  You can't ask for much better than that.

So where does that leave us?  Patriots are officially scheduled for the 4:30 game on Sunday, 1/13/13.  (As tweeted earlier, I hope those twin "13s" aren't bad luck, @yourpatriots.)  That gives the team two weeks to prepare, which is great, because Brandon Spikes, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and Aqib Talib (among others) could use the time to heal.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:
  Patriots top three tacklers were a lineman (Chandler Jones, 7), a cornerback (Kyle Arrington, 6), and a safety (Patrick Chung, 6).  Care to guess the last time no linebacker was among the top three tacklers for the Patriots (answer below)?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "It's possible both lower seeded teams could win in the AFC next week.  Houston and Baltimore are playing so poorly, they could easily get knocked off."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  12-4 & 0-0!

PPS.  Trivia answer:

On September 24, 2011, the Patriots visited Buffalo, and their top three tacklers were all cornerbacks: Devin McCourty (11), Leigh Bodden (7), and Kyle Arrington (6).

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Patrots Take Care of Jaguars, 23-16

I didn't watch the game yet, so no detailed report at this point.  However, the Patriots did indeed hang on for a 23-16 win over Jacksonville, keeping pace with the victorious Broncos and Ravens, and picking up a game on the losing Houston Texans.  Next week, the Pats host Miami in the final game of the regular season, and depending on the results, they could finish with any of the top four playoff positions.

Playoff scenarios for this Sunday

1.  Patriots finish fourth only if they lose and the Ravens win.

2.  Patriots finish third if they win and the Broncos and Texans win or tie their games this weekend.  They also finish third if they tie on Sunday, or if they lose and the Ravens lose or tie.

3.  Patriots finish second if they win and the Broncos or Texans lose.

4.  Patriots finish first if they win and the Broncos and Texans both lose.

Got all that?  There will not be a quiz later :)

So where does that leave us?  The Dolphins are riding a two-game winning streak, and in the last three games, quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 60% of his passes, threw 5 touchdowns, has no interceptions, and posted a 96.1 QB rating.  Doesn't necessarily mean he will win on Sunday, but he's playing better than he was four weeks ago, when the Patriots beat them in Miami.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  The Patriots won their only two Florida games this year by the exact same score, 23-16.

Bonus Statistical Oddity:  Tom Brady threw 4 interceptions in the first 13 games of the season.  Then he threw 4 in the last 2 games.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "They can't rest the starters on Sunday; there's too much at stake.  Besides, they have to get some reps for Gronk."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  11-4!

Monday, December 17, 2012

49ers Outlast Patriots, 41-34

San Francisco came to town and played the part of inhospitable guests, building a 28-point lead and hanging on for a 41-34 victory over the Patriots.  The loss dropped the Pats a game behind the Broncos for the second seed in the AFC, and all but puts the #1 seed out of reach.  Next week it's a tilt against the Jaguars in Jacksonville (site of the Patriots' most recent Super Bowl victory), and they need a win to stay ahead of the Baltimore Ravens and avoid slipping to the #4 seed.

The game was ugly early, great for about 18 minutes, and then depressing late.  Speaking of late, it's after 3:00, so I'll keep this update brief.  Not much to say beyond "Patriots stunk up the joint" anyway.

First, credit where it is due -- San Fran head coach Jim Harbaugh put together a great game plan.  He attacked the Patriots defense with ingenious schemes, attacked their offense with brute force and turnovers, and used special teams to extend drives and (more importantly) to keep the Pats backed up all game long.

The first 49ers score came when two receivers lined up next to each other and ran fly patterns into the end zone.  Both got behind the defensive backs, and the safety was late getting over, so it was an easy touchdown to Randy Moss -- though it could have gone to the tight end just as easily.  On another touchdown, they ran two tight ends to the same half of the end zone, but their scheme left the Patriots' Alfonzo Dennard alone to defend both players -- another easy touchdown.

They also ran a fake punt, which is something they probably saw in film study.  And with the combination of turnovers and great punting, the average 49ers drive started on their 46 yard line, whereas the average Patriots drive started on their own 20 yard line.  Patriots special teams penalties contributed to that disparity, too, but it was mostly great punting and kickoff coverage by San Francisco.

The Niners defense was good enough to hold the Pats for a half.  But giving more credit where it is due, the Patriots made outstanding halftime adjustments, and scored four touchdowns in less than 20:00 of game time.  Unfortunately, they'd dug themselves too deep a hole.  Down by 28 points, they had to be perfect just to catch up, which they did -- but then, they slipped up a few times down the stretch and San Francisco took advantage and put the game away.

In the Patriots first 9 possessions, they had: 3 three-and-outs, 1 four-and-out, 2 lost fumbles, 2 interceptions, and 1 field goal.  Their second fumble and second interception came on their first two possessions of the third quarter, and those turnovers left them down 31-3, and all looked hopeless.  But once the Pats stopped stopping themselves, they roared back to tie the game.

Not often you lose the turnover battle 4-2 and even have a chance to win.  But the Pats defense stopped the 49ers on five second-half possessions, while the offense racked up four straight touchdowns.  But alas, the Niners used a great kickoff return to set up a one-play touchdown and vault back into the lead.  And the Patriots offense looked like it would score to tie it again, but two sacks on consecutive plays ended that drive, and effectively any chance to win the game.

It wasn't all bad, so here are some of the good things that happened:

1.  Great halftime adjustments by the offensive line coach and the offensive coordinator.  If not for turnovers, they could well have pulled out the game, the turnaround was that stunning.

2.  Tom Brady's touchdown-saving tackle after an interception -- and the defense turning the ball back over to the offense two plays later.

3.  Brandon Lloyd ended up with 10 catches for 190 yards, by far his best game with the Patriots.  This is a very encouraging sign, as the team chugs toward the playoffs.  Oh, and San Francisco had no answer for Aaron Hernandez (10 for 92), and they couldn't cover Wes Welker in the second half (5 for 56).

4.  Danny Woodhead's shifty running style worked better against the large 49ers defense; he had 61 yards on the ground, 5 catches for 23 yards, and 2 rushing TDs.  Once a millstone on the first- and second-down offense, he's a nice change of pace, especially against lumbering defensive linemen. 
 And to be balanced, here are some of the lowlights for the Patriots:

1.  Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen -- tsk tsk tsk, take better care of the ball.  If not, Brandon Bolden will get your carries in the postseason.

2.  The interior of the Patriots defense was repeatedly gashed for big yards right up the middle.  And when they had shots at SF quarterback Colin Kaepernick, they didn't take them, letting up or letting him get away instead.

3.  Secondary miscommunications and/or poor design -- too many 49ers receivers running wide open, especially in the end zone.

4.  8 penalties for 73 yards, the worst of which was an illegal shift that negated a touchdown.  There were also several penalties that canceled out good punt returns and gave the offense a long field to drive.

5.  The referees -- made the game too long, blew several pass interference calls on both sides, somehow missed a muffed punt, and spent too much time talking with coaches.

So where does this leave us?  10-4 and needing help to secure a playoff bye.  But don't count on it.  The Patriots could run the table, but Denver has to lose to Cleveland or Kansas City, neither of which seems likely to give the Broncos much of a game.  Next week it's Jacksonville, who will pay the price for the Patriots missteps this week.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  Brandon Lloyd had almost as many yards yesterday (190) as he had in the previous five games combined (214).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "Can't win 'em all -- especially when they fumble six times and you only get one of them."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  10-4!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Patriots School the Texans, 42-14

The Patriots continued their December dominance with a thrashing of the upstart Houston Texans, a 42-14 beat down at Foxboro that pitted a prepared team against an ill-prepared one.  The win put the Patriots firmly in the lead for a playoff bye, and only one game behind Houston for the #1 playoff seed in the AFC.  Next week they take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night, on a short week, but at least it's at home.

This game reminded me of a game the Patriots lost a few years ago; a 38-17 loss to the Saints in New Orleans.  In that game, the Pats had more mental breakdowns on defense than they've had this entire season, and Saints QB Drew Brees made them pay for every mistake.  Brees averaged an astonishing 16.1 yards per attempt, and the Cold, Hard Football Facts web site declared it the greatest passing performance in NFL history (  I remember it as the most embarrassing game since Rod Rust and his 1-15 record left town.  (Trivia question: can you name the team Rust's 1990 Patriots beat... answer below.)

Last night, the Texans had a linebacker cover Aaron Hernandez and the Pats tight end scored a touchdown.  They lost track of Hernandez near the goal-line, and it was an easy throw for his second score.  The Texans bit on play-action fakes, even when the Patriots hadn't run the ball effectively yet, and gave up long pass to Wes Welker and a Brandon Lloyd touchdown.  They also committed two pass interference penalties.  And that was just the first half.

On offense, quarterback Matt Schaub threw a red zone interception when he could have tied the game.  Wideout Kevin Walter dropped a fourth-and-five pass to turn the ball back to the Patriots.  And when they went back to him on the next drive, he failed to catch another pass on fourth-and-five (at least he was consistent).  There were multiple dropped passes, and free Patriots blitzers smacking Schaub around just as he released the ball.

Nothing went right for Houston, and everything went right for New England.  Even when the Texans caused their two fumbles: they could have fallen on the first one and missed it (Pats TD two plays later); and the second one bounced into the end zone and Lloyd fell on it for another touchdown.  They gave up field position with penalties on special teams.  They ran into the teeth of nine-man fronts, and waited until they were down 28-0 to try play-action throws to all-world receiver Andre Johnson.

Sometimes Bill Belichick will call a victory a "team win."  This was a Houston "team loss" -- with contributions from offense, defense, special teams, and the coaching staff.

As for the Patriots, the good news on offense:

1.  Tom Brady was surgical in the first 20 minutes, but his accuracy and effectiveness diminished when the Texans started knocking him around in the second quarter.  The offensive line did a pretty good job getting to the QB (only one sack, but six other QB hits -- and some serious hits at that).  And once the Patriots made their halftime adjustments, Brady was surgical again in the second half.

2.  Looks like Brandon Lloyd will pick up the slack for the missing Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.  The Pats went 1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers most of the game, and while that personnel gives it away that they are passing the ball, Lloyd gives them an outside threat to compliment the inside receivers.

3.  Donte Stallworth can still go deep, as he did on his 63-yard touchdown, featuring a nice catch, two broken tackles, and a stretch for the end zone.

4.  Once the game was in hand, the coaches did a great job using the up-tempo offense to tire out the Texans defense.  And when they were tired, the Patriots ran out of the no huddle, keeping them from substituting and gashing them with clock-killing runs.  In the fourth quarter alone, the Pats had 10 rushes for 65 yards -- that's exactly half their rushing yards.

5.  The return of guard Logan Mankins was a boon inside, bringing not only great blocking, but also an attitude.  He got a huge push on several running plays, and kept at it with the active and talented Houston front seven.

6.  The foursome at running back all had their time to shine: Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen carried the load, Danny Woodhead had some nice catches and a great catch-and-run, and rookie Brandon Bolden averaged 5.5 yards in his return from a drug suspension.

The good news on defense:

1.  Vince Wilfork might be playing the best football of his career.  He was always an immovable object, but now he's getting to the passer and busting through double-teams to make tackles in the backfield.  Reminiscent of Richard Seymour at his prime, which as you know is some of the best you will ever see.

2.  Corners Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington held Johnson in check in the first half and everybody else in check the entire game.  They battled and scrapped, and took full advantage of the rushed throws by Schaub.

3.  Devin McCourty is now the Patriots best safety, and he even moved back to corner to replace the injured Talib in the second half.  McCourty's first quarter interception changed the direction of the game, and he also had a pass defended, a tackle for a loss, and five tackles on the day.

4.  Jerod Mayo, but only when he's blitzing.  When he attacks the passer, he hurries the throw at least 75% of the time, and when he run blitzes, he either gets to the running back or redirects him and/or disrupts the timing enough to blow up the play.  In pass coverage, not so good... not good at all.

5.  Trevor Scott; 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in two games.  A better-than-adequate replacement while Jermaine Cunningham serves his suspension.

And finally, the bit of bad news:

1.  Two fumbles; just unacceptable.  They recovered both of them, but in the playoffs, putting the ball on the ground is the surest way to lose.  They have to straighten this out fast, San Francisco hits hard and is always trying to jar the ball loose.

2.  Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer just isn't very effective with his back problems.  He was dominated several times by Houston's J.J. Watt, and the Patriots had to slide tight ends to his side when they ran.  The worse news: the team doesn't really have a good alternative to Vollmer.

3.  Wes Welker's three dropped passes.  With Gronkowski out, every offensive mistake is magnified, and of the six targets that were not completed, at least three of them were flat-out drops by Welker.

4.  Commentator Jon Gruden, who apparently can't tell the difference between Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes in pass coverage.  Or is it that he doesn't want to admit Mayo's problems covering tight ends... not sure.

So where does this leave us?  As stated earlier, the Patriots will get a first-round playoff bye if they win the rest of their games.  However, that won't be easy, with the tough and battle-tested 49ers coming to town in six days.  A win there, and they can likely beat Jacksonville and Miami to close it out, but this Sunday is a daunting task, especially on a short week.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  Entering this season, Zoltan Mesko was the NFL's all-time leader in career net punting average.  This year ranks 30th in the NFL in that category.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "That game was the football equivalent of 'Godzilla Versus Bambi.'"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  10-3!

PPS.  Trivia answer: on September 16, 1990, Rod Rust notched his only victory as an NFL head coach -- but just barely.  The Patriots beat the Colts in Indianapolis, 16-14, which means the Rust Era ended with zero home victories.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Patriots Win 23-16, Clinch Division Crown

The Patriots stayed pretty conservative and outlasted the desperate Dolphins for a 23-16 victory.  The win clinched their ninth division title in ten years and guaranteed their 12th consecutive winning season.  The win also tied them with the Baltimore Ravens, who lost to Pittsburgh and are now tied with the Patriots and Broncos at 9-3.  When considering a playoff bye, the Patriots hold the tiebreaker over Denver, but the Ravens hold the tiebreaker over the Patriots, and the Broncos and Ravens play in a few weeks.  So rather than write 2,000 words about the possibilities, better to wait until after that game to figure it out.

This win didn't come as easily as might have been expected, but a road division win is always tough.  And the Pats have traditionally had more trouble winning in Miami than in New York against Buffalo or the Jets.  The Patriots have a lot more firepower than Miami, but they mostly held it in reserve, choosing to go with safe passes and throw-aways rather than risk big plays down the field.  Given the lack of Dolphins deep-threats, the strategy seemed sound, and it worked pretty well.

Miami played tight to the line to stop the run and disrupt the timing of the passing game, and it had the desired effect.  Tom Brady was sacked 4 times, posted his lowest passer rating of the year (74.8) and his lowest yards per attempt this season (5.95), and threw his first interception in six games.  In his defense, it seemed the game plan was to stay conservative.  All eight pass plays of 11-yards or more were short passes that went for more yard after the catch.  And in fact, Brady's INT came on one of his few long pass attempts, up the sideline to a blanketed Aaron Hernandez.

Among receivers, Hernandez came up big in this game, 8 catches for 97 yards and some key yards-after-catch.  He and Wes Welker (12 for 103 and 1 touchdown) were the receiving stars, targeted 31 times between them and accounting for 10 of 14 passing first downs.  Welker tied the NFL record with his 17th game with 10 catches or more (trivia question: who shares that record with Welker; answer below).  The rest of the receivers were nondescript, with Julian Edelman leaving with a foot injury and Brandon Lloyd completely silent until the very end of the game.  And you know the receiving corps is getting thin when Matthew Slater comes off the bench to fill in.

The running game didn't help much, at least early in the game.  The Pats couldn't run outside and the O-line really misses the blocking ability of Rob Gronkowski (out with a broken arm).  The Patriots netted just 10 yards rushing at the half.  They did get it together for a game-sealing 16-play drive that consumed 7:18 of clock time and all three Dolphins timeouts.  They succeeded by abandoning the idea of running wide and simply pounding it straight ahead with a combination of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead.  After just 46 yards through three quarters, they came up with 62 in the final stanza and were blowing the Dolphins off the line.

The offensive line misses Logan Mankins' toughness and ability and (as mentioned) Gronkowski's blocking.  Donald Thomas receives a lot of praise, but frankly I don't see why.  He gives up too much pressure in the passing game, and the team has a lot more success running to the other side.  Not to denigrate Thomas; he's a fill-in for a reason.  But the offensive line had an up-and-down game, giving up too much pressure and providing no running game until the end.  Oh, and some of that was on the offensive play-calling -- more on that later.

On the defensive line, Trevor Scott improved on suspended Jermaine Cunningham's improvement from last year.  Scott got two sacks, one QB pressure, and forced a fumble.  Rob Ninkovich is coming back to reality from his stellar first half, and Vince Wilfork continues to drive hard to the end of the season, making plays that don't always show up on the stat sheet but that are very effective at stopping drives.  The rest of the line played only okay, losing outside contain several times and giving up some big runs -- but overall, they mostly contained the quarterback, which was probably their job for the day.

The linebackers played very well, with Brandon Spikes starring against both the run and pass.  And Jerod Mayo got six tackles and a huge sack that forced the Dolphins to take a field goal.  It wasn't perfect, with a few long runs squeezing through, but the team held Miami to 3.7 yards a carry and receivers made big plays mostly on long passes that were the secondary's responsibility.  Miami might have lacked the underneath play-makers to attack the linebackers vulnerability against the pass, but even so, the middle-zones were controlled much better this week.

The secondary was trick-or-treat.  Aqib Talib was close on several plays but not quite close enough.  And the safeties took a step back in covering the deep ball, arriving late on several outside passes and getting beaten on two plays where the Dolphins QB simply missed the receivers.  If those plays had been completed, the game could have gone against the Patriots.  Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard compete like demons out there, but there's no hiding the reasons they were an undrafted free agent and a seventh-round pick, respectively.  The team needs Patrick Chung back and more playing time for Steven Gregory to get back into the swing of things.  That would allow them to move Devin McCourty back to corner, and he'd be an improvement over anyone not named Talib.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed yet another make-able field goal, and no blaming the snap or hold this time (which were both perfect).  He clearly has some confidence problems, and he needs to straighten that out before the playoffs.  Post-season games are usually close, and missed field goals can cost you a game.  So you can survive them now, but in the playoffs, it can cost you your season..  On the plus side, Edelman had two nifty punt returns before leaving with his injury.

The offensive play-calling was suspect in the first half.  Too many outside running plays and not enough no-huddle.  Although the fake end-around/screen pass to Vereen was such a beautifully designed play that you could give coordinator Josh McDaniels a pass on the bad running calls.  And one strange thing was that most everything worked better out of the spread offense, including inside handoffs.  Lined up in the I-formation or in the standard pro set, the Pats had a lot more trouble moving the ball.

On defense, the most curious coaching decision of the day was to run stunts against a mobile quarterback.  On multiple occasions, this left 350+ pound Kyle Love chasing the nimble Ryan Tannehill, a race that Love had no chance to win.  The better plan against mobile quarterbacks is probably to keep the fastest guys (Rob Ninkovich and Justin Francis/Chandler Jones) outside and let the big guys push up the middle.  Or at least put Scott and Ninkovich on one side and let them stunt -- neither of them is the behemoth that Love (or Wilfork or Brandon Deaderick) is.

So where does this leave us?  Seven weeks ago, the entire AFC East was tied at 3-3.  Since then, the Patriots are 6-0 and every other team is 2-4.  The Pats have an extra day to prepare for their next game, and they'll need it for the Monday night tilt with the AFC-leading 11-1 Houston Texans.  The division championship is to be savored, but the Patriots have to refocus on Houston quickly if they entertain any ideas about a first-round playoff bye.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  The Patriots have a chance to sweep the division this season, having gone 5-0 so far with one game remaining against the Dolphins.  The only other time Tom Brady achieved this was 2007, the year the Pats went 16-0 in the regular season.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: Yesterday marked Brady's first December victory in Miami.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "With a solid defense, imagine how much better the Dolphins could have been if they chose Matt Ryan instead of an offensive lineman with the first pick way back when.  Parcells picking the groceries..."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  9-3!

PPS.  Welker tied none other than Jerry Rice with 17 games of 10+ catches.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Patriots M-Barrass Jets, 49-19

Survivor goes by the tagline: "Outwit, outlast, outplay" -- the Patriots did all three (and added "Outhit") in a 49-19 destruction of the Jets last night.  The win reinforced the Patriots stranglehold on the division.  One more Pats win officially eliminates the Jets from the division title race, and two more Pats wins would knock out the Bills.  The Patriots have two games left with the Dolphins -- in fact, their next one is in Miami on December 2 -- but they hold a 3.5-game lead over Miami with 5 games to play.

The Jets game was scoreless in the first quarter, but the Patriots scored four touchdowns in the first six minutes of the second quarter, three in 52-seconds (an 83-yard pass to Shane Vereen, a Steve Gregory fumble-return, and a Julian Edelman fumble-return).  And that was the ball game.  The total meltdown by the Jets led directly to a 28-point lead, and without any deep passing threats, the Jets were done before the half.

As is typical in a blowout this lopsided, there are too many stars to go over every one, so here are some general thoughts on what went right and wrong yesterday, and how players, coaches, and team units are trending as the Patriots close in on another AFC East title.

The Offense

Quarterback Tom Brady was great again last night, and is on a roll almost unprecedented in his career.  His averages for the last five games are impressive: 22.8 of 35.6 (64%), 290.8 yards, 2.8 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a QB rating of 115.7.  (Trivia question: what is Brady's single-season record for most consecutive games without an interception... answer below.)  He's been great all year, but believe it or not, Brady is trending up as we enter December.

The receivers are trending slightly down, mostly due to injuries.  Rob Gronkowski was not missed in the Jets game, but he is such a devastating weapon, the Patriots offense will suffer without him later in the season.  Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez returned from injury last night, but was mostly held in check, and versatile Julian Edelman took a nasty hit on an end-around that might keep him out for a game or two.

Additionally, the timing and chemistry between Brady and wideout Brandon Lloyd has not materialized.  Lloyd is better than Chad Ochocinco was last year, but in the last three games, Lloyd has only 12 catches for 116 yards and no touchdowns.

Running back Shane Vereen is on the rise, with 133 total yards and a nice route and run after catch on his 83-yard touchdown.  Vereen appears to be playing with a chip on his shoulder, really trying to compete for a starting job, and it shows in his production.  Starter Stevan Ridley is on pace for 1,366 yards and 11 or 12 touchdowns, and for the moment appears to have left his fumbling problems back in week 4 and 5 (when he had 2 fumbles).  And finally, the offensive coaches are using Danny Woodhead properly -- a scat-back on third down and sometime receiver.

The offensive line gets a lot of praise for weathering multiple injuries; but the missing talent is starting to show.  With three starters out last night, Brady took several shots from untouched blitzers (and somehow escaped from two others).  And even mostly solid left tackle Nate Solder whiffed on a few Jets rushers.  Certainly a unit that is trending down, and if Donald Thomas and Marcus Cannon start for much longer, it will take a toll on Brady and the running backs.

The Defense

For all the praise heaped on Vince Wilfork last night, the defensive line is trending slightly down.  Chandler Jones missed the Jets game with an ankle injury, and the remaining D-linemen didn't get much pressure on the Jets QB.  Jermaine Cunningham is better as a backup/substitute, and Rob Ninkovich was completely controlled last night.  And aside from Wilfork, the interior of the line did not hold up well against the run (until the Jets got close to the goal line).

The reason they are only trending slightly down is that they were excellent against the Colts (at least in the last 50 minutes of the game).  So they can turn it around with improved play against the Dolphins next week.  And with the extra rest, they might get Jones back for that game, so Cunningham can move into the sub-role again.

The linebackers are probably the biggest problem on the defense at this point.  Brandon Spikes is a guessing and hitting machine, but when he guesses wrong, there are usually big plays by the offense.  Jerod Mayo can't cover in the short zones, and Dont'a Hightower is still a rookie.  All three are big hitters, but none of them are anything but sub-standard in coverage, which is a problem, but not as big a problem as it was in the secondary a few weeks ago.

And speaking of the secondary, this unit is on the way up, big time.  The safety position is the most improved on the team the last five weeks.  With Devin McCourty's move to safety, and the return of Steve Gregory (a few weeks back) and Patrick Chung (last night), the Patriots no longer give up multiple 40+ yard plays a game.  Gregory had a rough first game back, but he's playing well within the system again.  And the three of them played some Cover-3 last night, once the game was well in hand (and they knew the Jets would have to throw).

New addition Aqib Talib has performed well.  Not the shutdown corner some thought when he was acquired, but he hasn't been beaten deep, and when the defense aggressively goes after the quarterback, he and rookie Alfonzo Dennard play tight man-coverage and disrupt the routes enough for the pass rush to get there.  It's very good complimentary defense.  And the surprising rise of Dennard puts Kyle Arrington on a third receiver (or on the bench, sometimes), which is better for everyone involved.  Front-line receivers are all good enough to beat Arrington, but he can succeed against slot guys or third-best receivers.

Special Teams

The kick coverage teams have been excellent for the past few weeks.  They gave up one long kickoff return last night, but then adjusted with higher/shorter kicks and stopped the returner inside the 25 yard line.  And the punt returns don't seem to exist against the Patriots any more.  Last five games: 3 for 22 yards; 1 for 0 yards; 0 for 0 yards; 1 for 7 yards; and 1 for 1 yard.  Of course it helps when you don't punt much, but Zoltan Mesko has punted 15 times in those games.

The return teams are most definitely on the upswing.  Edelman brings patience and explosiveness on punt returns.  He broke two for long gains against Indy, and almost broke one against the Jets.  If he has to miss any games with a concussion, he will be missed on this unit.  The kickoff return team is more dangerous now than earlier in the year; although they end up with the ball inside their own 20 yard line too often.  Still, all-in-all they are on the way up.

The field goal unit is the one special teams group in decline.  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal last night, and last Sunday he missed a field goal and almost missed an extra point.  The snaps appear to be slightly off on some of those kicks, but I can't say for sure that caused the problem.  Holder Mesko appeared to get them all placed properly and on time.  A concern if the Patriots make a deep playoff run, because those games are always close, so a missed field goal can cost the entire team.


On defense, the Patriots coaches have been dialing up more blitzes, and mostly to good effect.  And the players have become quite the ball-hawkers -- ringing up 12 turnovers in the last 3 games (though some of those came on special teams).  Moving McCourty to safety has settled down the secondary, and if they could just get one of the three linebackers to defend the pass better, they would be defensive gods!

The offensive play-calling is much better.  Woodhead is back to being a third-down back, and they run enough misdirection plays to keep the other team's defense honest.  And the mix of pass/run is truly impressive -- in fact, they had 39 rushes and only 28 pass plays last night.  When an offense can lose the best tight end in the league and not miss a beat, that's great coaching (among other things).

The special teams coach is a mixed-bag at the moment.  He needs to straighten out the field goal unit -- and fast.  But his return and coverage teams are very good.

So where does that leave us?  8-3 is good, and 10 days until the next game is a plus, too.  The Dolphins offense is terrible, so if the Patriots don't turn the ball over, they should win that game, and that would effectively seal the division title.  After that, they host Houston, and a win there puts them in the discussion for a playoff bye.  But first things first, Squish the Fish!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In honor of Thanksgiving, I give you the "feast or famine" New York Jets.  Under Rex Ryan, the Jets average win over the Patriots is 24-15 (9 points per game), and their average loss to the Patriots is 39-17 (22 ppg).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You know it's bad when your fans are calling for Tebow.  He got croaked in two games against the Pats last year."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  8-3!

PPS.  Trivia answer: Brady ended the 2010 season by going without a single interception in an amazing 11 straight games.  Unfortunately the Jets ended that streak in the playoffs, and bounced the 14-2 Patriots in the first round.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Patriots Smoke Colts 59-24

If Crash Davis played football, he might have said to Andrew Luck, "Welcome to the NFL... meat."  The Patriots treated Luck like piece of meat -- pressure-cooking him into rookie mistakes and sandwiching him on several hits, in a 59-24 win over the Colts.  The victory kept the Patriots on top in the AFC East, and allows New Englanders to dream of a playoff bye.  The Pats still trail both Houston and Baltimore by two games (given that Baltimore holds the tie-breaker).  Next up is the New York Jets in three days, Thanksgiving night.

The game started out looking like a shootout.  The teams traded early touchdowns, and the Colts took at 14-7 lead into the second quarter.  Then the wheels fell off -- the Patriots scored two touchdowns without a single offensive play (on a punt return and an interception return), and the second half was a 35-7 rout that would have been called if it were a prize fight or a little league game.

Even with two backups at guard, the Patriots offensive line gave Tom Brady plenty of time to carve up the Colts defensive backfield.  (And no wonder; they had two Patriots secondary castoffs on the roster... trivia question: name them.)  The offensive line gave up zero sacks and only two QB hits, and tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder held pass-rushing stars Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in check.  The guards didn't do as well in the running game, but the Patriots make their mark passing the ball, so in this game, that was okay.

Brady's stat line is impressive: 24 of 35 (68.6%), 331 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 127.2 QB rating.  His timing and connections with both Brandon Lloyd and Julian Edelman were the best they've been all season.   The only worry is that Brady completed passes to only five receivers, and with Rob Gronkowski out for a few weeks, it could become more difficult with reduced options at receiver.

Speaking of Gronkowski, he was the receiving star of the game.  He was targeted 7 times and caught all 7 for 137 yards, and 2 touchdowns.  He really is a beast, and the next few opponents will be glad they don't have to deal with Gronk; he is a matchup nightmare.

Edelman had his best overall day as a pro: 5 catches for 58 yards and 1 touchdown, an end-around for 47 yards, and two punt returns for 116 yards and 1 touchdown.  He broke Indy's heart with the punt-return TD early, and showed the quickness of Wes Welker and better moves after the catch.  Welker, by the way, was his usual hum-drum self: 7 catches, 80 yards, and 5 first down conversions.

The running backs were nondescript; Shane Vereen getting more playing time than Stephan Ridley.  Each got one touchdown, but together only had 68 yards on 24 carries.  The team had trouble running up the middle, too many plays were stopped in the backfield.  And on outside runs, the Colts speed tracked down most runs before they got to the line of scrimmage.  This was not a failure of the backs; it was slashing and guessing plays by the Indy defense, and overmatched guards in the running game.

Defensively, the Pats blitzed more in this game than the first nine games combined.  They brought continual pressure, throwing linebackers and even safeties or corners at the young quarterback.  They started out in a soft shell zone, but Luck tic-tac-toed down the field for two touchdowns.  At that point, it seemed the Patriots decided to go with pressure and see how Luck would respond.  He didn't do very well.

They did give up significant running plays to the Colts: two 20-yard runs, and a solid five-yard average per rush.  This owed mostly to the ailments from last week, namely blown assignments and bad tackling.  On the first two drives, they lost outside contain three times and got linebackers in the wrong spots at least four others.  It looked like Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were going to post terrible games at that point, but they turned it around and the Colts offensive success came to a screeching halt.

Vince Wilfork was their most consistent lineman, though even he missed a relatively easy tackle in the first half.  Wilfork got three tackles and knocked down two passes.  Jones got shut out on the stat line, but he played pretty well.  He and Ninkovich kept constant pressure from the outside, forcing Luck to step up in the pocket, where he made several mistakes.  And Ninkovich might have been the defensive star of the game, with 8 tackles, 1 sack, 2 QB hits, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.

The linebacker tandem of Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes accounted for 19 tackles and 1 QB hit.  But Mayo was late on too many plays to call it a good game.  Spikes was good overall, but even he looked lost in pass coverage on a few plays.  All in all, rookie Dont'a Hightower might have been their most consistent linebacker.

The secondary benefited mightily from the blitz-crazy game plan.  Newcomer Aqib Talib got an interception and returned it 59-yards for a touchdown.  Not to be outdone, rookie Alfonzo Dennard took a pick 87-yards for a TD late in the game.  And another rookie, much maligned Tavon Wilson, got an INT, too.  Mind you, all three gave up plays, too, and these interceptions were mostly gift picks caused by pressure up front.  But beggars can't be choosers, and good play by the secondary should not go unnoticed.

The safety combo of Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty mostly kept plays in front of them.  The one long touchdown came when Gregory bit on a run fake and McCourty had responsibility in the medium-middle, which left T.Y. Hilton single-covered for a 43-yarder.  But aside from that, while they weren't perfect, Gregory and McCourty were light-years better than last week, taking the pass-off effectively from corners, breaking up passes or making sure tackles right away, or hitting receivers at just the right moment to cause incompletions.

Talib did get beaten on a few plays, but mostly his coverage was good -- sometimes the passes were just better.  And the team would still be better with Patrick Chung and Gregory at safety, so McCourty can take the corner opposite Talib.  But with rookies Dennard and Wilson improving, the secondary is rounding into shape at this point.  Don't know if they'll be ready to stop strong passing games in the playoffs, but it looks more promising now than it did a week ago.

On special teams, there were the two great punt returns to crow about.  And the Pats had very good kickoff and punt coverage in the game.  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal and almost missed an extra point.  But it appeared that the snaps on both those kicks were too much into the body of the holder -- and they got that straightened out for the many second-half extra points they kicked.

The special-teams coaching deserves special mention; with great return and coverage games, along with getting the long-snaps straightened out during the game.  The defensive coaching looked shaky early on, but they made great adjustments and brought the Colts offense to a complete standstill.  On offense, they should have abandoned the outside runs and/or used the misdirection play with Edelman earlier to slow down the Colts pursuit.  But it's tough to complain about a game with 59 points on the board.

So where does that leave us?  7-3 and third in the AFC.  Given the trouble the Steelers are having, the Ravens are likely to finish in front of the Patriots.  Which means their best chance at a playoff bye might be beating the Texans in December and hoping they end up tied or in front of them.  Otherwise, it appears that the AFC East title is a virtual lock; with a three-game lead over the rest of the pack, and tie-breakers over two of the three teams.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Even though Tom Brady had an outstanding game, the Patriots got more return yards (377) than passing yards (331).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If the Colts didn't have bad Luck, they wouldn't have had any at all."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  7-3!

PPS.  Trivia answer: corner Darius Butler and safety Sergio Brown now play for the Colts.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Patriots Hold On for 37-31 Win

In a game that wasn't expected to be this close, the Patriots built up a 14-point lead and then held on for a 37-31 win over the Bills.  With losses by all the other AFC East teams, the Patriots hold a two-game lead over their nearest divisional competitor (the Dolphins are 4-5).  The 6-3 Colts come to Foxboro next week, in a game the Pats need if they hold out any hope of getting a first-round playoff bye (more on that later).

Yesterday laid it all out nice and clear about the Patriots defense.  They don't get enough pressure on the quarterback, blitz or no blitz.  They have trouble stopping deep passes if they are without veterans at safety, and their linebackers are poor in pass coverage in the short- and intermediate-zones.  Aside from that, their pass defense is one of the top units in the league.

The good news on defense was the return of safety Steve Gregory from injury.  However, he played limited snaps and showed a lot of rust (missed tackles, specifically).  Fortunately, he has time to work himself back into shape and into the flow of the defense.  But he better hurry.  The corner position is a mess with Devin McCourty shoring up safety, and rookie Alfonzo Dennard gave up multiple long gains in place of McCourty.

Frankly it looked like a fire drill in the secondary, with Bills receivers running free and Patriots defenders running into each other or taking bad angles and giving up big chunks of yards.  If new acquisition Aqib Talib can't help, the Pats better get Patrick Chung back soon, so McCourty can move back to corner. McCourty did make the INT that sealed the game, but the team needs him in two positions right now, and that means they need to get someone healthy so he can play one or the other.

The linebackers weren't all horrible, but they did give up too many crossing patterns in the 10-yard range, and also they did not hold up well against the run often enough.  In fact, for the first time in quite a while, I'm going to re-watch part of the game, because watching it live I couldn't figure out how the Bills opened up those gaping holes in the running game.

Mayo, Spikes, Hightower, Ninkovich -- they all missed seemingly easy tackles, and all got out of position and gave up big running plays.  Oh, and Spikes had roughing-the-passer and encroachment penalties -- all in all not his best game.  Mayo and Spikes led the team with 12 and 11 tackles, respectively; and Ninkovich had a sack and two QB hits.  So they made some plays; just gave up too many.

The defensive line alternated between stuffing the run for no gain and letting it through like a sieve for big yards.  Vince Wilfork had a good game (4 tackles, 1 sack for 10 yards, and a forced fumble).  The Pats moved him up and down the line, which gave the Bills some of their openings; but it allowed Wilfork to get better pressure on the QB.

For all the hype about Chandler Jones, he lost outside contain on some of those runs, too, and he didn't do much else, either (just one assisted tackle on the day).  He might be hitting the rookie wall.  It was an undistinguished performance by the rest of the line; although rookie Justin Francis showed a good burst to the QB and did a decent job in limited duty.

With a defense this problematic, it's clear the offense has to carry the day to win games.  Fortunately, it is supremely talented, well run, and by and large well coached.  You never know which player will get the mismatch; but you always know quarterback Tom Brady will find it and exploit it.  He did yesterday, for a ho-hum line: 23 of 38, 237 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 96.1 QB rating.  Good decisions in the face of decent pressure, and a few lucky breaks, and he kept his interception total at 3 for the entire season.

Running back Danny Woodhead had a great day: 4 catches for 46 yards and a touchdown, and a 15-yard run for another touchdown.  Stevan Ridley was the workhorse; 22 carries for 98 yards, and very good in pass protection.  As pointed out by my friend Dave, he lacks breakaway speed, but has everything else you could ask of a running back.  He easily leads the team with 814 yards, and hasn't fumbled in over a month, so maybe those problems are behind him.

Old reliable Wes Welker led the team in targets (11), catches (6), yards (74), and yards per catch (12.3).  Despite what you hear in the press, it's tough to imagine the Patriots not working out a long-term deal with Welker, he's just too effective in this offense.  He opens things up for Brandon Lloyd (5 catches for 45 yards), Gronkowski (3 for 31 and 1TD), and even Deion Branch (4 for 30).

As for the offensive line, it was not always perfect, but going against the strength of the Bills defense (their line), they gave up just 1 sack, 4 QB hits (probably too many), and not much else.  Brady had plenty of time most plays, and the running game went for 4.0 yards a carry and 2 touchdowns.  No spectacular plays, but given their responsibilities, quite nice to know they are protecting the team's #1 asset well.

Special teams mention of the week; Stephen Gostkowski gave up nothing on kick returns, and he hasn't missed a field goal since the last Buffalo game in September.  Looks like he has those early-season jitters worked out of his system.

The biggest coaching questions were around the Patriots last drives of the game.  On one possession, they got the ball with 9:35 to go and a 10-point lead, and proceeded to go three-and-out and take only 19-seconds off the clock.  In the shadow of their own goalposts, it probably made more sense to run the ball three times and kick it to the Bills, at least you'd remove 2:00 off the clock.

And after the Bills pulled to within 3 points, the Patriots got good field position and had 7:40 on the clock.  On paper, what followed looked like a good drive: 14 plays, 5:41 elapsed time, and a field goal.  But they were snapping the ball with 15+ seconds left on the play clock, and when they got near the goal line, they ran for a loss, got a penalty, and then threw twice (incomplete) before taking the three points.

If they run it into the line three times, the Bills would have had no timeouts left, and less than 1:30 on the clock.  And if the Pats used more of the play clock earlier in the drive, they would have ended the game with possession of the ball.  Not terrible coaching, just odd.  And bad situationally; which is where they usually excel.

So where does that leave us?  6-3 and a division crown coming into focus on the horizon.  Only the Dolphins are within striking distance, but if the Patriots simply split with Miami, the Pats will be division champs again.  As for the rest of it, the possibility of a playoff by starts this week.  They have to beat Indy, otherwise they will be looking up at at least three teams, two of which would have the head-to-head tie-breaker.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The longest play of the game for each team involved penalties.  The Bills got a 14-yard run and picked up 15 more on a Jerod Mayo unnecessary roughness penalty.  And the Patriots got 11 on a Shane Vereen catch-and-run and added 15 more on a facemask by Bills corner Stephon Gilmore.  (Trivia question: the Pats gained more yards one other time in this game -- do you remember the situation?)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Thank goodness the Bills haven't outgrown their habits of dropping passes, making bad plays, and committing bad penalties.  Otherwise, things might have ended differently."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  6-3!

PPS.  Trivia answer:
The Bills pass-interference call in the end zone went for 37 yards, but it is not an official play, so it doesn't count in the "longest plays of the game" scenario :)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Patriots 2012 Mid-season Report

Due to Hurricane Sandy and about 15 other factors, I took my bye a week early this year.  Sorry there was no report last week, but in case you missed it, the Patriots throttled the Rams 45-7.  An overwhelming performance like that would have been fun to break down, but suffice it to say almost every Patriots player did well and almost all the Rams played poorly.  How's that for a breakdown you can take the bank :)

The Patriots themselves were on a bye last week, with no game over the weekend.  And with the losses by both Miami and Buffalo, the Patriots stand alone atop the AFC East at 5-3.  This is one game worse than I thought they'd be at this point, but still well in control of things in their division.  However, with both Houston and Baltimore two games ahead of them (Baltimore has the head-to-head tie-breaker), a playoff bye appears doubtful.

As for the season so far, here are a few areas from the first half that will be interesting to watch as the second half commences.

1.  Down on the Corner

Despite what you read in the popular press, the Patriots safety play is much worse than their cornerback play.  They tried shoring up safety in the off-season by adding Steve Gregory and pursuing LaRon Landry (who chose the Jets instead).  But injuries to Gregory and Patrick Chung forced rookies Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner into the starting lineup, with predictable results: big plays for easy touchdowns and at least one loss (against Seattle).

Unable to secure another safety, the Patriots did the next best thing.  They traded for a cornerback -- in fact, one of the few shutdown corners in the NFL, Aqib Talib (formerly of the Tampa Bay Bucs).  The acquisition allows them to move corner Devin McCourty to safety without taking a hit at corner.  McCourty's two games starting at safety showed the improvement he brings: in the Seattle game (with Wilson and Ebner at safety), the Patriots gave up four plays of 29 yards or more; but in the next *two* games with McCourty at safety, they gave up only two total plays of 29 yards or more.

Talib has a history of on-field and off-field problems, so the team has to hope he will straighten up in a more structured environment.  If not, they can cut him at any point and owe him next to nothing, so the only real risk is the fourth-round pick they traded to get him.  It's a gamble, but completely worth rolling the dice.  The Pats have spent multiple high-round draft picks on corners, and without much luck, so if they can get a shutdown corner for a fourth-rounder, that's a win.

2.  The Magnificent Seven

The interior of the Patriots defensive front seven was solid the past few years; it was the outside that gave them trouble.  Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes held fast inside, and last year they added Mark Anderson and Andre Carter for speed-rushing from the outside.  Unfortunately both Anderson and Carter left in free agency, and big questions were left in their wake.

Enter draft picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, an improved Spikes and Rob Ninkovich, and a magically reborn Jermaine Cunningham -- and suddenly the front seven is tearing it up.  Jones has more sacks at the halfway point (6.0) than Carter or Anderson did in 2011, and he holds the edge against the run better than Anderson.  And Cunningham excels in a part-time role, after two years of pre-season promises that wilted in the regular season.

Spikes and Hightower are solid in pass coverage, a rarity for Patriots linebackers the past few years.  Ninkovich's jack-of-all-trades act works perfectly, sometimes rushing the passer, sometimes dropping into coverage, and moving between linebacker and lineman seamlessly.  Mayo inside has his attitude back, free to seek and destroy ball-carriers.  He'll never be great in pass coverage, but with Hightower and Spikes back there, the front seven is as solid as any team this side of the Bears or 49ers.

3. Back to Backs

A lot has been made of the Patriots reinvigorated rushing attack, but believe it or not, they ran for more yards per carry in the first eight games of 2011 than they have so far in 2012 (4.4 ypc versus 4.3).  They did have a lot fewer yards last year (893 versus 1,197 this season), so their commitment to running the ball is clear this year.  But the biggest difference is in the backs they have on the roster and what they bring to the table.

Stevan Ridley runs more under control than any Patriots back since Curtis Martin, which makes him a threat to break a run on any play.  To contrast him with last year, Ridley has 5 runs of over 20 yards, while last year's starter, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has only 1 such play for the Bengals this year.  And to compliment Ridley, both second-year rusher Shane Vereen and rookie Brandon Boldin can bull their way into the end zone but have the speed to get outside if the play opens up that direction.

Third-down back Danny Woodhead is just that -- a third-down back -- and the Patriots should rememer that when they try running him on first- and second-downs.  So while they haven't run for more yards per carry, the Patriots running game has new threats and is far more diverse than last year.  No more straight-ahead running with these guys, they bring dynamic skills and all four are a threat to take any play the distance.  Not a bad way to compliment to one of the best passing games in the NFL.

4.  The Replacements

Along the offensive line, incumbent starters Matt Light, Dan Koppen, and Brian Waters were replaced by Nate Solder, Ryan Wendell, and Dan Connolly, respectively.   It wasn't pretty at first, 12 sacks the first 5 games; but got much better as the season progressed, 2 sacks in the last 3 games.  Solder played about equal to the underrated Light, and Wendell and Connolly have filled in admirably for players who made the Pro Bowl in the past.

At safety, James Ihedgibo and Sergio Brown were awful last year, just awful.  But replacements Steve Gregory and rookie-combo Wilson/Ebner have been a wash at best.  Gregory played the "don't get beaten deep" method well, but he's injured and only played four games.   And the struggles of Wilson/Ebner cost the Patriots the Seattle game and were apparent in almost every big passing play given up.

On the coaching front, Josh McDaniels takes the usual beating from fans who think the Pats should score touchdowns on every possession.  But he's diversified the running game, brought imagination to the passing game, and is better at play-calling than departed coordinator Scott O'Brien.  Not perfect, but the team has scored 32.8 points per game so far, an improvement over the 27.6 ppg in the first eight games of last year.

5.  Quick Hits

A.  My prediction that the tight ends would see a drop in production looks about right at this point.  Aaron Hernandez missed four games with injuries and his numbers are down significantly.  Rob Gronkowski faced much tighter coverage, and he's on pace for 86 catches, 1,160 yards, and 14 touchdowns.  Great numbers for a tight end, but all lower than last year's 90, 1,327, and 17.

B.  Backup tight ends Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui are doing well in bit roles.  Both are very good blocking (Fells especially), which works well with the Patriots talent at running back.

C.  Speaking of running backs, the Patriots are extremely young at that position.  Woodhead is the elder statesman of the group at age 27.

D.  Brandon Lloyd hasn't worked out as well as expected, and his numbers are dropping.  In the first 3 games, he had 22 catches for 237 yards, but in the 5 games since, those totals fell to 15 and 198.  He does appear to have a bit more chemistry with Tom Brady the last two games, and he'll never be as bad as Joey Galloway or Chad Ochocinco -- but it's mid-season, time to step it up.

E.  The most important games to retain control of the division are the two against Miami.  They are only a game back, and the Pats play them twice in the last six games of the year, so no overlooking them.

6.  Summary

5-3 isn't what most people expected, but the O-line is gelling nicely and the running game is a pleasant surprise.  Brady is outstanding so far, and when the offensive weapons are all healthy the team should put up 35+ most every game.  The defensive secondary needs solid contributions from Talib or the return of Chung and/or Gregory.  The front seven is blitzing more, which tells you Bill Belichick is more confident that the secondary will hold up in coverage.

It's good to see the Patriots get back to having a team that improves as the season goes on, instead of the "win at all costs right now" attitude that's prevailed since 2007.  With all the rookies on defense, there should be continued improvement there (except maybe Jones, who plays so much he might hit the rookie wall soon).  And there is still hope that Brandon Lloyd will improve if/when Aaron Hernandez is full strength again.

Enjoy the second half of the year!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  5-3!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Patriots Hang On to Beat Jets, 29-26 in OT

In a game of give-aways and take-aways, the Patriots got the one that mattered most and pulled out a 29-26 victory over the division-rival Jets.  The win gives the Patriots the division lead over idle Miami and the losing Jets and Bills.  Next week it's across the pond to play the London Rams -- er, make that the St. Louis Rams -- at Wembley stadium.

After a week of people questioning if Tom Brady is finally on the downside of his career, he made very few mistakes and was a couple dropped passes away from controlling the game comfortably.  And in the end, he led a final drives to tie the game in regulation and win it in overtime.  Add to that Stephen Gostkowski's field goals to end each of those drives and the closeout by the defense in overtime, and it was a total team win.

Brady's numbers don't look great: 26 of 42 (62%), 259 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions.  But there were several passes right on the money that were dropped, and though the Jets didn't pressure him consistently, they did a great job of coverage in the short zones favored by the Pats offense.  Some of his off throws were on purpose, because the Jets coverage was just that good.

Receiver Brandon Lloyd was targeted 8 times -- and he had 1 catch and 1 offensive pass-interference penalty.  He also dropped an early bomb that would likely have led to points on the first drive, and he dropped a potential touchdown late that would have won the game in regulation.  This off-season acquisition still isn't working out as well as the Patriots expected, and it should be improving more than it has so far.

The other receivers were mostly very good, when they got open.  Difficult to complain about Rob Gronkowski's production (6 catches, 78 yards, 2 touchdowns), or Wes Welker's (6 for 66 yards, 4 first downs).  Julian Edelman and Aaron Hernandez are still working their way back in after injuries, but both looked pretty good overall.

The surprise at running back was that Shane Vereen started instead of Stevan Ridley.  The two were chosen in back-to-back rounds in the 2010 draft, but last year Vereen was injured almost the entire season and Ridley grasped the offense and blocking schemes quickly and has gotten much more playing time  But Vereen looked comfortable in blitz pick up, had a nice burst, and ended up with 6.1 yards per carry (to Ridley's 3.8)  (Trivia question: Has Vereen out-gained Ridlley on the ground in any NFL games to this point?  Answer below.)

The offensive line really suffered from the absence of Logan Mankins.  On the first drive, replacement starter Donald Thomas windmilled two linemen -- one of which was picked up by Vereen.  If Thomas got *either* man, the play might have worked, but Brady had to throw it away and the drive stalled.  Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are both playing very well, and overall it is a credit to this unit that the team averaged 4.2 yards per rush and let up only 1 sack in 43 pass plays.

The defense was a real mixed bag.  They shut down the Jets on 4 of 6 first half drives, but then let them score on 4 of 5 second half drives.  But they did force the Jets to take a field goal after a late fumble by Devin McCourty (on a kickoff) and they turned the ball over in overtime to end the game.  Some bad, some good, some very bad, some very good.

The Patriots took my suggestion and played Devin McCourty at safety most of the game, with both Chung and Gregory out.  It only semi-worked; he got worked over a few times, but never let receivers get behind him and so the passes were shorter gains than the ones against Seattle.  Despite what you'll read elsewhere, a week after giving up multiple plays over 40 yards, they gave up plays of 20-26 yards instead.  Still not great, but better.

Rookie Alfonzo Dennard did a decent job starting in McCourty's spot.  He had an interception, knocked away one pass, and would have knocked away another except the ball he tipped was caught by a Jets receiver.  Kyle Arrington had more difficulty, but Ras-I Dowling struggled the most.  He has obvious physical advantages (long arms and quickness), but somehow it isn't working out for Dowling.  He got beaten regularly on short routes and once on a long ball.

The defensive star of the game was linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who moved back to LB from the defensive line a few weeks back (for the injured Dont'a Hightower).  He is showing great versatility, notching 1.5 sacks yesterday, 2 tackles for a loss, 2 quarterback hits, and 1 important forced fumble/recovery in overtime to end the game.  Hightower had a sack, too, and he had added 7 tackles, which is impressive given that he wasn't out there too long.  He also does well in pass coverage, and might be their best pass-coverage linebacker -- a mere seven games into his NFL career.

Jerod Mayo continues to get beaten in pass coverage, though it's not always his fault.  He should take the blame when it's a 5- to 10-yard completion; but anything beyond that is either a blown coverage, bad scheme, or the safeties responsibility.  Mayo did lead the team in tackles (11), and Brandon Spikes had 10 bone-jarring tackles.  Spikes only guessed wrong once, and as he's limited his misreads, he has become an excellent run stopping backer.  Just ask Shonn Greene.

The Jets rand the ball well, which might indicate subpar play on the line.  It might have been true of Kyle Love and Chandler Jones, but Vince Wilfork and Jermaine Cunningham performed very well.  Wilfork made 7 tackles (a big number for a lineman in this defense), and he blew up a running play that led to a fumble and a safety... and all points are huge when you need overtime to win.  Cunningham had just 2 tackles on the stat sheet, but he forced runs back inside and forced the Jets QB up in the pocket several times.  He also got credit for half a sack.  Jones isn't playing badly, but he isn't quite the phenomenon he was projected to be.  He also loses outside contain on inside spin moves too often.

Special teams gaveth, tooketh away, and then gaveth again.  Devin McCourty started the Patriots scoring with a 104-yard kickoff return for touchdown.  But late in the game he fumbled a kickoff, which could have lost the game.  And the team gave up two long kickoff returns (one of which was called back on a penalty).  Also, there was the timeout call just before the team's first punt -- apparently because they didn't have the right personnel on the field.  Unacceptable.

On the plus side, Stephen Gostkowski hit two critical field goals, Zoltan Mesko repeatedly pinned the Jets inside their 20 yard-line, and Wes Welker had some decent punt returns.

The only continuing quibble about coaching is their insistence on throwing to Brandon Lloyd when he is not open.  If he's not open, don't force it -- take what the defense gives you and move on.  There are always complaints about the play calling, but in this game it was better.  They started out passing a lot, but this time they got back to the running game and it was effective in helping control the ball.

So where does that leave us?  In first place, where we belong, of course!  4-3 will have to do for the moment, but don't mark down 5-3 just yet.  The Rams aren't great, but they do get pressure on the passer, which plays against one of the Patriots weaknesses -- the offensive line.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Jets QB Mark Sanchez' career record against the Patriots is 3-5.  In all 3 wins he threw zero interceptions.  And in all 5 losses he threw at least 1 interception.  Consistency; that's what it's all about.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "This was the best Pats/Jets game since the first Tuna Bowl.  I remember the Pats blocked a field goal at the end to preserve the win."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  4-3!

PPS.  Trivia answer: Vereen actually outgained Ridley in two consecutive games in 2011: 39-0 against Kansas City and 18-4 at Philadelphia.