Monday, September 17, 2012

Cardinals Stun Patriots 20-18

In an apparent homage to the new season of The Walking Dead, the Patriots replaced their offense with a group of zombies and then bumbled their way through a 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals yesterday.  The loss dropped them to 1-1 and into a four-way first place tie in the AFC East.  And it doesn't get any easier; next week brings very difficult trip to Baltimore to play the Ravens in prime time. (Trivia question: name the last time all four teams were tied for first place in the AFC East -- answer below.)

Special teams might look like the obvious goat, but the offense lacked consistency and missed several long plays that would have changed the game.  In fact, before each of the two special teams miscues the offense botched plays or play-calling: Wes Welker dropped a sure first-down before the blocked punt; and the Pats offense went into an inexplicable shell before Stephen Gostkowski pulled the potential game-winning 42-yard field goal.  Not to let special teams off the hook, but the offense did not hold up its end of the bargain yesterday.

Apparently the Patriots could only mask the offensive line problems for one week.  Tom Brady was under pressure and on the run most of the day (4 sacks for 19 yards, 6 QB hits).  And a week after they pounded the Titans for 162 yards and a 4.6 ypc average, they had just 90 yards and 3.2 ypc.  However, believe it or not there was improvement -- mostly in pass blocking by the tackles.  The inside linemen had a terrible day in pass protection, with everyone whiffing on at least one assignment and Brady paying the price.

Brady was not stellar, understandable given all the pressure.  He and Brandon Lloyd missed a few downfield connections, and some of Brady's throws were low and uncatchable.  He also turtled up twice when no one was about to hit him, though that might be understandable given how often he did get hit.  He finished 28 of 46 (61%) for 316 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, and a 79.6 QB rating.

The running game (Brady's best friend against the Titans) didn't get enough traction, following up six-yard gains with four-yard losses.  Stevan Ridley did what he could, but they kept running outside and the Cardinals kept shutting it down.  And every inside handoff to Danny Woodhead failed (including the one called back on a Gronkowski holding call).

As for the receivers, everyone except Julian Edelman missed passes that should have been caught.  Edelman (5 catches for 50 yards) was far from the star of the game, but he was their most consistent receiver on the day.  Lloyd led the team with 8 receptions, but for a very low 7.5 yards per catch (mostly owing to miscommunication on a pair of long passes that fell incomplete). Rob Gronkowski made some amazing catches and dropped at least two that he should have had.  And his holding penalty cost the Patriots a winning touchdown -- not to mention the illegal motion penalty that cost them another five yards on the potential game-winning field goal.

The offensive play-calling was subpar.  Where were the screen passes to slow down the pass rush?  Why didn't they realize the Woodhead runs weren't fooling anybody?  Everyone in the stadium seemed to know it except the Patriots.  And it might be time to rethink a 50-yard bomb on second-and-nine or a 30-yard out on third-and-two.  Stick with what works: ball control through short passes.

No one should have any complaints about the defense.  They gave up just one long touchdown drive, got a turnover to get the team back in the game, and got an improbable fumble recovery with 1:00 left to give the team a chance to pull it out.  They notched as many three-and-outs as they gave up scoring drives (4 of each).  And they stuffed the run and neutralized one of the best receivers on the planet, Larry Fitzgerald.

Brandon Spikes had a monster game: 7 tackles (1 for a loss), 2 quarterback hits, the huge forced fumble, and many plays that he redirected before they could even get started out of the backfield.  When he guessed, he guessed right.  Jerod Mayo led the team with 9 tackles (though he's still not great in pass coverage), and rookie Dont'a Hightower played very well in both the run and pass defenses.

Along the line, Kyle Love was a one-man wrecking crew in the first half.  He made 3 crushing tackles, and gave up absolutely zero yards when going his way.  Between Love and Vince Wilfork the Cardinals had a tough time doing much on the ground.  The other rookie first-rounder, Chandler Jones, ended up with a nice stat line: 5 tackles, 1 for a loss, 1 QB hit, and 1 forced fumble.  And Ron Brace and Jermaine Cunningham even visited the stat sheet for a change!

The secondary was far from perfect, but safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung are starting to gel quite nicely.  Just 8 tackles and 1 pass defended between them, but no long passes or blown coverages on the day.  Cardinals' QB Kevin Kolb helped the Patriots cornerbacks with some errant throws.  But for the most part, the cornerback threesome of Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, and nickleback Sterling Moore did a good job of pressing the receivers and keeping short plays from becoming big ones.  Not perfect, but good signs so far.

Special teams did not play well.  Gostkowski blew the last-second field goal attempt and screwed up a late kickoff (though the results weren't all that bad).  Punter Zoltan Mesko had his first punt blocked (which led directly to an Arizona touchdown), and he also booted one to the five yard-line, but the coverage team didn't get there in time to down it.  Mistakes in this area can kill you, so they have to redouble their efforts and get things shored up.  But again, the loss really isn't on them.

The coaching was a mixed bag.  The defensive game plan and execution were spot on.  However, the special teams should have been better prepared for the Cardinals' schemes on the blocked punt.  And the offense didn't click and they needed better adjustments and more use of the no-huddle.

So where does that leave us?  The Patriots are 1-1 and in danger of falling below .500 for the first time in ten years.  The Ravens lost a tough one this week, and they will be determined to avenge last year's loss in the AFC Championship Game.  The Patriots rarely lose two in a row, so something has to give.  In any event, you have your Sunday back -- this one is a night game, so get out and enjoy the fall weather during the day.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Larry Fitzgerald's performance, 1 catch for 4 yards, is his lowest output since he had 1 catch for 2 yards against the Giants -- in 2004 (his rookie year).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "46 seconds left and a first down inside the 20; and they go for the kneel-down and field goal?  That's a head scratcher."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  1-1!

PPS.  Trivia answer: Trick question -- all four AFC East teams were tied at 0-0 two weeks ago :P

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