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.

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