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!