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!

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