Sunday, November 17, 2013

Patriots Mid-Season Report 2013

A very interesting first half put the Patriots exactly where I thought they’d be: 7-2 and in control of the division.  They won some they shouldn’t have won, lost one they shouldn’t have lost, and overall have a two-game lead with seven games to go.  Just about where they are every year at this time.

It’s a little past halfway, but here is the state of the Patriots after their ninth game.


If quarterback Tom Brady continues at this pace, he’ll end the season with career worsts in completion percentage (currently at 57.1%, career low 60.2%), touchdown percentage (3.8% vs. 4.4%), QB Rating (82.7 vs. 85.7), and sacks (46 vs. 41). It’s partially due to the lack of weapons, but his throws haven’t been as accurate as in recent years.

To be fair, a lot of the early incompletions were missed routes or dropped passes by new receivers. And his connection with the receivers is better, especially now that tight end Rob Gronkowski is rounding into form and Danny Amendola is healthy again.

Additionally, the high number of sacks is more on the offensive line than on Brady. Left guard Logan Mankins and left tackle Nate Solder have been confused on protection far too often this year. And physical defensive lines on Cincinnati, New Orleans, and the New York Jets accounted for over half the year’s sacks in three consecutive games.

The running game hasn’t been a problem, with an improvement from 4.2 yards per carry last year to 4.4 this year, and more explosive plays. So the O-line hasn’t been all bad, and it should improve further given that Gronkowski is one of the best blocking tight ends in football. But even with help from the tight ends, it will be on the starting five to step up their play, especially against larger, more physical defensive lines.

As for the receivers, two games ago rookie receiver Aaron Dobson and Brady finally connected on a back-shoulder pass -- the toughest pass to defend. And they followed that up with a back-shoulder TD last week. Dobson has all the physical skills, and with he and Brady getting into greater sync, he should be dangerous in the second half.

And if last week is any indication, Gronkowski, Dobson, and Danny Amendola will flood or split the field, spreading out defenses. It worked against Pittsburgh when the defense lost track of Amendola several times, for the easiest pass receptions, and one of the easiest touchdowns, of his career. And Gronkowski notched his first touchdown of 2013, and caught several easy pitch-and-catches down the seam.


The defensive line lost both of its interior players for the year, defensive captain Vince Wilfork and newcomer Tommy Kelly. They’ve been replaced by rookies, Joe Vellano (who is better against the run) and Chris Jones (who is second on the team with five sacks). But the team is getting beaten with inside runs, and when they overcommit to those, they’ve been beaten to the outside.

Chandler Jones does a nice job rushing the passer (8.5 sacks), but he’s no Rob Ninkovich when it comes to holding the edge against the run. And interestingly, the Patriots brought back one-time D-lineman Andre Carter -- and moved Jones to linebacker to help with pass coverage.  And that was necessary because…

Linebacker Jerod Mayo is also out of for the year, on injured reserve with a torn pectoral. Mayo’s taken his lumps from me over the years, mostly for his poor pass coverage. But he was much improved in that area, until the injury. So they need more speed and length in the linebacking corps, because Dont’a Hightower is almost D-lineman size and Brandon Spikes is vastly better against the run.

In the secondary, Aqib Talib is still the key. He’s been injured and missed a few games; and when he is out, the Patriots tend to move slot corner Kyle Arrington outside and backups Marquice Cole or Logan Ryan to the slot. They’d be better off keeping Arrington on the slot receivers and giving help to the side with Cole or Ryan. Arrington was repeatedly beaten in the second Jets game, and they eventually had to move him back inside -- and the Jets receivers aren’t even that good.

Safety Devin McCourty is having a spectacular season, and his counterpart, Steve Gregory is much better than last year. However, this is yet another area where the drop-off from starter to backup is significant, so the team has to hope both players can stay healthy.

Special Teams/Coaching

Stephen Gostkowski was already the most accurate kicker in Patriots history, and that was before he went 22 of 23 this year. His kickoffs have also been very good -- with plenty of touchbacks and hang time -- except for the Pittsburgh game, when they were a bit shorter than usual. Perhaps he was nursing an injury in that game, but if so, he’s had two weeks to rest and should be back to his normal, brilliant self.

Rookie punter Ryan Allen had a few early “yips” punts, but overall has done a very good job. He also does well holding on field goals (as evidenced by Gostkowski’s amazing percentage). And his coverage teams are very good; Nate Ebner is threatening to take away Matthew Slater’s title as all-around special teams ball hawk.

On kickoff returns, LeGarrette Blount shows surprisingly quick feet for such a big man. Not exactly a barn-burner, but better than Devin McCourty was last year. And Julian Edelman continues to take chances and make them payoff on punt returns; almost never fair-catching, and sometimes slipping through cracks so small you’d think a pee wee footballer wouldn’t fit through.

The defensive coaching has been mostly excellent. The only questionable decision was the aforementioned move of Arrington to the outside against the Jets. Aside from that, coordinator Matt Patricia has pulled the right strings all year.

On offense, Josh McDaniels needs to calm himself down sometimes. There is no need to go for a 40-yard bomb on third-and-two -- but somehow McDaniels still hasn’t learned that lesson. Oh, and Scott O’Brien continues to excel, year after year, coaching special teams.


With another division title in their sights, don’t expect the Patriots to lose focus. The Panthers are a sterner test than I gave them credit for in my Season Preview, but given Belichick’s record against young quarterbacks, and his dominance against the NFC, tomorrow’s tilt in Carolina should be a Patriots win.

The Patriots have suffered many injuries in past years, but never this many to key players. If they don’t stay healthy, they won’t pull out an undermanned Super Bowl victory, as they did in 2003. But they can compete for a championship with the injuries they’ve suffered so far; they just can’t afford any more.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: You should not concern yourself with Brady’s low completion percentage.  The lowest two seasons of his career are 2003 and 2004 (60.1% and 60.8%, respectively) -- and the Patriots won the Super Bowl both of those years.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Since 2001 Belichick is 16-5 after the bye, 15-5 on Monday night, and 42-9 against the NFC… so things could go well against the Panthers.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  7-2!

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