Monday, September 22, 2014

Patriots Hang On For 16-9 Win Over Raiders

If you saw it, you know it wasn't pretty, but the Patriots hung on for a 16-9 win over the Raiders yesterday. The victory was coupled with a Buffalo loss, so it tied the Patriots and Bills for first place in the AFC East. Next week, the Pats travel to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City for a Monday night contest with the Chiefs. And KC looks worse than predicted at the beginning of the year, so hope springs eternal.

Before I pound the offense, let me just say the defense is tearing it up. Chandler Jones dominated yet again, leading the team in passes defended this time around and getting those knockdowns at crucial moments. For some reason the team still puts him inside some of the time; he is much more effective coming off the edge.

Also, Dont'a Hightower seemed to be everywhere; he was credited with 7 tackles, but I though he had at least three more that the PA announcer at the game credited him with. Jones and Hightower aren't a bad combo -- both being taken within four pick of each other in the first round of the 2012 draft.

Jerod Mayo also played very well, leading the team in tackles (11) and disrupting plays before they had a chance to get going. The secondary was hot-and-cold, hitting hard and tackling well, but giving up some plays that looked much too easy while making much more difficult ones. And Vince Wilfork got his third career interception to seal the deal (Trivia Question: Wilfork got his other two interceptions in the same season, name it... answer below.)

As for this game, I'm not going to give it the normal detailed analysis. Because there's really only one question hanging over the team, and I intend to answer it. What is wrong with the offense? Here goes...

1. Poor planning, coaching, and playing on the offensive line.

As stated in the season primer, Logan Mankins was the Patriots best offensive lineman last year. He'd slipped a little bit, but the rest of the line was still worse. Now his last-minute trade to Tampa Bay is having its effects. It's obvious now; losing both your O-line coach and the best player of the group was a bad a idea -- a very bad idea.

Maybe new O-line coach Dave DeGuglielmo will eventually distinguish himself, but the Patriots haven't had a string of offensive line play this bad in a long, long time. They had their problems from time-to-time, but it always got fixed tout de suite. No matter the talent available, DeGuglielmo has to do a better job preparing these guys from game to game. Because they are getting beaten far too often in almost the exact same way, and far too easily, to boot.

Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer have been awful at times, and there have been so many jailbreak hits on the quarterback that it's nearly impossible to see who screws up from play to play. Brady took a huge hit late in yesterday's game, and his next throw came up short, forcing the Pats to take a field goal. Add to this that the Patriots have played six offensive linemen to get better protection and better run blocking, and you can see that the starting five just aren't measuring up.

2. The weapons just aren't there.

If they sent out Pro Bowl ballots tonight, you could leave the entire Patriots offense off the list. It's really just Julian Edelman and a bunch of other guys. Rob Gronkowski is still finding his way back to his former self. Off-season acquisition Brandon LaFail... er, LaFell hasn't learned the offense and has 4 catches and 3 penalties so far. And Danny Amendola averages 1 reception a game.

The non-Gronkowski tight ends stink, just like last year, although newcomer Tim Wright shows promise and should play more. Running back Shane Vereen is very good out of the backfield, but he's a part-time player in a specialized role. And second-year wideouts Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson are never seen on the field at the same time, even though both know the offense better than LaFell or Amendola.

3. A disturbing habit of being outcoached.

In three games, the Patriots scored 53 points in the first half and only 13 points in the second half. That indicates one thing: poor halftime adjustments by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Sometimes he comes in with a good gameplan (Miami and Minnesota games), so at least the team can build a first-half lead. But as we saw with Miami, scoring zero in the second half can still come back to bite you.

Yesterday, the Patriots plan was so bad they scored nothing for the first 25 minutes of the game. They were lucky the Raiders offense kindly let the Patriots score twice going into the half. And the Pats got the ball to start the second half -- a score there probably puts the game away, given how the defense was playing. But the Pats went 3-and-out.

No points in the first quarter and no points in the third quarter means the other team is out-coaching you to enter the game and coming out of halftime. And that is all on McDaniels; he's the coordinator so it's his job go figure out better plans in both cases.

4. The triggerman.

On the Patriots first possession yesterday, Brady missed an easy wheel-route pass to Vereen, and the Patriots had to punt. In the fourth quarter, he missed an easy toss to Gronkowski and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal. Little things like that add up to problems keeping the ball, moving the ball, and scoring the most points you can.

Brady also hasn't been sharp on long throws, missing open receivers down the sidelines in every game and throwing over the wrong shoulder too often. He isn't nearly the Patriots biggest offensive problem, but when everything else is so bad, his imperfections are magnified.

Not one to just complain, here are my suggested solutions to these problems:

1. Stop using the six-offensive lineman formations unless it's short yardage. This is a crutch that enables and partially rewards poor play by your linemen. Make them earn their playing time, and then go with five down linemen, like the other 31 teams.

2. Replace that sixth lineman with Tim Wright, not Michael Hoomanawanui. Hoomanawanui can't block or get open, so you might as well play Wright, who has shown some ability in the passing game. You have nothing to lose; your tight ends have been almost the level of disaster as your O-line -- and that's saying something.

3. Sit LaFell and play both Thompkins and Dobson. It doesn't matter how much you like LaFell, or how much you paid him -- at this point he's hurting you more than he helps. He looks like the latest incarnation of Joey Galloway: a veteran receiver who never learned the complex Patriots offense. Thompkins has been steady when healthy, and Dobson can contribute two or three times a game. And their performance would be a clear upgrade over LaFell.

4. Self-scout your offensive tendencies and devise better game plans. And McDaniels has to get better at in-game and halftime adjustments. The old theory that everyone looks 20% with Tom Brady applies here. McDaniels looks overmatched now -- imagine how he'd look with a bad quarterback. It's time for him to step up his game.

5. Brady has been mediocre at long passes ever since Randy Moss left. However, his problems with short passes are a new phenomenon this year. He should practice those throws to the exclusion of long passes, since the Patriots don't have the speed to attack deep anyway. And if the offensive line can keep his pocket clean, that would help, too.

There it is -- the problem and the solution. How easy was that ::shrugs::

So where does that leave us? 2-1 and tied for the division lead; that sounds a lot better than when they were 0-1 and alone in last place. The Chiefs put up 34 against the Dolphins; and if their offense looks like that next week, watch out!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Vince Wilfork's three career interceptions have all come against the AFC West (one against San Diego, and two against the Raiders).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Next time the Patriots want to save salary cap space, can they cut Danny Amendola instead?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-1!

PPS. Wilfork had his two previous interceptions in week 2 and week 4 of the 2011 season.

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