Monday, October 27, 2014

Patriots Pummel Bears, 51-23

The Patriots blew out the Bears yesterday, 51-23, in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated. The win gives the Patriots a 6-2 record halfway through the season, and keeps them ahead of the victorious Bills and Dolphins in the division. Next week it's the seemingly annual "Brady vs. Manning" Bowl, at Foxboro on Sunday afternoon. Should be another barn-burner; though one thing you can expect is great weather, since my friend, Al, the Foxboro Weather God, will be at the game.

The Patriots offense dominated from the beginning, scoring on six consecutive possessions to start the game, and not punting until 4:10 left in the third quarter. And with the offense clicking, the defense spent the first three quarters fending off any challenges to make it a laugher before they went into the prevent and Chicago scored in garbage-time.

Sometimes you don't learn as much from a blowout as from a close game. But there was plenty to learn in this one. Here are the bright lights from the game, in bullet form so they don't take 5,000 words:

  • Quarterback Tom Brady completed 30 of 35 passes (four of the misses were drops) for 354 yards, 5 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a QB rating of 148.4. He also moved well in the pocket, with one TD coming off a scramble to his right.
  • Tight end Rob Gronkowski caught 9 passes on 9 targets for 149 yards and 3 touchdowns. On a 46-yard TD, he threw off a safety and outran the rest of the Chicago defense to the end zone. And believe it or not, he still isn't all the way back, showing some weakness in run blocking and pass protection.
  • Tight end Tim Wright had 7 receptions on 7 targets for 61 yards and a touchdown.
  • Receiver Brandon LaFell had 11 grabs on 11 targets for 124 yards and 1 touchdown. Seems like a loooong time ago I was calling him LaFail -- though you could use that moniker for a Bears defense that repeatedly gave LaFell a free release and zone coverage to slice up.
  • Running back Jonas Gray gained 86 yards on 17 carries (5.1 ypc), and the team racked up 122 for the day. Not bad for a guy in his second NFL game.
  • Linebackers Dont'a Hightower (10 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Jamie Collins (11 tackles) held up well, though Collins had the superior day, making his tackles closer to the line of scrimmage on running plays.
  • Defensive back Brandon Browner laid the lumber on a few receivers, had a tackle for a loss, and knocked away one pass. His first start for the Pats, and by far his best game for the team.
  • Rob Ninkovich had an up-and-down game, but he recovered a fumble and ran it back for a touchdown late in the first half, pretty much putting away the game. Note: Ninkovich leads the NFL with 12 fumble recoveries since 2009 (the year he joined the Patriots).
  • A great game-plan on offense -- kudos to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels

Here is what didn't go so well, again in bullet form:

  • The run defense is still struggling some. In the first half -- before the game got out of hand -- Bears running back Matt Forte averaged 5.9 yards a carry. And even though it didn't come back to bite the Patriots yesterday, it could be a problem against better teams.
  • Safety Devin McCourty doesn't look right, ever since he got dinged against the Bengals. His tackle numbers are down, and he gave up two receptions yesterday that he wouldn't normally give up.
  • Note to safety Tavon Wilson: that dropped INT is the reason you are a reserve.
  • Two dropped passes by receiver Julian Edelman. Usually Mister Reliable, Edelman has been deemphasized in the passing game of late, and has at least four drops in the past two games (two of those drops would have given the Pats big first downs).
  • 9 penalties for 64 yards. The Pats have now committed the second-most penalties in the NFL (70) and have given up the most yards via penalties (628). Not a good place to be, and it's a trend that hasn't improved all season. (Trivia Question: Only one year under Bill Belichick have the Patriots been among the five worst in one of those penalty categories , name the year... answer below).

What I learned in this game, in bullet form to keep things consistent:

  • Danny Amendola is a good punt returner, but Julian Edelman is a great one. Amendola had 2 returns for just 11 yards, and it appeared his technique left yards on the field. Edelman had 1 return for 42 yards, and he left no extra yards on the field.
  • Linebacker Akeem Ayers has a nice burst at the snap; he got pressure on the Bears QB several times and sacked him once. But until he knows the defense better, he'll be a liability doing anything except rushing the passer.
  • Running back Brandon Bolden had two big tackles on special teams, and might have outplayed special teams captain Matthew Slater.
  • Rookie DB Malcolm Butler (#21 in your program) got burned on a touchdown, but battled back to knock down two passes in the game. Not great, not terrible, but nice to see him fighting back.
So where does that leave us? A 6-2 record projects out to 12-4, though the iron of the schedule is coming up. The Broncos (6-1) come to town next week, and then after a bye week, the Patriots play the Colts (5-3), Lions (6-2), Packers (5-3), and Chargers (5-3). How they fare over the next five games will determine if they compete for a playoff bye or slug it out with Buffalo and Miami for the division crown.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Since the Bears beat the Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX, the Patriots are 7-1 against Chicago and have outscored them 228-110.

Statistical Oddity #2: Not only did the Patriots tie their own NFL record by scoring three touchdowns in 57-seconds -- they scored another quick one in the second half, meaning they scored 28 points in 4:01 of playing time.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If you bought Bears stock when Trestman took over, would you sell now or hope for a turn-around?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-2!

The 2006 Patriots ranked fourth-worst in penalty yards assessed, with 940 yards marked off against them. Other than that, the Patriots haven't finished any worse than tenth in either penalty category under Bill Belichick.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Patriots Survive Jets, 27-25

Sorry I didn't get this out earlier, but some personal matters got in the way.

The Jets made NFL history last Thursday, becoming the first team to lose a game in regulation when they had 40+ minutes of possession time and 200+ yards rushing. The Patriots held on for a 27-25 win, in a game that underscored both Rex Ryan's brilliance and incompetence. The win puts the Pats at 5-2, atop the AFC East, with a 1-game and 1.5-game lead over victorious Buffalo and Miami, respectively.

If this game was any indication, the linebackers are in trouble without injured star Jerod Mayo. Running plays that went for 2-3 yards with Mayo went for 7-9 yards with Hightower at middle linebacker. He just can't shed blockers as effectively as Mayo, so his first contact is much further downfield. Jamie Collins is ill-suited for inside play, and after those two, the Patriots have lots of inexperienced players. So the coaches have some tough choices to make there.

Note that even though Hightower and Collins tied for the team lead with 13 tackles, it was not a productive day for either of them. The Jets ran 43 times for 218 yards (5.1 yards per carry), and they controlled the clock for 40:54. If not for defensive stinginess in the red zone, and several bonehead plays by the Jets, this could have been a blowout loss instead of a 2-point win.

Along with the linebackers, the defensive line didn't have a great day, either. Chandler Jones got mostly consistent pressure, when the Jets threw the ball. He had 1 sack for 15 yards, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 quarterback hits. There is little in the way of stats for the rest of the D-line, and some weeks that is okay -- it's the design of this defense. But they mostly got pushed around in the running game.

The secondary pretty much saved the defense's bacon. It wasn't perfect, with several ill-timed penalties, and they gave up 11.3 yards per catch. But the only passing touchdown was given up by safety Patrick Chung, and on the very next play, he had great coverage on the same tight end to stop a two-point conversion that would have tied the game. Chung was also key in keeping the Jets from breaking big runs, coming up as an extra man to make sure the 7-yard gains didn't become 27-yarders.

Safety Devin McCourty had his usual solid game, though with few Jets passing attempts, he had just 3 tackles. Logan Ryan and Darrelle Revis got beaten a few times, but as with Chung, they battled back to knock down other passes or force the Jets to throw the ball away. Again, not perfect, but with some well-played downs at critical times, they forced the Jets to settle for field goals twice as often as they scored touchdowns.

Some in the media characterized the defense as porous and awful. But what I saw was a team missing its defensive captain and trying to hold it together on a short week of preparation. We'll know a lot more about the Patriots defense after next week's game against Chicago. Last Thursday was an AFC East war of attrition that went the Patriots way because the Jets reverted to form late in the game.

On offense, the Pats had just 15 running plays to 38 passing plays. So their strategy was obvious from the beginning. In fact, running back Shane Vereen had a 49-yard touchdown pass just 1:29 into the game, the Jets defense losing him when the quarterback scrambled and leaving him free down the right sideline. Vereen also got a three-yard swing pass for another touchdown. I say all this because there just wasn't much else to say in praise of the running backs: 63 yards and a decided disadvantage in time of possession tell you that either the coaches didn't want to run or the O-line and backs couldn't make it work.

Speaking of the offensive line, their stats look better than they did. They gave up just one sack, but seven other QB hits. And quarterback Tom Brady on the run a lot more than usual. They were missing two starters on the short week, so there probably isn't much to learn from Thursday's game. Well, except Marcus Cannon is *not* the answer at tackle; he looked awful in his few plays in place of Nate Solder.

Brady had a very good game. The initial touchdown was a nicely thrown pass to a wide open man, something he sometimes overthrows. And he made great decisions throughout the game, even if the decision was to throw the ball away. He finished 20 of 37 for 261 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 103.5 QB rating.

And don't look now, but Brady has gone 109 passing attempts without an INT, and he has the fourth-lowest interception total among NFL starters this year with just two for the 2014 season. And despite all the hand-wringing over his play, that is tied for the fewest interceptions after seven games in his career. (Trivia Question: which other year did Brady have just two interceptions after seven starts? Answer below.)

At receiver, 20 completions wasn't a lot to go around, but it went mostly to tight end Rob Gronkowski (5 catches, 58 yards), receivers Brandon LaFell (4 for 55) and Julian Edelman (4 for 44), and of course, running back Vereen (5 for 71, 2 touchdowns). Gronkowski is getting closer and closer to full strength, barreling through more tackles each week. However, the usually reliable Edelman had two drops, one on a key down that would have helped run time off the clock in the fourth quarter.

Danny Amendola made a terrific catch for the last touchdown, on a third-and-goal from the 19-yardline. He is getting a lot of praise for showing up this game, but in the end he had more impact on special teams, returning 4 kickoffs for 105 total yards. His catch was a great one, and important to the win. But one catch isn't quite what the team needs -- and the fact that is an improvement from recent weeks shows you how far he had fallen.

Special teams were excellent for most of the game. Punter Ryan Allen averaged 44.8 net yards per kick and twice they were downed inside the 20. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski got touchbacks on 3 of 5 kicks, but one that got away was a 62-yard return by the Jets -- the only blemish on special teams. And nailing every field goal was crucial in a tight game.

And the special teams play of the night goes to King of Redemption, Chris Jones. Last year against the Jets, he was called for an obscure new penalty on a Jets field goal attempt in overtime. That kick was no good, but the penalty gave the Jets another chance, and the second kick was good, handing the Patriots a bitter loss. (Note: that penalty has never been called again in any NFL game. Ever.)

So when Jones got up high enough to block the 58-yarder that would have won the game for New York, it had to feel like redemption for last year. And even if it didn't feel like redemption to him, it did to me -- so there!

Coaching was perhaps the most interesting match of the day. The Jets' Rex Ryan had a better plan coming in, dominating on the ground and with time of possession, while limiting the Patriots offense and shortening Brady's time on the field. But on game, day, the Jets called stupid timeouts multiple times, leaving them with only one when they needed all three late in the game.

As stated above, no team had ever been this dominant on the ground and lost the game. Ryan will likely be fired at the end of the year, but he'll be in the record books forever now. Because it's difficult to believe any team will duplicate that dominance/incompetence combination any time in the near future.

So where does that leave us? Everyone else in the AFC East chasing the 5-2 Patriots -- sounds like the universe is back in balance. The Bears game next Sunday won't be any easy task. They have dynamic playmakers all over the field. But with 10 days to prepare, and with Bill Belichick's historical dominance of the NFC, it should be a home game they can win.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In the last five seasons, the Patriots boast a winning record (3-2) in games where they give up 200+ yards rushing.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "When it comes to winning, Belichick has a PHD, and Ryan has a GED."

Keep the faith!

- Scott

PS.  5-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer: Brady had just two interceptions through seven games in 2007. In fact, he didn't throw his third INT until his ninth game that season, so he's got some work to do to keep up his own pace.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Patriots Top Bills, 37-22

The battle for the AFC East lead had a familiar result, a Patriots win over the Bills, which put the Patriots alone atop the division once again. The cream appears to be rising. The win puts them in control of the division for the moment, and they have another AFC East tilt on short rest this Thursday, against the Jets in Foxboro.

Sunday's game was the 26th time the Patriots have beaten the Bills in 29 games since Bill Belichick took over as New England's head coach. It was close for a half, and the Bills probably should have been ahead at the intermissions. But turnovers and other mistakes opened the door, and the Patriots somehow parlayed a their poor first-half offensive performance to a 13-7 lead. The Patriots then scored on 4-of-4 meaningful possessions in the second half to run away for a 15 point victory.

The offensive line continued to have trouble, especially with speed rushers around the outside. Granted they played most of the game with two injury-replacements, but that doesn't excuse the poor play from tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. What does explain it is the crowd noise, which gives defensive players a head start on the play.

Fortunately, the Patriots have Tom Brady at quarterback, because he handled the pressure extremely well. He stepped up to avoid outside rushers -- and the fact that he had room to step up into means the interior O-line played pretty well. But when pressure came, Brady stood in and hit receivers for big plays. He got hit right after delivering a Brandon LaFell touchdown, hit just as he threw an out to tight end Rob Gronkowski, and hit just as he released a big third-down throw to Julian Edelman.

Brady ended up 27 of 37 for 361 yards (his highest total this season), 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, only 2 sacks (15 yards), and a QB rating of 139.6. Most QBs under that kind of pressure would have made a key mistake, but Brady is good enough to avoid the costly error. You might not notice until after he retires; but his decisions and passes are so precise that this week he has the second-best QB rating the the league when he had no running game and was hit eight times total.

Speaking of the running game, 50 yards and 1.9 yards per carry. That's all, nothing to see here... on to the receivers. (Trivia question: the last time the Patriots had as few as 50 yards in a game was in 2007, their 16-0 regular season. It happened four times: how many of the games can you name? Answer below.)

The receivers piled up big numbers, but it was mostly a three-man show. The team flexed Gronkowski (7 catches for 94 yards) to the outside, giving him single-coverage, and he beat that coverage consistently, be it a corner or safety. The improving Brandon LaFell caught 4 balls for 97 yards, and 2 touchdowns -- getting both TDs working over the middle of the field. And workhorse Edelman collected 9 grabs for 91 yards. Heck, even first-timer Brian Tyms got into the act, with a 43-yard touchdown off play-action.

Expect to see more of Gronkowski near the sidelines, as that formation gives him either a mismatch or a double-team that spreads the defense horizontally. That horizontal spread opens things up for Edelman and LaFell, as well as for the running backs. With Gronkowski getting healthier each week, they have to start using him to increase offensive production, even if that production comes from other players when defenses load up to stop Gronk.

On defense, the Patriots lack of linebacker depth is starting to hurt them. Dont'a Hightower missed the game, and his replacement, rookie Deontae Skinner was a big part of the reason Bills tight end Scott Chandler had 6 catches for 105 yards (and 5 first downs). And when Jerod Mayo went down, the Bills drove 80 yard with ease for a touchdown to make it a one-score game late. If Mayo is out for more than a week or two, this unit will be tested again and again with crossing patterns in the short zones. And if today is any indication, they will fail; so they better get things shored up.

The defensive line did the best work of the day for the D. Chris Walker is a huge body next to Vince Wilfork, and he and Wilfork clogged things up nicely to shut down the inside run. Wilfork and Walker combined for 9 tackles. But the defensive star of the day was end Rob Ninkovich, who had 6 tackles, 3 sacks (19 yards), 4 quarterback hits, and 4 tackles for a loss. An absolute monster of a game from an unsung player. Chandler Jones continues to struggle against linemen, because he just isn't big enough. The Patriots need to use him more like the Dolphins use Cameron Wake -- send him after the quarterback and fill in behind him to cover the run.

The secondary played pretty well, but they also benefited from several key dropped passes. Corner Darrelle Revis mostly shut down the Bills biggest weapon, rookie wideout Sammy Watkins. But the safety play has suffered recently, with only Devin McCourty being solid and the rotating list of second safeties missing too many assignments. Patrick Chung is still a big hitter, but Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon should know the defense better by now.

At the cornerback opposite Revis, Alfonzo Dennard appears to be regressing, and he took several penalties over the last two games. The miscues didn't come back to haunt the Patriots, as they won both games, but no guarantee that continues if Dennard still has trouble. And Kyle Arrington -- well, I'll just say again that he is better covering quick slot receivers. When he goes outside to cover a tall-fast receiver, he is overmatched.

The special teams had several screw-ups. On their first field goal attempt, they tried to draw the Bills offside and ended up with a false-start penalty. And then kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed the 36-yarder, so they came a away with no points. And though Matthew Slater is usually terrific, he got to punt returners just a tad late twice in this game. And the team gave up a 37-yard kickoff return, turning field position toward the Bills, which they eventually cashed in for their first touchdown.

No complaints about the coaching on this day. Putting Gronkowski outside was an inspired decision. And working LaFell in the areas vacated by Gronkowski put two touchdowns on the board. It would have been nice to get off to a faster offensive start, but the halftime adjustments were terrific.

So where does that leave us? Where we are used to being; in first place in the AFC East. The Patriots have several injuries, and a short week to recover. So this Thursday's game could be a lot more difficult than expected; especially since the Jets are essentially done for the year and the only joy they can get is to beat the Patriots.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Fox network has broadcast football for 20 years, and yesterday's game was the first time they ever showed an all-AFC matchup.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Three weeks of home cooking and then a bye, do I hear 7-2 anyone?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-2!

PPS. Trivia answer: Patriots sub-50 yard rushing totals from the 2007 season

  • 48 yards rushing against the Eagles on 11/25
  • 22 yards rushing against the Steelers on 12/9
  • 44 yards rushing against the Giants on 12/29
  • 45 yards rushing against the Giants on 2/3 (the Super Bowl)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Patriots Beat Up on Bengals, 43-17

The Patriots flipped the script last night, beating up on the Bengals they way the Chiefs had beaten up the Patriots six days earlier. The Patriots 43-17 victory brings them to 3-2, tied with the Buffalo Bills for first place in the AFC East. And it just so happens the Pats travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills next Sunday, a showdown for the division lead!

After a week of media frenzy -- including some obviously made-up stuff -- the Patriots decided to keep Tom Brady on the roster. And that controversial decision paid off. The Pats scored on their first two possessions, and the defense combined with some bonehead plays by Cincy to hold the Bengals to just 3 points at the half.

I could go into a lot of detail, but the simple fact is the Patriots played much better in all phases (except that one punt return). A lot of that was having no crowd noise to interrupt their O-line communication. But some of it was very creative play-calling by Josh McDaniels, running misdirections off classic plays that got chunk yardage as the Bengals went for the fake.

In honor of Week Five in the NFL, here are five "Fives" for you...

The summary in five letters: "R-E-L-A-X" (Aaron Rodgers, 2014).

The summary in five words: I told you they'd win.

The summary in five stats:

  • Turnovers: Patriots 0, Bengals 3
  • Bengals offense on third- and fourth-downs: 0-8 (0.00%)
  • Time of Possession: Patriots 38:56, Bengals 21:04
  • Tackles by the defenses: Patriots 46, Bengals 83
  • Patriots receivers with at least one catch: 8

The summary in five paragraphs:

The offense played great, with crisp pacing and some very creative plays to take advantage of the Bengals' swarming style of defense. The entire offensive line deserves kudos, for holding up early to give quarterback Tom Brady time to throw, and for dominating late once time-of-possession had worn down the usually stout Cincy defensive line.

Brady finished with Brady-like numbers: 23-35, 292 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 110.7 rating. But most important of all, eight receivers caught passes, and QB12 only forced the ball three or four times. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski (6 for 100 yards, 1 TD) and Tim Wright (5 for 85, 1 TD) dominated the medium zones, and an unusually quiet night for Julian Edelman was more than made up for with the ball being spread around so much.

The defense wasn't as dominant as the offense, but they benefitted from key dropped passes and missed throws by the Bengals. Cornerback Darrelle Revis owned all-world receiver A.J. Green, covering him like a blanket, and forcing a fumble near the half to help seal things before the break. Corner Alfonzo Dennard had multiple holding calls, and corner Logan Ryan gave up the first Bengals touchdown. But by the end of the game, health was the biggest worry in the secondary, given that both safety Devin McCourty and Revis missed time (though Revis returned, McCourty did not).

The front-seven mostly held up well. There were some of the mismatch problems we saw last week against the Chiefs, but the Bengals didn't have the diversity of talent KC has, so those plays were few and far between. Chandler Jones still looks overmatched when he goes directly against offensive linemen, but the interior of the line clogged things well enough to hold the Bengals to 79 yards on the ground.

Special teams returned a fumble for a touchdown, and they also pinned the Bengals back a few times. They did give up one big punt return (and Cincy scored a touchdown on the next play), but that was more than made up for with the fumble return and kicker Stephen Gostkowski's 5-for-5 day (48 yards was his longest). The coaching staff should take a bow, too; fixing not only the offensive line issues, but being more creative in their offensive play-calling and staying aggressive the entire game to make sure there was no repeat of the Week One meltdown against Miami.

Five quick facts:

1. The Patriots did not fix all their offensive line problems this week. With all the new players and youth on the line, the Pats will do well at home and struggle on the road. Their communication problems will continue to be an issue on the road, with hostile crowds. But by Thanksgiving, they should have things together enough to play as a unit, even on the road.

2. The game in Buffalo will actually be a much tougher test for the O-line. The Bills have a very active front-seven, and the crowds in Buffalo can be very loud.

3. The rise of the tight ends will likely tell the tale of the season. If Gronkowski continues to improve, and if Tim Wright can just duplicate what he did in Tampa Bay last year, the Patriots offense will be vastly more difficult to defend by the end of the year.

4. Not mentioned yet are runnings back Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Vereen had a fantastic game: 9 rushes for 90 yards, and 3 catches for another 18 yards. And Ridley had 27 carries for 113 yards (4.2 ypc), and has zero fumbles on 60 touches this season.

5. On defense, the Pats continue to search for that second cornerback. Dennard isn't quite back from his injury, and Logan Ryan isn't quite up to the task. But all of that will be meaningless if McCourty misses much time. He is their best safety, by a mile, and if he's out, it puts the entirety of the secondary at risk. McCourty is that important to the defense.

So where does that leave us? 3-2 and tied atop the AFC East -- why, that's exactly where I *thought* they'd be at this point ::pats self on back:: Next week is a tough test in Buffalo, but the Patriots usually beat the Bills, especially on the road, so expect a tough game but a win.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots 505 total yards are the most given up by the Bengals in seven years (554 on 9/16/2007 to the Browns).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "In 2003, only Tom Jackson made stuff up about the Patriots, now it seems like there's a Tom Jackson on every station. Maybe this will will shut them up for a week."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-2!