Monday, November 24, 2014

Patriots Down Detroit With Dominant Defense, 34-9

Tom Brady's first NFL game was mop-up duty in a 34-9 drubbing by the Detroit Lions in 2000. Yesterday he returned the favor, dominating the first half and watching his defense shut down Detroit, in a 34-9 win for his Patriots. The victory put the team three full games ahead of Miami in the AFC East and two full games (with tie-breakers) ahead of every other team in the AFC. Next week is their toughest remaining game; in Green Bay to take on the Packers.

Even though the Patriots offense doubled-up what Detroit usually allows per game (15.6 ppg before yesterday), it was the defense that led the day. Against a team with plenty of weapons, the Pats allowed their receivers one 42-yard catch and nothing else of consequence. All-world receiver Calvin Johnson was shut out in the first half and even when the Lions got into scoring range, the Patriots defense held them to field goal attempts (and they  missed one of those, in the first half). And allowing just nine points to any NFL team is a successful outing.

(Note: with both the offense and defense in high-gear, the Patriots lead the league in point-differential. Trivia question: how many seasons has Tom Brady led the Patriots to the best point-differential in the NFL? And if you dare, how many of those years can you name? Answers below...)

Cornerback Darrelle Revis was the defensive star of the game. He had four passes defended, including a mano-y-mano knockdown of what should have been a Johnson touchdown. Additionally, his tight coverage forced the Lions to use the running game and third- and fourth-receivers. Fellow corner Brandon Browner had two passes defended, and Logan Ryan had a typical up-and-down day, with one pass defended and at least one important pass given up -- to go with an interception.

Safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung were among the team leaders in tackles (seven and six, respectively), and Chung added a pass defended. Additionally, Chung showed great instincts in helping stop the run. And McCourty played the deep safety to Johnson's side, making sure he did little, if any, damage in the game.

The linebackers do not seem to have been affected by the loss of Jerod Mayo. Dont'a Hightower led the team with eight tackles, and he has done a great job getting after the ball, be it hitting the QB, in pass coverage, or stuffing the run. Hightower struggled last year when Mayo went down, but he's adapted admirably this year.

It helps that Jamie Collins continues his excellent play. He was exceptionally good in Indianapolis last week, and against Detroit he showed a ton of versatility, in all phases of the defense. It also helps that Akeem Ayers tossed in a QB hit, a sack, and three tackles of his own. No one could be sure how Ayers would play when he arrived in New England, but he's helped replace the QB pressure Chandler Jones applied before his injury.

And speaking of the defensive line, it's difficult to see how they are doing what they are doing. Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich are still there, and both doing their usual great job on the inside and outside, respectively. But around them, it's Zack Moore, rookie Dominique Easley, Chris Jones, and recently acquired Alan Branch. Jones hasn't done much of note, but Easley and Branch are doing a decent job filling in.

The D-line clearly does more stunting, zone-blitz schemes, and also fake blitzes than they ever have. (Note: this probably tells you the coaches trust their safeties and linebackers to cover up against the run when teams trap-block against those schemes.) And given how vanilla the Patriots defense usually is, this seems to confuse team after team. And maybe, just maybe, it shows you what the Patriots *should* have been doing all these years, rather than their "stay disciplined and do your job" approach, which didn't exactly tear it up in 2009 or 2010.

On offense, last week it was the running game, this week it was the quarterback. Given how stout the Lions run defense is, the Pats threw the ball 53 times and ran just 20. Tom Brady wasn't sacked once on those 53 drop-backs, though that was owing to his quick release. He did get hit four times, and a few of those were very quick penetrations, but Brady got rid of the ball in a flash all game long. He ended up 38 of 53 (72%) for 349 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a 94.0 QB rating.

With all the completed passes, there should have been more players with catches. But it was still an okay job of spreading the ball around. The Lions tried to take away tight end Rob Gronkowski, so ended up with only 5 catches for 78 yards. But "the other tight end," Tim Wright, had 5 catches of his own, for just 36 yards, but 2 big touchdowns. Wright's production has been inconsistent. He has four games with zero catches, but has notched six touchdowns on the season. Not bad for a guy who arrived just before opening day.

Receiver Julian Edelman took some hard hits while catching 11 for 89 yards. And Brandon LaFell had some big first downs among his 9 grabs and 98 yards. Edelman needs the other receivers to step up, because he takes a real beating out there. But props to LaFell, who I dubbed "LaFail" earlier in the year. He's worked his way into that third-receiver role, and the team will need him and Wright to be productive when teams try to shut down Edelman and Gronkowski.

The running backs were more of an afterthought in this one. Last week's hero, Jonas Gray, was late for Friday practice, so he sat for the game, replaced by newly re-signed LeGarrette Blount. Blount had 78 yards on 12 carries, but that was mostly in garbage time. In the first half, the Pats ran the ball just six times, controlling the ball with the pass. And Shane Vereen was more of a receiver threat (8 catches, 48 yards) than a run threat (8 rushes, 12 yards).

The offensive line did a pretty good job. Brady was pressured some, but the Lions front-seven is very good, so that is to be expected. Both of the tackles (Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder) had penalties on the day. But the only big whiff of the day was another interior rusher who came 100% free despite being double-teamed. The coaches need to work on controlling the right-side A-gap on quick screens, because that can lead to very, very bad plays. Also, no one expected the Pats to run very well, so ending up with 90 yards on 20 carries is a decent day.

Special teams was a blowout in favor of the Patriots. Punter Ryan Allen made the play of the day; scooping up a bad snap and booting a 66-yard punt that was returned just one-yard. Danny Amendola had an 81-yard kickoff return that led to the Patriots second touchdown. And on a day when Detroit's kicker missed a field goal with the game still in doubt, kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed his two and gave up just 27 return yards on six kickoffs.

Last, but certainly not least, the coaches should take a bow for their excellent game plans. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's decision to bracket Johnson and single-cover Golden Tate with his best defender couldn't have worked out much better. Tate's only long reception came against zone, and Johnson was shut down until the game was out of reach. And on offense, wearing down the Detroit defense with up-tempo passing was a much better choice than trying to run into front-seven.

So where does that leave us? 9-2 and with that two-game lead over the field. Not a bad place to be with five weeks to go. Green Bay will be the team's toughest test remaining on the schedule. Some are calling it a Super Bowl Preview. I could live with that if it comes true!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In the second quarter, linebacker Jamie Collins was called for penalties twice in three plays. But he wasn't the guilty party in either case -- the referee called the wrong number both times. I've seen that happen from time to time, but never twice in three plays to the same player.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If LaFell and Wright continue to be productive, the Pats won't have to fear anyone in the playoffs. That's right, I said playoffs!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-2!

PPS. Trivia answer: Under Tom Brady, the Patriots have led the NFL in point-differential four times: 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment