Monday, October 26, 2015

Patriots Comeback, Then Hold On For 30-23 Win

The Patriots overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to post a 30-23 win over the division rival New York Jets. The victory gives the Pats a two-game lead in the division and evens them up with two other 6-0 teams in the conference (Broncos and Bengals). Next up is another division tilt, with the Dolphins on a short week, this Thursday night.

Yesterday's game went down to the wire. The Patriots trailed 20-16 early in the fourth quarter. But their next two drives were 10 plays each and resulted in touchdowns, covering 80 and 68 yards, respectively. The defense pitched a shutout during that time, and the 30-20 lead would hold up for the win, as the Jets botched the end-of-game clock management and ran out of time.

From the Patriots perspective, just forget that anything called the "running game" even existed. New England's leading rusher on Sunday was quarterback Tom Brady, who had 15 of the 16 total yards on the ground. The Patriots frankly didn't even try to run, calling just 6 running plays to 60 total pass-play drop backs. (Trivia question: when was the last time the Patriots won a game in which they rushed for less than 20 yards? Answer below.)

I don't remember ever seeing a 10-to-1 pass/run ratio, and I don't expect to see it again any time soon. It was a stunning admission that the offensive line problems, coupled with an injury to their most logical running back for this game (Dion Lewis) meant they just shouldn't bother trying to run. In short, there were no holes to run through and no running back who could make someone miss to get a few yards after contact. So why bother, I guess.

Those offensive linemen had a rough day. The Jets knocked down multiple passes at the line because Patriots O-linemen didn't cut them properly to the ground to open passing lanes. The O-line gave up three sacks (for 18 yards) and five QB hits, and collapsing pockets forced Brady to throw off his back foot multiple times. No wonder he was off-target so often.

Guard Tre' Jackson had an awful game, sometimes blocking no one while Brady was being pummeled by the linemen he was supposed to take on. Tackle Cameron Fleming failed on one of the cut-blocks, and the Pats had to move first one, and then two tight ends in to help with pass protection. Suffice it to say, I already long for the days of Marcus Cannon at left tackle, and I hope he gets healthy soon.

Brady's numbers looked good by the end of the game: 34 of 54 (63%), 355 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 rushing touchdown, 0 interceptions, and a 94.3 QB rating. But his grit was almost as important as his skill in this game. His 11-yard scramble on third-and-10 near the Jets goal line completely changed the complexion of the game, giving the Pats a first down and eventual touchdown to tie it at 10-10 on his 1-yard plunge. Without that first down and touchdown, it appeared momentum would be going the Jets way. With those plays by Brady, it was clear the Pats weren't knuckling under and it probably raised some doubts in the Jets' players minds.

Then there was the matter of 10 dropped passes by the receivers. If not for those, Brady's stats (and the final score) would look a lot better. Brandon LaFell returned from injury to drop four passes all by himself, and Julian Edelman (2) and Rob Gronkowski (1) pitched in, too. Only Danny Amendola was 100% reliable, putting his body at risk multiple times to catch passes laid out near the sideline or flying through the air about to be crushed by a safety hit.

Amendola ended up with 8 catches for 86 yards and a touchdown; five of those receptions going for first downs and two more setting up short-yardage conversions. Gronkowski had better stats (11 for 108 yards and 1 TD), and Edelman contributed 5 grabs for 54 yards, but no receiver has been better than Amendola the last two games.

One other receiver note: I believe the Patriots are misusing Gronkowski. They split him out wide far too often, trying to get a receiving mismatch. But because of his skills as a blocker, Gronk is better in tight near the O-line. And playing him there would do three things the team needs right now:

  1. Keeps the defense off balance, since they don't if the next play is a run or pass.
  2. Gives the Pats more flexibility in to change pass protection in the face of blitzes.
  3. Gives Gronk a better chance at a free release, especially when the running game is goes well.
The Patriots coaches get paid a lot more than I do to make these decisions. But I'd move Gronkowski back inside until the O-line gets healthy. That will help keep Brady healthy and might restore more balance to the overall offense. And balance keeps other teams guessing -- never a bad thing.

On defense, the early star was returning linebacker Dont'a Hightower. His 10 solo tackles helped slow the Jets running game before it could become dominant. Many times in the first quarter he was the only thing keeping the Jets from ripping off big runs, after the defensive line missed the running back. And he threw in a fumble recover that led to the only Patriots points for the first quarter.

His linebacking mate, Jamie Collins, had a nice stat sheet: 12 tackles, 1 sack (12 yards), and a QB hit. But his play was erratic, with big hits or tackles for a loss being followed by giving up yards after the catch in the passing game. A mediocre effort given his usual dominance. But still miles ahead of Jerod Mayo, who for the second consecutive week was listed as playing but shut out on the stat sheet.

Defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich anchored a group that didn't dominate or get dominated. He did a great job holding the edge against the run, he knocked down four passes at the line, a season's worth for many linemen. Alan Branch played tough and the rest of the line was a team effort, with Chandler Jones, Trey Flowers, Malcolm Brown, and Dominique Easley making important plays. It was no accident that the Pats held the Jets to 89 yards on the ground when they'd been averaging 146 yards a game.

They were all instrumental in disrupting the passing lanes and slowing down the run before it could become a dominant factor in the game. The only problem was, they didn't get nearly enough pressure on the passer, and that exposed the weaknesses in the secondary.

How weak was the secondary? Malcolm Butler was overmatched against the Jets second best receiver, giving up 6 receptions for 94 yards, four third-down conversions, and tons of YAC to Eric Decker. Butler's one nice play was a quick-recovery tackle to stop Decker from converting yet another third-down, but they even had to challenge the play via instant replay to get that call. Overall not a strong game for the Super Bowl hero.

At the other corner, Logan Ryan was getting beaten like a rented mule by #1 receiver Brandon Marshall. Ryan didn't seem to figure out he could get up to jam Marshall at the line, because he had safety help all game long. And that help mostly came from Devin McCourty, who was late on most of the Marshall receptions. This was as bad a bracket coverage as I've seen from the Patriots, and they'll need to get it shored up when they face the better teams, or they'll get smoked.

The one bright light in the secondary was safety Patrick Chung. He did a great job in run support and ended up not only with 8 tackles but also 2 passes defended (both times on passes to the tight end, IIRC). A very good game for Chung, and they needed it with breakdowns at the other secondary positions.

The Patriots special teams were subpar. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski notched 5 touchbacks, but the two returned kicks went for an unacceptably high 29-yard average. And the "hands team" let a late onside kick slip through its fingers (tsk tsk, Jamie Collins). That makes two onsides they should have lost the last two weeks. I suspect they'll be working on that during their ten days of after Thursday's game.

The coaches have to work on the onside kicks and they have to find a better fit to cover slot receivers, too. They did a good job with adjustments in this game, but with all the injuries on the O-line, I would have expected them to go with more tight-end protection earlier in the game.

So where does that leave us? 6-0 and riding high with a two-game division lead is a great place to be. The rejuvenated Dolphins could be trouble on Thursday, so hope for a healthier offensive line and better secondary play.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Dont'a Hightower saved the Patriots in the first half. He made up for mistakes by teammates and kept the game close so the Pats could pull out the win late.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Jets third-down conversion percentage got better the more yards they needed for the first down. They converted at the following rates:
  • 40% when they needed 4 yards or less (2 of 5)
  • 50% when they needed 5-9 yards (3 of 6)
  • 100% when they needed 10+ yards (3 of 3)
Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Jets are better with Fitzpatrick at QB, but still not good enough to beat the Pats in Foxboro."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-0!

PPS. Trivia answer: The Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens in last year's playoffs when rushing for only 14 yards (an NFL record for fewest yards in a playoff win).

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