Monday, November 28, 2016

Patriots Defense Steps Up In 22-17 Win Over Jets

The Patriots defense stepped up several times in a tense 22-17 win over the Jets in New Jersey yesterday. The victory kept the 9-2 Patriots two games ahead of Miami in the AFC East and helped them stay with the 9-2 Raiders for playoff positioning. Next week the LA Rams come to Foxboro.

The defense should take a bow for this win. They caused two turnovers, made the Jets attempt a long field goal (which was blocked), and forced punts on four other possessions. They opened the game in a 3-3-5 alignment and mixed coverages while holding the Jets to 2.8 yards per rush (they average 4.3ypc), even with extra DBs on the field.

Cornerback Malcolm Butler knocked down two passes and had the aforementioned forced fumble (which he recovered). The fumble killed the Jets momentum and the Pats scored their first touchdown on that drive. Logan Ryan tied for the team lead with 7 tackles and he played decent coverage when matched up with the Jets Brandon Marshall. Eric Rowe made five tackles and even had a pass defensed.

The linebackers looked better with Dont'a Hightower not rushing the passer every down and Kyle Van Noy promoted to starter. There were still some holes in the short zones, but receivers were tackled faster this week. Elandon Roberts even made a tackle for a loss this week. And although all the linebackers combined had just ten tackles, that was mostly testament of the excellent play of the...

The defensive line didn't get great pressure on the QB, but they did everything else well. Malcolm Brown had 7 tackles, Alan Branch had 6, Trey Flowers had 4, Jabaal Sheard had 3, Vincent Valentine had 1, and Chris Long has 1 (a big one). Trust me, 22 tackles is a huge number from the defensive line in a Bill Belichick defense.

Long's lone tackle was a strip-sack that effectively ended the game when Flowers recovered. And Branch and Brown plugged gaps in the middle that gave the Jets running backs little room. Sheard looked good in his return, although no one on that line seems to understand how to hold the edge against the run.

The offense went as quarterback Tom Brady went, and it wasn't always perfect. Brady's right knee injury appeared to cause some accuracy issues, which is to be expected when the QB can't push off the normal way. He still completed 60% of his passes but his 89.2 QB rating was his lowest this season. Still, he threw two touchdowns to Malcolm Mitchell, so it wasn't all bad.

Speaking of Mitchell, his two TDs were both excellent catches, and he nearly had a third (just off his fingertips in the end zone). He has Brady's trust, and the coaching staff loves his blocking and route-running, so he could be in for a long ride with the team. As for the rest of the receivers, Chris Hogan was the long man (17.5 yards per catch), and Julian Edelman was back to being Mr. Reliable (8 catches for 83 yards).

Tight end Rob Gronkowski had no catches and left the game early with a back injury. Then Martellus Bennet injured his ankle, so the team had to use tackle Cameron Fleming at tight end for a while. The health of Gronk and Bennett is becoming a real concern as the team heads toward what will hopefully be a playoff run.

The other receivers were the running backs: James White caught four passes for 22 yards, while Dion Lewis had four of his own for 34 yards. White became much more reliable in Lewis' absence, so having both at the same time is quite the 1-2 pass-catching punch from the RB position.

Lewis also ran for 24 yards, but as usual the bulk of the running was done by LeGarrette Blount (67 yards). The Pats didn't stick with the run as long as they did against San Francisco, but it was effective when they ran (4.3 ypc in the game).

The offensive line allowed too many big hits on Brady, even though he wasn't sacked in the game. They were decent in run-blocking, and the pass pressure subsided when the offensive rhythm allowed quick enough passes. But they still have a lot of room for improvement, and it's up to coach Dante Scarnecchia to get that done.

As for special teams, I'll start with the good and go to the bad. Punter Ryan Allen did a great job pinning the Jets back multiple times. And Alan Branch powered through the center to block a field goal attempt late in the second quarter. However, kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed another makable field goals (39 yards), and it appeared the coaches went for it on fourth-down at least once because they were afraid Gostkowski might miss another.

He officially has the yips, and it's probably time to bring in another kicker, just for a tryout to see if you can light a fire under Gostkowski's ass. If the Pats make the playoffs, they can't be guessing whether their kicker will shank a 39-yarder. They just can't.

So where does that leave us? 9-2 and still sixth in points allowed on the season; not half bad. They have to get the kicking game shored up, and the O-line is a time bomb waiting to happen if they can't improve pass protection. Next week it's the Rams, and rookie Jared Goff could fare better than you think, if history is any indication.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: has to be Mitchell.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots have only four total possessions in the third quarters of the last three games combined.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Division games can be tough, but this one shouldn't have been *that* tough."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-2!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Patriots Cruise to 30-17 Win Over 49ers

As they often do, the Patriots played down to their competition for a half and then turned up the intensity to pull away for a 30-17 victory in Santa Clara over the 49ers.  The win temporarily gives the 8-2 Patriots the best record in the AFC, as Kansas City lost and the Raiders play tomorrow night. Next week it's off to New York to play the hapless Jets, although it's dangerous to overlook division games.

Don't let the final score or the stats fool you; this game was much closer than it should have been for the first three quarters. In slick conditions, the Pats defense allowed 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to complete 8 of 9 passes and notch a 155.8 QB rating for the first half. They simply couldn't cover the short zones, and even though they had five sacks at the half, they were lucky the 49ers shot themselves in the foot to stall several drives.

Meanwhile, the offense was a strange tale of two halves, but not in the usual way. In the first and fourth quarters (including the first play of the second quarter), the Pats ran 45 plays for 336 yards, one punt, and all 30 points. In between, they ran 27 plays for 108 yards, four punts, and zero points. That was one vast canyon of lousy offense in the middle of the game.

The Pats best linebacker, Dont'a Hightower spent most to the game rushing the passer, and he got a sack and forced a fumble. However, this left the short zones undermanned, and Kaepernick freely attacked them with crossing and out patterns that kept the chains moving.

Elandon Roberts was out of position too often and had just one assisted tackle yesterday, and Rob Ninkovich just isn't working that well at linebacker -- he should be moved back to defensive end ASAP. Shea McClellin got four tackles and newcomer Kyle Van Noy made his debut, and actually looked okay in limited action. However, as the defensive lapses pile up, the Jamie Collins trade looks worse by the week. 

Safeties were the top three tacklers for the Patriots: Patrick Chung had eight (plus a sack), Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty had six apiece. You know the linebackers stunk up the joint when three safeties lead the team in tackles, because they were stuck cleaning up the mess the LBs left.

And even with the 49ers gaudy passing stats, I thought the cornerbacks played pretty well. Logan Ryan got beaten at least twice when he had tight coverage, and he still knocked away two passes. And Malcolm Butler wasn't targeted much, and the one pass he gave up was a bad decision by Kaepernick that somehow inched over Butler's hand to the receiver. All in all, I even thought Eric Rowe looked decent.

Jabaal Sheard was a healthy scratch from the defensive line, a unit that was inconsistent against San Francisco. Trey Flowers got four tackles, which is impressive from a Pats D-lineman. But interior linemen Alan Branch Malcom Brown didn't do enough to slow down the run, although they did a decent job pushing the pocket back. Just not one of their best games, overall. Oh, and Chris Long just can't seem to figure out how to set the edge against the run; just isn't in his game.

On offense, the final stat sheet looks amazing. Quarterback Tom Brady grew up 25 miles from SanFran, and he enjoyed his return: 24 of 40 (60%) for 280 yards, 4 touchdowns, and a 114.6 QB rating. He wasn't as consistent as usual, but twice he scrambled around in the pocket to buy time and then made amazing throws for touchdowns.

His TD pass to receiver Malcolm Mitchell was incredible, just high enough to get over the defender's outstretched hands, and in stride so Mitchell could run for a 56-yard touchdown. A thing of beauty.

With tight end Rob Gronkowski out, the bulk of the receiving chores went to Julian Edelman, who was targeted 17 times, but hauled in just 8 for 77 yards (1 TD). Mitchell ended up with 4 catches for 98 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. But aside from that, the best receivers seemed to be...

The running backs.  James White caught all six passes thrown his way (63 yards and a TD), and the returning Dion Lewis caught three of five targets (26 yards). So the completion percentage to running backs was 82%, to everyone else it was 52%. Note to Josh McDaniels, put in more swing passes and wheel routes to your running backs.

As for the running game itself, the Patriots dominated when they did run: 171 yards and an average of 5.7 yards per carry. LeGarrette Blount did the heavy lifting, as usual: 19 carries for 124 yards (no touchdowns this week). Lewis was his usual shifty self, gaining 4.6 yards a carry in limited action.

The offensive line opened gaping holes in the running game. I only wish the team stuck with it more; they could have physically dominated and worn down the 49ers defense. There were a few penalties on the O-line (I'm looking at you, Nate Solder), but for the most part, the pass protection was good enough, giving Brady time to work through all his reads. Although sometimes no receiver was open, but that's not on the O-line.

On special teams, rookie Cyrus Jones had some nice kickoff returns, and Danny Amendola returned the first punt of the game 30 yards to set up great field position. However, kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed another extra point, pushing his first attempt wide-right. After that miss, they moved to the left hashmark for subsequent attempts, and he was perfect. Maybe the field was bad on that spot, but something has to be done before Gostkowski costs the team a game.

The coaches didn't make adjustments as quickly as usual. Perhaps in trying to replace Collins they have to run more experimentation and/or give players more latitude than usual. But in the past, they would usually have done a better job shoring up the short defensive zones and would have stayed committed to the run longer.

So where does that leave us? 8-2 isn't a bad place to be, but letting a bad 49ers team hang around for three quarters wasn't great. The Jets are always dangerous in NY, so the Patriots will have to play better for 60 minutes, not just for 30, if they expect to get to 9-2.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: A close call, but James White gets the nod; for his production in the passing game and nice job picking up the blitz. Could have gone to Blount, but the long runs didn't make up for his 11 plays of two yards or less.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For the second time in three games, there were no turnovers by either team. (Trivia question: name the last year the Patriots had two such games in one season... Answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "It was good enough to beat San Fran, but they gotta figure out the linebackers or that defense will get 'em killed in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-2!

PPS. Trivia answer:
This will make you happy, the last time was the 2014, season, when the won the Super Bowl!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Seahawks Top Patriots, 31-24

The Patriots suffered their second home loss of 2016, falling to the Seattle Seahawks 31-24 last night. The loss dropped the Patriots into a three-way tie for best record in the AFC (Raiders and Chiefs) and cut their lead in the AFC East to two games over the Miami Dolphins. Next week is a semi-bye week, when the team flies out to San Francisco to take on the 1-8 49ers.

Sunday's game was hard-fought and competitive to the end. But the Patriots made a few uncharacteristic mistakes, losing the turnover battle 2-0 and letting the Seahawks close the first half with a 59-second touchdown drive. And even with those problems, they nearly came back to tie the game, coming up just short on a fourth-and-goal at the one yard-line with 14-seconds left.

It was a tough day for the New England defense, as Seattle marched the ball up and down the field all night. Russell Wilson's three touchdowns and 124.6 QB rating tell part of the story, but the Seahawks had at least five dropped passes that could well have made the game a runaway.

Most of the evening, the Seattle strategy seemed to be "target the receiver covered by Leonard Coleman or Logan Ryan." Coleman was burned repeatedly and received a (bogus) pass interference call. He was eventually rotated out of the lineup or into a zone coverage. Ryan fared slightly better, and Malcolm Butler slightly better than that, but overall the secondary struggled to keep up with Seattle's four-receiver sets.

Also noteworthy was the failure to cover running backs out of the backfield. Seahawks backs caught eight passes on eight targets, notching five first downs in the process. They beat linebacker Dont'a Hightower to the edge, or sliced through the line uncovered for easy pitch-and-catch plays.

The Patriots linebackers overall were a mess, playing out of position on many plays and allowing blockers to keep them engaged far too long on running plays. Elandon Roberts looked overmatched against the run and Rob Ninkovich really did appear out of place three yards off the ball.

The defensive line got carved up on running plays the entire first half (5.2 yards per carry), but rallied in the second half (2.2 ypc). They were a half-tick late shedding blockers the first thirty minutes, and that allowed backs to sneak through to the second level untouched. One bright spot on the D-line was Trey Flowers, who had two sacks and caused another incompletion with pressure on Wilson.

The Patriots offense started the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive on the first possession. On that drive, they looked poised and in control, mixing run and pass perfectly. But after that, they went three-and-out twice, and Tom Brady threw his first interception of the year (a terrible decision and throw) to kill another drive.

Some of Brady's numbers were decent: 72% completions and 316 yards against an excellent defense. But he missed several connections with Chris Hogan that could have changed the game: one on a back-shoulder throw where Hogan kept running, and the other on a long pass where Hogan stopped running.  Brady also failed to throw a touchdown, and there was that bad INT. (Trivia question: name the last time Brady played an entire game and did not throw a touchdown. Answer below.)

Hogan's problems notwithstanding, the receivers played very well overall. Martellus Bennett (7 catches for 102 yards) and Julian Edelman (7 for 99) led the team, while Rob Gronkowski (3 for 56) and Danny Amendola (1 for 14) had crucial third-down catches to keep drives alive.

However, Edelman had a crucial fumble, killing a drive that started with great field position. And the Seahawks cashed that turnover in for what turned out to be the winning touchdown. His two fumbles lost for the season are already a career high, and not what the team is looking for from the so-called Mister Reliable.

LeGarrette Blount was basically the Patriots running attack. He took a while to get started, but ended up with 69 yards on 21 carries and 3 touchdowns. James White had more impact in the passing game (4 catches for 32 yards) than the running game (5 carries for 7 yards). And we are all still waiting for the return of Dion Lewis, who was a threat in both aspects of the offense.

The offensive line improved over the previous game for the second consecutive outing. It wasn't always pretty, but Brady was sacked just twice and hit four other times, which is less than could be expected against a stout Seahawks front four.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski cleaned up his field goal and extra point issues, but booted a kickoff out of bounds, which gave the Seahawks a short field for their first scoring drive. Additionally, rookie Cyrus Jones almost ruined his 43-yard kickoff return by fumbling on the play. Luckily it was recovered by Nate Ebner, or Jones, who just escaped the doghouse for poor special teams play, might have found himself inactive the rest of the season.

So where does that leave us? 7-2 is decent, and in fact, exactly where I thought they'd be at this point. Unfortunately, those AFC West teams haven't beaten each other up enough yet: both Oakland and Kansas City are tied with the Patriot atop the AFC. Next up is a road trip to San Fran, and probably a win over the 49ers.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Russell Wilson has played the Patriots three times, once in Seattle, once in Foxboro, and once on a neutral field. In all three games, one team scored exactly 24 points.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Martellus Bennett caught sideline throws, slants, and in-cuts, and he blocked very well on running plays.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "A tough loss to swallow, but Seattle just outplayed the Pats. Simple as that."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-2!

PPS. Trivia answer: On January 11, 2014, Brady didn't throw a touchdown pass as LeGarrette Blount ran all over the Indianapolis Colts in a 43-22 playoff route.