Monday, September 17, 2018

Pats Fall To Jags, 31-20

In a game that was pretty much just awful, the Patriots dropped their first contest to the Jaguars, 31-20. The loss puts them at 1-1, tied for second place in the AFC East, behind the Dolphins. Next up is a Sunday night tilt in Detroit next week, facing old friend Matt Patricia's pathetic Lions team.

Going off last week's "September is the preseason" theme, if it was, the Patriots would cut about half the team based on yesterday. 33% third-down conversions (4-of-12) doesn't even tell the story; they had play after play there to be made on third-down and failed time and again. The pass rush fell asleep after Trey Flowers went out with a concussion. And two special teams gaffes literally cost them a chance to get back into the game late.

Offense

Pleasant Surprise: It was probably second tight end Jacob Hollister, who caught 3 passes for 35 yards, nearly matching his 4 catches for 42 yards from all of 2017. He also had some decent blocks, but honestly, if I'm scraping this far into the barrel, it obviously wasn't a great offensive day for the Pats.

Steady Eddie: James White, who caught 7 passes for 73 yards. He had one really nice run after catch, but unfortunately came up short on a third-and-five near the end of the game, forcing a Patriots punt.

Disappointment: QB Tom Brady was off-target on several throws, overthrew a 40-yard bomb on a third-and-five when the game was still winnable, and chose to throw to White on that fateful third down when wideout Phillip Dorsett was wide open for the first down. Just a really bad day for Brady.

Overall: They averaged 3.4 yards a rush, and 6.3 yards per pass attempt, both really mediocre numbers. They undertargeted Rob Gronkowski, overtargeted Coradarrelle Patterson, and just blew it time after time on third downs. A very poor performance indeed.

Defense

Pleasant Surprise: Could it be that Kyle Van Noy is rounding into shape after all this time? It wasn't just that he led the team with six tackles or that he got his first INT since 2016. He also had a pass defended, and made some decent plays against the run. (Probably a one-game thing, but we can always hope...)

Steady Eddie: Sure Stephon Gilmore gave up a touchdown, but he also made five solo tackles, forced a fumble, and knocked away two other passes. In year two, he is what wanted him to be in year one - an excellent corner who covers one-on-one without help.

Disappointment: So many to choose from, but defensive end Adrian Clayborn gets the nod from me. He continually overshot the QB pocket, at least twice letting Blake Bortles run for easy first downs through a spot Clayborn vacated. Sure he got two hits on Bortles, but what good did that do when he gave up first downs instead of getting the team off the field.

Overall: Also bad yesterday were Eric Rowe, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, and new linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley. Bentley's performance can be explained as growing pains; what excuse do the rest of these guys have?

Special Teams

Pleasant Surprise: None.

Steady Eddie: Punter Ryan Allen averaged 45.3 net yards per kick, had one downed inside the 20, and only had one returned (once the team was gassed late in the game).

Disappointment: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal early and then blew it with a kickoff that landed one yard inside the end zone when he was told to have it land just short of the end zone.

Overall: The Pats also messed up when Jacksonville jumped offside on a fourth-and-inches late, and the entire punt team forgot to move to draw the penalty. Coach Belichick was livid on the sidelines after, and rightfully so.

So where does this leave us? 1-1 is right where I thought they'd be at this point. Didn't expect this bad of a beating, but the opening schedule was probably the toughest part of their 2018 slate. If Flowers doesn't come back next week... hell, it won't make a difference against the Lions. Will it?

Biggest on-going issue: This week it was the complete lack of pressure once Flowers went down. The reason Bortles looked great is he was under no pressure. And the Patriots don't have the defensive backfield to hold up without a pass rush. Is Chandler Jones available in a trade?

Non-Brady MVP: The clock operator in Jacksonville, who kept things moving so the game would end quickly

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In just two weeks, receiver Phillip Dorsett has as many receptions (12) in 2018 as he had all of 2017, despite playing in almost every game last year. He also has more touchdowns (1) in 2018 than he had in 2017 (0).


Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Pats win in January in Foxboro, Jags win in September in Florida. What does that say about how a playoff rematch would go?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-1!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Patriots Top Texans, 27-20

It wasn't always pretty, but in the end, the Patriots prevailed Sunday, beating their long-time whipping boys, the Houston Texans, 27-20 in Foxboro. The win put them at the top of the AFC East, tied with the Dolphins (also 27-20 winners), with the Jets game still be to be played Monday night. Next up is a trip to Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars on Sunday.

This game reminded me of why some commentators say the first month of the season is similar to what the preseason used to be. Five turnovers, sloppy tackling, poor clock management (by the Texans), and a few whiffs by the Patriots offensive line. The lack of playing time in the preseason was obvious to anyone who watched even a quarter of the game. With luck, things will look better as the season progresses.

Offense

Pleasant Surprise: The biggest surprise on the Patriots offense was receiver Phillip Dorsett. He tied for the team lead with seven receptions, gaining 66 yards, and scoring his first touchdown with the Patriots. His routes were crisp and he caught every ball thrown his way.

Steady Eddie: Quarterback Tom Brady went a ho-hum 26 of 39 (67%), for 277 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 (tipped-ball) interception. His QB rating of 102.2 would have been exactly in the middle of last year's regular-season games (8 better, 8 worse), and he was solid if not spectacular.

Disappointment: I'll probably be the only one who says it, but it's tight end Rob Gronkowski. His numbers were great (7 catches, 123 yards, 1 touchdown). But his ball security on the Pats first drive of the second half was terrible, leading to an easy punch-out and fumble recovery by the Texans.

And to add injury to insult, running back Jeremy Hill was hurt (it looked bad) while trying to make the tackle after the fumble. The Patriots could have essentially ended the game if they scored on that drive. Instead, it was nip and tuck until the end; thanks in no small part to Gronk's mistake. Like I said earlier, looked a bit like the preseason out there.

Overall: The running game gained a decent 3.9 yards per carry, and ironically, most of the pressure on Brady came late in the second half when you'd think New England would run the ball to keep the clock moving. Those two things tell me the Pats offensive line is still a work-in-progress. Decent for the moment, but not great yet.

The running backs played well, led by Rex Burkhead (18 carries for 64 yards). And the coaches tried to take advantage of Cordarrelle Patterson's speed by running him on end-arounds and jet-sweeps. It worked pretty well; but it'll be more impressive when he catches a back-shoulder throw from Brady.

Defense

Pleasant Surprise: Cornerback Stephon Gilmore didn't disappoint, knocking down two passes and snagging an interception. But the surprising thing was he lead the team with eight tackles. He only made that many tackles in one game last year (Pittsburgh), and he averaged less than half that many per game (3.8) for the 2017 season. Nice to see him comfortable enough with the defense to help make tackles on outside runs.

Steady Eddie: Trey Flowers had another workpail day on the defensive line, 1.5 sacks (for 10.5 yards), 1 tackle for a loss, and three QB hits. Flowers isn't totally alone on the D-line, like he was last year, but he's still the only obvious difference-maker in that group. It appears Deatrich Wise might become a nice compliment to Flowers; but for now, Flowers is their most consistent performer along the front four.

Disappointment: Sharing this "honor" are linebacker Elandon Roberts and corner Eric Rowe. Roberts for not stepping up his game to match rookie Ja'Whaun Bentley. And Rowe for missing multiple assignments and not working hard enough to get through blocks and keep backs from running down the sideline.

Overall: The defense played well, forcing two turnovers from Texans QB Deshaun Watson. They were more aggressive, and the front seven appears to be the strength of the team (along with Gilmore at corner). They probably depended on too many dropped passes, but as the season goes along, they should become better.

Special Teams

Pleasant Surprise: Punter Ryan Allen's gorgeous punt in the fourth quarter pinned the Texans back at their one yard-line. He hasn't had many of those over the years, mostly aiming for inside the 10 yard line. Downing it was helpful, but the kudos go to Allen because gunner Jonathan Jones was uncovered by Houston so it was an easy jaunt down the sideline to grab the ball.

Steady Eddie: Special teams captain Matthew Slater was first to the returner at least twice and redirected two other return plays to other Patriots who made tackles. There's a reason he has made the Pro Bowl for special teams play a record seven times.

Disappointment: Return specialist Riley McCarron has to know that his only job with a fourth-quarter lead is to field the punt cleanly. He blew it, fumbling to give Houston a short field and an easy touchdown. That made the game much closer than it should have been.

Situationally, that play is even worse than Gronkowski's fumble. As Pete Carroll used to say: "Gotta clean it up!" Now take a lap, son...

Overall: Special teams were oddly ineffective in this game. The Patriots were really affected by the new kickoff rule, which states players other than the kicker can't line up more than one-yard off the line of scrimmage. This gives them less of a running start on those plays, and it showed. Houston's average starting position after receiving kickoffs was the 31 yard-line. Last season, Patriots opponents' average start was their own 19.

Might be time to put speedier players on the kickoff coverage squad. Or here's a thought; have Stephen Gostkowski boot it through the end zone, like the Texans did the entire game. That gives your opponent the ball at the 25 yard-line, instead of the 31. Just a suggestion.

So where does this leave us? Still learning on the job, I suspect. The offense looked good given that Julian Edelman won't play until week 4. The defense appears to be unmolded clay at this point, working to learn and communicate better and improve under new coordinator Brian Flores. Still, 1-0 is better than 0-1, so it's fine for now.

Biggest on-going issue: The second cornerback. I still don't see Eric Rowe improving enough to solidify that position, and unless there is a trade in the offing, reinforcements are not on the way.

Non-Brady MVP: Gilmore, locking down one side against the passing attack while the other side works to round into shape.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: At 7 hours 10 minutes, the Dolphins/Titans game was the longest in the NFL since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger. (Note: the weather delays helped with that.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "A nice win to start the season, especially when your main AFC rivals, the Steelers, couldn't even beat the Browns. 2018 is off to a great start!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Friday, September 7, 2018

Under-informed Patriots 2018 Primer!

Two days! That's all you have to wait, is two days before the Patriots start their annual romp through the AFC East. And unfortunately, you won't have as much info from me as usual; life has been much too busy for me. But even though I watched only about 45 total minutes of preseason football, I thought I'd share a few things I see in the coming months.

So here goes... the first ever Under-informed Patriots Primer! (Note: this just makes me like the rest of the media, so how bad could it be?)

The Offense

What Changed

1. At left tackle, Nate Solder is gone after starting five of the last six seasons, replaced by Trent Brown, who by all accounts did okay during the preseason.

But what you have to keep in mind is that it mostly doesn't matter. Solder was never great, neither was Matt Light (the man Solder replaced). Both were serviceable and good enough as long as they had Tom Brady's quick release to relieve the burden on them.

The sky isn't falling, even if Brown is only mediocre. Because this position has never been great since Bill Belichick arrived here. And it probably won't be great again this year. But it won't matter, because it never has before.

2. Last year's depth at receiver has been replaced by this year's uncertainty. Gone are Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell (we hardly knew ye), and Julian Edelman (suspended for the first four games).

Without Edelman, the team could suffer one extra loss in the first month, so they might go 2-2 instead of 3-1. But the addition of Cordarrelle Patterson gives them a legitimate deep threat to compliment all-time tight end Rob Gronkowski. And when Edelman returns, they could have a more diverse passing attack than they had last year.

What Stayed The Same

1. Last year the QB depth chart at season's end was Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer. The calendar might have changed, but the depth chart hasn't. Hoyer looked dreadful in the preseason, and Brady looked sharp. You can probably guess that the team will go as far as Brady can take them. Full stop.

2. Both Grokowski and Brady got incentive-laden extensions in the off-season. But that shouldn't change much for either of them. Gronk is still most effective close to the end of the offensive line, and hopefully the Patriots figured that out in their off-season film study.

3. There are new faces at running back, sure... but it's mostly going to be about the same. James White is a decent replacement for Dion Lewis (not quite as shifty, but reliable), and Rex Burkhead and James Develin are back for another year.

The biggest surprise was seeing Mike Gillislee cut after just one year. He never made the impact the team was hoping for after signing as a free agent in 2017.

4. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sold his soul to bail on the Colts head coaching job and stay as OC here. Some think he's the heir apparent to Belichick, but I have other ideas... read on to find out.

On Defense

What Changed

1. Last year's defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, left for Detroit. And even though the title isn't officially his, linebackers coach Brian Flores is calling the defensive signals this year.

I expect the team to improve defensively, because Flores seems more aggressive with blitzes, and that usually translates to better defense in year one under a new DC. The preseason featured more edge rushers in one-gap ("get the quarterback") mode, so you might see more of that in the regular games.

No telling how it will go in the long run, but for 2018, the defense should have more turnovers and play more man-to-man defense than last season.

(And note: Flores would be my choice to replace Belichick if Bill left in the next few years. He's coached a bunch of position groups, and done a great job every time. And unlike McDaniels, Flores made things work without depending on Tom Brady to bail him out.)

2. The absolute disaster at linebacker (after Dont'a Hightower) was somewhat mitigated by fifth-round 2018 pick Ja'Whaun Bentley. He made some really big plays in the preseason. And even though there will be growing pains during the year, he seems to grasp the defense and he has to be an improvement over Kyle Van Noy.

3. At cornerback, former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler left for more money. And even though he was their second cornerback last year, I don't expect things to change much in the secondary. The Pats schematic play at corner will be the same as it always is.

They will put Stephon Gilmore alone on the second-best receiver of the other team, and the best receiver will be covered by Eric Rowe (or whomever) with double-team help. People forget that they used Darrelle Revis this way, even though he was considered one of the best corners in the league. It isn't an insult; it's just the way defense is played these days.

What Stayed The Same

1. The safeties look exactly the same, perhaps with the addition of Devin McCourty's twin brother Jason to the mix. They didn't play all that well against the 1s from the other team in the preseason. But expect them to do better as they get more time with the revamped cornerback rotation.

2. Even though there are a few new names, the defensive line looks about the same. Big and beefy inside, and fast and explosive outside.

Predicting The Season

As usual, here are my predictions of all 16 games, before the first snap of the season. Someday I'll go back and find out how well I do at this, but for now, just remember that these predictions are worth just as much as the paper they are printed on.

First Quarter

The first two games are a coin-flip. But I expect them to go 1-1. If they lose to the Texans to start the year, Belichick will pull out all the stops to make sure they beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville. And if the Pats beat the Texans, then they will likely lose to the Jaguars. If forced to choose, I'd pick a win over Houston and a loss in Jacksonville.

After that, the Lions are a tough spot on a Sunday night in Detroit, especially because they have the same OC as last year. Expect QB Matthew Stafford to look like Nick Foles in the Super Bowl, and the Lions to win in a shootout.

The next game is a division home game with the Dolphins; chalk up a win to bring the team to 2-2.

Second Quarter

The Colts come to town on a short week for a Thursday night game, which the Patriots should win.

And giving Belichick 10 days to prepare for second-year Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes is unfair; make it a 4-2 start.

Likewise the Bears and Bills pose no threat to the Patriots. They are both in rebuilding mode, so the home team should be 6-2 at mid-season.

Third Quarter

I hate to predict a loss to the Packers the following week, especially since I'll be at that game. But that's what it feels like; a great offense that the Pats defense won't be able to stop.

The Patriots should bounce back with a win in Tennessee the following week, even if Mike Vrabel is the head coach across the way.

That sets them up to beat up on the Jets in NY after a bye week on November 25. They should have plenty of film on rookie QB Sam Darnold, and the bye week seals the deal.

The Vikings come to Foxboro the next week, and Kirk Cousins gets his first look at a Belichick defense. Minnesota is likely to come back to earth after last year, and this should be a win for the Pats.

Fourth Quarter

A lot of years the next two games would look problematic: at Miami and at Pittsburgh. But the Dolphins are in full rebuild mode, so that game should be a Patriots win, even though it can be tough to play in Miami.

The Steelers still have a ton of offensive talent, and they'll want revenge for last year's regular-season loss, so put that down as the Patriots fourth defeat.

The last two games are gimmes at home: Buffalo followed by the Jets. If the games matter to the Patriots playoff ceding, they will win both of them. If not, they could lose the last game because they sit the starters.

That puts them at 12-4 (or 11-5 if they don't need those last two games). Should be enough to earn a first-round bye, and if Brady stays upright, the division is all but assured.

Statistical Rebuke of Last Year: Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots stood at 15-0 in playoff games against teams they had not played during the regular season that year. Unfortunately, the Eagles made them 15-1 at the worst possible time -- in the Super Bowl :(

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!