Sunday, October 7, 2018

Patriots Handle Colts, 38-24

By now you almost certainly know the Patriots beat the Colts, 38-24, last Thursday night. The victory puts them at 3-2, and with the Dolphins loss today, they are now tied for the AFC East lead. Seems like a long time ago the Pats were in a "must win" situation against Miami.

I just got around to watching the full game and had a few thoughts to share.

The Pats weren't as impressive as the score indicated. Even though the offense is starting to find its groove, the two tipped-ball interceptions kept the Colts in the game. And without a fluky INT by the Pats' Jonathan Jones, the outcome could well have been in doubt. New England will have to play better against teams that aren't as undermanned as Indy was.

Julian Edelman looked very good in his return, notwithstanding the one pass he dropped. His routes were crisp, and he showed his same old moves once he had the ball in space. That includes his two punt returns. (Note: looks like he'll be doing that for the rest of the season - the Pats cut Cyrus Jones, who was signed two weeks ago to return punts.)

Tom Brady was outstanding. Neither INT was his fault, and in fact, both should have been completed passes. He stood strong in the pocket, absorbing hits to complete passes, some of them ridiculous (one to Gronkowski was particularly amazing). And in general, his command of the field has been great the last two weeks.

The running back tandem of Sony Michel and James White are playing great. White had 10 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. While Michel had 18 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown. As the season progresses, expect them to improve their balance of running plays and pass receptions. And once they do, the offense will be even more dangerous. (Note: both have been decent in pass protection, too.)

I wasn't as impressed with Josh Gordon as some. His TD catch wasn't so much a great play as a blown coverage by the Indy defense. #41 of the Colts took a terrible angle with the ball in the air, allowing Gordon to slip between him and the corner. Also, Gordon missed the read on a comeback route, leading to a Pats punt when it should have been an easy first down.

Still, Gordon is learning the offense (caught a tough one over the middle), and as he gets the route-trees down, he should be more and more effective.

On defense they did what they needed to do, no more no less. The secondary is playing much better, though they were helped by several Indy drops. The linebackers are okay, though their supposed star, Dont'a Hightower, isn't recovering from his injury very quickly. And the defensive line is playing with energy and mucking things up for the other offenses, which helps the back seven immensely.

Devin McCourty's 14 tackles led the team, but he got beaten in coverage a few times. However, he probably made up for it with a Bruschi-esque strip of the ball for a turnover. The secondary did knock away 10 total passes; some games they have only one or two. Devin's twin brother Jason had two of those, Jones two more, and Stephon Gilmore had three.

The D-line looks like a bunch of interchangeable nobodies. But they are playing well together, doing more stunts and games up front while keeping the last two QBs in the pocket. Trey Flowers is the only star in that group, and his return has paid dividends. And I'm still seeing some special blitz packages from D-coordinator Brian Flores, which I expect will help them as they move through the season.

Special teams continues to be a sore spot. This week, they had a chance to pin Indy back at their 20 after the Colts had a penalty on a kickoff. Instead, the Pats took the five-yard penalty, kicked it through the end zone, and had a penalty of their own! So they lost 10 yards on that trade, with a decision that actually made no strategic sense at all.

And punter Ryan Allen boomed a 59-yard punt, only to have it returned 33 yards because he outkicked his coverage. Those little mistakes haven't cost them any games to this point. But they need to clean up their special teams strategy and execution if they expect to make a run toward the playoffs.

So where does that leave us? 3-2 and atop the AFC East sounds about right. The next game is against KC on Sunday. Should be a barn-burner, as the Chiefs are 5-0 and their QB is on fire of late.

Biggest on-going issue: Special teams play takes the top spot for a week. ST coach Joe Judge needs to clean up the mistakes and stop with the strange kickoff strategies.

Non-Brady MVP: For the second straight week, James White edges out a win. Almost gave it to Patrick Chung, but White was more important.

Statistical oddity: On two consecutive offensive plays, the Patriots scored 34-yard touchdowns (one a Michel run, the other a Gordon reception.)

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Why is the KC game always the pivotal one?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-2!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Fish Squished, Patriots Rout Miami 38-7

If you took the Dolphins getting 30 points; you and they still lost yesterday :P

The Patriots outclassed the current AFC East leaders, throttling them 38-7 in a game not even that close. The victory helped the Pats pick up a game on Miami in the division (still one game back), and also on the Bills and Jets, both of which lost.

This game was the polar opposite of last week. Everyone appeared to play or coach much better, and it'll be hard to pick out many negatives (though that usually doesn't stop me). But the offensive turnaround in this game was helped greatly by three players who weren't with the team last year.

Rookie running back Sony Michel was consistently good from beginning to end. He ran with power and elusiveness, toting the rock 25 times for 112 yards and his first NFL touchdown. He was not involved in the passing game, as he has had trouble picking up the routes. But improvement there should come with time. Meanwhile, it's nice to have a semi-replacement for Dion Lewis.

Oft-troubled receiver Josh Gordon was key to keeping three drives alive, and all three ended in scores (17 total points). His first reception with the Patriots was a first-down grab on third-and-six. Early in the second quarter, an incompletion thrown his way drew a flag for another third-down conversion. And in the second half, his second reception converted yet another third down. Nothing earth-shaking, but a good start to his New England career.

And even oft-maligned receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson got into the act, with an electrifying 55 yards touchdown bomb. He also had a nice run on an end-around, and should have drawn an interference call on a quick throw in the end zone on the first drive. Regrettably, he fell down yet again after catching a swing pass... sigh. But overall, serious improvement in his pass receiving.

As for the regulars on offense, QB Tom Brady played a decent game: 23 of 35 (65.7%), for 274 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a 94.2 QB rating. That rating would be higher is he'd stop throwing long passes to Phillip Dorsett, two of which were picked off in this game. But he also had a ridiculously great throw on James White's touchdown, lofting it high before White even broke to the corner of the end zone.

Dorsett had an outstanding touchdown catch of his own, summersaulting through the air to get the ball just before it hit the ground. White also was his usual dependable self: 8 catches for 68 yards, and a great TD run. And tight end Rob Gronkowski was okay, but had to leave with an ankle injury.

The O-line did a great job blocking for the run, and an okay job pass protecting. Brady wasn't sacked, but he did get hit seven times and was hurried a fair amount.

The defense was nearly unrecognizable from the week before in Detroit. They played with energy and speed, blew up plays before they got started, and used new rush techniques that I'll get to in a moment.

The names on the defensive chart are almost unknown. Jonathan Jones is a DB who led the team in tackles with eight and knocked away a pass. John Simon joined the team about 10 minutes ago and had five tackles, including a sack for ten yards! And the teams only INT came from J.C. Jackson, who had played 12 defensive snaps all year before yesterday.

The secondary did a great job of taking away the opposition's first read, forcing the QB to wait in the pocket for an extra beat. And that is when the Patriots secret weapon came into use: they actually rushed the quarterback for a change!

I know that seems radical, but multiple times in this game, they threw off their "rush under control" agenda. They had the interior linemen simply bull-rush toward the QB, pushing the pocket back. At the same time, outside rushers were closing in from the edges, and several plays featured delayed blitzes to further confuse the Dolphins. And that rattled the Miami QB into a bunch of bad throws.

It could be this was only used because the game was in hand and the Patriots didn't fear Miami's running game. But a little birdie told me these strategies will be refined during the season, to be put to the test if/when the Patriots make the playoffs. (And yes, by "little birdie" I mean that voice inside my head that channels Bill Belichick.)

It wasn't perfect on defense, but it was much better than the last two games. Most impressive of all was pitching a shutout until garbage time, despite Miami starting four drives on their own 36, 36, 38, and 40 yard lines (none of which resulted in a score).

Which brings us to special teams, the one weak spot in the game. ST Coach Joe Judge, please have kicker Stephen Gostkowski boot his kickoffs through the end zone whenever possible. He kicked off seven times yesterday, and only once did Miami start inside its own 25 yard line. Stop with the misdirection, trickery, and "cunning plans" -- they aren't working. Gostkowski has one of the strongest legs in the NFL, use it!

So where does that leave us? 2-2 is right where your humble blogger predicted they'd be at this point in the season. With a winnable game against the Colts this Thursday (at Gillette), and with Miami traveling to Cincy, the Pats could be tied for first place by next Sunday.

Biggest on-going issue: Inconsistency. There will be no AFC East crown or playoff run if the Patriots don't play more consistently going forward. The return of Julian Edelman should help, as will continued improvement from Michel. But until they put together three good games, it'll be hard to trust them come December/January.

Non-Brady MVP: After some internal squabbling, it's James White. 8 carries for 44 yards, and 8 catches for 68 yards, and two touchdowns speak for themselves. (Note: it was almost Phillip Dorsett, but his drop of a long pass in the second half cost him the award this week.)

Statistical oddity: Brady tied Vinny Testaverde for most different players one QB has thrown a touchdown to (both have 70). The difference is, Testaverde played for seven teams, Brady just one. (And watch for another entry on this later this year; Brady hasn't thrown one to Michel or Gordon yet!)

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Is it time warm up 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss' yet?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-2!