Monday, November 12, 2018

Titans Blow Out Patriots, 34-10

The Tennessee Titans were most inhospitable hosts yesterday, dominating from the opening kickoff and cruising to a 34-10 win over the Patriots. Happily the Dolphins lost, too, so New England remains up by two games in the AFC East. Unhappily, Kansas City won, giving them a two-game cushion in the race for playoff byes (and the LA Chargers currently have a half-game lead in that race).

This game was ugly from the beginning. The Titans returned the opening kickoff 58 yards to start in New England territory, one of three drives that started on the Patriots side of the field -- all in the first half. Tennessee scored 24 points in the first half, while the Pats scored on two of their first three drives and then went bagel over their last nine possessions.

It's pretty apparent that Mike Vrabel was the real architect of the Houston Texans defense that gave the Patriots fits in last year's playoffs. Because Vrabel left Houston for Tennessee, and the Patriots easily beat the Texans but struggled mightily against the Titans.

The three best Patriots on the field were not on the team anymore: Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler from last year, and Logan Ryan who signed with the Titans in 2017. The current Patriots couldn't do much right except for punting the ball, where Ryan Allen got more practice this week (6 kicks) than in any game since opening day.

The team just stunk up the joint. Lots of bad performances on both sides of the ball, poor coverage on defense, poor execution on offense, reverting to early-season form by going 3-of-15 on third-down conversions, and coaching that seemed ill-prepared to adjust. Even reliable corner Stephon Gilmore notched his worst game of 2018.

Tom Brady was under constant pressure, and it didn't help that he missed wide open receivers to keep feeding the ball to Josh Gordon. Injuries along the O-line led to very few rushing yards, botched screen passes, and 3 sacks & 6 QB hits of Brady. Only Julian Edelman played well, and he took a pounding after each of his nine receptions.

I can't go into the gory details because there were just too many screw-ups. Can we just chalk this up to the team letting down after a big win over Green Bay and thinking about their upcoming Bye week?

So where does that leave us? Mostly hoping that when Gronkowski returns from injury the offense will be better. (It should be.) There was nothing to hang their hats on yesterday; Tennessee outschemed them, outsmarted them, and outplayed them. The Bye week couldn't be coming at a more important point.

Biggest ongoing concern: The offensive play on the road has been poor. The offense scored only 10 points in Detroit, 24 in Chicago, 18 in Buffalo, and just 10 yesterday. And if not for two special teams TDs in Chicago, they'd be 1-4 on the road and fighting to stay atop their division.

Non-Brady MVP: Edelman was really the only standout, 9 receptions for 104 yards and a completed pass for the second straight week.

Statistical Oddity: James Develin ran the ball for the first time since October 12, 2014. And he made the most of it, scoring the team's only touchdown.

Water-cooler Wisdom: "Bye week seemed to start a day early for the Pats."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-3!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Patriots Top Packers 31-17

The Patriots scored two late TDs to take a 31-17 decision over the Packers at Gillette last night. The win helped them keep pace with the Chiefs, still one-game behind them for the #1 playoff seed in the AFC. Next week is a trip to Tennessee to visit with old friend Mike Vrabel (the head coach there).

I'd like to do something different this week. A quick breakdown of the offense, and some in-depth stuff on the defense, which has been fascinating to watch this season.

The Patriots pulled out all the stops on offense. They used two flea-flickers, played receiver Cordarrelle Patterson at running back (btw, he led the team with 61 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per run), and targeted fullback James Develin more times (2) than receiver Chris Hogan (1).

Tom Brady mastered things pre-snap, but he was off on several throws again, just like last week. The absence of Sony Michel and Gronkowski hurts them a lot. Without those two, there is more pressure on James White, and at the moment, the receivers can't get separation without Gronk to take defenders off of them.

As for the defense, the team has put in some really interesting wrinkles. In the past, they've changed defensive schemes midway through games, sometimes having a different plan for each quarter. But for the most part, those were changes from 1-gap to 2-gap on the D-line, from man to zone, or from pressure to dropping eight into coverage.

However, in this game the changes were much more dramatic. They started mixing in what I'd call their "novel defenses." These are the non-standard defenses that Belichick and his staff mostly put in for single games, where they needed to confuse the opposing QBs or receivers.

Here are three examples they used last night. The Amoeba, where multiple defenders mill around pre-snap so the offense doesn't know what they are going to do. The Bullseye, where a specific player is targeted to get hit every play (famously used against Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl 36). And an unnamed one where nine or ten players are at the line of scrimmage, but instead of man-coverage, they drop into a zone.

I saw the Pats use the Amoeba a few times, the Bullseye at least five times, and the unnamed defense 5-8 times. (And that's just my count watching live, the actual numbers were likely higher.) And they switched from one to another within the same drive, giving Aaron Rodgers and his receivers a lot to think about every single drive.

Additionally, new D-coordinator Brian Flores has the front four doing more stunts and games, sometimes allowing them to ignore running backs to get after the QB. He also called the soft-release-undercut highlighted in the Bills game by Chris Collinsworth during the broadcast. Collinsworth said specifically that every QB in the league reads the soft-release to mean it's a deep safety, so having Devin McCourty undercut it would get an INT off of any quarterback in the league.

It's that kind of game-within-the-game, anticipating how your opponent will respond to you, that keeps the Patriots a step ahead of the rest of the league. They even had a play last night, where O-coordinator Josh McDaniels called a double-pass that was a designed *screen* pass instead of a home run ball. It was so unexpected (and so well executed) that it nearly went for a touchdown anyway!

The Patriots talent isn't what it has been in past years. But the innovations from their coaches, along with players who can execute those plays (and change modes so quickly) makes them ever dangerous. It's another example of the Patriots playing chess while the rest of the league is playing checkers.

In my opinion, if they could couple that with the talent of the Rams (for example), they'd threaten for a perfect season every year.

So where does that leave us? 7-2 and still breathing down the necks of the Chiefs. The division isn't quit a foregone conclusion yet; the 5-4 Dolphins are only two games back, and the teams play in Miami later this year.

Biggest on-going concern: The health of Gronkowski and Michel. Edelman doesn't have the same burst out of his breaks, so they need Gronk to draw coverage. And without Michel, the workload on James While will be too much by season's end.

Non-Brady MVP: Trey Flowers, a one-man wrecking crew on defense.

Statistical Oddity: One week after being criticised in this space, Ryan Allen posted the best regular season net average of his career: 49.7 yards per boot, no returns. Not bad... maybe I should criticise one of the cornerbacks next week :D

(Trivia question: Allen did have a playoff game with a higher average, can you guess the year or the opponent? Answer below.)

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Gadget plays might not win it all for you, but wins now can get you home field, which could win it all for you."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-2!

PPS. My "perfect season" of predictions just went by the wayside. I predicted before the season that the Packers would win this game. But I'm always happy to be wrong about a loss :D

PPPS. Trivia Answer:
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In Allen's rookie year of 2013, he had one punt for a 55 yards, and minus-1-yard return, for a net average of 56 yards. The opponent? The hapless Colts, of course!