Monday, September 9, 2019

Patriots Dominate Opener, Top Steelers 33-3

In case you missed it (and how could you?), the Patriots wailed on the seemingly hapless Steelers, wiping them out 33-3 in a game that wasn't even that close. The win put them in a tie with Buffalo for the AFC East lead, one game up on the losing Jets and Dolphins. Next up is those same Dolphins, who are 14.5-point underdogs at home next week against the Pats.

As is often the case, it's tougher to learn a lot from a blowout win than a close game. But here is what I gleaned from the victory.

1. This might be the deepest linebacking corps the Patriots have had under Bill Belichick. They were missing Kyle Van Noy (out for the birth of his son). But the fill-ins stopped absolutely everything in front of them. No short passes, no running game, multiple tackles for a loss, and multiple stops on third- and fourth-and-short.

This had been an area of concern since the victory in Super Bowl LI over Atlanta. And they probably lost the SB against the Eagles because the linebackers were a weak spot, and barely had a linebacking crew last year. But now it's a clear strength on the team. Team Captain Elandon Roberts didn't even play enough to make a single tackle -- shows you how deep they are.

2. Seems like the media concerns at receiver were overblown. Julian Edelman had 6 catches for 83 yards; Josh Gordon 3 for 73 (and 1 TD), Phillip Dorsett 4 for 94 (and 2 TDs), and the running backs combined for 10 catches and 97 yards. Even rookie Jacobi Meyers got into the act with his first NFL catch (more on that later).

And all this before Antonio Brown arrived. Yep; I'd guess the receivers will be just fine.

3. Tom Brady started slow but still torched the Steelers. TB12 ended the day going 24 for 36 (67%), 341 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a 124.9 rating. Not bad considering he was off a bit to start. Pittsburgh did get more pressure as the game progresses, but he was only sacked once and made two of the TD passes as he was getting hit.

4. The field goal unit was perfection in action. Stephen Gostkowski went 4-for-4 on field goals (longest 41 yards) and 3-for-3 on extra points. There were no signs of uncertainty or issues with holds were evident in the preseason. And the kicks weren't just edging in, all were good with room to spare.

5. So much for slow starts. The team started 2-2 in three of the last five seasons. Not much chance of that in 2019 -- they have the awful Dolphins next week, the terrible Jets the week after, and the team they always beat, the Buffalo Bills the week after. (Note: Brady is 33-2 in games that mattered against the Bills since becoming a starter... a 94.3 winning percentage.)

Things to watch

A) Meyers is close to being in the Brady circle of trust. He made the right move and was open on his one catch. But if you watch the replay, the throw is just a touch late because Brady waited to see if Meyers broke the route inside before he let it go. Once he's fully trusted by Brady, the ball will come out earlier and he won't get hit just as he receives the ball.

(Although it was nice to see him hang onto the ball after the hit.)

B) The Pats really do have a three-headed-monster at running back. The star last night was Burkhead (8 carries for 44 yards), and he and White were important to the passing game. Michel got bottled up because Pittsburgh loaded up to stop him. But he'll get his as the season progresses.

C) The punting game is in good shape, on both sides. New punter Jake Bailey averaged 45.6 yards a kick and had two downed inside the 20. And return man Gunner Olszewski returned two kicks for 35 yards -- impressive enough that Edelman shouldn't be called on to do much of that this year.

D) The back-seven of the defense looks really good in pass coverage. It might have owed to a bad Steelers receiving corps, but the DBs and LBs knocked away nine passes total, the most I remember in a long time. Every Steelers receiver had a guy right on him, and at least one got away with a push-off that should have been penalized.

E) I'll say it again here, new team captain Roberts will not be a starter by October. Their best linebackers are, in order: Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Ja'whaun Bentley, and maybe then Roberts.

So where does this leave us? The win should have been expected, based on the Pats history of dominance over Pittsburgh in this century. The Dolphins might give the Patriots a tougher game next weekend, because a former assistant is running the show there. But they should still win.

Biggest on-going issue: The shotgun snaps of new center Ted Karras. (The fact that this is the biggest issue shows you how great they played last night.)

Non-Brady MVP: Dont'a Hightower. Dominant early in the game, setting the tone with multiple hits, and helping shut down the Steelers while the Patriots pulled away.

Statistical Oddity: The Steelers have been held to 3 points just 3 times in the last decade (2011 vs. the 49ers and 2016 vs. the Eagles). The last time they had fewer was 2006, when the Ravens shut them out.

Water-cooler Wisdom: "If Antonio Brown actually works out, the Pats could be looking at 16-0 again."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Patriots 2019 Primer!

Four weeks just flew by, didn't they? The Pats finished the preseason 3-1, and their regular season starts tomorrow night!

The Patriots raise Super Bowl banner #6 on Sunday, and event unthinkable on the day Bill Belichick was hired as head coach in 2000. But not only are they the most envied team in sports, they are the odds-on faves to get back to the SB and maybe bring back another championship.

But I get ahead of myself. Game 1 is Sunday against Pittsburgh @ 8:20pm. So it must be time to impart what wisdom I can about the Pats off-season moves and how they will translate into the real games.

So here is what changed, what stayed the same, and the likely impact on 2019. Enjoy!


What changed

1. Receivers

Gronk went bye-bye ::sniffle:: He's selling CBD oil and hinting at a possible comeback sometime in the future. His loss is huge; he was the one mismatch that teams *still* couldn't figure out, even as Gronkowski slowed down over the years. His catch in the SB led directly to the only touchdown of the game.

The Pats drafted wide receiver N'Keal Harry in the first round, and he ended up on IR for the first 8 weeks of the season (at least). Another rookie, Jacobi Meyers, made the team and Denver veteran Damarius Thomas is on the roster, too.

Late note: some guy named Antonio Brown signed the other day. He can't play until week 2, but honestly, I don't expect him to have much of an impact until at least October (and maybe November).

2. Offensive line

One-year wonder, left tackle Trent Brown, went bye-bye in the off-season. He was to be replaced by sophomore Isaiah Wynn. But just when things appeared to be settled, David Andrews was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs -- and his return timetable is unknown.

The Pats shifted Ted Karras to his spot, moved Joe Thuney into Karras' vacated right guard, and then traded for three new OL. Doesn't speak well of how they view the depth at that position.

3. Coaches

The team had some turnover in the coaching staff. They lost receivers coach Chad O'Shea and some minor pieces, but OC Josh McDaniels and offensive line whiz Dante Scarnecchia stayed. So the team is likely to be in good shape, even with the turnover.

What stayed the same

1. Receivers

Bear in mind that the irreplaceable receiving piece has been Julian Edelman, not Gronkowski. Edelman is the cog that the offensive engine can't do without.  They've won Super Bowls without the all-time tight end, but none recently without pesky little receiver. And they appear to have a few smallish/quick receivers on the roster who could replace him eventually.

Also returning is Phillip Dorsett, who is in the Brady "circle of trust," and Josh Gordon, after his latest drug bust. Dorsett is steady if not spectacular... and Gordon is potentially spectacular if he can keep his nose clean.

2. Running backs

They drafted Damien Harris, who fell on the depth chart after some injury issues. But mostly it's the same, another year older for James White and another year wiser for second-year man Sony Michel. Michel appeared to have more lateral moves in the preseason, though it's always tough to judge much in those games.

3. Quarterback

Sure the Pats let Brian Hoyer go in favor of rookie Jarrett Stidham. But it's still the Tom Brady show. At age 42, he looks as good as he has for the past five years, which is great news for us and bad news for the rest of the league. If Gordon plays the entire season, it'll help make up for the lack of tight end production. And Brady's numbers could look pretty similar to the last few years if that happens.


What changed

1. Coaches

Defensive coordinator Brian Flores became the head coach of the Dolphins, and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer went with him. Replacing Flores is long-time Pats linebacker Jerod Mayo, who called the plays in the preseason.

2. Linebackers

Ja'Whaun Bentley was the best preseason linebacker last year. And he was injured early in the first real game and missed the rest of the year. Jamie Collins was a talented player who wanted to get paid, so the Patriots traded him a few years back. Both players returned to the Patriots this year.

Mark my words, Elandon Roberts won't be a starter for long (if at all) this season. Bentley and Collins both outplayed him in the preseason, and it wouldn't even shock me if one or both ended up starting with Dont'a Hightower this year. They are that good.

3. Trey Flowers got paid!! But it was by the Detroit Lions! Good for him, not so great for the Patriots. Thankfully, the team loaded up on linebackers, because among the D-linemen, only Flowers could help cover up deficiencies in the linebacking group last year.

The Pats brought in Michael Bennett to help shore up the D-line. But it'll be him and a bunch of big bodies clogging things up so the linebackers can make plays -- more like 2004 than 2014.

What stayed the same

1. Cornerbacks

Stephon Gilmore was the highest rated CB in the game last year, and he and his coach (Steve Belichick) remain the same. The Pats have Jason McCourty listed as the other CB starter, but I suspect J.C. Jackson will take that role most of the year.

This is a deep and technically sound group, and they should be better with another year in the system for both McCourty and Jackson.

2. Safety

The safeties have been the same for what seems like forever. Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty start, Duron Harmon spells them. McCourty is a little long in the tooth, and Chung has pending drug charges that could cost him time. But with Harmon in the fold, the team is well-prepared to field two safeties no matter what time off the others might have to take off.

3. Defensive line

It's just a mishmash of big guys who will do whatever the defensive coordinator tells them. The Pats weed out players with egos in favor of those who will do their bidding. And they need that discipline -- they switch from 3-4 to 4-3 to 5-2 to Amoeba to Bullseye to 10-man-front to 1-man-front and from zone- to man- multiple times a game. And one screw-up could cost them a touchdown -- so everyone has to play his assignments, not exceptions.

Special Teams

What changed

1. Punter

My Super Bowl LIII MVP is gone -- punter Ryan Allen was cut in favor of rookie Jake Bailey. He and kicker Stephen Gostkowski screwed up a few kicks in the preseason, but by the end appeared to have the kinks worked out with Bailey's holds.

2. Gunner

The Patriots best coverage guy from the last few seasons is out for the year. No, not Matthew Slater -- Brandon King, who has been going back and forth with Slater for the title of best coverage on the team for the last few seasons. King tore his quad muscle in the preseason and he's likely done for the year.

What stayed the same

Gostkowski and long-snapper Joe Cardona.

What it all means

The offense will be even more run-oriented than last season, especially early in the year. It'll take time for the new receivers to work their way in. So in the meantime, expect more two-back sets, with White and Michel splitting out as receivers on pass plays.

Defensively the Patriots are loaded for bear. They have solid safeties, well-above-average cornerbacks, excellent linebackers, and defensive linemen who will play their responsibilities and maintain discipline. (They also don't face very many great QBs, which will make them look better.)

As for special teams, I suspect the change of holder will cost them a few field goals. Hopefully it won't cost them a game, but that's the risk when you change personnel.

And now the main event... Predicting the season

It's my annual futile attempt to predict the Pats wins and losses, game by game, before the first snap of the first game. I ran the odds on this, and my chances of getting them all right are approximately 65,536-to-1. Again... futile, but I'm still going for it. (After all, I went 15-1 once!)

As usual, I'll split the season into quarters.

First quarter
  • The Pats open against Pittsburgh, who they have absolutely owned over the years. The last time Tom Brady lost to the Steelers at home was... never. And he won't start this season, the Pats win a close one.
  • They then travel to Miami to take on the Dolphins, who are in total rebuild mode. Even though that place has been tough for the Patriots, this should be a win.
  • The NY Jets have added a lot of talent this year, but they are coached by the guy who the Pats throttled the past few years in Miami, and it takes time for a team to gel with that many changes -- Patriots should win this one.
  • It's hard to see them losing the next game, at Buffalo -- the Pats are so dominant in this series, especially in upstate NY. Looks like they are 4-0 in September!
Second Quarter
  • Next up is a trip to Washington (the Capital, not the State), against a team that had a road division game the week before (@ NYGiants). Not only that, they don't really have the horses to keep up with the Patriots, so I'll say it's win #5.
  • Then they play those same NY Giants. At home. On a Thursday night. Home teams are dominant on Thursday nights, and the Patriots are dominant at home. The only question is how much the Patriots will win by.
  • After that, it's a quick skip down to NY to beat the hell out of the Jets again.
  • Then things get interesting. The Cleveland Browns are much improved, and they've given the Patriots trouble over the years, even at Gillette. They are also coming off a Bye, while the Patriots have a division road game before and fly to Baltimore to take on the Ravens after. Even though Belichick dominates against young QBs, I'll say this is their first loss of the year, so they end the first half of the year at 7-1.
Third quarter
  • In a strange scheduling quirk, the Patriots play a second straight game against a team coming off a Bye. Baltimore always gives them a tough game, and it will be difficult to beat them at home for a night game. So I'm going with loss #2.
  • After a Bye, next up they travel to Philadelphia. I don't suspect they'll lose three in a row, so I am calling for a win. Philly is also coming off their Bye. But bear in mind, this will be Carson Wentz' first time facing a Belichick defense, and that usually doesn't go well for young QBs. (Also, the Patriots defense is vastly better than they were in the Eagles SB loss... and IIRC, the Patriots absolutely smoked the Eagles D on that day.)
  • Game 11 is at home against Dallas, and that will be the week that Dak Prescott learns what Belichick defenses do to young QBs the first time they face him. Pats win.
  • The tough stretch is nearly over by this point but they still have to travel to Houston for a prime time showdown. The Texans appear to have lost their defensive edge with DC Mike Vrabel taking his talents to Tennessee. I think the Patriots pull out the victory, which puts them at 10-2.
Fourth Quarter
  • The home stretch of the schedule features three home games, starting with new rival Kansas City. I want to pick KC, I really do, but until they prove they can win anything but a fluke game against the Pats, you just can't choose them. Patriots win.
  • The one road tilt has the Pats jetting off to the Queen City to play Cincinnati. The Bengals are a mess, so don't expect much resistance -- Patriots should roll.
  • Buffalo in Foxboro is an annual cakewalk
  • Miami's only path to victory is if the Patriots don't care about the game. And you know what, at 13-2, I don't think they will -- so they lose this one to end up at 13-3.

That's how I see it, folks. The schedule combined with an improved Patriots defense adds up to a two-game improvement over last year. A 13-3 record would probably mean a playoff Bye and likely put them in contention for the overall #1 seed.

Now they just have to play the games :D

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!