Sunday, October 6, 2019

Pats Top Washington Easily, 33-7

The Patriots pulled away in the second half for an easy victory in Washington, 33-7. Their 5-0 record keeps them atop the AFC East, one game ahead of the 4-1 Bills. Next up are the New York Giants, on a short week, this Thursday night in Foxboro.

Often there isn't much to learn from blowout wins. But there was today.

After the game, Tom Brady was understandably unhappy with the offensive performance in the first half. They came out throwing, and throwing, and throwing. Brady threw a personal high 31 passes in the first half, and the offensive imbalance led to neither a high completion percentage nor a great QB rating. He had one TD but also one INT in the first half.

And suddenly in the second half, it was all run all the time. They fed the ball to Sony Michel, James White, and even special teamer Brandin Bolden. After 7 rushing attempts in the first half, the Pats rushed 20 times after halftime.

What all this tells me is that they themselves don't know their offensive identity yet. They hoped to have Antonio Brown to stretch and challenge defenses, but that didn't work out. Then they wanted to be a run-first team, but their starting center, left guard, and blocking back all got injured.

They lost Rob Gronkowski to retirement, and they've gotten very little production out of the tight end position. And I think they used this game as a test run; to see what they have in the different phases. (Or maybe they tried testing the passing game first, but when the game was only 12-7 at they half they decided to win it.)

Additionally, the offensive line is having trouble protecting Brady. But that doesn't excuse his two horrendous red-zone interceptions the past two weeks. Take the sack or throw it away, TB12, but don't give the ball away when points are on the line.

At the moment they'd be lost without Julian Edelman. He wasn't perfect on Sunday, but his 8 catches (110 yards and 1 TD) five first downs (one by penalty -- a big 40-yarder) were crucial. It's no surprise they won recent Super Bowls without Gronkowski but not without Edelman; he is the indispensable cog in the machine.

Over the next few weeks it'll be interesting to see who steps up at receiver. Everyone knows Edelman, White, and Gordon are there; but who will make the big catches when those guys are covered? If I had to guess, it would be Ryan Izzo or Jacobi Meyers. But at this point, it's still a guess.

On defense, they caused two more turnovers; an interception by Jason McCourty and a fumble recovery by Jamie Collins. But there wasn't much to learn on defense yesterday; we already knew they were great. However, it's starting to look like they could be historically great.

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens hold the record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season, and the Patriots are ahead of their pace. The Ravens gave up 10.3 points per game; the Patriots so far have given up 6.8 points per game. And after five games, the Ravens had given up 55 points, while the Pats have given up just 34.

Now the Patriots still have to face the Chiefs, Eagles, Cowboys, and those same Ravens. Those are some potent offenses. However, they also face the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills again, who mustered 10 total points against the defense (the Jets got 14 on defense and special teams). But it's interesting to note where this defense stands historically at the moment.

The kicking game is shaky though. Stephen Gostkowki's replacement, Mike Nugent, pushed an extra point wide, and then hit the upright on another one that ended up going through. The Patriots also eschewed the field goal after the first PAT miss, opting to go for it instead on fourth-and-one. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the kicker. If they haven't sorted this out in a few weeks, expect them to bring in another kicker for competition.

On the other hand, the punting has been excellent, and the team has been validated for letting go of longtime punter Ryan Allen. Jake Bailey is tied for the second-most punts downed inside the 20 yard-line (12 of them). And he hits them out of bounds often, neutralizing the other teams return game.

No commentary on the coaching except this little tidbit: apparently Bill Belichick himself is calling the defensive signals. Apparently he wasn't happy with how that went in the preseason, with Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick sharing that duty. So he took it over.

Where does that leave us? 5-0 is good for now, and the schedule doesn't really start to get tough for another few weeks. Hopefully the hamstring injury to Phillip Dorsett doesn't keep him out for long.

Biggest on-going concern: Lack of targets in the red zone. The Pats really struggled when they got deep in the red zone. They used to have Gronkowski and Edelman, both of whom demanded double-coverage. But without Gronk, the rest of the field isn't quite as open as it used to be.

Non-Brady MVP: Dont'a Hightower. Led the team in tackles (8), sacks (1.5 for 10.5 yards), tackles for a loss (4), QB pressures (2), and even threw in a pass defended. That would probably make him the non-QB MVP in almost any game this year!

Statistical Oddity: The Patriots lead the league in sacks with 24, putting them on a pace for 77 on the season, which would break the NFL record. (Trivia: which team set that record? Answer below.)

The reason it's an oddity -- the Patriots have never led the league in sacks since the stat became official in 1982. Not. One. Damned. Year!

Water-cooler Wisdom: "Nice to get a win, but it'll be weeks before we learn much about the team."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-0!

PPS. Trivia answer:
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The 1984 Chicago Bears set the record with 72 sacks in 1984. The next year, they won the Super Bowl, over the upstarts from Foxboro :(

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Patriots Hold Off Bills, 16-10

The Pats scurried out of town with a 6-point win Sunday, topping the Bills 16-10 in Buffalo. The win puts them at 4-0, a game up on the now 3-1 Bills. Next up is a date with Washington, who might have a worse quarterback than Buffalo. (I know, hard to believe.)

You've no doubt read all about it, given that the update is late. Here are some quick thoughts, and some overarching themes for the team.

The Offense

The Patriots offense struggled on Sunday, and it was mostly due to Bills head coach Sean McDermott. His defenses have given Tom Brady trouble since he was in Carolina. In two games against the Bills last year, Brady had 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions, and two of his worst four QB ratings of the year. But it isn't Brady that worries me; his struggles against that defense are understandable.

It's the running game that is of most concern. It has been inconsistent at best, for three main reasons.

First, fullback James Develin is on IR for at least eight weeks, and maybe more. His blocking can't be replaced easily. And when teams tried to avoid contact with Develin, he was an actual pass-catching threat out of the backfield. No doubt the next man up won't be a dual threat.

Second, the offensive line is in flux. They lost left tackle Isiah Wynn to IR, too. And that change, coupled with the preseason loss of center David Andrews seems to have put the line in a funk. Coach Dante Scarnecchia will likely get this worked out by mid-season. But for now, things aren't clicking like they usually would.

And third, Sony Michel is hampering things because he apparently can't get involved in the passing game. So when he comes in the game, the other team knows he will either run it or stay in to block. He had just seven catches last year, but zero so far in 2019. The opposition simply doesn't worry about him catching a pass.

(Also of note in the running game, the Pats seem to want to keep feeding Michel the ball. Even though both James White and Rex Burkhead can run or catch passes, and give them a lot more flexibility.)


As to the passing game, it was poor versus the Bills for some of the reasons mentioned above. They do need more weapons, and I suspect the return of Ben Watson this week and continued growth for Jacobi Meyers will help there.

The Defense

The Patriots D is scary good this year. They've given up 13 points in four games (14 were scored against the offense and on special teams). Even with the offensive and special teams miscues, they are on pace to give up 108 points -- which would be the lowest total in a 16-game season by a wide margin. The current record is 165 points. (Trivia: name the team and the year that pulled that off. Answer below.)

The media finally caught up to my blog in noting how great the Patriots D was in the first half of games last year. And since they seem confused by how they improved their second-half defense this year, I'll save them the work of looking at film and everything and just give them the answer: it's the players.

Last year, they had okay players but came into games with consistently great gameplans. But once good teams got a look at their plans, they could usually adjust and then score in the second half. (Best example is the Chiefs, who scored 9 total points in two first-halves, and then scored 62 in two combined second-halves.)

The Pats always had the schemes, and last year had a great play-caller in Brian Flores. But this year, they added veterans Michael Bennett and Jamie Collins, got Ja'Whaun Bentley back from injury, and brought in rookie Chase Winovich. They also have Jonathan Jones, top-rated corner in the game, shutdown corner Stephon Gilmore, and JC Jackson and Jason McCourty playing great.

They team has so much depth that linebackers captain Elandon Roberts can't even get on the field. He's been on the field for just 61 of 258 defensive snaps; 23.6%.

In case you can't tell, I have no concerns about the D. Sure they haven't played great teams yet, but holding the Steelers to 3 points with Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup sold me. They have a chance to be historically great.

Special Teams

Remember in the preseason primer, when I noted the Patriots lost their best special-teams coverage guy in Brandon King (link). If so, maybe you recall Matthew Slater taking two dumb "run out of bounds and stay there" penalties trying to make up for King's absence. And if you realized that, then you probably took notice of the re-signing of long-time Patriots special teamer Jordan Richards this week.

The coverage has been okay so far. They clearly miss King, though his trip to IR barely drew any attention. The new punter sometimes outkicks his coverage. That's only a problem if the boot doesn't land out of bounds, but that does happen sometimes. And Slater is working too hard to make up for King -- sometimes to his detriment.

Slater needed help in coverage. Maybe Richards can provide that.

As for the rest of special teams, the big story is the team placing kicker Stephen Gostkowski on injured reserve. He's likely done for the year; reports are he'll get season-ending hip surgery.

His replacement is in already. And he can't do much worst than Gostkowski through the first four games. But he should do better -- after all, Gostkowski was injured!

Coaching

So far, whomever is calling the defensive plays has proven to be an excellent replacement for Flores. Bill Belichick gets a lot of credit for the Pats D (and well he should). But as we saw with the difference between Matt Patricia (gave up 41 points to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII) and Flores (gave up 3 to the Rams in Super Bowl LIII), the defensive coordinator makes a real difference.

My only gripe with the coaching was their clock mismanagement at the end of the Bills game. In a game where they had trouble throwing the ball, it made no sense to attempt passes when Buffalo had no timeouts and their offense had been putrid all day.

The game was a one-score affair. And in fact, if the Bills had somehow scored a TD, they could have won it with an extra point. So rather than "go for the kill" with two passes, the Pats should have run the ball and take the clock to the 2:00 warning. After punting it back to Buffalo, they likely would have had to go 80+ yards with zero timeouts in about 1:50. And their offense was awful (and down to it's second-string QB).

Just a little thing. The game worked out anyway, but for future reference, don't pull an Atlanta and lose a game doing it.

Where does that leave us? 4-0 is pretty good after 4 weeks, so enjoy it. The Pats still rank near the top of all the power rankings around, and the offense should play better as the O-line gels and the younger receivers and Ben Watson work their way in. Washington is the next sacrificial lamb for the Pats; plan to relax for the second half this Sunday :D

Biggest on-going issue: For the moment it's the field goal kicking. It might not risk costing them a game for a while, but eventually they'll be depending on an unproven kicker in a big spot. Keep your fingers crossed.

Non-Brady MVP: Kyle Van Noy, who led the team in tackles (8), had two sacks (for 17 yards lost), three QB hits, and two forced fumbles.

Statistical Oddity: Devin McCourty tied the NFL record with an interception in four straight games. (Trivia: this record was originally set by another Patriots player, can you name him? Answer below.)

Water-cooler Wisdom: "Why not just cancel the rest of the AFC season and redo last year's AFC Championship game with the Chiefs right now?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-0!

PPS. Trivia answers:
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#1: the 2000 Baltimore Ravens set the record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (165).

#2 McCourty and Mike Haynes are the only two players to intercept at least one pass in four consecutive games. McCourty goes for five on Sunday!