Monday, October 28, 2019

Patriots Top Latest Pretenders With 27-13 Win Over Browns

The Patriots rode another dominant defensive performance to a 27-13 win over the Browns. When coupled with Buffalo's loss, the win gives them a 2.5 game lead in the AFC East and coincidentally, the same 2.5-game lead over three other AFC contenders for playoff seeding (the Colts, Ravens, and Chiefs). Next up is a road tilt against those Ravens, who will be hungry for a win that could put them back in the hunt for regular-season supremacy in the conference.

The New England defense continued its turnover festival, recovering two Nick Chubb fumbles on consecutive plays -- the second of which was a great strip by Jonathan Jones. And on the *next* Cleveland play, QB Baker Mayfield threw the shovel pass right into the gut of lineman Lawrence Guy.

Mayfield is getting a lot of heat for that play, but it was really a timing throw where Guy blew up the blocking and made a great play. That should not be overlooked. (Trivia question: Two Pats defensive linemen have interceptions this season, when was the last year the Pats pulled that off? Bonus points if you can name either, or both, of the players that year. Answer below.)

The defense didn't have its best game though. It lost outside contain on Chubb a few times, and missed a bunch of tackles when he ran inside. They also showed that any defense can be vulnerable against a team that can run and pass effectively. It's long been the achilles heel of the Bill Belichick defenses, teams with balanced attacks. But it's probably an issue for any defense.

Linebacker Jamie Collins continues to be a monster on the field: 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2 QB hits on Sunday. And he was joined in the "plus" group by Adam Butler (4 tackles, 2 sacks, and 3 QB hits), and Jonathan Jones. The rest of the defense looked a bit slow and somewhat poor at tackling.

I'm hoping their performance had to do with the short week, two weeks of prep by the Browns, and them looking ahead to the Ravens game next weekend. But I fear they will look like that when facing better, more balanced offenses.

Offensively there were both hopeful and worrying signs. New receiver Mohamed Sanu made some nice blocks and had a big fourth-down converting catch. Not bad for a guy who arrived late last week. And rookie Jacobi Meyers appears to be in the Brady "circle of trust," as is veteran Ben Watson. These additions to stalwarts Julian Edelman (8 receptions, 78 yards, and 2 touchdowns) and Phillip Dorsett indicate a bright future for the passing game.

On the worrying side were things like their inability to line-up and just run the ball. They ran better out of spread formations, and with blocking back James Develin out for the year, they might be stuck with that. Also, their third-down conversion rate of 31% isn't great. And that's made worse because their kicker is a basketcase and they have to keep going for it on fourth down.

The inability to line up and run, along with a dropping rate of conversion on third- and fourth-downs is something to worry about. Perhaps O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia can't work his magic without more talent. If so, it might be time to trade for reinforcements.

On the plus side is Josh McDaniels' coaching. He called the play of the game in the third quarter. Cleveland had just scored to make it a one-score game, and the Patriots faced a third-and-10 at their own 16 yardline. If they failed to convert, they would have given it back to the Browns with good field position and momentum swinging their way.

But McDaniels' call was outstanding. There were two receivers stacked to the left, and he had Sanu motion in that direction to create a three-bunch. It looked like a typical Patriots wide-receiver screen pass to Sanu, and at the snap, that's exactly what Brady faked. That drew enough of the defense to have James White slip out to the right for a screen pass that went for 59 yards!

Four plays later, Brady threw a touchdown to Edelman and it was pretty much game over. McDaniels is overrated, IMO. But he earned his keep on that play; working against tendencies to switch field position and ultimately take a two-touchdown lead.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the continued struggle in special teams. Punter Jake Bailey booted a kickoff out of bounds, giving the Browns the ball at their 40 yardline. And the Patriots took a delay penalty on another kickoff.

Also, kicker Mike Nugent had a kick blocked and missed a 34-yarder wide left. And his missing ways caused the Patriots to go for a fourth-down conversion instead of taking a 41-yard field goal attempt. This might not hurt against the 2-5 Browns, but eventually, when they face a good team (perhaps in the post season), it will come back to bite them.

For all the complaints I heard over the years about Stephen Gostkowski, I'm guessing most all of us would take him back right now, even if he was just 80% of his normal, reliable self.

Where does this leave us? 8-0 is quite an achievement, so revel in it. But don't overlook those Ravens just because the Bye week is the Sunday after.

Biggest on-going issue: The kicker. The Pats need to bring in some competition to see if they can fix this before the playoffs.

Non-Brady MVP: Jamie Collins, who is having an absolute monster of a season. Welcome back, Boogeyman!

Statistical Oddity: The three starting NFL QBs whom were drafted by Bill Belichick are 20-2 this season. Brady is 8-0, Jimmy Garoppolo is 7-0 (49ers), and Jacoby Brissett is 5-2 (Colts).

Water-cooler wisdom: "Here come the Ravens to finally test how good we are this year."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-0!

PPS. Trivia answer: In 2014, nose tackle Vince Wilfork and defensive tackle Dominique Easley each had one interception.

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