Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Patriots 2019 Mid-Season Review

So we are just a little over halfway through the season, and the Patriots have a well-earned week off. They are 8-1 so far, a game better than I thought they'd be at this point (7-2). And they and the Ravens have separated themselves from the AFC pack. The Pats are two-games clear of every non-Baltimore team in the AFC, and the Ravens are at least one-game clear of everyone else.

Also, somehow the Patriots gained ground in the playoffs last week, despite not playing. KC lost, Buffalo lost, and the Colts lost. So just by not playing, the Patriots improved their potential playoff lot. Thank you to the terrible AFC.


It's been a weird ride so far. The defense looked historically good through eight games, but it appears the schedule was about to get harder. And sure enough, those same Ravens put up 37 on the Patriots (30 on the defense), bringing those expectations down a notch.

But the reality is they could still be historically good. The team that holds the current record for fewest points given up in 16-game season gave up 36 points in a single game once. So if that was an aberration for the Patriots, then they could still stack up favorably.

Where do they stand at this point? Read on to find out:

Offense

1. No Running Game Bailout In 2019

Last year the running game came to the fore as the team moved toward the playoffs. The passing attack was middle-of-the-road most of that year, so they needed to run to stay in games. And they rode that and an attacking, confusing defense to a Super Bowl victory.

But they've suffered too many losses on offense to duplicate that formula this year. Here are the key players who are not available anymore:
  • Tight end Rob Gronkowski (retirement)
  • Tight end Dwayne Allen (cut)
  • Center David Andrews (blood clots)
  • Left tackle Trent Brown (free agent, signed with Oakland)
  • Fullback James Develin (neck injury)
Given how key those players were to the ground game, this season's inconsistency isn't surprising. And it is unlikely the Patriots will be able to duplicate their run-and-defend playoff metamorphosis from last year. They are averaging a full yard less per carry this year than they did last year (3.3ypc vs. 4.3ypc in 2018). So don't bank on the run game for a post-season bailout.

2. Diversifying The Passing Attack

Given the lack of a dominant running game, the Patriots will likely rise or fall based on their air attack. And as is usually the case, it will depend less on who is catching the passes and more on how many different targets are actual threats in the passing game.

When the Pats have a diversified passing attack, it usually bodes well for post-season success. Teams just have trouble when they have to cover 4+ legitimate receivers. It's especially true when New England can keep the same personnel on the field, go no-huddle to limit substitutions, and find the weak spots in the defense.

The past few weeks have shown that that is exactly what they are trying to do. In recent games, nine different receivers have caught at least 2 passes in at least one game. And spreading the ball around is the best way to attack defenses that don't need to worry about the run.

If Ben Watson and Mohamed Sanu continue to work their way into the offense, then the Patriots could make some playoff noise. If not, then it'll be Edelman, White, and patching it together after that -- not a great formula to beat good teams.

3. QB Questions

Tom Brady is on pace for his worst QB Rating since 2013, the year before Jimmy Garoppolo arrived in New England. The more worrying thing is that his 93.7 rating this year has been compiled against some of the worst teams in the NFL: Dolphins, Jets (twice), Giants, Browns, and Washington. Those performances don't predict that he'll light it up against better teams the second half of the year.

He didn't exactly set the league on fire last year. But he had a very good defense and an efficient running game to lean on. This year, the running game is pedestrian. And while the defense has looked very good, it's still tough to win without excellent QB play.

Brady has always shined most brightly when the games get more important down the stretch. However, this year I would not predict any great increase in his stats starting now. The teams they face coming up are better, and he does happen to be 42 years old. The decline might have begun at this point.

Defense

1. Talent All Over The Field

The defense is loaded this year. They started the season on an historic pace, giving up just 6.8 points per game. (And that included several scores given up on special teams or on offensive turnovers.)

The last game always looms large in the NFL. But don't be fooled by the 37 dropped on the Patriots by Baltimore. The defense has very talented players at all three levels, some playing the best of their careers at the same time. That is always a lethal combination.

There is little chance the Patriots D will set any NFL records. But they'll probably be good enough for a 14-2 or 13-3 record.

2. Size Matters

The only concern on defense is how they hold up against good running teams. The Pats like to play with two or three down-linemen and four or five linebackers. That's because they are loaded with LB talent.

The problems come when teams commit to the run. It can be harder for smaller linebackers to hold up against large offensive lines with good blocking tight ends. We saw that on display against Baltimore. Here's hoping we don't see it again this year.

3. Who's The Boss

For those who wondered who would call the defensive plays this year, the answer is in. It's Belichick. Not Bill -- his son Steve is calling the defensive signals. He's done a great job so far; but needed to adjust quicker in the Ravens game. Baltimore had a better plan that day, and they jetted to a 17-0 lead -- and the won by exactly those 17 points (37-20).

The Pats need a better plan coming in and also need to adjust better than they against the Ravens.

Special Teams

1. Added Talent

New punter Jake Bailey has been great kicking, tied for second in the league with 21 punts downed inside the 20 yardline. He also has been kicking off since Stephen Gostkowski got injured (out for the year), and Bailey had only one misstep in that area -- a boot out of bounds.

The Patriots also brought back Brandon Bolden to help on Special Teams. Unfortunately ST stalwart Brandon King went down, but the team brought in Justin Bethel -- one of the best special teamers in the entire league.

Special teams has more big plays this year, and with Bailey punting, they are always a threat to pin teams deep.

2. Kicking Game Ups-And-Downs

One other addition was Mike Nugent, who lasted just four games in relief of Gostkowski before being cut. Nick Folk did fine in relief of Nugent in his first game with the Pats. But that situation bears watching, as he was out of the league since missing three kicks for the Buccaneers against the Patriots.

Also of note: Bailey hasn't been clean on his field goal holds. At least twice he put the laces toward the kicker -- a big no-no. To quote Pete Carroll: "Gotta clean it up."

Quick Hits

1. For all the bluster about the much tougher the up-coming schedule, here are the aggregate records of the Patriots opponents:

First 9 games: 30-52 (36.6%)
Last 7 games: 30-34 (46.9%)

Better for sure, but not exactly a barn-burning sked.

2. The 2019 record of the four QBs drafted by Bill Belichick is 25-6 (Brady, Jacoby Brissett, Brian Hoyer, and Jimmy Garoppolo). I heard somewhere that BB stinks at the draft; guess not :)

3. I don't pay much attention to Fantasy Football, preferring the real thing. But I was made aware that the Patriots defense has outscored all but a few of the top-scoring players in the league. In fact, before the Baltimore game, they had outscored all but two players! (Trivia Question: can you name those two players? Answer below.)

And yes, this is unprecedented. Currently, the Pats D ranks 16th in Fantasy points. Annually, the best defenses usually rank about 50th!

Summary and a Look Ahead

The Patriots are in position for a playoff bye, as usual. The second half schedule is more difficult, but it doesn't look too daunting. I'd predict a 14-2 or 13-3 record to finish the year.

They'll have to keep the passing attack diversified. And everyone in New England will be keeping their fingers and toes crossed that no games come down to Nick Folk's right foot. He looked good in his first week, but better not to tempt fate on that one :D

Next week at Philly, the Eagles are missing two key ingredients of their Super Bowl win over the Pats: QB Nick Foles and offensive coordinator Frank Reich. That makes it a much tougher game, and also Carson Wentz' first action against a BB defense. Could be entertaining to watch!

I hope you enjoyed the first half of the year as much as I did. I like blowout wins over the Dolphins and Jets, and even the Baltimore loss was entertaining.

Enjoy the rest of the year!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-1!

PPS. Trivia answer:
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The Patriots D trailed only Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson in Fantasy point production prior to the week 9 loss to the Ravens.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Patriots Undressed By Ravens, 37-20

The 2019 Patriots lost for the first time last night, 37-20, to the Baltimore Ravens. The win leaves them 1.5 games up on Buffalo for the division lead, and also 1.5 games up on those same Ravens in the race for AFC playoff seeding. Next week is a Bye, so no game but keep an eye out for a mid-season update/review.

The Ravens won this game because they were better prepared. They jetted out to a 17-0 lead in the first 16 minutes of the game. And after that, the Patriots got two turnovers and scored 20 points, and the Ravens got two turnovers and 20 scored 20 points. So if the Pats were better prepared at the start, they would have been right there.

Baltimore confused the Pats defense with their diverse running attack, using their confusion for the first three scores. But after that the game settled down and the New England offense and defense played markedly better.

It was a great adjustment to go no-huddle to wear down the Ravens D and then run it down their throats later in the game. And it helped that Baltimore fumbled twice (a punt and the running back). But after the blistering Ravens start, it was too-little too-late.

As with all close games, there were maddening moments that could have turned the tide.

The first Ravens TD came after the Patriots were offside on a field goal attempt. The Ravens got unneeded help from the officials on a few other plays (two examples: Hightower's offside should have been a false start on the long-snapper, and a killer non-call on an obvious pick play -- both of which gave the Ravens easy first downs). And James White was inches away from a TD at the end of the first half. 

But most frustrating of all was watching the Pats offense. Multiple times they had easy plays for short gains but went for long passes. With the almost the entire fourth quarter to play, the Pats were down 10 and had a first-down in Baltimore territory. Here is what happened next:

Play #1. Brady did not audible when there was an unusual 10-yard cushion on an outside receiver (I think it was Phillip Dorsett). A change of play, or just a knowing nod to the receiver, and a quick-throw outside picks up at least 5-7 yards easily. But instead, it was a throw to a covered Mohamed Sanu.

Play #2. Instead of taking a short gain over the middle, Brady forced the ball deep to tight end Ben Watson down the seam. It's the kind of pass Rob Gronkowski sometimes made; a low pass where he had to dive, catch, and roll to get it. But Ben Watson isn't Rob Gronkowski, so it fell incomplete.

Play #3. Knowing they were in a four-down situation, the Patriots should have tried to gain some yardage to give themselves a chance on fourth-down. Instead, Brady dropped way back and under pressure threw one up for grabs at the 5 yard line. Interception! It was so badly underthrown that the "intended receiver," (Sanu) couldn't even get to the intercepting player to touch him down at the 5, so he returned it to the 33 yard line.

In summary, the Patriots were unprepared, the defense was confused and overmatched, the offense was inconsistent and turned the ball over, and the referees helped the Ravens. Hence a 17-point loss.

Positives from the game:

1. Sanu had 10 catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. With the Pats in desperate need of diversifying their offensive attack, adding Sanu to Edelman, James White, and Ben Watson is what the doctor ordered.

2. The overall plan of going up-tempo to wear the opponent down worked pretty well. Given that they started slow running but ended up averaging 4.4 ypc, it was impressive. And being able to run or throw to White against a tired defense actually helped.

3. The defensive adjustments were good, if not geat. Even though they came too late, the Patriots D settled down and slowed down the Ravens O. In the mid-game the Patriots outscored the Ravens 20-7. Unfortunately it wasn't enough to overcome the two turnovers.

4. Nick Folk > Mike Nugent. Not that he was great, but you have less fear with Folk coming out to kick than you had with Nugent. Most of the kicks were right down the middle; only one real exception moved to the left, but it was still good.

5. A big-picture positive: the Ravens beat both the Chargers and Browns the first time they saw QB Lamar Jackson -- and both trounced the Ravens the second time they played him. It might take that one game to see what you are up against. And the Patriots just got that out of the way.

Where does that leave us? 8-1 still isn't bad, but it does make things tighter in the AFC. I predicted they'd lose this game when I made my Preseason Picks in September, because it was a big spot and the Ravens had a Bye week to work on it. So take it as a given they would lose and move on. The Patriots Bye will give them a chance to regroup and better integrate Sanu.

Biggest on-going issue: If the kicking game holds up, then it's a tie between the O-line and wild INTs from Tom Brady. They need to give help to Marshall Newhouse at left tackle. And even more, they need Isiah Wynn to return to take his place.

As for Brady, I agree with Al the Weather God, who wrote that he'd like TB12 to look less like Brett Favre. Take what the defense gives you and live to play another down. It worked for your first three Super Bowls, it can work again!

Non-Brady MVP: Punter Jake Bailey, who had three of his five punts downed inside the 20, and who gave up an average return of 1.4 yards. He also kicked off and held on all those perfect kicks.

Statistical Oddity: The Patriots defense had given up just 40 points in the first 8 games. And they gave up 30 last night.

Water-cooler wisdom: "That game was bound to be tough; things should get better as they get healthier."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-1!