Sunday, October 25, 2020

Patriots Dominated By 49ers, Fall 33-6

The Patriots fell flat on their face for the second time in two weeks, dropping a stinkbomb to the 49ers 33-6. The loss dropped the Pats to 2-4, a full 2.5 games behind the 5-2 Bills in the AFC East. Next up is a trip to Buffalo on Sunday at 1:00 to try to stay in the race for the division.

There isn't much to say at this point. It feels more and more like the pre-Belichick days around here. In fact, it's starting to seem like the pre-Parcells days -- and that ain't good.

Biggest problems in Sunday's game:

  1. Cam Newton is too loose with the ball. Three INTs, all three of them on him, IMO.
  2. Terrible situational football; giving up big plays on 3rd-and-1 over and over; unacceptable.
  3. They have insufficient talent at linebacker. Losing their top four LBs in the off-season might well have destroyed their 2020 season. Ja'Whaun Bentley was awful unless he rushed the passer -- couldn't cover the pass and struggled against the run.
  4. Their secondary isn't playing up to its potential, not even close. I have more faith that they'd stuff a run on 3rd-and-3 than stop a pass on 3rd-and-10.
  5. The offensive game planning was poor to start the game and didn't adjust quickly enough (waiting until the half to come up with something that worked).
  6. For some reason they continue to return kickoffs when they should just kneel and take the ball at the 25 yard line. Gunner Olszewski fumbled one that could have ended the game before the second half even got started.

The few bright spots:
  1. Nick Folk went 2-for-2 on field goals.
  2. Damien Harris ran 10 times for 58 yards and was good on blitz pickup.
The Pats are in big trouble here. Newton has made it clear this is a one-year deal, and he'll be looking to cash in with a big free agent deal. If the Patriots keep losing, it's pretty certain that deal will be elsewhere.

They should do two things: start Jarrett Stidham at quarterback and consider trading valuable players before the November 3 trading deadline.

Belichick and company need to find out if Stidham is a potential answer for 2021 and beyond. Newton won't be back either way, so if it isn't Stidham, they have to start planning for the future.

As for trading players, it's fine if they want to wait until after Sunday's game to know for sure if this is a lost season. If they beat Buffalo, they will be just 1.5 games back, with a game against the same Bills at home late in the year.

However, if the Patriots lose to the Bills, the Pats need to be sellers at the trade deadline. Ship out anyone who can't help you next year -- unless they think the rebuild will take longer, in which case they could trade players who won't be helpful in 2022. Depends on where the braintrust thinks the team will be by then.

Where does this leave us? For this season, Sunday's game at Buffalo is make or break. Win and maybe the season will turn around. Lose and it's over. So if you want to watch meaningful local football, Sunday might be your last chance.

Biggest ongoing issue: Puh-lease, it's so many things.

Non-QB MVP: Nope, same answer as below.

Statistical oddity: The last two seasons in which the Patriots played only three games in October, they went winless each time - that includes 2020. (Trivia question: can you name the previous season? Answer below.)

Bonus oddity: The 27-point loss is the Patriots worst home loss in Gillette Stadium history.

Water-cooler wisdom: "Uggggh..."

Keep the faith, if you have any faith left,

- Scott

PS. 2-4!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
The Patriots went o-fer October in 2002.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Patriots Fall to Broncos 18-12

The depleted Patriots lost to the depleted Broncos, 18-12, in a game that wasn't as close as the final score. The loss drops the Pats to 2-3, in third place in the AFC East behind the 4-1 Bills and 3-3 Dolphins. Next week the 49ers cross the country to play in Foxboro at 4:25.

Once again this team reminded me of the pre-Belichick Pats. Too many mental errors, missed opportunities, chunk plays given up, and turnovers to win much in the NFL.

The offensive line was flat-out horrible. Gave up four sacks, lots more pressures, eight QB hits, didn't block well on screen passes, were bad in the running game, and didn't pick up blitzes particularly well.

Continuity and time spent practicing together are keys to offensive line play. Well, the Patriots lost longtime O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia in the off-season, have started three different centers, and due to injuries/COVID not one single player has started every game at the same position this season. (And a reminder; the season is only FIVE games old!)

With a makeshift offensive line, QB Cam Newton cannot wait 4+ seconds to get rid of the ball. The four sacks weren't all on the O-line. And he tossed two INTs, had a fumble, and had at least two passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage.

Newton's running plays are excellent, and he led the team with 76 yards. But they won't get far if all they can do is run -- they need explosive plays down the field, at least some of the time.

The running backs couldn't run, totaling 41 yards on 16 carries (2.6 ypc). James White had eight catches for 65 yards, but he was poor in blitz pickup. Damien Harris showed good burst early, but for some reason the Pats appeared to want to give touches to all the backs -- which backfired when Rex Burkhead and James White got stuffed more than once.

The receivers continually fail tooooo -- stop me if you've heard this -- to get separation against man-coverage. I know, sounds like last year, right? Only Damiere Byrd is quick enough to get free, but it's his first year here and he doesn't know the offense all that well.

The tight ends? Ryan Izzo had three catches for minimal yards and an absolute killer lost fumble.

The defense was just really weird. They gave up huge plays at really inopportune times. Allowing a 35-yard completion on third-and-21 was disheartening and ridiculous. Especially for a team with this much talent in the secondary.

However, the defense also stiffened near their own goal line, allowing six field goals and no touchdowns. (And that includes a questionable penalty that gave the Broncos a first-and-goal at the four yard line. Denver lost one yard on the next three plays and then kicked a short field goal.)

Linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley had his best game this year (12 tackles, 2 QB hits, and got in on a sack). But he is still inconsistent -- missing some assignments and getting knocked off his feet too often. In fact, their best linebacker might be Adrian Phillips... except he plays safety (he plays near the line like a LB most of the time).

Corners Jonathan Jones (3) and J.C. Jackson (2) knocked away five passes total and each had an interception -- on back-to-back Denver plays. But somehow they just couldn't make a key play early in the game that could turn the tide of a Broncos' offense that gained yards and ate the clock all game long.

The coaching needs to be more cognizant of their players limitations.

On defense, they continue to have Bentley in pass coverage when he can't do it. On pass plays he should rush the quarterback and they backfill the coverage with a safety.

And on offense, they can't call for deep passes when their O-line has that many replacements. Not that a few good targets wouldn't help more -- but the coaches have to put them in position to succeed, not to fail.

The one coaching decision that did work out was odd -- they called two gadget plays and both worked really well. They might note that, because all the gadget plays are ones the team practiced multiple times a week for years. So if they don't have as much practice time during the week, maybe those should use more of those plays.

Where does that leave us? The team is struggling. Lots of positive COVID tests, multiple players in or out on a daily or weekly basis, the facilities closing for days at a time to clean things up. It's a tough thing to get through, but somehow they have to get wins in games like this where the changes were all there for them.

Biggest on-going issue: COVID. Is the game on or off, which players are in or out on a weekly basis, and why are they having continual outbreaks when other teams are not. The uncertainty erodes their effectiveness.

Non-QB MVP: Punter Jake Bailey, who had three kicks for a 48.3 average, no returns, and two downed inside the 20 yard line. He also kicked off, as usual.

Statistical oddity: This is the first time the Patriots had a losing record in October since 2001. Once every 19 years pretty much makes this an oddity.

Water-cooler wisdom: "If you wanted the NFL to play, this is a good reminder to be careful what you wish for."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-3!

Thursday, October 8, 2020

What the NFL Should Do About COVID-19

You've undoubtedly read about the on-going COVID-19 outbreak it the Tennessee Titans' organization. And of course, you know about the isolated positive tests around the league.

There are a lot of ideas about how to handle this situation. Here is my take on the steps needed to contain and get past the current outbreak and any future ones.

Step 1: Close down for two weeks, starting right now

If the NFL doesn't close things down, they risk even more players and coaches being exposed to the coronavirus. And health concerns aside, if the Titans' outbreak becomes a league-wide outbreak, they risk losing a month or more.

Shutting down and quarantining for two weeks means that teams will simply miss their weeks 5 and 6 schedules. And those game can be made up by postponing the playoffs and playing the games in early January.

No one will give the league any crap if they play the Super Bowl in mid-February or even early March. Everyone involved -- players, coaches, fans, television networks, fantasy football sites, Vegas -- they all want football. And shutting down for two weeks now makes it more likely they will get football. 

Step 2: Give players, coaches, officials, and fans another chance to opt-out

Given the known climate and current conditions, people should be given another opportunity to protect their own health and the health of their families and communities. People's own health situations might have changed, or they might have more misgivings about playing under current conditions.

The COVID-19 status in some states has gotten better and in some states it's gotten worse. Giving everyone involved another chance to skip the rest of the season is fair and would show the NFL really does care about player health and safety.

Step 3: Implement new health and safety protocols

The NFL now knows how and why the Titans outbreak got worse. Titans' players engaged in extra-team practices and events, which worsened the outbreak for them (they continue to have new positive tests). So make new rules that can avoid those risks.

Given the incubation period, any positive test should result in immediate lockdown/quarantine of the entire team. Contact tracing should mean that anyone who spent more than a minute within six feet the infected player or coach should not play in any games until after the maximum incubation period and continuous negative test results.

Even in the modern game, rosters have sometimes been limited to as few as 33 active players per team per game. So if a team has 10 players sidelined for a week, so be it. Every team is under the same rules, so live with the results and move on.

Step 4: Increase penalties for those who violate protocols in step 3

Football players and coaches are always trying to get an edge. And the NFL can't allow those risk-takers to put the entire sport in jeopardy. The franchises and the sport are always worth more than any single game or even a single season. The NFL needs to make coaches and players understand that.

Everyone involved needs to know that violations of the rules will be punished through fines, suspensions, loss of future draft picks, and even forfeited games. No exceptions.

Coaches and players are short-term thinkers by nature. They know that preparation and winning the next game is crucial to their futures. So they need to be reminded that they will have no future if they put the sport at risk.

Step 5: Repeat steps 1-4 if another team has an outbreak similar to Tennessee's

Again, no one will care if the league has to push back the playoffs to make up regular-season games in January/February. Just move the playoffs to February/March and play the Super Bowl in March/April.

Every positive COVID-19 test is a risk. Any outbreaks that cross team lines should result in closing down for two weeks to figure out how best to keep things safe.

Summary

Just my two-cents worth. But I will say that the NFL ignores the widening outbreak at their own peril. No sport is immune. Hell, the U.S. Government can't even guarantee there won't be an outbreak in the White House!

Do the right thing, Roger Goodell. For once, finally do the right thing.

- Scott

Monday, October 5, 2020

Patriots Meltdown in KC, Lose 26-10

This is what "Patriots Football" meant before Bill Belichick arrived. The Patriots missed multiple opportunities against the Chiefs and came away 26-10 losers in a game that should have been much closer and probably could have been a win. The loss put them two full games back in the AFC East, the first time that's happened since week 7 of 2002. (Trivia question: name the team that led the division that week; answer below.) Next week the hapless Broncos come to town to face the suddenly hapless Patriots.

This has to be the most frustrating Patriots game since the loss to Philly in the Super Bowl. You remember, when Malcolm Butler stood on the sideline, only occasionally grabbing a fire extinguisher to put out yet another burned Patriots defensive back.

New England had multiple golden opportunities to stop KC, score more points, or turn momentum in their favor. They missed at least six such opportunities -- here they are.

Three missed opportunities on defense:

1. Devin McCourty dropped an easy INT on the first drive of the game. That would have likely disheartened the Chiefs a bit, but at the very least would have taken three KC points off the board.

2. Late in the game, J.C. Jackson missed an equally easy INT, a play that would have given the Patriots the ball, trailing by three points with plenty of time to score. After the mistake, the Chiefs scored a TD and made the game much tougher to win.

3. Earlier in the game, Chase Winovich strip-sacked Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, and the ball popped right into LB Shilique Calhoun's hands. But the referee's incorrectly ruled Mahomes down because he was "in the grasp" -- a ruling that was seen as incorrect by the CBS broadcast refereeing expert.

(Note: the play was not reviewable because "in the grasp" is a judgment call by the official and thus not subject to review.)

Three missed opportunities on offense:

1. As the first half drew to a close, the Patriots had the ball in easy field goal position, with the clock running and no timeouts. QB Brian Hoyer dropped back for one last pass attempt, but instead of throwing the ball away (to stop the clock), he took a sack -- apparently thinking he had one more timeout. This boneheaded play cost the Patriots three easy points.

2. Early in the second half, the Patriots again in easy field goal position, Hoyer stepped up in the pocket to avoid a sack and then somehow forgot about the guy who just rushed past him -- as he let the guy get back into the play for a strip-sack. KC recovered the fumble and the Patriots missed out on three more points.

3. Jarrett Stidham replaced Hoyer, and his quick-out went right through Julian Edelman's hands and was picked by KC and returned for a touchdown.

By my count, without those mistakes, the Patriots could have outscored the Chiefs 22-19. No way to know how the game would have turned had the Patriots made a few of those plays. But without them, it was only going to end badly.

Just for fun, here are three pieces of good news from the game:

1. We are probably done with the Brian Hoyer "era" for now. He overthrew almost every pass in the first half, had the two big situational gaffes, and can't do jack with his legs to help the team. For now it'll be Stidham, who threw a crisper ball and is at least a threat to run.

2. The running game is still very good: 185 yards and 5.3 ypc.

3. The defense continues to play excellent situational football. They are taking the ball away like they did last year. And their third-down play has been outstanding.

Note: the defense might be the most interesting part of the team, even with the improved rushing attack and Cam Newton at the helm. They seem to be calling the game differently; playing zone between the 20s and man-to-man closer to either goal line.

It's almost as if Belichick concedes teams will get yards between the 20s but that he will either turn them over or make them kick field goals when they get close to the end zone. It worked to perfection for almost three quarters last night. And without all the mistakes, the Pats could have had a large lead by that point.

Where does that leave us? In unfamiliar territory: 2-2 and looking up a the Bills. With Denver in town next week, a bye after that, and the injury-plagued 49ers after that, they have time to right the ship. Then it's off to Buffalo for a showdown with the Bills.

Biggest concern: The health and recovery of Cam Newton. With him the Pats are a threat to go deep into the playoffs. Without him, 10-6 is the ceiling, and that might not even get them to the post-season.

Non-QB MVP: Damien Harris led the team with 100 yards and ripped off a 41-yarder in a drive that led to their only touchdown.

Statistical oddity: In four games against the Patriots, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes averaged just 8.75 points in the first halves but 21.25 points in the second halves.

Water-cooler wisdom: "Steve Belichick is the outside linebackers coach? But the Patriots don't *use* any outside linebackers!'

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-2!

PS. Trivia answer: the Miami Dolphins led the AFC East with a 7-3 record in week 7 of the 2002 season. The Patriots were two games behind at 5-5 -- and they ended up missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker to the Jets.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Patriots Dispatch Raiders 36-20

The Pats took care of business, beating the visiting Raiders 36-10 at Gillette Stadium. The win kept them one game behind the 3-0 Bills in the division. Next up is a trip to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

If you'd never seen the Patriots under Bill Belichick, this was a clinic in how they won so much through the years. They didn't make critical mistakes, always took advantages of their opportunities, and waited for the other team to crumble under the pressure.

Las Vegas ran for 126 yards (5.7/carry) and their QB threw 2 TDs and 0 INTs for a rating of 119.4. Those stats might make you think they had a big day and won the game. But they lost three fumbles (including two by the QB), had too many penalties (6 total for 44 yards), and had three big special teams mistakes, including a killer missed field goal that would have tied the game in the second half.

On offense, it took a while for the Patriots to dump the run-pass-option plays, which were mostly stuffed early on. Once they started pitching to the outside and then doing quick-hitting inside runs, they took control of the clock and the game.

Rex Burkhead was the star of the game, running for 49 yards and 2 touchdowns and led the team with 7 catches for another 49 yards and 1 TD. Last week he was mediocre in the "James White" role, but with a week to prepare, he handled it a lot better.

The other running backs were no slouches, either. Sony Michel got 117 yards on just 9 carries (13 yards/carry) -- and he was very good on blitz-pickup. And rookie J.J. Taylor had 43 of his own on 11 carries. New England ran for 250 yards total, their second 200+ yard performance in three games.

Cam Newton was good, getting the Patriots into the right play repeatedly, although he did have a terrible interception. He was 17 of 28 for 162 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT (rating 73.8). Those are Tom Brady numbers... circa 2001, his first year as a Patriots starter.

Newton is developing nice chemistry with receivers N'Keal Harry and Damiere Byrd. But he does throw it downfield to covered receivers when there are receivers open for shorter gains. He threw into traffic twice and had that one really bad throw that was easily picked off.

The offensive line played great. The left tackle Isiah Wynn and fill-in left guard Mike Onwenu opened huge holes for the backs and most of the screen passes went that direction, too. The commentators pointed out that most of the snaps were under center (not shotgun), which probably owes Joe Thuney replacing the injured David Andrews at center.

The defense played well situationally, holding the Raiders to 3-of-9 conversions on third-down and forcing Las Vegas to settle for field goals early to keep the game close. The best example of that was after Newton's interception, when the Raiders got the ball at the Pats 14 yard line but had to settle for a field goal.

The secondary was up-and-down; sometimes with blanket coverage but giving up four passes of 20+ yards. The top three tacklers on the day were also from the secondary: Jonathan Jones (7), Adrian Phillips (7), and J.C. Jackson (6). And as a secondary, they knocked away 7 total passes and controlled one of the best receiving threats on the Raiders, Darren Waller

But Stephon Gilmore continues to struggle. It might be time to go back to last year's plan; man-up Gilmore on the opponents second best receiver and double-team their best receiver. Gilmore won the 2019 defensive player of the year, but he didn't take on the top receiver every week. The rules just don't allow a corner to shut down great receivers anymore; so it might be time to go back to the future in the secondary.

The defensive line held up well, especially doing a good job running sideline-to-sideline to cut off off-tackle runs. They sacked Derek Carr twice and recovered two fumbles -- one "returned" for a touchdown. Chase Winovich is playing great on the edge and Adam Butler is doing well stuffing the run inside.

The linebackers continue to be mostly invisible. Head coach Bill Belichick might have thought he could coach-up the young linebacking corps. But it's clear they simply lack the talent needed to cover the pass and are only serviceable against the run. Expect the Patriots to trade for at least one LB before the deadline.

Special teams were mostly very good. They kept the Raiders pinned back, only returned one kickoff they should have knelt on, and did a great job pushing Las Vegas on their last real possession -- when the defense sacked Carr in the end zone and recovered his fumble for a touchdown.

They did miss an extra point; but luckily it didn't come back to haunt them.

On the coaching front, offense coordinator Josh McDaniels excelled in his adjustments, coming up with a new plan when the initial one wasn't working. He called screen passes and outside runs to attack the Raiders both vertically and horizontally, and kept them off-balance the last three quarters of the game.

The only coaching hiccup was having to call three timeouts on defense in the second half. One was on the first play after they kicked off, and the last one was with 12:30 left in the game -- which meant they would not be able to challenge any really bad call on the field. No excuses; they need to do better and make sure the players know the personnel groupings so they don't make those mistakes.

Where does that leave us? 2-1 is good enough for now, and the game next week has they facing a Chiefs team that will be on a short week (just as the Raiders were this week). And after the next game, the "preseason" will be over and I'll write up my season preview :D

Biggest on-going problem: Line. Backer. See last week for details.

Non-QB MVP: Rex Burkhead went flying through the air and burrowing through small creases in the defense to be honored this week.

Statistical Oddity: As head coaches, Bill Belichick and Jon Gruden have only faced each other three times, and in those three games, Gruden's teams have scored fewer total points (33) than the Patriots scored yesterday (36). Probably goes without saying, Belichick is 3-0.

Water-cooler wisdom: "The Pats are building a strong team for the playoffs; tough defense and good running game."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-1!

Monday, September 21, 2020

Seahawks Outlast Patriots 35-30

The Patriots could not punch it in for the victory, falling 35-30 to the Seahawks. The loss leaves them one game back of the first-place Bills and one game ahead of the winless Bills and Jets. Next up the newly minted Las Vegas Raiders come to town for a 1:00 game at Gillette.

The Pats gave up way too many big plays in this game. The plan was obviously to let Seattle run the ball to keep it out of Russell Wilson's hands; but when Wilson threw, he killed them with long passes on a bunch of plays. And in the end, New England couldn't punch it in from the one yard-line as time expired, giving Seattle the win.

Four linebackers left in the off-season and it's starting to be a problem. Last night the Patriots started five defensive linemen and five defensive backs because the only linebacker they trusted was Ja'Whaun Bentley. Bentley at least has a few years in the system, but he is limited and has no pass-coverage skills at all.

Seattle torched them with short passes and a decent running game. And when the Pats brought players up to slow that down, Wilson hit three long bombs -- all for touchdowns. The Patriots gave up four total touchdowns to wide receivers last year; Seattle had that many last night.

The list of DBs who had decent games is short: Adrian Phillips and Devin McCourty. Phillips arrival from the Chargers reminds me of a past safety who did the same -- Rodney Harrison. It could be a move that pays off well. McCourty had a pick-six to start the scoring.

But Jason McCourty miss-timed his jump and gave up a long touchdown at the pylon. Jonathan Jones gave up a bunch of short stuff across the field. And our best corner, Stephon Gilmore, continued his slump, giving up multiple big plays to D.K. Metcalf.

On the D-line, they got pretty good pressure most of the game. And they even contained Wilson better than most teams. But probably not enough sacks (2) or forced throws given all the pressure, and most definitely not enough run stopping given that they had five men on the line all night.

The Patriots started slowly on offense; trying to establish the run against the fast Seattle D. They were tied at the half mostly because of McCourty's pick-six. But as the game wore on, they let QB Cam Newton throw more often, and usually with greater success.

Newton threw his first pick as Patriots QB, but he also threw for 397 yards and a touchdown (and ran for 47 yards and two additional TDs). He's getting more comfortable with the offense but still needs to learn when to audible to a new play. Some key third downs he didn't change up the play and it force Patriots punts.

Additionally, Newton's ability to extend plays has led to more long passes. In fact, Julian Edelman set a career high with 179 yards but on only 8 catches. Receiver N'Keal Harry got involved, too, with 8 grabs for 72 yards, and supposed #2 receiver Damiere Byrd had 6 catches for 72 of his own.

It's good to see chemistry developing between the QB and receivers other than Edelman. That was always hard when TB12 was here; but with Newton extending plays and giving his receivers a chance, they appear to be building something.

Special teams were just plain odd. For some reason the Patriots kept returning kickoffs out of the end zone, even though they got past the 25 yard-line only once (and then only to the 28). They also appeared to be trying to make Seattle return kickoffs, even though they returned an early one to the 43 yard-line.

They also had Nick Folk try an ill-advised 51-yard field goal (way wide left). And they went for the all-out block near the end of the half (and didn't get close) instead of setting up a return and at least trying to score. I will say that punt was a beauty, dying at the Pats 1 yard-line and forcing them to kneel to end the half.

Most of the coaching decisions were good; except maybe the initial offensive game plan and those odd ideas in the kicking game. Turns out that Steve Belichick is indeed calling the plays from the sideline, so he is the de facto defensive coordinator.

Also, on the last play of the game, they ran the same formation and motion they'd done three other times in the game. One that last play, it made sense to go with something new or to run something different out of that formation. But they plowed toward the left, where 8 Patriots met 10 Seahawks -- with predictable results.

(My suggestion would have been run that same play but have Newton jab-step left and then run around right end. There was only one player there to beat and he was being blocked by the tight end.)

So where does that leave us? This loss was likely expected; Seattle is that good -- but it was a golden opportunity to take a game when they could surprise a team early in the year. 1-1 and looking up at Buffalo isn't great; but I suspect the Bills will come back to earth before the season is out.

Biggest on-going issue: it's a tie between the on-going kicker issues and the lack of linebackers. Can they call Tedy Bruschi to see if he can come out of retirement?

Statistical oddity: I've watched thousands of NFL games, but this is the first time I've seen a team play a 5-1-5 defense regularly. Seattle almost never had to identify the "Mike" linebacker because there was usually only one on the field! 

Water-cooler wisdom: "Tonight when Belichick said: 'Seattle just made a few more plays than us' it was actually true."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-1!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Patriots Outlast Dolphins 21-11

The Patriots mostly dominated the Dolphins, finishing with a 21-11 win over their AFC East rivals. Their 1-0 record puts them in a first-place tie with Buffalo for the division lead. Next week they travel to Seattle for an 8:30pm kick against Seahawks in what will undoubtedly be a much quieter CenturyLink Field.

This game wasn't really as close as the final score indicated. The defense started off almost as dominant as they did last year, picking off Miami QB Ryan Fitzpatrick three times and holding the Dolphins to 3.2 yards per rush and only one pass over 20 yards for the entire game.

If not for a N'Keal Harry fumble into the Miami end zone (which resulted in loss of possession and a touchback for the Dolphins), the game would have been a huge blowout.

New QB Cam Newton had an impressive debut. He led the team in rushing (75 yards and 2 touchdowns) and completed 15 of 19 passes (79%) for 155 yards and a QB rating of 100.7. He's still learning the offense, as several times he didn't get the team out of bad plays.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels used Newton's running ability to implement run-pass-option plays and even had a nifty play where RB James White went in motion and then curled around at the snap to run the actual Option play with Newton. Newton should get even better as he learns the offense, and no doubt McDaniels has more tricks up his sleeve.

One caveat: Newton came up limping after his last run of the day -- an ill-advised attempt at a first down to ice the game when it was already well in hand. The Patriots need to protect him late in games. The drop-off from Newton to either Jarred Stidham or Brian Hoyer is pretty steep.

The Patriots running game looked good, with veterans Sony Michel (37 yards and a TD) and Rex Burkhead (32 yards) doing the most work among running backs. I was impressed with the explosion of rookie J.J. Taylor out of Arizona. If he becomes comfortable with the pass protection schemes, he could help reduce the load on White.

The receivers had an off day. Old reliable Julian Edelman led with 5 catches for 57 yards, but he dropped an easy grab on the first drive, which ultimately led to a punt. Second-year man Harry had five catches of his own, but his fumble turned what could have been a 21-3 lead into a 14-11 tight game. At least Harry had some catches, and with Newton's ability to extend plays, Harry could have a big season.

The O-line was good, no huge mistakes and only showed some cracks when Miami overloaded the line with 8+ defenders. Guard Joe Thuney played well and it was great to see center David Andrews back after a career-threatening clot problem cost him all of the 2019 campaign.

On defense, the secondary impressed as you might expect. They are by far the strongest part of the entire team. Three interceptions, one each from Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and free agent signee Adrian Phillips (over from the L.A. Chargers), who also led the team with 9 tackles. The commentators mentioned often how few open receivers there were, and the depth was on display in four different players had passes knocked down.

Gilmore did have two pass interference calls, and the team had one other, too. And safety Devin McCourty looked just a hair late twice on passes he could have broken up or intercepted. In fact, the safety play wasn't great, as Terrence Brooks was called for the other P.I. penalty. Next week the Patriots play against Pete Carroll, who would probably say the secondary has to "clean it up."

Given that the Patriots list Chase Winovich as a defensive end, the linebackers were completely nondescript in this game. Ja'Whaun Bentley ended up with five tackles and Brandon Copeland had three, but not much to distinguish them. The Pats started the game with five DBs and two LBs (as predicted by yours truly), which owes to their lack of talent among the 'Backers.

The D-line did a great job stuffing the Dolphins running game. Winovich, Derek Rivers, and John Simon all had tackles for a loss, and they kept good pressure on the QB, with five QB hits and a sack.

Justin Bethel made the play of the day on special teams. Punter Jake Bailey outkicked his coverage a bit with a 55-yarder, but Bethel beat his man on the outside and made the return man change directions twice, and ultimately the rest of the coverage team tackled him for a three-yard loss. That drive ended with another Fitzpatrick interception.

Bailey was great, kicking off and punting. Kicker Nick Folk missed his only attempt at a field goal (but was perfect on extra points.). The Pats could really use a kicker like Stephen Gostkowski, but he signed with Tennessee a few weeks back.

On the coaching front, it was interesting to see how McDaniels integrated Newton's skills to diversify the attack. The defensive gameplan on Sunday is what the Pats needed last December 29 to secure a first-round playoff bye. They stuffed the run and then let Fitzpatrick become Fitzpatrick, a risk-taker who is good for two or three INTs per game.

Where does that leave us? In this year, I'll take a division victory with enough stuff for Belichick to correct for next week. The game in Seattle will be a lot different without the crowd noise. And at least they'll have one week of film to study before that one.

Biggest On-going Issue: It's still kicker; the team has to figure that out or commit to going for fourth downs and two-point conversions.

Statistical Oddity: Including yesterday the last three games the Pats rushed for over 200 yards are against each of their division rivals: 215 against the Jets (11/25/2018), 273 against the Bills (12/23/2018), and 217 yesterday.

Bonus Oddity: Newton's 75 yards rushing on Sunday are more yards than Tom Brady rushed in any season since 2012.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The win is most important, but to see how well the offense played was impressive."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Friday, September 11, 2020

Patriots 2020 Season Preview

Happy September everyone, hope you have been doing well and surviving the end-of-times here on Planet Earth!

It's that time of year; when we distract ourselves from our inevitable slide toward doom by obsessing over millionaires fighting on a 120x53-yard gridiron. In other words, bring on the 2020 NFL regular season 🏈🏈😎

Unlike past years, I have not kept a close eye on the Patriots off-season. Nor have I attended any practices. Nor have I been able to watch any pre-season games. The culprit was COVID-19, which disrupted the world enough to cost me the first one and was the literal cause of the second two.

Given that, I feel uniquely unqualified to assess where the Patriots stand, how the team is put together, how it will do, and where it will finish this season. In fact, I'm the guy who thought Cam Newton might not even make the team; so you'd have to take any predictions with a truckload of salt.

So I'm taking an oft-reported page out of Bill Belichick's books -- I'm treating the first four game of the year like the pre-season. That would make this sort of my like my annual Pre-Season Previews, where I give you some things I'll be watching for in the next four games.

Once I've had a chance to see four contests, assuming they have that many, I'll analyze how I expect the Patriots to do for the remainder of the year.

Fair enough? Yes?

Okay, with that in mind, here we go!

Offense

Departures:

  • QB Tom Brady
  • TE Rob Gronkowski (unretired and traded)
  • T Marcus Cannon (opt-out)
  • RB Brandon Bolden (opt-out)
  • FB James Develin
  • TE Matt LaCosse (opt-out)

Arrivals:

  • QB Cam Newton
  • C David Andrews
  • And a bunch of guys you never heard of

The GOAT is gone, long live the GOAT.

I wouldn't call Cam Newton a replacement for TB12; he's a much different quarterback than Brady. Newton is reportedly healthy and has developed some chemistry with WR Julian Edelman. What he brings is the ability to extend plays with his feet, more running ability, and the motivation of a one-year deal that could net him a nine-figure contract if he plays well.

This "pre-season" I'll be looking for whether the Pats changed their offense to use Newton's talents or if they tried to work Newton into their 2019 offense. If you see more extended plays and deep passes, then this is Newton's offense. If not, it will be business as usual.

It'll also be interesting to see if the Patriots run the ball more. They loaded up with running backs, have a new FB in place, their 2018 starting center returned. With Newton could work read-option into the mix. The Patriots offense passed 58% of the time last year; keep an eye on whether that percentage goes higher or lower.

Defense

Departures:

  • LB Dont'a Hightower (opt-out)
  • LB Kyle Van Noy
  • LB Jamie Collins
  • LB Elandon Roberts
  • DT Danny Shelton
  • S Duron Harmon
  • S Patrick Chung (opt-out)

Arrivals:

  • A bunch of guys you never heard of

It's a tough off-season when your four best linebackers aren't on the roster the next year. Especially when you sometimes only play three or four in an entire game. Ja'Whaun Bentley showed real ability and a good knowledge of the defense -- but that was two years ago, before an injury cost him one season and better players cost him another.

Bentley will wear the green-dot helmet, so he'll be calling the defense. I'll be watching for blown assignments or pre-snap confusion to see if Bentley can handle the pressure.

The Pats defensive strength is clearly their secondary, which ranks among the best in the NFL. Given their weakness and inexperience at linebacker, I wonder if they will play more five- six- or even seven-man backfields during the season. I'll pay attention to the starting lineups each game, checking to see how many defensive backs are on the field to start the game.

Special Teams

Departures:

  • K Stephen Gostkowski
  • K Nick Folk (on the practice squad)
Arrivals
  • None

Does this glaring omission on the Pats depth chart worry anyone else?


My suspicion is that Folk will be promoted from the practice squad to kick field goals until a permanent replacement can be found. However, it would not shock me to see the Patriots go without a field goal kicker in a few 2020 games. Punter Jake Bailey kicked off most of last year and will likely do the same this year. With the running game and Newton's skills, the Pats might just go for two points more often.

Coaching

Departures:

  • Dante Scarnecchia (offensive line)
  • Joe Judge (special teams)

Arrivals:

  • Troy Brown (running backs and kick returners)

There have been some shifting of roles, but no matter what the team does, they'll have a really hard time replacing Dante Scarnecchia. He was a magician with the offensive line. And for two decades, Bill Belichick spent less money and draft capital on the O-line, dedicating those resources to other places, precisely because "Scar" could make chicken salad out of chicken feathers year after year.

The other thing of note is that with Bentley being the defensive signal caller, Jerod Mayo will likely be the de facto defensive coordinator. He seemed to split those chores with safeties coach Steve Belichick in 2019. But now that the green dot will be firmly affixed to a LB's helmet, it should be Mayo.

Summary

This year reminds me a lot of 2001. Lots of new players and tons of free agents in and out all off-season. I suspect Bill Belichick is excited to show his coaching chops once again. And given his history, the team will mostly likely be playing better toward the end of the year.

With the uncertainty and all the new players, don't expect a 4-1 or 7-2 start to the season. But then again, I'm not predicting, right 😂

Biggest On-going Issue: Uncertainty in the kicking game. The team had the entire training camp to make sure the linebackers know the defense and Cam Newton knows the offense. But not having a field goal kicker? They need to fix that soon.

Statistical Oddity: Other than Bill Belichick, only one other current NFL head coach has won more than one Super Bowl as a head coach. Only one. (Trivia question: can you name that head coach? Answer below.)

Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats performance will be one thing that's better in 2020 than it was in 1990." (Credit to Al the Weather God)

Keep the faith and enjoy the beginning of the season!

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

PPS. Trivia answer:

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Mike Tomlin has two Super Bowl victories. Among current NFL coaches, only he and Belichick have more than one.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Patriots 2019 Regular Season Awards

Sorry this is late, but the season ended abruptly, they missed the playoff Bye, and I had a vacation and the flu to slow me down the last week+.

But in any event, it's time to look back on the 2019 season and honor the most valuable, most improved, and best newcomers in each of the three phases of the game.

Here goes...

Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: Julian Edelman

Brady wins this honor by default because no one else played very well this year. And despite all the media consternation about Brady's attitude and lack of off-season team-related prep, the simple fact is that without TB12, the Patriots would have probably gone 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

If you think of those close games they won: one-score victories over Buffalo (twice), the Eagles, and the Cowboys, it's pretty easy to see them dropping from 12-4 to 8-8 without Brady's over-60% completions and 3-to-1 TD-to-Interception ratio. I for one never take this for granted. For context, check with the folks in Tampa Bay or Cleveland.

Even in a down year, Edelman was the cog that made the Patriots offense run, when it ran, that is. He only started 13 games, but even not playing as much he totaled 100 catches for 1117 yards and 6 touchdowns. But perhaps most important were his 54 first downs -- keeping the chains moving and the team on the field.

Most Improved Offensive Player: Joe Thuney
Honorable Mention: Rex Burkhead

I'm going mostly on reputation and film nerds here. Thuney has started every game for the Patriots for four years: 64 out of 64, plus the playoffs. And Pro Football Focus had him rated the third-best guard in the entire NFL. He'll likely be gone in free agency, but this was a chance to honor him before he left.

Burkhead played in more games this year (13, versus 8 last year), improved his yards-per-carry (from 3.3 to 4.6), and had almost twice as many catches (27 versus 14). His durability was up, and so were his numbers. And I'd add that he was much more integral to the offense at points this year; whereas he was always an afterthought in the past.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Elandon Roberts
Honorable Mention: none

When blocking back James Develin went down for the year, it took a few weeks but the Patriots eventually replaced him with linebacker Elandon Roberts. Roberts mostly did a very good job blocking, and even had a touchdown reception (and a nice catch at that).

Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Stephon Gilmore
Honorable Mention: Kyle Van Noy and Lawrence Guy

Gilmore is a defensive player of the year candidate for the entire NFL, so it stands to reason he'd win this for the team. His 20 passes defended and 6 interceptions led the team, he had two returns for touchdown, and his 44 tackles ranked fourth on the team.

Van Noy and Jamie Collins transformed the linebacking core into a real strength this year, but Collins couldn't sustain it for the entire year. Van Noy finished with 41 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 3 fumble recoveries.

Of the defensive linemen, Guy was the most consistently impactful on the game. Sometimes it's hard to tease out which lineman played the best. But Guy's 35 tackles and 3 sacks are actually very good for a defensive lineman in the Patriots scheme.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Van Noy
Honorable Mention: Jason McCourty

Van Noy for all the reasons listed above.

McCourty because you saw what happened to the defense when he got injured late in the year. He was their second-best corner most of the season, and when he went down, the D started to give up more big plays and points. In the games he played over 10% of the snaps, the team gave up 10.8ppg. In the other six games, they gave up 19.5ppg.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Jamie Collins
Honorable Mention: Chase Winovich

Collins shot out of the gate like a rocket, dominating enough that *he* was the one in the conversation for defensive player of the year early on. In the first eight games, he had 6 sacks, 4 passes defended, 3 interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), and 2 forced fumbles. I wish he would consider coming back, but reports are he'll be one-and-done, taking the biggest free agent deal he gets on the open market this Spring.

Winovich's 17 tackles and 5.5 sacks, along with his never-quit motor, earned him a lot of respect on the team and around the league. By season's end, he was occasionally being double-teamed -- a sign that respect for him was growing around the league.

Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Jake Bailey
Honorable Mention: Matthew Slater 

The Patriots made a tough call when they cut long-time punter Ryan Allen, who was my MVP of Super Bowl LIII just a few months before being let go. It paid off handsomely. Rookie Jake Bailey placed second in the NFL in punts downed inside the 20 yard-line, and he was an actual weapon in the field-position game.

He also took over kickoff duties when Stephen Gostkowski went down with injury. And aside from three kick out of bounds, he was mostly flawless there. In a year when a touchback gave teams the ball at the 25 yard-line, Bailey gave up an average starting position of the 19.5 yard-line. He even booted a perfect onside kick in the KC game that could have given the Pats a shot at a win. (Unfortunately, it bounced off Brandon Bolden's hands and out of bounds.)

Slater's running mate Brandon King missed the entire season with a quad injury. And early in the year, Slater looked like he was trying too hard, and he made several mistakes because of it. But he got his bearings back and was just as dominant the second half of the season as he'd ever been.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Joe Cardona
Honorable Mention: Coach Joe Judge

Long-snapper Cardona was picture-perfect this season. I don't remember a single bad snap, though I do recall several bad holds by Bailey. This was after Cardona was a liability during the Patriots 2017/18 playoff run. He had three bad snaps against Tennessee and messed one up in the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles.

I don't have notes on 2018 year, but my recollection is that he wasn't quite right in that season, either. However, nary a bad snap was seen this year, even though he had to work with a new punter and four different field goal kickers.

Usually this space is reserved for players. But Joe Judge was something very special this year, so I thought he merited inclusion. The Patriots blocked a franchise-record 4 punts, the most by any NFL team since 2014. He also had to integrate a new punter, teach that punter to kickoff, and go through four different field goal kickers.

His performance got him the gig as head coach of the Giants. Not a bad promotion from a guy I've called "overmatched" in previous years.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Jake Bailey
Honorable Mention: Justin Bethel

Bailey for all the reason mentioned earlier.

Bethel was cut by the Ravens mid-season. The Patriots scooped him up off waivers and he was as good as Slater the rest of the year. The two were quite the dynamic duo, bringing back memories of how Slater and King would go back-and-forth for the team lead in special teams tackles.

Summary

That is about it. Next year's entry should be a dandy -- looks like an absolute ton of turnover this off-season. And maybe we'll have to retire the "Non-Brady MVP" award, depending on what TB12 decides to do.

Statistical Oddity: One week after he was cut by Baltimore, Bethel recovered a punt that was fumbled by those same Ravens in the Patriots loss to that team. The fumbling player... Cyrus Jones, who was drafted by the Patriots. It really is a small NFL world.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Monday, January 6, 2020

Wild Card Weekend Wild Stat

I know Belichick preaches that his defense stay back and make sure they don't get beaten on big passing plays. But when he coaches Wild Card weekend, he might want to change his tune.

Here are the total stats for the last two games he coached the first weekend of the playoffs:


Starting Quarterbacks (Joe Flacco and Ryan Tannehill):
12 of 25 for 106 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions, and a 39.75 QB rating

Starting Running Backs:
56 rushes for 341 yards and 3 touchdowns

I think the running backs did more damage than the quarterbacks on both occasions.

- Scott

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Patriots Fall To Titans 20-13, Exit Playoffs

The Patriots lost for the second straight week at home with playoff implications on the line. The last time that happened under Bill Belichick was never. Last night the Tennessee Titans handed them a 20-13 loss, and it will be the Titans advancing to the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The loss knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs and leaves them with a lot of soul-searching this off-season.

The maddening thing about Pats playoff losses is that they are always close. When you get blown out, you can just write it off as "not your day." But when you lose by one score or less, every mistake, every unlucky bounce, every single play can be micro-analyzed for its impact on the point differential.

So of course, that's what I'm going to do. The Pats gave up a ton of rushing yards, the punting game was unimpressive, and the offense sputtered. But the loss came down to killer mistakes on a few plays, and I'll list the ones I thought were the most impactful here.

Killer Mistake #1: Josh McDaniels play-calling on short yardage

On first-and-goal from the Titans 1-yard-line, McDaniels called for a heavy formation with everyone in tight and called three straight runs without any misdirection. It's football 101 that you can't do that unless you have a dominant offensive line or the other team is weak on the D-line. A touchdown there would have put the Pats up by 10, and maybe Tennessee would have leaned more heavily on QB Ryan Tannehill -- which would have played right into the Pats hands. The field goal they got didn't do enough to change the Titans game plan.

This wasn't McDaniels' only bad call though. Nearly every time they brought in Elandon Roberts to block, it was a run that followed Roberts. By the third quarter, the Titans were flooding those gaps with safeties, which left them singled-up on receivers all over the field. Where was the play-action on those plays? How about sending Roberts left and running right?

McDaniels wasn't bad all day long. His screen-pass calls were well-timed and mostly successful. But on short yardage, here is how it went:


  • Runs from running formation: 7 plays for minus-1 yards (0 first downs)
  • Run from pass formation: 1 play for 14 yards (1 first down)
  • Passes: 3-of-5 for 32 yards (3 first downs)

That "minus-1 yards" is not a misprint. Maybe McDaniels would like to have this game back.

Killer Mistake #2: Shaq Mason illegally downfield

Patriots first possession of the second half, they drove from their own 13 to the 37 yard-line. On third-and-10, Brady bought time in the pocket and found an uncovered Ben Watson for a 38-yard gain to the Titans 25. The Pats were moving the ball and in business, ready to score and take the lead.

Wait... flag on the play. Inexplicably, Shaq Mason wandered downfield instead of staying back to protect Brady. That five-yard penalty that cost the Patriots 43 yards and a first down. Next play was a screen that lost 4 yards and the Patriots punted.

I heard some analysis saying that Mason might have thought Brady was running or that he was trying to block his guy too aggressively. Bullshit. He had absolutely no business going downfield on a pass play unless he knew the quarterback was running. It's the second thing they teach you as an offensive lineman -- right after they show you how to get away with holding :D

This was a huge brain-cramp by Mason. By and large he had an excellent year. But in this critical moment, he cost the team points in a game they eventually were going to lose by a single point (the garbage-time pick-six notwithstanding).

Killer Mistake #3: Not scoring after the INT

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Tannehill was pressured and threw the most Ryan Tannehill of interceptions -- a big lob ball that was easily picked by safety Duron Harmon at the Patriots 41 yard-line. Still in a one-point game, all the Pats needed was about 30 yards to attempt a field goal for the lead.

Two plays later, the Patriots even got bailed out with a defensive holding, giving them a free five yards and a first down instead leaving them with third-and-10. And things looked promising when they gained four and then three yards on the next two plays.

But a short pass to Dorsett fell incomplete, leaving them to contemplate whether to punt on fourth down. Ultimately they tried the punt to pin the Titans deep, but Jake Bailey's kick sailed directly into the end zone for a touchback (net of 26 yards).

Not sure if I disagree with the punt. But I think the better scenario was to spread the field and run the ball on third down and gain a few yards, to give yourself either a first down or a chance on fourth down.

And not to pile on McDaniels, but that situation called for emptying the playbook. Whatever play you had in your back pocket, it was time to call it. The misdirection screen, a Jet Sweep, play-action QB draw, Statue of Liberty -- any play that gets you 10 more yards and a shot at a field goal. I know they have a section on the playsheet with high-confidence calls. All three of these downs should have come from that section. Period.

Killer Mistake #4: Julian Edelman's dropped pass

With 3:26 left in the game and the Patriots at their own 37 yard-line (why was it always the 37?), they faced a second-and-four. Brady took the snap and threw a perfect pass to Julian Edelman for an easy first down. But Edelman looked to run before he secure the ball and he dropped the pass.

Edelman has had more drops this year than in past years, and that is likely a result of all the wear and tear on his body through the years. But they really needed him to catch that one. A first down there and the Titans would have started to tighten up and the game would be moving in the Patriots favor.

But after Edelman's drop, a pass to Phillip Dorsett fell incomplete and the Patriots punted. It would be their last meaningful possession of the game, because of the next Killer Mistake...

Killer Mistake #5: Allowing Derrick Henry to run late

Henry ran wild all day, ending the game with 34 carries for 182 yards (5.4 average) and a touchdown. By and large, the Patriots seemed okay with that. And it worked for most of the game; the Patriots only gave up 14 points and were in position where a single score would win them the game.

But after their final punt was downed at the Tennessee 13, it was time to bring up a safety and/or corner to make sure Henry didn't get a first down. With 3:10 on the clock and the Pats holding 3 timeouts, if they stoned the Titans on three straight downs, they would have gotten the ball back with 2:30 or so, plenty of time to drive for a winning field goal.

But Henry gained 2 yards, 5 yards, 11 yards and a first down, and then the Patriots loaded up the box to stop him. That came too late, as stopping them at that point only left the Pats with 15 seconds on the clock.

The smarter move would be to run-blitz the entire possession and if it was a pass have those players get to the QB. Their talented secondary should have been able to hold up for 1.5 seconds a play, and it also would have increased the chances of another Tannehill pick. Sitting back just allowed another 2:00 to vaporize.

One additional but not quite "Killer" mistake: the decision not to field the final punt

Please tell me that Belichick didn't sign-off to have no returner on the last punt of the game. Sure the game was pretty much over, but they tried this earlier in the season and the same thing happened. The ball bounced short and rolled deep into the Patriots end, and it took precious seconds off the clock.

Last night, the ball landed at the 25 yard-line with about 20 seconds left. By the time it was downed, it was at the 1 yard-line with 15 seconds left. Gaining 45 yards in 20 seconds is a lot more likely than gaining 69 yards in 15 seconds.

I'd like to think special teams coach Joe Judge made that decision. But I fear it's another mistake by Belichick in the "game operations" realm -- and he's had way too many of those this year compared to previous years.

Other General Problems:

1. Jake Bailey chose a bad day to have his worst performance of the year. He shanked one kick. But on four others he had two downed inside the 20 and two go into the end zone. His counterpart on the Titans, Brett Kern, had four downed inside the 20 and zero go into the end zone.

2. James White ran once for 14 yards and never again in the game. This despite the Patriots known pattern of running when Sony Michel was in the game and passing when White was in the game. Going against this tendency had worked recently, and it worked last night. It should have been used more.

3. Giving up 182 yards to Henry was unacceptable. He had 75 yards on six carries on one of the Titans' touchdown drives, for crying out loud! Make some adjustments, beat your blockers, and get this guy on the ground!

4. After Patrick Chung went out with an injury, backup safety Terrence Brooks was involved two significant plays. He gave up a touchdown and allowed a first-down on Tennessee's final possession. Blech :(

One Last Point

I've heard some in the media blame the defense for the loss. They claim that their inability to stop Henry was more problematic than the offensive futility.

Puh-lease with that crap. If your defense gives up 14 points in a home playoff game, you should win. Hell, the Buffalo Bills with their extremely limited quarterback, even they scored 19 on the road yesterday.

The loss is squarely on the offense. If BB, TB12, and JE11 come back next year, they'll have to fix that side of the ball.

Where does that leave us? Pondering a longer off-season, perhaps enjoying some playoff football where we don't have a dog in the race, and wondering when we'll find out if TB12 is about to bolt -- maybe even to the Bolts. Enjoy the time off, it's not often you get to relax in January :D

Statistical Oddity: The last two times New England played on Wild Card weekend, Ray Rice ran for 159 yards and Derrick Henry ran for 182 yards. In between those contests, the Patriots played 22 playoff games and allowed just two other 100-yard rushers (Trivia question: can you name either, or both, of the other 100-yard rushers in those games? Hint: the Patriots won both games. Answer below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "Playoff losses are always so abrupt, but Tennessee was the better team on Saturday."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-5 & 0-1... :(

PPS. Trivia answer:
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The Ravens' Justin Forsett ran for 129 yards in the AFC Championship Game in January of 2015, and the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch ran for 102 in the next game, Super Bowl XLIX. Interestingly, both games ended with late interceptions to seal the victories.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Patriots vs. Titans Playoff Preview

So it's just a few days until the Patriots take on the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. The game feels like a bit of a tossup, with the Pats favored by just 4.5 points at home (which makes them a 1.5-point fave on a neutral field). However, fivethirtyeight.com gives the Patriots a 69% chance of coming out with a win.

I'd usually look at the last game the teams played and try to determine if enough had changed to alter the outcome. But even though they last suited up against each other just 14 months ago, so much has changed that that tilt (November 11, 2018) will have little bearing on how this game goes.

So here is my best attempt to put together how the teams will attack each other and which team has specific advantages in particular areas of play.

When The Titans Have The Ball

The Titans are pretty well-suited to attack the Patriots defense. Most teams that had success against the Pats either ran the ball well or threw shorter passes to tight ends and running backs. Teams with lots of deep-receiving talent have largely been shut down.

Tennessee's running game is stout, led by RB Derrick Henry's 1,540 yards on 303 carries (5.1 yards per carry), and his very impressive 16 rushing TDs. The next most productive back was old friend Dion Lewis, but his stats (54 for 209 yards and 0 TDs) pale in comparison to Henry.

The Titans are clearly a one-back team. The problem is that Henry doesn't often make people miss, he is more of a downhill/yards-after-contact type of runner. And the Patriots usually clog the middle and are very sure tacklers this year. If the game stays close and the Titans stay committed to the run, Henry versus the run defense could become an epic battle of wills.

In the passing game, the Titans have the speed burner, A.J. Brown, but he will likely be neutralized by the Pats talented secondary and/or scheming. The danger for the local-11 is when they throw to Lewis (25 catches for 164 yards) or tight ends Jonnu Smith (35 for 439) and Anthony Firkser (14 for 205).

(Note: injured tight end Delanie Walker is a big loss for Tennessee. But unknown tight ends have had career days going against Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower. So don't assume Walker's absence will make the tight ends ineffective.)

Despite improvements in the secondary and disciplined play along the line, the Patriots linebackers are still vulnerable when attacked through the air. Brown might be the show-stopper, but the tight ends and backs will have to keep the chains moving if the Titans expect to win.

When The Patriots Have The Ball

This matchup isn't half-bad for the Patriots. Tennessee plays nickel as their base defense and usually brings one linebacker to rush four at the passer. Behind the line, they play a vanilla zone, which is a defense that Pats QB Tom Brady has traditionally destroyed.

The Titans are near the bottom of the league when it comes to pressuring the passer. They blitz just 24.8% of the time (21st in the league) and get pressure just 21.2% of the time (25th). The odd thing is that in 2018, they blitzed the 9th-most, which seems to indicate they've become more conservative on defense. They will occasionally throw in a corner blitz; old friend cornerback Logan Ryan is fourth on the team with 4.5 sacks this season.

This style of play has not helped the secondary. Ryan allowed 66% completions on the passes thrown his way and gave up 5 touchdowns. And star Safety Kevin Byard dropped off from last year, too, allowing 57% completions and 3 touchdowns (versus 50% and 1 TD last year). Additionally, both have been targeted more, with Ryan's targets increasing an astonishing 61% (from 64 last year to 103 this year!).

Brady should have plenty of time to read the defense and choose the right receiver. In fact, with Tennessee's lack of pressure, he could have enough time to let receivers get open before throwing it -- something he hasn't always had in the past when he would throw to a spot and trust the receiver to be there.

The New England receiving corps isn't as great this year as it has been in the past. But this opponent seems tailor-made for Julian Edelman and James White to attack short and Phillip Dorsett and N'Keal Harry to attack deep.

Tennessee should be stouter against the run. They gave up just 4.0 yards per carry this year (ranking them 7th), and the Patriots gained just 3.8 yards per carry (ranking them 25th).

Expect the Patriots to soften up the defense with short throws, and then use the running game effectively. Don't expect them to lineup and run it down the Titans throats, it won't be happening.

Special Teams

As great as Patriots rookie Jake Bailey has kicked, Titans punter Brett Kern was even better this year. So no great advantage there.

And believe it or not, as we enter the playoffs the Patriots field goal game is in much steadier hands! Nick Folk successfully made 14 of 17 field goals (84%) and 12 of 12 extra points (I'll let you do the math on that). The Titans current kicker, Greg Joseph, hasn't attempted a field goal this season. He's been with Tennessee two games and has only tried extra points (of which he has made them all).

Neither team has particularly dynamic returners in the punt or kickoff game. Though the Patriots kick coverage teams are annually among the best in the NFL.

One place where the 2019 Patriots have excelled is in finding ways to block kicks. Special teams coach Joe Judge has done an amazing job identifying weak spots in opposing blocking schemes. And the Patriots have blocked four punts this year, returning two of them for touchdowns.

Coaching

The 2018 game was former player Mike Vrabel's chance to show his stuff to his former head coach, Bill Belichick. And that has happened quite a bit, where a new head coach that was formerly associated with Belichick will clip him the first time.

But now that Vrabel's team has played two full seasons in his system, no doubt Belichick knows how to attack it, both offensively and defensively. The question is whether he has the horses on either side of the ball.

Quick Hits

1. Though Lewis might seem like a threat in the passing game, he has averaged exactly one reception per game in the last seven contests in which he played. He has 25 grabs on the year, but most of them came early on.

2. For some reason the Titans kickoff short and force teams to return the ball. That's probably a smart strategy against the Patriots, because running back Brandon Bolden isn't exactly Cordarrelle Patterson back there.

3. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has thrown 11 interceptions in 11 games against the Patriots. And some of those Pats teams fielded awful secondaries. He will need to be careful with the ball against this Pats team -- they have three players near the top of the NFL in interceptions.

Note: for all the consternation about the man Tannehill replaced, Marcus Mariota, Mariota has a lower interception rate (1.3%) than Tannehill (2.1%) this year.

4. No one would mistake Tannehill for Lamar Jackson, but the Patriots need to keep the Titans QB in the pocket. He's rushed 43 times for 185 yards (4.3ypc) and 4 touchdowns this year. And in a one-game elimination, all he'd need to do is make two or three plays with his feet to keep drives going.

Summary

If the Titans play their standard defense, the Pats should put up points. So the game will come down to how well the Patriots defense plays. Tannehill does better against zone-coverage, and the Patriots don't play much of that. So it would seem to lean in their favor.

However, Derrick Henry is the X-factor. If the Pats can't contain him with their front-seven, bringing extra players to stop him will make them vulnerable to the pass -- especially play-action passes. They'll need to read their keys and rally to the ball when it's a run. When it's a pass, they should be good enough to make Ryan Tannehill look like the player we all knew and loved-to-play when he was in Miami.

Statistical oddity that will likely never be repeated: The only two teams to use four field goal kickers this year meet in the playoffs -- that's right, your New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-4 & 0-0!