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:
V
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V
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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!