Sunday, November 29, 2020

Patriots Squeeze Past Cardinals 20-17

The Patriots held on for a 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at Gillette Stadium. The win put them at 5-6, still a full three-games behind the victorious Bills. Next up is a multi-day trip to Los Angeles, to take on the Chargers this weekend and the Rams the following Thursday night.

New England dominated special teams and played excellent situational defense. Most years that would have been enough for a blowout win. But with the sputtering offense, the Pats had to hold on in a game they normally would have dominated. It was a good win, but doesn't really give one a lot of hope for the season.

Special teams had four important plays:

  1. Punter Jake Bailey booted a perfect punt that landed at the one yard-line and was downed at the three.
  2. Donte Moncrief returned a kickoff 53 yards to setup a short field on the Patriots first touchdown.
  3. Gunner Olszewski returned a punt 58 yards to setup the Patriots game-tying field goal in the third quarter. (Note: it should have been a touchdown return, but for a bogus penalty call.)
  4. Nick Folk kicked a 50-yard field goal to win the game as time expired.
In addition, gunner Justin Bethel stopped a guy cold on a punt that outkicked its coverage, and Bailey's kickoffs consistently came down at the one-yard line, forcing AZ to return the ball. (Not that I love that strategy, but apparently the Patriots coaches do -- so, well-executed, young man!)

Conversely, Arizona didn't get much out of their special teams. In fact, their kicker missed a potential game-winning field goal with 1:47 left in the game. This phase of the game was a complete mismatch from start to finish.

On defense, the Patriots played mostly five-man fronts to keep AZ quarterback Kyler Murray in the pocket. The plan wasn't without its bad moments, but they bottled up Murray for most of the game, hitting him four times, sacking him twice, and allowing him just 31 yards on the ground.

The team gave up yards, especially on intermediate passes against the linebackers. But as has been the case most of the year, they played their best when their opponents moved inside the 20 yard line. Their goal-line stand to end the half was one of the most impressive defensive sequences I've seen all year.

Lineman Adam Butler had a great game: 5 tackles, 1 sack (9 yards), 3 QB hits, and a pass deflected at the line. And the linebackers actually did their job, at least against the run. Ja'Whaun Bentley led the team with 13 tackles, and his running make Terez Hall had seven of his own.

The problem in this game, and for most of the year, is that the Patriots offense simply can't put together sustained drives. On Sunday, their scoring drives covered 41, 35, 31, and 18 total yards. Without a short field, they couldn't string first downs together to maintain possession and make progress down the field.  They had two eight-play drives against Arizona: one for 20 yards and one for 35 yards. That doesn't cut it in the NFL.

Quarterback Cam Newton completed just nine passes, was sacked three times, and threw two interceptions. His QB rating of 23.3 would usually earn one a trip to the bench. But apparently the Patriots believe even less in Jarrett Stidham and/or Brian Hoyer, otherwise Cam would be riding the pine already.

Newton did run the ball more effectively: 9 rushes for 46 yards (5.1 ypc). But overall the running game was mostly contained, notching just 110 total yards, including Newton's total. They benched their left tackle in favor of a guy off the scrap heap, and Newton wasn't exactly protected like the Crown Jewels either.

The receivers? Gimme a break! The only two receivers who caught anything were Jakobi Meyers (5 catches for 52 yards) and Damiere Byrd (3 for 33). N'Keal Harry looks like as big a bust as any first-round pick Belichick has made. And maybe it's time to play the young tight ends; Ryan Izzo certainly isn't giving you anything.

The only big coaching whiff is offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' inability to design an offense that works. IMO he has to commit to the run and stick with it. Once teams cheat up to stop the run, call play-action passes and hit Meyers or Byrd on mid-level outs or crosses.

TB12 isn't walking through that door, and neither is Gronk or Randy Moss. McDaniels has to find a way to put together sustained drives or the team is going absolutely nowhere.

One other coaching quibble; can we please clean up the pre-snap and mental-error penalties. They had a false-start in quiet stadium conditions, too many men on the field on defense, and defensive penalties gave the Cardinals first-downs on two third-downs and a fourth-down.

Where does that leave us? 5-6 and headed in the right direction, at least for this week. The twin-LA games could go either way, but if the Pats expect to make the post-season, they better shoot for 2-0 on the west coast.

Biggest on-going issue: Lack of consistency on offense. You don't have to look that far back to see how it's done; they had touchdown drives of 82- and 85-yards against Houston last week and three touchdown drives of 75-yards against Baltimore the week before.

Non-QB MVP: Adam Butler, with the aforementioned stat line.

Statistical oddity: Matt Cassel is the last New England quarterback to play a full game and win with fewer yards than Newton's 84 yards against the Cardinals. Naturally Cassel beat the Buffalo Bills (final score was 13-0).

BTW, Brady did it once in his career; against the Dolphins in 2004.

Water-cooler wisdom: "I guess this is why other fans hated the Brady-led Patriots so much, their offenses probably looked like ours does now."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS: 5-6!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Patriots Outlast Ravens 23-17

For the second straight week the Patriots came from behind to post a close win, topping the Jets (30-27) last week and the Ravens last night (23-17). The win "catapults" New England to a 4-5 record, 2.5 games behind the Bills (who lost) and 2 games behind the Dolphins (who won) in the AFC East. Next up is a trip to Houston to take on the 2-7 Texans -- a team they rarely lose to.

A few weeks back I compared this year's Pats to those of the early 1990s. And that wasn't a compliment. They were playing poor situational offense and defense, committing way too may turnovers, costing themselves with untimely penalties, and didn't seem to be improving as the year went on.

Well, the last two weeks they remind me more of the 2001 Patriots. (No, I'm not saying what you think I'm saying -- please slow your roll!) They were down 27-17 late in the Jets game but scored 13 unanswered points in the last 6:04 to eke out the win. And last night they ran the ball, minimized mistakes (second straight game with no turnovers), and waited for the other team to wilt under the pressure.

And that's exactly what the Ravens did. They had three 15-yard penalties, two bad snaps that cost them scoring chances, a number of dropped passes, and they took way too long to adjust to the Pats offensive game plan -- which is a coaching choke, IMO.

The other coaching choke on the Ravens' sideline was calling so many pass plays in such bad conditions. The Ravens threw the ball 34 times, while the Patriots threw just 18 passes. Hell, the Ravens completed more passes (24) than the Pats attempted -- but in the sloppy conditions it made more sense to attack with their running game and keep possession of the ball.

In fact, the Patriots running attack was their most potent weapon. Damien Harris ran 22 times for a career-high 121 yards, and he ran under control and repeatedly finishsed by delivering punishment to defenders. Rex Burkhead had some key carries, and the team ended up with 39 carries for 173 yards (4.4 ypc).

QB Cam Newton was kept mostly clean (1 sack, 3 QB hits), he got two critical first downs on QB sneaks, and was effective in the passing game, completing 76% of his passes (13 of 17), with 1 touchdown, importantly no interceptions, and a 114.3 QB rating. He seems to grasp the offense better each week and he'll need to continue to minimize turnovers because this team doesn't have the margin for error they had in the past.

Newton was not the highest rated passer, however. That honor goes to receiver Jakobi Meyers, who completed his one pass for a 24-yard touchdown for a 158.3 QB rating. Meyers is also the only Pats WR who caught a pass or was even targeted in the game. The rest of the completions were to running backs and one for tight end Ryan Izzo.

The offensive line deserves a shout-out, not just for this game but for being the team's most consistent unit to this point in the season. They showed power in the running attack, pushed linemen to the second level on multiple plays, and did a good job in pass protection when needed. Rookie Michael Onwenu has trouble with outside pass rushers. But other than that, he and everyone else on the line has been great so far this year.

And special shout-out to David Andrews, who handled his center duties much better than his opposite number on the Ravens. Not one bad snap all night, as opposed to multiple bad snaps by the Baltimore center.

The defense fluctuates between shutdown and barely hanging on. I guess that makes it exciting, but I'm not sure I want that much excitement. Something clicked in the fourth quarter of the Jets game. They have given up just 16 points in their last five quarters, their best such stretch since the opening five quarters of the year.

Last week corner J.C. Jackson looked awful against the Jets, though he came up with a timely interception during the fourth-quarter rally. But yesterday he looked great, with coverage tight enough that he was rarely thrown at -- and when he was, he had one pass defended and another INT. Devin McCourty bounced back from a poor showing at NY to post one of his better games of the year.

The secondary has held it together without star corner Stephon Gilmore, going 2-1 in his absence. But I'm sure everyone on D would like to have him back. One note on rookie safety Kyle Dugger: he led the team in tackles with 12, two ahead of another rookie, Terez Hall.

Linebacker Chase Winovich looks like a new man after returning from a semi-benching. He's attacking the quarterback on passing plays and holding up pretty well against the outside run. I like what I see from rookie Josh Uche, and second-year man Hall improved his play from last week. It's important to have more talent at linebacker. The team started the season in a 5-1-5 because the only linebacker they trusted was Ja'Whaun Bentley (and frankly he hasn't played well this year).

The D-line and linebackers (and whatever secondary players were up near the line) did a great job with spacing and making sure tackles last night. It was imperative to minimize big plays, which are what feed the Ravens offense. Making them take 10+ plays in a drive gives them that many more chances to make mistakes, which they did last night (see above).

Forcing Baltimore to work down the field slowly meant they only had three scoring drives in the game. Commentators will often say it's important to keep star QBs on the sideline. But Belichick knows eventually they get their turn -- his job is to make their life as hard as possible.

Both teams have very good special teams; the only big difference in the game was the missed extra point by the Pats kicker, Nick Folk. He's lucky it didn't come back to bite him. And even though the conditions were difficult, he has to be able to convert extra points.

The coaching staff came in with a great game plan. Neutralize the Ravens' blitz packages and secondary play by running and staying out of second- and third-and-long downs. It took Baltimore three quarters before they started to run-blitz, and by then the home team had a 10-point lead.

Where does that leave us? If the Patriots take care of business in Houston, they will be no worse than two games out of the division lead (Buffalo has a bye week, Miami could tie Buffalo with a win). Buffalo is likely to revert to form down the stretch, I'm more worried about the Dolphins because head man Brian Flores is a great coach!

Biggest on-going issue: It has to be the lack of explosiveness at wide receiver. Although that is unlikely to be fixed this year; not many great receivers out there to be signed. The lack of explosion and weapons showed last night; only Meyers was even targeted out of the wide receiver group.

Non-QB MVP: It's Harris just barely over Dugger. Good to be getting contributions from young players!

Statistical oddity: Despite having won two fewer games, the Patriots are actually closer to the division lead (2.5 games back of the Bills) than the Ravens (3 games back of the Steelers). Tough playing in a division with an undefeated team.

Water-cooler wisdom: "Didn't the Pats win a Super Bowl two years ago with ground-and-pound?" #JustSayin

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-5!

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Patriots Lose To Bills, 24-21

The Patriots lost their fourth straight game, falling to the Bills in Buffalo for the first time in a while, 24-21. The loss dropped the team to 2-5, more than the official 3.5 games behind Buffalo in the AFC East (because now are behind in tiebreakers, too). Up next is a horrible Monday Night matchup: Patriots (2-5) versus Jets (0-8).

(No doubt ESPN is searching their broadcast contract for a way out of that dog!)

As the game ended, Cam Newton fumbled with the Patriots in range for a tying field goal. It was heartbreaking after the team came back twice. But even though that was unforgivably bad ball security with a chance to tie the game, it was far from the only mistake.

The team committed multiple pre-snap penalties in the first half (false start, illegal shift, and delay of game), skipped one chance to get a TD before the half and settled for a field goal on third-down, and failed to recover an onside kick (good execution, better play by the Bills).

The Patriots just don't have enough talent or continuity to make those kinds of mistakes. As you can see from the stat line, there wasn't much to separate the two teams, but the Patriots just didn't make specific plays when they needed to or shot themselves in the foot with untimely penalties.

There were bright spots. Running back Damien Harris ran for 6.4 ypc and 102 yards overall. And Rex Burkhead had two absolutely huge runs on third-downs, when it looked like he'd be stopped short of the mark but Rex worked hard to make the extra yards and move the chains.

The offensive line largely played well, the two glaring problems being penalties that wiped out big plays. 

Newton found some receiving rhythm with Jakobi Meyers (6 catches for 58 yards) and Damiere Byrd (3 for 39). Maybe it's a good thing that Julian Edelman is on the shelf; it might open up opportunities for younger players.

The team continues to get run over on defense (over 200 yards yesterday). That's how it is when you have zero linebackers you trust and play six- and seven-defensive backs. It makes it easier for teams to run the ball. But I suspect that is their plan; let teams run the ball but stop them for field goals and then score touchdowns.

That's the plan. But yesterday the Bills scored 3 TDs and just 1 FG, and the Patriots didn't score their first touchdown until the third quarter. Honestly, the last time that plan worked was in the Kansas City game, and the Patriots lost that one anyway.

The Pats only linebacker, Ja'Whaun Bentley, looked awful on Sunday; out of position, arm tackles that backs easily shed, blitzing to the wrong hole -- he was a mess. He was easily outpaced by rookie Josh Uche, who could blossom into something; though it'll probably too late to do much this season.

The secondary actually held up well. But they were undermined by the offensive ineptitude -- and one really bad penalty of their own (a Devin McCourty neutral zone infraction that gave the Bills a free first down). They also ended up making a ton of tackles because the Bills RBs kept getting to the second level.

Overall the coaching should be beating itself up for their off-season failures. Knowing that Tom Brady was leaving, they should have simplified the offense so the receivers would at least have a clue where to go. Offense isn't always about complexity and confusing your opponent. Teams like Pittsburgh ran the same simple offense for years and just out-executed the other team. The Patriots would be better than 2-5 if they'd gone simple and built from there.

Where does that leave us? Not a lot of options except to sell off some valuable pieces at the trading deadline. The team mostly needs to decide if the rebuild is for 2021 or 2022, trading players and getting draft picks to go with the plan they envision.

Biggest on-going issue: No offensive consistency. The defense held its own yesterday, but the offense couldn't string together drives the entire first half.

Non-QB MVP: Harris, with a nod to the O-line and to Burkhead for keeping two drives alive.

Statistical oddity: Next Monday the Patriots and Jets will enter the game a combined 2-13, a 13.3% winning percentage. The last time the Pats played a game with such a low combined winning percentage this late in the year was December 12, 1993, when the 1-11 Patriots played the 1-11 Bengals, for a combined winning percentage of 8.3%.

(Trivia Question: Who was the Patriots head coach in that game? Harder Trivia Question: Who was the Bengals head coach in that game? [Hint: his dad was also an NFL head coach.] Answers below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "We're on to 2021."

Keep the faith?

- Scott

PS. 2-5!

PPS. Trivia Answers:
The Patriots head coach that day was Bill Parcells. The Bengals were helmed by David Shula, son of Don Shula.