Monday, December 7, 2020

Patriots Demolish Chargers 45-0

The Patriots destroyed the LA Chargers yesterday 45-0, their biggest road win since 2007. (Trivia question: Can you name the team they beat and/or the score of the game? Answer below.) The win brings them to 6-6, still 2.5 games back of the division leading Bills (who play tomorrow night) and 2 games out of the playoffs. Next up is the other Los Angeles team, the Rams, on a short week this Thursday.

This game was a clinic of complimentary football. Special teams made four huge plays, scoring twice, the offense used an innovative running game to keep the ball in their hands, and the defense smothered rookie Justin Herbert, intercepting him twice -- his first NFL two-INT game. And all along the coaching was ahead of the Chargers' staff, pouncing on mistakes and letting LA shoot itself in the foot time after time after time.

There isn't as much to pore over in a win this lopsided. But here are five quick observations:

1. Redemption For McDaniels

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has taken some heat this year, and rightfully so. But his game plan was outstanding on Sunday. He used a mix of slant-runs, quick-hit runs, QB option plays, and even some Wildcat (with quarterback Cam Newton in motion) to confuse and wear out the Chargers defense. However, most important was that those plays were productive.

The first drive was over 7:00 long and ended with points. And no matter how many players LA committed to stop the run, they couldn't do it effectively enough to force the Pats to abandon their game plan. 43 carries for 165 yards and 2 TDs on the ground speaks for itself.

Nicely done, Josh.

2. Spectacular Special Teams

Gunner Olszewski returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown and another one 61 yards (which led to a field goal). Cody Davis blocked a field goal and Devin McCourty returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. Punter Jake Bailey kicked four times, three of which were downed inside the 20 yard-line. Justin Bethel had three tackles on special teams and saved a punt from the end zone (which was downed at the 5 yard-line by Davis).

Additionally, the kicking units drew penalties against the Chargers, including a 12-man penalty on a quick-snap that got the Pats a first down. This wasn't by accident; LA is known to have bad special teams. No doubt the Patriots spent extra time on them this week, knowing they could spell the difference in the game.

They did.

3. Bill Belichick Versus Young QBs

Most young quarterbacks are confused the first time they play a Belichick-led defense. I haven't updated this stat in a while, but he has something like 90% wins against quarterbacks in their 8th - 15th starts in the NFL, which is right where the Chargers' Justin Herbert was. It also explains how the Patriots held back Kyler Murray and Arizona last week -- he was making his 27th NFL start and facing a BB defense for the first time.

This won't help much this Thursday; Jared Goff is in his fifth season and has played the Patriots before.

All of which is to say please don't overreact to the last two weeks. Those wins were predictable; the real season begins now!

4. Youth Being Served

Rookies making an impact:
  • Linebacker Josh Uche has a motor that won't stop and hits hard
  • Safety Kyle Dugger has 29 tackles on the year and is seeing increased playing time
  • Tackle Mike Onwenu is solidly a starter and well-rated by Pro Football Focus
Second-year players making an impact:
  • Running back Damien Harris is the team's leading rusher with 641 yards on 126 carries (5.1ypc) and 2 touchdowns
  • Receiver Jakobi Meyers leads the team with 38 catches and is a solid route-runner and blocker downfield
  • Defensive End Chase Winovich gets better every week and made two impact plays yesterday
  • Receiver/returner Olszewski not only had three great returns in the last two games, he had a long touchdown catch-and-run
  • Fullback Jakob Johnson's blocking is excellent and he is now working into the occasional short-passing game
  • Linebacker Terez Hall is helping shore up the thin linebacking corps
For a team with so many holes, they are filling many of them with younger players this year. If 2020 is a bridge year, then the future across that bridge looks bright -- if they can get the QB situation settled.

5. Blueprint For The Playoffs?!?!

I know, Jim Mora would have torn my head off for saying the P-word. But if the Pats do somehow make the playoffs, they will likely face a gauntlet of road games against teams like Kansas City and/or Pittsburgh.

The advantage they have is that crowd noise won't be as big a factor with smaller crowds (or no crowds) at stadiums because of COVID-19. Also, teams that play sound fundamentals, are good on defense, and can get a few plays on special teams -- those teams often do well on the road, even in the playoffs.

Earlier this year the Patriots likely would have beaten Kansas City in KC if their quarterback hadn't contracted the coronavirus. And the Steelers in Pittsburgh has never scared the Patriots; they've won two Super Bowls after beating the Steelers on the road in the playoffs.

They'll likely need more from the passing game if they expect to even make the playoffs. And they have the next six games to figure that out. One note of optimism; supposedly Julian Edelman could be back in a week or two, which could only help the offense.

Where does that leave us? The needle is pointing up at the right time. Newton has shown a good rapport with both Damiere Byrd and Meyers, as well as James White out of the backfield. McDaniels' challenge now is figuring out how to incorporate more passing without risking the run game or a loss (the Patriots can't afford one).

Biggest on-going concern: Lack of explosive plays on offense. The creative game plan from Sunday shows they can win without chunk plays in the passing game. But as they head down the stretch their margin for error is as small as their biggest plays.

It's great to get huge returns or blocked kicks for touchdowns. That doesn't mean the Patriots want to count on that every week.

Non-QB MVP: the toughest call of the year, but the award goes to special teams ace Justin Bethel, who was integral to the blocked field goal, had big blocks on both of Olszewski's long returns, had three special teams tackles, and made a play to down a punt inside the five yard-line.

Could have been a lot of people (Olszewski himself, for example), but Bethel gets the nod.

Statistical oddity: I've never seen a team be so horrific on fourth down in my life. Here is the astonishing futility of LA on fourth downs:
  • Missed field goal
  • Punt returned for touchdown
  • False start penalty from punt formation
  • Blocked field goal returned for touchdown
  • Interception
  • 61-yard punt return
  • Sacked for 9 yards
  • Incomplete pass
  • Incomplete pass
Add in that they had 12 men on the field on a Patriots fourth-down punt, which gave the Pats a first down, and their failures on fourth down become legendary. Just awful!

Water-cooler wisdom: "Belichick is so awful at talent evaluation that he has nine major contributors from the last two drafts."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-6!

PPS. Trivia Answer: the Patriots beat the Bills 56-10 in November of 2007, a 46-point win that eclipses the 45-pointer from yesterday.

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.

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:
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.


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