Monday, September 26, 2005

Patriots 23, Steelers 20 (9/25/2005)

Hope you enjoyed yesterday’s game, because games that entertaining don’t come along every day. Hard-fought, smash-mouth, in-your-face, hard-hitting, a contest of wills – choose your own worn-out cliché, but I would call it a statement game. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, it was the Patriots making the statement, winning a 23-20 road decision win over the favored Steelers. A quick glance at the stat sheet might trick you into thinking the Pats laid another egg. 10 penalties for 118 yards, 2.7 yards a run, and 3 turnovers (2 inside the Steelers 10 yard line) could easily have cost them the game. But 35:23 in time of possession, 8 of 16 third-down conversions (while holding Pittsburgh to only 3 of 13), and 4 sacks and a dozen QB pressures were just enough to save their bacon.

The Pats offense started fast again, scoring a touchdown on their first drive, But after that they went into a coma for two quarters, scoring no points despite three trips inside Steeler territory. Kevin Faulk’s two fumbles were killers, and Brady’s lone interception came during that stretch. But they righted the ship as the third quarter came to a close and scored on each of their last four possessions.

Brady’s passing line was 31 of 41 for 372 yards, but it told only part of the story. He was harassed for much of the game, but never made the critical mistake (the INT was a tipped ball). He waited and waited until the Steeler defense was tired and after their pass rush slowed just a bit, he went 12 for 12 with 165 yards in the fourth quarter. Kevin Faulk wiped out what could have been a great day with two fumbles, and the offensive line was headed for disaster early when Nick Kaczur (Matt Light’s replacement) looked lost. But by the end of the game, the O-line had worn down the Steelers front seven, and it was easy passing yards from then on.

And I can’t say enough about the receivers. They took huge hits after almost every catch, and they held onto the ball and even made catches that I had a hard time believing they’d made. David Givens led with 9 grabs, and Deion Branch and Troy Brown caught some dangerous passes in traffic. The Steelers like to intimidate receivers, but with these guys, they should try another tactic. Just doesn’t happen. The tight ends were mostly shut out of the passing game, but did yeoman’s work in the running game and in pass protection.

The defense played a great game. The D-line was ferocious, dominating Pittsburgh for the final three quarters, holding Willie Parker to 55 yards, and sacking Ben Roethlisberger 4 times (no easy task to tackle Big Ben, as the 5 missed sacks will attest). And if Richard Seymour had held onto a sure interception, he might have the inside track as the NFL MVP (and no, I’m not kidding). Vince Wilfork got bopped around a bit, but he always took on two men so others could make the play – and Jarvis Green, Willie McGinest, Rosevelt Colvin, Ty Warren, and Monty Beisel all took advantage, each seeming to get pressure at least twice in the game. And to top it all off, they stopped the NFL’s #1 rushing team; and stopped them cold. Just a great overall effort.

And I would say that the secondary held up pretty well, what with Rodney Harrison out in the first quarter and Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay not making the trip. Eugene Wilson made a bad read on the long touchdown, but aside from that the subs (Ellis Hobbs, Duane Starks, and Chad Scott) played admirably. Mike Vrabel played inside, outside, and even at safety, and the banged-up secondary held coverage long enough to make Roethlisberger look like a bad QB.

If the defense can continue to improve like this, it will be another fun second half of the season.

As for special teams, Adam impressed, as always. He kicked three field goals, including the game winner, and over half of his kickoffs were so deep they were unreturnable. The punt and kickoff coverage teams were a little better, but they gave up a crucial 44 yard return to allow the Steelers to tie the game too easily. And there were still some untimely penalties (thank you, Tully Banta-Cain). Still some work to do, but overall some improvement.

And finally, the coaching staff was better than against Carolina. After the early strike by Pittsburgh, the defensive adjustments basically held them in check until late, and while the offense struggled through the second quarter, they had some chances cut short by turnovers. At least they were moving the ball, something they couldn’t do against the Panthers. I think they can still improve their play-calling. For example, I thought the blitz that led to a pass interference penalty against Chad Scott late in the fourth quarter was just too risky. And they should have called more screen passes to keep the Steelers defense honest. But I am hopeful that they’ll get better as the year progresses.

So where does that leave us. Well, the Patriots are now tied for first place in the AFC East with the Miami Dolphins, and next Sunday they’ve got a much-needed home game against the San Diego Chargers (who got their first win yesterday). I like their chances in this game and think the up-coming schedule is pretty favorable, even though both the Atlanta and Denver games are on the road. And beyond the Dolphins, the rest of the division looks pretty shabby, with huge QB questions for both the Bills and Jets.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Do you think Richard Seymour could make a run for NFL MVP? I know the NFL hasn’t had a defensive MVP in almost 20 years (Lawrence Taylor in 1986), but he’s been a monster in the first three games and with the dearth of great QB numbers, could this be the year it happens again?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-1!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Patriots 17, Panthers 27 (9/18/2005)

Did yesterday’s 27-17 loss give you déjà vu, too? Seemed like the Raiders traveled to Carolina in Patriots uniforms. The team committed way too many penalties, got a long pass that led to a touchdown, had a bunch of dropped passes, committed a late turnover that led to an opponent’s touchdown, couldn’t do anything offensively for most of the game, and lost by 10 points. If that sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote something similar to that about the Raiders after the Pats beat them in the season opener.

The Patriots offense… tsk, tsk, tsk… where to start. Penalties put them in too many first-and-long situations, which in turn forced them to abandon the run and pass the ball 75% of the time (46 passing plays, 16 running plays). Seemed like every offensive lineman had a false start, and Dan Klecko’s holding penalty on 2nd-and-inches at the Carolina 23 was a killer. It led directly to Tom Brady’s only interception on a drive that could have given the Patriots the lead and momentum.

Brady was off most of the day, missing at least five open receivers, and the receivers dropped at least five catchable passes (two by Deion Branch) to go with Ben Watson’s late fumble. But it all started on the offensive line, and after some stellar pass protection early, they didn’t pass protect or run block very well at all (39 rushing yards for the game). The Pats converted only 4 of 14 third downs, which is just bad, bad, bad. They’ve got to get their discipline back to keep themselves out of long yardage, and they must do it quickly because the schedule is not getting easier. I guess we’ll know soon whether the superb play of the last few years was more Dante Scarneccia (offensive line coach) or more Joe Andruzzi and Damien Woody (offensive linemen who signed with Cleveland and Detroit, respectively).

The defense played pretty well, but was not the dominating group we’ve come to know and trust. They had one bad drive early (too much blitzing got them burned), and gave up touchdowns on “drives” of 13 and 12 yards (after a long punt return and a fumble recovery). But they added some inopportune penalties (Rosevelt Colvin negated a Patriots interception) and gave up some big passing plays. And no one had scored three rushing touchdowns on them in years. Also, with Tyrone Poole out of the game, the injury to Randall Gay forced rookie Ellis Hobbs into the fray. It didn’t cost the team dearly, but the pattern of defensive back injuries is now three years and running.

On the defensive line, Richard Seymour continues his dominant play, and Vince Wilfork is getting better. Linebackers Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest made some big plays, and Monty Beisel is playing better in the 3-4. But Chad Brown still looked lost, new safety Gus Scott got burned at least twice, and the Patriots used the blitzed too often, becoming predictable and allowing Carolina to make big plays. You gotta take the good with the bad, but the Patriots usually don’t make those crucial mistakes.

Special teams continues to be an area of great concern. They gave up a huge punt return that led directly to a Carolina touchdown, and they were consistently bested by the Panthers on both punt and kickoff returns. Josh Miller outkicked his coverage three times, and Tim Dwight had a meandering punt return for zero yards. In fact, Carolina won the battle for punt return yardage 128 to 0. On the plus side, Adam Vinatieri’s kickoffs were consistently to the goal line, but the Carolina return teams still provided great field position for their offense.

And the coaching staff deserves their share of the blame for this one. They abandoned the running game too quickly, blitzed too often, and didn’t prepare the team adequately for the hostile environment they would face. The players made the mistakes on the field, but the special teams and offensive line coaches need to get back to the fundamentals of blocking and tackling.

So where does that leave us. Well, how about tied for first place in the mediocre AFC East. Every team in the division has one win and one loss. They’ve got a tough game in Pittsburgh, at team that seems to have righted their ship after a very bad pre-season. Their running game is back and Ben Roethlisberger has excelled, although the competition hasn’t been great.

But this type of game is just the kind where Bill Belichick has pulled out an unexpected win. Just when people were ready to write off a game (Tennessee in 2003, St. Louis in 2004), the Pats came through. Roethlisberger might wilt a bit going against a better defense, and the Patriots might switch to the 4-3 defense to slow down the running game. Of course, only time will tell. But the team is still tied for first place in the division. That’s something, isn’t it?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “The AFC East is the definition of parity. Not only are all four teams 1-1, but as a division they’ve scored 137 points and given up 134.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-1!

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Patriots 30, Raiders 20 (9/8/2005)

Well, thankfully that was the first game of the year and the Raiders didn’t have their act together yet. The Patriots won a 30-20 decision over Oakland last Thursday, but it was the most uneven performance they’ve had in three years. The win puts the Pats in a first place tie with Miami and Buffalo (both surprise winners on Sunday) and begins the long journey to what we all hope will be a playoff run. Here’s how I saw things on Thursday.

The offense couldn’t run early, couldn’t pass in mid-game, and couldn’t put the Raiders away at any point. Problems with run blocking along the O-line will have to be corrected, though their pass protection was very good (zero sacks). Brady was his usual efficient self (24 for 38, 30 yards and 2 touchdowns), and Deion Branch and Troy Brown had big receiving days. Ben Watson’s two catches in the first half were crucial, gettin first downs that supplied the defense with time to make important adjustments after Oakland scored easily on their first drive.

The running game was pretty much non-existent. Corey Dillon was hit and dropped in the backfield more in this game than he was last season (perhaps a slight exaggeration), and only Kevin Faulk’s change of pace got anything going in the first half. Most of Dillon’s 63 yards came in garbage time, though he did power in for two touchdowns. The best thing I can say about the offense is they committed only two penalties and drew a boatload of them from the Raiders. And that statement isn’t the kind of praise I’m used to giving this offense. So they better get the O-line and play-calling in sync if they want to beat a much tougher Carolina team next week.

The defense played a very good game, but not a great one. They did give up a first-drive touchdown (first time in 35 games), but after that the Raiders scored only twice: on a long pass to Randy Moss; and on a 20 yard “drive” after a blocked punt. The D wasn’t without fault, having trouble with the run early on, but they got their sea legs under them in the second quarter and held the Raiders in check for the rest of the game. But it wasn't vintage Patriots defense because they forced only one turnover and missed opportunities for others, especially in the passing game.

Richard Seymour looked like a man possessed out there. Once the Pats switched to the 4-3 (midway through their second drive), he was like a one man wrecking crew, leading the team with 8 tackles, many of them in places you wouldn’t expect a defensive lineman to be. He and linemates Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, and Jarvis Green dominated the line of scrimmage after the switch to the 4-3, and that’s where the game was won. Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest are the only other players I felt were worthy of special mention, making several big plays each.

The linebackers and secondary were non-descript, double- and triple-covering Randy Moss and daring the Raiders to beat them with just about anyone else. In the second half, Raiders QB Kerry Collins looked lost, either finding no one open or no time to throw. And with the Patriot offense sputtering, it’s a good thing he was lost.

As for special teams, they need more work. Josh Miller pinned the Raiders twice with punts that stopped dead at the four yard line. But the punting unit also gave up a blocked kick that Oakland turned into a quick touchdown. Add to that the blocked extra point and special teams coach Brad Seeley will be a busy man this week.

The coaching staff acquitted themselves well, with a few questionable play calls on offense but some brilliant play design (I’m thinking specifically of the Corey Dillon screen pass and the Tim Dwight touchdown). Eric Mangini made quick and effective adjustments on defense, and the D never got beaten on the same play twice.

So where does that leave us? Well, the Pats have 10 days to prepare for a road game against the historically fast-starting Carolina Panthers. Guaranteed the Panthers won’t commit 16 penalties for anywhere near 149 yards – that is usually left to NFL doormats like Oakland. The Panthers run well and have a defense on par with New England’s, and as an added incentive, they lost their first game which means they’ll be after their first win of the season next Sunday. The game will likely come down to how the O-line handles the pass protection and the question of which QB plays better. Until then, the Patriots are tied for first place – so enjoy it.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Both Charlie and Romeo were missed in the first game, but I think the coaches we have can handle things just fine. I thought the offensive play-calling wasn’t quite as good, but it was close. And the defense didn’t come out with the same excellent plan, but the coaches made great adjustments and held the Raiders in check for the rest of the game.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Patriots 2005 Season Preview (9/7/2005)

It all seems so old hat. Patriots win another Super Bowl, and they endure significant changes in the off-season – I think I read this same thing last year. The Pats had more coaching changes this year than ever, but they somehow maintained their core players for another possible playoff run. Here are my thoughts on how the old and new faces (coaches and players) will gel in 2005.

(As always, if you want to be dropped from this list, please email me.)

The Draft

The Patriots replaced Joe Andruzzi (gone to Cleveland) with Logan Mankins in the first round, and Mankins appears to be up to the challenge. In the pre-season, he looked good more often than lost. They added James Sanders and Ellis Hobbs to the oft-injured secondary (Hobbs can also return kickoffs). Hobbs has looked alternatively brilliant and bewildered, but his attitude could make him a real contributor.

Matt Cassel won the third QB job over Rohan Davey, based largely on his first pre-season game, when he ran and threw well. And finally, the team traded a second-round pick to Arizona for well-regarded cornerback Duane Starks. We didn’t see much of Starks in the pre-season, but I heard good things about his time in Arizona. I’ll be watching closely when #23 hits the field.

The Offense

By far the biggest change is the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. The team didn’t elevate anyone to the job, preferring to do it by committee (reportedly tight ends coach Pete Mangurian will call the plays). I saw no ill effects of this change during pre-season, and I expect the Pats offense could improve production after bye weeks. The only knock on Weis was that the offense struggled the week after a bye, so new ideas in the practice schedule might improve performance.

Postcards sent to Joe Andruzzi, Adrian Klemm, Rohan Davey, or David Patten should not be addressed to Foxboro. All are gone, and all have been pretty well replaced. Rohan and Klemm weren’t great contributors, rookie Logan Mankins replaced Andruzzi, and David Patten was one of a group of receivers who were interchangeable to start with. Andre’ Davis (acquired via trade from Cleveland this summer) will take over for Patten without too much trouble. And a healthy Ben Watson at tight end will take pressure off the wideouts.

The team added Tim Dwight to take over returning punts, which should allow Troy Brown to be more like he was three years ago – though the secondary might miss him a bit ;) And the Pats added veteran depth at QB by signing local favorite Doug Flutie. He is better than any Patriot backup QB since Drew Bledsoe.

The Defense

Change, change, and more change. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel left for Cleveland, the Pats promoted defensive backs coach Eric Mangini to take his place. Lest you doubt what Mangini can do, remember he coached Troy Brown in the secondary and Brown had 3 INTs. I think Crennel will be missed more than Weis, because I think he called a better game than Weis (for reasons too lengthy to go into here – email me if you want a detailed explanation).

Tedy Bruschi is out for the year after suffering a mild stroke in February. His loss is without precedent in New England, because they’ve never had a player so important to a defense this good. Remember in 2002 the Patriots gave up 114 more yards rushing per game when Bruschi was injured during a four-game losing streak, and hat streak probably cost them a playoff spot.

Linebackers Ted Johnson and Roman Phifer retired, leaving the Patriots with a completely revamped inside linebacker corps. Monty Beisel and Chad Brown were brought in to help replace Bruschi and Johnson, and Mike Vrabel might see more time inside for the same reason. Brown is more of a pass-rusher, and Beisel might be the run stuffer that Ted Johnson was. It just won’t be easy to replace Bruschi.

However, the rest of the defense is better and deeper than last year. Ty Law left, but who cares – he missed half the year and all of the playoffs. And the Patriots added significant depth and talent to their secondary, so they shouldn’t have much trouble making up for the Law-lessness. Duane Starks and Chad Scott bring veteran stability, while second-year player Gus Scott and rookies Ellis Hobbs and James Sanders are the young guns of the secondary. The return of Randall Gay, Asante, Tyrone Poole, Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson could make this the best secondary the Pats have had under Bill Belichick.

On the defensive line, the only real news is that Marquis Hill and rookie Mike Wright showed flashes of skill and Vince Wilfork is another year more comfortable with the 3-4. With experienced backups, these guys should be fine.

The Special Teams

This one’s easy. Veteran Tim Dwight will return punts instead of Troy Brown, and rookie Ellis Hobbs or veteran Andre’ Davis will return kickoffs instead of Bethel Johnson and/or Kevin Faulk. The loss of Je’rod Cherry is mitigated by the return of Larry Izzo, and the kicking of Adam Vinatieri and Josh Miller and the coverage of said kicking have all been fine. File this under “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The Coaches

It’s tough to know what the loss of Crennel and Weis will mean to the team. In the last 20 years, four teams have won back-to-back Super Bowls: two that kept both coordinators (1998 Broncos and 2003 Patriots); one that changed its defensive coordinator (1988 49ers); and one that changed both coordinators (1992 Cowboys). So obviously, you can do it any way you like, but the two constants on those teams were the head coach or the system. The Patriots kept both, and I think those are the most crucial elements to repeating. The flip side was the 1999 Rams, who changed their head coach and their defensive system – and gave up 471 points the next season.

When teams lose their coordinators, they often promote from within and weaken themselves at two positions. The Patriots may have avoided that by promoting Eric Mangini to DC but spreading around the OC chores among the existing staff. Only time will tell if the extra burden will drag the entire staff down, but know one thing: if it isn’t working, Bill Belichick will change it – even at mid-season if he has to. No one in the NFL is more willing to make changes whenever they have to be made to win. No one.

The Schedule

With all that in mind, here's my take on how the Patriots schedule will work out (as usual, broken down into quarters of the season):

I expect the Pats to start their first quarter of the year with a win over the Raiders in Foxboro. Oakland did nothing to improve their defense from last year, and they can’t score often enough against the Patriots to win. The Pats then have 10 days to prepare for a tilt at Carolina. When healthy, Carolina is a fast starter, but they've got an emotional division game with New Orleans the previous week. It looks like a close game, but I'll call it for the Panthers, with the motivation from the Super Bowl loss as the tie-breaker. The Pats then travel to Steeler country, but with Ben Roethlisberger showing signs of a sophomore slump and the running back situation uncertain, I see another Patriot victory. Next up is a home date with the Chargers. San Diego has short week (they play Sunday night) and travel across the country for the game, so it looks like another “W.”

The Pats begin the season's second quarter in Atlanta, which has a tough early schedule (a Monday nighter followed by road games on opposite coasts and then a very good Minnesota team at home). The Falcons also have a road division game after the Pats game, so I think this one will go the Patriots way. The trip to Denver could be tricky, as the Patriots eked out a win two years ago even though the Broncos had Danny Kannell at QB. If Jake Plummer is healthy, this could be a difficult one, especially with Denver's mild schedule surrounding the game. Something tells me this could be a Denver win, depending on Jake Plummer’s health. But one of my office mates is a Broncos fan, so I can’t predict a Patriots loss (sorry Kevin). That leads us directly to the Bills at home, where the Pats should prevail over a Buffalo team in transition. Indy at home the next week? No problem. Indy's offense won't be what it was last year and their defense will be about the same. So the result should be the same.

The game at Miami begins the third quarter of the season, and it could be hard-fought, with a short week to prepare for a division road game. Hard-fought, but the Dolphins don't have enough offense to beat the Patriots. Next up is New Orleans at home, and that should be a cake walk compared to their earlier schedule. The Pats then travel to Kansas City, to face a team that *still* doesn't have a defense. It's a difficult place to play, but a very, very depleted Patriots squad thrashed the Chiefs in KC last year -- no reason to expect anything different this year. Then we come to the New York Jets, or as I like to call them, "Patriots Lite." Everything the Jets do well, the Patriots do better, so I can’t envision a letdown for this divisional home game.

The final quarter of the season begins at Buffalo. By then, Mike Mularkey's team might be playing better, but they're still out-classed by New England, and I don't think Willis McGahee is all he's been built up to be. Tampa comes to town next, having played two division games before, and having to play one division game after. Add to that the fact that they are terrible in the cold, and this might be the easiest call of the year -- Patriots win big. They follow that up with a Monday night road game against the Jets (who have division games before and after). The Monday night aspect equalizes the road aspect pretty well, and again, the Patriots do everything better than the Jets. Besides, firing the offensive coordinator wasn't the answer to New York's problems -- and I expect the Patriots to have something special cooked up for Mike Heimerdinger's squad -- they always did when he was the OC in Tennessee. This is a game the Patriots could lose, but I expect another win. As for the last game of the year, the Dolphins usually play tougher than you'd expect in New England late in the year. But their overall record is pretty bad in those games. New head coach Nick Saban should have his team playing well by then, but I think the Patriots have too much firepower for them. Unless the game means little to the Patriots, look for a "Happy New Year's Day" for New England fans.

The Summary

So if you count the second Jets game as a win, the Patriots go 15-1 (14-2 if they lose). Either record virtually guarantees them a division title and a first-round playoff bye. The unknown factors are how the Patriots will react to the loss of Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, and Tedy Bruschi. In 2003, the Pats averaged a 10.2 point margin of victory in their wins; last year it was 13.7 points, so the gap between them and the rest of the league might have been growing, not shrinking. Losing Crennel, Weis, and Bruschi will bring them closer to the pack, but I don’t think it’s a two touchdown difference.

The Patriots coaching might have dropped a bit, but the overall talent on the field is better. The schedule is tougher this year (especially early), but the rest of the league hasn’t made up the two-touchdown differential to take away many of the Patriots 14 wins from last season. I’ll be watching closely to see how the coaching changes have affected things, and I’ll keep you posted if anything becomes apparent.

Other than that, enjoy the season.

Keep the faith,

- Scott