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!

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