Monday, October 27, 2008

Patriots 23, Rams 16 (10/26/2008)

Well, The Foxboro Weather God (i.e. my friend Al) blessed the skies for Sunday's game, and the sun-shiny day was picture perfect, as it always is when he attends. Better yet, the Patriots erased a fourth-quarter deficit and beat the Rams 23-16, giving them a 5-2 record -- good enough for a share of the division lead, and (get *this*) a tie for the second best record in the AFC. Not bad given that we're barely 15 days removed from the bandwagon emptying loss to the Chargers.

The defensive front had a great game, with seven QB hits, four sacks, and seven tackles for a loss. Adalius Thomas led the team with two sacks (for 26 yards) and his linemate Richard Seymour pitched in with one of his own. Both had seven tackles, but the tackling machine on this day was Tedy Bruschi (11 total). Mike Vrabel and Jerod Mayo played well, though they lacked the gaudy numbers. The line and linebackers got a consistent push from all angles, and pressured without exotic blitzes. Any time you give up 3.5 yards a run and around 50% complete passes, you've accomplished something. They had Rams quarterback Marc Bulger on the run most of the day, and it was a good thing because when he had time, he picked the secondary apart.

And speaking of the secondary, what an up-and-down day. Ellis Hobbs got beaten a few times deep but made a few very nice plays to knock away passes. James Sanders took a terrible angle and knocked himself and Hobbs out of the play on 69-yard touchdown to a rookie receiver. Rookies Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley played... well, like rookies, some mistakes and some nice plays, but at least you could excuse their faults. In fact Wilhite had seven tackles and kept decent coverage on some plays. The only rock-solid player in the secondary was Brandon Meriweather, who had six tackles and didn't miss any assignments that I saw. Maybe his good example will rub off on the rest of the secondary.

On offense, it was what you'd expect from a team missing their starting QB, starting RB, backup RB, and third-string RB. They had so many opportunities that would have made the game a laugher if they'd cashed them in. Randy Moss dropped a touchdown pass and they settled for a field goal. Wes Welker dropped a pass and they had to punt. And on three consecutive possessions in the third quarter they had two INTs (only one was Cassel's fault) and couldn't gain half-a-yard on two plays and turned the ball over on downs. Not the kind of thing you want to do every week, but they overcame it all to put up enough points to win.

In fact, the most encouraging thing about the offense was the performance of Matt Cassel. Sure, he threw one bad interception and some of his passes were behind receivers. But he was more self-assured, throwing the ball away or checking down instead of taking sacks, and stepping up in the pocket before firing over the middle to Moss or Welker. And he looked almost Brady-like in coming from behind in the fourth quarter to score twice and win the game. Perhaps most important in his development is his improving touchdown-to-interception ratio (1-1 in his first two starts, 1-3 in his third and fourth starts, and 4-2 in his fifth and sixth starts).

Kevin Faulk was the invaluable man on offense against the Rams. Led the team with 13 rushes for 60 yards, had 4 catches for 47 yards, and most important of all caught the winning touchdown on a perfectly thrown ball (and one that Moss missed on a similar play). With three running backs injured, he carried the extra load without missing a beat in pass protection or spread-offense effectiveness. However, they still need either LaMont Jordan or Sammy Morris to return -- Faulk can't do it alone for the rest of the year. Moss and Welker got seven catches each, but both had critical mistakes (Moss bouncing a ball up for an INT, and Welker just flat out dropping a pass that could have gone for big yardage). They were good enough against the Rams, but will need better focus and performance against Indy next week if the Patriots expect to win.

The O-line was decent, with newcomer Mark LeVoir filling in well at right tackle. They got a pretty good push on most running plays, and gave up only three sacks this week. They still missed a few assignments and speed rushers are giving Matt Light more trouble than in the past. But especially considering the O-line shuffle of late, not bad for a position that depends on knowing what the guy next to you will do. And I still think they will improve when/if Nick Kazcur returns.

The special teams merit special mention, because they were great -- except for one play. They let the Rams recover an onside kick for their one brain-fart, but the coverage teams consistently gave the St. Louis the long field. It's never a bad day when you kickoff five times and four of those drives start no better than the 20 yard-line -- with two of them at the 12 and 13 yard-lines. The punting wasn't quite as good, with three touchbacks on three attempts. But it was a tough day with the wind, and on the kickoff returns, the young guns did the job -- Wilhite, Matt Slater, Mike Richardson, and even Kelley Washington pitching in with dive-bombing tackles on special teams.

So where does this leave us? 5-2 is good enough for a share of the division lead, and it's off to Indy next week for a showdown with arch-rival Peyton Manning. The Colts are banged up, and they are playing on Monday night, so they'll have a short week of preparation. Also, their new dome apparently isn't as loud as the old one; so who knows how it will all go down.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots are on pace to shatter their team record for fewest penalties in a 16-game season. They've got a league low 22 penalties this year, which puts them on pace for 50 over the course of the season. The team record was set by the 1989 team, with 63. Oh, and having a small number of penalties isn't always a good thing -- that 1989 team went 1-15.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sorry folks but there's no room to get back on the bandwagon this week! Try again next week after the Colts game."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-2!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Patriots 41, Broncos 7 (10/20/2008)

This week, the part of the New England Patriots was played by the Denver Broncos and the part of the San Diego Chargers was played by the New England Patriots. Confused? So am I. New England ran the ball at will and passed it efficiently, while the Denver QB was no downfield threat and their offense looked pathetic in a 41-7 drubbing at the hands of the Patriots. Sounds a lot like last week's game with the names changed from Chargers/Patriots to Patriots/Broncos.

In fact, I wrote last week that you don't know what will happen with this team. And generally, that's a selling point for sports -- unscripted endings often entice people to watch. But frankly, it takes some getting used to around here. With all the winning the Patriots have done, acclimating yourself to win-win-loss-win-loss-win ain't easy. I'll take the W and marvel at how easy it looked, but I'd be hard-pressed to guarantee they'll repeat that performance next week.

Broncos QB Jay Cutler hurt his throwing hand on the first pass attempt of the game, and once the Patriots realized he couldn't throw long they simply loaded up and stopped the short pass and the running game. It also helped that five other potential pass receivers were out of the game -- two receivers, two running backs, and a tight end -- but I won't be shedding a tear for the Broncos injury woes.

The entire D-line played well -- with the possible exception of Vince Wilfork's two, count 'em, *two* unnecessary roughness 15-yard penalties. The Broncos rushed for 88 "real" yards (minus 18 yards on QB scrambles), so Wilfork deserves some credit for plugging up the middle. And the Pats got more sacks in one game (3) than the Broncos gave up in all prior games combined (2). Richard Seymour had 1.5 sacks, and semi-backup Mike Wright had 1 sack and a forced fumble, which was nicely complimented by Ty Warren's forced fumble. But really, it was just a very good performance by the entire line. They played four-man, three-man, two-man, and even one-man line sets, but no matter the setup, they got good QB pressure, slowed the run, and forced a turnover.

The linebackers, though, they were the real defensive stars. Mike Vrabel was in vintage form, setting the outside edge against the run and collapsing the pocket on pass plays. Adalius Thomas was a monster, rushing the passer, covering backs in the flat, covering tight ends down the field, and redirecting any run his way. Not a lot of stats to show for it, but perhaps his best overall game on the Patriots. And with those two hogging the spotlight, there was still plenty left over for Jerod Mayo, who led the team with eight tackles and appears more and more comfortable every game.

Now any judgment about the secondary must be done in light of the Denver injury situation. But the secondary did kick ass in this game. Ellis Hobbs and Brandon Meriweather knocked down two passes each, and Meriweather had an INT, too. James Sanders added an INT and Lewis Sanders forced a fumble. Good coverage, good discipline, and good tackling. If they could do this against first-line receivers, the Patriots might be headed for another championship.

With the defense shutting down Denver all day, the Patriots offense was patient and effective. They ran the ball 38 times for 257 yards, a whopping 6.8 yards a carry. It was the most the team rushing yards of any Patriots team in 15 years, and gave them an advantage in time of possession and wore down the Denver defense. Sammie Morris ran for a career high 138 yards -- in the first half -- and then skipped the second half with a leg injury. So in stepped rookie free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who bowled his way for 65 of his own and his first NFL touchdown (when he walked into the end zone untouched). Even Kevin Faulk gained yards in chunks, 50 yards on only 4 carries. True that many of the best running plays included blown tackles by Denver, but someone had to make them miss those tackles. And one other thing, the downfield blocking by Benjamin Watson and Wes Welker was excellent, often turning short runs into much larger gains.

Matt Cassel easily had his best game as a pro. He was 18/24 for 185 yards and 3 touchdowns. He did take six sacks, but only three of them were his fault -- the others were missed blocks by Watson, Morris, and Faulk. And it was no coincidence that Cassel's touchdowns came after Denver's best defensive back went down wiht an injury. Randy Moss against the second best defender is usually a mismatch, and Moss torched the depleted secondary for two touchdowns. Cassel's other touchdown was to Wes "the machine" Welker -- who scored easily on a blown coverage. Oh, and it's amazing how much better the offense plays when they get those wide-receiver screens to work. Forces the defense to change and with Moss and Welker, they have the players to exploit those changes.

Special teams was competent. Very good kickoff coverage, some mistakes on punt coverage, and one big punt return by Welker. Gostkowski wasn't challenged really, with field goals of only 31 and 40 yards. But no huge mistakes, just solid play.

So where does that leave us? One game out of first place in the AFC East, behind victorious Buffalo, and preparing to face the suddenly surging Rams (two straight wins) this Sunday. The Patriots realistically need to win on Sunday, because the next week they play in Indianapolis, and the Colts are likely to be desperate for a win at that point. And if the Patriots plan to make the playoffs, they need to beat the teams they should beat, and the Rams are one of them. Also of note are two significant injuries: Laurence Maroney and Rodney Harrison are both out for the year. Here's hoping LaMont Jordan comes back soon and Brandon Meriweather is ready for prime time.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots had 34 passing plays (24 pass attempts, 6 sacks, 4 scrambles), 34 running plays, and had four QB rushes (which could have been either). Is that balanced enough for ya, pundits?!?!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "With Maroney out and LaMont Jordan and Sammie Morris injured, even more pressure will be on Cassel. But with Kevin Faulk likely playing more, his pass protection should be better, so that should help."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-2!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Patriots 10, Chargers 30 (10/12/2008)

Which term do you guys prefer: Jekyll-and-Hyde team; Elevator team (i.e. up-and-down); Trick-or-treat team (almost Halloween, after all); Windows team (works fine one week, crashes the next); or Heart-attack team? Well, whatever you call them, it's clear that you never know what you're going to get from the 2008 New England Patriots. Last week they won in every phase of the game and beat San Fran 30-21; this week San Diego won in every phase of the game and thrashed the Patriots 30-10. The loss leaves them one game behind the idle Bills and tied for second with the hated Jets. And with nemesis Denver coming to town next week, they might be .500 before they get better.

When you're part of the NFL pack instead of a leading light there isn't much difference between winning and losing. Last night's game was a perfect example. Halfway through the second quarter, the Pats settled for a field goal after a long pass to Randy Moss went incomplete. If the referees had called the obvious holding penalty on that play, they might have scored a touchdown instead and only been down 10-7. And on their first drive of the second half, the Patriots had a first and goal at the Chargers one yard-line, and poor play calling and execution left them with no points at all. Couple a score there with a touchdown instead of a field goal earlier, and it could have been 17-14. But instead the Chargers drove the length of the field and made it a 24-3 rout. Two plays sequences that could have changed the outcome of a game that was a laugher by the end -- both plays the Patriots would have made in the past.

And I don't mean to say the Patriots got robbed by the officials or were a play or two away from actually winning. The Chargers game plan, play calling, and execution of offense, defense, and special teams was far superior to the Patriots. The Patriots defense pretty much stopped the run, only to be beaten repeatedly for long passes. The Patriots offense was always in second- and third-and-long situations, and even their special teams were markedly outplayed by San Diego.

So who played well? Alright, alright... who didn't stink up the joint? Wes Welker, Kevin Faulk, Sammie Morris on offense. Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork on defense. Ellis Hobbs on special teams.

Who played just dreadfully? Randy Moss, Nick Kazcur, Dan Koppen on offense. Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Ellis Hobbs, James Sanders, Deltha O'Neal, Terrence Wheatley, Adalius Thomas on defense. No one on special teams.

What does that leave? 30 other players who were mediocre or not-truly-awful. And that won't get it done against any decent team in the league. With the talent the Patriots have, they might be able to just show up to get a winagainst the Rams, Seattle, and Oakland. But that leaves eight other games where the outcome will be in serious doubt and you just won't know how the Patriots are likely to do until it all gets started.

I haven't seen that kind of Patriots uncertainty since the fall of 2001, when Brady first started. But if Matt Cassel expects to get close to Brady's performance that year, he needs to do three things:

First, he needs to keep his eyes down the field when he scrambles. He's leaving too many plays on the field (he missed Wes Welker for about 15 yards when he scrambled for 3 yards in the third quarter). Second, he must be more accurate with long throws. Teams will be stacking up against the run and short throws, and with Randy Moss, those long passes will be there, so he has to hit them. And third, he needs to start calling audibles to get the Patriots out of bad plays. Too often I've seen teams put eight or nine men at the line to stop the run and the Patriots run right into it. If the coaches are telling him not to audible, it's time to take off the training wheels and see what he can do. In fact, he seemed to do better in the no-huddle, so it might be time to open the game with that.

As for the rest of the team; they got out-hustled, out-hit, out-coached, out-schemed, and out-played by San Diego. The good news is that it's only one game. The bad news is that the schedule is full of teams that are at least as good as the Chargers (Denver, Indy, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, etc.). So if the Patriots don't get more consistent effort and don't improve their preparation, it will soon be time to start talking about next year's draft.

So where does that leave us? One game behind in the division with historical nemesis Denver a week from tonight. The Patriots are 15-24 all time against the Broncos, so don't expect much help from them. Luckily, I won't be there to witness the likely carnage; but over the past few years, this up-coming tilt with Denver is exactly the kind of game they have won -- the game where no one (even me) gave them much of a chance.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: I don't want to think about the Patriots any more, but here's an odd statistic about the New York Giants. They are leading the league in time of possession (34:15 per game), but they have the second-FEWEST total plays from scrimmage (262). Go ahead, I dare you to explain *that* one.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Man, it sucks to be mediocre again."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-2!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Patriots 30, 49ers 21 (10/5/2008)

I don't want you to get too excited, because it was only the 49ers, but the offense looked good and the defense played very well and the Patriots came out of San Francisco with a win for the first time in franchise history. The win gave the Patriots a 3-1 record, a half-game behind division leader Buffalo, and the allowed for a collective sigh of relief after the debacle against Miami two weeks ago.

The offense had many of the qualities you look for in a good NFL team. 39 running plays (excluding 4 Matt Cassel scrambles) to 41 passing plays (including 5 sacks) showed balance. 39:52 time of possession showed good third-down conversions and consistent O-line play. The 66 yard touchdown showed explosiveness and good protection. And consecutive drives of 13, 12, and 10 plays showed good patience and excellent play calling.

Three-and-a-half games into the Matt Cassel era and here's what we know. He can throw it long, short, and he generally makes good decisions. He takes more sacks than he should, and that would be okay except that he still throws interceptions; even though one of them wasn't his fault -- Nick Kaczur's missed block got Cassel hit as he threw his first one yesterday. But Cassel is making progress: looking off receivers, completing bullets into close coverage, making quicker decisions, and taking care of the ball better than Sage Rosenfels (link, you have to see it to believe it).

Cassel was helped yesterday by excellent play from the receivers and a punishing running game. Randy Moss (5 catches, 111 yards and a 66-yard touchdown) was the star, even going over the middle to take what the defense would allow and making a tackle deep in 49er territory after a bad interception by Cassel. Wes Welker (8-73) did what he always does, taking short passes and making yards after the catch to convert first downs and keep the chains moving. And Jabar Gaffney made clutch catches on two of the Patriots field goal drives; which was big in a nine-point win.

The running game wasn't pretty, averaging only 3.3 yards an attempt. But LaMont Jordan and Sammie Morris made enough longish runs to convert first downs or at least keep third downs manageable. And with the large advantage in time of possession, by the fourth quarter the 49ers just couldn't stop the Patriots ground attack. And there's nothing a running back and offensive line like better than blocking an exhausted defense. Laurence Maroney looked awful, running out of bounds less than a yard short of a first down and being tepid all day. I think he's injured, and at this point, it's probably best if he rests to get healthy.

I'd hesitate to say the O-line played a great game, but when you go two-to-one on time of possession and convert over 50% on third down, you must be doing something right. Maybe all five of the sacks were Cassel's fault, but there were also a number of runs that went for very short yardage.

The defense looked more like the defense of 2003 or 2004 (both Super Bowl winning years). Lots of pressure from the front four (though only one sack), timely hitting to break up some passes, a few key interceptions, and a nice mix of blitz to non-blitz calls by defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

Adalius Thomas was the player of the game, with the team's only sack, five tackles, a QB hurry, a tackle for a loss, and a pass knocked down at the line. Two rookie linebackers showed something in the game, with first-rounder Jerod Mayo starting and playing well and undrafted free agent Gary Guyton playing well when he got on the field. I didn't notice Tedy Bruschi much, but Mike Vrabel looked lost on some plays, over-playing the outside edge too often and letting the 49ers QB escape the pocket and make plays.

In the secondary, the safety position outplayed cornerback by a wide margin. Brandon Meriweather and Rodney Harrison both made great plays on their interceptions, and Meriweather's blitz caused another third-down miss by the 49ers, while Harrison made a tackle for a loss and separated receivers from the ball several times. But even with three INTs, the cornerback play was up-and-down. Mostly up, but there were still some missed assignments and wide open receivers. Tough thing is, the receivers were *so* wide open, I couldn't even tell who blew the coverage. So maybe they'll escape my wrath... for this week, anyway. Ellis Hobbs and Deltha O'Neal got burned too often, though O'Neal is playing better as he learns the defense. I've just never felt confident in the secondary since Ty Law left, so I'm hoping the rookie corners can get on the field more so we can see what they're made of.

The defensive line continued its rotation, with Jarvis Green and Mike Wright spelling the starters. It seemed to keep them fresh, and with it showed most in only allowing 1-of-9 third-down conversions and 0-2 fourth-down conversions. I don't know who they will give the prize for best D-lineman of the week -- they all played well but none were outstanding. But I'll leave that up to them.

Special teams continues to be special. Stephen Gostkowski nailed three field goals and had three touchbacks out of seven kickoffs -- which was key against the excellent return tandem of San Fran. The 49er punter did out-kick Chris Hanson, but his average was helped by an 82-yarder and Hanson's was hurt by having to kick short to avoid touchbacks -- though Hanson didn't really do that very well.

And the coaching was much better this week. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels showed imagination and a knack for calling the right play at the right time. And Dean Pees mixed in more blitzes and obviously disguised coverages well enough to get three INTs. Even Bill Belichick made a great call in reviewing a very close third-down play to help sustain a scoring drive.

So where does that leave us? Well, I wish we were all with the team, as they will spend the next week on the west coast to prepare for their game in San Diego next Sunday night. San Diego could be a very tough game, but if the Pats have any belief that they can make the playoffs, they should at least be competitive in this one. At 3-1, they sit a half-game out of first place and would make the playoffs if they started today. Not bad for a team missing its starting QB.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: When Brady went out, many thought the AFC East would be a terrible division where 8-8 or 9-7 could win it. Well, it is one of only two divisions in the entire league that doesn't have a single team with a losing record. (Extra credit if you can name the other division without peeking.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "There was a lot of impressive stuff on Sunday, but I thought coming from behind on the road with 20 unanswered points was the most important thing of all."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-1!