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!

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