Monday, October 5, 2009

Patriots 27, Ravens 21 (10/4/2009)

You'll pardon me if I'm Ravin' about this victory (cue laugh track). Lots of big plays, momentum swings, scoring on offense and defense, both teams attempting fourth down conversions, trick plays and force fumbles in the kicking game, and finally a victory for the locals. Patriots won the game 27-21 to improve their record to 3-1 and pull into a first place tie in the AFC East.

On Sunday, the defense suited up seven starters who were not Patriots starters at the end of last season, and yet they continue to be the story of the young season. They rank third in the NFL in time-of-possession against and third in total plays from scrimmage against, and that includes two games against clock hogging teams (Jets and Ravens). They give up just north of two touchdowns a game (14.75 points), and the best part is they are young and have tremendous upside. Should be a lot of fun to watch them develop throughout the year. And remember: key inside linebacker Jerod Mayo has yet to play since game 1.

The Brandon twins (Meriweather and McGowan) are *everywhere* on the field, hitting anything that moves and hitting it hard. They are your first and third leading tacklers (respectively), and are rounding into form as a devastating safety combo. And after years of missing the mark with free agent corners, the Pats hit twice this off-season with Leigh Bodden (one INT on Sunday) and Shawn Springs. Between those two and youngsters Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley, the team now has a lot of closing speed and ball skills in the secondary -- something they've lacked since... well, honestly, since Ty Law left in 2005.

It's a good sign that they knock passes away rather than just tackling the receiver after the catch... which happened way too often the past two years. And even though they have only one interception so far (an outstanding grab by Bodden on a terrible throw), they knocked five or six passes into the air yesterday, any of which might have been intercepted with better luck. If they keep up their aggressive play, eventually some of those will become turnovers.

Four weeks into the season the D-line conversion to a 4-3 is still a work in progress, but it showed some great signs yesterday. Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork is still working through an injury, but when he was on the field he was a force against the Ravens. And Mike Wright applied consistent pressure on QB Joe Flacco, getting the teams only two sacks (though he negated one with a penalty). Overall, the line hit Flacco eight times, forced an intentional grounding penalty, and flushed him from the pocket at least four other times. All of that had to factor into his sub-par game, and that's what wins you games in this league -- keep the opposing QB off balance and you're halfway home.

It appears that the linemen they have are better suited to the 4-3, and with the shackles off, Wilfork and the other extremely large men (I'm talking to you, 6' 8", 355-pound Terdell Sands) can stuff the run (though not yesterday) and collapse the pocket with regularity. It's not perfect, and it'll take time for Ty Warren and Jarvis Green to internalize the switch from the 3-4, but again, the change already paid dividends and allows for improvement, too.

And let's not forget the linebackers. With Mayo out, undrafted free agent Gary Guyton is proving to be a decent replacement. Though he lacks Mayo's speed in coverage and instincts against the run, he is currently second on the team in tackles and I haven't noticed him out of position at all. He can't take on O-linemen and win, but few linebackers can. They work best when the D-line handles the big guys and the 'backers are free to roam. Heck, even the god of all linebackers, Ray Lewis, was repeatedly pancaked and pushed seven to ten yards off the play by linemen in yesterday's game.

The rest of the Patriots linebacking crew is a mixed bag. Tully Banta-Cain didn't work out in San Fran, but he's doing well in his return to the Patriots. Pierre Woods and Eric Alexander are really backups that switch time starting, so don't expect much out of them (except on special teams). On the outside, Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess haven't lived up to their reputations, but at least Thomas makes a play now and then and Burgess showed yesterday that he can rush the passer, as long as you don't ask him to do anything else -- like cover a screen or play the run.

On offense, it was nice to have Wes Welker back, but he's obviously not 100%. He still comes out of the game for one-third of the plays, and even when he is out there he and Tom Brady just aren't in sync yet. Speaking of Brady, he is getting better and better in tune with his receivers, beating the blitz for a touchdown to Moss and using play-action fakes to set up quick seam routes and slants. For the second straight game, the opposing linebackers and secondary only knocked down two passes, and got no interceptions (by comparison, three weeks ago the Jets had six and one). All of which means that Brady is hitting his receivers where defenders can't get the ball or throwing it away effectively.

BTW, much maligned Benjamin Watson had two outstanding catches yesterday, acrobatic grabs that helped change field position twice when the Patriots were backed up near their goal line. Neither drive ended in points, but the catches were really remarkable for any tight end, let alone one who's been so often criticized.

Sammy Morris was my offensive star of the game. He got tough yards on fourth-and-1 and third-and-1, scampered for a 12-yard touchdown, and converted two other first downs on scoring drives. The running game wasn't much to behold (2.8 yards a carry), but Morris, Kevin Faulk, and Fred Taylor continued to carry the load. Meanwhile, starter Laurence Maroney didn't do much to help his cause yesterday: 7 carries for 6 yards -- yuck! One great catch-and-run and a lot of run-for-a-loss. He needs to spend more time with Taylor to find out how to get a few yards on plays that are stacked up.

Despite the lackluster running attack, the O-line did a decent job. The Ravens employed surprisingly few blitzes, but when they did bring the heat it was usually picked up (save for Terrell Suggs' strip-sack that went for a defensive touchdown). The best part was that the line gave Brady enough time to put the hurt on the Ravens when they did blitz. Not every time but often enough that teams will think twice about trying the overload blitzes that the Jets used so well.

Special teams played a lot better this week, which is to say they were average instead of awful. Only one bad kickoff (Gostkowski's last one, a low kick that allowed a 38-yard return), but very good coverage other than that, including a forced fumble that led to the Patriots first points. Also, the Ravens didn't get a single yard on punt returns. However, with the good came the bad, not a lot of great returns for the Patriots, and Kevin Faulk fumbled on a return (fortunately recovered by Leigh Bodden). Oh, and they tried a fake field goal that appeared to fool the Ravens and went for a first down... but Chris Baker (Pats tight end) was called for illegal motion.

I don't know for sure how the new special teams coach will work out, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt since his units are improving. The fake field goal call was gutsy and well designed, and they are forcing special teams turnovers. Hate to say we'll have to wait and see... so maybe I'll say "we'll have to see and wait" instead :)

So where does that leave us? You've heard the old line about how the regular season is "a marathon not a sprint." Well, the Patriots appear to have taken that literally this year. By week 9 or 10, I'd expect Brady and the receivers to be in better sync, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to be healthy, the special teams coverage to be even better, and the defense to turn tipped passes into interceptions.

Next week it's the 4-0 Broncos in Denver. I think those are the scariest nine words I've written all year. But here's our chance to find out of the Broncos or Patriots are for real, and if head man Josh McDaniels is really drowning (as I wrote in my season preview) or if his undefeated team is for real.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Among all NFL teams, the Patriots are tied for first in forced fumbles (6) and tied for last in interceptions (1).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Ben Watson made some absolutely spectacular catches, but he needs to be more consistent. And we need more from him in the red zone."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-1!

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