Monday, September 26, 2011

Bills Comeback, Beat Patriots 34-31

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words:

That's right folks, the Buffalo Bills snapped their 15-game losing streak against the Patriots and vaulted the field to stand atop the entire AFC at 3-0. And I say good for them; they earned it, coming back from a 21-point deficit with timely turnovers and a defense that made the Pats earn every yard in the second half.

The 34-31 Patriots loss leaves them at 2-1, one game back in the AFC East and tied with rival New York for second place. Next week brings a cross-country trip for a tough test against the Raiders in Oakland -- a team that handed the Jets their first loss yesterday, so it will not be an easy game. 

As for the train-wreck yesterday, the blame game begins with quarterback Tom Brady. His 4 interceptions outweighed the gaudy 67% completions and 4 touchdowns. It was Brady's first four-interception game in five years, and only the fourth of his career. Not all of Sunday's INTs were his fault, and one was just bad luck, but two were bad passes, and those two are on Brady. And all four of them were game- or momentum-changers. 

The first came just before the half, with the Patriots leading 21-7 and driving for more. But Brady's sideline throw to Danny Woodhead was behind him and low, and when Woodhead popped it up corner Bryan Scott made a great play to pick it. The Bills drove the length of the field and nailed a field goal to cut the lead to 11 at the half.

The Bills got the ball first in the second half, but the Patriots defense held them to a three-and-out and the Pats had the ball in great field position at their own 43 yard line. However, on the first play, Chad Ochocinco ran a lazy route and was undercut by Leodis McKelvin for the second pick. Buffalo drove for a touchdown and the lead was down to 4 points. 

A few drives later, the Patriots were closing in on a game-clinching score (would have made it a 14 point game) when Brady threw to a covered Rob Gronkowski and it was picked again. Brady had no business throwing this one, it was second-and-two, so a throw-away or dump off was the correct play with the primary receiver covered. Two plays (and two huge penalties) later the Bill scored a game-tying touchdown, knotting it at 24 with 10:36 left in the game.

Even with all that, the game was still winnable, until... on the next play from scrimmage, Brady's throw was tipped by a defensive lineman and run back for a touchdown -- 31-24 Bills. Not Brady's fault, more of a fluke. But now playing catch up, the Patriots took 7:00 to score a touchdown to tie the game again. However, with the game tied and only 3:30 left on the clock, the Bills ran it down and kicked a field goal to win as time expired.

There are your 350 words on what Brady did wrong. Here are a few for Chad Ochocinco. His lazy in-cut let up an interception, one that should only partially be blamed on Brady. And his drop of an easy -- and I mean really easy -- touchdown with 8:18 left in the game forced two fourth-down conversions and ate up almost 5:00 of additional time. Ochocinco ran the right route, he was in the correct position, and all he had to do was catch it. And if he made that catch, the Patriots would have had time to come back for a tying (or perhaps winning) score at the end. But his drop let Buffalo run out the clock.

And a little slice of blame for offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien:
  • Danny Woodhead should not run out of running formations, he is more effective out of the shotgun.
  • Every time Brady moves the running back from left-to-right or right-to-left, it's a pass play. If I figured that out, trust me, the opposing defenses know it, too.
  • Your wide receivers caught 3 passes for 33 yards (0 for 0 by Deion Branch); so I'd suggest giving Matthew Slater a try before you get your tight ends and Wes Welker killed.
  • A healthy 4.2 yards per rush yesterday, but only 26 running plays and 45 passing plays... ever hear of using up some clock once you have a lead?
  • Average yards per rush by your running backs this year: BenJarvus Green-Ellis = 3.6, Danny Woodhead = 4.3, Stevan Ridley = 5.9. I'm no math wiz, but Ridley should start, and you should ride him as far as he takes you. He appears to know the pass protections well enough, so why was he riding the pine most of the game?
And the tiniest slice of blame for a defense that forced three three-and-outs in the last 30 minutes. They just couldn't stop the Bills at the end of either half, which hurt a lot. But Kyle Arrington's two early interceptions set the Patriots up with the 21-0 lead. Add to that the Patriots offense turned the ball over on four of their last eight possessions, and this loss lands squarely on Brady and his mates.

Worst of the rest:
  • Devin McCourty isn't awful out there, but he needs to get in position to stop completions instead of making tackles.
  • Leigh Bodden has not regained his 2009 form. He looks like a statue in press coverage and a windmill in zone.
  • I didn't check the game film, but it appears the Patriots played with only one safety. Sergio Brown made a few plays, but Josh Barrett (#30) could have been in an Umpire's uniform for all the good he did you out there.
  • (Note on above point, why oh why did the Patriots release safety James Sanders? If they knew they might cut Brandon Meriweather, they should have kept Sanders around for depth.)
  • Brandon Spikes, stop standing around cheering your teammates and make a play.
  • The roughing the passer call on Kyle Love was BS.
  • Still not getting much pressure on the quarterback, but they have to straighten out the safety position before blitzing more.
  • Jermaine Cunningham, still lost 1+ year in -- could he be the Meriweather of linebackers?
The bright spots:
  • Four words... Wes Welker is amazing. 16 catches for 217 yards and 2 touchdowns (1 on fourth-and-goal). Thank you Miami for letting him go!
  • Defensive line played pretty well; most of Fred Jackson's yards came at the expense of the linebackers and safeties.
  • Andre Carter held up the edge well and blew up two plays before they got started.
  • Lack of offensive line depth didn't hurt any in this game: 0 sacks and only 4 quarterback hits on the day.
  • The aforementioned Ridley: 7 rushes for 6.3 yards a carry.

So where does that leave us? Well, 2-1 is worse than 3-0 but not exactly a disaster. The Patriots lost a game they should have won, and it doesn't get any easier from here -- Oakland and then the New York Jets. The best hope for this Sunday is the Patriots having some strange new defensive wrinkles for Oakland QB Jason Campbell. Last time he played New England he had 1 interception and 3 fumbles.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots top three tacklers were all cornerbacks (McCourty 11, Bodden 7, Arrington 6).

Statistical Marvel of the Week: Wes Welker accounted for 14 first downs in the game. You read that right, 14.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If they knew Meriweather was on the outs, they should have kept Sanders around. All the new defensive linemen won't do much good if they can't cover receivers."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  2-1!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fixing Football: Fake Injuries Edition

Fake injuries are in the news, but they are hardly new. Defenses used them to slow down the Colts last year, Kurt Warner’s “Greatest Show on Turf,” Jim Kelly and Buffalo’s K-Gun, the Run-and-Shoot of Mouse Davis, and the Bengals’ no-huddle under Sam Wyche. And that’s just a partial list of the last few decades... don’t think for a second that Otto Graham and Bart Starr never faced fakers.

Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita admitted that teams sometimes pre-call a phony injury in the huddle. And if you need proof, Fujita’s 2010 teammate Blake Costanzo faked one to slow down the Patriots just last year (8:30 left in the fourth quarter, if you care to check).  New York Giants’ safety Deon Grant might have put this issue back in the spotlight, but he hardly invented the idea.

No question this goes on, and it constitutes a clear abuse of rules put in place to protect players. The NFL responded the way it usually does, with a sternly worded memo, threatening to fine or suspend players engaged in the practice. That step is long overdue, and it might reduce the number of obvious fakers, but it does not go far enough -- not by a long shot.

If the league really wants to get serious about this issue, commissioner Roger Goodell has to take two more steps: and additional memo this year, and a rule change for next year.

The memo should read, in part:

The head coach of any team that is determined to fake injury in order to gain advantage in a game will be suspended without pay for one game. A second offense will result in a two-game suspension, and a third offense will result in suspension for the remainder of the season.

Players don’t fake injuries on their own, the orders come from coaches. And if head coaches know they risk suspension, they will think twice about having players to take a dive. Especially if they risk losing money and even more especially if they risk losing an entire season.

The second part of the fix will have to wait until 2012, because it requires a new on-field rule -- something Goodell should push for this off-season. The rule would simply be that when a timeout is called for a player injury, that player cannot reenter the game until the after the next change of possession. In future seasons, this will make coaches and players less apt to use fake injuries as an in-game strategy, because it could leave them short-handed as a drive progressed.

These changes will not eliminate faking from the game; and neither would have changed what happened last Monday night. But in combination with threatened player suspensions, they are the best steps to reduce phony injuries as much as possible. Player safety should always be of paramount concern, and neither suspending coaches nor removing injured players from the game for a series puts safety at risk.

The rule change would probably be embraced by the NFL’s Competition Committee. Over the last 30 years, they favored rules that led to more offense and scoring. And any rule that allowed offenses to dictate the pace of the game and matchups on the field would certainly help with that goal.

Unfortunately, Goodell will not get the green-light to fine or suspend head coaches if players fake injury. The commissioner still works for the owners, and owners will protect head coaches, especially if the coach is winning games. Owners simply won’t allow this to happen, and Goodell probably knows that.

However, Goodell should push on both fronts. The NFL’s record on player safety is light-years better than just 15 years ago. But phony injuries slow down the game and create an unfair disadvantage for teams that run hurry-up offenses. And having players abuse rules designed to protect them is unacceptable, so the commissioner should do everything in his power to eliminate as many faked injuries as possible.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Patriots Capitalize on Chargers Miscues, Win 35-21

The Patriots took another game from the fumbling Chargers yesterday, winning 35-21 over Norv Turner's mistake-ridden and unprepared team. They capitalized on four San Diego turnovers to turn a close game into a comfortable win. (Trivia question: when was the last time San Diego had four turnovers against the Patriots? Answer below.) The victory helped the Patriots keep pace with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, all three tied at 2-0 atop the AFC East. And the division race will start to take shape with a showdown in Buffalo next week.

Tom Brady completed passes to five different receivers on the first drive, and didn't slow down much all afternoon. He ended the day 31 of 40 for 423 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a 135.7 rating. He was sacked twice, once on a blown play by Rob Gronkowski and the other was a coverage sack. Other than that, the offensive line did a terrific job keeping him clean.

His favorite receiver was Deion Branch, who had 8 catches for 129 yards. Most importantly, his yards after the catch got first downs three or four times, and his two sideline grabs late in the second quarter allowed the Patriots to tack on three more points before the half. Wes Welker pitched in his usual workmanlike 7 for 81, and the seemingly unstoppable Aaron Hernandez notched 7 for 62, and 1 touchdown. Even Chad Ochocinco caught 2 for 45 yards, one a nice open field grab and the other a critical third-down conversion before the Hernandez touchdown.  The receivers and tight ends also did a great job blocking downfield for each other and in the running game.

(One parenthetical note: the referees don't seem to call pass interference on plays against Patriots receivers as quickly as they call it against the Patriots defense. Rob Gronkowski was clearly interfered with on a crucial third-down early in the second half, but the refs let it go and the Patriots had to punt. But they had no problem throwing a flag when faced with a similar situation involving Antonio Gates. They were both clearly interference; so it would be nice to see equal treatment. End of rant.)

The running game retains its "afterthought" status, but as a unit they averaged 4.0 yards a carry. BenJarvus Green-Ellis continues to be the workhorse, with 17 carries, 70 yards, and 1 nice touchdown run. The Patriots lined up rookie tackle Nate Solder as a tight end, and ran around end a lot, with some success. Danny Woodhead was less effective than usual out of the shotgun, and as noted by my friend Al (The Foxboro Weather God), he always uses the cut-block on bigger players, which limits what Brady can do when the other team brings bigger blitzers. Kevin Faulk possesses the size to take on those blitzers, but he is still weeks away from playing.

Overall the offensive line played well, giving Brady time to survey the field and mostly keeping him clean. Gronkowski counts as a linemen in run blocking, and he regularly pancakes guys five yards downfield. Newcomer Brian Waters fit right in from the start, picking up the offense quickly and doing a nice job in pass protection and screen passes. Matt Light had a double-block on Green-Ellis' touchdown, and Dan Connolly hasn't blown a snap since taking over for the injured Dan Koppen at center. So much change and such good results... that earns line coach Dante Scarnecchia his first shout-out of the year.

No shout-out for defensive backs coach Josh Boyer, though. The Patriots secondary gave up too many easy yards, especially after cornerback Ras-I Dowling went to the sideline with an injury. Leigh Bodden looked like he was directing traffic, not playing defense. And Devin McCourty got out-schemed, out-jumped, and out-smarted on too many plays for the second straight week. If not for safety Sergio Brown's first interception and decent tackling by Brown and Patrick Chung, the entire game would have been an unmitigated disaster for the secondary.

The Chargers also exposed a critical lack of depth in the Patriots linebacking corps. Jerod Mayo led the team in tackles, forced a fumble and made an absolutely critical stop on fourth-and-goal at the Patriots 1 yard-line. Rob Ninkovich, a spot starter at OLB, recovered that fumble and got at least some pressure on the quarterback. However, the rest of the group could have taken the day off. Dane Fletcher is making progress but still learning, and Brandon Spikes looked absolutely lost. Coverage in the underneath zones was terrible, the secondary had three of the top four tacklers on the team, and the run defense consisted of tackles at the line or by Mayo -- or long gains stopped by the secondary.

Tough to run a 4-3 defense when you only play 4 or 5 linebackers. So they better call up someone from the practice squad or start getting production out of Spikes or playing time out of Jermaine Cunningham. Otherwise they'll be force to a 5-2 defense before you know it.

The defensive line held up well, though they did not get much pressure. This is to be expected -- until the secondary shows it can handle man-coverage when they blitz, there won't be any extra pass rushers, and so not as much pressure as you might expect with all the talent up front. But for this game, the lack of pressure did not bite them. The rotation of players keeps them fresh, and clogged up the running game, forcing San Diego to pass (not that that bothered the Chargers).

Vince Wilfork had the defensive highlight of the game, intercepting a screen pass and getting enough return yards to allow the Patriots to score a field goal late in the second half. Wilfork made a great read and tipped the ball to himself, and he looked pretty nimble for a lineman. The entire line had only 4 tackles and assisted on 3 others, but they held the line against a very good Chargers offense, and they are working their way into shape so their best players can be on the field together in crucial game situations later in the season.

Special teams specialists Matthew Slater and Tracy White had three big tackles between them. They seem to feed off each other's energy, topping one another whenever possible and celebrating big hits like rookies. And after last week's uncharacteristic missed field goal, Stephen Gostkowski was a perfect 2-2 this week, so if there was a problem with the long snapping it appears to be straightened out.

The biggest worry on special teams is the health of punter Zoltan Mesko. He hurt his left leg when one of his own players was blocked into him after a punt out of the end zone. And reportedly because of the injury, the Patriots eschewed a punt from their own 50 yard line, instead going for it on fourth-and-four -- and failing. Mesko's average is low, but that's mostly because he's been kicking to a short field. The Patriots could survive if he was out for a while, but he's the holder on field goals, so his absence would be doubly felt.

The offensive coaches should take a bow for their well-designed and executed plan. Obviously an offense ranked third in the league is pretty potent, and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien deserves credit for that. As mentioned, the secondary looks like the least prepared part of the team, though with all the new faces it is a work in progress.

So where does that leave us? 2-0 and tied for the lead in the AFC East is a good place to be. The Patriots head to Buffalo for a divisional showdown with the surprising Bills next Sunday, and if history serves, they should leave with a win. The Bills generally play the Patriots tougher in Foxboro than in Buffalo, but then they usually aren't leading the league in scoring offense, so this game might be a different story.

Play of the Game: With apologies to Wilfork, it was Mayo's stop on fourth-and-goal. A Chargers touchdown there would have put them in the lead, and instead the Patriots drove it 99 yards and built a 10-point advantage that they never relinquished.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots scored on 99-yard touchdown drive for the second week in a row. I don't have the resources to find out the last time that happened in consecutive weeks; but I'm sure it's an oddity, because I can't remember even one 99-yard touchdown drive in the last decade.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: The 2011 Patriots are on place for 8 turnovers for the year... that would break the record for fewest turnovers in a 16-game season (10), set by the 2010 Patriots.

Double-bonus Statistical Oddity: There are four undefeated teams in the AFC right now, and three of them are in the AFC East.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Miami's offense isn't good and the Chargers always self-destruct early in the season. Let's see how the Patriots handle a real juggernaut... the always tough Buffalo Bills :)"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer: of course it was the last time they played -- the Patriots got four turnovers from the Chargers in a 23-20 victory last year.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Brady Dominates, Patriots Prevail 38-24

Not bad for week #1, eh? In a dazzling aerial display for the ages, quarterbacks Tom Brady and Chad Henne combined for an NFL record 906 yards, Brady tossed a 99-yard touchdown to Wes Welker, and the exhausted defenses can finally rest after the Patriots notched a 38-24 victory over the Dolphins. The win locked the Patriots in an early-season three-way tie with the Jets and Bills for first place in the AFC East, and they have a short week to prepare for a Sunday tilt with the San Diego Chargers.

Brady completed 32 of 48 passes (66.7%) for 4 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a 121.6 quarterback rating. He was in clear command the entire game, running the no huddle to stop the Dolphins from substituting and wearing them down with pinpoint passes that kept drives alive and the defense stuck on the field. Even his first interception in eleven regular-season games was a fluke -- a batted ball grabbed by a defensive lineman. Didn't look like much rust got on Brady during the lockout.

Brady's favorite receivers were tight ends Aaron Hernandez (7 catches for 103 yards and 1 touchdown), Rob Gronkowski (6-86, 1 touchdown), and slot receiver Welker (8-160, 2 touchdowns). Hernandez made tough catches along the sideline and in the end zone, while Gronkowski did most of his damage in the deep middle. Welker was his usual self, catches underneath on slants and curls. But he saved his best for last, a 99-yard catch and run to tie the NFL record for longest play from scrimmage.

The first time you heard Chad Ochocinco's name was for a dumb penalty that negated a 41-yard Gronkowski catch; though Ocho did get his first catch in limited playing time. Deion Branch grabbed 7 catches for 93 yards, and Brady targeted Matthew Slater twice on deep balls (hitting him once for 46 yards), so it appears the Patriots think he's their deep threat... along with the tight ends.

Running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead each averaged 4.9 yards a carry, and ran for a total of 103 yards -- no easy thing when there is so much passing. Woodhead's shifty style gave the Dolphins problems when the Pats ran from the shotgun, and he was especially good in blitz pickup, knocking heads with guys almost twice his size and holding his own. Green-Ellis showed unusual quickness in making the first Miami defenders miss, and ran over two guys for an early touchdown.

The offensive line was mostly up but some down. Rookie Nate Solder started at right tackle, and whiffed on a few running plays but mostly did a great job against Miami's Cameron Wake in pass protection. Newcomer Brian Waters played after just a week of practice and mostly looked like a seasoned veteran. And Matt Light finally, *finally* controlled pass rushing specialist Jason Taylor. Who knew all he needed was for Taylor to get old.

One injury of note on the offensive line; center Dan Koppen left in the second quarter, with what looked like a nasty turned ankle. Props to Dan Connolly for stepping in and not missing a beat. Connolly's shotgun snaps were a little bit high, and the Dolphins got a bit more pressure up the middle with Connolly in there, but overall a very good performance under difficult circumstances.

The defensive line fought a war of attrition against the heat, and they won by rotating players to keep them rested. And the rotation itself was interesting, with the coaches always making sure they had two of their four best linemen (Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, and Andre Carter) on the field at all times. Believe it or not, it worked out pretty much like most people thought, making it very difficult to run the ball (13 carries for 39 yards by the Miami running backs) and pushing the pocket back toward the quarterback.

What didn't work out as expected is that the heat took a toll on the pass rush. But still, the Patriots D-line rotation gave them an edge, and they got more pressure on the Dolphins quarterback than Miami ever got on Tom Brady. It will be interesting to see if they stick with the rotation plan or go with their best linemen when they play better opponents.

The linebackers are what we thought they were... Jerod Mayo and a bunch of nondescript guys. Mayo himself had only five tackles and didn't have any impact plays. Rob Ninkovich played OLB and Gary Guyton started inside -- neither did much of anything except make a tackle or two after the catch. And Dane Fletcher did better than you thought he would, but admit it, you didn't expect much from him.

Given the lack of impact by the linebackers, that left most of the tackles in the hands of the secondary. Fortunately, those are pretty sure hands. Devin McCourty didn't exactly continue his shutdown ways from the end of last season. But he led the team in tackles with eleven (two for a loss), defended two passes (including a touchdown-saver on Brandon Marshall), and made Miami's receivers work for every catch and inch of turf after the catch. Not as great as the end of last year, but pretty good.

Leigh Bodden showed no ill effects of his 2010 shoulder injury, defending a pass and slamming several runners before they got around the corner. And he made a crucial stop at the half-yard line, on a drive that ended with no points for Miami, despite being so close.

Rookie Ras-I Dowling competed hard on every play, coming away with a decent game and my respect. Remember, McCourty started his rookie year the same way, okay at first, followed by good, very good, and then excellent. If these three can stay healthy, they will be a formidable group by mid-season. Oh... and some guy named Kyle Arrington lined up at corner, linebacker, and defensive lineman. We all know Bill Belichick likes versatility, but isn't that going a bit far?

The only worry in the secondary is the safety rotation. Patrick Chung make nine bone-crushing tackles, sacked the quarterback once, and defended a down field pass. In reality, he was the second-best linebacker for the Patriots, though he played safety. But his partner in the backfield, Josh Barrett, well he did not impress. He got fooled on several pass plays, including a touchdown, and the hope must be that he and the other young players will improve steadily during the season. Otherwise, Arrington will be at safety before it's all said and done.

The kicking game was excellent except for one play. Zoltan Mesko's average wasn't good, but he kicked to a short field most of the time, and placed one inside the five yard-line to change field position. And Stephen Gostkowski's kickoffs were good enough; mostly deep in the end zone, though not through the end zone like in the presason.

The problem was the missed field goal at the end of the half. It was a simple 48 yarder, but it was never even close, going wide right from the start, and keeping it a one-score game at the half. Everything looked okay, but I have to point out that it was the first field-goal snap of Danny Aiken's Patriots career. And given the "three-man operation" that Belichick always talks about, this is cause for slight concern.

The coaching plan was very good. Attacking the Miami defense with the no-huddle, thus exposing their lack of depth by running their best players ragged, was an inspired idea. Don't be surprised to see more teams do that if they think they have a depth advantage. And the offensive play-calling was spot on -- even passes that fell incomplete were mostly toward receivers who were open.

So where does that leave us? 1-0 is better than 0-1, and it puts the Patriots in a three-way tie for first place at this point. Monday night games always mean short preparation weeks for the next game, which is against San Diego. However, the Chargers have several key injuries, and they won a game already, which is about their quota for the month of September.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: 86 years they've been playing NFL football, and 906 combined passing yards is the highest total ever. No one will find a stat more unusual than that.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Henne piled up numbers against a prevent defense... so remind me again, why do teams play that anymore."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  1-0!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Patriots 2011 The Schedule: Where Are The Losses?

So here goes another fearless attempt to predict the Patriots record, including my best try at predicting each game as a win or loss.  As always, the season is broken up into four, four-game quarters.

First Quarter:

The season starts with a bang, a prime-time game against the Dolphins in Miami on Monday night. The first game can be tough to figure out, because teams show so little in the preseason.  But Miami quarterback Chad Henne has just one decent game against the Patriots, and in the battle of surprise innovations from the off-season, Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, and Andre Carter trump Reggie Bush.  Give the game to the Pats.

They follow with the Chargers at home on a short week. Normally a very tough thing, especially against a talented offense like the San Diego. But the Patriots talent upgrade on the defensive line and at cornerback should be enough to slow down the passing attack of Phillip Rivers. Besides, Norv Turner might be the least prepared coach when the season starts, so the Patriots should win, but a close one.

Thankfully the Bills game is in Buffalo, because the Patriots just feast on the defense there. The Bills last beat the Patriots in 2003, here are the scores from Buffalo since then: 31-17, 35-7, 28-6, 56-10, 13-0, 17-10, 34-3. Buffalo actually plays the Patriots tougher in Foxboro, so expect a win here, even with head coach Chan Gailey's revamped offense.

The Pats travel to Oakland to take on the Raiders next. The Raiders will turn this into a dogfight, because they get after the passer well and like to run the ball. However, they face a beefed up defensive line, and they don't have Nnamdi Asomugha to shut down one side of the field. On the other hand, the game is sandwiched between two division games for the Patriots, all of which makes it a difficult game to figure. But something tells me Bill Belichick has a few tricks up his sleeve for Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell, so a close one but a Patriots win.

Second Quarter:

Next up is a home game against the Jets, and frankly it looks like a win. New York plays Rex Ryan's old team, the Baltimore Ravens, the week before, and that will be an emotionally draining one where he pulls out all the stops for the win. And the Ravens are a tough, physical team, the Jets second in two weeks (they play the Raiders in Oakland the week before). Depending on how the Patriots new secondary gels, this could be a blowout, but don't expect that.

Then comes a very dangerous game. The Cowboys have a bye week and then stop by Foxboro for a 4:15 game. Here's the reason for concern -- remember that Rob Ryan (Rex's brother) is the defensive coordinator for Dallas. And the last time he had two weeks to prepare for the Patriots, his Cleveland Browns handed the Pats a 34-14 loss (just last year, in fact). There is nothing other than that to indicate a Cowboys victory, but I'm predicting one anyway. Last year at this time I thought the Browns would be no problem, but when I realized the situation closer to the day I re-thought it and warned people to be careful of the Browns. We'll see how it works out this time.

Pats have a bye, and then face the Steelers in Pittsburgh. As usual, they will prevail -- Tom Brady owns the Steelers, home, away, regular season, and playoffs. Besides the Steelers play their nemesis (the Ravens) the next week, and they'll be distracted by that division tilt more than they should.

The Giants visit Foxboro the next week, for a rematch of Super Bowl XLII. Whether or not the Patriots have revenge on their minds, the Giants defense is a mass of injuries and their receiving corps is sub-par. Looks like another win... but then so did that Super Bowl :(

Third Quarter:

Jets at home, a team desperate to beat the Patriots and validate all their coach's tough talk -- it is tough to sweep division foes who are evenly matched. New York plays four days later in Denver, and they will probably lose that one, but Ryan puts everything into this game and gets the win over the Patriots.

Patriots over the Chiefs in a Foxboro Monday Night game is one of the easier predictions of the schedule. Kansas City has a tough division game the week before, and the Patriots are a superior team. Bill Belichick also knows a thing or two about how to stop the KC quarterback -- some guy named Matt Cassel; maybe you heard of him.

Pats then travel on a short week to face the Eagles and their ultra-talented secondary and explosive offense. Short week, on the road, facing a great defensive secondary and offensive play-makers all of the field -- so why do I feel like the Patriots will win this one? Philly has a division prime time game the week before and a Thursday night road game in Seattle after. And the Patriots have essentially bye weeks before and after (against Kansas City and a Manningless Indy). And something tells me that Michael Vick won't be running much against Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, and company. I'm going with my gut -- Patriots win.

The Colts come to Gillette next, and without Peyton Manning (or with a just-returned Manning) there is no way Indy leaves with a win. Etch this one in stone, Pats victory.

Fourth Quarter:

Like Oakland before them, Washington has consecutive home games against the Jets and Patriots. In both cases, that's a tough row to hoe, and they follow the Patriots game with a critical division game against the Giants. Rex Grossman should be Rex Grossman by then (with his 0-1 record and zero touchdowns and 3 interceptions against the Patriots). Pats should get the win.

New England never beats the Broncos in Denver -- mostly doesn't matter how talented each team is or who is coaching them. So mark down a loss on December 18. And make other plans for the day, unless you are a hardcore fan there's no reason to watch the Pats falter there again.

The Miami Dolphins show up after that for their annual wintertime slaughter at the hands of their more talented division foe.

And the Bills have  only one chance to win the last game of the season -- if it means nothing to the Patriots. Otherwise, Chan Gailey's offense will be grounded by bad weather and the Patriots, who thrive in bad conditions, should prevail.


So that looks like a 13-3 finish, and 14-2 if they take care of business against the Cowboys. Anything north of 12-4 virtually guarantees a playoff berth, so they are in good shape to return to the post-season, injuries and the unexpected notwithstanding.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Rex Ryan lost two AFC Championship Games in the last two years. The Patriots haven't lost that many in franchise history -- losing just once in 51 years. Congratulations, Rex!!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Patriots 2011 Kicking/Coaching: Little Change

Changes to the kicking game mostly revolve around new kickoff rules, whereas coaching changes are virtually non-existent.

Significant Arrivals: long snapper Danny Aiken

Significant Departures: receiver Brandon Tate

1. Ruling Authority

In order to protect players from injury, the NFL made two significant changes to the kickoff: (1) teams kickoff from the 35 instead of the 30; and (2) players on the kicking team can't get more than a five-yard running start on the play, so they can't line up any further back than the 30 yard-line.

The rule immediately resulted in more touch backs, and reduced the value of good kickoff returners. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski's kicks went deep into the end zone, and even though the Giants returned all four in their game, their average starting position on those drives was inside the 15 yard line. Gostkowski got touch backs when kicking from the 30 yard line, so expect a lot more of them this season.

The second result of the changes was Tate being cut. He never distinguished himself as a receiver, so when this rule reduced his impact as a returner, he became expendable.

2. Three-man Operation

The Patriots are on their third long-snapper in two seasons, which is a little strange because they've had good luck there over the years. Jake Ingram was rock solid in 2009, but got the "yips" halfway through 2010 and was replaced by Matt Katula. Then Katula nailed every snap for the rest of the year, but he was cut and replaced by new snapper Aiken.

Through it all, Gostkowski and punter Zoltan Mesko continue unphased by the changes around them. Gostkowski is the most accurate kicker in team history, and Mesko was very good on punts and is also the holder on field goals, and he handled that role flawlessly last year.

3. Promotion Earned?

Perhaps the biggest coaching change was the official coronation of Bill O'Brien as the offensive coordinator. But the promotion makes one wonder what he did to earn it.

Sure, the Patriots offense topped the league in points scored last year. But in the playoffs, when the games count for so much more, O'Brien failed to adjust his scheme until too late in the game, continuing to throw against a defense designed to stop the pass.

The Patriots did not promote O'Brien in 2010, perhaps thinking he didn't have the experience or hadn't shown them enough to merit the title. The playoff loss to the Jets did nothing to increase his stature in my mind; so I'm not sure why the Patriots decided to give him a title he might not have earned at this point.

4. Summary

Not much to see here folks. Unless you like the touch back, you won't like the new kickoff rules, but if it reduces the number of spinal cord injuries then it's a good thing. The new snapper did well in the preseason, so no big change there. And we won't know if offensive coordinator O'Brien has improved until/unless he shows the ability to adjust quickly to schemes that catch him off-guard -- especially in the playoffs.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  Still 0-0!

Patriots 2011 Defense: Value Add

The defensive side of the ball will see most of the changes for the 2011 Patriots. They brought in significant talent to bolster the defensive line and will get a key veteran back in the secondary. But note: for all the hand-wringing about this side of the ball, the Patriots ranked eighth in the league in points allowed last year.

Here is what to expect from the defense this season.

Significant Arrivals: defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, defensive end Andre Carter, defensive end Shaun Ellis, defensive end Mark Anderson.

Significant Departures: linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, defensive end Ty Warren, defensive end Gerard Warren, safety Brandon Meriweather, safety James Sanders, corner Jonathan Wilhite, corner Darius Butler.

1. Talent Show

The improved talent on the defensive line is unmistakable. In the preseason, Carter got around the corner and disrupted the pocket play-after-play. Haynesworth showed up-and-down play in his short stint, but his attitude seems right and he is as destructive force as there is in the league when he is motivated. And Ellis and Anderson were okay in limited reps, though Ellis battled nagging injuries.

Add the new guys to Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork, returning team stalwart Mike Wright, and improving young players Myron Pryor and Kyle Love, and this is clearly the strength of the defense. And if the preseason showed anything it is the Patriots will use their front four to collapse the pocket from the inside instead of depending on linebackers to do it from the outside.

Also, with the new talent up front, linebackers Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, and surprising Dane Fletcher caused real confusion when they mixed into the blitz packages.

2.  Secondary: Rebirth or Implosion?

Corner Leigh Bodden returns to a secondary with second-year sensation Devin McCourty at the other corner, last year's other starting corner Kyle Arrington at nickel back, and playmaker Patrick Chung at safety. If McCourty remains consistent and Bodden recaptures his 2009 magic, it sounds like a tough year for opposing quarterbacks. However, there are questions most everywhere you look.

Depth could be a problem. The Patriots cut longtime solid safety Sanders, inconsistent but talented third-year safety Meriweather, and last year's third safety Jarred Page, leaving them with no proven players to pair with Chung. Frankly, I expected them to pick up a free agent safety once they cut both starters from last year, but no such player was signed.

Additionally, they let go of under-performing former starting corner Butler, and nickel/dime back Wilhite, which makes the secondary look mighty thin. Rookie draftee Ras-I Dowling might help at corner or safety, but we saw little of him in the preseason so there's no way to know what he brings. Years ago, the team went with rookie corner Eugene Wilson at safety and won two consecutive Super Bowls, so they obviously know what they are doing.

Maybe they are counting on the rebuilt defensive line and blitzes to make the secondary's job easy. But given how many of their chips they put into the pot this season, they might have been better off getting either Ellis or Haynesworth, and pairing that with a better safety. We won't know for sure how things shake out Monday night, but given the commitment they made to winning this year it better work.

3. Philosophical Debate

Head coach Bill Belichick gets testy when people wonder whether the Patriots will play more 4-3 or 3-4 this year. The question has relevancy to how the team will do, but there's no sense asking Belichick about it. It's clear -- with a thin linebacking corps and abundant talent on the defensive line, it will be "4-3 or bust!"

The real change isn't player alignment, it's in the new attacking style of defense, which hasn't been seen around here since mid-2007. With pass-rushing specialists and new blitzes in place, they are attacking the line of scrimmage rather than trying to control it. But the key to disrupting the offense still begins and ends with that undermanned secondary.

Over the years, Belichick hesitated to blitz when he doesn't trust his secondary to cover well. He hates giving up big plays, preferring to make the other team earn every yard the hard way. The Patriots start the season with enough talent at their starting corner positions, but perhaps not enough depth there or enough talent/experience at safety.

If the secondary comes through when the Patriots blitz, you will see it all year. If not, no question they will back off the attacking style until they get the secondary right. Like Mike Tyson said: "Everybody has a plan until they get hit." If other teams hit the Patriots with big plays, the attacking philosophy might be the first casualty of the season.

4. Linebackers An Endangered Species?

It was one thing to let got of under-performing safeties and eschew signing any free agent help in the secondary. But the Patriots completely ignored their need at linebacker.

At the moment, it's Jerod Mayo and a bunch of young, unproven, sometimes scary-to-watch players. Gary Guyton is better covering the pass or rushing the quarterback, but lacks the size to hold up against the run. Brandon Spikes barely saw the field in the preseason. Jermaine Cunningham looks just as lost as ever. And newcomer A.J. Edds hasn't been with the team long enough to do much of anything (he was signed last week).

It isn't all bad; second-year inside linebacker Dane Fletcher showed good read-and-react ability in the preseason. He rarely got caught out of position and made several tackles for a loss, blowing up one running play before it ever got started. And even though Rob Ninkovich is listed as a defensive end now, he is more of a linebacker, and was solid (if not spectacular) last year.

However, much like the situation in the secondary, the team probably would have been better off getting at least one dependable linebacker to compliment all the brought in for the defensive line. The talent is not spread evenly on this defense. That might not matter, especially if the line can dominate. But it's no small risk to leave yourself short-handed at both linebacker and safety, especially going into an season with such high expectations.

5. Summary

To cover for potential problems in the secondary, look for either Dowling or Arrington to get time at safety this season. Both have the size and competitive spirit to stay with larger tight ends and cover the third-best receiver in a pinch. As for linebacker -- with huge and talented linemen taking up blockers, they should be fine against the run. The talent drop-off from Mayo to the rest of the linebackers will show itself against the pass, if the D-line can't get to the quarterback.

But I expect all of this to be moot. The defensive line is talented and motivated enough to cover up a lot of other problems. The Patriots kept 11 linemen, so they can rotate them to keep them fresh and healthy throughout the season. And if that plan works out, the Patriots defense should join a dominant offense in the ranks of the league's best.

Statistical Oddity of the Day: For all the bluster about the vaunted Jets defense of "genius" Rex Ryan, the Patriots allowed just 9 more points than the Jets (313 to 304).

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

Patriots 2011 Offense: Steady As She Goes

Don't expect much change from the Patriots offense this year. In 2010, they led the NFL in scoring, the only team to top 500 points for the year.  And they lost virtually no one, and added only some complimentary pieces and building blocks for the future.

Here is what you might expect from the 2011 Patriots offense.

Significant Departures: guard Stephen Neal, wide receiver Brandon Tate

Significant Arrivals: guard Brian Waters, tackle Nate Solder, wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, and running back Stevan Ridley.

1. Sophomore receivers

Second-year tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski burst on the scene last year, combining for 87 catches, 1109 yards, and 16 touchdowns. To this point, Hernandez followed that up with an excellent preseason, proving Tom Brady's most reliable target. Gronkowski caught just one pass, but blocked like a beast in both the run and pass games, and according to reports will be targeted often in the red zone once the regular season starts.

Taylor Price played only one game as a rookie in 2010 and had just 3 catches for 41 yards, not much production for a player drafted between Gronkowski and Hernandez. As the team enters the 2011 season, Price represents their best hope for a deep threat. He has the speed to do it; does he have the knowledge of the offense and the work ethic? Stay tuned.

The second-year performances of these three receivers are key, and the Patriots hope to avoid the kind of sophomore slump that has hit some of their successful young starters in the past. Hernandez and Gronkowski look like sure bets; but Price was up-and-down in the preseason. However, if Price can step up his game in the regular season, he possesses the speed to give the Patriots a true deep threat, something they did not address in the off-season.

2. Ridley... believe it or not

Ridley averaged six yards rushing this preseason and learned the pass blocking scheme even quicker than Danny Woodhead. His balance and nose for the end zone make him a threat the Patriots haven't had since Corey Dillon.

And now that I completely oversold him, here is the rub. He didn't play much after the first preseason game. And though he could help the Patriots this season, in crunch time they relied on veterans Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

If Ridley is healthy, the Patriots should ride him as far as he lasts. He has the cutting ability of Woodhead, the burst of a wide receiver, the strength of Sammy Morris, and the nose for the end zone of Green-Ellis. And if used properly, he is the only new player who can provide a different dimension to the offense.

3. Oh no, Ocho!

New wide receiver Chad Ochocinco was targeted 10 times this preseason, and had just 3 receptions for 23 yards to show for it. He often looked lost, and though he improved as the games went on, his grasp of the offense didn't develop quickly enough to help much when the season begins. Not exactly what the team was looking for when they traded for him.

As mentioned he improved from game one to game four, and that improvement should continue. Brady will have to resist the temptation to target Ochochino when he isn't open, and the team might have to run some safe routes for him as he works his way into the rotation.

No questioning Ochocinco's talent or effort. But remember Joey Galloway was a veteran who was sure to help in the passing game, and he flamed out completely and was a non-factor. Don't expect the same from Ochocinco -- he's at least getting better. But don't expect anything spectacular from him until at least game four of the regular season.

One other thing to bear in mind: even if Ochocinco does a great job this year, he is nothing but a slight improvement over Deion Branch. Ochocinco lacks the speed to run past defenders, and though he's taller than Branch, he runs the same underneath, quick out routes as the other wide receivers and tight ends.

4. Summary

The Patriots offense didn't need much improving, but counting on second-year players to duplicate or exceed their rookie seasons can be a risky game. Again, by all accounts Woodhead, Hernandez, and Gronkowski will be at least as good in 2011. However, don't count on Price (or fourth-year wideout Matthew Slater) to stretch the field with their speed.

Ridley and fellow rookie Shane Vereen could be sparks at running back, and the offensive line is a bit unsettled but with plenty of talent and one of the best assistant coaches in the league (Dante Scarneccia). And Brady continues his excellent play, with probably his best campaign in 2010. Don't expect a 9-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio -- no chance he repeats that -- but it's a quarterback's league, so enjoy the show while it lasts.

All of which means more of the same... which isn't all that bad when you think about it.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

PPS.  But not for long -- first game tomorrow night!