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!

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