Monday, October 10, 2011

Patriots Overwhelm Jets 30-21

In a game dubbed "a battle between hall of fame coaches," the one going the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Bill Belichick) beat the one going to the Blowhard Hall of Fame (Rex Ryan). The Patriots 30-21 win keeps pace with the surprising Buffalo Bills and opens a two-game lead over the Jets in the division. The Cowboys are in town next week, and I hope to be well enough to attend that tilt.

(Note: I was scheduled to be at the game yesterday, but I was a late scratch with a long-lasting flu that left me too weak to properly intimidate the visitors from NY. Fortunately, Al the Foxboro Weather God found a last-minute replacement, who filled in admirably according to all reports, and had a great time to boot! In the Patriots tradition of "Next man up!" -- thank you Steve, for pitching in for the team.)

As for the game, the Drive Chart tells you all you really need to know.  The Jets scored on 3 of 11 possessions, while the Patriots scored on 6 of 11. And the Jets had seven 3-and-out possessions, while the Patriots had just one. Aside from that, there weren't a lot of game-changers: both teams had one big play (73-yard pass by the Pats, 88-yard kick return by the Jets), they combined to lose zero fumbles, and the lone interception (by the Jets) simply kept the score close.

So without the usual game-changers, there wasn't really domination, just a long, slow grind-down of the Jets defense by the Patriots offense.  New England outperformed New York in first downs (26 to 14), third-down efficiency (50% to 27%), yards per pass attempt (7.9 to 5.6), total yards (446 to 255), surprisingly rushing yards (152 to 97), and time of possession (33:55 to 26:05).

The Patriots defense slowed the running game long enough to get the lead, and when the Jets had to make key third-down conversions through the air, one of two things usually happened: either the Jets dropped the ball or the Patriots secondary jumped the short route and forced quarterback Mark Sanchez to throw it away. That is how you get off the field on third-down; though the Patriots can't take all the credit, Jets receivers should take a bow for dropping easy passes that might have extended drives.

The Jets running attack was up-and-down, which is what caused most of their three-and-outs. The largest portion of blame for the big gains lies at the feet of the Patriots linebackers, who were short their best run-stopper (Jerod Mayo) and had multiple breakdowns and missed gaps. The press keeps touting Brandon Spikes for his recent play, but it just doesn't show up on the field. He and Gary Guyton made about 10 of their 15 tackles 7 - 10 yards downfield, and both blitzed into bad spots and missed tackles near the line that could have helped. Oh, and please call the local authorities if you see Jermaine Cunningham, because he is Mr. Invisible out there.

The defensive line did what it could; but mostly they were double-teamed or run away from, so it was the linebackers' responsibility to make tackles. Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork continue to be their most consistent linemen, and they were helped by the return of Albert Haynesworth, who didn't play a lot but was effective when he did. The quarterback pressure still comes from the outside; Mark Anderson got to Sanchez twice, sharing one sack with Rob Ninkovich. Andre Carter hasn't found his pre-season form, but he's better against the run that he showed in the pre-season, which helped against a run-first team like the Jets.

If you listen to the press, you will hear them howl about the secondary again this week. But the fact is the cornerbacks played better in this game. Leigh Bodden actually got in front of a pass and knocked it away, and for the most part they did a great job cutting off routes on third down. Kyle Arrington is still scary in one-on-one coverage, and the safeties have to improve if the Pats expect to beat teams with better quarterbacks. But they are improving; it's just be a matter of how quickly they progress.

For one week, the offense wasn't all about the quarterback -- finally a running back can take a bow: step up to the podium, BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The veteran running back ran left, right, up the middle, out of the shotgun formation, got his longest run on a direct-snap, and totaled 136 yards on 27 carries with 2 touchdowns. The week after I said Stevan Ridley should be starting, BJGE showed some burst, great balance after the initial hit, and lots of power. He and the offensive line wore down the Jets defense, to the point where they couldn't stop the run even when they knew it was coming.

On the Patriots offensive line, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, and tight end Rob Gronkowski got huge push off the line, putting the Jets defense on their heels and forcing more run-blitzes to counter the effective running game. Light and Gronkowski pancaked at least four or five defenders each, and Brian Waters pulled around from right guard to wham-block in the middle.

The pass protection was another matter. Tom Brady was sacked four times and hit five others, with pressure mostly coming from edge blitzes. Several mis-communications let Jets bltizters run free to the quarterback, and that has to be addressed before the rematch in New York. Tom Brady handled it well; his 24 of 33, 321 yards and 1 touchdown seem pedestrian these days, but with the pressure he was under he did well not to have more than the 1 interception (an INT that was completely Aaron Hernandez' fault).

The receiving corps got a boost from the return of Hernandez, who had 5 catches for 56 yards and helped stretch the Jets defense. One other thing that stretched the defense was Wes Welker's 73-yard catch and run past a cheating safety -- Welker ended the day with 5 catches for 124 yards. Deion Branch was the main target on the day, notching 7 grabs for 74 yards and a touchdown. And both Chad Ochocinco and Gronkowski added important third-down catches on drives at the end of the half and the game, respectively.

Special teams were okay but not great. Stephen Gostkowski went 3-3 on field goals, and he and punter Zoltan Mesko mostly kept the Jets pinned back in their own territory. And Tracy White and Matthew Slater seem deadlocked in a fight to be the best special teams tackler. However, the 88-yard kickoff return led directly to a touchdown, and that could have made it a game if they weren't careful. And without regular kick returner Julian Edelman, substitute Ridley needs to down the ball when it's 8 yards in the end zone.
(Note to the NFL, the Jets appear to be running an illegal wedge on their kickoff returns, with three or four players side-by-side.  Might want to check into that.)

The coaches continue to show flexibility and a desire to protect Tom Brady from continuous blitzing. The defensive scheme was great -- slow down the run and then jam short routes on third-down. And the players worked it to near perfection, giving up just two long drives and a bunch of three-and-outs.

So where does that leave us? 4-1 and looking at a game against Rex Ryan's brother, Rob (defensive coordinator of the Cowboys), with the Cowboys coming off a bye week. In fact, as I wrote in the Season Preview, the last time Rob Ryan had an extra week to plan for the Patriots, the result was a stunning loss in Cleveland last year. So don't think this is a gimme. Best hope that Tony Romo is his usual careless self, and that he turns the ball over a few times. 

Statistical Oddity of the Week: BenJarvus Green-Ellis now has 427 career touches and zero fumbles.

Bonus Statistical Oddity (courtesy of CBS): Brady's interception was the first home-game red zone interception of his NFL career.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "BenJarvus looked like Corey Dillon out there; all he needs is a better stiff-arm and shorter hair."

Keep the faith,
- Scott

PS.  4-1!

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