Monday, September 24, 2012

Ravens Prevail 31-30 in New NFL Bloodsport League

After dozens of big hits and close plays, the Patriots game ended not with a bang but a whimper.  A last-second field goal gave the Ravens a 31-30 victory, but it was anti-climatic after yet another penalty gave the Ravens the ball at the Pats 9 yard-line.  That turned what would have been a 51-yard attempt into a 27-yarder -- though the kicker made it interesting by just barely keeping the ball inside the uprights.  The loss puts the Patriots at 1-2, in a third place tie in the AFC East, and under .500 for the first time since September 14, 2003 (more on that later).

The game featured so many yellow flags, it's difficult to figure out which players did well or poorly.  Devin McCourty knocked away four passes, but he missed an easy interception and was called for penalties on both of Baltimore's last two scoring drives.  Jerod Mayo made some outstanding plays in the running game, but he got called for holding to extend a Ravens drive that ended in a touchdown.  And Julian Edelman caught several key passes, including a touchdown to end the first half, but he had false start and offensive interference penalties.

The referees gave the Ravens a pseudo-timeout when they granted a bogus first-down measurement, they had to confer before overturning a catch (even though the Ravens receiver's second foot clearly landed out of bounds), and they completely missed an obvious personal foul on Ravens safety Ed Reed and a kick to the head by the Patriots Nate Solder.  They were so involved in the game that of the Patriots 10 longest plays from scrimmage, 4 of them included 15-yard penalties on the Ravens.  Now that is what I call exciting football!

(End of anti-ref rant... I think)

As for the game, you can call off the search for Wes Welker.  He had 3 catches for 14 yards in the first game, 5 for 95 last week, and 8 for 142 yesterday.  If the Patriots are angry at Welker, they have a funny way of showing it.  Brandon Lloyd led the team with 9 catches (108 yards), and he and Brady missed on several longer passes.  But their chemistry was always going to be a work-in-progress for the first four to six weeks of the season, and patience will pay off when the games get more important in January.  Note: Julian Edelman looked like he'd have a great game, but a hand injury kept him out of the second half.

Tom Brady's control of the offense was impressive.  He did a great job getting the Ravens to commit and show what they were running, and Brady audibled to the right play most of the time.  Baltimore couldn't get enough pressure without blitzing, and when Brady sensed a blitz, he went with the hot read and got the ball out quickly.  He only caved to perceived pressure once, and stood tall in the pocket against what was a ferocious pass rush at times.  Not a perfect performance, but when you play great players it won't ever be perfect.

The offensive line continues to get an incomplete grade -- they just haven't had enough time together.  Center Ryan Wendell snapped the ball when Brady wasn't ready and almost caused a turnover.  And both guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly whiffed on run blocks that blew up plays.  The Ravens got an impressive seven tackles for a loss, two sacks, and six more quarterback hits.  Oh, and with mediocre run blocking, the team averaged only 2.3 yards a carry.

The front seven on defense was largely ineffective at stopping the Ravens run.  Featured back Ray Rice had trouble at first, but when they brought in bruiser Brandon Pierce, it seemed to throw the Patriots line for a loop.  Because when Rice returned, he ran well -- ending the day with 20 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown.  And as you'd expect, play-action and sideline passes were much more effective once the Patriots had to commit a safety to stop the run.

Kyle Love didn't have his best game, and both Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower had some growing pains in the game.  Jones was okay holding the edge against the run, but he rarely got off the block to make a tackle.  Hightower had five tackles, but he got pushed out of the way by blocking backs and was out of position on at least two or three plays.  Speaking of out of position, Brandon Spikes guessed wrong on a few plays, and two of them went for very good yardage by Rice.

Even Mayo lacked consistency.  He led the team with 11 tackles, but got battered by the blocking backs and had a tough day defending short passes.  Pass coverage was his never his strong point -- and the best way to make sure he doesn't do it in the future is to stop the run and make the other teams throw long to get first downs.

The secondary started out strong.  Safety Steve Gregory intercepted the Ravens' second pass on a nice undercut.  And Devin McCourty nearly had another INT later in the quarter.  But everyone suffered once the safeties couldn't play back.  Ravens' QB Joe Flacco completed far too many sideline passes, sometimes when the Patriots were trying to confuse him and then sprint back into position.  The Patriots don't have any shut down corners.  What they have are corners who battle every play (Sterling Moore, Kyle Arrington, in addition to McCourty) -- and if they don't have safeties to back them up, it's tougher to be aggressive.

As a unit, the defense gave up 4 touchdown drives of 80+ yards.  But they also held the Ravens to an average of 5 plays for 21 yards in their non-scoring drives.  They simply need to be more consistent about getting that one stop to end a drive before it gets rolling.

I am ignoring special teams and coaching, because the officiating made it absolutely impossible to judge either.  Belichick spent half the game reminding the refs about rules and/or yelling that they were getting things wrong.  And there were penalties on about half of the special teams plays, so who knows how well the teams did?

Where does that leave us?  1-2 and looking up in the AFC East is unfamiliar territory.  The Jets and Bills are 2-1, and the Patriots have a chance to pull even with Buffalo next weekend, since they play the Bills there on Sunday.  A three-game losing streak is unlikely; care to guess the last time that happened?  (Answer below.)

Statistical Oddity of the Week: It has to be that the Patriots are under .500 for the first time in 9 years.  NBC noted this last night, but if you are a loyal reader, you've known about this since September 14, 2009 when I first unearthed it.  Note also that the Patriots total of 145 games at or above .500 is a full two seasons longer than the second-place team (the 1988-93 Bills).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Hey, the Pats are a work-in-progress on offense and defense, and they *still* almost beat the Ravens.  Even though they are 1-2, it feels like a playoff year to me."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  1-2!

PPS.  Trivia Answer:
The Patriots lost four consecutive games in 2002: Chargers, Dolphins, Packers, and Broncos.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Cardinals Stun Patriots 20-18

In an apparent homage to the new season of The Walking Dead, the Patriots replaced their offense with a group of zombies and then bumbled their way through a 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals yesterday.  The loss dropped them to 1-1 and into a four-way first place tie in the AFC East.  And it doesn't get any easier; next week brings very difficult trip to Baltimore to play the Ravens in prime time. (Trivia question: name the last time all four teams were tied for first place in the AFC East -- answer below.)

Special teams might look like the obvious goat, but the offense lacked consistency and missed several long plays that would have changed the game.  In fact, before each of the two special teams miscues the offense botched plays or play-calling: Wes Welker dropped a sure first-down before the blocked punt; and the Pats offense went into an inexplicable shell before Stephen Gostkowski pulled the potential game-winning 42-yard field goal.  Not to let special teams off the hook, but the offense did not hold up its end of the bargain yesterday.

Apparently the Patriots could only mask the offensive line problems for one week.  Tom Brady was under pressure and on the run most of the day (4 sacks for 19 yards, 6 QB hits).  And a week after they pounded the Titans for 162 yards and a 4.6 ypc average, they had just 90 yards and 3.2 ypc.  However, believe it or not there was improvement -- mostly in pass blocking by the tackles.  The inside linemen had a terrible day in pass protection, with everyone whiffing on at least one assignment and Brady paying the price.

Brady was not stellar, understandable given all the pressure.  He and Brandon Lloyd missed a few downfield connections, and some of Brady's throws were low and uncatchable.  He also turtled up twice when no one was about to hit him, though that might be understandable given how often he did get hit.  He finished 28 of 46 (61%) for 316 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, and a 79.6 QB rating.

The running game (Brady's best friend against the Titans) didn't get enough traction, following up six-yard gains with four-yard losses.  Stevan Ridley did what he could, but they kept running outside and the Cardinals kept shutting it down.  And every inside handoff to Danny Woodhead failed (including the one called back on a Gronkowski holding call).

As for the receivers, everyone except Julian Edelman missed passes that should have been caught.  Edelman (5 catches for 50 yards) was far from the star of the game, but he was their most consistent receiver on the day.  Lloyd led the team with 8 receptions, but for a very low 7.5 yards per catch (mostly owing to miscommunication on a pair of long passes that fell incomplete). Rob Gronkowski made some amazing catches and dropped at least two that he should have had.  And his holding penalty cost the Patriots a winning touchdown -- not to mention the illegal motion penalty that cost them another five yards on the potential game-winning field goal.

The offensive play-calling was subpar.  Where were the screen passes to slow down the pass rush?  Why didn't they realize the Woodhead runs weren't fooling anybody?  Everyone in the stadium seemed to know it except the Patriots.  And it might be time to rethink a 50-yard bomb on second-and-nine or a 30-yard out on third-and-two.  Stick with what works: ball control through short passes.

No one should have any complaints about the defense.  They gave up just one long touchdown drive, got a turnover to get the team back in the game, and got an improbable fumble recovery with 1:00 left to give the team a chance to pull it out.  They notched as many three-and-outs as they gave up scoring drives (4 of each).  And they stuffed the run and neutralized one of the best receivers on the planet, Larry Fitzgerald.

Brandon Spikes had a monster game: 7 tackles (1 for a loss), 2 quarterback hits, the huge forced fumble, and many plays that he redirected before they could even get started out of the backfield.  When he guessed, he guessed right.  Jerod Mayo led the team with 9 tackles (though he's still not great in pass coverage), and rookie Dont'a Hightower played very well in both the run and pass defenses.

Along the line, Kyle Love was a one-man wrecking crew in the first half.  He made 3 crushing tackles, and gave up absolutely zero yards when going his way.  Between Love and Vince Wilfork the Cardinals had a tough time doing much on the ground.  The other rookie first-rounder, Chandler Jones, ended up with a nice stat line: 5 tackles, 1 for a loss, 1 QB hit, and 1 forced fumble.  And Ron Brace and Jermaine Cunningham even visited the stat sheet for a change!

The secondary was far from perfect, but safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung are starting to gel quite nicely.  Just 8 tackles and 1 pass defended between them, but no long passes or blown coverages on the day.  Cardinals' QB Kevin Kolb helped the Patriots cornerbacks with some errant throws.  But for the most part, the cornerback threesome of Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, and nickleback Sterling Moore did a good job of pressing the receivers and keeping short plays from becoming big ones.  Not perfect, but good signs so far.

Special teams did not play well.  Gostkowski blew the last-second field goal attempt and screwed up a late kickoff (though the results weren't all that bad).  Punter Zoltan Mesko had his first punt blocked (which led directly to an Arizona touchdown), and he also booted one to the five yard-line, but the coverage team didn't get there in time to down it.  Mistakes in this area can kill you, so they have to redouble their efforts and get things shored up.  But again, the loss really isn't on them.

The coaching was a mixed bag.  The defensive game plan and execution were spot on.  However, the special teams should have been better prepared for the Cardinals' schemes on the blocked punt.  And the offense didn't click and they needed better adjustments and more use of the no-huddle.

So where does that leave us?  The Patriots are 1-1 and in danger of falling below .500 for the first time in ten years.  The Ravens lost a tough one this week, and they will be determined to avenge last year's loss in the AFC Championship Game.  The Patriots rarely lose two in a row, so something has to give.  In any event, you have your Sunday back -- this one is a night game, so get out and enjoy the fall weather during the day.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Larry Fitzgerald's performance, 1 catch for 4 yards, is his lowest output since he had 1 catch for 2 yards against the Giants -- in 2004 (his rookie year).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "46 seconds left and a first down inside the 20; and they go for the kneel-down and field goal?  That's a head scratcher."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  1-1!

PPS.  Trivia answer: Trick question -- all four AFC East teams were tied at 0-0 two weeks ago :P

Monday, September 10, 2012

Patriots Top Titans 34-13

As expected, the Patriots started their ninth consecutive season with a win, this time a 34-13 over the rebuilding Titans in Tennessee.  The win put the Patriots atop the AFC East, tied with the victorious New York Jets.  And next week they hold their home opener against the Arizona Cardinals, who showed little offense under QB John Skelton in eking out a win over Seattle.

The Titans play a soft zone defense, so they had little chance of stopping the Patriots offense.  Tennessee was also the perfect team to face early in the season, given that they rarely blitz and play little man-to-man.  Those kind of defenses could have caused problems with the troubled Patriots offensive line.  But with the soft zone, Tom Brady faced only mild pressure and was hit very few times -- while slicing through the Titans like a skilled surgeon.

The Patriots used up-tempo offense and the running game to mask their offensive line problems.  And there were problems, specifically at the edges.  Nate Solder got beaten a few times and Sebastian Vollmer did okay but not great -- as most of the pressure came from outside.  Brady did a nice job moving in the pocket to buy time when there were missed assignments.  And overall the interior linemen did a very good job.

Brady was not perfect, throwing several passes at receivers' feet and missing a few timing throws down field.  But he ended the day an efficient 23 of 31 for 236 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions (117.1 QB rating).  Not bad for a guy with a busted nose, which he got on the only Tennessee sack of the day.  He was hit a few times, too, but overall did a nice job checking into and out of plays and going no-huddle to keep the Titans guessing.

It was surprising that it was Stevan Ridley who ran 21 times for 125 yards, while Tennessee back Chris Johnson had just 4 yards (his career low).  If Ridley can correct his fumble-itis from last year, he has a chance to be a star in this league.  He runs under control, so he can make multiple moves as he goes down the field, and he catches the ball well out of the backfield and blocks nicely on blitzes.

The tight ends carried the load among receivers.  Rob Gronkowski pulled in 6 catches for 60 yards (and a nifty touchdown), and Aaron Hernandez got 6 of his own for 59 yards.  And Brandon Lloyd did a credible job, messing up a few times, but grabbing 5 for 69 yards of his own.  You could see his talent on a sideline catch that had him looking like Spiderman to get both feet down.  Once he and Brady get their timing down, you'll see his name on top of the receivers list most weeks.

Both Danny Woodhead and Wes Welker were almost completely ineffective.  Woodhead had one nice run around right end, but he ended the day with 6 rushes for 20 yards and no catches out of the backfield.  And Welker grabbed only 3 catches for a meager 14 yards, and converted only one first down.  (Trivia question: when was the last time Welker had fewer catches and yards in a game -- answer below.)

Maybe missing the preseason set them back, or perhaps the other weapons have surpassed them.  The next few weeks should tell the tale.  I expect Welker to return to form, but I was never sure Woodhead was the final answer as a third-down back.  Although they don't have a lot of good options if he isn't the answer.

All three defensive groups were better yesterday than they were last year.  The line shut down the inside run, the linebackers closed off the wide runs, and the secondary gave up some yards but made big plays when necessary.  Still a work in progress with all the rookies and new guys, but a very good first effort.  And it was mostly old-fashioned beating the player across from you -- should be interesting once they put more exotic packages back into the playbook.

The interior line had a stellar day.  Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, and Brandon Deaderick make a brick wall that no one was getting through.  On the outside, rookie Chandler Jones got his first sack and forced a fumble on the play, and he got inside pressure a few times.  But most impressive was his discipline at holding the edge against the run.  It meant he couldn't just pass rush with abandon, but he did it anyway, which is what Belichick requires.

The new linebacker alignment, with Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower outside, and Brandon Spikes and some relief inside, worked out perfectly.  Mayo (13 tackles) and Hightower (5) stopped any runs that breached the defensive line.  And even though their pass coverage wasn't perfect, they made sure tackles after catches, and Mayo even knocked away one pass.  Even Jermaine Cunningham got into the act, with 3 tackles, a sack, and QB pressure that was a tick late to stop a touchdown pass.

In the secondary, the results were more mixed.  Nickel back Ras-I Dowling played the part of the whipping boy, repeatedly targeted and torched early in the game.  (In fact, if not for some Tennessee dropped passes, people might be calling for Dowling to be cut today.)  Fortunately, there were no understudies to Dowling -- both Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty were beaten a time or two but played well overall.  In fact, McCourty was second on the team in tackles (7) and had 2 passes defended.

Safety play was much better than the dreadful stuff they trotted out last year.  New man Steve Gregory only got beaten once that I saw, and Patrick Chung was flawless.  Only one problem with Chung, he went out with an injury (extent unknown at this point, of course).  Rookie Tavon Wilson made a nice play on an interception, and the secondary overall benefited from some Tennessee dropped passes.  But a step up in any event.

Special teams were absolutely brilliant on the day.  Of the Titans 11 possessions, 10 of them started at or inside their own 20 yard-line.  And the 11th one started at their 21 yard-line.  Aside from one touchback, a great day of punting from Zoltan Mesko.  And kicker Stephen Gostkowski not only drilled his scoring kicks right down the middle, he made a tackle on one kickoff return.

The coaching was a bit above the norm.  Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels was smart to keep Brady away from long passes that require lots of time and protection.  And his commitment to the running game is refreshing and should pay dividends down the road.  On defense, Matt Patricia's players gave up a 12-play 70 drive to start the game, but their adjustments shut down the Titans for the rest of the half and held the opponent to field goals on two very long drives (12-plays and 16-plays).

So where does this leave us?  1-0 is better than 0-1.  The Pats have now won nine season openers in a row, and they should be 2-0 after next week's game against Arizona.  It has to happen -- my predictions are perfect to this point in the season :)

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Aside from the kneel-down to end the first half, every single Patriots drive reached at least their own 45 yard-line -- and 7 out of 9 ended up in Tennessee territory.

Telling Statistic of the Week: 10 of the 18 players who made tackles for the Patriots yesterday did not make any tackles for the team on opening day 2011.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The secondary still scares me against good quarterbacks, but no one will run on this team."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  1-0!

PPS.  Trivia Answer:
Welker had 1 catch for 12 yards against the Houston Texans on 1/3/2010.  He left that game with a disastrous knee injury that cost him the chance to play the next week in the playoffs.

Friday, September 7, 2012

2012 Patriots Preview: The Schedule

I know you only read through the first two entries to get to this one -- the all-important preview of the Patriots 2012 schedule and predicted results.  Not that it's always (or even usually) correct, but it's my attempt to delve further into the 2012 season and figure out where the Patriots are likely to stumble and what their record will be.

And so, without further adieu, here's the 2012 schedule in a nutshell (as always, with the season broken down into quarters).

First Quarter

Week 1: The Tennessee Titans open at home against the Patriots, and start young quarterback Jake Locher.  Unfortunately for the Titans, he hasn't progressed much since last year, and the Patriots have plenty of tape on him to force Tenn. to run.  And that plays to the Patriots strength on defense (if you call it a strength).  Also of note, the last seven years, the Patriots are 7-0 in season openers, the Titans just 2-5.  Win for the Patriots.

Week 2: Arizona travels east for what will feel like a 10:00am start at Gillette, with whomever they dare put at QB.  Also, they don't have much at receiver beyond Larry FitzGerald, so unless he destroys them single-handedly, it will be another Patriots win.

Week 3: The team travels to Baltimore for a rematch of last year's AFC Championship game, the one that was twice choked away by the Ravens.  They will have revenge on their minds, and of course, their defensive biggest strength (QB pressure) plays right into the Patriots biggest offensive weakness (O-line).  The Patriots could win, but put it down as a likely loss.

Week 4: The Patriots third road game will be in Buffalo, and the division-rival Bills won't have a let down.  However, the Patriots had beaten the Bills 15 straight times before they blew a 21-point lead and barely lost last year.  The Patriots have revenge on their minds this time, and they will win despite the improved Bills defensive pass rush.

Second Quarter

Week 5: The Pats start the second quarter of the year with a home game against the Broncos and some new quarterback they signed.  The Broncos always give the Patriots trouble when they get any decent quarterback play, and Peyton Manning is a huge upgrade from Tim Tebow.  It's also a 4:25 game, so jet lag won't be an issue.  Even though it's a potential trap game for the Broncos, I hate to do it, but it sounds like a bad combination for the Patriots, so put down their second loss.

Week 6: Next up they fly to Seattle to take on rookie QB Russell Wilson.  Not only will the Patriots have five games of film to break down Wilson's tendencies, but this is most definitely a trap game for the Seahawks.  They play two eastern games the two previous weeks, and then have a huge division tilt the week after the Patriots game.  Besides, not much of a pass rush or a secondary out there.  Put it in the win column for the Patriots.

Week 7: Next up, the Jets bring their improved defense and imploding offense to New England.  By this time, the Patriots offensive line should be more in sync, and everyone will know all the trick plays the Jets have planned for Tebow.  And aside from that, it'll be the same Marc Sanchez and even less talent at receiver.  Sounds like a division win to me.

Week 8: The Patriots hop Lake Atlantic to London.  The good news is the opponent, the St. Louis Rams.  However, they do have a new head coach, longtime Tennessee head man Jeff Fischer, who emphasizes pressure on the quarterback.  Fortunately for the Patriots, it's only year one of the rebuilding plan, so they should handle this without too much difficulty.  Win.

Third Quarter

Week 9: Take the week off, the Patriots are on a bye.

Week 10: By this point in the season, Buffalo should be in their traditional slide, so the Patriots should win the rematch at Gillette Stadium.

Week 11: This could be a dangerous game; the Colts almost came back from a 28-point deficit against the Patriots last year with Dan Orlovsky at quarterback.  The difference this year is that Andrew Luck will be nine games into his career, and Bill Belichick's defenses have a way of confusing young quarterbacks the first time they play against them.  Patriots win.

Week 12: The Patriots then take off for an ultra-short week to play the Jets in New York on Thanksgiving (man, does time fly!).  Road division games are tough enough, and the Jets play a cupcake the weekend before.  So when you factor in the short week and the fact that the Jets will likely be playing for their playoff lives at this point, and it seems like a Patriots loss.

Week 13: Give Belichick ten days to prepare for a rookie quarterback in a division game (after an assumed division loss), and it shouldn't be close.  Miami is in transition, the Patriots have their eyes on greater prizes; they will win this one because they are supposed to win it.

Fourth Quarter

Week 14: The Patriots then have a Monday night showdown with the rising Houston Texans.  Unfortunately for the hometown team, Houston has precisely the kind of diverse offense that shreds them and a tough defense with a great coordinator.  Houston might have gone to the Super Bowl last year if their quarterback hadn't gotten injured late in 2011.  And even though they will be playing the third of three away games, they are good enough to hand the Patriots their fourth loss.

Week 15: Short week after a loss against one of the best teams in the NFC last year -- the 49ers -- this could be a recipe for a rare two-game losing streak.  But not this time.  The Patriots defense will find quarterback Alex Smith has plenty of weaknesses to exploit, and San Francisco running game will be much less effective against the stout Patriots front seven.  The 49ers also have a division game the next week and this will game will be the third that is at least two time zones away from their west coast home.  Patriots win.

Week 16: Next up is a trip to Jacksonville to play the Jaguars.  With Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne at quarterback, the Patriots only need to stop running back Maurice Jones-Drew -- and they will win by default.

Week 17: Miami comes to town after that, and unless the game is meaningless for playoff positioning, the Patriots win it in a walk.  Southern and dome teams often claim they don't let the weather bother them.  But there is plenty of evidence that they do.*  Patriots win this game if it means anything to them.

* The Patriots have 41-49 overall record against the Dolphins, but they are 10-4 against them in December/January.  This includes two losses when the Patriots played second-stringers in the last game of a season to avoid injuries going into the playoffs.

So there you have it, a predicted 12-4 record, certainly good enough for a division title, and probably puts the team in contention for a first-round playoff bye.

Keep the faith, and check back in Monday!

- Scott

PS.  0-0!
(but not for long)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Patriots 2012 Season Preview: Defene

Patriots fan in July 2012: "They just didn't do enough to improve the secondary, and they should have brought back Mark Anderson and Andre Carter."

Patriots fan in September 2012: "Wow, this kid Chandler Jones can play, and the secondary looks a lot better."

(The truth will be somewhere in between, but leaning toward the September view.)

Welcome come back to the 2012 Patriots preview already in progress.  Today's topic is the defense, which is the area where the team could make the most improvement.  And they did get better, but the questions are, did they improve enough, and did they improve in the right sections of the defense.  The answers are on your screen, just a few paragraphs away.

Significant Arrivals: DE Chandler Jones, DE Trevor Scott, LB Dont'a Hightower, S Steve Gregory, S Tavon Wilson, DB Nate Ebner

Significant Departures: DE Mark Anderson, DE Andre Carter, LB Gary Guyton

The Front-Seven Two-Step

Anderson went to Buffalo, and Carter is either still injured or the team can't get him under contract.  No matter the case, the Patriots have to find a way to replace their combined 20 sacks last year.  And believe it or not, they might have done so.

The rookie Jones looks like the real deal.  In the preseason, he beat seasoned veterans with inside and outside moves, and sometimes with bull rushes.  He plays like a young Jevon Kearse, using long arms to keep linemen at bay and bursts of speed to whip around them or surprising strength to bowl them over.

They also added fifth year player Trevor Scott, and afterthought in the off-season signings who turned out to be a real player.  Scott got nice pressure around the edge in the preseason, and appears to have a motor to rival Andre Carter (more on that later).  With those two bookends, the defensive line is a lot more versatile and dynamic than it's been in a while.

Hightower made plays and rarely got caught out of position in the preseason.  His emergence would allow the team to move longtime ILB Jerod Mayo outside, where his run-stopping skills can help seal the edge with the new guys at DE.  However, it remains to see how he does in when the real games starts.  The Pats have two play makers on the outside, but no depth at linebacker -- at all.

That leaves high-motor but inconsistent Brandon Spikes to man the inside.  He still guesses wrong too often and runs himself out of plays.  Now that he's alone in the middle, he will have to be more disciplined.  If not, Spikes could find himself backing up free agent Mike Rivera, who's bounced around the league but actually led the Patriots in preseason tackles.

Summary: Whether it's 3-4 or 4-3, it appears the Patriots have a solid front seven.  There is depth along the line, but very little at linebacker.  But with newcomers Jones, Scott, and Hightower, they should make more plays and get after the quarterback better than they have in a few years.

Oh, and you can keep waiting for Godot -- I mean Jermaine Cunningham -- if you want, but keep your expectations low.  He always looks good for a few plays in the preseason and always disappears in the regular season.  Anything you get from him, consider it a bonus.

On Second(ary) Thought

When the Patriots got rid of Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders last year, it was a train wreck in the making.  And of course, the crash eventually happened.  Patrick Chung got injured, and by the end of the year they played cornerback Devin McCourty and wide receiver Matthew Slater at safety.  It was the worst of Patriots safety play since they Robert Kraft bought the team, almost 20 years ago.

The team signed one experienced safety (Gregory) and drafted two (Wilson and Ebner).  Normally the rookies wouldn't get much mention, but with Chung's injury history, they are bound to be playing more games than the Patriots want.  And that's the problem.

Gregory will help (and he's played well so far), but it's tough to have much faith in Wilson or Ebner.  The Patriots just haven't drafted well when it comes to the secondary.  And despite the prevailing opinion that the rules make defense almost impossible to play, many other teams have secondaries that the Patriots would likely covet.

Given their lack of success in this area, the Pats stayed with their cornerbacks from last year.  So they need Devin McCourty to return to his Pro Bowl 2010 form, need a continuation of the "over his head" play of the surprising Kyle Arrington, and need the emergence of Sterling Moore from part-timer to nickle back and spot starter.  In other words, a lot has to go right.

Fortunately, the preseason revealed a more confident McCourty, and nice play from both Arrington and Moore.  No guarantee they will lock down on receivers once the real games start.  But the signs are positive so far.

Summary: McCourty's 2011 won't be repeated, but he won't look like a Pro Bowl player again unless the safety play improves.  In the end, it might come down to Chung's health.  If he goes out, his replacement will be either an unproven rookie or a corner back (or maybe a wide receiver).  I said it last year at the time and I'll say it again, would it have hurt them so much to keep James Sanders around?

Elephant Not in the Room

Playing outside linebacker for the Patriots is not easy.  Staying disciplined to hold the end of the line and force runs inside, while needing to get pressure on the quarterback and protect against inside runs -- well, it's been too much for a long line of talented linebackers who have come through these parts since Willie McGinest left.

McGinest made the "elephant" position popular.  And ever since he signed with Cleveland, seemingly every year the Patriots signed a big-money free agent linebacker.  And year after year, they lack the versatility to hold up against the run and get pressure on the quarterback.  Andre Carter was the first to do it; the heir apparent to McGinest.  And then he got injured.

For all the improvements in the front seven, the team will miss Carter.  He had 10 sacks, 52 tackles, and 2 forced fumbles in 14 games.  He was an all-out/all-the-time player, who would rush upfield to get the quarterback and then run down a screen on the other side of the formation without missing a beat.

If he's injured and can't play, that's a shame.  But if this is a contract dispute, then shame on the parties for not coming to an agreement.  There are reports that Carter isn't fully recovered from his injury, so it could also be that he and the team are waiting until he is ready to come back.

Summary:  Carter reportedly wants to return and try again for his first championship.  If he is available for only half the year, the Patriots should still bring him back.  Rookie Chandler Jones looks good now, but if he hits the rookie wall, it would help to have a veteran to step in for him.


1.  Carter will be signed by mid-season, if he's healthy enough to play.  Even if the new guys do well, the Patriots will need the depth and the infusion of talent halfway through the year.

2.  You can't call the Patriots "loaded" on the defensive line, but they have a solid stable of inside linemen.  Of Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, only Wilfork is great.  But the rest are interchangeable and mostly immovable inside.

3.  Once again, the health of the secondary will be crucial to the Patriots season.  McCourty, Arrington, Moore, Chung, and Gregory look like they'll be fine.  It's their backups that should scare you.

4.  The Patriots need to bring in another a linebacker for depth; look for a free agent signing or a trade before they get too far into the season (probably by the end of September).

5.  If the secondary plays well, expect the Patriots to get exotic with their blitzes again.  It's been years since they did much of that, so one can expect that Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have a lot of pent-up blitzing in their arsenal.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The NFL really needs to stop ranking defenses by yards allowed.  By that measure, the 2011 Patriots and Packers had the worst defenses in football.  And all they did was go a combined 28-4.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The rookies look good, the secondary seems solid, and Jermaine Cunningham made a few plays.  Must be the preseason!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Patriots 2012 Season Preview: Offense

Patriots fan in July 2012: "Look at all the new talent; this offense will be unstoppable!"

Patriots fan in September 2012: "The offensive line stinks, and the receivers... where did all the game-breakers go?"

(The truth will be somewhere in between, though leaning toward the July view.)

Welcome to the 2012 Patriots season preview, from the bestest, most accuratest (and most humblest) of all bloggers, here to slash through the hype and the hysteria and get you the straight skinny on where the Pats are headed this season.

Here is my breakdown of the offense, bearing in mind off-season activity and what we learned in the preseason.

Significant Departures: OL Matt Light, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, WR Deion Branch, C Dan Koppen, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, and tight ends coach Brian Ferentz

Significant Arrivals: WR Brandon Lloyd, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and tight ends coach George Godsey

Line in the Quicksand

No sugar-coating it folks; the offensive line is the biggest question mark entering the season.  They didn't hold up against first-string pass rushers in the preseason, and Tom Brady took some big hits.  The run looked better, but that was probably because the opponents were worried about the pass.

The problems started because the team lacked a ready replacement for Light.  Second-year player Nate Solder takes his place, but he was mediocre last year and bad in the preseason.  Note: there is no backup for Solder on the current roster.

The rest of the line has been shuffled and reshuffled.  2011 Pro Bowl surprise Brian Waters has not reported to camp, and that forced last year's center, Dan Connolly, to right guard.  Subtract longtime center Dan Koppen, who was cut, and it's quite the cascading effect.

Connolly's move to guard puts spot starter Ryan Wendell at center, and that leaves shaky Sabastian Vollmer to fill in at right tackle.  Only Logan Mankins returns to the same position, and he did not earn his big contract last year.

Summary: Once the regular season starts, the team will go more up-tempo, to hide problems on the O-line.  But expect some frustration for the first month before steady improvement as the season progresses.  Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia should have them playing well by mid-October.  And fortunately only two of the Patriots first five opponents rush the passer well (Baltimore and Buffalo).

However, in the meantime you'll probably say "I miss Matt Light" a lot more than you ever thought you would.

Better to Receive

Last year's starting backs and receivers: Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Green-Ellis.

This year's projected starting backs and receivers: Welker, Lloyd, Edelman, Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Stephan Ridley.

In other words, from three weapons to five weapons... a significant upgrade.  26 catches in 4 years made Green-Ellis a non-factor in the passing game, but Ridley is a better receiver with much better open field moves.  And the upgrade from the aging Branch to the explosive Lloyd is no contest.

Lloyd and Brady didn't get much playing time together in the preseason, and Welker missed three of the four games entirely.  However, reports are that they were in sync during practices, and you can expect very creative ways of getting them involved from coordinator McDaniels.

Note: no slight on Julian Edelman, who played pretty well this preseason.  But he's done that before, and it never translated to solid offensive performances in the regular season.

Summary: The timing of the passing game could be a work-in-progress during September.  But when that is ironed out, and when all five of these guys are on the field, defenses will be on their heels.  There are at least three guys who could legitimately require a double-team (Welker, Lloyd, and Gronkowski) -- but as former head coach Herm Edwards famously said, "You can't double-team everybody!"

Coaching 'Em Up and Down

The two biggest coaching changes represent a step forward and a step backward on offense.  On the plus side, Josh McDaniels is an upgrade from last years' offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.  On the downside, it's uncertain how the loss of tight ends coach Brian Ferentz (replaced by George Godsey) will affect Hernandez and Gronkowski.

In his previous stint with the Patriots, McDaniels work was mostly excellent.  He oversaw the record-setting 2007 offense, though he got out-coached in a Super Bowl loss that year.  But perhaps even more impressive was his stellar work in 2008, when Tom Brady was injured in the first game.  McDaniels coached up Matt Cassel and the team finished the year eighth in points scored and seventh in offensive passer rating (and the 11-5 Patriots missed the playoffs on a tie-breaker).

McDaniels also worked at two other stops since leaving the Patriots (Denver and St. Louis), where he tweaked and amplified the offense.  He also worked with Lloyd the past two years, and the receiver understands the Patriots style of offense.  So that relationship should pay off this year.

On the downside is the loss of Ferentz, which nobody seems to be talking about.  Remember that before the Patriots got Ferentz, they spent high draft picks on tight ends, only to see them flame out in New England and succeed when they left.  Ferentz turned that around, and he never received enough credit for helping Gronkowski and Hernandez become so dominant.

Time will tell if Godsey is the right man to coach the young tight ends.  And he will have McDaniels to help him, which is an upgrade from O'Brien.  But with defenses targeting both tight ends each week, and with a new coach for that position, don't be surprised if the position takes a step back this season.

Summary: McDaniels brings outside experience and an extremely creative offensive mind to the team.  No telling what Godsey brings, but if he doesn't screw up the tight ends, the offensive coaching won't be a problem this year.

1.  For the first few weeks, the up-tempo offense will mask problems along the offensive line and in the timing of the passing game.  Those facets will gel by mid-season, but those in-between weeks (3-6) could be tough.

2.  More touchdowns from the wide receivers, fewer from the tight ends.  Never underestimate the importance of coaching in the NFL.

3.  Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels will be slightly more conservative early in the year, as they break-in the offensive line and new receivers.  And unlike last year, Brady won't have to be near-perfect every week to get a "W" -- because the running game and the defense should be better.

4.  For all the changes, the offense will be about the same as last year.  Which wasn't bad, incidentally, third in the league in points scored.  The biggest difference is that they'll be better late in the season, whereas last year's squad petered out as the year wore on.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Recently departed running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 24 rushing touchdowns the last two seasons.  That ranks second in the NFL.  So long, Benny.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Never thought I'd be hoping Matt Light would come back and play."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!