Monday, October 15, 2012

Patriots Botch Another, Seahawks Win 24-23

Seattle used an opportunistic defense and big plays on offense to down the Patriots 24-23 yesterday.  The loss drops the Patriots into a four-way tie for the lead/basement in the AFC East -- all teams at 3-3.  Next week they face the New York Jets in a game where the winner will have at least a share of the division lead... and the loser will have at least a share of last place.

There are many life lessons to be learned from football -- but the most important is that you need to take full advantage of your opportunities.  In life, you only get so many chances to buy Apple stock at $5/share; miss them and you will regret it.  In football, you only get so many possessions; mess them up and you will regret it.

Last week against Denver, the Patriots messed up two or three times and the Broncos messed up five or six times, so the Patriots won.  This week, the Pats messed up five or six times, and Seattle only messed up two or three times, so the Seahawks won.  The maddening thing is that with all their defensive problems and missed opportunities, the Patriots are just three plays away from being 6-0 instead of 3-3.

The Patriots screw-ups from yesterday are an impressive list:
  1. On Seattle's second possession, Jerod Mayo whiffed on third-down tackle of QB Russell Wilson, and Wilson converted the first down.  The next play was a touchdown pass instead of a field goal attempt.
  2. The Patriots got a gift on a blown punt, taking over at the Seattle 24 with the clock running down in the second quarter  But they screwed up time management for the second week in a row, and when Tom Brady was called for intentional grounding, the half ran out without even a field goal attempt.
  3. As the third quarter headed into the fourth, the Pats drove 60 yards to the Seattle 6 yard-line.  But Brady threw an interception in the end zone, depriving the team of an easy field goal try.
  4. Then the Patriots defense got their second fumble recovery of the game, but after passing for 45 yards on two plays, they went conservative (three Stevan Ridley runs) and settled for a field goal.
  5. And after two more lackluster "drives," Sterling Moore blew his outside containment on the last Patriots punt of the day, giving the Seahawks a short field to get the winning touchdown.
Take away one of those screw-ups, and the Patriots come out on top.  After all, they only lost by one point against the top-rated defense in the NFL, in one of the most hostile environments in all of sports.  But instead, add up all those missed opportunities, and the Patriots weren't good enough to overcome them.

Brady had by far his worst game of the year.  Many of his throws were short (though some of that was caused by Seattle pressure).  And both of his interceptions were bad -- the first one was to a blanketed Deion Branch and the second one was in the red zone, where he needed to protect the ball for a field goal at the very least.  He ended up 36 of 58, 395 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 INTs.  But he seemed out of sorts overall; not audibling as much, throwing to covered receivers too often, and committing two intentional grounding penalties.

His receivers mostly did their job; though there were several balls that went through receivers hands (it was raining, after all).  Wes Welker continues to prove that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated -- notching 10 receptions for 138 yards and a stretch-to-the-pylon touchdown.  Aaron Hernandez returned to get 6 catches (30 yards and a touchdown), and Brandon Lloyd and Rob Gronkowski also got 6 catches each (for 80 and 61 yards respectively).  But none of it could make up for the two interceptions; those were killers.

On the offensive line, the most intriguing matchup was left tackle Nate Solder versus sack machine Chris Clemons of Seattle.  Solder did an adequate job in that one-on-one battle, winning most of the time.  However, he let Clemons get pressure twice on the Patriots last-gasp possession, which sort of negated good work most of the day.  In fact, Brady was kept pretty clean on the day (5 QB hits, 1 sack for 7 yards); though the pressure kept him from stepping into his throws.

The Patriots tamed their own running game, rushing just 26 times for 87 yards (3.3 ypc).  A far cry from the last two weeks of 250+ yards a game, but probably necessitated by the defense being played.  The prior games made the Pats running attack look better because those teams played soft zones to make sure they didn't get beaten by the passing game.  Not this week -- Seattle played mostly their base defense, and they held up well enough to keep the Patriots 10 points below their 33-point season average.

The defense pitched in with two fumble recoveries and some timely plays to end drives.  But in the end, they gave up way too many big plays.  Wilson had 6 plays that covered over 20 yards: 22, 24, 29, 46, 50, and 66 (the 46 and 66 yarders coming in the fourth quarter).  And those big plays all came on scoring drives.  And it was the entire defense: sometimes the DBs let up big pass plays; sometimes the linebackers let them up; and sometimes the defensive line let the QB out of the pocket so he could make them.

Rookie Chandler Jones impresses in pass-rushing (2 sacks for 10 yards, 3 QB hits, and 1 forced fumble), but he still doesn't hold the edge against the run.  He's a work-in-progress, but he's great at part of his job and improving at the other part.  Pressed into full-time duty, lineman Jermaine Cunningham looked more like the guy from the last two years -- that is he disappeared.  Rob Ninkovich excelled at linebacker, and if Cunningham could hold up, perhaps the overall defense would benefit from moving Ninkovich back to LB permanently.  But the team can't do that until someone steps up to take the left end position.

Brandon Spikes did some guessing and mostly got it right -- two tackles for a loss and a QB hit.  And Mayo ended up with eight tackles, but it's the one he missed against the Seattle QB that stands out the most.  All he had to do was hold up Wilson until the rest of the team arrived, but he completely whiffed and that changed a field goal attempt into a touchdown on the next play.  It is not the kind of tackle a player like Mayo can miss in that situation.

The secondary... whew, what stinker.  Time after time, play after play, long passes sailed toward Seahawks receivers who were well covered, and the Patriots defenders never turned around to knock the ball down, never cut in front for an interception, and too often got called for interference.  This week's torched DB was Kyle Arrington, who was targeted more than anyone else, and who allowed play after play without slowing things down at all.

And on the last Seattle drive, with the game on the line, both starting safeties were out with injuries.  But rather than take my advice and put Devin McCourty at safety, the team went with rookies Tayvon Wilson and Nate Ebner.  With predictable results.  Wilson got turned around, Ebner reacted too late, and it was a 46-yard touchdown over both their heads.  Ballgame.

Special teams didn't distinguish themselves, either.  The long punt return came at exactly the time it could not come.  And the Seattle punter's net average (43.0) was almost as high as Mesko's gross average (44.3).  Although Stephen Gostkowski redeemed himself from his recent struggles, hitting 3 of 3 field goals and getting 4 touchbacks on 6 kickoffs.

As for the coaching, it was remarkable to see the creativity on offense evaporate in the fourth quarter.  Seattle used run-blitzes to stop the Patriots cold on those last two possessions; but the Pats never audibled to a screen pass or a short slant to combat it.  And they have to rethink how they handle timeouts at the end of the half.  For the second straight week they botched things just before the half, but they didn't learn their lesson from the Denver game and paid the price against the Seahawks.

So where does that leave us?  3-3 isn't great, but overall the team isn't playing terribly.  A play here or there and they could easily be 5-1 or 6-0.  But they have to be more consistent against the Jets this weekend.  The only reason the rest of the AFC East is tied with them is that they haven't played games against all the teams yet.  They have the Jets followed by the Dolphins -- wins those two weeks puts them atop the division, with only Buffalo possibly tied with them (and the Patriots holding the tie-breaker by virtue of their head-to-head victory over the Bills).

(Very Telling) Statistical Oddity of the Week: On their scoring drives, the Seahawks averaged 10.92 yards per play; on their non-scoring drives, they averaged 2.52 yards per play.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Screw up the end of the half, okay.  Botch the punt coverage, it happens.  But you can't have red zone turnovers."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  3-3!

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