Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Patriots Crushed By Chiefs, 41-14

The Chiefs destroyed the Patriots last night, 41-7 in Kansas City. The loss dropped the Pats to 2-2 on the season, tied for first in the AFC East. And things don't get much easier next week -- the 3-0 Cincinnati Bengals come to Foxboro, off a bye week, and playing very well.

As for the game last night, it was worse -- much worse -- than what I'd predicted four weeks ago. Even though I thought they'd lose their second game at KC, the blowout score, the 3-0 loss in the turnover battle, and the the absolute domination by the Chiefs' offense were shocking. Most everyone realized the Patriots O-line would have problems against a very good KC defensive front-seven. But the Patriots defense looked confused and worn out most of the game.

Here's a blowout version of the good, the bad, and the wicked ugly. Guess which one has the most items :)

The Good

Wide Receiver Brandon LaFell finally showed up: 6 receptions for 119 yards and a touchdown. LaFell was the only reliable receiver, with KC controlling Julian Edelman (4 catches, 23 yards), and Rob Gronkowski (2 for 31, 1 touchdown). With both Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins inactive, the Patriots needed more LaFell early in the game, but it's nice to see him progressing in the offense.

Defensive end Chandler Jones' first two series were mostly lights-out -- although he did lose run-contain twice. He was a beast in the backfield, getting a sack and two tackles (for a total of 2 yards given up). But he looked tired before the first quarter was over, and he was a non-factor the rest of the way. Could be he was too hyped from the excitement of a Monday night game, and went too hard early on to sustain the effort for the entire game.

Quarterback Jimmy Garppolo finished 6 of 7 for 70 yards and a touchdown -- for a QB rating of 147.9. It helped that he played against a soft zone and some backup players, but he still looked good. He was especially in sync with rookie running back James White.

Believe it or not, the interior offensive line played better this week. There was one jailbreak in the game (another was actually a botched screen pass), and the inside pocket was kept much cleaner than the outside. Rookies Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming started at center and right guard, respectively, and they were in improvement over whom they replaced. Not great, but better already -- which bodes well.

Special teams captain Matthew Slater made two terrific plays on punt coverage. Not much of a silver lining, but he proves every week that his two Pro Bowl berths were not flukes.

The Bad

Cornerback Logan Ryan looked completely lost, and he was benched in the second half. He gave up huge chunk plays, missing tackles that let Chiefs receivers run for lots of YAC.

The offensive coaching staff barely escapes the worst category because there just isn't the talent on the field. It looks like they are developing players instead of getting the maximum reps for the best 11 players. This might help them late in the season, but at the moment, the offense is in shambles.

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower looked like he was making progress the past few games, but he lost outside contain too often and got blown up on multiple plays by blocking backs. He should mostly win battles when a back takes him on, but he couldn't shed the blocks and it was easy pickings for the Kansas City running game.

Speaking of looking lost, linebacker Jerod Mayo got beaten badly in pass defense and had an inexplicable misread at the goal line that gave KC and easy rushing touchdown early in the game.

The other defenders who had at least one really bad play: safeties Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, and Tavon Wilson, linebacker Jamie Collins, linemen Rob Ninkovich and Vince Wilfork, and cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and... well, the entire secondary, really.

Chandler Jones after the first quarter; disappeared faster than a David Copperfield rabbit.

The Wicked Ugly

Quarterback Tom Brady was not on his game, and might have been the worst player on the field. With the game still easily within reach, Brady eschewed an easy first-down run, throwing instead -- and the incomplete pass meant a Patriots punt. He had two terrible interceptions, one where no receiver had a chance and the other on an undercut route that went for six points the other way. He also had two fumbles... just an all-around bad day.

Left tackle Nate Solder looks like he's missing his binky out there -- traded guard Logan Mankins. Ever since Mankins left, Solder has looked worse and worse. He was so bad last night, Marcus Cannon replaced him, and Cannon isn't very good himself.

The defensive play-calling was really bad. The Chiefs beat almost every blitz for a big gain. And when the Pats had KC pinned back at their own 14, they gave up 86 yards and a touchdown on just 3 plays. It almost looked like there was no defense on the field.

The offensive game-plan was really bad. They came out in the heavy formation, indicating they would run. And then they outsmarted themselves, passing three times and then punting back to the Chiefs, who went right down for 7 points. Don't get cute, Josh McDaniels -- when you take a receiver out for an extra lineman, run it!

The disparities were strikingly in favor of the Chiefs. Time of possession: 36:27 to 23:33. Rushing yards: 207 to 75. Turnovers 3-0. Red zone chances: 6 to 1. Offensive plays: 66 to 49. And because of that, tackles made by the defense: 40 to 56.

So where does that leave us? 2-2 and tied for first, and with luck building for a better second quarter of the season. Though that won't be easy, with the game this weekend against Cincy and division tilts against the Jets and Bills. But if you believe they are working combinations to find the best players, then things should improve as the season goes on.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For only the second time in his Patriots career, Brady started a game but had a worse QB rating (59.9) than another Patriots QB in the same game (147.9). Trivia question: name the other game (answer below).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Blowouts are rare, but this one just seems to foreshadow bad things this season."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-2!

PPS. Trivia answer:
On opening day 2007, Brady got hurt in the first quarter, and Matt Cassel outperformed him on the day (116.0 to 83.9).

Monday, September 22, 2014

Patriots Hang On For 16-9 Win Over Raiders

If you saw it, you know it wasn't pretty, but the Patriots hung on for a 16-9 win over the Raiders yesterday. The victory was coupled with a Buffalo loss, so it tied the Patriots and Bills for first place in the AFC East. Next week, the Pats travel to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City for a Monday night contest with the Chiefs. And KC looks worse than predicted at the beginning of the year, so hope springs eternal.

Before I pound the offense, let me just say the defense is tearing it up. Chandler Jones dominated yet again, leading the team in passes defended this time around and getting those knockdowns at crucial moments. For some reason the team still puts him inside some of the time; he is much more effective coming off the edge.

Also, Dont'a Hightower seemed to be everywhere; he was credited with 7 tackles, but I though he had at least three more that the PA announcer at the game credited him with. Jones and Hightower aren't a bad combo -- both being taken within four pick of each other in the first round of the 2012 draft.

Jerod Mayo also played very well, leading the team in tackles (11) and disrupting plays before they had a chance to get going. The secondary was hot-and-cold, hitting hard and tackling well, but giving up some plays that looked much too easy while making much more difficult ones. And Vince Wilfork got his third career interception to seal the deal (Trivia Question: Wilfork got his other two interceptions in the same season, name it... answer below.)

As for this game, I'm not going to give it the normal detailed analysis. Because there's really only one question hanging over the team, and I intend to answer it. What is wrong with the offense? Here goes...

1. Poor planning, coaching, and playing on the offensive line.

As stated in the season primer, Logan Mankins was the Patriots best offensive lineman last year. He'd slipped a little bit, but the rest of the line was still worse. Now his last-minute trade to Tampa Bay is having its effects. It's obvious now; losing both your O-line coach and the best player of the group was a bad a idea -- a very bad idea.

Maybe new O-line coach Dave DeGuglielmo will eventually distinguish himself, but the Patriots haven't had a string of offensive line play this bad in a long, long time. They had their problems from time-to-time, but it always got fixed tout de suite. No matter the talent available, DeGuglielmo has to do a better job preparing these guys from game to game. Because they are getting beaten far too often in almost the exact same way, and far too easily, to boot.

Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer have been awful at times, and there have been so many jailbreak hits on the quarterback that it's nearly impossible to see who screws up from play to play. Brady took a huge hit late in yesterday's game, and his next throw came up short, forcing the Pats to take a field goal. Add to this that the Patriots have played six offensive linemen to get better protection and better run blocking, and you can see that the starting five just aren't measuring up.

2. The weapons just aren't there.

If they sent out Pro Bowl ballots tonight, you could leave the entire Patriots offense off the list. It's really just Julian Edelman and a bunch of other guys. Rob Gronkowski is still finding his way back to his former self. Off-season acquisition Brandon LaFail... er, LaFell hasn't learned the offense and has 4 catches and 3 penalties so far. And Danny Amendola averages 1 reception a game.

The non-Gronkowski tight ends stink, just like last year, although newcomer Tim Wright shows promise and should play more. Running back Shane Vereen is very good out of the backfield, but he's a part-time player in a specialized role. And second-year wideouts Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson are never seen on the field at the same time, even though both know the offense better than LaFell or Amendola.

3. A disturbing habit of being outcoached.

In three games, the Patriots scored 53 points in the first half and only 13 points in the second half. That indicates one thing: poor halftime adjustments by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Sometimes he comes in with a good gameplan (Miami and Minnesota games), so at least the team can build a first-half lead. But as we saw with Miami, scoring zero in the second half can still come back to bite you.

Yesterday, the Patriots plan was so bad they scored nothing for the first 25 minutes of the game. They were lucky the Raiders offense kindly let the Patriots score twice going into the half. And the Pats got the ball to start the second half -- a score there probably puts the game away, given how the defense was playing. But the Pats went 3-and-out.

No points in the first quarter and no points in the third quarter means the other team is out-coaching you to enter the game and coming out of halftime. And that is all on McDaniels; he's the coordinator so it's his job go figure out better plans in both cases.

4. The triggerman.

On the Patriots first possession yesterday, Brady missed an easy wheel-route pass to Vereen, and the Patriots had to punt. In the fourth quarter, he missed an easy toss to Gronkowski and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal. Little things like that add up to problems keeping the ball, moving the ball, and scoring the most points you can.

Brady also hasn't been sharp on long throws, missing open receivers down the sidelines in every game and throwing over the wrong shoulder too often. He isn't nearly the Patriots biggest offensive problem, but when everything else is so bad, his imperfections are magnified.

Not one to just complain, here are my suggested solutions to these problems:

1. Stop using the six-offensive lineman formations unless it's short yardage. This is a crutch that enables and partially rewards poor play by your linemen. Make them earn their playing time, and then go with five down linemen, like the other 31 teams.

2. Replace that sixth lineman with Tim Wright, not Michael Hoomanawanui. Hoomanawanui can't block or get open, so you might as well play Wright, who has shown some ability in the passing game. You have nothing to lose; your tight ends have been almost the level of disaster as your O-line -- and that's saying something.

3. Sit LaFell and play both Thompkins and Dobson. It doesn't matter how much you like LaFell, or how much you paid him -- at this point he's hurting you more than he helps. He looks like the latest incarnation of Joey Galloway: a veteran receiver who never learned the complex Patriots offense. Thompkins has been steady when healthy, and Dobson can contribute two or three times a game. And their performance would be a clear upgrade over LaFell.

4. Self-scout your offensive tendencies and devise better game plans. And McDaniels has to get better at in-game and halftime adjustments. The old theory that everyone looks 20% with Tom Brady applies here. McDaniels looks overmatched now -- imagine how he'd look with a bad quarterback. It's time for him to step up his game.

5. Brady has been mediocre at long passes ever since Randy Moss left. However, his problems with short passes are a new phenomenon this year. He should practice those throws to the exclusion of long passes, since the Patriots don't have the speed to attack deep anyway. And if the offensive line can keep his pocket clean, that would help, too.

There it is -- the problem and the solution. How easy was that ::shrugs::

So where does that leave us? 2-1 and tied for the division lead; that sounds a lot better than when they were 0-1 and alone in last place. The Chiefs put up 34 against the Dolphins; and if their offense looks like that next week, watch out!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Vince Wilfork's three career interceptions have all come against the AFC West (one against San Diego, and two against the Raiders).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Next time the Patriots want to save salary cap space, can they cut Danny Amendola instead?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-1!

PPS. Wilfork had his two previous interceptions in week 2 and week 4 of the 2011 season.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Patriots Defense Dominates in 30-7 Drubbing of Vikings

The Patriots defense gave up seven points to start the game and then pitched a shutout the rest of the way, leading the team to a 30-7 victory in Minnesota. The win puts them at 1-1, one game behind the division leading Bills. Up next week is their home opener, with the reeling Raiders in town, fresh off a 16-point beatdown by the Houston Texans.

The defense led the way in this one, starting on the defensive line with Chandler Jones. He was an absolute beast, tying for the team lead with 8 tackles, he had 2 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss, 3 QB hits, and a blocked field goal that he recovered and ran back for a touchdown. Never before has a coach's switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 paid dividends so quickly. Jones was overmatched against interior offensive linemen last week, but destructive to the Vikings off the edge this week.

The rest of the defensive line was mostly nondescript for the first two drives. But once they got their bearings, Sealver Siliga and Vince Wilfork did a nice job clogging up the middle. On the outside, Rob Ninkovick was particularly effective, totaling 3 tackles (with 1 for a loss), and getting two QB hits and a sack. Also of note: first-round pick Dominique Easley got his first NFL interception with a nice grab on a tipped ball.

As with much of the defense, the linebackers got whipped badly for the first two drives. Rookie Deontae Skinner was brought in for the injured Jamie Collins, and Skinner was repeatedly out of position and got torched across the middle multiple times. And veterans Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower didn't look much better at first. But after that, look out! Hightower made plays all over the field in the last 52 minutes, hits in the backfield, tackles for a loss, two sacks (for 22 yards), and a hard hit on the quarterback that caused an incompletion. And Mayo looked very good shutting down the run, knifing in to stop plays before they could get started.

Not much bad to say about a secondary where three of four starters had interceptions, and the nickelback forced a fumble. Safety Devin McCourty and corner Darrelle Revis each had a pass defended and an interception. Not to be outdone, corner Logan Ryan had two passes defended and an interception. McCourty uncharacteristically had no tackles, but that was mostly because the linebackers took down everything that came their way. And safety Patrick Chung played well in run support, while corner Kyle Arrington kept pounding people until someone gave up the ball.

The offense is still a work in progress, 30 points notwithstanding. Their scoring drives averaged 33 yards, they went 5-14 (36%) on third-down conversions, and had three three-and-outs (including one to start the game). The offensive line still has some issues, though they were better on Sunday. And Tom Brady's numbers look decent, but too many of those completions required perfect passes to well-covered receivers.

The quarterback's numbers look either pedestrian or efficient, depending on your viewpoint. Brady went 15 of 22, for 149 yards, 1 touchdown, no interceptions, and a QB rating of 102.3. Most impressive was how pinpoint his short passes were, sometimes going to completely covered receivers in the one spot where they could make a catch. He wasn't perfect: he missed a few long passes, and went for a 30-yard bomb from midfield on a third-and-two play -- once again leading to a Patriots punt. Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have to stop doing that.

The offensive line was much better this week, although still far from perfect. Brady's pockets were mostly clean, and he was sacked only once on the day (though he did take a few other shots). The announcers made mention that the Patriots went with six offensive linemen on many plays; however, they didn't always run from those formations, sending out fewer receivers and keeping the extra linemen in to protect the quarterback.

The O-line wasn't pushed back nearly as much by Minnesota as they were by Miami. Although the only lineman worthy of mention is Nate Solder, who pulled off the rare trifecta of having three penalties on two plays. Nicely done, Nate -- just know that we'll all be expecting much better things from you in the coming weeks.

The oft-mentioned "running back by committee" predictably turned into the Stevan Ridley show. Ridley is the Patriots most complete back, and he showed it against the Vikings with 25 tough rushes for 101 yards and a touchdown. He also blocked well in blitz pickup. Shane Vereen might be more explosive (6 carries for 40 yards), but Ridley gets all the yards you could expect on every play, and sometimes breaks through to get more.

The receivers shared the wealth; six players had catches on just 15 total receptions. As usual, mister reliable Julian Edleman led the way, with 6 grabs for 81 yards and a touchdown. Rob Gronkowski is clearly still working his way back, unable to get the same separation down the seam -- but he still had 4 catches for 32 yards and his run-blocking is almost back to form. Tim Wright was a disappointment; after a decent first game at Miami, he had no catches and was targeted only once. And poor Danny Amendola -- his only catch was wiped out on a penalty.

Special teams had two great moments and a bunch of solid ones. The Jones blocked field goal was a great play by him, and that touchdown almost put the game out of reach before the half. The other great play was by special teams captain Matthew Slater, who literally bent over backwards to knock a punt away from the end zone so it could be downed at the 4 yard-line. Additionally, Stephen Gostkowski's "through the end zone" kickoffs not only neutralized the excellent Vikings' return game, but he hit all three field goals, including 47- and 48-yarders.

The coaches mostly did a 180 this week. Both the offense and defense started slowly, but both coordinators made very good adjustments and the Patriots were dominant in both phases for most of the middle of the game. But the maddening lack of offense in the second half can't become a habit if the Patriots hope to do well this season. Two field goals in the last 30 minutes won't win most weeks, so they have to improve their offensive adjustments at halftime.

So where does that leave us? 1-1 and tied for second (or tied for last) in the AFC East. And playing Oakland next week is the closest the NFL has to a bye week without actually having a bye week. So by the time you get next week's update, the Patriots should be 2-1 and on their way.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots won Sunday 30-7, and they won their previous meeting in Minnesota 31-7 in 2006. At that rate, the Vikings will notch their next home win over the Patriots by a score of 7-6 -- 192 years from now, the 2206 season. Here's hoping I'm around to blog about it :)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I'm just glad the coaches realized what everyone else knew already: that Chandler Jones is Cameron Wake, if they'll just use him the same way."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-1!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Big Miami Second Half Steamrolls Patriots, 33-20

After a decent first half, the Patriots collapsed in the last 30 minutes and dropped their opener to Miami, 33-20. The loss puts them in last place in the division, all alone in the basement for the first time since 2000, when some guy named Bledsoe was the quarterback. (Trivia Question: name the order of finish in the AFC East that season... answer below.) Next up is a trip to Minnesota to play the Vikings, who scored an impressive 34-6 decision, albiet over the quarterbackless Rams.

This was the perfect example of a team loss. The first punt of the game was blocked by Miami, setting up a short field and a touchdown. The offense didn't do enough with three first half turnovers and got shutout in the second half. And the defense couldn't stop inside or outside runs, and looked two steps slow all day in the wilting heat. As for the coaching, where was the up-tempo offense when things bogged down in the second half?

You win as a team, you lose as a team. And sometimes you stink up the joint as a team.

Quarterback Tom Brady had a decent first half: 19 of 29, 187 yards, 1 touchdown, no interceptions, and a 95.0 QB rating. He only forced two passes that half, and even with his offensive line giving too much ground to make a decent pocket, Brady was calm and mostly hit the open receivers.

Unfortunately, the pressure reached Brady too often in the second half. He was sacked four times (two of which resulted in fumbles) and went a pathetic 10 for 27, 62 yards, and a QB rating of 45.4. It didn't help that his receivers weren't getting open, but the pressure was the real problem.

Based on the offensive line play, it was a mistake to say good-bye to both Dante Scarnecchia and Logan Mankins the same season. As stated above, Brady didn't have much of a clean pocket in the first half. But the second half was a complete trainwreck -- whiffed assignments, miscommunications, not blocking Miami's best pass rusher. The blocking was so bad on one play, it looked like they were setting up for a screen pass; but Brady took hits from three Dolphins' linemen when the jailbreak ran him over.

When the backs and tight ends tried to help; well, suffice it to say the Patriots first turnover came when Miami end Cameron Wake flew past tight end Michael Hoomanauanui *and* running back Stevan Ridley on the same play. Nate Solder looked okay, but Dan Connolly and especially Sebastian Vollmer were overmatched the entire game -- it just looked a lot worse in the second half.

Shane Vereen stood tall among the running backs, leading the team with 36 rushing yards, catching 5 passes for another 35 yards, and doing a great job picking up blitzers on pass plays. Ridley averaged only 2.6 yards a rush, but that was mostly on the O-line. Although with Vereen being more effective in pass protection, maybe they should have rotated him in more often.

As for the receivers, it was the Julian Edelman show with some bit players thrown in. Which isn't a bad thing, actually. Edelman led the team in receptions (6) and yards (95), and he tossed in 2 rushes for 21 yards. But Brady completed passes to seven other receivers, which is the kind of diversity you want to keep the opposition honest.

Kenbrell Tompkins is becoming a good possession receiver (5 catches for 37 yards), and Rob Gronkowski had 4 catches of his own (though with 11 targets, Brady fixated on him too much). However, Danny Amendola continues to frustrate with his ability to seem absolutely invisble (3 catches, 16 yards). If the Patriots wanted to clear room under the salary cap, they should have kept Mankins and cut Amendola instead.

As for the two receiver debuts, first up was tight end Tim Wright, who didn't seem bothered by the heat after training camp with Tampa Bay, and who caught three passes and didn't seem to make any route-running errors. But that leaves us with the bum of the game, the off-season's big free-agent receiver signing. After yesterday, they should nickname him Brandon LaFell Flat On His Face -- because here was his stat line: two penalties (including offside on a kickoff), two long passes where he couldn't get separation, six passes thrown his way, 0 catches. And to complete his cipherdom on the day, 0 tackles on special teams. Other than that he was terrific!

The lack of depth on the defensive line was exacerbated because Chris Jones and Michael Buchanan were out with injuries. This left them with just seven defensive lineman, and given the poor second-half performance, the heat clearly got to them. The Pats gave up just 65 rushing yards in the first half, but 126 in the second half. And it was a strange sight to see the Dolphins manhandle Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich, who are usually so stout against the run.

Wilfork's play wasn't all bad, but his poor plays were magnified because the rest of the defense usually depends on him to be solid. Ninkovich seemed a step slow, being outrun by quick passes to his side, but he generally held the edge well against the run. Chandler Jones was Mister Hot-and-cold, notching four tackles and two roughing-the-passer penalties, while giving up the edge on runs to his side.

The rest of the line got pushed around most of the day, including rookie first-rounder Dominique Easley, who looked like a guy with zero snaps in the preseason -- out of position and trailing plays instead of making them. He might round into form, but he wasn't there yesterday.

Two of the linebackers had their moments, and one is looking more and more like a washout. Jerod Mayo led the team with 12 tackles, and he added a sack, a QB hit, and a fumble recovery. He did give up a few receptions, but even on those he was right there, just a step behind, so he continues to do pretty well there. And Jamie Collins had some nice pass coverage and got 8 tackles of his own.

But Dont'a Hightower seems too big to do anything in pass coverage, but not big enough to shed blockers and make tackles. He had 1 tackling assist yesterday, and the one time he could have made a big play, he got called for roughing the passer. Not the performance you want from a high draft pick in his third season. A change of position might help Hightower, perhaps with his size he could rotate with Ninkovich on the line -- it might suit his skills better.

I won't hammer the secondary; they played pretty well. Safety Devin McCourty was the star of that unit, making tackles near the line in run support while making sure no long passes got behind him. Duron Harmon started opposite McCourty, but he was a non-entity, and I'd prefer to see Patrick Chung back there instead. He at least makes plays and can mostly be counted on not to get beaten deep.

Cornerback Darrelle Revis got beaten on one crossing route, but other than that he was very solid. On the one touchdown he allowed, he hit the ball but it bounced directly into the receiver's gut -- so you can't even fault him much on that one. The rest of the corners rotated in and out so much it was tough to keep track. But overall, the longest passes of the day were in the 20-25 yard range, which is a pretty good day for a secondary.

Special teams had the flub of the day, when punter Ryan Allen had a punt blocked for the first time in his NFL career. Miami converted the short field to a touchdown, and that could have been a lot worse, except the Patriots scored the next 17 points to make that an afterthought. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was his usual solid self; two field goals (45 and 47 yards) and the only kickoffs returns were when he was kicking into the wind.

The coaching was less than stellar. Not sure how you have the other team's best pass rusher coming free at the quarterback. And I wonder why the offensive plan wasn't adjusted when play after play everyone seemed to be covered. The misdirection runs worked well in the first half, maybe that would have helped get Miami guessing if you ran them again in the second half.

So where does that leave us? 0-1 and looking up at the division is a strange sensation. Old friend Matt Cassel is the quarterback there, and the Vikings were very impressive in trouncing a bad St. Louis team yesterday. The Patriots have to get their O-line issues worked out, but I think the rest of the team will be better in the more hospitable climate of the University of Minnesota's stadium (the Vikings' temporary home until the new stadium is up in 2016).

Bill Belichick once said that the most important game of the season is the second game. If you win the opener, you want to keep that going, but if you lose, you have to find a way to win that second game. Statistically your chances of making the playoffs go way down if you lose the first two. Let's see what he comes up with for this game, his first after a season-opening loss in some time.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Tom Brady had never lost two fumbles in an NFL game, until his 218th game yesterday.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Well, last time they lost the season opener, didn't they win the Super Bowl?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-1!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
Miami Dolphins 11-5
Indianapolis Colts 10-6
New York Jets 9-7
Buffalo Bills  8-8
New England Patriots 5-11

Oh... did you forget that the Colts used to be in this division? Tsk tsk tsk #MutomboFingerWag

Friday, September 5, 2014

Patriots 2014 Season Primer!

Last year the Patriots replaced nearly 50% of their offensive starters. This year, less than 20% (not counting running back LeGarrette Blount -- that was Stevan Ridley’s job). Constant change might be be the norm, but some years just don’t measure up like others.

Still, there is plenty to chew on, and I’m just the guy to help put it together for you. Here is your catch-up blog entry on the comings and goings, and what changes to expect in 2014.


Hello: WR Brandon LaFell, WR Brian Tyms, TE Tim Wright, RB James White, QB Jimmy Garoppolo, T Jordan Devey, and T Cameron Fleming.

Good-bye: RB LeGarrette Blount, G Logan Mankins, QB Ryan Mallett, WR Austin Collie, TE Matthew Mulligan, and OL Will Svitek.

1. Offensive Line on the Line

The Patriots had two significant losses on the offensive line: their best lineman, Logan Mankins was traded to Tampa Bay, and their longtime coach Dante Scarnecchia retired.  Mankins is reportedly being replaced by right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and Scarnecchia was replaced by Dave DeGuglielmo, a nine-year NFL veteran.

Mankins’ play slipped last season, but at his age he was very likely to have had a return to his All-Pro form in 2014. So that leaves big shoes to fill for Vollmer, who might be up to the task if he can stay healthy (he’s battled back problems the last few years). The Mankins trade was clearly a money move, and the Patriots will use the salary cap space to re-sign other players. However, there is a chance this comes back to bite them, given that he helped protect Tom Brady’s blind side.

As for the DeGuglielmo, he has his work cut out. His squad includes four undrafted players, four players in their first or second year in the NFL, and only two players drafted in the first two rounds. And he steps in to replace a legend in Scarnecchia, who made chicken salad out of chicken feathers year after year.

If Mankins had stayed, I would have predicted that the new coach would have been a one-year improvement. That often happens when long-time coaches are replaced (not that he would have been as good as Scarnecchia in the long run). But with Mankins in Tampa Bay, expect the offensive line to struggle -- they ran hot and cold in the preseason. And that could bode ill for the offense, especially early in the year.

2. Two Tight Ends Again?

Tight end Tim Wright came back in the Tampa Bay trade, and he had the following stat line in his rookie campaign last year: 54 catches, 571 yards, and 5 touchdowns. And that was with Josh Freeman and Mike Glennon throwing to him. Translate that to the New England offense and Brady, and there might be a wee bit of improvement.

But don’t go trading Megatron for Wright for your fantasy team just yet. He still has to prove he can learn the offense, and he has to gain Brady’s trust. But if he accomplishes those two things, he will diversify the Patriots offense in ways not possible with the dreck the Pats carried at second tight end last year.

If Wright can duplicate his output from last year, it would more than triple what the Patriots got from the non-Rob Gronkowski tight ends in 2013 (14 catches for 152 yards). And with Brady at the helm, there is a good chance Wright will do even more than he did in Tampa -- and that would re-usher in the two-tight end offense.

3. Still no Deep Threat

Danny Amendola wasn’t it last year, and neither was Kenbrell Thompkins. And so far, it doesn’t look like newcomer Brandon LaFell will be it this year. The Patriots haven’t had a legitimate deep threat since Randy Moss was traded in 2010.

Not that they can’t win without a deep threat. But the search continues at this point; they didn’t find it in LaFell -- so the pressure will continue to be on Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski to produce in the middle of the field.

4. New Quarterback in Town

Second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo beat out last year’s #2 QB, Ryan Mallet for second place on the depth chart. In fact, the Patriots liked him so much, they shipped Mallet to Houston for a sixth- or seventh-round pick in 2015.

It’s a big risk to have only a rookie backing up Brady. Garoppolo showed well in the preseason, but that is no guarantee of in-season performance. Remember that Matt Cassel looked horrible in the 2008 preseason, but led the team to an 11-5 record after Brady was knocked out of the season.

Still Garoppolo outplayed Mallet in August, and that should hearten Patriots fans who might worry that Brady gets dinged and misses a few games.


Hello: CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner, CB Malcolm Butler, S Patrick Chung, LB Darius Fleming, and DL Dominique Easley.

Good-bye: CB Aqib Talib, LB Brandon Spikes, S Steve Gregory, LB Dane Fletcher, DL Tommy Kelley, and DL Andre Carter.

1. The Secondary Revamp: 2014 Version

By all accounts Revis is one of the top three corners in the game, and he is far more durable than Talib. So he should solidify one side of the field, opposite last year’s starter Alfonzo Dennard and perhaps the newly acquired Browner (after his four-game suspension to start the season). The new corners also allow Kyle Arrington to cover slot receivers exclusively, something he excels at.

Any way you slice it, there is more size and skill at cornerback than there has been in years. And that should take the pressure off the safeties.

Which is a good thing, because there is a lot of uncertainty at safety, after solid starter Devin McCourty. Tavon Wilson played well in the preseason, and Duron Harmon made a bit of a splash with some big hits, but I thought Nate Ebner played the best of the safeties in the preseason, especially at forcing the run. And he’s fifth or sixth on the depth chart to start the year.

That tells me they either have a ton of talent at the position, or that behind McCourty it’s a rotating group of nobodies who will be a drag on the team. As a fan, one hopes for the former, but until someone distinguishes himself, watch out for long passes to the non-Revis side of the field. Teams that like to go deep will be salivating to play the Patriots early in the year.

2. Depth Problems

Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, and Vince Wilfork are solid along the defensive line. And second year players Joe Vellano and Chris Jones will swap time, making them more effective than they were last year, when they had to replace Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. They were okay playing every down, but should be better platooning.

The problem comes behind them. If you’ve heard of Sealver Siliga, Zack Moore, Michael Buchanan, and Dominique Easley -- well, then you’re as much of a Patriots nut as I am. This is the risk you run when you cut Tommy Kelly; the drop-off can be severe if one of your starters goes out. Jones has been hurt, and Easley hasn’t played all preseason, so no one knows what happens when the inevitable first injury hits.

Depth is also a problem at linebacker. We all know Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, and we should know breakout star of late last year, Jamie Collins. I won’t even mention their backups, because you wouldn’t know them anyway. But perhaps a bigger concern is that there are only two of them.

The Patriots can ride out one injury on the defensive line; two if Easley is any good. But any linebacker injury leads to a pretty steep talent drop.

Last year the team was decimated on defense when their four best defensive players went out: Mayo, Wilfork, Kelly, and Talib. No team can sustain that many losses. However, the 2014 Pats have set themselves up at corner and safety, but left themselves vulnerable at defensive line and linebacker. Very vulnerable.

Special Teams

1. And the Kickoff is Taken By… Whom?

LeGarrette Blount, Josh Boyce, and Leon Washington are gone, and they took 70% of the kickoff returns with them. Not that kickoffs are a big part of the game any more; but the Pats need *someone* to field kicks.

The Schedule

And here goes with my annual attempt to predict which games the Patriots will win and lose for the season.  Take it with a grain of salt -- I am usually close in the final record, but not as accurate with which games go which way.  As always, the season is broken up into quarters.

First Quarter

  • The Pats start their year in Miami, and frankly this game has me worried. The Dolphins installed an up-tempo offense that should be doubly effective in the heat, and their skill position players have given the Patriots fits in the past. Combine that with Miami’s excellent pash rush, the Patriots mediocre O-line play in the preseason, and the lack of depth on the defensive front seven, and I predict the Patriots lose their first season opener since 2003.

  • Next up is a trip to Minnesota to take on the Vikings, and the Patriots should win in a shoot-out. As good as Tom Brady is at home, he’s incredibly efficient in domes, and the Pats also know all of QB Matt Cassel’s weaknesses.

  • The Raiders stop by Foxboro for the Pats home opener, and there is no reason this shouldn’t be a two-touchdown win for the Patriots.

  • The Chiefs game would be very worrisome if they had more receiver talent to compliment running back Jamaal Charles -- but they don’t. Problem is, Kansas City is a tough place to play. And even though Bill Belichick usually outschemes Andy Reid, in a game this close, take the crowd noise under the Monday night lights. Loss #2.

Second Quarter

  • For the second year in a row, the Pats play the Bengals in week five. Two differences: this time it’s in Foxboro, and the Bengals have a bye week prior to this matchup. Cincy can’t depend on crowd noise to slow the Patriots offense this year, and I don’t think they have the firepower to keep up with the Pats in Foxboro. Sounds like win #3.

  • The following week should be a cakewalk in Buffalo. The Bills traditionally have given the Patriots more trouble in week 1 than any other time, and they’ve also played better in Foxboro than Buffalo. This year Belichick will have plenty of tape on Buffalo to prepare for this game, so it should go in the win column.

  • A Thursday night game comes next, facing the Jets in Foxboro. Jets head coach Rex Ryan likes to pull off surprises against New England. But unfortunately for him, the Thursday night home teams win 66% of the time, so the Patriots should win this one.

  • The sacrificial Bears come to town ten days later. Chicago QB Jay Cutler is 0-2 versus New England, completing less than 60% of his passes, for 160 yards a game, and has 1 touchdown to 4 ints. And Belichick is dominant versus the NFC; sounds like a recipe for a 6-2 record!

Third Quarter

  • Here is why I think the Patriots will beat the Broncos in Foxboro. (1) Denver has division games sandwiching the Pats game, the Patriots play the Bears and then have a bye. (2) Talib is a waste against the Patriots receivers; he can’t shut them down because they are shifty-small guys, a bad matchup. (3) Peyton Manning plus crowd noise usually ends worse than expected.

  • After a bye week, the Pats travel to Indy for a Sunday night game against the Colts. If you watched last year’s playoff blowout, you might think this would be an easy win for the Patriots. But the Colts have a bye the previous week, just as the Patriots do. And the Colts have excellent skill position players on offense, and their defense thrives on the home field noise. Add to that the Patriots notorious slow offensive starts after bye weeks, and it is time for loss #3.

  • The dome-field Lions come for a late-November visit to windy Foxboro. They play a division game four days later on Thanksgiving, and that plus the weather should be just enough to distract them and let the Patriots walk away with the win. A close one, but the Lions are famous for folding under pressure.

  • The Packers are a popular choice to make the Super Bowl, and the have the kind of diversified offense that gives the Patriots fits. In Lambeau, after the Broncos/Colts/Lions sked, this looks like loss #4.

Fourth Quarter

  • The last part of the season begins with a trip to San Diego. I’m not sold on Chargers’ head coach Mike McCoy yet, and this game comes in the middle of a brutal schedule for them (three division games with the Raiders, Broncos, and Chiefs, along with contests against the Rams, Ravens, and 49ers). I see a Chargers letdown this week, and a Patriots win.

  • The make-good game for their opening day loss is having the Dolphins stop by for a beating in the middle of December. You’ll hear a lot of “the weather won’t affect us” coming from the Miami players in the lead-up to the game. But you won’t hear much of it when they are on the way home with yet another Foxboro loss.

  • The Pats travel down to New York next, for a tilt with the Jets. Rex Ryan is likely to be coaching for his job, and they have a pretty easy schedule around this game, so I’ll go out on a limb and predict Rexy pulls it out.

  • And finally, the Bills stop by Foxboro for their annual Mail-It-In Bowl. Buffalo will likely be out of playoff contention, and they’ve shown through the years that they are patsies late in the year, especially when it comes to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.


That makes the Patriots 11-5, likely division winners, but not in contention for a playoff bye.

Statistical Oddity of the Century: Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach, not one single NFL team has a winning record against the Patriots. And only the Carolina Panthers are at break-even (2-2). (Credit to Kraft Sports for the stat.)

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!