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

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