Sunday, October 12, 2014

Patriots Top Bills, 37-22

The battle for the AFC East lead had a familiar result, a Patriots win over the Bills, which put the Patriots alone atop the division once again. The cream appears to be rising. The win puts them in control of the division for the moment, and they have another AFC East tilt on short rest this Thursday, against the Jets in Foxboro.

Sunday's game was the 26th time the Patriots have beaten the Bills in 29 games since Bill Belichick took over as New England's head coach. It was close for a half, and the Bills probably should have been ahead at the intermissions. But turnovers and other mistakes opened the door, and the Patriots somehow parlayed a their poor first-half offensive performance to a 13-7 lead. The Patriots then scored on 4-of-4 meaningful possessions in the second half to run away for a 15 point victory.

The offensive line continued to have trouble, especially with speed rushers around the outside. Granted they played most of the game with two injury-replacements, but that doesn't excuse the poor play from tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. What does explain it is the crowd noise, which gives defensive players a head start on the play.

Fortunately, the Patriots have Tom Brady at quarterback, because he handled the pressure extremely well. He stepped up to avoid outside rushers -- and the fact that he had room to step up into means the interior O-line played pretty well. But when pressure came, Brady stood in and hit receivers for big plays. He got hit right after delivering a Brandon LaFell touchdown, hit just as he threw an out to tight end Rob Gronkowski, and hit just as he released a big third-down throw to Julian Edelman.

Brady ended up 27 of 37 for 361 yards (his highest total this season), 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, only 2 sacks (15 yards), and a QB rating of 139.6. Most QBs under that kind of pressure would have made a key mistake, but Brady is good enough to avoid the costly error. You might not notice until after he retires; but his decisions and passes are so precise that this week he has the second-best QB rating the the league when he had no running game and was hit eight times total.

Speaking of the running game, 50 yards and 1.9 yards per carry. That's all, nothing to see here... on to the receivers. (Trivia question: the last time the Patriots had as few as 50 yards in a game was in 2007, their 16-0 regular season. It happened four times: how many of the games can you name? Answer below.)

The receivers piled up big numbers, but it was mostly a three-man show. The team flexed Gronkowski (7 catches for 94 yards) to the outside, giving him single-coverage, and he beat that coverage consistently, be it a corner or safety. The improving Brandon LaFell caught 4 balls for 97 yards, and 2 touchdowns -- getting both TDs working over the middle of the field. And workhorse Edelman collected 9 grabs for 91 yards. Heck, even first-timer Brian Tyms got into the act, with a 43-yard touchdown off play-action.

Expect to see more of Gronkowski near the sidelines, as that formation gives him either a mismatch or a double-team that spreads the defense horizontally. That horizontal spread opens things up for Edelman and LaFell, as well as for the running backs. With Gronkowski getting healthier each week, they have to start using him to increase offensive production, even if that production comes from other players when defenses load up to stop Gronk.

On defense, the Patriots lack of linebacker depth is starting to hurt them. Dont'a Hightower missed the game, and his replacement, rookie Deontae Skinner was a big part of the reason Bills tight end Scott Chandler had 6 catches for 105 yards (and 5 first downs). And when Jerod Mayo went down, the Bills drove 80 yard with ease for a touchdown to make it a one-score game late. If Mayo is out for more than a week or two, this unit will be tested again and again with crossing patterns in the short zones. And if today is any indication, they will fail; so they better get things shored up.

The defensive line did the best work of the day for the D. Chris Walker is a huge body next to Vince Wilfork, and he and Wilfork clogged things up nicely to shut down the inside run. Wilfork and Walker combined for 9 tackles. But the defensive star of the day was end Rob Ninkovich, who had 6 tackles, 3 sacks (19 yards), 4 quarterback hits, and 4 tackles for a loss. An absolute monster of a game from an unsung player. Chandler Jones continues to struggle against linemen, because he just isn't big enough. The Patriots need to use him more like the Dolphins use Cameron Wake -- send him after the quarterback and fill in behind him to cover the run.

The secondary played pretty well, but they also benefited from several key dropped passes. Corner Darrelle Revis mostly shut down the Bills biggest weapon, rookie wideout Sammy Watkins. But the safety play has suffered recently, with only Devin McCourty being solid and the rotating list of second safeties missing too many assignments. Patrick Chung is still a big hitter, but Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon should know the defense better by now.

At the cornerback opposite Revis, Alfonzo Dennard appears to be regressing, and he took several penalties over the last two games. The miscues didn't come back to haunt the Patriots, as they won both games, but no guarantee that continues if Dennard still has trouble. And Kyle Arrington -- well, I'll just say again that he is better covering quick slot receivers. When he goes outside to cover a tall-fast receiver, he is overmatched.

The special teams had several screw-ups. On their first field goal attempt, they tried to draw the Bills offside and ended up with a false-start penalty. And then kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed the 36-yarder, so they came a away with no points. And though Matthew Slater is usually terrific, he got to punt returners just a tad late twice in this game. And the team gave up a 37-yard kickoff return, turning field position toward the Bills, which they eventually cashed in for their first touchdown.

No complaints about the coaching on this day. Putting Gronkowski outside was an inspired decision. And working LaFell in the areas vacated by Gronkowski put two touchdowns on the board. It would have been nice to get off to a faster offensive start, but the halftime adjustments were terrific.

So where does that leave us? Where we are used to being; in first place in the AFC East. The Patriots have several injuries, and a short week to recover. So this Thursday's game could be a lot more difficult than expected; especially since the Jets are essentially done for the year and the only joy they can get is to beat the Patriots.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Fox network has broadcast football for 20 years, and yesterday's game was the first time they ever showed an all-AFC matchup.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Three weeks of home cooking and then a bye, do I hear 7-2 anyone?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-2!

PPS. Trivia answer: Patriots sub-50 yard rushing totals from the 2007 season

  • 48 yards rushing against the Eagles on 11/25
  • 22 yards rushing against the Steelers on 12/9
  • 44 yards rushing against the Giants on 12/29
  • 45 yards rushing against the Giants on 2/3 (the Super Bowl)

No comments:

Post a Comment