Saturday, September 10, 2016

Patriots 2016 Primer!

Tough to believe it's go time, but the Patriots are in Phoenix already, starting the season sans Brady for the first time this millennium.

Lots of changes this off-season, with some exciting new players coming in and a few good vets gone. Here’s a breakdown of what those changes portend and how the team will bounce back from the loss in the AFC Championship game.


1. Brady takes a powder

No one expects Jimmy Garoppolo to supplant Tom Brady while the incumbent serves his four-game suspension for being on the Commissioner’s bad side. And this is less a test of Garoppolo than of the coaching staff, specifically head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

The last time they were without Brady, they turned Matt Cassel into an 11-game winner. But bear in mind, the prior year the Pats won 16 games, so it dropped five games in the standings when Brady went down with a knee injury. Putting in plays that work to Jimmy G’s strengths will be the key, along with leaning on a rising defense.

Garoppolo’s job is to hold things steady until Brady returns. He will likely lose the first game of his career -- Arizona is a very good team, and road games haven’t gone well with the Patriots offensive line woes. If he goes 2-2 he will have done his job (to coin a phrase). Anything less and it’ll be an uphill battle for the division.

2. Two Tight End Offense, Round FOUR!

2016 is literally the fourth time the Patriots have tried to replace Aaron Hernandez in the two tight end offense. Michael Hoomanawanui, the Tim Wright Trade, and last year, Scott Chandler from Buffalo. All hoped to be the answer, none turned out to be.

But this year it appears the Patriots got it right. Two seasons ago, Martellus Bennett caught 90 passes for the usually run-heavy Chicago Bears, and he made the Pro Bowl that year. In limited preseason action, he had seven catches and showed good timing with both Brady and Garoppolo.

The team kept four tight ends and a fullback, indicating they plan to run the ball more. And with Bennett to compliment G.O.A.T. Rob Gronkowski, the two tight end offense could hum like it did when Hernandez wasn’t in the clink.

3. Running Back and Wide Receivers In Flux

Electrifying back Dion Lewis is out for at least the first six weeks after undergoing a second procedure on his injured knee. In the preseason, rookie D.J. Foster made the strongest case to replace Lewis, but rookie running backs rarely get significant playing time under Belichick.

The smart money would be on James White, who looked better this preseason than he did last year, and Brandon Bolden. It looks like LeGarrette Blount will be the first- and second-down back. And that will be especially true if the team protects Garoppolo with more running plays early in the year.

At wide receiver, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are working back from injuries, free agent signee Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell looked good, and they really only carried four wideouts (Matthew Slater is more of a special teamer). All of this probably means a re-emphasis on the running attack.

Even so, questions surround whether Amendola can hold off Hogan, and how Mitchell will look when he returns from his elbow injury. Decent play in the preseason doesn’t always translate to regular-season success. And if I had to guess, I’d say Hogan might take snaps from Amendola, and the tight ends take some of Edelman’s catches this year -- just so he doesn't risk re-injuring himself.

4. Offensive Line Transition

How much uncertainty is there on the offensive line? Two of last year’s starters were cut, both starting tackles from last year are injured, they have rookies backing up center, right guard, and left guard, and Marcus Cannon is your starting right tackle. They also traded Chandler Jones for former #7 draft pick Jonathan Cooper, but of course, Cooper was injured most of the preseason.

Long-time O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia returned, and he has his work cut out for him. The line looked mediocre in the preseason, but the hallmark of a “Scar” line is that it improves as the season goes on, even in the face of injuries. It’ll be a work in progress the first month, but if you see improvement in October, chalk it up to Scarnecchia.


1. Three-Headed Linebackers

With tight end Bennett in the fold, the biggest talent drop-off on the team was from starting linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower to journeyman Jonathan Freeny. Enter Barkevious Mingo, former #6 draft pick acquired from the Browns. He has the athleticism to make it tougher to pick on him as the weak link in the linebacking corps.

His only preseason action was impressive, as he was a one-man wrecking crew against the Giants. He did miss some assignments, but seemed to understand the basic defensive calls pretty quickly, which is important. Being an athlete is only half the equation; you can’t stay on the field in New England if you don't know where to be on the field.

Mingo might not start week one, but he’ll be an able fill-in, and he should be starting by week three or four. When that happens, teams won’t be able to attack any weak link at linebacker, because the starting three will all be studs. Expect Hightower to move back inside, so Mingo and Collins can roam free outside.

2. Defensive Line Transformation

Two years ago the Pats had bruising plodders along most of their defensive line, anchored by longtime nose tackle Vince Wilfork. They still have two large bodies in the middle, in Alan Branch and Malcom Brown. But outside, they are all speed and athleticism.

Chris Long was brought in from St. Louis, and Jabaal Sheard starts his second season with the team after an impressive 2015. Trey Flowers and Anthony Johnson both impressed in the preseason, with strong bursts and penetration that broke up plays before they started. And when Rob Ninkovich returns from an PED suspension, that will up the speed ante even more.

Brown looks ready to break out this year, and if he can push the pocket back, the outside defensive linemen could have a field day against indecisive quarterbacks.

3. Third Corner a Question

Cornerback Malcom Bulter continues to impress, making the absolute most out of his opportunities in the NFL, and Logan Ryan was decent in the preseason. The third corner position is the one up for grabs, and it’ll be nail-biting time when Cyrus Jones or Justin Coleman covers the third best receiver on the other side.

The team traded for Eric Rowe, but don’t expect anything great from him. The team might have to count on getting to the quarterback, especially when their opponent has more than two dependable receivers.

Special Teams/Coaching

1. Three-Man Operation

The kicking unit had a rough preseason, with two missed field goals, at least one on a bad snap. It appears long snapper Joe Cardona has regressed a bit, and it’ll be up to special teams coach Joe Judge to get him back in sync for the regular season.

2. Jones To The Rescue?

Cyrus Jones was drafted at cornerback, but his most exciting plays in the preseason were punt returns. He had two exceptional punt returns, showed great instincts, and perhaps most important, is patient with the blocking (not easy to do when people are running toward you at 25 miles per hour).

Just having Jones return punts relieves some pressure and danger from Amendola and Edelman. If he does it well, all the better!

3. The More Belichick The Better

Bill Belichick’s son, Steve, took over as safeties coach this season. The unit was decent last year, but did fall back some from the 2014 campaign. If the younger Belichick can help return Devin McCourty to his Pro Bowl form and get a better year out of Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, he will have proven this wasn’t just a family hire.

The Schedule

And here is my annual attempt to predict the results of each game before the team takes its first snap, as always, with the season broken down into quarters.

BTW, not that I’m bragging, but I’m 27-for-32 predicting the last two seasons :)

First Quarter
  • Expect the Patriots to lose their first game of the year in Arizona. This would have been a tough spot with Brady at QB, never mind with Garoppolo, problems on offensive line, and no Gronkowski.
  • Game two is the home opener against Miami, and I don’t see any way they lose the first two games of the year. Season splits between these two are common, but usually the home team comes away with the victories.
  • Next up is the Houston Texans, who fly in for a Thursday night game in Foxboro. Thursday night road teams have a terrible record, as do the Texans against the Patriots. Mark down win #2.
  • The following game is at home against Buffalo. As with last year, the Patriots have 10 days to prepare for this one, so I won’t make the same mistake I did in 2015 -- Pats win this one.

Second Quarter
  • The return of Tom Brady presents a tougher challenge than many people foresee at Cleveland against the Browns. The Browns have four road games bracketing this home tilt, so you know they’ll want to win one in from of the home crowd. But I don’t see any way Brady doesn’t come away with a win in his first real game action of the season, so put this down as win #4.
  • Cincinnati comes to Foxboro the following Sunday, and until they prove otherwise, the Bengals can’t beat the Patriots unless they are in Cincy. 5-1 after this game.
  • Next up is a trip to Pittsburgh, and I smell a loss here. Tom Brady has basically owned the Steelers for 10+ years, but Pittsburgh morphed from a run-first, defensive team, to a throw-first passing attack team. And they have the weapons to win that kind of game, especially when the Pats offense has to put up with crowd noise and tough pass rushers.
  • The Pats then travel to Buffalo, and frankly, Brady owns the Bills in Buffalo. 6-2 at the halfway mark of the season.

Third Quarter
  • After a bye week, the second half of the season starts with a barn-burner, the Seattle Seahawks! The biggest danger here is that the Pats offense often starts slow after a bye week, so it could look bad early on. But i don’t think Seattle is who they were a few seasons ago, and the Patriots defense showed they can shut them down in the Super Bowl. Patriots win.
  • If Seattle doesn’t worry me, you know going to San Francisco to play the 49ers doesn’t. Make that 8-2.
  • The next game is dangerous, in New York to play the improving Jets. New York has a bye the week before, so they’ll have two weeks to plan for the Pats. And Jets head coach Todd Bowles has them heading in the right direction. Even if the Patriots are fully healthy, these division games are brutal, so I’ll give them their third loss.
  • The Rams are finally back home in Los Angeles, but the Patriots are unlikely to show them any hospitality when they come to Foxboro. Jeff Fischer likes to win with defense and running; but that never worked for the Steelers, and it won't work here. Sounds like 9-3 to me.

Fourth Quarter
  • The Baltimore game is up next, and that’s a tricky one. The Ravens have been down for two years, but they always get up for the Pats. Also, the Patriots have to travel to Denver the following week, so they could overlook Baltimore. But it appears the Ravens just aren’t as good as they used to be, and the Pats defense should be able to give them fits, so put down a win and keep your fingers crossed.
  • In Denver on a short week, crowd noise and pass rush versus the Patriots offensive line --  sounds like a disaster. But the Pats have something to prove after last year, and if form holds, QB Trevor Siemian will be making his 14th start in this game. And the last time a young QB beat Belichick in his 14th start was Chad Pennington, 14 years ago. That sliver of hope has me predicting a Patriots win.
  • J-E-T-S on the road just aren’t that good. Put the Patriots down for a win over New York the following Saturday.
  • Patriots play in Miami to finish the season. And while that is often a recipe for disaster, I suspect this game will mean something. Patriots win comfortably in south Florida, for one of the few times in Brady’s career.

That puts the Patriots at 13-3, a game better than last season. That would put them in the running for a playoff bye and perhaps the #1 seed in the AFC.

Enjoy the season!

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, my favorite team's results do not correspond my expectations. I bought a before the season started season ticket for the entire season with a good discount on this website I hope they will play better in future.