Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Patriots Outlast Cardinals, 23-21

The Patriots used excellent game-planning and some luck to beat back the Cardinals in Arizona, 23-21, on Sunday night. Combined with losses by all other AFC East teams (shocker!), the win puts them in first place in the AFC East all alone after one week. Next up is a divisional home tilt with the Dolphins, where they should hope to have more of their starters back.

Not to denigrate the players, but the hero of this game was defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. His game plan took away the deep pass and made Arizona beat them with running plays and short passes. Not only did he force the Cardinals away from their preferred method of attack, but it took Arizona for-EVER to adjust.

Of their first eight possessions, Arizona punted five times and the first half ended, and their only two scores came on short fields after turnovers. They finally changed strategies with about 12 minutes to go, but it was desperation time by then.

Patricia's plan worked nearly flawlessly, and Arizona's bumbling incompetence on their last drive sealed the deal for the Patriots. They were in field goal range but had a holding call and then a short pass for a loss. They finally got close enough to try a field goal on fourth down, but the long snapper botched the snap and the holder placed the ball in the wrong spot -- field goal attempt wide-left.

The result, a close game that went the Patriots way when the other team failed to adjust and then made the critical errors at the end. If that sounds like a familiar refrain, it's been repeated over and over for the last 16 years.

The biggest stars on defense were one guy you saw and someone you probably didn't notice. You wouldn't think a 6' 6" 350-pound guy could be missed, but because Alan Branch plays inside with lots of other big players, it can happen.

Branch was crucial to stuffing the Arizona running game and pushing the pocket back into the quarterback. He had the most consistently good game of any defender. And even though he only totaled 2 tackles and no QB hits, he was my defensive star of the week, mostly because everyone else was more up-and-down.

Chris Long also stood out on the defensive line. He ended up with 3 tackles and a sack, and also hit the quarterback once. Long mostly replaced Rob Ninkovich (serving a four-game suspension), and if Sunday night's game is any indication, the defensive line is going to be a real strength with Long complimenting Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard on the outside.

The secondary was the next best defensive unit, though it wasn't always pretty. Three corners, starters Malcom Butler and Logan Ryan, and nickel back Justin Coleman, made big knock-downs but also gave up plays. Though the team mostly played zone, so sometimes it's tough to tell who was responsible in that situation.

Safety Devin McCourty had nine tackles, and the secondary overall accounted for over half the total tackles (25 of 47). Usually that's a bad sign, but the defensive game plan allowed for short pass completions and the secondary made sure tackles to keep those gains short.

At linebacker, Jamie Collins had one of those impressive stat lines: 4 tackles, 1 sack (8 yards lost), 1 tackle for a loss, 1 QB hit, and 1 pass defended. Although he mis-timed his attempt to block an extra point and ended up with a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff. So we might not be seeing that play again. 

On a side note, LB Jonathan Freeny is in danger of losing his starting job. He played just 10% of the snaps, while newcomer Shea McClellin grabbed 39%. And with Barkevious Mingo waiting in the wings, it looks like Freeny will be a special-teamer only soon.

It's only one game, so not time to gush about quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo just yet, but he did a nice job in this one. He was mostly poised, only threw the ball into harm's way once, and stayed with the game plan of making positive plays each time, even if it was a short gain. He ended the day 24 of 33 (73%) for 264 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, and 1 lost fumble.

His average of 7.3 yards per attempt was fairly good, too, and he used his legs to buy time on a few plays (and to run for an important first down). However, he has to learn not to run backwards 10+ yards trying to get free. Defenders will hunt him down and the loss of yardage isn't worth the risk. But overall, an impressive debut.

The receivers made Garoppolo's job a lot easier, starting with Julian Edelman. He had 7 catches on 7 targets for 66 yards and 3 first downs (he also ran for a first down). If Wes Welker was the original "slot machine," Edelman is the 2.0 version, and is vastly improved model. He can't be single-covered, and even when bracketed, he can shake free with unmatched quickness, which was on full display Sunday night.

Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell showed nice timing with Garoppolo, too, with Hogan getting the first touchdown of the game (and 2 other catches, for a total of 60 yards), and Mitchell making 2 catches and almost getting to a back-shoulder (or back-thigh) throw from Garoppolo.

The running game was another key to the win, and blocking by tight end Martellus Bennett, guard Ted Karras, and tackle Marcus Cannon were key to its success. Bennett sealed the edge very well, and there were multiple plays where Karras got two blocks inside.

The average wasn't great, 3.4 yards per carry, but it helped the Patriots maintain control of the ball for almost 34 minutes of game time. LeGarrette Blount was the only running back who had many yards (70, on 22 carries), but back James White had a terrific night catching passes out of the backfield. He had 5 catches for 40 yards, including a great reach-back grab at the shoe tops.

In last year's AFC Championship game, White and Tom Brady missed their timing in several potential game-breaking passes. So it's nice to see the hard-working White improve his speed and get more in sync with the QB in the passing attack. The Pats have missed Shane Vereen in that role, and would benefit from White stepping into it.

The offensive line was a mixed bag. Center David Andrews got pushed around and had a tripping penalty. And although Karras and Cannon were decent in the running game, the pass blocking overall was only good enough for quick-hit passes.

Emergency tackle Cameron Fleming had some nice cut blocks on outside passes, but he got man-handled by outside pass pressure all night. A work in progress, as they say. But of course, they have the man to do it in new/old offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. (Trivia question: Scarnecchia has worked for the Patriots under six head coaches, how many can you name? Answer below.)

Special teams were interesting, especially the kickoffs. Most times, kicker Stephen Gostkowski booted it high and just to the goal line. This forced the Cardinals to return the kicks, and with the high trajectory, the Patriots coverage team was there to stop the return cold.

On non-touchback kickoffs, Arizona's average starting field position was the 15 yard line, so it worked out well. Also of note; rookie Cyrus Jones was great in kick coverage, getting to the returner before Matthew Slater did on every kick I recall. And of course, the Patriots didn't miss any field goals, and AZ did, so that is a victory.

The Pats coaching staff was vastly better than Arizona's on Sunday. They formulated a great plan entering the game, and it took far too long for the Cardinals coaches to adjust. This was one of those surprise victories, when everything looked to be going against the Patriots, yet Belichick and his staff pulled one out with guile and guts.

So where does that leave us? The Patriots are the only 1-0 team in the AFC East, so they are in first place by a game already. The Dolphins are traditionally much tougher to play in Miami, so the Pats should be able to handle them this week in Foxboro.

Non-Garoppolo MVP of the Week: Martellus Bennett, who was instrumental in the running attack that kept the Cardinals offense on the sideline.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In one start, Jimmy Garoppolo's one reception is already half as many receptions as Tom Brady has in 225 regular-season starts (2).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Add Gronkowski, Dion Lewis, and Brady to this offense and it looks scary."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

PPS. Trivia answer
Scarnecchia worked under these Patriots head coaches:
Ron Meyer
Raymond Berry
Dick MacPherson
Bill Parcells
Pete Carroll
Bill Belichick
(Luckily he missed the dreaded 1-15 season with Rod Rust at the helm.)

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