Monday, September 18, 2017

Patriots Defense Restores Order In 36-20 Rout Of Saints

The Patriots righted the ship with a 36-20 victory over the Saints yesterday in New Orleans. The win put them in a tie with Buffalo for second place in the AFC East, trailing the 1-0 Dolphins by a half-game. Next week the Houston Texans come to town, to face the depleted Pats.

The defense improved as the game wore on, giving up just seven points and only one big play after the break. This is more characteristic of the defense under coordinator Matt Patricia, so it appears the missed assignments and big plays of the Kansas City loss might have been an aberration.

It also came with their best linebacker (Dont'a Hightower) out with an injury and their best defensive lineman from last year (Alan Branch) not starting due to a poor performance against KC. The ultimate "next man up" team got its biggest defensive line contribution from a rookie, Deatrich Wise (2 tackles, 1 sack, and 5 quarterback hits).

In the secondary it wasn't big-money Stephon Gilmore or touted vet Malcolm Butler who impressed, but second-year Jonathan Jones, who made two tackles and knocked away two passes, both along the sideline. Safety Patrick Chung played very well, making eight tackles, knocking down one pass, and providing excellent coverage on the Saints' tight ends and running backs in the short zones.

The offense just nailed it in the first quarter: three touchdowns on three drives, with a good mix of running and passing plays, and nice tempo-changing plays thrown in for good measure. Tom Brady still wasn't great, despite having very good numbers. For the second straight game, he laid out too many potential interceptions, including one actual INT where he got bailed out on a penalty call. (The defensive holding call, not the 12-men call.)

The receivers they had looked great. Chris Hogan (5 catches, 78 yards, 1 touchdown) ran both deep and underneath passes, taking on part of the Julian Edelman traditional role. Brandon Cooks looked good in his New Orleans return, and tight end Rob Gronkowski was otherworldly for three quarters (6 for 116 yards, and a 53-yard touchdown catch-and-run). Unfortunately he got injured late in the game; although it's a groin injury, not his back or a broken bone. Might have dodged a bullet on that one.

The downside is the sheer lack of receivers. Both Hogan and Gronkowski were gimpy by game's end, so without Edelman and with Amendola in the concussion protocol, they are left with just Cooks and newcomer Phillip Dorsett (late of the Colts). It'll be tough to patch the offense together this week if Amendola doesn't return.

If the receiving corps is short-handed next week, expect some running backs to take a few snaps each to cover for the missing receivers. After all, they did it this week. James White led the team with eight receptions (85 yards), and Rex Burkhead (3 for 41), Dion Lewis (1 for 11), and James Develin (1 for 16) all lined up at receiver for a few plays.

The backs also did a nice job running the ball. Led by Mike Gillislee (18 carries for 69 yards), they ran for 119 yards and a 3.8 yards per carry average. The O-line also impressed in pass protection, giving up just five QB hits and two sacks. Brady made some of the biggest plays when he had lots of time in the pocket, which happened frequently.

The kicking game is still a work-in-progress. Against KC, they had two penalties for running into the punter, in a row -- first time I've ever witnessed that. Yesterday Stephen Gostkowski missed another extra point, and they had him place his kickoffs short to force a return -- but the Saints broke one anyway and the Pats committed a 15-yard penalty on another one.

The punting is impeccable as always. But somehow they have to solidify both the extra points and the kick coverage teams. Mistakes like that have to be corrected by late in the year if the team expects to make the playoffs, or make any noise in the playoffs.

So where does that leave us? Head coach Bill Belichick has said in the past the second game of the year is the most important regular season game. Because if you win the first game, you want to continue the momentum. But if you lose the first one, you need to turn it around fast!

The Pats did that emphatically against the Saints. Next up is Houston, which will be a much tougher test if Amendola and/or Gronkowski can't go.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: I'm going with Chung, who was instrumental in sealing the short zones on defense. New Orleans was 4 of 12 (33%) on third-down conversions; first time in a while they've been that poor.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: This is the fourth season in a row the Saints started the season 0-2. (Trivia question: One other NFL team has also started the last four seasons 0-2, name it... Answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "It was only the Saints."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-1!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
The Indianapolis Colts have also started each of the last four seasons 0-2. I guess "Suck For Luck" has lingered longer than they thought it would.

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