Sunday, December 31, 2017

Patriots Cruise to 26-6 Win Over Jets

The Patriots made it look easy, waltzing to a 26-6 win and clinching home-field throughout the AFC playoffs. The game gives them not only a week off before their playoff run begins, but means that if they win one more game, the AFC Championship Game will be in Foxboro on January 21! Next week... there will be lots of football watching as the Pats next opponent will be revealed.

So not a ton to learn from this game. The Jets dropped enough passes for an entire month of games, committed a series of stupid defensive penalties, and toward the end just plain gave up on tackling anyone. Looks like they had early tee-times scheduled for tomorrow and wanted to get out of frigid Foxboro.

The running game took center stage, which is odd because they had more backs inactive (3) than active (2). Dion Lewis led the attack with 26 carries for 93 yards, while special teams stalwart Brandon Bolden had 9 carries for 46 yards. Bolden's carries mostly came late, and he plowed and barreled through the whipped Jets defense.

It was Lewis who wore them down, making the first tackler miss multiple times, delaying his runs while blockers got in position, and bursting through seemingly non-existent holes. He had an outstanding year, leading the team in rushing yards and averaging 5.0 ypc. He also had 32 catches for another 200+ yards. Not bad for the smallest guy on the team.

The receivers didn't impress much. Brandin Cooks led the team with 79 yards (5 catches), but he cost the team at least two long completions (one when he didn't fight for the ball and one where he slowed the route prematurely). He also obviously didn't want to hit the ground on a sideline pass, and that cost him the chance to get two feet in bounds for another catch. Aside from that; Phillip Dorsett made a nice grab and the rest of the receivers were invisible.

TB12 only got sacked twice, and both times were coverage sacks. He did a decent job, with a lower-than-average completion percentage. But he had two touchdowns and no INTs on a cold and windy day, which is probably all you can ask.

The O-line obviously did a decent job, keeping Brady mostly clean and doing a nice job of run blocking. Shaq Mason continued his great year, and tight end Rob Gronkowski contributed more blocking than in the pass game (0 catches on 0 targets).

The defense really just waited for the Jets to implode. There were so many dropped passes and seven three-and-outs. The Pats only made 47 tackles for the game, to the Jets 69, which tells you about the offensive efficiency of each team.

The defensive line looked dominant against the pathetic Jets O-line. Lawrence Guy and Trey Flowers were solid all game, and newcomer James Harrison notched five total tackles and two sacks (on consecutive plays).

Linebacker? Don't ask. Kyle Van Noy returned for a few plays, but he barely saw the field, made no notable plays, and ended up a stat-sheet no-show (zero tackles or other defensive plays). If Van Noy can't play in the post-season, this is clearly their weakest position on the field. A time-bomb waiting to explode on them if the Steelers or an NFC foe can figure out to attack their short coverage zones.

No report on the secondary; the Jets dropped so many passes that it's impossible to give them a grade.

Special teams had two standouts; punter Ryan Allen and gunner Matthew Slater. In the fourth quarter, Ryan had three punts. Two were downed at the four yard-line by Slater, one of which was converted into a safety a few plays later. And one skipped out of bounds at the three yard-line. That's a good season for some punters, so having it all in one quarter is very impressive.

So where does that leave us? A week off isn't a bad thing at this point in the season. If you're religious, pray for Van Noy's health; he'd be the biggest returning player we could get (with Edelman out of the picture). Enjoy watching the Patriots next foe get the snot kick out of it this weekend and try to stay warm.

Biggest On-going Issue: It is, and will likely always remain the linebackers. Still not enough pass coverage ability in that group; expect to see safety Patrick Chung in the hybrid role the entire playoffs.

Non-Brady MVP: (tie) Lewis and Allen. Not every day you can include a punter. Although I did consider giving it to the Jets receivers.

Statistical Oddity: Tom Brady now has more career touchdowns (488) than the top four Jets quarterbacks combined. (Stole this one from the television broadcast.)

Water-cooler Wisdom: "Remember when the Pats were 2-2 and the sky was falling?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-3!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Patriots Top Steelers 27-24 In Wildest Finish This Season

Games like this are why we keep coming back to the NFL. The Patriots barely eked out a 27-24 win in Pittsburgh yesterday, sealing the win with an interception in the end zone! The victory won them the division, and most importantly, gave them the inside track on the overall #1 playoff seed in the AFC. Next week the Buffalo Bills visit Foxboro, with the Pats needing a win to keep their playoff status in their own hands.

Pittsburgh changed up their defensive scheme this week, playing more man coverage and rushing just four players at Tom Brady. It's notable because they haven't done much different over the years, but it appears they finally figured out that a soft zone isn't the way to slow down the Patriots offense. The plan worked pretty well for most of the game, but in the second half the Pats beat that coverage by going to all-universe tight end Rob Gronkowski for big chunk plays.

But in the end, it was the Steelers incompetence that cost them the win. The Patriots scored 11 straight points to take a three-point lead. But Pittsburgh roared back, riding a long reception to a first-down at the Pats ten-yard line, with a chance to tie with a field goal or win with a touchdown. Then the wheels fell off:
  • An apparent touchdown was apparently bobbled as tight end Jesse James went to the ground, so it was ruled incomplete upon review.
  • A pass to receiver Darius Heyward-Bey was short of the end zone, but Heyward-Bey didn't get out of bounds, so the clock continued to run.
  • QB Ben Roethlisberger rushed his team to the line for one last shot at a touchdown before a field goal attempt for the tie.
  • Instead of throwing a fade (as suggested by commentator Tony Romo at the time), Roethlisberger tried to hit a man over the middle. The pass was broken up by Pats corner Eric Rowe, and intercepted by safety Duron Harmon.
It's not the worst loss in the annals of the league; but it shows once again that unprepared teams have trouble closing out games against prepared ones. The Steelers have more talent on the field, but they didn't close out a home game because they got too conservative with a chance to run clock and they melted down when a busted play gave them a chance to end it in regulation.

It certainly wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for the Patriots. They should always have been ready for the change in defensive scheme, but it took about 35 minutes of game time to figure out how to attack it. They went 3-of-9 on third-down conversions, which makes them 3-of-20 in their last two games (looks like a 15% success rate). That has to change if they expect to succeed in the playoffs. And of course, they missed another extra point, although this one was more on the long-snapper than kicker Stephen Gostkowski.

However, it's always hard to argue with the results. Even head coach Bill Belichick seemed to bend to the gravity of the situation, going for a fourth-down conversion on the first drive of the second half because he knew field goals probably wouldn't do it on a day like this. So without delving in too deep, here are some ups and downs from the game.

Brady didn't play his best game, but he bounced back in style. His long throws were mostly money yesterday; he completed them to receiver Brandin Cooks and Gronkowski. Gronk had two catches for 33 yards in the first half but caught fire (and everything thrown his way) in the second half: 7 grabs for 155 yards. And he made an amazing catch leaning down to snag the ball just inches from the ground.

Defensive lineman Trey Flowers was obviously what they were missing on defense. Five tackles, 0.5 sacks, and three QB hits tell you he was disruptive. And he barely missed several other sacks, including a strip-sack that Roethlisberger barely worked out of.

On the other hand, linebacker Elandon Roberts was obviously not what they were missing on defense. He read run correctly on multiple plays where he either rushed the wrong lane or whiffed on the tackle. He did make a play or two, but his inconsistency really hurts with the team down so much talent at LB. Probably no one ever thought "If we could just get Kyle Van Noy back" would be a rallying cry, but... well, here we are.

In the secondary, corner Stephon Gilmore did pretty well in coverage, but his run force leaves a lot to be desired. And safety Devin McCourty had probably his worst game of the year; taking bad angles on a few long running plays and providing just about nothing in the way of help for his corners. Not a good day for the secondary, especially when you consider the up-and-down performances of corners Malcolm Butler and Eric Rowe. (Although I did like the performance of safety Patrick Chung.)

The coaches simply took too long to get untracked. Once they started exploiting Gronkowski in man coverage the offense started humming. But it took until the half, when it should have been implemented in the second quarter.

So where does that leave us? 11-3 and atop the AFC, sorta rhymes, doesn't it? If the Pats win out, then the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC runs through Foxboro. And it would probably help if you gave your 40 year-old quarterback an extra week of rest toward the end of the season.

Biggest On-going Issue: It could always be the linebackers, but the lack of receiving threats is starting to concern me. Yesterday Gronkowski (9) and Cooks (4) were the only Pats players with more than two receptions. The team needs more production out of Amendola and the running backs, just to make other teams defend more players.

It was good to see newcomer Kenny Britt make a contribution. And it was also nice to see he was upset with himself for not getting the first down on his one reception. But his limited time with the playbook and the team makes him an unlikely candidate to step up in any meaningful way.

Non-Brady MVP: Gronkowski. Without his ability to get separation and make circus catches, the Pats wouldn't have been close enough to win at the end.

Statistical Oddity: Rob Gronkowski continued his success against Pittsburgh yesterday. His average in six games against them is: 6.5 catches, 111 yards, 22.8 yards per catch, 1.3 touchdowns. Might want to double-team him someday -- maybe the next time you play. (Trivia question: name the only team against which Gronkowski has higher averages in three of those four categories; answer below.) 

Water-cooler Wisdom: "If you don't like the catch rule, talk to the NFL; but that was not a catch."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-3!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
In his one game against the Rams, Gronkowski had 8 catches for 146 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Patriots Dominate 2nd Half, Win Going Away, 23-3

The Patriots annual pseudo-bye in Buffalo ended as it always does, with a Patriots win, this time 23-3 over the .500 Bills. The win opens up a four-game lead in the division with four games to go, though they haven't quite clinched the AFC East yet, due to tiebreakers. And pending the Pittsburgh Monday Night game, it will at least keep them tied with the Steelers for the AFC #1 playoff seed.

If there are horses for courses, the Patriots under Bill Belichick were built to dominate the Bills. Since the head coach arrived, the Pats are 35-5 against Buffalo, including 16-2 in Orchard Park! In fact, Tom Brady 14 wins in Buffalo ties him for the most by any QB in that stadium since 2001. And yes, that includes Bills QBs, even though they play there eight times a year and Brady only gets one shot at it a season. (Trivia question: Can you name the only Bills quarterback with 14 home wins since 2001? Answer below.)

As for yesterday's game, the Bills played tough for a half, limiting the number of possessions and holding the Patriots to nine points. But they had a very badly thrown (and badly timed) red zone interception on their opening drive, and their QB also overthrew a bunch of open receivers, while some receivers dropped passes right in their hands.

Then came the second half; which the Patriots won 14-0. In fact, for how close the game was early on, Belichick's charges scored on five of their first six possessions in the game. And even though the passing game was stalled, they ran for 130 yards in the first 30 minutes, not half bad.

The star of the game was tight end Rob Gronkowski. He had a couple of monster blocks in the running game, and also had nine catches for 147 yards. His performance proved once and for all what I've said for years: the Pats should run with Gronk blocking because it makes him soooo much more effective in the passing game. When defenders don't know if he fires off the line to block or to run a route, that moment of hesitation is all he and Brady need to gash them with either the run or pass. It's more unstoppable than flanking him out wide on a corner, and they should use it, frankly until he retires.

The other receivers were nondescript, with running backs totaling seven receptions and the rest of the team notching just five. Speaking of backs, Dion Lewis is just electric with the ball, forcing misses on first contact about 75% of the time. He had 92 yards on 15 carries, while fellow back Rex Burkhead got 78 yards on 12 carries. (Before you do the math, that is a very, very healthy 6.1 and 6.5 yards per carry, respectively.)

And the 191 yards on the ground illustrated the great performance of the offensive line. When they weren't committing penalties (three on the O-line, four total false-start penalties -- unacceptable!), Shaq Mason and David Andrews made great pull blocks and created gaps right up the middle or inside the tackles. Mason played his best game of the year, and even struggling Nate Solder did some nice work (though not consistent enough).

Brady was saved his usual pummeling because the run game was so effective. Buffalo had three sacks and five QB hits, and that total of eight hits is much lower than any of the last few games. His pedestrian 82.4 QB rating owes mostly to his one interception (which should have been nullified by three penalties on the Bills). But to complete 70% of his passes for the game after only 57% in the first half is testament to his improvement after the break.

The defense played very well, led by former Bills corner Stephon Gilmore and former Bills practice squad linebacker Eric Lee. Gilmore knocked down two passes and provided tight coverage. Lee dominate his former team: 4 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 QB hits, 2 passes defended, and 1 huge interception.

He might be what the linebacking corps needed, as they continue to be short on talent and energy. David Harris just can't make enough plays in the running game (and can't cover running backs), and Elandon Roberts seems to be repeating the same pattern from last year: start strong and fade later in the year. 

On the line, the return of Malcom Brown made a big difference in the run; he is a lineman who regularly totals 3+ tackles a game, which really is a lot for a Belichick defense. If only the front seven contained Tyrod Taylor in the pocket, this would have been a truly dominant performance. He scrambled three times, and each time he converted a third-down to extend the drive.

But overall it's tough to find fault when you only give up three points.

So where does that leave us? 10-2 and waiting to see if we open up a lead over Pittsburgh tomorrow night. The rest of the AFC seems to have ceded the #1 and #2 seeds to the two teams, so it's a matter of jockeying for the poll position. On the injury front, the Patriots really need to get linebacker Kyle Van Noy and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon back at full strength. The linebackers struggle without Van Noy, and you could see the difference in O-line play with the return of David Andrews at center.

Biggest On-Going Issue (a new weekly item): Earlier in the year the offensive pass distribution was great, with multiple receivers/backs getting three or more receptions in many of the games. However, injuries have, of late, set the team back there. The Pats had just three such receivers yesterday and two the week before against Miami.

Maybe it's just that the division rivals who know the Pats tendencies well enough to combat the diverse passing attack. But they've had this pattern before, and it can come back to haunt them in the playoffs, when teams are more adept at shutting down your favorite targets.

Non-Brady MVP: Rob Gronkowski, a monster game.

Statistical Oddity: In honor of Gronkowski, note that he has only fumbled three times in his career, and the last time he lost a fumble was five years (and 69 games) ago in 2012. He might not be durable, but when he plays, he is amazingly dependable.

Water-Cooler Wisdom: "Same old story in Buffalo, just a few new faces to pound into the dirt."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
Believe it or not, the only Bills QB with as many wins as Brady in Buffalo since 2001 is Drew Bledsoe, who won 14 homes games in three seasons after being traded there in 2002.