Sunday, November 29, 2020

Patriots Squeeze Past Cardinals 20-17

The Patriots held on for a 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at Gillette Stadium. The win put them at 5-6, still a full three-games behind the victorious Bills. Next up is a multi-day trip to Los Angeles, to take on the Chargers this weekend and the Rams the following Thursday night.

New England dominated special teams and played excellent situational defense. Most years that would have been enough for a blowout win. But with the sputtering offense, the Pats had to hold on in a game they normally would have dominated. It was a good win, but doesn't really give one a lot of hope for the season.

Special teams had four important plays:

  1. Punter Jake Bailey booted a perfect punt that landed at the one yard-line and was downed at the three.
  2. Donte Moncrief returned a kickoff 53 yards to setup a short field on the Patriots first touchdown.
  3. Gunner Olszewski returned a punt 58 yards to setup the Patriots game-tying field goal in the third quarter. (Note: it should have been a touchdown return, but for a bogus penalty call.)
  4. Nick Folk kicked a 50-yard field goal to win the game as time expired.
In addition, gunner Justin Bethel stopped a guy cold on a punt that outkicked its coverage, and Bailey's kickoffs consistently came down at the one-yard line, forcing AZ to return the ball. (Not that I love that strategy, but apparently the Patriots coaches do -- so, well-executed, young man!)

Conversely, Arizona didn't get much out of their special teams. In fact, their kicker missed a potential game-winning field goal with 1:47 left in the game. This phase of the game was a complete mismatch from start to finish.

On defense, the Patriots played mostly five-man fronts to keep AZ quarterback Kyler Murray in the pocket. The plan wasn't without its bad moments, but they bottled up Murray for most of the game, hitting him four times, sacking him twice, and allowing him just 31 yards on the ground.

The team gave up yards, especially on intermediate passes against the linebackers. But as has been the case most of the year, they played their best when their opponents moved inside the 20 yard line. Their goal-line stand to end the half was one of the most impressive defensive sequences I've seen all year.

Lineman Adam Butler had a great game: 5 tackles, 1 sack (9 yards), 3 QB hits, and a pass deflected at the line. And the linebackers actually did their job, at least against the run. Ja'Whaun Bentley led the team with 13 tackles, and his running make Terez Hall had seven of his own.

The problem in this game, and for most of the year, is that the Patriots offense simply can't put together sustained drives. On Sunday, their scoring drives covered 41, 35, 31, and 18 total yards. Without a short field, they couldn't string first downs together to maintain possession and make progress down the field.  They had two eight-play drives against Arizona: one for 20 yards and one for 35 yards. That doesn't cut it in the NFL.

Quarterback Cam Newton completed just nine passes, was sacked three times, and threw two interceptions. His QB rating of 23.3 would usually earn one a trip to the bench. But apparently the Patriots believe even less in Jarrett Stidham and/or Brian Hoyer, otherwise Cam would be riding the pine already.

Newton did run the ball more effectively: 9 rushes for 46 yards (5.1 ypc). But overall the running game was mostly contained, notching just 110 total yards, including Newton's total. They benched their left tackle in favor of a guy off the scrap heap, and Newton wasn't exactly protected like the Crown Jewels either.

The receivers? Gimme a break! The only two receivers who caught anything were Jakobi Meyers (5 catches for 52 yards) and Damiere Byrd (3 for 33). N'Keal Harry looks like as big a bust as any first-round pick Belichick has made. And maybe it's time to play the young tight ends; Ryan Izzo certainly isn't giving you anything.

The only big coaching whiff is offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' inability to design an offense that works. IMO he has to commit to the run and stick with it. Once teams cheat up to stop the run, call play-action passes and hit Meyers or Byrd on mid-level outs or crosses.

TB12 isn't walking through that door, and neither is Gronk or Randy Moss. McDaniels has to find a way to put together sustained drives or the team is going absolutely nowhere.

One other coaching quibble; can we please clean up the pre-snap and mental-error penalties. They had a false-start in quiet stadium conditions, too many men on the field on defense, and defensive penalties gave the Cardinals first-downs on two third-downs and a fourth-down.

Where does that leave us? 5-6 and headed in the right direction, at least for this week. The twin-LA games could go either way, but if the Pats expect to make the post-season, they better shoot for 2-0 on the west coast.

Biggest on-going issue: Lack of consistency on offense. You don't have to look that far back to see how it's done; they had touchdown drives of 82- and 85-yards against Houston last week and three touchdown drives of 75-yards against Baltimore the week before.

Non-QB MVP: Adam Butler, with the aforementioned stat line.

Statistical oddity: Matt Cassel is the last New England quarterback to play a full game and win with fewer yards than Newton's 84 yards against the Cardinals. Naturally Cassel beat the Buffalo Bills (final score was 13-0).

BTW, Brady did it once in his career; against the Dolphins in 2004.

Water-cooler wisdom: "I guess this is why other fans hated the Brady-led Patriots so much, their offenses probably looked like ours does now."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS: 5-6!

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