Sunday, September 12, 2021

Patriots Fall To Dolphins, 17-16

The Patriots dropped a very winnable game, 17-16 to the Dolphins. The loss drops them into a three-way tie for last place in the division, all other looking up at the mighty Dolphins and their 1-0 record. Next week is a trip to NYC to take on the Jets, here's hoping they can straighten out their issues and take that one to even their record.

I don't have time for the type of in-depth analysis I'd usually do. But it isn't really necessary. The Patriots should win games where their offense outgains the opponent 393 yards to 259, where they rush for one yard more per carry, where their QB is 20 ratings points better, where they complete more passes (29) than the other team attempted (27), where they hold the other team to 36% on third down while converting 69% of their own, and where the other team has just two decent drives all day and only scores 17 points.

So how did they lose?

Penalties, especially the untimely ones. Twice they took field goals after penalties cost them a realistic chance at touchdowns. The Pats were penalized 84 yards to the Dolphins 28...  yikes!

Turnovers, especially the last one. Two young running backs will be running laps this week. Rhamondre Stevenson fumbled his second NFL carry, and mostly rode the pine the rest of the day. But even with all the mistakes, the late fumble by Damien Harris -- at the Miami 5 yard line with 3:00 left in the game -- *that* was a killer.

If he holds onto the ball, they have a great chance at a touchdown. Hell, they can kneel on it three times and kick the field goal to win at that point. The only thing he couldn't do was turn it over, which he did.

Mac Jones wasn't to blame, the receivers weren't to blame, and the defense wasn't to blame. It all falls squarely on the penalties and turnovers -- things that drive Bill Belichick crazy.

I might write more about this later in the week, but probably not (I'm on my first vacation week since before the pandemic -- and I need the R&R).

Most likely I'll be back to my normal analysis next week; just don't have the time this week.

But some quick thoughts:

1. Matthew Judon is a beast, but lost contain on one long run and had a stupid 15-yard penalty. So played great but BB has enough to humble him this week.

2. Jones was great against pressure, throwing a very catchable ball even when getting hit.

3. Glad to have James White back; he had a fantastic day running and receiving.

4. I have no idea how Nick Folk ended up as the kicker for this game. I can't keep track of the moves they make with him and Quinn Nordin. But Folk was solid, and I guess that's all that matters.

5. More of Josh Uche, please. The guy destroyed a blocker for a sack and just seems to have a knack for getting into the backfield quickly.

6. The new tight ends and receivers look really really good. Agholor did get a few deep shots and the other receivers were key in the controlled passing game.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-1!

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Patriots Preview 2021: The Schedule

And finally, my latest futile attempt to predict the winner of each of the Patriots 17 games this year, as usual, broken up into quarters of the season (with a bonus Overtime round for the extra game).

(Note: for those keeping score at home, the closest I ever got was in 2007, when I predicted they'd lose the Ravens game and go 15-1. Rex Ryan screwed that up -- he was the Ravens D-coordinator that called time out and gave the Patriots a second chance to convert a fourth down, which of course they did, en route to a 16-0 season.)

First Quarter

The Patriots host the Dolphins to start the season tomorrow. Honestly I'd feel better about this if Cam Newton was starting, because Miami head coach Brian Flores is an excellent defensive tactician and it's Mac Jones' first game. But I have to predict a Patriots win, because otherwise the 'Phins can't be the first 17-loss team -- and that is my dream :)

(Trivia question: Prior to Mac Jones on Sunday, who was the last rookie to start a game for the Patriots at quarterback? Answer below.)

Next week is the Jets, in New York, and the Pats shouldn't have any trouble at all winning this one. A young QB against a Belichick defense, and a team that finished 2-14 last year... Not. A. Problem.

The Saints come to Foxboro the following Sunday. This worries me a bit because Sean Payton is so good. But I suspect BB will have plenty of surprises in store for turnover-machine Jameis Winston, the N.O. quarterback. Put it down as a win.

Then some guy named Brady brings his Buccaneers to town for a Sunday night tilt to start October. It should be an epic game, and the Bucs have to travel across the country the week before to take on the Rams. Much as I'd like to predict a Patriots win, I think the older Tampa players will be fresh at this early point in the season, and their defense will school Mac Jones to some degree, so it's the first loss of the year.

Second Quarter

The Pats travel to Houston next to take on the downward trending Texans. Houston looks pretty awful, and the continuing legal issues with QB Deshaun Watson left them with Tyrod Taylor under center. Another win for our hometown team.

And despite what you saw on Thursday, I don't actually think the Cowboys that great; they are always more smoke and mirrors than actual team. In fact, they haven't been great since the mid-1990s. Belichick's record against the NFC is stellar, so mark this down as another win.

The J-E-T-S come to town after a week off to double-plan for the Patriots. It won't make a difference; they'll take another beating in Foxboro, chalk up another victory for the Pats.

For Halloween the Patriots travel to La La land where they'll take on the improving Chargers. Second week in a row they'll have to play a team coming off the Bye. Given the travel and the extra time to prepare, San Die... I mean L.A. could be tough. Young QB Justin Herbert shouldn't be intimidated, he'll be over 20 starts by then. I foresee a loss here.

Third Quarter

The Pats open November with a contest against the Panthers in Carolina. It's tough to know how it'll go, but BB's good record against the NFC coupled with his defensive domination of new quarterback Sam Darnold (when he was with the Jets) should be enough to get the win.

I hesitate to say it, but the following week the Browns will give the Patriots some trouble. They have easy games against the Bengals and Lions surrounding the Pats game, and they are a serious playoff contender. Something tells me this will be a loss, one of the tougher ones to take this year.

On the other hand, I don't see the Pats having much trouble with the Falcons on their only Thursday night game of the year. Atlanta has three road games surrounding this one at home, and no team handles the short week better than New England. Atlanta's got speed; but Thursday night games are often slugfests, and the Patriots are better prepared for that. Win.

The Titans swing up for a game the next Sunday. Patriots have 10 days to prepare and Belichick will have revenge on his mind from the playoff loss two seasons ago. This will be a very close game but the extra prep time swings the game to a Patriots win.

Fourth Quarter

The last part of the season begins with a tough road game in Buffalo. I expect the Patriots to split with the Bills, but oddly that each team will lose at home. Buffalo has tough road games sandwiching this one (New Orleans and Tampa Bay). They won't take their eye off the ball, but the Patriots actually play the Bills tougher in their stadium than their own. Pats win.

After a Bye week, the local 11 travels to Indy to take on the Colts. The result probably depends on who is the quarterback by then, as newcomer Carson Wentz has had injury problems, including this off-season. Both teams are coming off their Bye week, and I expect the Pats offense to start slow (as it traditionally does) after the Bye. Put it in as the Patriots fourth loss.

If I give the Bills a loss at home, then they'll win the rematch at Gillette. Patriots lose the day after Christmas :(

"I foresee a Jaguars loss to start the new year," I read that in a fortune cookie one time. Young quarterback with enough film for BB to break down his tendencies? Sounds like win #11 for the Pats!

Overtime

If those pesky Dolphins *are* 0-16 by this point, then I'll fly to Miami and go to the game just to watch them lose #17! But alas, I doubt it. However, by then Mac Jones will be well established and Miami should be playing out the string. I know south Florida has been tough on the Patriots -- but maybe, just maybe that was a Brady thing. Fingers crossed -- victory will be ours!

Summary

For those of you who struggle with math, that puts the Pats at 12-5. Clearly a playoff team, probably competing for the division crown.

Is all that expecting too much from the young QB? Maybe. But in reality, my expectations have more to do with improved offensive weapons and a vastly improved linebacking corps on defense.

Time will tell; what are your thoughts?

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

PPS. Trivia answer...

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Jacoby Brissett, who started two games when Tom Brady was suspended and Jimmy Garopollo was injured in 2016.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Patriots Preview 2021: Special Teams & Coaching

And we are on to the special teams and coaching. Here are my thoughts on those areas.

1. Kicking Themselves?

Will the Patriots regret going with rookie Quinn Nordin as their placekicker? He was inconsistent in the preseason, hitting some long field goals and missing some short ones.

I think the team sees a pretty easy schedule early on and they are using the first three games as an audition for Nordin. They have Nick Folk on the practice squad in case Nordin can't handle the pressure. But if he can, he'd be a big improvement over Folk, who lacks the leg to hit anything very long at all.

Additionally, it could take the pressure off punter Jake Bailey, who has to kickoff because of Folk's age and lack of depth on his kicks.

2. Returners

Gunner Olszewski was the Pro Bowl kick returner last year, and it was well deserved. He improved a lot during the year, and could be better this year with more experience and knowledge of his teammates.

Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel are back, both playing key roles in kick coverage. Bethel has been better than Slater the last few seasons, which is impressive because Slater has made the Pro Bowl himself about 3,000 times.

Bailey is invaluable, both punting (a Pro Bowler, too) and with his directional kickoffs.

3. Coaching 'Em Up

My blogging was truncated last year, so I didn't get to mention one of the bigger stories of 2020: the replacement of long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. In fact, the Patriots offensive line played very well. But apparently it took two men to replace Scar: Col Popovich and Carmen Bricillo were here last year. And Billy Yates was added this year as an Assistant O-line coach, I guess Scar had extremely big shoes to fill.

I wish the team would decide on a defensive play-caller. In the preseason it still appeared that Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo were splitting time at it. By now I'd expect they would know who did a better job.

And I will say that the tight ends didn't show much of anything under Nick Caley last year. I hope he does better with better players. Because if this talented group doesn't do well, it'll be a mark against his coaching acumen. 

4. Back To Basics

I think Bill Belichick relishes the chance to take his team back to basics. Ball security, controlled passing game, stop the run, good situationally (third downs, 2:00 drills, etc.), defensive flexibility, solid kicking game, and players who will run the scheme as he envisions it.

That is how the Patriots won their first three Super Bowls. But since 2007 it had become high-flying offense with defense that tried to hold on and special teams that tried not to make mistakes. They won three Lombardi trophies during that time, but there is no way he liked the game against Seattle (really bad in the last 2:00 of each half) or the Falcons (turnovers).

The last Super Bowl over the Rams was more to his taste. Stifling defense and an offense that made no mistakes and took advantage of the one real opportunity it had.

I suspect BB will like getting back to BB-football. Year 1 of that starts on Sunday

Next up: The Schedule!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS 0-0!

Pats Preview 2021: The Defense

The Patriots didn't just improve on offense. The defense looks a lot better overall, though the absence of corner Stephon Gilmore is a glaring problem.

Here is how the D got better and how they'll look different than last season.

1. Improvement At (Nearly) Every Position

The front seven is much improved across the board. Free agent lineman Davon Godchaux and rookie lineman Christian Barmore both look like perfect fits for a 4-3 Belichick defense. Tough, big, run stuffers who can one- or two-gap and allow the team to let the linebackers and safeties run free to the ball.

The linebackers went from non-existent (they actually started 1 linebacker twice last season!) to a huge strength. Dont'a Hightower returned from a COVID-year opt-out, Kyle Van Noy came back after a year in Miami, second-year 'backer Josh Uche looks like a play-destroyer, and free agent Matthew Judon (from Baltimore) made play after play in the preseason.

This group is so good that Harvey Langi flashed in the preseason and Ja'Whaun Bentley looked great -- and neither cracked the starting lineup!

More later on the secondary, the one place where the team took a step back

2. MJ9

The two MJ's, Mac Jones and Matthew Judon, will be the most significant off-season acquisitions. Judon was a play destroyer in the preseason, showed a great understanding of the defensive concepts, and even though he's undersized, he did a good job holding the edge against the run.

For the old-timers here, Judon looks like Adalius Thomas with a coaching staff more willing to use his versatility and to blitz on more plays. In other words, Judon looks like the real deal; so watch out for #9 on your scorecard.

3. 'Backers Are Back

Last year's linebackers were an embarrassment. When Bentley is your best and you have to play a rookie safety (Kyle Duggar) at LB for multiple games, you know you've shorted yourself at the position.

Bring back Hightower and Van Noy, add Judon, and get another year of improvement from Bentley and especially Uche, and suddenly it looks like a real strength.

And it's important, because Belichick has traditionally based his defense a line that occupies space and players and linebackers who rush the passer, hold the edge against the run, and fly to the football. It was tough to watch last year. This year it'll look a lot more like a normal BB defense.

4. Safety Switch

Patrick Chung retired after quite the career and three Super Bowl championships. But the Patriots are about as ready as they can be for the transition.

Adrian Phillips and Kyle Duggar are both in their second years with the team, and both picked up the defense quickly and were tough on receivers over the middle. Duggar did play some linebacker last year, which makes me respect him even more, because he isn't really built to take on tight ends or O-linemen.

5. The Elephant In The Room: Cornerback

With Gilmore sidelined to start the year (out until at least week 6), JC Jackson is your new #1 corner, with a bunch of JAGs ("just another guy") behind him. Many in the media speculate that Gilmore is sorta-holding-out, claiming an injury so he only has to play half a year to earn his dough.

I'm not convinced; he'd make a lot more next season if he played the entire year. But if it's true, then the Patriots get him back for the tougher part of their schedule and any potential playoff games. Not all bad.

If Jackson is the best corner, expect him to take their opponent's #2 receiver and the team to double-up on the #1. They've done that with players as great at Darrelle Revis, when it made sense, and it isn't a bad way to go. It mostly means the other team has to beat you with their #3 wideout, and not many teams have enough talent to make that work.

6. Putting It Together

The new big guys on the D-line should shore up the running defense, which was suspect last year. Though IMO it was mostly suspect because they didn't have any decent linebackers. So pairing the new linemen with LBs could make the front seven something special.

The vastly improved linebacking corps, along with the hitters at safety, should be able to help cover up the issues at corner. 

New England might have the most talented front seven in the league. And given that, I don't expect as much blitzing as last year. The 2020 team had to take chances that the 2021 team shouldn't need to take to slow down teams.

Next post: Special Teams, Coaching, and The Schedule!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Pats Preview 2021: The Offense

Hello all, how have you been of late? Quite the off-season, wasn't it?

The Patriots didn't take their 2020 sub-.500 season lying down. They spent a record amount on free agents, welcomed back several COVID-year opt-outs, and drafted their QB of the future... or is that the present?

Here are the the key points on offense as we head into a season with lots of new faces, what they mean to the team, and how they are likely to integrate the new folks and scheme things up for the rookie QB.

1. Improvement At Every Position

It's basically inarguable that the Patriots improved every position group on offense. In 2020 they had among the worst quarterback play, the least talented wideouts (especially after Julian Edelman got injured), and had the least productive tight ends by a country mile.

Even the running backs and offensive line are better this season, even though they were both very good last year.

2. MJ10

Rookie quarterback Mac Jones beat out Cam Newton for the starting gig. He seemed to grasp the offense quickly, including blitz adjustments and ball security -- both very important to the Patriots throughout Bill Belichick's time here.

Jones' skillset is more in line with how the Patriots liked to run their offense with the old man who used to play here. Quick reads and passes, largely short throws to the middle of the field and screen passes to avoid the rush.

He won't burn many teams with his feet, but his pocket awareness was good in the preseason and should improve with experience.

3. On The Run

Third-year back Damien Harris looks completely ready to take over the starting role, replacing traded back Sony Michel. J.J. Taylor is the change-of-pace back who might have his eye on James White's third-down role -- though White is back for another season.

Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson looked amazing, though most of his yards came against the second- and third-teamers in the preseason. And note: rookie backs rarely get much playing time here because they have to understand the blitz pickup to get on the field. 

Also, not to be overlooked, blocking back Jakob Johnson is back from injury and was a beast in the preseason. It looked like he missed hitting people and wanted to make up for lost time.

The Pats should lean heavily on the running game early in the year, both to control the clock and protect the young QB. Harris can do it all but they will rotate backs to keep them fresh

4. Better To Receive

Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were the two biggest tight end prizes in free agency, and the Patriots got them both. Henry was injured in the preseason but expects to start the season playing. He and Smith move the Patriots tight ends group from dead last in the league to at least upper-third.

Given how much the Pats offense traditionally flourished with good tight end play, the addition of these two will help immensely.

At receiver, the majority of 2020 had Damiere Byrd and N'Keal Harry as the starters, so just about anything would have been an improvement. So again, they signed two big-ish names in free agency: Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.

Bourne has been hurt this preseason, but Agholor looked good and returning receiver Jacobi Meyers looked excellent during the fake games. The receivers would have looked better with either Newton or Jones starting, but with Jones pulling the defense in with the tight ends, Agholor specifically should have lots of chances for big plays.

5. Oh! Line

The offensive line looks deep, physical, and well-coordinated. And you can't ask for much more than from that group.

They pushed other teams around in the preseason, running for 170 yards a game, 5.7ypc average, and 7 touchdowns. They were physical, did a great job in pass protection, and the choreography on screen passes as mostly impeccable.

6. Putting It Together

The team should protect Jones by leaning on the running game and the defense (more on that in my next post). In fact, this season might look a lot like 2001; lots of free agents, young QB, solid running game, and a fierce defense. Not that I expect the same result as 2001, but the season could look a lot like that year.

The coaches haven't had this much talent at tight end since Aaron Hernandez got arrested, so it'll be interesting to see how OC Josh McDaniels uses the two TEs. The running game has both power (Harris) and speed (Taylor), and James White will help Jones a lot with his third-down acumen and reliability.

I'm not convinced the wide receivers are going to be amazing. But they will make teams pay attention because they can hurt you if you go one-on-one all day long.

Next post: the Defense!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!