Friday, November 26, 2021

Patriots Sorta-Midseason Report 2021

Hello all and a happy and safe "Wicked Long Weekend" to you! I hope you aren't unhappy that I skipped writing a breakdown of the Atlanta game. It was such a mismatch across the board, I thought there was very little to learn from it.

Before I leave that game for good though, there is one thing that should worry the rest of the NFL. The Patriots barely tried and blew out the Falcons 25-0. And what I mean by "barely tried" is that it appeared they game planned to take away rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, kept their offense very, very conservative, and waited for Atlanta to implode.

Check, check, and check. No real in-game adjustments, just kickoff the ball and let's win it on talent and in-game coaching. If the Pats are good enough to take any NFL team that lightly, especially on a short week on the road, then they are a pretty confident bunch. And they wouldn't be that confident unless the man at the top, Bill Belichick believed in them. *That* should scare the rest of the league.

So where does the team stand now, a little over halfway through the season? Well, first place in the AFC East isn't bad given that they were literally two games behind five weeks ago. Since their 2-4 start, the Patriots reeled off five straight wins to stand at 7-4. Conversely the Bills started 4-2 and have gone 2-2 since then to post a 6-4 record.

I had the Patriots slated for an 8-3 start, and honestly, one win short of my prediction isn't nearly as bad as it could have been. Five-plus weeks ago I said they should sell at the trade deadline if they lost either of their next two games. But they won both and three more in a row.

How have they made this sudden turnaround? Two reasons: the offense has built chemistry, and they switched up the defense to better use their personnel.

On offense, here are three scoring averages over the first part of the year:
  • First four games = 17.8 ppg
  • Next two games = 27.0 ppg
  • Last five games = 35.0 ppg
Offense takes longer to gel than defense does, especially the New England offense. It depends on timing, pinpoint coordination on their many screens and gadget plays, and chemistry between the quarterback and receivers. The running game is simpler, though the Patriots have run a lot of inside trap plays, which also take timing and coordination

On defense, the Patriots made a change that turned their season around. They gave up 35 points in an overtime loss to Dallas, and in that game cornerback Jonathan Jones sustained a season-ending shoulder injury.

With their season teetering on the edge of ruin and a depleted secondary (already missing traded corner Stephon Gilmore), they switched from playing mostly man defense to playing mostly zone defense. And the results have been stark.

At least two opposing quarterbacks said they were confused because the Patriots played almost exclusively man-defense since 2018. And the average points dropped significantly:
  • First six games = 21.2 ppg
  • Last five games = 10.0 ppg

A lot of media outlets have said the last five games were against worse competition. But remember, those first six games included the awful Dolphins, Jets, and Texans.

This wasn't about bad competition or teams missing their offensive weapons. It was about offensive cohesion and better using the players they have on defense. What was the result?

In 2021, the Patriots lead the NFL in scoring differential, having scored 123 more points than they've given up. Under Bill Belichick they finished first in that category seven other times. Six of those years they went to the AFC Championship Game, five times they made it to the Super Bowl, and three times they won it all. (Trivia question: name the season they finished #1 in scoring differential but didn't make the conference final. Answer below.)

Just sayin', not predictin'.

What we see mostly with the Pats in 2021 is balance. A short passing game and a tough running attack that controls the ball and moves the chains. They've converted 45.8% of their third-downs, good for fifth-best in the league. And they've allowed just 35.5% conversions on defense, sixth-best in the NFL. Where have I heard "good situational football" before? Hmmmm... let me think about that :)

Quarterback Mac Jones has steadily improved through the year. He had 5 TDs and 5 INTs in the first five games, and 9 TDs and 3 INTs the last six contests. He audibles into the right play more often and had only had two or three bad decisions in the last few games.

It helps that he hasn't been getting knocked around as much. The offensive line solidified when Michael Onwenu was inserted into the lineup, and played even better when anchor tackle Trent Brown returned two weeks ago.

And those line changes have opened up a punishing running game, with Damien Harris the featured back, rookie Rhomondre Stevenson the hammer back, and veteran special teamer Brandon Bolden taking the James White spread-formation role after White was lost for the season with a hip injury.

As for the receivers, Jakobi Meyers is the clutch guy on third-down, Kendrick Bourne is the deep threat, and tight end Hunter Henry is an excellent red zone option. Henry has seven TDs on the season, the same number as all the wide receivers combined!

The defense can blitz from the outside or inside, holds the edge against the run, can play man, zone, or combinations, disguises extremely well pre-snap, and they are very opportunistic when it comes to errant throws or causing fumbles. Their 21 forced turnovers is third-best in the league.

Free agent signee linebacker Matthew Judon is perfect for this defense. He can speed rush, bull rush, holds up at the point of attack, can drop into coverage, and has an edge and an attitude needed to bring his teammates play up to his standards.

Along the defensive line, rookie defensive end Christian Barmore looks like a draft steal, and the longer the season goes the better he plays. He blows up plays as often as Judon and occupies blockers so they can't get to the linebackers. Same can be said of former Dolphins free agent Devon Godchaux, and together the two of them make a formidable pair inside.

Veteran linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy both started off slow but have picked things up of late. And Ja'Whaun Bentley is having his best year as a Patriots player, obviously benefitting from having great players around him.

Cornerback JC Jackson continues his march toward a huge free agent payday, leading the team with six interceptions and leading the NFL with 23 since he entered the league. Jalen Mills hasn't been anything special, but Myles Bryant and Joejuan Williams have been serviceable filling in for Jones.

Maybe the biggest surprise was the leap in production from second-year safety Kyle Duggar, who leads the team in tackles and has three timely interceptions. Along with former Chargers safety Adrian Phillips and veteran Devin McCourty, the team has so much flexibility with their defensive backfield it's no wonder opposing quarterbacks get confused.

2021 really has been a year of "next man up." Based on previous seasons, no one would have expected significant contributions from Bolden, Meyers, Bentley, Williams, or Bryant. But with better talent around them and first-team reps in practice and on Sundays, each have grown into their roles remarkably well.

Remember: James White was a scrub playing behind Dion Lewis until Lewis got hurt (and eventually left) -- it was only when White got time with Brady and the offense that he became one of the best third-down backs of all time (Belichick's words, not mine).

Two more areas to cover quickly, first is special teams. Nick Folk has had a real rebirth here. After making just 54.5% of his field goals in 2017, he was on the street looking for work in 2018. Since signing here, he's made 66 of 73 FGs for a 90.4% success rate. And his two misses this year were a 56 yarder in the rain and a 54 yarder at the end of a blowout win in Carolina. Jake Bailey appears to be nursing an injury as his kickoffs haven't been as deep or well directed. And frankly the team has too many special teams penalties for my taste.

Those who compare this team to the 2001 Patriots miss the fact that the earlier version has bulletproof special teams. Never a misstep, solid coverage and blocking, and they created turnovers and points. It's a pretty big difference if you ask me.

Lastly, the coaching was shaky to start the year but has gotten much better of late. I noted a few times early on that OC Josh McDaniels wasn't adjusting quickly enough or getting the team off to a good start. That improved as Mac Jones' grasp of the offense and chemistry with teammates has.

As for the defensive coaching, I agree with a lot of the media speculation that Belichick himself has taken over that side of the ball. The loss to Dallas saw too many yards and points given up and very poor play situationally.

And the team still has some hiccups that I would put on overall coaching. Fumbles, false starts, timeouts coming out of TV timeouts, too many men on the field (or maybe too few), poor decisions on replay challenges, and overuse of trick plays. Those areas have gotten better but still aren't up to expectations for a Belichick team.

So where does that leave us? This Sunday's game with Tennessee has huge playoff implications. The absence of Titans running back Derek Henry makes them much easier to defend, which is advantage Patriots. The Pats "D" thrives on one-dimensional offenses. If the team wins, they will have the tie-breaker so they could potentially be in the #1 or #2 AFC playoff spot by end of day.

No on-going concern listed -- just wrote an entire entry about how things are going :D

Statistical oddity of the first 11 games: 2020-2021 marks the first back-to-back seasons a Belichick-coached Patriots team had a losing record against the NFC. Despite an overall 74% winning rate against the other conference, last year they went 1-3, this year 2-3.

In 22 seasons here, Belichick has had only four seasons under .500 against the NFC, two of them the last two years.

Water-cooler wisdom: "Raise your hand if you had the Patriots leading the division after 11 games." (Note: I would raise my hand to that... #humblebrag.)

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-4!

PPS. Trivia answer: The Pats finished #1 in scoring differential in 2010 but lost to Mark Sanchez and the Jets in their first playoff game. Boooooo!

Monday, November 15, 2021

Patriots Crush Browns 45-7

Another dominating performance as the New England Patriots announced their return to relevance with a 45-7 thrashing of the Cleveland Browns. With the win they kept pace with victorious Buffalo in the AFC East and they ticked up to the #6 seed in the AFC (from #7 last week). Next up is a quick-turnaround game in Atlanta this Thursday... a Falcons team that lost 45-3 yesterday.

The game was decided in the first four drives.

Cleveland came out with a good offensive plan, attacking with a great mix of run/pass and going up-tempo to stop the Patriots from substituting. It looked like they weren't going to miss their star running back Nick Chubb at all. The result was an 84-yard touchdown drive.

In response, the Pats needed a long drive to give their defense a rest and give them time to make adjustments. And they did just that. They converted three crucial third downs, overcame a holding penalty, and drove for an 87-yard touchdown drive of their own. They also took 9:39 off the clock, giving their D what they needed.

The adjustments and the rest paid immediate dividends. Two plays later, Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield threw a terrible interception to Pats safety Kyle Dugger, who returned it to the Browns five yard line. One play later, the Patriots led 14-7, and the rout had begun.

The Browns scored the first 7 points because they had a good offensive plan and executed it well. The Patriot scored the next 45 points because they had a good offensive plan and because they made better defensive and offensive adjustments during the game.

On defense, they switched between 2-gap and 1-gap on the line of scrimmage, they mixed coverages to confuse the Browns, and rallied to make tackles after the catch. And they waited for Cleveland to implode, which they did, drive after drive.

On offense, they figured out the Browns were over-pursuing, so they went with misdirection and got chunk plays over and over. They also went with quick throws to stop Cleveland's formidable pass rush, and the long drives eventually wore out the Browns D.

Quarteback Mac Jones was commanding yet efficient, completing 19 of 23 (83%) for 198 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 picks, and a 142.1 QB rating. He had some great completions to Hunter Henry and especially to Kendrick Bourne -- a great throw and even better catch for a touchdown.

But in the overall picture, his three completions for third-down conversions on the very first drive of the game were probably the most important of the game. Without those, the game might have been a slogfest. With them, it was a blowout.

Running back Rhamondre Stevenson cut, sprinted, and bulled his way to 100 yards on 20 carries, and drove two runs into the end zone. And long-time special teamer Brandon Bolden is doing great work replacing James White, running three times and catching three passes, for 32 and 38 yards, respectively.

When Damien Harris returns, this group will be well-suited and prepped for football when the weather turns cold.

Among the receivers, Kendrick Bourne had himself a day. In addition to the great TD catch, he had three end-around runs for 43 yards. Henry got himself two more touchdowns and is the best red-zone threat on the team. And wideout Jakobi Meyers finally, finally got his first touchdown, on a short throw and a nice run to paydirt.

The offensive line was buoyed by the return of Trent Brown, back from injury. They road-graded the Browns defensive, which is really designed to get to the quarterback. Along with fullback Jacob Johnson, they powered a running attack that gained 5.4 yards a carry and allowed just two sacks and two QB hits.

Early in the year people worried about all the hits Mac Jones was taking. Yesterday the Patriots delivered the punishment, hitting the Browns quarterbacks 10 times and sacking them 5 times. They were all over Mayfield, forcing a 56.2 QB rating and his longest completion was just 13 yards.

The D-line did a great job plugging holes and occupying blockers at the line of scrimmage. Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore are huge run stuffers, and they are rotating in players I've never heard of before (Carl Davis?). With linebackers Matthew Judon and Josh Uche rushing from the outside, it's a formidable combination that gets after the run and the pass.

Speaking of linebackers, Dont'a Hightower continued his improvement, notching six tackles and sharing a sack with Judon. He's not where he was a few years ago, but better now than at the beginning of the year. And Ja'Whaun Bentley led the team with seven tackles, including a big one for a loss when the game was still in doubt.

In the secondary, Dugger led with six tackles, he had the interception and also another pass defended. The rest of the secondary mostly had tight coverage, with the exception of Jalen Mills, who has struggled as he has moved up the cornerback depth chart. On the other hand, Myles Bryant has flourished with his increased playing time; might be time to get him on the field more.

Special teams weren't as great as what I've read in the media. Twice Jakobi Meyers didn't fair catch a ball and it ended up rolling for more yards (once ending up at the 1 yard line). And Jake Bailey's kickoffs aren't going into/through the end zone like they used to. Not horrible but not as great as what most of the media are portraying. And the team will benefit when return man Gunner Olszewski returns from concussion protocol.

The coaching mismatch was epic. Cleveland had a good plan coming in but didn't appear to make any adjustments. The Patriots had a good plan, too, and they adjusted. The Browns have a talented team -- so 45 unanswered points tells you all you need to know about how their coaches did yesterday.

Where does that leave us? The Pats are solidifying their position in the playoff hunt. But they don't have a large margin for error -- a loss this Thursday and they could be out of the playoffs seeding by Sunday. Still, four straight wins and a 6-4 record is pretty good given how they started the year.

Biggest on-going concern: With things rounding into form, it's probably injuries. Harris and Olszewski were out with concussions, Bailey and kicker Nick Folk are on the injury report weekly (and Bailey doesn't look right), and they are still thin at running back and corner.

Non-QB MVP: Bourne, mostly because he made more big big plays than the other candidates for this most coveted of awards.

Statistical oddity: Every time the Patriots took over inside their own ten yard line, they drove 90+ yards for a touchdown.

Bonus oddity: The Patriots and Bills scored the same number of points yesterday (45), and they also scored the same number of points in week 1 (16). Just an oddity, nothing earth-shattering.

Double bonus oddity: The Pats are now 6-0 in games I do not attend, and 0-4 in games I do attend. Anyone want to bribe me not to go to the Titans game in a few weeks? Anyone :D

Water-cooler wisdom: "If the Patriots were a stock, I'd go long on them."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-4!

Monday, November 8, 2021

Patriots "D"ominate Panthers, 24-6

The Patriots handled Carolina easily yesterday, topping them 24-6 in a game that wasn't in doubt at any point in the second half. That puts the local 11 at 5-4, just a half-game back of 5-3 Buffalo, who lost to the lowly Jaguars. Next week Cleveland comes to Gillette Stadium, with both teams needing a win to stay in the playoff hunt.

This game was over before it started because the Patriots coaches out-prepared their counterparts on the other sideline. They correctly assessed the matchups and decided the best ways to attack and defend. Their plans to attack with the running backs, run-blitz to slow down the run and then pressure Carolina QB Sam Darnold, and force the action on special teams where they had both return and coverage advantages -- those worked to perfection.

Defense was the order of the day, especially so in the second half. The Pats gave up nothing in the final 30 minutes, with Carolina punting once, turning it over on downs once, and throwing three interceptions. This second-half dominance has become a growing trend.

In the last three games, the final five opponent drives resulted in these stats: 4 punts, 2 turned over on downs, 6 interceptions, and 1 fumble, and 10 total points scored on them. They lead the league in fourth-quarter scoring differential, more than doubling their opponents scoring in the final frame: 79-35.

J.C. Jackson was the obvious star of the game, with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. Lineman Devon Godchaux had five, count 'em five tackles from the inside line position (almost unheard of given how the Pats play defense), and rookie Christian Barmore knocked down two passes at the line, one of which would have been an easy Panthers touchdown.

The linebackers were much more active, with Dont'a Hightower having perhaps his best game of the year and Jamie Collins making the most of his 16 snaps with two tackles, a pass knocked down, and a ridiculous interception on a fastball thrown from about 8 feet away.

The offensive execution wasn't perfect. They started the game with offensive penalties, and by day's end they would include five pre-snap, two of which were delay of game. They allowed too much pressure on quarterback Mac Jones, with a few free rushers.

But the running backs dominated Carolina. When the Pats went heavy (with Jakob Johnson at fullback), the Panthers mostly stopped it. However, when they switched to running rookie Rhamondre Stevenson from the spread it was magical. He ended the day with 10 carries for 62 yards and 2 catches for 44 (a stellar average of 8.8 yards per touch). And longtime special teamer Branden Bolden continues to work well in James White's third down role.

The only bad news was that both Stevenson and starting back Damien Harris went out with injuries late.

On special teams, it seemed the Pats saw something during the game. They started with kickoffs out of the end zone. But midway through the first half they started having Jake Bailey take a short run-up and kick it in the field of play, forcing the Panthers to return it. It worked pretty well, with an average return of less than the 25 yards they would have gotten with touchbacks.

I'm not sure if they saw lax play by special teams, maybe some key special teamer got injured, could have been a lot of things. But they saw it and adjusted well. The only downside is they tried the same thing on their own kick returns and got Gunner Olszewski concussed and out of the game. (Here's hoping he is back by next week.)

Kicker Nick Folk has now missed two field goal attempts this year: a 56-yarder in the rain and wind against the Bucs, and a 54-yarder in garbage time yesterday. He leads the NFL in scoring and is in the top 10 in made percentage. It's been quite the career resurrection for Folk, whom the Pats picked up off the street early last season.

As for coaching, it seems the team is hitting its stride. It seems they know who their players are an how to get them in positions to succeed. Their game plans the last four weeks have been excellent from the start of each game. The only concern is the continued issues with pre-snap problems: false starts, too many players on the field, delay of game penalties, and spending timeouts to avoid those last two.

Where does that leave us? Currently the #7 seed in the AFC, the once 2-4 Patriots have played themselves back into post-season contention. Unfortunately early losses to the Dolphins and Buccaneers leave them with little margin for error, and the strongest part of their schedule coming up. But we can all agree that it's way more interesting to have them in the hunt than it was last year when they were out of it after seven games.

Next week against the Browns will be a tough one. The two things that play in New England's favor are that Cleveland had a big emotional win over a division rival and has to go on the road for the second straight week. Doesn't guarantee anything, but gives the Pats a better chance at a game they need to have.

Biggest on-going problem: Injuries to the running backs. The current formula for winning is to run the ball well, play smart on special teams, be disciplined and opportunistic on defense, and take shots in the passing game when it makes sense. If Harris and Stevenson aren't well enough to play at at least 85% that formula takes a hit.

Non-QB MVP: J.C. Jackson, the next cornerback who will leave the Patriots to get a big payday in the off-season :(

Statistical oddity: In four starts against the Patriots, QB Sam Darnold is 0-4, has completed just 52% of his passes, has 1 touchdown pass and 9 interceptions, and a QB rating of 41.2. If you recall, he was the one who "was seeing ghosts" a few years back in a game the Patriots spanked the Jets.

Bonus oddity: ESPN started tracking how QBs do when they are outside the pocket back in 2009. Since then, Darnold is the first quarterback to have zero completions and two interceptions outside the pocket in a game (he was 0-6 with two INTs).

Note: I usually don't use stats from other outlets, but I called this during the game -- see this post from the Your Patriots Facebook page as proof:

Water-cooler wisdom: "2-5 last season and they were done, 2-4 this season and it was just the beginning."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-4!