The Patriots came up with a much needed division win yesterday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, but a lackluster three quarters nearly spoiled the much anticipated return of Tedy Bruschi and left followers of the team questioning just what this year’s version of the team is all about. That being said, there is still a lot of good that comes from a division win which puts you a game up and features the return of the defensive big play, something that has been sorely missing from many Patriots games this year. Sure it wasn’t perfect and questions remain, but it was a step in the right direction and more positive to be negative to be sure. All in all, in the NFL you take the win in the division and move on. The Patriots may not have played a great game this week, but it was enough and it doesn’t mean they can’t play a great game next week.
THE PATRIOTS ON OFFENSE
For most of the night, the Patriots played poorly on offense. It was perhaps their worst offensive performance of the year. But a closer look at it indicates it was perhaps more dictated by circumstances than anything inherently wrong with this unit.
For one thing, the Bills played well. You have to give them credit, they defended the pass well, put some pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and seemed to make the right calls as well. Defensive end Aaron Schobel in particular had a very strong game rushing the passer. The corners played a top notch game, save for a few late game hiccups. They were disruptive and tough all night long.
Some of the struggles were undoubtedly injury related for the Patriots as well. Already without running back Kevin Faulk, they lost playmaker Patrick Pass early. Pass had looked strong to start the game before fumbling on the play he got hurt on. Corey Dillon came in, but was not at full strength. With Matt Light out at left tackle and their main third down receiver out as well, one can understand they weren’t at peak efficiency.
That being said, they shot themselves in the foot a few times and have to continue to attempt to eliminate drive killing negative plays. Two holding penalties on their first drive negated long runs by Pass. The Pass fumble and a later fumble by quarterback Tom Brady cost them points. They also suffered the issue of not having the ball, which has been a periodic problem this year. In the first half, long drives by Buffalo effectively took the Patriots out of any rhythm on offense.
The bottom line is, while the offense generally has been pretty good this year most of the time, they have had periodic stretches of disappearing for quarters or halves at a time. They need to be more consistent. Sticking with the run a bit more may help in this regard.
The positive is late in the game, the offense came thru. A few big plays to Deion Branch, sure hands from David Givens and tough, hard running from Corey Dillon allowed them to win the game with some late scores. They’ll need to do that all game long next week to have a shot at beating a superior opponent to whom they faced this week.
THE PATRIOTS ON DEFENSE
They’re still not there yet on this side of the ball and some of the problems that have plagued them all year continued to show up. The long ball hurt them again in the third quarter in the form of a deep touchdown to Bills receiver Eric Moulds in which the safety once again bit on the shorter route only to get beat over the top. Tackling continued to be an issue at times and seeing them give up a draw for a first down on 3rd and 10 in the fourth quarter was maddening. Seeing the secondary not work together as a unit on many critical third down plays was frustrating. The failure to generate a consistent pass rush also was a contributing factor to their up and down play all night.
Again, GDRV thinks Buffalo deserves some credit here. They played a good game. Bills running back Willis McGahee is the real deal and a physical, tough running back that can just wear down a defense. Bills quarterback Kelly Holcomb, for the most part, played a good, solid game and made some real good throws. The receivers made some tough catches and good runs after catch. The play calling for Buffalo was solid and they seemed to make the right call on third down most of the time.
All that being said, the Patriots did make a step forward on defense last night. No one ever said it was going to happen overnight. Just plugging in Tedy Bruschi and having a bye can’t solve every problem. But progress was made.
What progress, the naysayer may ask? The defense, for perhaps the first time since causing a fourth quarter fumble versus Oakland, made a number of big plays down the stretch. Obviously, the Roosevelt Colvin strip sack of Holcomb was the play of the game and won the Patriots the game but there were numerous other big plays as well. The Asante Samuel interception was an excellent play though it ultimately led to no points. They also did get some pressure on Holcomb at times.
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi played well in his return as did new inside linebacker Mike Vrabel. One should remember it was Bruschi’s first game back this year and Vrabel’s first start ever inside and the results were promising. They did seem to wear down a bit late, but they also showed they can solidify that area of the defense. Colvin had a nice game as well outside. That holds promise. Duane Starks played appreciably better than he had before the bye (though its hard to imagine doing worse). Eugene Wilson had his best game thus far this year, finally showing he can be the hard-hitting, quick, instinctive safety he was the past two years. Even corner Hank Poteat chipped in with solid play after just rejoining the team. They gave up one big play, but fortunately kept it to one and only one which you couldn’t say in some of the earlier games this year. At some point, they may get that down to no big plays.
Again, the defense was not perfect. But they did hold an opponent to under twenty points for the first time this year and only gave up one touchdown. That is progress. Unfortunately for them, the learning curve, so to speak, doesn’t afford them a lot of time with powerful Indianapolis coming to town next weekend. Nearly 400 yards by Buffalo in offense was way too much and Buffalo is no Indianapolis on offense. But there were signs its coming around. There were positives. Its too early to write off this defense altogether. If they can just hang in there, help pick up some wins, they may be more of the unit come December remembered fondly for helping to win Super Bowls than the bottom of the barrel unit we saw the first six weeks of the season.
THE PATRIOTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
The Patriots did a generally good job on special teams. Some decent, though not spectacular, returns gave them good field position on kickoffs. Punter Josh Miller was excellent again. The Patriots largely contained Buffalo’s excellent returners. The two negatives were a dumb delay of game penalty the field goal team took at the end of the first half and the Adam Vinatierri’s missed field goal following that penalty.
A few items on the Patriots GDRV has been kicking around for awhile:
-Ron Borges of the Boston Globe spent both ink in a Globe Sunday column and wasted breath on the radio on the now defunct Eddie Andelman Show trying to spin the Patriots opening six games of the season as not the difficult schedule it was made out to be. As he has done at times in the past, Borges shows himself more interested in discrediting the Patriots in any manner possible than actual, informed research. Assuming Pittsburgh wins their game tonight, and they should, that will put the opponents the Patriots played through the first six games at 28-14. Take away the 3-3 record the Patriots amassed against them and they are 25-11. Not to mention the fact some of those teams faced each other, which forces a 1-1 .500 record on the overall record simply due to the fact one has to win and one has to lose when they are playing each other and not as an indication as how good they are vis-a-vis the rest of the league
But all that being as it may, the 25-11 record the Patriots opponents had the first six weeks when not playing the Patriots amounts to a .694 winning percentage. The 28-14 record including the games against the Patriots equates to a .667 winning percentage. Taking these percentages and applying them to a 16 game schedule, and you have roughly an average of an 11-5 team. That is a pretty damn good record in the NFL, GDRV would say. Facing an average of 11-5 teams over the first six weeks of a season, with four on the road (including the best 4 of those opponents record wise), which is what the Patriots opening schedule amounts to, sounds pretty tough to GDRV. In fact, it sounds so tough, it wouldn’t be a stretch for someone to say it is “one of the most difficult opening schedules in NFL history.” Not at all. Perhaps Ron Borges should run a correction for his readers.
-For all the talk about the Patriots messing up free agency this year by the local media, there is this:
David Patten: Redskins contract 5 years/$13 million. 19 catches 193 yards/ No return yards/193 all purpose yards 0 TDs
Tim Dwight: Patriots contract 1 year/$800K. 8 catches 133 yards/ 150 punt return yards/283 all purpose yards 2 TDs
-Boston Herald Patriots writer Mike Felger’s new radio show on 890AM shows promise, particularly when they have on some of the excellent guests they regularly have on like Josh Miller, Ted Johnson and other Patriots or NFL related guests. But other times he has strayed into the kind of “soap operish” WEEI-style talk he made his radio bones on, which is disappointing because he is capable of being one of the most intelligent commentators on the Patriots at times.
Examples of how his show has slipped into the realm of what they should try to avoid came just today. Felger termed the decision of Bill Belichick to not dress linebacker Chad Brown last night “shocking and appalling.” Shocking and Appalling? That seems a bit of hyperbole to me.
Lets review. Chad Brown has been playing inside linebacker all season long. Its a new system for him. He got most of his reps in the preseason and all of them since the regular season began two months ago inside. Now Tedy Bruschi has returned and the plan is to move Brown back outside as a specialty edge player. Which sounds like a good plan to GDRV. But he has only had two weeks of reps out there in a system that is new to him anyways. And Buffalo is a team where extra edge players aren’t really needed, Belichick explained earlier today.
It must be that that wasn’t good enough for Felger, who apparently forgot the fact they had Willie McGinest, Roosevelt Colvin, Matt Chatham, Tully Banta-Cain and Vrabel still available to play outside if needed last night. Felger apparently feels a sixth guy who got two weeks of reps out there is a necessity and he specifically took issue with Banta-Cain dressing over Brown claiming Banta-Cain hasn’t done a single good thing in the three years he’s been here. This is also untrue. Banta-Cain has consistently made plays in the limited opportunities he has gotten and has been playing outside in this system three years now.
When a caller brought up the fact Banta-Cain is one of the best special teams players on the team, Felger dismissed it as irrelevent and said that shouldn’t be a factor. Unable to come up with a reason for Brown not dressing (despite the reasons staring them in the face), both Felger and his co-host Kevin Winter decided to speculate whether it could perhaps be “character issues” on the part of Brown. I find it pretty sad a football writer and sports talk show host would reject a legitimate reason such as special teams play out of hand and dismissively, but talk about “character issues” as a possibility (which to be fair Felger ultimately rejected) for the move without any evidence whatsoever to support it. It would be far more compelling radio if we got more of the good, intelligent Felger we got in the first few weeks than the move towards The Big Show style show we’ve seen in recent weeks.
Two other issues GDRV has with Felger’s recent performance are his repeated attacks on Tyrone Poole’s toughness. Apparently the fact Poole started 124 of the first 128 games in which he was on an NFL roster, started all 19 games for a Super Bowl winning Patriots team in 2003 and has by all accounts had a good career hasn’t stopped Felger from claiming, without any sources whatsoever alluded to, that Poole has to be 1000% healthy in order to play and is malingering with his current injury. Are we to believe Poole didn’t sustain so much as a nick in all but 4 of the first 128 games he played in the NFL and was 1000% healthy for each and every one of them? Ridiculous.
Finally, when the 33 year old Poole was placed on Injured Reserve last week Felger responded by stating mockingly “What is going on with this kid?” as if some big scandal had erupted over a guy being injured. Last I checked, the Patriots make decisions on who to place on the injured reserve, not the players themselves. All in all, the day after day beating Felger leveled at Poole struck GDRV as a bit unfair given the successes he’s had in his career. This isn’t Tony Simmons. This is an accomplished NFL cornerback whose had his share of good play in the league and more than exhibited his talent and toughness for a long time now. Felger did mention one day on his show last week he had words, or at least some type of verbal disagreement, over religion a few weeks back with Poole. One hopes Felger is professional enough of a writer to not unfairly target someone in print and radio whose record on the whole is pretty impressive simply because he has a disagreement with him on off the field issues.
The final area we’d take Felger to task is his repeatedly stated theory for upgrading the Patriots secondary performance by, as he states it, “junking this whole read and react system they have and turning the dogs loose.” One struggles to understand exactly what he’s talking about. Apparently he wants the Patriots linemen to attack more, which in theory would give the opposing team’s QBs less time and help the secondary. But GDRV is unsure what exactly he thinks the linemen are doing now.
The Patriots do play a 2-gap style defense, which could conceivably be called a “read and react” type defense. This is true. A 2-gap defense generally means the linemen and to some degree the linebackers tie up each and every gap an opposing runner could have to pick from on a running play. Linemen do less penetrating into the backfield, but since there are more defenders than legitimate gaps on a football field, there are always free defenders to come in, in theory, to make the play without much room to run for the runner. That is the theory anyways.
What Felger thinks that has to do with pass defense GDRV has no idea. 2-gap defense, by definition, is done against running plays. You don’t 2-gap (or “read and react” for that matter) on a passing play. You rush the passer or cover. One or the other. Sure, against specialty QBs that can run you may have a spy who sort of follows the QB around without really rushing, but that is the very odd situation. Felger’s theory, in short, is all wet. The Patriots linemen ARE rushing the passer. They aren’t “reading and reacting” squat on passing plays. If we charitably stretch his comments into a call for more blitzing, I’d suggest THAT is off base too. Most of the big plays have come off Patriots blitzes this year. The long pass to Rod Smith in Denver and the long pass to Ricky Proehl in Carolina the Patriots blitzed the house. Many of the big plays in Atlanta, same thing. If anything, the Patriots were blitzing too much early on and leaving their secondary exposed too much. Not surprisingly, we saw less blitzing yesterday, only one big play, more field goals from the opponent and some mistakes from the opponent as well.
Perhaps he is calling for a disregard to the possibility of the run. Admitedly a defender may not go into full pash rush mode, so to speak, until he’s sure its a pass. Thus one of the reasons opponents use play action. If he’s advocating a “we’re coming after the QB the run be damned” type of defense, that won’t get the Patriots far. If he thinks the Patriots had trouble stopping the run in 2002, that type of theory would make the 2002 Patriots look like the ’85 Bears. Needless to say, GDRV thinks Felger should junk his advocacy of this theory.
-One quick preview of the Colts-Patriots matchup next Monday. The Colts are 3-6 coming off their bye week the last nine years. And we know their record in Foxboro in the Peyton Manning era. Food for thought. A more comprehensive preview of the game later this week.