The Patriots played their best game of the year yesterday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. They finally played a game the way you have to play if you are going to have any real success in the NFL. It was easily the most complimentary and error free game of the year and, in the end, the game that should give fans the most hope something good still may happen this season.
First a word about the Jets. Yes, its true, they are not a very good team. But, while I think its okay to be disappointed or pessimistic about the Patriots when they haven’t played well, and we certainly have done that in this blog, I don’t think its quite fair to dismiss yesterday’s win just because it was against a struggling team. If we’re going to minimize defensive performances in wins because they give up 300+ passing yards to Kelly Holcomb and Gus Frerotte, then we should equally praise them when they do exactly what they’re supposed to do by shutting down a weak offense and quarterback and holding it to 3 points and under 200 yards offense. The Patriots defense played a good game yesterday. That it was against the Jets of course should be taken into consideration, but it does not change the fact the Patriots played their best and did their best job scheme wise on that side of the ball than in any other game this year. And they did it for a full sixty minutes, which is a first for the year.
Leading the charge was Roosevelt Colvin, who really has played very well this year, especially since being moved into the starting lineup. Also with strong games were Willie McGinest who always plays hard and is as disruptive a player as there is when he is on his game. Ty Warren continued his strong second half performance against KC with his best game of the year. And Jarvis Green also had his best game of the year and the comment was made to me it was the first time in weeks he had his neck brace off which could be a sign his health is improving.
In the secondary, Ellis Hobbs and fellow corner Assante Samuel kept the bad plays to a minimum. New starting safety Artrell Hawkins (by my count the sixth safety to start alongside Eugene Wilson in twelve games this year) had a nice game. He showed despite his smallish frame he isn’t afraid to hit. Its an interesting alignment, since Hawkins is essentially a corner, as is Wilson in reality. The effect of the lineup is the Patriots essentially start with four corners on the field in their base defense. Perhaps Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Eric Mangini have seen the atrocious pass defense they’ve displayed in almost every game and have said to the front seven “screw it, you guys will have to stop the run, we need four corners on the field at this point.” If so, it seems a wise gamble to me. The Patriots have a very talented front seven who, if challeneged, should do more than a solid job against the run.
By getting four corners on the field even in base defense, they may be a step ahead of the curve once again, just as they were when they essentially started playing with three corners (with Eugene Wilson moving there) in 2003. Hawkins is a fairly talented guy who was a high pick, has started a lot in the NFL at corner and has good skills. An injury in camp in August while with Washington was the only reason he was available once he was healthy. If the four corners alignment can improve the railing pass defense, it may be the type of innovative thing the Patriots coaching staff has become known for in past years.
On offense, I was also encouraged. The game plan was more suited to helping the defense and what I wanted to see. I have no problem with occasional medium and long shots down the field, the play to Watson was a thing of beauty. I have just come around to the thinking perhaps they were a little too enamored of that. The nice complimentary running game, screens, draws, short passes to Brown, Givens and Branch led to exactly the kind of offensive game needed to control the game and help the defense. Kudos to both players and coaches on that side of the ball.
In the end, what I think this team needs is a little more conservative a philosophy on offense, which they did yesterday and a little more aggressiveness on defense, which they also did. A little more of 2001 on offense I think would serve this team well. And why? Well, they do have injuries. They do need to help the defense. They do need to control the clock. I don’t advocate a total return to the 2001 game plans, Tom Brady has become too good for that and you don’t want to handcuff him. But they need to throttle it in a bit, know they aren’t quite as good as in 2003 and 2004 and have to try to play it somewhat close to the vest and win close, tight, hard fought physical games with a ball controlling offense.
On defense, they clearly aren’t as talented as in 2003 and 2004. Mostly due to injuries, retirements, coaching losses, etc. They need a little bit more agressiveness on this side of the ball as a result. A little bit of gambling can sometimes carry a slightly inferior team a long way if its well planned, timed and executed. They have lost too much manpower on defense to just line up and stop people on defense this year. They’re going to have to take some chances. They may get beaten some, but at least they’ll go down fighting and not just with a passive plan.
And who knows. With their big game experience, a modified game plan, maybe this time truly they are on the right path. With this group of winners and veterans, maybe they do have a puncher’s chance after all.
On to Buffalo.