Oct 292012
 

The UK Patriots signs were in abundance at Wembley Stadium in London on Sunday, despite the designation of the St. Louis Rams as the home team. At the end of the game, 80,004 fans saw the short-handed New England Patriots thrash the Rams 45-7 to go into their bye week on a positive note, and with a 5-3 record.

The highlight of the game for the Rams (3-5) came early. On the very first drive Sam Bradford connected with Chris Givens on a 50 yard touchdown pass to put the Rams up 7-0. Safety Tavon Wilson bit on a double move from Givens and the pass was an easy one for Bradford. After that the Rams would only connect for two passing plays of more than 20 yards as the Patriots’s defense shut down the vaunted St. Louis running attack and forced Rams’ mistakes for the rest of the afternoon.

On the Patriots’ first offensive drive, they tied the game at 7 after Tom Brady connected on a 19 yard touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd, capping an 8-play, 78 yard drive. After the Rams punted, the Patriots then drove 83 yards on 9 plays, with Shane Vereen taking the ball the final yard for his second touchdown of the season. The Rams then gave the ball back on another punt, and the Patriots drove another 78 yards on 9 plays, resulting in a 7 yard Brady pass to Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown and one of the better touchdown celebrations in recent memory. After the game, Gronk described the dance and spike as both a “palace guard” and as “the little Nutcracker dude, guarding the house.” In any event, the salute delighted the London fans, especially after spiking the mike in a pre-game rally.

The Rams then went on a 9 play drive that only resulted in 27 yards before a 54 yard field goal attempt was muffed and the Patriots started at their own 44 yard line. The Pats needed 9 plays to cover the remaining 56 yards, ending with a one yard by Stevan Ridley to close the half at 28-7 and effectively end the game by halftime.

The Patriots came out in the second hald determined to close the game, and exhibited some of the offensive swagger of previous seasons, going for the kill rather than playing conservatively on a big lead. The Patriots needed only six plays to drive 80 yards to open the second half, with Ridley gaining 30 yards on a long run before Brandon Lloyd caught his second touchdown pass of the day, upping the lead to 35-7. Chandler Jones ended the next Rams’ drive with a huge 17 yard sack of Bradford, and the Patriots drove 58 yards again before the Rams finally forced New England to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to end the third quarter with a 38-7 lead.

Brady played the first series of the fourth quarter, driving 55 yards on 6 plays and ending with a 14 yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski to close the scoring before Ryan Mallett came in for the final two drives. The Rams twice drove deep into Patriots’ territory in the game’s final minutes, and both drives ended with Patriots’ interceptions by Alfonzo Dennard and Tavon Wilson.

How the game broke down:

When the Patriots ran
The Patriots had no problem exploiting the Ram’s defensive line to spring outside runs. The Patriots hit their season average with 152 yards on the ground, and they were able to run for chunks almost at will. Stevan Ridley led the way with 127 yards and a touchdown while Shane Vereen added 22 yards and a touchdown. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed
The Patriot’ offensive line (even without Logan Mankins) was masterful against the Rams’ outstanding pass rushers, stopping the Rams from getting to Brady. There were no official quarterback hits and no sacks as Brady was able to patiently and consistently take advantage of mismatches, often involving Rob Gronkowski, who caught eight passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Brady routinely picked on cornerback Bradley Fletcher, who racked up three legitimate defensive pass interference calls, all on third downs. Wes Welker caught six passes and Danny Woodhead added five receptions as Brady used eight different receivers to rack up 304 passing yards and four touchdowns. The Rams’ defense had no answers for the Patriots’ spread attack, and Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer both did terrific jobs of negating the pass rush of Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Advantage: Patriots

When the Rams ran
As noted in the preview of this contest, the Patriots set out to shut down the Rams’ running game and did so convincingly. Daryl Richardson led the way for the Rams with 53 yards, but much of that was in “garbage time” in the fourth quarter. Steven Jackson was held to a paltry 23 yards while Isaiah Pead added 32 yards on three late carries. The Rams managed to squeeze out 107 yards on the ground, but they were meaningless stats in a blowout loss. Advantage: Patriots

When the Rams passed
For the first time since Week One, the Patriots actually notch a victory in this category. Sam Bradford was held to 205 yards, with 69 of those yards coming on the first drive of the game. After that, it was all Patriots. Lance Kendrick had four catches, and Chris Givens, Brandon Gibson, and Austin Pettis each had three for the Rams. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones each had keys sacks for the Patriots, who were able to deliver some timely pressure on Bradford. Sterling Moore had six tackles and one pass defensed, while Marquise Cole and Brandon Spikes each broke up two passes. Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams
Make it a clean sweep, though special teams did not factor significantly into the outcome. The Patriots’ Zoltan Mesko was effective in his limited opportunities and Ghost added two field goals on two tries while the Patriots’ limited the Rams’ return game and kept field position in favor of the Patriots throughout the game. Advantage: Patriots

Key Moment: Pass interference call on Bradley Fletcher when the Patriots were already up 21-7. The Rams had botched a field goal attempt that would have made the score 21-10 and the Patriots’ drive appeared to come up short on a third down pass to Brandon Lloyd, but officials caught an obvious grab that put the ball on the Rams’ 20 yard line, setting up a one yard Stevan Ridley touchdown and effectively ending the game by the half.

Game Ball: Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, who negated the Rams’ pass rush and gave Brady enough time to shred the Rams’ pass defense. Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels deserves an honorable mention for an exceptional game plan on offense that built an early lead and helped take the pressure off of a secondary that has been under siege.

Note: The Patriots set an NFL record on Sunday for offensive productivity, recording their 17th consecutive game with at least 350 yards of offense, totaling 473 yards against the Rams. This surpasses the record set by the 1999-2000 St. Louis Rams, then dubbed the “greatest show on turf.” The streak dates back to November 6, 2011 and includes the following totals:

11/6/2011 vs. Giants – 438 yards (332 passing, 106 rushing)
11/13/2011 at Jets – 389 yards (329 passing, 60 rushing)
11/21/2011 vs. Kansas City – 380 yards (223 passing, 157 rushing)
11/27/2011 at Philadelphia – 457 yards (353 passing, 104 rushing)
12/4/2011 vs. Indianapolis – 362 yards (289 passing, 73 rushing)
12/11/2011 at Washington – 431 yards (352 passing, 79 rushing)
12/18/2011 at Denver – 451 yards (310 passing, 141 rushing)
12/24/2011 vs. Miami – 400 yards (281 passing, 119 rushing)
1/1/2012 vs. Buffalo – 480 yards (360 passing, 120 rushing)
9/9/2012 at Tennessee – 390 yards (228 passing, 162 rushing)
9/16/2012 vs. Arizona – 387 yards (297 passing, 90 rushing)
9/23/2012 at Baltimore – 396 yards (319 passing, 77 rushing)
9/30/2012 at Buffalo – 580 yards (333 passing, 247 rushing)
10/7/2012 vs. Denver – 444 yards (193 passing, 251 rushing)
10/14/2012 at Seattle – 475 yards (388 passing, 87 rushing)
10/21/2012 vs. Jets – 381 yards (250 passing, 131 rushing)
10/28/2012 at St. Louis – 473 yards (321 passing, 152 rushing)

Both teams now go into their bye week. The Rams will visit the 49ers on November 11th while the Patriots will be at home against the Buffalo Bills.

Oct 052012
 

Not all 2-2 records are equal.

The Denver Broncos are 2-2 after winning in their opener over the Pittsburgh Steelers before dropping the next two games against the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, both of whom are undefeated. Then in Week Four the Broncos thrashed the Raiders 37-6. In the two games they lost the Broncos were down big but rallied back to make the scores respectable, but they didn’t deserve to win either of those games. The Broncos offensive attack is looking good under the direction of a healthy Peyton Manning, but the defense seems to have picked up where it left off last season, giving up 77 points in three games before hammering the Raiders. The Broncos defense is ranked 8th in yards allowed, but 21st in points allowed. The Broncos made some changes in the secondary after their defense wilted at the end of last season, but those changes don’t seem to have significantly improved their defense.

The New England Patriots are 2-2 after winning their opener against the Titans in dominating fashion and crushing the Bills with a huge second half surge, after losing close contests against the Cardinals and the Ravens. A phantom holding call against Rob Gronkowski and a missed field goal doomed the Patriots in Week Two against Arizona, while awful officiating and a squeaky field goal by the Ravens added to defensive lapses and led to their Week Three loss in Baltimore. But despite being off to a shaky start this season, the Patriots are only two plays away from having gotten off to 4-0 start to the season. The offense is beginning to click despite the temporary absence of Aaron Hernandez, and the defense has shown glimpses of being much improved over 2011. The defensive line can bring heavy pressure at times and the front seven is difficult to run against, but the secondary has been spotty to say the least. The problems in coverage are correctable, but it will take some time and the Patriots are unlikely to be able to stop Peyton Manning from having a productive day. The question is, can they slow him down enough to allow their offense to dictate the conditions of the game?

Although the game is being billed as a renewal of the clash of the titans in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, any football fan knows the game is far more contextual than that, and there are matchups all over the field that will determine the course of the game.  Let’s take a look at some of the key areas that will likely decide this contest.

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Protect Brady

It’s already an old theme, but it holds true. Sebastian Vollmer made Mario Williams pull a vanishing act last Sunday, and the Patriots offense line will again be called on to stop a solid group of pass-rushers. The Broncos have tallied ten sacks to date, led by Von Miller with three sacks and Elvis Dumervil with two and a half. The Patriots scheme their pass protection well and Nate Solder has steadily improved. Donald Thomas filled in admirably last week for Logan Mankins but did allow several big defensive plays and is a poor substitute for the stud left guard. The Broncos occasionally play with a defensive muddle with no down lineman to seek to confuse the offensive linemen and disguise the “mike” linebacker, but this is unlikely to disrupt the Patriots attack.

2. Continue the balanced offensive attack

Part of the success of the Patriots offensive attack last week centered around keeping the safeties off balance, and using the run up the middle to set up passing plays over the middle later. That trend is likely to continue this week because, while the Broncos’ have outstanding defensive ends, they are weak in the middle of the line. Look for Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden to pound the middle in order to set up Gronk and Welker for big plays. If the Patriots’ backs can even come close to replicating last week’s rushing numbers, the Broncos will be in for a long day.

3. Shut down McGahee and the Broncos running game

While the Patriots have always been able to devise coverages that give Peyton Manning fits, Manning eventually figures them out and does his damage. And you can expect him to do so again this Sunday. What becomes critical for the Patriots is to turn the Broncos offense into a one-dimensional unit by shutting down Willis McGahee and Lance Ball. The Broncos are rushing at a rate of 109 yards per game (14th in the league), but the Patriots run defense is already one of the league’s best, giving up 85 yards per game (7th in NFL). Stuffing the run could well be the difference between a close contest and a comfortable Patriots win.

Three keys for the Broncos:

1. Safety play is key

It is essential that Rahim Moore and Mike Adams make good reads and not fall into the same trap that the Bills’ safeties did last weekend. The Patriots are masters at play action passes, and the safeties and the linebackers must be able to quickly diagnose the plays and know their assignments. The Patriots’ offensive scheme is designed to take advantage of match-ups and confusion, and the Broncos could find themselves giving up big chunks of running room, as well as easy completions to Gronk, Welker, and Fells. Beyond safety play, cornerback Champ Bailey is capable of matching up against any type of receiver and could force Brady to look elsewhere throughout the day.

2. Exploit the Patriots’ secondary

After a strong showing against the Titans, the Patriots have proven vulnerable to the passing attack. The Patriots are currently ranked 25th in the NFL, giving up 281.5 yards a game. As long as Manning has protection, he will have a choice of talented receivers in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and Brandon Stokley. Safety Steve Gregory is likely out, meaning rookie Tavon Wilson is likely to get the start.

3. Hold on to the ball.

The Broncos are currently -4 in the turnover department, a key statistic in winning any football game. Conversely, after four games the Patriots are already a +8 in this category, having a knack for forcing turnovers and for holding on to the ball. The Patriots already have six fumble recoveries and six interceptions in opposition to their own one interception thrown and three lost fumbles. The Broncos have only forced three turnovers in four games, while throwing three interceptions and losing four fumbles. If the Broncos give the Patriots extra possessions and a short field, Peyton can throw for 400 yards and still lose by 21 points.

Prediction

Like many, I am anticipating a fairly high scoring game on Sunday. Having watched all of the Patriots games and a fair amount of the Broncos’ action, I am convinced that the Patriots’ defense has a better chance against Peyton Manning and company than the Broncos’ defense has against Tom Brady and the boys. I expect the teams to trade touchdowns early before the Patriots begin taking control of the ball, conducting long scoring drives and keeping Manning off the field. Manning will be forced to keep up with Brady by the second half, and I expect the Patriots’ pass rush will eventually force key turnovers that will result in a Patriots’ win. Patriots 34 Broncos 24.

Sep 092012
 

Welcome to our live blog of the Patriots-Titans contest. This post will be updated as game events unfold. Feel free to leave your comments below. Be kind. :-)

Three Keys for the Patriots

If you are a Patriots fan, here’s what you are looking for in Week One:

1. 3rd down defense; The Patriots were the worst in the league last season for getting off the field on third down. Will the new look defense with Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower be able to get the ball back into the hands of Tom Brady with more frequency?

2. Offensive line; The line had troubles in the pre-season and looks to be without Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters, but Mankins, Solder, and Vollmer are all back on the field. Will they give Brady the time he needs to pick apart opposing defenses?

3. Better secondary; The front seven has a lot to do with how good any secondary looks, but what about the performance of the Pat’s corners and safeties? Will McCourty rebound from a tough sophomore year? Will Dowling stay healthy? Is Dennard a diamond in the rough? Will Gregory, Wilson and Ebner be a step up from last year’s nightmare rotation at safety? Locker and the Titans should only be effective if Chris Johnson is having a monster game.

Three Keys for the Titans

1. Is Jake Locker ready? Look for the Titans to try and spread things out to give Locker opportunities to make plays with both his arm and his feet. Locker looked adequate in the pre-season but was not close to stellar.

2. Will Chris Johnson return to Pro Bowl form? Is a full training camp and pre-season all that Johnson needs to return to form? The Patriots defense projects to be stout against the run, but Johnson is capable of turning any play into a big gain. This is a good early test for both sides.

3. Is the defensive line as good as the Titans think it is? The Titans greatest weakness of 2011 might well be a strength of 2012, if the Titans can bring pressure to bear on opposing quarterbacks. Expect the strength of this unit to be up the middle as the defensive ends progress more slowly, but injuries may make the middle susceptible this week.

Note – the Titans will be without wide receiver Kenny Britt, who is serving a one game suspension.

PREDICTION: Patriots 28 Titans 17

Players listed as “Out” or “Inactive”  are:

Patriots –
DE Jake Bequette
CB Alfonzo Dennard
TE Daniel Fells
DL Marcus Forston
DL Justin Francis
OL Nick McDonald
RB Shane Vereen <sarcasm>shocker</sarcasm>

Titans –
QB Rusty Smith
RB Javon Ringer
LB Zac Diles
T Mike Otto
T Byron Stingily
DE Pannel Egboh
DT Sen’Derrick Marks

GAME BLOG

Pre-Game: CBS reporting more trouble coming for the beleaguered New Orleans Saints as a result of a DEA investigation. A civil settlement is being negotiated but this will no doubt carry more penalties from the league. Nice ship you’ve been running there, Coach Payton.

Pre-Game. The game hasn’t started yet and I already love NFL Sunday Ticket! Also, wearing the silver “54” Bruschi jersey today. Let’s see how it goes. :-)

FIRST QUARTER
15:00 – It’s officially New England football season!

Titans possession:
Good containment on first two plays. Good pressure on third down but Titans convert for 17 yard game. Same problem as last season on third down. PI against Dowling. So far the Titans are giving Locker short, safe plays. Titans go on fourth down after bad spot for Johnson. Great pass from Locker to Washington for big gain. Pats stiffen up but McCourty gets away with obvious PI. Titans get field goal for early 3-0 lead.

Patriots possession:
Begin at 26 yard line after McCourty return. Hernandez nice catch and run for 9. Ridley looks tentative on short carry, but then tears off a big gain for 17. Lloyd misjudged ball and misses an easy touchdown. Walker drops a sure first down to end drive. Patriots punt.

Titans possession:
Tennessee starts on own 19 after short Mesko punt. Chandler Jones stuffs Johnson for three yard loss. Run defense looking stout so far. On third and twelve Pats stop Titans for quick three and out.

Patriots possession:
Patriots get nice punt return from Edelman to start at the at their own 32 yard line. Brady hits Gronk for big 28 yard gain. Ridley rips off another big gain for 16. Brady to Hernandez for 23 yard touchdown strike! 7-3 Patriots.

Titans possession:
Titans start at own 18. Locker starts with three straight passes as Titans convert on third down again. Need to see where the coverage breakdown was. Fourth straight pass for four yard gain as Pats maintain containment.

END OF FIRST QUARTER

SECOND QUARTER

Titans possession:
Titans open with stretch pass for first down. Pats pick off Locker on next play In the end zone. Gift wrapped for Tavon Wilson – welcome to the NFL.

Patriots possession:
Pats start with acrobatic catch by Lloyd for 28, challenged by Titans. Bad challenge as Lloyd definitely caught the ball; play confirmed. Ridley gets 7 on quick pass before getting stuffed on the next play. On third down Brady gets sacked by Wimbley, forcing a Patriots punt, which the Pats down near the 10. Wimbley’s knee hit Brady in the face, drawing blood. Giselle is not going to be happy. ;-p

Titans possession:
Pats snuff run again after Washington drops an easy pass. Hightower looks good so far today. Pats strip Locker of ball, Hightower gets easy touchdown. Pats up 14-3. This defense is definitely looking like an improvement over the 2011 model. Chandler Jones forced the fumble. Good day for Pats rookies so far.

Titans possession:
Titans start at own 18 after blatant hold on return. Chandler Jones stuffs Johnson on first down run. Short pass for two but Mayo shuts it down. Locker scrambles nicely for first down. Locker misses open pass after Pats shut down anoth run, bringing up third down. Johnson catches pass from Locker but comes up a yard short. Titans punt. Edelman muffs punt but the was pretty clear interference by the Titans. First down Patriots.

Patriots possession:
Ridley tears off 15 yard run to open drive. Sideline pass to Lloyd for 9. Brady muscles out first down on the sneak. Brady misses Welker on long pass. Woodhead makes smart play to create manageable third down. Injury timeout for a Titans defender. Hernandez takes direct snap for first down. Brady to Gronk for 7. Edelman for another first down. 5 more yards with connection to Welker. Woodhead runs it to the 10; third down. Titans confused on coverage assignment but Brady calls Pats first time out. Ridley takes it to the 2. First and goal. Brady to Gronk for two yard touchdown. Woot! Pats up 21-3.

Titans possession:
Cook stays in bounds after short completion but Reynaud gets out after first down catch. Locker sacked by Jermaine Cunningham. Williams catch brings up 3rd and 5 aft second Tennessee timeout (first used on challenge). Titans receiver Williams doesn’t use head on third down play, short of first down, forcing punt. Pats take second timeout.

Patriots possession:
Pats start at own 12 after short Edelman return. Pats take knee into halftime.

END OF SECOND QUARTER

Halftime reactions: Rookie defenders are looking great for the Pats. Troubling sign for Jake Bequette that he is inactive today. Locker doesn’t look bad at all, but Chris Johnson can’t find room to run on the defense and the Titans defense can’t keep up with Brady and Co. Ridley is looking like a premiere running back today. Patriots get the ball to start the second half.

THIRD QUARTER

Patriots possession:
Pats open on their own 20. Pass to Hernandez for 4. Ridley muscles out a first down- solid running day so far. Ridley another nice run for 7. Quick stretch play to Hernandez for another 12. Ridley loses one on nice play by Morgan. Brady misfires short on blitz. Edelman angry on called incomplete- looks like he caught the ball off his shoe. No challenge by Belichick and Patriots punt.

Titans possession:
Locker opens with big 35 yard completion to Jared Cook. McCourty breaks up next Locker pass. Chris Johnson gets 15 on short pass. Locker to Washington on pretty play as Locker was on his way to being sacked. Pats 21 Titans 10.

Patriots possession:
Brady opens with a bounce to Lloyd. Ridley gets 4 to set up a long third down. Gronk saves a low pass for a first down. Ridley ridden down for 4 yard loss by Jason McCourty. Hernandez gets five back to set up another third and long. Another first down completion to Gronk. Brady to Lloyd for another 11 yards, then to Welker for just one. Hernandez for 7 more. Brady can’t find a receivers on third down and throws the ball away. Patriots punt and Mesko pins the Titans at the 9 yard line.

Titans possession:
Johnson snuffed on opening pass. McCourty picks off Locker on errant throw, but it is a questionable pick. Play being reviewed. Play overruled – good call by official. Third and ten. Designed quartback for big gain, but Titans held, so the play comes back. Titans stuffed at 2 yard line to bring up punt.

Patriots possession:
Edelman brings punt to the Titans 47 to set up the offense. Brady to Gronk for six yards. Ridley runs throu a big hole to get it to the Titans 26. Lloyd for six more, then Ridley pounds another first down. Ridley to the one yard line. Patriots wearing down the Titans front line. Ridley touchdown. Pats 28 Titans 10.

Titans possession:
Johnson hammered for one yard loss. Fans booing, but the Pats defense is just soffocating the run. Locker incomplete as Wilfork hammers him. Locker to Williams for the first down. Wright for 12 to end quarter.

END OF THIRD QUARTER

FOURTH QUARTER

Titans possession:
Johnson underneath for three. Free play (offsides) covered by Chandler Jones. Second and short. Nate Washington hammered after big gain, loses ball to Patrick Chung. Locker gets Hurts left shoulder during the tackle. Washington not getting up; injury timeout. Clean hit to cause the fumble. Play overturned as incomplete, but Hasselbeck on field. Good call on replay. Hasselbeck to Johnson for big third down conversion. Williams for seven yards, then Hawkins for a first down. Raynaud runs for two. Mayo PI for another first down. Stevens for five on a screen. Wright on a quick pass to the Patriot two. Johnson snuffed by Wilfork for loss off four. Johnson now has 11 carries for 4 yards. Wow. Hasselbeck misfires on second down. Incomplete on third down; good no-call on Chung. Titans nail field goal. Pats 28 Titans 13.

Patriots possession:
Ridley catches a pass out of the backfield for 20 yards. Woodhead for three and then Brady to Lloyd for a first down. Lloyd looks good today – 5 catches. Woodhead runs for two. Welker for 8 after Phil Simms calls the Titans defense cows standing in a pasture. Woodhead for six. Woodhead for two more. Ridley rips through the defense down to the 10 yard line. Ridley for one yard. He has 123 yards today (unofficial). Patriots take first time out with 4:33 left. Connolly in locker room – Brian Waters might be getting a call soon. Ridley for two as Titans take first time out. Brady scrambles out of trouble but misses Hernandez in he end zone. Ghost makes it a 31-13 margin with a field goal. 4:15 left.

Titans possession:
Titans start at the 20. Wright for four. Next an incomplete pass. Hasselbeck misfires on third down, forcing a fourth down attempt. Bad pass by Hasselbeck leads to turnover deep in Titan territory. I question doing that on fourth down. The game is decided and now they are inviting the Patriots to step on their throats.

Patriots possession:
Brandon Bolden for nine, then for two more. First down. Bolden for two more as the Patriots take it to two minutes. Looks like the Patriots are invoking the mercy rule. Bolden stuffed on next run. This is Brady’s 125th, moving his past Fran Tarkenton. Bolden loses ground to the 15. Ghost adds three more for 34-13 advantage. 31 seconds left.

Titans possession:
Titans run out the clock.

END OF FOURTH QUARTER

FINAL SCORE: PATRIOTS 31 TITANS 13

Post-Game Analysis:

The Titans are a good team and appear to be in the verge of being a contender, but they were simply no match for the Patriots today. The Patriots displayed excellent balance on offense, with Stevan Ridley racking up 125 yards on 21 carries and one touchdown, and the Patriots defense looked much improved over last season, stuffing the run and forcing the Titans into a one dimensional offense. This game set a good tone that the Patriots hope to follow up on next week.

When the Patriots ran:

As noted Ridley racked up 125 yards and the Patriots rushed for 162 yards overall as the caught the Titans off guard with their attack. Ridley ripped off several large chunks of yards as the Titans could not contain the Patriots’ attack. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed:

Tom Brady was his usual efficient self, going 23 for 31 (74%) for 236 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. Gronkowski and Hernandez each had six catches and Brandon Lloyd had five in his Patriots debut. The balance among receivers also had the Titans guessing all afternoon. Wes Welker had a quiet three receptions for 14 yards, and was a non-factor in the game. Advantage: Patriots

When the Titans ran:

Chris Johnson finished with 4 yards on 11 carries, and the Titans only rushed for 20 yards. The Patriots front seven simply suffocated the Titans run game all day, and Titans had no answer for Vice Wilfork, Chandler Jones, and Dont’a Hightower. Advantage: Patriots

When the Titans passed:

Although the Titans were turned into a one-dimensional offense today, Locker performed admirably. He was 23 of 32 (71%) for 229 yards with one touchdown and one interception before leaving with an injured left shoulder. Matt Hasselbeck went 6 of 11 for 43 yards when the game was well out of hand. The 272 yards of passing offense was commendable, but the Patriots limited the Titans to short catches for the most part, with the longest plays being for 35 and 29 yards. Advantage: Tie

Special Teams:

No major plays on either side, and no major blunders. Both kickers posted two field goals. Advantage: Tie

 

Key Moment: Chandler Jones’ strip of Jake Locker that Dont’a Hightower brought in for a touchdown

This week’s game ball goes to Stevan Ridley

Aug 102012
 

Pre-Season Game #1: Patriots 7, Saints 6

So what did we learn about the New England Patriots last night? Not much that we didn’t already know, but some things we already knew became a bit clearer.

To begin with, under the rules of the new CBA, the Patriots and Saints played last night’s game on fewer practices than they would have in previous years; teams are barely in real training camp mode at this point. Given that, play was a bit sloppy last night, though themes that were already emerging from training camp were reinforced last night.

Summary

The Patriots beat the Saints 7-6 last night, with two of the most powerful offenses in the NFL phoning it in while both defenses stepped up their games. Brian Hoyer led the Patriots on a third quarter touchdown drive culminating in a touchdown pass to Britt Davis, and the defense made the score stand up, yielding only field goals in the first and fourth quarters. Tom Brady had a pedestrian appearance of 4/7 for 30 yards, and gave up an ugly strip sack that resulted in the Saints’ first score. Jerod Mayo had a solid defensive evening, racking up three tackles, an assist, and a pass defense.

The Good

While Mayo was solid, it was rookie Chandler Jones who stole the show. Jones had a tackle and an assist, applied five quarterback pressures which netted two holding calls against Jermon Bushrod, one of the better left tackles in the league. Jones was also stout in run defense, played in multiple positions, and demonstrated why the Patriots are so high on the first round selection.

Beyond Jones, the Patriots pass coverage was improved last night, giving up 197 yards and holding the Saints to 33% efficiency on third down. The Patriots’ rushing game tallied 126 yards and was clearly an area of emphasis with the return of Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels as the Patriots rushed 31 times versus 41 passes.

The Bad

The offensive line did not look great last night, which was expected given the absence of Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, and Brian Waters. Nate Solder had a particularly difficult evening, netting two holding penalties and looking generally overmatched. The Patriots knew this was coming and historically have a solid offensive line, but it is clear that the Pats need their missing players back and need more time for their backup players to learn to work together. I suspect this problem will be fixed by the beginning of the year, but it is one area to be wary of.

The Ugly

Linebacker Dane Fletcher went down with a knee injury and it was discovered that Flethcher had town his ACL, likely meaning his loss for the season. Thankfully, the Patriots have depth in the front seven and this opens an opportunity for one of the bubble players to step forward, possibly giving Mike Rivera an opportunity to make the opening day roster.

The Interesting

The NFL lockout of officials meant Bill Belichick working the officials hard last night during the game. When asked about the officials in his post-game press conference, Belichick interestingly deferred to the opinion for Mike Pereira, the former head of NFL officiating. In that brief moment, Belichick made clear his feelings on the lockout, poking at the NFL to settle the contract issues prior to the start of the regular season.

The Pleasant Surprise

Running back Shane Vereen has not had a good training camp to date, and three other running backs saw carries before Vereen got the ball last night. But once Vereen did, he showed the flash that the Patriots drafted him for, picking up 64 yards on 11 carries. Coupled with Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead, the Patriots look ready to put a solid running back by committee on the field.

Next Up

The Patriots will be back in action on Monday, Agust 20th in a Monday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles that will be televised on ESPN.

 

May 222012
 

The New England Patriots finished 2011 one incomplete pass away from winning their fourth Super Bowl in eleven years and, judging by their aggressive off-season movements, seem intent to make sure that the next Super Bowl result isn’t nearly as close. Learning from the mistakes of 2011, Head Coach Bill Belichick is fulfilling fan wishes everywhere of improving a defense that simply could not get off the field in too many key situations last season. By getting off the field earlier and more often, the Patriots can provide more opportunities for Tom Brady and the offense to roll through opposing defenses, and build leads that an aggressive defense can then help turn into a rout.

This is not to say that the Patriots are going to roll through the 2012 season like they did in 2007, blasting through a 16-0 season before falling in the final minute of the Super Bowl against the New York Giants. But it is to say that conditions are favorable for a highly successful 2012 campaign. The offense brings back its major parts and has improved its receiving corps. The defense has improved at all three levels, and the special teams will to continue to excel, while the Patriots will benefit from a softer schedule this season, facing off against the AFC East, NFC West and AFC South in addition to their first place opponents Baltimore and Denver. Throw in the fact that this team is well aware that they were one play away from winning it all last year, and I expect a team bent on attending to unfinished business from last year.

Trying to predict anything that Bill Belichick will do is at best a shot in the dark. But when it comes to things like who Belichick will select in the draft, or who will make the Patriots’ roster, well that’s nearly impossible. Even the best Boston beat reporter gets things right only half the time, so this article is less about predicting who will make the final roster and more to give a semi-educated guess about who I think is the most likely to survive to the regular season.

Unlike the Jets, who look no better on paper than they did at the end of last season, the Patriots have made significant strides to improve the roster. Let’s take a look at the most likely prospects to make the opening day 53-man roster. I am in no way trying to keep up with all signed players, now that rosters have been expanded to ninety players. Almost all of that is roster fodder, though one or two unlikely candidate may emerge as we get towards the regular season. I will keep modifying this article until the first week of the season. Each update will be labeled so that it can be contrasted with my original projections.

Players in bold are projected as starters.

Quarterback (Grade: A)

Tom Brady is the incumbent and remains one of the top two quarterbacks in the NFL. Brian Hoyer is a capable backup who will likely be a future NFL starter for another team, as he is in the last year of his contract. Mallett appears to be the heir apparent in Foxboro.

Tom Brady

Brian Hoyer

Ryan Mallett

Running Back (Grade: B-)

The loss of BenJarvus Green-Ellis meant that the Patriots would add a veteran back, and thus entered Joseph Addai. I have never been an Addai fan and didn’t think much of the signing, but accepted that it was a very practical and low-risk move. None the less, I don’t think Addai has much left in the tank, and will likely be beat out by younger players. Ridley is more explosive than Green-Ellis, but struggled to hold on to the ball last season. The Patriots seem very high on Shane Vereen, who was not able to get on the field much last season.

Danny Woodhead is a great change of back a la Kevin Faulk, and much younger than Faulk. While Faulk is a fan favorite in New England, his declining abilities make it unlikely that he will get signed and/or win a roster spot. Brandon Bolden is a candidate for the practice squad.

The Patriots have also signed several fullbacks coming into the 2012 campaign, including fan favorite Eric Kettani, who was able to get clearance from the U.S. Navy to re-join the Patriots. Still, Spencer Larsen and Tony Flammetta might have inside tracks to make the cut. Larsen’s versatility gives him the edge in this battle.

Stevan Ridley

Danny Woodhead

Shane Vereen

Spencer Larsen

Out: Joseph Addai, Eric Kettani, Tony Flammetta

Practice Squad: Brandon Bolden

UPDATE: Joseph Addai was released, as predicted.

Wide Receiver (Grade: A-)

Remember when Reche Caldwell was considered the #1 receiver? Me neither. The 2012 Patriots suffer from no such lack of depth at receiver. If anything, the camp battle is going to be fierce this summer.

Wes Welker returns as the best slot receiver in the NFL and is playing under a franchise tender. Personally, I think he has handled his contract negotiations all wrong. He was offered a two year, $16 million deal and turned it down last year, and is now surprised that the Patriots are offering him less this season. Yet he is a year older, and the play of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez has taken away some of his leverage. Playing out his contract dispute in the media and through Twitter is also not his best move, and in truth I would not be surprised to see the Patriots take a trade offer for him before the 2012 season commences, perhaps nabbing a high round pick in the 2013 draft. Barring a trade however, the Patriots could once again slap Welker with a franchise tag next offseason if they are in the mood to add a few million to his current salary, and they just might.

Brandon Lloyd adds explosiveness to this group and is very comfortable working with Josh McDaniels. Deion Branch is a Brady-favorite, but the return of Jabar Gaffney could bring Branch’s tenure to an end. For the moment, I am projecting that they will both make the roster. Julian Edelman is not a sure bet to make the roster, despite his versatility. While I expect him to make it, Matthew Slater is a solid special teamer that will make the cut, and Jeremy Ebert may have a high upside.

Donte Stallworth seemed to have a chance to make it until the Pats signed Gaffney; I am convinced Gaffney will edge him out. Chad Ochocinco is unlikely to make it through camp. Despite his good work ethic and his ability to keep his mouth closed for the most part, he simply lacks production, and the Pats have brought back players who are proven producers. Gaffney’s signing convinced me that the Ocho experiment will be coming to an end.

Wes Welker

Brandon Lloyd

Jabar Gaffney

Deion Branch

Julian Edelman

Matthew Slater

Out: Chad Ochocinco, Donte Stallworth, Britt Davis, Anthony Gonzalez

Practice Squad: Jeremy Ebert

UPDATE: Anthony Gonzalez was released on 5/29.

UPDATE: The Pats finally cut Ocho on 6/7.

Tight End (Grade: A+)

Providing they stay healthy, this is the best tight end group in the NFL, bar none. No training camp battles anticipated here.

Rob Gronkowski

Aaron Hernandez

Visanthe Shiancoe

Practice Squad: Brad Herman

Out: Nick Melilli, Bo Scaife, Daniel Fells

UPDATE: The Patriots signed Bo Scaife on 6/7. Not sure if he is insurance for Gronkowski, but unless there is an injury to the top three I doubt he makes the roster. Scaife had a solid 2008 campaign with Tennessee but declined after that before spending last season on injured reserve.

UPDATE: The Patriots released Scaife on 6/18. That was a short stay.

Tackle (Grade: B)

Solder and Vollmer look poised to anchor the ends of the offensive line for years to come as long as both stay healthy. The Patriots have yet to decide if Canon’s future will be as a tackle or as a guard. But we know the team values versatility, so he may well do both in the year ahead.

Nate Solder

Sebastian Vollmer

Marcus Canon

Practice Squad: Markus Zusevics

Center/Guard (Grade: A-)

The key here is Brian Waters, whose return means the Patriots have great depth at the interior line positions. Waters had a fantastic 2011 season, and will start at right guard with the report that he plans to play again in 2012. Dan Connolly, projected to start at center prior to Koppen’s re-signing, now works into a rotation. Another major factor is the health of Logan Mankins, who is not expected to be ready for the start of the season and may start out on the PUP list. This necessitated the signing of Robert Gallery to fill in through Mankins’ absence.

Dan Koppen

Logan Mankins

Brian Waters

Dan Connolly

Robert Gallery

Ryan Wendell

Out: Donald Thomas

Defensive Line (Grade: B)

Chandler Jones was a great draft pick by the Patriots, and he will likely be given every opportunity to work his way into starting at the “elephant” position made famous by Willie McGinest. Wilfork is a beast in the middle who eats up blockers, and Deaderick is quickly coming along as a solid interior player. Fanene, Baquette, and Scott, provide a quality of depth that the Patriots have lacked in recent years. Andre Carter may still be signed if he is healthy enough, but my money is on his not returning to Foxboro in 2012.

Vince Wilfork

Brandon Deaderick

Kyle Love

Myron Pryor

Jonathan Fanene

Jake Bequette

Trevor Scott      

Chandler Jones

Out: Alex Silvestro, Marcus Forston, Aaron Lavarias, Marcus Harrison, Gerard Warren, Ron Brace, Justin Francis

Linebacker (Grade: B-)

Much is still to be decided about who will play inside and outside, but Dont’a Hightower should see significant action as the year progresses, and offers the Pats a great deal of flexibility in the linebacking corps. However the positional battles shake out, look for a steady rotation to include Mayo, Spikes, Hightower, Ninkovich, and Carpenter. Jermaine Cunningham may wash out as a failed second round pick.

Dont’a Hightower

Rob Ninkovich

Bobby Carpenter

Jerod Mayo

Dane Fletcher (injured)

Brandon Spikes

Tracy White

Mike Rivera

Out: Jermaine Cunningham, Jeff Tarpinian, Niko Koutouvides

Practice Squad: Markell Carter

UPDATE: Markell Carter cut on 6/7. As much as the Patriots liked him in 2011, the offseason personnel improvements seem to have made Carter expendable.

UPDATE: Fletcher tore ACL is first pre-season game; out for season

Cornerback (Grade: B-)

Arrington and Moore both proved to be good corners in a much maligned secondary, and McCourty’s improvement over last year’s performance would do a great deal to bolster this unit. Will Allen offers great depth, and Alfonso Dennard will prove to be a steal if he can stay out of legal trouble.

Kyle Arrington

Devin McCourty

Ras-I Dowling

Sterling Moore

Will Allen

Alfonso Dennard

Safety (Grade: C+)

Well, at least the unit can’t get any worse after a nearly abysmal performance in 2011. Steve Gregory has been brought in to start, but he may only be keeping a seat warm for Tavon Wilson, who Bill Belichick seems very excited about. Chung is solid, and Ebner to looks have a good upside and will offer better depth than the Pats had last season. It’s still a possibility that the Pats could add veteran depth, such as former Jet Jim Leonhard.

Patrick Chung

Steve Gregory

Tavon Wilson

Nate Ebner

Out: Ross Ventrone, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, Malcolm Williams

Special Teams (Grade: A-)

Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the game and Mesko is not far behind as a punter. Finding return men for kicks and punts seems to be the only question as the Patriots look to 2012.

Stephen Gostkowski (K)

Zoltan Mesko (P)

Danny Aiken (LS)

Out: Chris Koepplin

Overall Offensive Grade: A

Overall defensive Grade: B-

Ultimately, the Patriots only need a “middle of the pack” defense to increase opportunities for a potent offense. If the 31st ranked defense from 2011 can even improve into the high twenties or low teens, the Patriots will rack up plenty of one-sided victories in 2012.

UPDATE: Just for giggles, let’s check back prior to the opening game against Tennessee to see how I did in projecting the roster versus Imala Weligamage over at the Bleacher Report. We have just a few differences, but it should be interesting to see how it all plays out.