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 242012

The New England Patriots head overseas for the second time in four years to match up against the St. Louis Rams at Wembley Stadium this Sunday. The Rams enter this game as a much improved team over last season, sitting at 3-4 in the NFC West and with a much better defense than last year. The Rams have defeated the Cardinals and the Seahawks this season, two teams that were able to pull out victories over the Patriots. The Rams’ offense has little firepower beyond Steven Jackson and  Daryl Richardson, but their defense has kept them competitive in each of their contests.

Hmmm…. a good defensive team with a strong running game, an average quarterback and a limited receiving corps. What could possibly go wrong for the Patriots?

Oh wait…

Yes, Patriots’ fans… on paper this match-up offers potential trouble for the 4-3 Patriots, who last week barely managed to eke out an overtime win over a team with a very similar profile to the Rams. But while there are many similarities to the match-ups against the Jets, Seahawks, and Cardinals, there are some striking differences that offer some hope for a Patriots’ team that is universally believed to be an underachieving squad so far in 2012.

Here’s how the teams match up:

When the Patriots run
The Patriots are fifth in the league in rushing, averaging 149.3 yards per game. Stevan Ridley has rushed for 589 yards and is 7th in the league, and the running back corps is deep with Brandon Bolden (likely out this week), Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead. How the Patriots choose to rotate their backs this week remains to be seen, but it is clear that the Patriots are committed to achieving a run/pass balance in their attack, even if the plays called don’t always appeal to the percentages. The Rams are 10th against the run, giving up only 98.9 yards per game so far this season. Because the Rams have effective edge rushers and marginal outside linebackers, expect the Patriots to try to grind out yards through runs designed to go outside. The Patriots’ offensive line is an excellent run blocking group, and it is reasonable to expect the Patriots to run up at least 125 yards this week in order to keep the Rams’ safeties guessing.

When the Patriots pass
Robert Quinn and Chris Long present challenges to the Patriots’ passing attack, as Quinn has seven sacks and Long has four. Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder are going to have their hands full, and the Patriots may need to keep in a running back or tight end to insure time for Brady to go through his reads. Courtland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins are very good corners, but the Rams are vulnerable at safety. Expect Gronk and Hernandez to get lots of looks on Sunday, with Welker, Edelman, and Lloyd being used only when the match-ups are favorable. The Rams are capable of delivering the big hit and turning the momentum of the game with a forced turnover, so protection is critical. The Patriots of course have the top rated passing attack, but have struggled to utilize this strength in the fourth quarter when they are in a position to put games away. The Rams are ranked 14th against the pass, so expect that Brady will get his yards and likely a couple of touchdown completions. (Update: Aaron Hernandez is out on Sunday; Daniel Fells likely to see some snaps in his place, but Julian Edelman may see more snaps as well. This looks like a cautionary move given the Patriots’ upcoming bye week.)

When the Rams run

Steven Jackson is an excellent running back who has rushed for 380 yards so far this season. His production isn’t being maximized because Daryl Richardson has emerged as a solid complement, piling up 282 yards while averaging just over five yards per carry. However, the Rams’ greatest flaw is their offensive line, and the Patriots are famous for taking away an opponent’s greatest offensive strength. The Pats have already shut down Chris Johnson (4 yards), Fred Jackson (29 yards), Willis McGahee (51 yards), Marshawn Lynch (41 yards), and Shonn Greene (54 yards). The Patriots’ front seven is difficult to run against, as the Patriots have the 8th ranked run defense (86 ypg), and Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes are a formidable force. Expect Richardson have have a few successful runs and perhaps gain 50 to 60 yards, while Jackson will be fortunate to break the 50 yard barrier.

When the Rams pass
Sam Bradford is a decent quarterback with a depleted (poor) receiving corps. The Rams rank 24th in pass offense, generating 209 yards per game. So a cynic will expect Bradford to throw for 400 yards and six touchdowns given the way that the Patriots’ secondary has performed this season. Bradford has good arm strength and some mobility to extend or make plays, but his receiving corps is not a strength. Chris Givens is a deep threat who may well get several big catches this weekend, but he is not a disciplined route runner. Brandon Gibson and Lance Kendricks are most productive receivers with a combined 41 catches, but Danny Amendola still appears to be unlikely to play this weekend even though he has now returned to practice. If Amendola is able to play and is healthy, he will add a threat that Bradford will take advantage of.

Special Teams
Both Greg Zuerlein and Stephen Gostkowski are highly reliable kickers despite some early season troubles. Johnny Hekker and Zoltan Mesko are both good punters, though Mesko has been more consistent in pinning opponents behind their own 20 yard line. Chris Givens is a decent kick returner for the Rams, but Devin McCourty represents the greater threat for the Patriots. Wes Welker is a consistent punt returner for the Patriots, while Jenkins has been filling in during Amendola’s absence for the Rams. At least on paper, the Patriots seem to have a discernible edge on special teams.

Jeff Fisher has the Rams playing with confidence, and they are entirely capable of pulling off the upset this week. The Patriots have a bye week coming up, so it’s hard to expect that many of their defensive struggles coming off of the Jets game are going to be completely fixed. The Rams will get yards through the air (expect around 280), but their inability to run the ball consistently against the Patriots will likely short-circuit some drives. The Rams are averaging 18.6 points a game, and they should at least match that this weekend. On the flip side, the Patriots are the top scoring offense, averaging 31 points a game. And while the Rams’ defense is a solid unit, the Patriots have been able to put up yards and points on the Jets, Seahawks, and Cardinals, the latter two of whom have better scoring defenses than the Rams. The Rams are giving up 20.1 points per game, but can expect to give up more this weekend, as they do not appear equipped to deal with the Patriots’ tight ends, and the effective Patriots run game should make the secondary vulnerable to some big plays. More importantly, the Patriots thrive on drives of ten or more plays, and the Rams do not force turnovers the way the Patriots do (+11 differential for the Patriots, +0 for the Rams). Looks for sustained Patriots’ drives and if the play-calling of Josh McDaniels improves this week, the Rams will be hard pressed to keep up, forcing them to abandon the run for the second half.

Patriots 31 Rams 20

Sep 182012

I watched the Falcons beat the Broncos 27-21 last night and marveled at the defensive game plan put together by the Falcons’ defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. They confused Peyton early and often to stake the Falcons to an early lead and then held off the late Manning surge to escape with a hard fought victory last night. I noted that running back Michael Turner didn’t exactly have a great game last night, rushing for 42 yards on 17 carries with one touchdown.

What I didn’t know was that Turner’s night was about to get a whole lot worse.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Falcon’s running back was arrested early this morning for driving under the influence of alcohol and speeding. Turner was allegedly driving his Audi R8 97 mph in a 65 mph zone on I-85 northbound near Indian Trail Road just after 4 a.m.

Turner of course is now entitled to his legal process and presumption of innocence, and this article isn’t just about Michael Turner. Rather, the purpose of this post is to raise a simple question: what the hell are NFL players thinking when they choose to drink and then get behind the wheel of a car?

This has been quite a year for NFL players and DUI arrests. Since the end of the 2011 regular season, here is a list of the players arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence:

July 20 – Titans WR Kenny Britt (DUI)
July 19 – Chiefs CB Donald Washington (Possession, Driving under influence of drugs, Speeding)
July 14 – Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch (DUI)
July 10 – Rams DE Robert Quinn (DUI)
July 2 – Buccaneers CB Eric Wright (DUI)
June 23 – Lions CB Aaron Berry (DUI)
June 10 – Giants OT David Diehl (DUI)
June 3 – Jaguars WR Justin Blackmon (aggravated DUI)
June 2 – Vikings FB Jerome Felton (DUI)
May 27 – Lions DT Nick Fairley (DUI, Eluding police)
May 9 – Raiders WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (DUI)
April 26 – Redskins S Brandon Meriweather (CUI)
February 1 – Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno (DUI)
January 27 – 49ers LB Aldon Smith (DUI)

You get the point… I could essentially put together a football team with the number of players arrested. So why are NFL players not getting the point? And what is the league going to do about it? This is the same NFL that has partnered with MADD to create a game-day designated driver program for fans but couldn’t get players to use a Safe Ride program set up by the league for players, which was ultimately shut down because it wasn’t used. So what gives?

Yes, the league regularly takes disciplinary action against players for various acts of misconduct, and no doubt Turner will face a penalty once the facts come out. But that is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has gotten out. The past several seasons have been full of tales about the NFL’s increased focus on good citizenship and personal responsibility, yet it is still a cause for celebration whenever PFT’s meter for days without an arrest hits double digits. I get that these are young adults that think they are invincible. What they seem to fail to get is that playing football in the NFL is a privilege, and that privilege can (and should) be compromised when a player cannot meet basic behavioral expectations. Unfortunately, the coddling of athletes from high school through college and into the pros has too many of these young men thinking that there will always be someone else to fix the problems that they create and they can therefore avoid responsibility for their actions. The old argument raised by Charles Barkley that he wasn’t a role model isn’t even a question to many players anymore, and this is extremely disheartening, especially to a parent who attempts to be a role model to his own children and who is disappointed when athletes that his children idolize fall far short of being good citizens (thank you, Michael Vick).

I am not throwing the baby out with the bath water. There are many, many NFL players that “get it”, but as we all know if takes many pieces of good publicity to make up for just one bad one. And 15 DUI arrests of NFL players in 2012 is giving the NFL a black eye that no amount of positive news is going to overwhelm.

Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones received some criticism for creating a personal code of conduct for Dez Bryant as a result of Bryant’s off-field issues. The plan was complete with a 24 hour security detail to protect Bryant from himself. Maybe Jones is on to something.