September 30, 2016

SAN DIEGO AT PATRIOTS PREVIEW

A tough opponent comes to Foxboro in the San Diego Charges this Sunday. While many eyes may be focused on Boston and the Red Sox and Yankees playoff possibilities, its quite possible this match up could decide playoff spots or seedings as well somewhere down the road. I expect a good match up between two tough, physical teams that can both put points on the board and play effective defense.

San Diego on offense likes to run the ball with LaDanian Tomlinson, possibly the best running back in the NFL at the moment. Fast and elusive, he is also strong and tough and can run inside for the hard yards. He’ll be tough to stop as will San Diego running the ball. They do so behind a relatively young, unknown offensive line. Last season, San Diego elected to go with young, big, strong physical linemen who largely were unproven in the NFL. This decision partly led Eli Manning to beg out San Diego and eventually landed him with the Giants. Many of the so-called media “experts” pointed to this unknown, inexperienced line as one of the main reasons San Diego would be one among the worst teams in the NFL in 2004. To everyone but San Diego’s surprise, who believed in themselves all along, the Chargers decision helped mold the team into a tough, hard-working team that took them all the way to a 12-4 record and an AFC West division championship. They return all the major players up front this season.

Last year, the Charges started two rookies up front, center Nick Hardwick who played with a number of Patriots at Purdue, and right tackle Shane Olivea. Both played well beyond expectations and gained experience which is helping this year. The rest of the line features blue-collar types Mike Goff, Roman Oben and massive Toniu Fonoti. When they get in rhythm, giant holes are created and Tomlinson most certainly will gash the Patriots if they don’t set the tone from the outset, clog the running game up and not allow this group to get going. Add in one of the best blocking fullbacks in the league in Lorenzo Neal and its quite a task to try to stop the Charger running game.

And the Chargers will most certainly try to run the ball against the Patriots. In some ways, the Chargers on offense are one of the toughest matchups in the NFL for the Patriots. The Chargers coach, Marty Shottenheimer, is one of the most successful NFL coaches in league history during the regular season. The main knock on Shottenheimer is his teams have generally under performed in the playoffs in the past. But Shottenheimer is probably the one coach most uniquely suited to take on Bill Belichick in the NFL. Not because they are alike, but instead because they’re different. They are similar in the sense both preach tough, hard-nosed, physical football. But Belichick is also a schemer and a tactician, while that has never been Shottenheimer’s way. Shottenheimer is a coach who likes to pound the ball on offense and do so over and over when he senses the kill and a defense tiring. In their last match up way back in 2002, the Patriots jumped out to an early lead. But somewhere just before halftime, the Chargers cut the deficit by pounding Tomlinson at the Patriots. They continued to do so the rest of the game over and over and over again. And it worked. In the second half, the Patriot defense dragged and looked as worn down as I have ever seen under Belichick. And that is why Shottenheimer matches up with Belichick well. Because he is going to do what he likes to do regardless of what the Patriots throw at him and the Chargers. He’s not going to deviate from his philosophy regardless what looks the Patriots give. Schemes don’t bother a coach like Shottenheimer as much as other coaches. He is still going to try to pound the ball, he is still going to line up and play smash mouth, my guys are tougher than your guys football and beat you. In 2002, it worked.

When the Chargers do pass, they are not without weapons. Keenan McCardell is a quality receiver who started out in the league with Bill Belichick in Cleveland and is a true professional and solid weapon. Tight End Antonio Gates, while not much of a blocker, is a fast, speedy tight end with excellent hands who can get down the field and moves nearly as well as a wide receiver. He’ll be difficult to stop and is particularly dangerous near the end zone. Kassim Osgood is a tall receiver at 6’5″ who could present match up problems for the Patriots smaller corners near the end zone as well. San Diego is also an effective screen team as well and the Patriots will have to be alert for this.

Running the show is Drew Brees, another Purdue alum. A short quarterback with an average arm, he nevertheless has become an accurate play maker the past two years. He can move in the pocket, make the necessary throws and rarely turns it over. With the Patriots only having one interception this year, and that by linebacker Mike Vrabel, it will be extra difficult this week to get game changing interceptions with the careful Brees throwing the ball and the Patriots secondary in flux.

On Defense, San Diego, like the Patriots, plays a 3-4. They have one of the top run-stuffing nose tackles in the NFL in Jamal Williams, a truly underrated player and decent ends. Rookie Luis Castillo, whom the Patriots looked at prior to the draft, is also in the rotation and has been a positive contributor. Another rookie, top pick Shawne Merriman reminds one of a young Willie McGinest and it’ll be important with Matt Light out for the Patriots to have their eye on him in passing situations. If they don’t cover him up effectively, he could reek havoc in the Patriots backfield all day. Look for San Diego to try to exploit whomever the Patriots have at left tackle with Merriman and pass rushing linebacker Shaun Phillips.

The Chargers have a decent, but not spectacular, group of linebackers in Phillips, Ben Leber, Randall Godfrey and Steve Foley. Leber is a solid player and play maker. Foley, like Phillips, can get after the quarterback. Godfrey patrols the middle, but may be the weak link of this group. Look for the Pats to be effective running the ball off the center-guard gaps as I don’t see Godfrey handling either Steven Neal or Logan Mankins, the Patriots guards, effectively.

The secondary consists of high draft picks Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence at corner. Both are talented but inconsistent. The Patriots should be able to exploit both regularly. Other corners, Sammy Davis and Jamar Fletcher are also vulnerable. The Patriots may spread the field to get at these corners, particularly Fletcher who they used to regularly torch when he played for the Dolphins between 2001 and 2003. Fletcher is prone to give up long completions and also commits pass inteference an inordinate amount of times on long passes. The Patriots came back to beat the Dolphins in 2002 largely because of a long inteference penalty by Fletcher. Expect the Patriots to try to beat him deep or draw the inteference penalty if they see him on the field. Troy Brown, Deion Branch, David Givens and even Bethel Johnson and Tom Brady throwing should torch this group as a whole all day long, so long as the make shift line can provide protection. The Chargers safeties are decent, but not playmakers. Normally, the Patriots should be able to exploit both, Terrence Kiel and journey man Bahwoh Jue with their tight ends, but they may need to use tight ends to help out the young linemen in pass protection quite a bit. I still expect them to pick and choose their spots with this match up, however, and make some plays with the tight ends.

The specialists for San Diego are inconsistent but talented. Both the kicker Nate Kaeding and punter Mike Scifres are young with very strong legs, but tend to blow one or two kicks a game each. Return man Darren Sproles is an explosive, 5’6″ inch sparkplug who can get up field in a hurry and needs to be contained. He may be a used as a weapon on offense as well. San Diego’s coverage teams are average, the Patriots may have some chances to make plays there as well. Patriots punt returner Tim Dwight certainly will be interested in making a point to his former team which cut him last off-season.

What I see from this match up overall is a Patriot offense which should be able to move the ball at will if they execute. They must avoid the turnovers that have plagued them so far. If they do that and have the ball enough, they should put up more than enough points to win the game. On defense, the match up is a bit tougher. They need to force San Diego into passing situations by stopping the run on early downs. That is easier said than done with Tomlinson running the ball and a Charger team willing to keep trying it even if it doesn’t work early on. If the Patriots can force San Diego into passing situations, or better yet, get a decent sized lead in the second half, San Diego will have to throw. This is not how San Diego likes to play, with most of their passing coming from play action when its not an obvious passing situation. The banged up Patriots secondary should be able to handle the San Diego passing game so long as it comes in obvious passing situations. If they let Tomlinson run off 5 or 6 yard runs every 1st down, or they allow it to remain a one score game in the 4th quarter, then the Patriots could be in trouble defensively. It’ll open up play action and will also allow San Diego to pound the ball late when the Patriots may be a bit tired. On the other hand, if the Patriots can force 3rd and 3 or more often times, that will play into the Patriots favor.

One way the schedule has turned a bit to the Patriots favor is with their secondary being so banged up, they did luck out defensively by drawing San Diego and Atlanta the next two weeks, both run-oriented teams. At least in terms of defending the pass. San Diego rarely, if ever, even goes 4 wide and only occasionally 3-wide. Atlanta next week is similar. That helps. Again, shutting down the run to some degree and getting a second half lead, preferably a two score lead, will be key for the Patriots.

On special teams, I see a solid advantage here for the Pats in both kickers and in the return game with potential for game breaking returns apparent for New England and that could help change the game in the Patriot’s favor. In the end, I see San Diego being able to move the ball, but the Patriots stiffening in the red zone. They’ll eventually outscore San Diego who’ll stall on drives more often than the Patriots. Final score Patriots 30 San Diego 20. Until next time.

Greg Doyle
[email protected]

Patriots At Pittsburgh: A Good Win, But Some Losses

Today I feel like Guss Scott replacing leader and All-Pro Rodney Harrison. Scott Benson asked me yesterday to take over this column and after sleeping on it, I agreed this morning. My main reluctance to do so was that Scott is such a gifted writer and has such solid insight into the Patriots, its going to be very difficult to live up to his standard. But I want to thank him for thinking enough of my interest in the Patriots to ask me. I also hope this helps him enjoy the games a bit more and congratulate him on two years very well done. He set a standard that exceeded the vast majority of professional football writers, in my mind.

I also want to thank Bruce for giving this his blessing. I have a lot of respect for this site he has created here and the high quality he insists on for the content of it. I promised him to work hard to write articles worthy of the site and I will. And thanks in advance to anyone who takes the time to read my thoughts. I just hope I can make it worth the time you take to do so. A couple things before I get started. I am not sure what format this column will eventually take. I will probably try a few different things over the first few weeks, so I’d ask the reader to bear with me while I find my way. I have considered a traditional game story or preview type article, but I am not yet sure that is my strength, though it may be the best for the reader. I have considered more of a game notes/blog/numbered paragraphs type format, but I am not sure that is the way to go either. And I have considered some combination of the two. We’ll just have to see where this leads eventually. I am also not sure I’ll be able to get the articles up in as timely a fashion either. I do go to the Pats home games so that could delay things a bit. But more importantly, I usually watch every game at least twice. Once live and then on tape. Its usually on review I see things I didn’t see live and can better evaluate who played well and who didn’t. So, I may try to hold off until I have a chance to do that so I hopefully have better insights than I otherwise would.

So with those initial thoughts out of the way, on to what was one of the best Patriots regular season games in some time. The Patriots have surely played better and more efficiently at times over the course of this amazing now five year run, but rarely have they had the kind of dig deep, emotional win over a quality opponent when the chips were down as they pulled out this week at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. If you’re a fan of NFL football and the Patriots, its wins like this in the bank that keep you smiling all week. With that in mind, lets break down the Patriots performance further.

THE PATRIOTS ON OFFENSE
For much of the game, the Patriots performed inconsistently on offense, as they did in Carolina. But, even during that period of time, there was significant improvement from the Carolina game. The Patriots had three long, extended drives in the first half inside the Pittsburgh ten yard line. At Heinz Field, against that defense, that is more than an acceptable half of offensive football. The problem was, a fumble and tipped interception prevented scores on two of those three drives. And that was killer. The Patriots were fortunate those missed opportunities didn’t come back to beat them and they outplayed Pittsburgh by such a significant margin, they were able to overcome their three turnovers, including the two inside the ten.

Prior to Matt Light getting hurt, the offensive line performed admirably. They largely provided ample time for Brady early on and got out in space on some screens that turned into decent plays. In the running game, there wasn’t a ton of room to work with–there never is against Pittsburgh who fills the box with players to stop the run and always has–but the running game was far more effective than it was against Carolina. The line did have its struggles for a few series when Light went down. Kaczur had played some at left tackle in preseason, but far more at right tackle. So there was definitely a few series it looked shaky in there in pass protection. But they got it together and provided Brady with mostly excellent protection in the 4th quarter and that has to be encouraging looking forward if Matt Light is out for an extended period of time.

A mere look at the statistics would not show that the running game was any more effective this week than last week. But it was. Dillon finished with 22 carries for 61 yards, Faulk didn’t have much yardage on his attempts. However, a closer look shows the running game did a decent job. The thing they didn’t do, which they did against Carolina, was have a lot of negative plays. So while they hammered the line a lot for only 1 or 2 yard gains at times, 2nd and 8 is a whole lot more manageable than 2nd and 13 or some of the problem downs you get into with negative running plays. And they managed to keep Pittsburgh somewhat honest on play action by reeling off occasional longer runs, particularly on the first touchdown drive and on the TD run by Dillon in the 4th quarter. The Faulk fumbles were definitely a negative. But he somewhat made up for it with some nice catch and runs and Bill Belichick somewhat absolved Faulk today on the second one by stating that the hand off timing was off. The blitz pickup by all three backs was for the most part outstanding with the exception of maybe one or two plays.

One theory on the running game struggles I have had for a week or so now is the absence of Patrick Pass was hurting their running game a bit. They had been working a lot of h-back, one back formations with Ben Watson the first two games. Patrick Pass had virtually disappeared from the offense. Go back to last year and a lot of the big runs Dillon had were from the I-formation with Pass leading the way. Pass is really underrated in his blocking. But go look at the replay of the long TD run by Dillon vs. Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game last year. Pass threw the key block on Farrior. Go back and check some of the long runs vs. Indy, both games, key blocks by Pass sprung Dillon. The long one vs. the Jets, again, nice block by Pass. They want to get Watson on the field, understandably because he is very talented in the passing game, but it seems to be hurting the running game. And its not that Watson is not a good blocker, just that its not clicking out of the one back, h-back in motion formations as it did last year in a traditional I. Yesterday, they worked the I-formation back in more and it seemed to help. Some of the bigger runs, including the 4th quarter TD run were with Pass leading the way and were from the I-formation. I’d like to see them improve their running out of the h-back formation and I think they will as they adjust to using it more, but I’d also like to see them continue to use a combination with some I-formation as well as its been effective for them in the past and was again yesterday. I think we’ll continue to see it with Pass’ good performance.

The receivers had a top-notch game off a week they had trouble with drops. Givens had his best game in a long time, even dating back to last year. Troy Brown continues to look more like the old Troy than a guy who was thought to be fading not too long ago. Deion Branch chipped in his usual good game. There was a Bethel Johnson sighting as well. And although he only had one catch for three yards, I was encouraged they had him on special teams coverage teams as, to me, this may indicate a maturing on his part that may eventually translate over to better offensive production. They could definitely use his speed in games down the road to stretch the field.

The tight ends were held to one catch, but seemed to do a decent job blocking. Watson let one ball get tipped up the air, but fortunately it fell incomplete. In the future he has to learn if the ball is behind him and can’t be caught, don’t tip it up in the air with one hand reaching behind you.

As for the quarterback, what else can you say? He is simply the best. Bar none. And he never has two bad or mediocre performances in a row. Was there anyone whose watched this team, fan or not, who doubted he’d lead them down to the win at the end? Doubtful.

THE PATRIOTS ON DEFENSE
Like last week , I thought this was an overall good performance for the defense. The defensive line really clogged up a running game that had been very productive and is always hard to shut down. The key is setting the edge and McGinest, Colvin, Vrabel and others did a nice job of that. Willie also had a sack and a tipped ball. He continues to play at a high level now well into his thirties. He did have an offside penalty that could have proved costly. They need to eliminate mental mistake type penalties like this. But they should be able to. If you check penalties for the last few years, there is a general declining trend in them for the Pats as each season moves along. Usually the big penalty games are early on and by the end of the year, they have them down to a minimum.

Seymour also came up immense with 2 sacks, though you’d like him to avoid the facemask penalty he got. Other than that, it was a dominant performance. With Harrison going down and Bruschi out as well, its clear this is now Seymour’s defense. He’s the leader, he’ll set the tone, they’ll look to him to provide the leadership they lost from those two. Vince Wilfork continued to cause offenses a lot of trouble in the middle of the line. He’s quickly turning into a Pro Bowl caliber nose tackle.

Beisel and Brown continued to show their weekly improvement at linebacker. I also thought Don Davis showed up positively a couple times and Matt Chatham got a few reps and held his own. This unit is improving.

Losing Harrison in the secondary is tough. He is the heart and soul of the defense, a true gamer and leader and the Pats can’t help but miss him. Knowing what I know of him, however, I expect him still to be involved, still on the sidelines and providing emotional leadership all season long. On the field, however, I think people are going to be surprised by Guss Scott. This is a smart kid who ran the defense in college at Florida, made all the defensive calls. He was a 3-year starter in college who came in and impressed the Pats almost from day one, though he got hurt and missed his entire rookie year. Belichick gave him a solid grade for yesterday, but also pointed out he hadn’t practiced with the first team nor to play as much as he did. Yet he still performed well. The one upgrade he can bring to the table is a speed upgrade. With Wilson back there, whose basically like a third corner, they already have one fast safety. Harrison, for all he brings to the table, is not the fastest guy in the world. He gets by on instincts and smarts. But Scott will upgrade the speed. If he can handle the mental part, they should be okay. Not to say they won’t miss Harrison, obviously they will. But they could have worse options than Scott. I thought Wilson continued to get off to a bit of a slow start yesterday for him. Not that he has been bad, but I think he has a been a bit below his level from the last two seasons so far. He was a bit slow to get over to help on the long Ward touchdown and there were two other unacceptable breakdowns the last two weeks with the long Proehl pass last week and the play Randle-El eventually fumbled this week. They have to get that fixed and getting Wilson back to his near Pro Bowl level of past seasons would help immensely.

The corner play was generally good. Chad Scott got called for two pass interference penalties, neither of which were particularly good calls. Starks came back from an early injury to play well. Hobbs got in a bit and held his own. It would be positive for the Patriots to get Gay and Poole back soon, however.

THE PATRIOTS SPECIAL TEAMS
An up and down performance. Two nice punt returns from Dwight were positive. However, they had a long kick return from Bethel Johnson called back on a penalty from Tully Banta-Cain, who added another penalty later. If he wants to avoid being this year’s Shawn Mayer, he’ll have to quit that. He should be fine, however, he had an outstanding camp. They got a couple nice kick returns from Ellis Hobbs, but their coverage was inconsistent. The kicking game was good with both Miller and Vinatierri providing key kicks. The Pats probably shouldn’t have tried the 53 yarder Adam missed as this was always going to be a field position game. I’d prefer a punt there. Overall, the special teams continue to show promise they can develop into a really good unit, but have been inconsistent and just aren’t there yet.

That’s it for my first column and a wrap up of a really good, important win against a top AFC foe. On to another tough foe next week at home versus San Diego. Later in the week, I hope to provide a GDRV preview of that matchup. Until then.

Greg Doyle.

Game Day Rear View, Edition 05, Volume RS02

September 18, 2005
Panthers vs. Patriots
At Bank of America Stadium, Panthers WIN, 27-17
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

You’d have to dig pretty deep in the steaming pile of manure the New England Patriots laid in Charlotte today to find anything at all positive about their humbling 27-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

I can think of only one thing: at least it wasn’t a conference loss. A small consolation to be sure, because otherwise, the Patriots stunk out the joint.

The offense regularly skulked to the sideline in futility and shame, neutered, their biggest offensive play on the day a mere fluke. The defense, despite numbers that may suggest otherwise, played just well enough to lose. Special teams were, for the second week in a row, an unmitigated disaster. Each unit was armed to the teeth with a never ending supply of ill-timed and ill-conceived penalty flags that made the Oakland Raiders seem disciplined by contrast, and made Patriots fans, well, ill.

The Panthers deserve credit for a ferocious defensive attack that beat the champion out of the Patriots, especially their MVP quarterback. Offensively, Carolina was hardly efficient, almost offering the game back to the Pats at one point, but did you notice that both times the Patriots handed them the ball deep in New England territory, the Panthers came away with touchdowns, and not field goals?

It was the kind of winning edge the Patriots didn

Game Day Rear View, Edition 05, Volume RS01

September 8, 2005
Raiders vs. Patriots
At Gillette Stadium, Patriots WIN, 30-20
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

The New England Patriots began their second consecutive title defense Thursday night with a 30-20 win over the Oakland Raiders in a game that was, surprisingly, far tighter than the final score would indicate.

New England

Game Day Rear View, Edition 05, Volume 04

September 1, 2005
Giants vs. Patriots
At Gillette Stadium, Giants WIN, 27-3
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

The Patriots and the New York Giants played a completely underwhelming and virtually irrelevant sixty minutes in the fourth and final pre-season game last night.

The Giants easily bested the Patriots by a score of 27-3 with three second-half touchdowns before a rapidly evaporating Gillette Stadium crowd.

The Patriots sent no starters into action (unless you count sometime fullback Patrick Pass, who played halfback in the first half) and New York played only a handful of theirs in the game