September 26, 2016

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.