September 27, 2016

Buffalo at Patriots Review: The Return Of The Big Play

The Patriots came up with a much needed division win yesterday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, but a lackluster three quarters nearly spoiled the much anticipated return of Tedy Bruschi and left followers of the team questioning just what this year’s version of the team is all about. That being said, there is still a lot of good that comes from a division win which puts you a game up and features the return of the defensive big play, something that has been sorely missing from many Patriots games this year. Sure it wasn’t perfect and questions remain, but it was a step in the right direction and more positive to be negative to be sure. All in all, in the NFL you take the win in the division and move on. The Patriots may not have played a great game this week, but it was enough and it doesn’t mean they can’t play a great game next week.

THE PATRIOTS ON OFFENSE
For most of the night, the Patriots played poorly on offense. It was perhaps their worst offensive performance of the year. But a closer look at it indicates it was perhaps more dictated by circumstances than anything inherently wrong with this unit.

For one thing, the Bills played well. You have to give them credit, they defended the pass well, put some pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and seemed to make the right calls as well. Defensive end Aaron Schobel in particular had a very strong game rushing the passer. The corners played a top notch game, save for a few late game hiccups. They were disruptive and tough all night long.

Some of the struggles were undoubtedly injury related for the Patriots as well. Already without running back Kevin Faulk, they lost playmaker Patrick Pass early. Pass had looked strong to start the game before fumbling on the play he got hurt on. Corey Dillon came in, but was not at full strength. With Matt Light out at left tackle and their main third down receiver out as well, one can understand they weren’t at peak efficiency.

That being said, they shot themselves in the foot a few times and have to continue to attempt to eliminate drive killing negative plays. Two holding penalties on their first drive negated long runs by Pass. The Pass fumble and a later fumble by quarterback Tom Brady cost them points. They also suffered the issue of not having the ball, which has been a periodic problem this year. In the first half, long drives by Buffalo effectively took the Patriots out of any rhythm on offense.

The bottom line is, while the offense generally has been pretty good this year most of the time, they have had periodic stretches of disappearing for quarters or halves at a time. They need to be more consistent. Sticking with the run a bit more may help in this regard.

The positive is late in the game, the offense came thru. A few big plays to Deion Branch, sure hands from David Givens and tough, hard running from Corey Dillon allowed them to win the game with some late scores. They’ll need to do that all game long next week to have a shot at beating a superior opponent to whom they faced this week.

THE PATRIOTS ON DEFENSE
They’re still not there yet on this side of the ball and some of the problems that have plagued them all year continued to show up. The long ball hurt them again in the third quarter in the form of a deep touchdown to Bills receiver Eric Moulds in which the safety once again bit on the shorter route only to get beat over the top. Tackling continued to be an issue at times and seeing them give up a draw for a first down on 3rd and 10 in the fourth quarter was maddening. Seeing the secondary not work together as a unit on many critical third down plays was frustrating. The failure to generate a consistent pass rush also was a contributing factor to their up and down play all night.

Again, GDRV thinks Buffalo deserves some credit here. They played a good game. Bills running back Willis McGahee is the real deal and a physical, tough running back that can just wear down a defense. Bills quarterback Kelly Holcomb, for the most part, played a good, solid game and made some real good throws. The receivers made some tough catches and good runs after catch. The play calling for Buffalo was solid and they seemed to make the right call on third down most of the time.

All that being said, the Patriots did make a step forward on defense last night. No one ever said it was going to happen overnight. Just plugging in Tedy Bruschi and having a bye can’t solve every problem. But progress was made.

What progress, the naysayer may ask? The defense, for perhaps the first time since causing a fourth quarter fumble versus Oakland, made a number of big plays down the stretch. Obviously, the Roosevelt Colvin strip sack of Holcomb was the play of the game and won the Patriots the game but there were numerous other big plays as well. The Asante Samuel interception was an excellent play though it ultimately led to no points. They also did get some pressure on Holcomb at times.

Linebacker Tedy Bruschi played well in his return as did new inside linebacker Mike Vrabel. One should remember it was Bruschi’s first game back this year and Vrabel’s first start ever inside and the results were promising. They did seem to wear down a bit late, but they also showed they can solidify that area of the defense. Colvin had a nice game as well outside. That holds promise. Duane Starks played appreciably better than he had before the bye (though its hard to imagine doing worse). Eugene Wilson had his best game thus far this year, finally showing he can be the hard-hitting, quick, instinctive safety he was the past two years. Even corner Hank Poteat chipped in with solid play after just rejoining the team. They gave up one big play, but fortunately kept it to one and only one which you couldn’t say in some of the earlier games this year. At some point, they may get that down to no big plays.

Again, the defense was not perfect. But they did hold an opponent to under twenty points for the first time this year and only gave up one touchdown. That is progress. Unfortunately for them, the learning curve, so to speak, doesn’t afford them a lot of time with powerful Indianapolis coming to town next weekend. Nearly 400 yards by Buffalo in offense was way too much and Buffalo is no Indianapolis on offense. But there were signs its coming around. There were positives. Its too early to write off this defense altogether. If they can just hang in there, help pick up some wins, they may be more of the unit come December remembered fondly for helping to win Super Bowls than the bottom of the barrel unit we saw the first six weeks of the season.

THE PATRIOTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
The Patriots did a generally good job on special teams. Some decent, though not spectacular, returns gave them good field position on kickoffs. Punter Josh Miller was excellent again. The Patriots largely contained Buffalo’s excellent returners. The two negatives were a dumb delay of game penalty the field goal team took at the end of the first half and the Adam Vinatierri’s missed field goal following that penalty.

PATRIOTS NOTES:
A few items on the Patriots GDRV has been kicking around for awhile:

-Ron Borges of the Boston Globe spent both ink in a Globe Sunday column and wasted breath on the radio on the now defunct Eddie Andelman Show trying to spin the Patriots opening six games of the season as not the difficult schedule it was made out to be. As he has done at times in the past, Borges shows himself more interested in discrediting the Patriots in any manner possible than actual, informed research. Assuming Pittsburgh wins their game tonight, and they should, that will put the opponents the Patriots played through the first six games at 28-14. Take away the 3-3 record the Patriots amassed against them and they are 25-11. Not to mention the fact some of those teams faced each other, which forces a 1-1 .500 record on the overall record simply due to the fact one has to win and one has to lose when they are playing each other and not as an indication as how good they are vis-a-vis the rest of the league

But all that being as it may, the 25-11 record the Patriots opponents had the first six weeks when not playing the Patriots amounts to a .694 winning percentage. The 28-14 record including the games against the Patriots equates to a .667 winning percentage. Taking these percentages and applying them to a 16 game schedule, and you have roughly an average of an 11-5 team. That is a pretty damn good record in the NFL, GDRV would say. Facing an average of 11-5 teams over the first six weeks of a season, with four on the road (including the best 4 of those opponents record wise), which is what the Patriots opening schedule amounts to, sounds pretty tough to GDRV. In fact, it sounds so tough, it wouldn’t be a stretch for someone to say it is “one of the most difficult opening schedules in NFL history.” Not at all. Perhaps Ron Borges should run a correction for his readers.

-For all the talk about the Patriots messing up free agency this year by the local media, there is this:

David Patten: Redskins contract 5 years/$13 million. 19 catches 193 yards/ No return yards/193 all purpose yards 0 TDs

Tim Dwight: Patriots contract 1 year/$800K. 8 catches 133 yards/ 150 punt return yards/283 all purpose yards 2 TDs

-Boston Herald Patriots writer Mike Felger’s new radio show on 890AM shows promise, particularly when they have on some of the excellent guests they regularly have on like Josh Miller, Ted Johnson and other Patriots or NFL related guests. But other times he has strayed into the kind of “soap operish” WEEI-style talk he made his radio bones on, which is disappointing because he is capable of being one of the most intelligent commentators on the Patriots at times.

Examples of how his show has slipped into the realm of what they should try to avoid came just today. Felger termed the decision of Bill Belichick to not dress linebacker Chad Brown last night “shocking and appalling.” Shocking and Appalling? That seems a bit of hyperbole to me.

Lets review. Chad Brown has been playing inside linebacker all season long. Its a new system for him. He got most of his reps in the preseason and all of them since the regular season began two months ago inside. Now Tedy Bruschi has returned and the plan is to move Brown back outside as a specialty edge player. Which sounds like a good plan to GDRV. But he has only had two weeks of reps out there in a system that is new to him anyways. And Buffalo is a team where extra edge players aren’t really needed, Belichick explained earlier today.

It must be that that wasn’t good enough for Felger, who apparently forgot the fact they had Willie McGinest, Roosevelt Colvin, Matt Chatham, Tully Banta-Cain and Vrabel still available to play outside if needed last night. Felger apparently feels a sixth guy who got two weeks of reps out there is a necessity and he specifically took issue with Banta-Cain dressing over Brown claiming Banta-Cain hasn’t done a single good thing in the three years he’s been here. This is also untrue. Banta-Cain has consistently made plays in the limited opportunities he has gotten and has been playing outside in this system three years now.

When a caller brought up the fact Banta-Cain is one of the best special teams players on the team, Felger dismissed it as irrelevent and said that shouldn’t be a factor. Unable to come up with a reason for Brown not dressing (despite the reasons staring them in the face), both Felger and his co-host Kevin Winter decided to speculate whether it could perhaps be “character issues” on the part of Brown. I find it pretty sad a football writer and sports talk show host would reject a legitimate reason such as special teams play out of hand and dismissively, but talk about “character issues” as a possibility (which to be fair Felger ultimately rejected) for the move without any evidence whatsoever to support it. It would be far more compelling radio if we got more of the good, intelligent Felger we got in the first few weeks than the move towards The Big Show style show we’ve seen in recent weeks.

Two other issues GDRV has with Felger’s recent performance are his repeated attacks on Tyrone Poole’s toughness. Apparently the fact Poole started 124 of the first 128 games in which he was on an NFL roster, started all 19 games for a Super Bowl winning Patriots team in 2003 and has by all accounts had a good career hasn’t stopped Felger from claiming, without any sources whatsoever alluded to, that Poole has to be 1000% healthy in order to play and is malingering with his current injury. Are we to believe Poole didn’t sustain so much as a nick in all but 4 of the first 128 games he played in the NFL and was 1000% healthy for each and every one of them? Ridiculous.

Finally, when the 33 year old Poole was placed on Injured Reserve last week Felger responded by stating mockingly “What is going on with this kid?” as if some big scandal had erupted over a guy being injured. Last I checked, the Patriots make decisions on who to place on the injured reserve, not the players themselves. All in all, the day after day beating Felger leveled at Poole struck GDRV as a bit unfair given the successes he’s had in his career. This isn’t Tony Simmons. This is an accomplished NFL cornerback whose had his share of good play in the league and more than exhibited his talent and toughness for a long time now. Felger did mention one day on his show last week he had words, or at least some type of verbal disagreement, over religion a few weeks back with Poole. One hopes Felger is professional enough of a writer to not unfairly target someone in print and radio whose record on the whole is pretty impressive simply because he has a disagreement with him on off the field issues.

The final area we’d take Felger to task is his repeatedly stated theory for upgrading the Patriots secondary performance by, as he states it, “junking this whole read and react system they have and turning the dogs loose.” One struggles to understand exactly what he’s talking about. Apparently he wants the Patriots linemen to attack more, which in theory would give the opposing team’s QBs less time and help the secondary. But GDRV is unsure what exactly he thinks the linemen are doing now.

The Patriots do play a 2-gap style defense, which could conceivably be called a “read and react” type defense. This is true. A 2-gap defense generally means the linemen and to some degree the linebackers tie up each and every gap an opposing runner could have to pick from on a running play. Linemen do less penetrating into the backfield, but since there are more defenders than legitimate gaps on a football field, there are always free defenders to come in, in theory, to make the play without much room to run for the runner. That is the theory anyways.

What Felger thinks that has to do with pass defense GDRV has no idea. 2-gap defense, by definition, is done against running plays. You don’t 2-gap (or “read and react” for that matter) on a passing play. You rush the passer or cover. One or the other. Sure, against specialty QBs that can run you may have a spy who sort of follows the QB around without really rushing, but that is the very odd situation. Felger’s theory, in short, is all wet. The Patriots linemen ARE rushing the passer. They aren’t “reading and reacting” squat on passing plays. If we charitably stretch his comments into a call for more blitzing, I’d suggest THAT is off base too. Most of the big plays have come off Patriots blitzes this year. The long pass to Rod Smith in Denver and the long pass to Ricky Proehl in Carolina the Patriots blitzed the house. Many of the big plays in Atlanta, same thing. If anything, the Patriots were blitzing too much early on and leaving their secondary exposed too much. Not surprisingly, we saw less blitzing yesterday, only one big play, more field goals from the opponent and some mistakes from the opponent as well.

Perhaps he is calling for a disregard to the possibility of the run. Admitedly a defender may not go into full pash rush mode, so to speak, until he’s sure its a pass. Thus one of the reasons opponents use play action. If he’s advocating a “we’re coming after the QB the run be damned” type of defense, that won’t get the Patriots far. If he thinks the Patriots had trouble stopping the run in 2002, that type of theory would make the 2002 Patriots look like the ’85 Bears. Needless to say, GDRV thinks Felger should junk his advocacy of this theory.

-One quick preview of the Colts-Patriots matchup next Monday. The Colts are 3-6 coming off their bye week the last nine years. And we know their record in Foxboro in the Peyton Manning era. Food for thought. A more comprehensive preview of the game later this week.

Buffalo at Patriots Preview

The Buffalo Bills will come into Gillette Stadium Sunday night for a prime time game on ESPN. It’ll be a motivated Bills team that comes in, having not scored an offensive touchdown at Gillette since 2002. With a 2-0 division record, the Bills will also know they’re not quite dead yet and if they can knock off the Patriots, it’ll go a long way towards keeping them in the AFC East race.

THE PATRIOTS OFFENSE VS. THE BUFFALO DEFENSE
Buffalo has really struggled defending the run this season. A lot of the big runs they have given up have come right up the middle of the defense. A big loss for Buffalo was big Pat Williams, defensive tackle, in the middle who left in the offseason in free agency. His fill in, Tim Anderson, has thus far not lived up to his high draft pick status and the holes in the middle have been gaping. End Aaron Schobel is a good player, but a better pass rusher than run defender. The rest of the front line is average at best and the Bills defense as a whole ranks 31st in the NFL against the run.

At linebacker, their best player was Takeo Spikes, who they’ve lost for the year to injury. His replacement, Angelo Crowell, was a top notch special teams player but hasn’t translated that success over to defense. In the middle, London Fletcher is one of the more overrated players in the NFL. He makes a lot of tackles down field, but he is undersized and not stout against the run. He is not effective at all against a power running game. At the other linebacker, Jeff Posey is a below average NFL player.

Given this amongst the front seven, the Patriots should have opportunities to run the ball. One problem could be the health of Patriots running back, Corey Dillon, who missed the last game and remains out of practice to date. Should he remain out, the Patriots should not abandon the running attack and allow Patrick Pass to expand on the promise he showed as a primary runner in the last game.

In the secondary, things are better for Buffalo. Nate Clements is a top corner on one side. On the other side, Terrence McGee can make some plays on the ball, but gets beat a fair amount as well. At safety the Bills have converted corner Troy Vincent who does not appear to be adjusting to safety and aging former Patriots player Lawyer Milloy who thus far this year has been a shell of his former self. Expect some opportunities down the field for the Patriots on this crew and a balanced attack against a defense that offers many opportunities both running and passing. The tight ends could have a particularly good day against the non-physical Vincent and the slowing Milloy.

THE BUFFALO OFFENSE VERSUS THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE
This could be a case of who wins when a resistable force meets a movable object? So far, the Patriots pass defense has been mostly horrific this season. They have given up huge plays in every game and only turned one interception. Meanwhile, on the other side, they’ll be facing the second worst passing offense in the NFL, one that hasn’t even thrown for 200 yards in any game yet this year.

At quarterback, Buffalo has journeyman Kelly Holcomb. Holcomb is competent enough, nothing spectacular, but he can be a game manager and complete some passes on you if you give him time. The Patriots need to create pressure as he is not nearly effective when you get him moving. It’ll be interesting to see if the Patriots continue their use of Dan Klecko as a rush end this week. He showed some promise last game in that role. With Patriots defensive linemen Jarvis Green, Marquise Hill, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren all showing up on the injury report this week, its worth keeping an eye on whether most of these player dress Sunday night as it will be critical to getting a rush on Holcomb and preventing him from being effective.

Given their own struggles and notwithstanding the Patriots struggles, it seems far more likely that on offense, the Bills game plan will be to throw as little as possible, save for a few surprises here and there, and try a heavy dose of running back Willis McGahee. If he gets in a rhythm, the Bills will hope to keep the game close and win it at the end. The newly reordered Patriots linebacking unit will be the key to making sure this strategy does not take hold. The Patriots absolutely have to be disciplined on first and second downs and not allow an established running game to gash them. This will be the key. If they can keep the Bills in a lot of 3rd and 5 or longer situations, they’ll cause turnovers and win this game in a blow out. If you start seeing a lot of 3rd and 3s or 3rd and 1 early on and as the game moves along, fans should be worried because a good, physical runner like McGahee will convert most of those to keep drives alive and insure the game is close at the end.

The Patriots should try a different lineup at linebacker with Roosevelt Colvin gettin a chance to be a full-time player finally, three years after he signed. Willie McGinest and Chad Brown will be chipping in at the other outside spot. All three are playmakers who have to begin to cause more disruption for the Patriots to return to their former defensive glory. Inside, of course, all eyes will be on returning heart and sole linebacker Tedy Bruschi, coming back from a mild stroke in the offseason. Put inside with Mike Vrabel and Monty Beisel, we should know how effective this new look will be shutting down the run as McGahee is a solid running back.

In the secondary, it should prove interesting to see if the Patriots can improve their play against what are generally good receivers for Buffalo that for whatever reason have not clicked in the passing game so far. Look for the unit to be better than it was before the bye with corner Randall Gay returning and new signee Arturo Freeman getting comfortable at safety. The other safety, Eugene Wilson, with two more weeks to get used to running the reconfigured unit should improve as well. If the Patriots front seven can get pressure against the below average Buffalo offensive line, and GDRV thinks they will, the Patriots finally should start to see some of the interceptions that have been so sorely missing this year.

THE PATRIOTS SPECIAL TEAMS VS. THE BUFFALO SPECIAL TEAMS
The Bills have an outstanding special teams unit. Their returners, Terrence McGee and Jonathan Smith, are among the best in the league. They are solid in coverage. Kicker Rian Lindell has outstanding range and punter Brian Moorman is one of the three best punters in the NFL. Buffalo special teams coach Bobby April is one of the best special teams coaches in the league and always has top units. This is no exception. The Patriots do not want this game to be close, because they could lose it on special teams if it is as that is the one area Buffalo has a clear advantage.

All in all, I see the week off greatly benefitting the Patriots. They are a better team than Buffalo. They are at home. They will have the emotional edge with the return of Tedy Bruschi. They know how important division games are in the NFL. And they’ll win easy 30-13.

Patriots at Denver: Too Little Too Late

It would be a waste of time to spend too much time breaking down all the players and units which struggled yesterday for the Patriots against Denver. There are so many of the players who played poorly, it really would become repetitive. Suffice to say, the Patriots limp into the bye at 3-3 follwing what was mostly a very ugly loss. While conventional wisdom has been that 3-3 wouldn’t really be a horrible place for the Patriots to be at this point, given the tough schedule they faced early on, its not really the record that is troubling. Its how really bad they have been on defense. No matter how much easier the schedule gets from here on out, they’re going to lose some of the games fans and observers have chalked up as wins unless there is a serious and immediate turn around in the performance of the defense.

Some of the blame for the performance of the defense so far has to be placed at the top on the coaches. Bill Belichick did not name an offensive coordinator this offseason to replace the departed Charlie Weis and, as strange as it sounds, that decision may have actually had a trickle down negative effect on the defense. The reasoning there is that, by keeping himself heavily involved in the offense, Belichick’s considerable knowledge and coaching ability on the defensive side of the ball isn’t being as effectively utilized as it could be.

Belichick decided in the offseason that the offensive coaching triumverate of Josh McDaniels, Brian Daboll and Dante Scarnecchia could not handle the offense on their own. While its true two of those coaches are younger and inexperienced, it appears Belichick miscalculated by being afraid of taking the training wheels off of them. The offense has been far better than the defense and from what one can tell of McDaniels and Daboll, there was plenty of reason to trust they could handle replacing Weis. It appears the coach who actually needed help and Belichick’s expertise was on the other side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini.

There has been little impressive about anything Mangini has done to date. The defense always seems to be one step behind the offenses. They’re beat repeatedly by the same or similar plays. Lineup changes have come too slow. There appears to be confusion on that unit at times. Mangini’s defensive play calls leave questions as well. In the offseason, Mangini was asked what were the differences, if any, between him and former coordinator Romeo Crennell. The one difference Mangini seemed to point to was he believed in being a bit more aggressive on defense at times.

Well, lets take a look at just the first long pass to Denver wide receiver Rod Smith yesterday. Early in the second quarter and leading 3-0, Mangini calls an all out blitz that left only four guys alone in coverage This was called on about the thirty on the Denver side of the field. The down and distance was 2nd and 5. Predictably, Denver picks it up and cornerback Duane Starks never stood a chance versus the veteran speedy receiver Smith. You can’t cover a guy one on one down the field like that all day. Nobody could. Result? A long pass inside the five and a touchdown shortly thereafter.

So why did Mangini call it? That isn’t Patriots football. That isn’t what’s brought them to three Super Bowl victories in four years. Crennell wouldn’t blitz there. He was patient. He made the offenses work. Take away the plays down the field. Make them dump it off. Make them go on drives of 10, 12 or 15 plays. Eventually they’ll screw up. Or fumble. Or get frustrated and throw it into coverage. Do not blitz the house on the road in the second quarter in a 3-0 game. Its simple. And the Patriots wonder why they’re not getting turnovers? Its hard to get turnovers when the opposing teams are regularly ripping off 50 yard gains.

When Crennell got the lead, that is when they’d blitz. Sure there were exceptions to this rule when a certain team didn’t handle the blitz well. An occasional well timed blitz when something opens up earlier is fine. But Crennell was patient. He’d sit in a zone or cover two all day and make the opposing quarterback pick you apart. Make you work. Then when it was third and long or midway through the fourth quarter and the opponent had to pass to make up a two score deficit, that’s when Crennell would attack. That is when he’d come after them. He knew they’d be passing then. It played into the Patriots hands. Even the great Peyton Manning couldn’t do anything but throw up his hands in frustration at that type of Crennell defense.

Its not all Mangini’s fault. The defensive line performance to date has been poor. The Patriots have 11 sacks through 6 games. That is not going to get it done. I’d prefer a return to the old philosophy. Maybe then the defensive linemen will know help isn’t coming on the rush. They will know its up to them to get it done. No blitzer is going to break free because no one else is coming. If Mangini wants to mix in an occasional linebacker blitz or even a safety up the middle, fine. But wait until third down or late in the game. Don’t be overly aggressive. He’s just leaving his defensive backs on islands out there and they’re getting killed. I’d also suggests its time Bill Belichick hands McDaniels and Daboll the keys on offense and comes to Mangini’s assistance on defense.

Its worth a note to say not everything was negative about yesterday. There were a couple positives. Patrick Pass continued his excellent play on offense and he has been a true inspiration this season. One wishes Amos Zereoue’s seven carries had gone Pass’ way yesterday, however, as it was apparent Pass was more up to the task running the ball. On defense, Dan Klecko came in in the second half and did a fine job. He even supplied some pressure. The Patriots spotted him at end rather than his normal position of nose tackle and he looked more comfortable there. Given his size limitations, this may finally be the spot he fits at best and he does have some quickness that could perhaps help in future games.

Mike Vrabel was tried out at inside linebacker and initial results looked positive, with Roosevelt Covin moving in at Vrabel’s spot outside. This change should be permanent. Chad Brown has simply shown beyond a shadow of a doubt he is no longer an every down player, particularly inside. Brown may still be able to an effective player in a spotted role, such as a third down backer in the mold of Roman Phifer last year. He has coverage and pass rush ability. But he can not play every down anymore. He can not play inside at all on first or second down and it was folly to even attempt to do so this year. If spotted here and there, Brown may start making plays as he is a talented guy. But his starting days should be over.

Monty Beisel at the other inside spot has not been great either. But he has been better than Brown. In general, he does a good job on most plays but the occasional whiff on a tackle makes him stick out to anyone watching. With Pro Bowler Tedy Bruschi coming back from an offseason mild stroke, it shouldn’t be long until Beisel is also in a reserve role and he may be above average as a reserve.

In the secondary, it would be helpful to move Randall Gay, who returned from injury yesterday, back into the starting lineup. With two weeks of preparation, newly signed veteran safety Arturo Freeman should be moved into the starting lineup as well. He is a solid player the Patriots were lucky to find available and who is still relatively young. He has started on some real good defenses in the past and has some playmaking ability. He’s not Rodney Harrison, but he’s a solid veteran alternative.

The final three positive notes about yesterday’s game were Asante Samuel seemed to rebound from his horrendous game against Atlanta. He was on the whole solid yesterday. Josh Miller continues his fine run of punting this year. He has had an excellent season. The final positive is GDRV was encouraged the Patriots did not quit. They did make a run in the game. They did play hard until the final whistle. One just wishes they had shown the intensity they showed from early in the third quarter on from the start of the game. This is really the third week in a row they’ve played half a game. Against San Diego they played an okay first half. Against Atlanta they played solid first and third quarters out of the locker room. And yesterday they played pretty well in the second half.

But one shouldn’t go overboard about the Patriots “glorious” comeback yesterday. Anyone who does is fooling themseleves in not seeing the true problems this team is displaying right now. The comeback was nice, but they had dug themselves too much of a hole from their horrid play at the start for it to matter. It was too little, too late. Additionally, it was somewhat dictated by Denver calling off the dogs and trying to just kill the game. Any thought this “comeback” will automatically carry over after the bye is off base. It won’t unless the Patriots carry over their preparation and effort on all levels, coaching and playing, when they start up again at home versus Buffalo in two weeks.

PATRIOTS AT DENVER PREVIEW

The Patriots travel out to Invesco Field in Denver this week in the last game before their bye week and the end of the grueling start to their season. A win would send the still banged-up Patriots into the bye with a very respectable 4-2 record given what they have faced. A loss, while not devastating, would hurt in that it would come against what is certain to be an AFC playoff rival. That being said, it appears the Patriots will have some opportunities to make plays on both sides of the ball this week.

Patriots Offense Vs. Denver Defense
On offense, the Patriots should have the chance to make plays both running and passing this week. Running the ball, the Patriots will come up against a Denver defense that is fifth in the NFL against the run. Denver’s defensive line certainly has a lot of talent on it. A lot of it, however, has been underachieving talent in the past. Guys like Courtney Brown and Gerrard Warren, both of whom start for Denver, came into the NFL highly touted guys and very high draft picks. Both have been somewhat rejuvenated in Denver, particularly Warren who has two sacks and has been disruptive. Also on the front line is Trevor Pryce, who is a top-notch NFL player and has had an outstanding career. The only problem is he is coming off major back surgey that kept him out of all but two games last year. He’s been sluggish so far this year and has yet to accumulate a sack. Against the run, these guys can be handled and I expect to see the Pats to try to keep it balanced. Corey Dillon with twenty plus carries should afford the Patriots a good opportunity to win.

The best part of the Denver defense is its linebackers. They have three very good, very fast guys who start. They are Ian Gold, Al Wilson and D.J. Williams. Gold is a speedy coverage linebacker, Wilson is a tackle machine in the run game and Williams is a super-athlete who is good all around and may be among the fastest linebackers in the NFL. The Patriots are probably better off trying a power running attack with a lead blocker on this group. That being said, looking at the talent in the front seven for Denver, its not an overwhelming group despite the good stats they have produced so far. The Patriots should be able to run the ball.

They also should be able to throw it. The Denver secondary scares nobody. Champ Bailey is a good corner, no doubt. But he is also banged up and listed as questionable. Additionally, although good, he is slightly overrated and the Patriots can compete throwing on his side. On the other side is a 5’8″ rookie Darrent Williams who is confident and cocky. He’s played pretty well so far, but this is a matchup the Patriots may be able to exploit repeatedly Sunday. Look particularly if they can get the physical David Givens matched up with the smallish Williams. Nickle back Lenny Walls the Patriots torched a number of times back in 2003 when these teams met. John Lynch and Nick Ferguson are the safeties and both are solid players, but not spectacular cover guys. I expect the Patriots to move the ball in the air as well and if they do not turn it over they should have no trouble scoring some points.

THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE VS. THE DENVER OFFENSE
Denver, as they always have, likes to try to establish the run. They have used a combination of running backs so far. A look at the guys they got doesn’t exactly strike fear in these eyes. Mike Anderson is a solid back who lacks great speed, but is physical and will work for the tough yards. He has good cutting ability and can find an opening if its there. He can catch a pass if called upon. The other main back, Tatum Bell is a skinny speed burner. Lacking any power whatsoever as a runner, he still can burn a defense with his speed, which is world class. He is unlike any back Denver has had in their glory years because he simply can not run with power. Still he’s dangerous because of his speed if he can get a corner or out in space. He has had fumble troubles in the past and the Patriots should try to exploit that.

The Denver offensive line is a strength, as it usually is. However, it may not be quite as strong as the units they have had in the past. Long time offensive line coach Alex Gibbs has moved on and is now with Atlanta. Their best player on the line, Tom Nalen, is aging and not quite the player he once was. Ben Hamilton is another good player up front, however. The other three guys don’t blow anyone away, though, and the Patriots talented, physical and big defensive line should match up well assuming everyone is healthy and makes the trip.

Quarterback Jake Plummer can make plays both running and throwing. He’s dangerous when he is rolling as he could take off and run for a first down or hit a play down the field throwing. Given the Patriots secondary troubles, this is a major area of concern. However, Plummer is mistake prone and will force throws when pressured. The Patriots simply have to do a better job making Plummer rush his decisions this week or he’ll kill them. If they can get guys in on him, they should end their turnover drought. Its unclear to me how to best do that, by blitzing or hoping your linemen dominate the individual matchups. Unfortunately, the latter has thus far proven disappointing this year for the Patriots and they may have to try to get a bit creative with some blitz schemes to try to disrupt and bother Plummer.

The Denver receiving corp is nowhere near as impressive as its been in years past. Rod Smith is still there and is still a solid NFL weapon, but he lacks his old explosiveness. Ashley Lelie can make plays, has speed and size, and can get deep but is inconsistent. The backups are average guys and not impressive. The tight ends, Stephen Alexander and Jeb Putzier are pass catching types, though the Broncos haven’t looked too much in this direction so far this year. Denver head coach Mike Shannahan does involve his tight ends in the passing game, however, and the Patriots will have to look for this in the Denver game plan given some of the coverage struggles of their linebackers and safeties.

THE PATRIOTS VS. DENVER ON SPECIAL TEAMS
The Patriots have shown improvement in this area in recent weeks after a poor start. Bethel Johnson has looked good on kick returns, as has Ellis Hobbs. Back in 2003, the Patriots got a huge kick return in Denver from Bethel Johnson that led to a score just before halftime and which shifted momentum to the Patriots in a game they came back to win. Denver kicker Jason Elam is a top-notch kicker, particularly in Denver. Punter Todd Sauerbraun is among the top punters in the NFL. Darrent Williams is dangerous on returns and is averaging over 13 yards per punt return.

The bottom line on this game is the Patriots match up well with Denver. That isn’t to say it won’t be a tough game. Any game in Denver will be tough, given the crowd, atmosphere, mile high altitude and the fact Denver usually plays well there. But the Patriots should be able to move the ball as effectively as they did last week, if not more so. Denver’s offense, while efficient and having avoided turnovers so far, isn’t the explosive Denver offense of years past. I see the Patriots cruising to a fairly easy victory this week 30-17.

Patriots at Atlanta: A Needed Win

The Patriots traveled down to Georgia yesterday in need of a win in the worst way. Doing just enough to win and far from perfect, they managed to get one. Going into the game, there were questions being raised in all quarters whether the Patriots reign as the NFL standard was over. And while questions remain about the team and their future this season overall, they served notice it was too early to right write off by pulling it out 31-28 once again behind an Adam Vinatierri field goal at the end.

In many ways, they played half a game. Dominating in the first and third quarters, being dominated in the second and fourth. Moving at will on offense, allowing Atlanta to do the same when they were on offense. But a win is a win and in the NFL, there is no more valuable a commodity. The bottom line is, if it helps get the Patriots in the playoffs three months from now, the artistic success of yesterday’s effort will matter not. And how they do then will largely depend on how they’re playing then, not how they played yesterday. That will surely be different, for better or for worse. The important thing for now is its another notch in their belt, a 2-1 record on the road so far and one step closer to their goals. So in that sense, there isn’t a whole lot to complain about an October win over a team that was in a conference championship game last year and playing at home. Not bad at all.

THE PATRIOTS ON OFFENSE
Tom Brady is just a phenomenal player. He has such command of this offense now, the Patriots really are difficult to stop. And yesterday was no exception. He quarterbacked the team to nearly 500 yards offense. He made very few poor throws and lots of great ones and proved once again he is the best quarterback in the NFL.

And he wasn’t alone yesterday in productive days on offense either. Corey Dillon had his best day of the season and showed he was far from done being an elite back. Patrick Pass chipped in with some timely runs, catches and good blocks. The line looked as if it was begining to gell, though the lack of push on a couple short yardage plays was disconcerting. But they seemed to improve. Both rookies on the left side, Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins had good and bad moments. Kaczur got called for a penalty and gave up a sack. Mankins didn’t get much push on the short yardage plays. But both overall did acceptably considering they’re not even halfway through their first NFL season. Kaczur in particular had a couple plays he really mauled his man. On the right side, Stephen Neal had easily his best day of the year and more resembled the athletic, mobile mauler he was most of last year.

At the tight end position, we saw a spectacular day from Daniel Graham. Sometimes its easy to forget what a talented player Graham can be. Among the top blocking tight ends in the NFL, the Patriots use him a lot in that capacity. But with size, speed and tackle breaking ability, he also can be an extremely dangerous weapon in the passing game. He showed how difficult to bring down he is for smaller defensive backs on numerous plays when he got up a head of steam. Tops on the list was the jaw dropping run he made down the right sideline for the Patriots second TD early in the game, leaving in his wake the twisted wreckage of helpless Falcon defenders.

Another Patriots tight end, Ben Watson, had a nice long touchdown to open the second half. But he was inconsistent overall. Called for two penalties and appearing out of position on another play, he needs to get the mental aspect of the game down. Amazing as it is, he is actually even more talented in the passing game than Graham and has shown it in flashes this year, including the long touchdown play. But he needs to eliminate the negative plays, the fumbles, drops and penalties that have plagued him this year to really develop into a top player. After missing almost all of last year to injury, this is essentially his rookie year and he should improve. It would be helpful, however, if the process could speed up a bit.

The receivers had a good day. No obvious drops from any of them and some big catches from Deion Branch. A long 55 yard pass for a TD to Bethel Johnson reminded us the amazing speed and talent he posseses. The Patriots receiver corp is talented and deep. All five guys have their strengths. But Johnson is such a weapon, the Patriots should attempt to utilize him a bit more in the offensive game. These eyes have been impressed with his improvement this year in the limited opportunities he’s gotten, including nice work on special teams he may not have been able or willing to do last year or his rookie year. He’s earned his chance to be a bit more involved in the offense.

THE PATRIOTS ON DEFENSE
Unfortunately, it was more of the same for this unit. There was marginal improvement here from the San Diego game, but it was minimal. The defense did get a better pass rush going and did a better job overall on the run, though they missed some tackles and were gashed on a few plays as well. Jarvis Green probably had the best day of anyone up front and showed he continues to be a very underrated player.

At linebacker, the coverage was improved, but missed tackles continued to be an issue at times. Chad Brown missed a number of tackles that was surprising given his past as a Pro Bowl player. Monty Beisel in the middle did seem to have a better week than last week, though it was far from perfect. At least it was a step in the right direction. On the outside, the news was far better. Roosevelt Colvin had a nice day and a big sack. Willie McGinest also had a nice game, though he went out late with an injury that could further hurt the defense if it lingers. Tully Banta-Cain came in for him and held up well.

In the secondary, there was some improvement and one major drop off. Cornerback Duane Starks improved this week after his absymal game the week before. Unfortunately, the other corner Asante Samuel had perhaps his worst week as a Patriot ever, which kept the Atlanta passing game humming. In the secondary, Eugene Wilson was better, but still not the player he has been in the past. Guss Scott at safety had his moments, but missed some tackles as well. Rookie safety James Sanders showed some energy and skills but did miss one easy tackle on a dump off to Falcons back Warrick Dunn where Sanders had the ankles wrapped up and allowed Dunn to shake loose. But overall it was a decent showing for the rookie. This unit may continue to be inconsistent, but as cornerbacks Chad Scott, Randall Gay and Tyrone Poole return from injury, look for it to steadily improve.

The Patriots again forced no turnovers. They continue to only have one interception all year, an amazingly low stat. They’ll need to start forcing some, a strength in past years, if they are to go anywhere this year. The Patriots have given up ten touchdown passes this year to one interception. By contrast, last year for the full season they only gave up eighteen touchdowns passing and had twenty interceptions. That ratio simply has to improve, as does the ability to force fumbles which was a strength of two of the players they lost from last year, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison.

Along with the injuries, the secondary also has seen their coach take over the defense as defensive coordinator and that may be contributing to some continuity issues the Patriots have back there. Additionally, the Patriots only have seven sacks so far this season. More pressure can only help the secondary and the coaching staff simply has to figure out ways to get more of it on third and long plays. In time, one has to expect the pass defense will improve as they have talented players and coaches that have gotten it done in years past. But it certainly is not guaranteed they’ll be able to and this is the most glaring area the Patriots have struggled in this year. The pass defense, if it doesn’t improve, could become this year’s version of the 2002 run defense, a major problem for that squad that eventually caused them to miss the playoffs.

THE PATRIOTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
A decent week once again. Good coverage and punts helped out. The unit gave up no real long returns. The kickoff return team did produce a decent return to help set up the winning drive. Adam Vinatierri continues to not miss when it matters. This unit is showing promise.

Next week, its on to Denver in a game that could set up the Patriots nicely heading into their bye week. Check back later in the week for a preview of that matchup. Until then.

PATRIOTS AT ATLANTA PREVIEW

The Patriots travel down to Atlanta to play the Falcons this Sunday in what is yet another tough game placed at the front end of the Patriots schedule. This game should prove another test to the banged up Patriots and challenge their ability to overcome the myriad of injuries they have.

THE FALCONS OFFENSE VS. THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE
Of course any discussion of the Falcons offense begins with Michael Vick at quarterback. As every follower of the NFL knows, Vick is a tremendously talented athlete who is capable of breathtaking feats from the quarterback position. He can do it all, throw, run and make plays. He possesses one of the strongest arms in the NFL and on occasion can throw some of the most impressive balls you’ll ever see. Running the ball, he is about as big a weapon as there is in the NFL in open space and really challenges any defense to contain him. He is, alas, inconsistent however. He has bouts of inaccuracy, suffers occasional poor decision making and can be turnover prone. The key to defensing him for the Patriots is to keep him in the pocket, do not allow him to step up and run in space up the middle and force him to be a pocket QB. That is, ultimately, much easier said than done.

In 2001 when the Patriots played the Falcons, Vick came in for an injured Chris Chandler and faced a merciless blitzing defense that sacked him repeatedly. Of course, Vick is better and improved since then. He will be a challenge to stop. Vick comes in with an injured knee that shouldn’t keep him out. If it does, however, Atlanta has a capable backup in Matt Schaub. Schaub is a tall, strong-armed kid who can move around also and ran Atlanta’s offensive system in college at Virginia. Atlanta is certainly capable of being competitive on offense with Schaub at the helm and the Patriots will need to avoid letting up if he comes in.

Atlanta is first and foremost a running team. The Patriots will absolutely have to do a much better job this week than last week or they will be run over by Falcon running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. I believe the Patriots will go all out to stop the run by plugging the gaps that were open last week, avoiding overpursuit and tackling better this week. If Atlanta becomes one dimensional, they’ll be in trouble offensively. Monty Beisel and Chad Brown in particular will need to play a lot better filling the middle than they did last week. Also, any overpursuit on Dunn and he has the speed and moves to take it a long way in a hurry. This also is easier said than done, however. As they were last year, Atlanta is number one in the NFL in rushing. They have averaged over 200 yards per game rushing so far this year. Given their struggles last week, that is a pretty scary number for the Patriots.

The best receiver on the Falcons, like the Chargers last week, is their tight end. In this case, its Alge Crumpler. Patriots safeties Eugene Wilson and Guss Scott will again be challenged trying to hold off Crumpler. The return of rookie safety James Sanders from injury for the Patriots should help. He is more similar to Rodney Harrison than Guss Scott and could help in defensing the running game. One can not expect too much, however, as it will be Sanders’ first regular season NFL game. At corner, the Patriots should have a bit of an easier time with the Falcons wide receiver crew than they had last week as this group isn’t quite as talented. Michael Jenkins is probably Atlanta’s most dangerous weapon as he has speed to get downfield. Brian Finneran is a tall receiver the Falcons like on third down. The Patriots need to keep their eye on him as a first option in those situations. The Falcons line is capable, but not outstanding. The Patriots could have a matchup advantage if their defensive line can play to their ability this week and if most show up rather than being out with injuries.

PATRIOTS OFFENSE VS. FALCONS DEFENSE
This will be a challenge for the Patriots as well. With two rookies on the left side of the Patriots offensive line, Falcon lineman Patrick Kerney could prove especially dangerous. He is an excellent pass rusher and a master of the blindside strip sack. Fortunately, no other Falcon lineman is a huge pass rushing threat, so the Patriots may be able to afford to double up on Kerney.

The Falcons linebacker crew is a talented bunch. Keith Brooking is a very good, tackling machine and playmaker for the Falcons. He is their leader. New signee Edgerton Hartwell cost the Falcons a bundle in the offseason, but so far has looked out of position and been disappointing for them. The third linebacker, Demorrio Williams is the type of speed, undersized lineman the physical Patriots’ offensive linemen may be able to overpower. Atlanta also has a tendancy to overpursue in their attacking style defense. A reverse or two to Deion Branch or Tim Dwight might work this week for the Patriots. The Patriots need to establish the running game this week and be more committed to it as well. The Falcons give up 4.5 yards per rush, this may be the perfect week for it.

The Falcons defensive backfield features an outstanding player in DeAngelo Hall. In his second year, he is on his way to being one of the top corners in the NFL. He is still subject to occasional mental mistakes that get him beat deep and its possible we’ll see one Sunday. The other corner Jason Webster can be beat as can the nickle backs, including former Patriots cast-off Christian Morton. The safeties are average, though Bryan Scott has good skills and holds it all together back there. The Patriots should be able to throw the ball very effectively against the Falcons in the perfect conditions of the dome.

SPECIAL TEAMS
The Falcons feature average special teams. Decent kickers in Todd Peterson and Toby Gowin. DeAngelo Hall is dangerous in the return game. The Falcons also do a nice job covering kicks only giving up 20.2 yards on kickoffs and 7.1 on punts.

GAME PREDICTION
This is a game which certainly lends itself to waffling on predicting a result. On the one hand, the Patriots are very banged up, seemed to be somewhat exposed last week and are facing a very good team on the road. On the other hand, they are the Patriots and if any team deserves the benefit of the doubt they can rebound, play tough on the road and pull out a hard victory when everyone is doubting them, it is them. But this week, they seem to have just too many injuries to do it. Too much is going against them at the moment. They will rebound and prove themselves the high character, tough, resilliant team they are at some point this year. It just won’t be this week. Falcons win 27-23.

San Diego at Patriots: One Bad Game Or The End?

Yesterday it really was as bad as it looked for the Patriots. The Carolina loss a few weeks ago, in contrast, wasn’t the poor performance as many made it out to be. Really, the story of that game was turnovers and penalties, a problem the Patriots have had in early season games before, but have generally eliminated as the season went along. When one really looked at that game closely, there was the sense with some cleaning up of things and play they would be fine. They didn’t get tremendously out played in that game from a match up stand point. When they went on to beat Pittsburgh on the road the following week, it seemed the Pats were rapidly overcoming some of their early season mistakes and beginning to gel.

But this week’s game was different. San Diego was just better than the Patriots. And if they played again next week, San Diego would win again. Before we get to the Patriots and their problems, however, a word about San Diego. There is a tendancy among fans of the NFL to overlook the abilities and performances of the opponent and focus on their own team. That phenomenon exists just as surely among Patriot fans. But the simple fact is, there are other options as to why a team loses than they weren’t focused, or they were flat, or the offensive coordinator didn’t call the right plays, or the star quarterback was off his game. Fans forget the other teams can play a bit too. They have good players. They are all professionals. They are prepared and with a good plan many times. They can play the game. And sometimes they are just better. No more complicated than that. Its not that one team wanted it more. Or one team overlooked the opponent. One team was just better and won the game.

And that is what happened yesterday. San Diego is a very good team that came in on an offensive roll and executed perfectly. Additionally, Marty Schottenheimer as a coach is as well-suited to match up with Bill Belichick and his team as any coach in the league and its borne out by his winning record vs. Belichick, including 2-0 versus him since Belichick became New England’s coach. The reason for this is Schottenheimer teams are always physical, smash mouth teams that play solid defense and don’t make a lot of mistakes. Much like Bill Belichick teams. And both are excellent coaches. Both always have their teams as prepared as can be. But Schottenheimer is the type of coach and produces the types of teams that won’t back down from a Bill Belichick team. Teams that will continue to do what they want to do regardless of what is thrown at them and the type of physical running teams that have at times given the Patriots trouble off and on even during this tremendous five year run of success. And when you add in the mix a team with good players humming on all cylinders as San Diego was yesterday, well, you see what happens. And it will happen again with other good teams unless the Patriots can improve their level of play. Not their focus, or how much they “want it”, but simply how well they actually play the game. Because the level they played at yesterday simply won’t compete with teams like San Diego.

THE PATRIOTS ON OFFENSE
In thinking about the first four games of this season, the offense has not been the major problem with the Patriots so far. Sure, the turnovers and penalties have been major game killers, but they have tended in the past to clean those up as the season went along. Assuming they did clean that up this year as in past seasons, the offense has moved the ball fairly well for the most part up until the second half of yesterday’s game. And while there is some criticism of the offense that can be levied for yesterday’s second half performance, the far larger problem was simply one of opportunity. The Patriots barely had the ball in the second half. And they were largely out of their game plan by the time they did have the ball. There isn’t much to read into the performance really and in some ways the overall performance improved. Seventeen points in the first half was more than acceptable. Though it could be said it was a big disappointment they could not score a touchdown with three chances to do so from the six before the half. These eyes thought they had time to and should have mixed in one run there during that sequence as San Diego was clearly spread out expecting the pass. But in any event, its hard to complain about seventeen points or the first half performance of the offense. There was also some spark in the running game, though the game situation dictated they could not establish that in the second half, nor did they have much success in the limited second half chances they did get. There were again too many negative plays, as was a problem in the Carolina game. But they did largely eliminate penalties on offense and avoided turnovers until two meaningless late game interceptions when the game was out of reach. All in all, this game really can not be laid at the feet of the offense. Had they had the ball a bit more in the second half, one has to think they would have strung together at least a few good drives as they did in the first half and kept the game competitive. As stated last week, the I-formation seemed a bit missing from their arsenal and the Pats offense does seem a bit more physical running the ball out of that formation. But it wasn’t a major issue and they did improve a bit running out of one back sets. Individually, Patrick Pass had a good game, David Givens continued to be an excellent option at receiver and Nick Kaczur generally held his own for his first start.

THE PATRIOTS ON DEFENSE
This is where the game was lost. In thinking back over training camp and the first three games, perhaps there have been warning signs all along abut this unit that have been overlooked. A lot of the focus among fans and media seemed to be on the offense. There was worry about the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, about who was calling the plays now or how many people, about whether the younger coaches could step up, about whether Corey Dillon was getting older and other such concerns. The defense has largely escaped such scrutiny. Sure, people lamented, rightfully so, the loss of Ted Bruschi and former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell. But there seemed to be a sense the Patriots were a bit more stacked on defense, had many veterans and winners to compensate on that side and had the horses, including some new veterans they brought in this year, who could step in for those losses. Conventional wisdom also seemed to suggest there was less reason to worry about new Defensive Coordinator Eric Mangini because he had been around a bit longer than those coaches taking over on offense. He had been through more wars, knew the system better, had gained some experience calling the Defense in 2000 and was generally more proven.

But, so far, its been an exceedingly underwhelming performance from Mangini and, perhaps, its time for Belichick to change things up a bit. At least by way of offering Mangini some more help. One gets the impression from following the Patriots that Belichick has been a little bit more involved with the offense this year and not as involved in defense. Of course they aren’t saying and we don’t know this for sure, but it is a general sense you get. And its understandable given the younger, inexperienced coaches that largely are running the offense. There is also the general impression Belichick has left much of the defensive work to Mangini, who has been in this system and with Belichick for nearly a decade now. If that is the case, Belichick may want to consider giving the reigns a bit more to quarterback coach Josh McDaniel on offense as de facto coordinator and offering his own expertise to the area that is his true forte, defense. He may need to do that real soon before that side of the ball manages to sink the Patriots season.

Because its been the defense so far that has been the most un-Patriot-like so far. In fact, if you really look at it, its been downright bad with perhaps brief periods of good play. Now, surely the loss of Rodney Harrison to injury last week and the loss of linebacker Tedy Bruschi have been really crippling for this defense. That can not be denied. But it wasn’t Guss Scott, Harrison’s replacement at safety, who cost them the game yesterday. Nor would have they won if they had Harrison. That is just too easy. There were too many other bad performances all around. Tops on the list is the other safety, Eugene Wilson, who continued his thus far disappointing season with his worst performance as a Patriot. He had a much poorer game than the green Scott. The corner play from Duane Starks was just as bad as well. The Chargers largely stayed away from Asante Samuel on one side, but repeatedly torched Starks on the other when they weren’t busy torching Wilson over the middle or the linebackers in the flats.

In the trenches, it started out okay, forcing a three and out on San Diego’s first series that appeared to show the Patriots linemen dominating the San Diego linemen. On the edges, Willie McGinest made a nice play on two reverses early in the game and batted down another pass as well. But, overall, slowly San Diego began to impose their will on the Patriots to the point by the second half the Patriots had no answers whatsoever.

There have been some comments among the media and fans that yesterday’s performance was similar to some of the losses in 2002 when teams just ran it down the Patriots throat almost at will. I disagree. In 2002, two things happened. One, runners got out on the edge against an aging, slow Patriots defense, particularly in the secondary, such that you had a lot of jail break runs by runners. Really long, 30 plus yard runs happened frequently that season. The other thing is, teams literally could convert simply by running. In 2002, by the time they reached the last three games of the year versus Tennessee, the Jets and Miami, the Patriots were so exposed teams were running draws on 3rd and 7 and routinely converting.

That is not what happened yesterday. Chargers running back LaDanian Tomlinson’s longest run was 11 yards. And the Patriots did get the Chargers into multiple third down situations that were converted through throwing the ball. Tomlinson got his 134 yards, true enough. But at the moment he is far and away the best running back in the league. He is a truly outstanding player. He was going to get his yards against even the championship Patriots defenses of years past. And many of yesterday’s yards came late in the game when the Patriots defense had been worn down. And the reason they were worn down wasn’t so much their ineffective run defense, but because they had been on the field so long due to third down conversions that came off passing plays. One feeds into the other, third down conversions spawns weakened run defense. But the true root of the problem was the inability to stop San Diego from converting throwing the ball when they did get into those situations. That is where the worst breakdowns in the defense occurred. They simply could not get off the field. Had they been able to do that, there would have been better run defense in the second half than there was simply because the defense would have been fresher.

One place to put the blame on the conversion rate of San Diego is on the defensive line. They got virtually no pressure on Brees at all. To make matters worse, the linebackers had a horrible day in coverage. In the NFL, defenses simply can not let guys slip out of the backfield on 3rd and 5 and convert over and over again. Where was the chucking of the backs out of the backfield? Where was the shadowing of Tomlinson? Wasn’t there anything that could be done to change things up and get a guy in on Brees? Apparently not.

But again, give San Diego credit. Brees was flawless all day. Tomlinson knows how to find creases running the ball. San Diego’s receivers and tight ends made some excellent catches and knew how to get open. They played at a very high level, as they did their previous game versus the Giants, and flat outplayed the Patriots defense most of the day and out game planned them as well.

THE PATRIOTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Probably the highlight of this game was the special teams play. Aside from the early missed field goal by Adam Vinatierri, the special teams had a generally good day. They got a long return from Bethel Johnson and other decent kick returns. One of the few punts the Patriots forced resulted in another good return from Tim Dwight. The coverage on San Diego returns seemed much improved. This was the most encouraging development of the day.

WHERE THE PATRIOTS GO FROM HERE?
Despite the drumbeat of the media, the Patriots are not done yet. As bad as they looked, as injured as they are, as much of a transition as they’re going through, they still have as much talent on the roster as any other team in the league, if not more than any other team. And eventually they’ll start to get some of it back. They’ll get back Matt Light and Kevin Faulk on offense eventually. They’ll get back Randall Gay and Tyrone Poole defensively. They may even get back Tedy Bruschi at some point.

But what they do face is a ticking clock. A lot of the Patriots problems can be traced to system or continuity issues. Whether its Monty Beisel and Chad Brown adjusting to the defense at linebacker or Duane Starks and the rest of the new people in the secondary adjusting to the defense and to each other, it can be corrected. These players are talented. And the new coaches and coaches in new roles are talented too. But there is much newness here in all areas, offense, defense, special teams and coaching. And it takes time. Unfortunately for them, however, they don’t have a ton of time. The NFL season comes and goes quickly and there is no guarantee the Patriots will mesh together in time, with all the changes and set backs they’ve had, to make a playoff run. At the beginning of the season, an analysis of the Patriots schedule suggested if they could get to 3-3, they had the talent, experience and coaching to then go on one of their typical runs by winning 9 out of their last 10 or something similar. That may have to be adjusted to if they can get to 6-6 or 7-5, they can take the division over the last four. If they can do that, they still have the core of championship players. They still have Bill Belichick. They still have Tom Brady. That gives them a puncher’s chance no matter what else they’re missing. The question is, can they get to 3-3 or 6-6 with the clock ticking? No doubt the Patriots will improve as the season goes along. The new coordinators will get more comfortable. Chad Scott, Guss Scott, Monty Beisel, Nick Kaczur, Starks and the rest of the additions will find their way better. But will it be enough? The good teams will improve too. The good teams always play their best in late November and December. Not on October 2nd. History suggests the Patriots will do it. They’ll get on one of their runs. They’ll pull it together. They’ll once again defy the critics. Too many people have doubted them before and been wrong to think their downfall is a sure thing. But if they do overcome, if they do make a run, it may end up being their biggest accomplishment yet because right now they are far from that great team that raised its third trophy in four years last February.