December 7, 2016

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.

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