April 24, 2014

A Cautious Optimism

logoby Scott Benson
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It would be real easy for a yahoo like me to read too much into the Patriots decimation of the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football.

I think I’ll resist for now, or try to. Because it couldn’t be any more obvious that for these Patriots, at this time and place, Denver was the greatest matchup in the entire History of Matchups.

For me, it came down to this; the Patriots finally found a team even they could beat up.

Don’t get me wrong – good on the coaching staff that saw this path to a convincing victory, and double good on the players for carrying the game plan out with a dash of panache.

But my God, the Broncos are so small and so light that the even Pats o-line – on constant backpedal since Super Bowl XLII – could put someone else on their bicycle for once, clearing the way for a mind blowing 259 yards rushing. For the defense, Mike Vrabel charged off the edge like a lion again, applying consistent pressure to a rapidly retreating Denver pocket, and even more shocking than that, was often followed shortly thereafter by several other Patriots, including – are you sitting down – actual defensive linemen.

Smallish Denver, strangely going to a more bullish 3-4 on defense, was ripe for the picking and the teetering 3-2 Patriots – to their credit – picked bushels.

But it was more than just that, to be fair. The tackling was crisper, more (I’ll say it) violent; the pursuit more confident, but more urgent. The passion was palpable. The ball handling, on both sides of the line, was sublime. The decision-making, by all concerned, was sound as ever.

I said I’d try not to read too much into this win, and I fear I’m about to. Time to SWOT ‘em!

Reminder: SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.  

Strengths

Start with Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Heath Evans and the Patriots’ tight ends and receivers, who paved the way for a brilliant but brief 130 yard performance by Sammy Morris. I love the fact that New England knew they could beat up Denver and then went out and did it. 

Will they be able to do it to the next guy? That’s the question (especially if the effective Morris, a forward leaner from way back, is shelved for long). It’s clear the Broncos aren’t as stout as the Pats typical opponent, and I’m thinking of the division-leading Buffalo Bills here specifically, but also the Steelers and Titans.

Still, I think the Patriots have to try, even against those teams that will present a more formidable response to their newly physical approach. Show some backbone and be committed to it, for crissakes. You have to be able to run in order to do anything with Matt Cassel at quarterback.  

Anyway, it was nice to see a big offensive line performance for once, but the real strength behind this win for the Patriots came from the defensive front seven.

After an early issue with Michael Pittman and the stretch play on the Broncos first possessions, the Patriots linemen and linebackers took over the game and never let up.  While rookie Jerod Mayo helped bring Pittman under control, Vrabel and others tore at the edge of the Broncos’ pass protection and Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork (and a blitzing Tedy Bruschi) punched a hole in its center.

Yes, it was indeed fortuitous that Jay Cutler’s throwing hand struck Wilfork’s helmet on Denver’s first passing play, causing a finger injury that plagued the league’s most prolific passer for the rest of the evening (even forcing him away from the field for a moment). Cutler’s throws never had any zip after that.

But even if Cutler had managed to avoid the onrushing Wilfork, he would have still faced a tough night because the Patriots simply would not give him the same time to throw that they gifted to his rival Philip Rivers the week before.

The turnovers that resulted were hardly a coincidence.

Weaknesses

Matt Cassel was a very efficient 18-24, primarily with short passes that quickly put the ball on the perimeter, allowing the Patriots receivers to run after the catch.  The productive bubble screens and short routes to Randy Moss and Wes Welker served a dual purpose, helping Cassel to protect the ball and maintain possession throughout the night (the Pats held an eight minute advantage in time of possession when it was all over).

But there were six sacks, including five in the first half alone. Though a couple were the product of missed assignments (Billy Yates on one, and Sammy Morris on another), most resulted because of Cassel’s greatest weakness as a young quarterback; indecisiveness in the pocket.

Ron Jaworski showed instructional video early on that indicted Cassel’s vision downfield, and before long, we saw it unfold in real time when Cassel looked right through an open Ben Watson in an effort to get the ball further upfield, wherfe no one was open. A checkdown there would have given the Patriots a first down; instead, the inexperienced and indecisive Cassel dug them a hole when the Broncos pass rush enveloped him, as it was bound to do.

If the Patriots can’t keep young Cassel in 2nd and six, 3rd  and three situations with a balanced offense, we’ll see more results like San Diego’s and fewer like Denver’s.

Opportunities

The loss of Rodney Harrison rips a veteran presence from the center of the Pats defense, and it was just short of heartbreaking to see the resigned expression on his face as he was carted to the New England locker room. Even with his four game suspension due to HGH use last year, Harrison has served the Patriots with honor and distinction, and he deserved a better ending than this.

But his absence will present an opportunity for the young players that are, after all, collectively the closest thing the New England Patriots defense has to a future. If players like James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather don’t develop as their own men at some point (and Mayo and Gary Guyton and Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, et. al.), we’ll likely see the continuing devolution of the Patriots defense, with no end in sight.

Make no mistake on what’s at stake here; if the next generation of New England defenders don’t emerge, and soon, it becomes increasingly likely that the Patriots will not win another Super Bowl with Tom Brady.

Not to put any pressure on them or anything.

Threats

The flip side of that opportunity is that injuries in the here and now, especially to key players like Harrison, tear at whatever depth the Patriots have. In the first six games, they’ve lost their starting quarterback/figurehead, their starting halfback, and their starting safety and emotional leader. That means there’s almost no margin of error left anymore. It’s important that the young players get an opportunity to make their own mark, but further significant injuries to New England’s key veterans will leave them with no safety net at all.

Last point – after the win over the Broncos, head coach Bill Belichick lauded the team’s preparation in the days leading up to the game. It’s clear they came to the field Monday night with a purpose, backed up by an idea. It’s equally clear that in order to make anything of this season, they’ll have to do it again and again, as completely and as competently as they did on Monday night, for a minimum of ten consecutive weeks. If they don’t, they’ll be every bit as ‘done’ as their most pessimistic followers have suggested they already are.

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