November 27, 2014

Boiling The Water

logoby Scott Benson
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Maybe next time they ought to come home between games.

Setting up camp on the campus of San Jose State University for a week didn’t do much to steel the Patriots for the San Diego Chargers, obviously. It’s hard to imagine a team that was less prepared to compete and win Sunday night.

Jet lag would have been an improvement.

The Patriots have another one of these two-game swings out west; in early December, they’ll make consecutive stops in Seattle and Oakland.

Make them come home in the interim. For that matter, make them change planes a half-dozen times on each trip. It can’t end any worse, because the acclimated Pats looked all too comfortable getting their asses handed to them Sunday night.

At times of crisis, some people boil water and tear up bed sheets for bandages. This is sort of like that. It’s a S.W.O.T. analysis of the loss to the Chargers (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) which is a common strategic planning method used to keep large groups busy with something while they’re waiting for catered lunch. Actually, it’s supposed to identify the internal and external challenges to the success or failure of a given venture. Including ones that are stumbling along at 3-2.

Somebody…boil some water!

Strengths

You saw the game – did you see any strength exhibited there? You’d have to go to the micro-level to find anything positive, and even then, the pickings were slim. Ty Warren beat double teams to get into the backfield a couple of times. Mark LeVoir was alert and fell on a fumble. I honest to God can’t think of anything else.

The greatest strength the Patriots have at the moment is the league they’re playing in. In the AFC, both Tennessee and Buffalo have gotten off to fast starts, but neither are exactly playoff-hardened groups. No one knows yet whether they will hold up over the long run. The Usual Suspects – Indy, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, San Diego, Denver – all have issues of their own, and there’s no thirteen or fourteen win team emerging yet. Certainly no sixteen win team (do you want to have a champagne toast when the Titans finally lose? Me neither.).

Point being is that even with another horrible performance under their belt (two out of five, by the way), the 3-2 Patriots still have time to gather themselves, if there’s anything to gather under all that mess we watched the other night. Fortunately for them, the rest of the NFL has done all it could to provide them with a level playing field on which to do so.

Weaknesses

No Patriots offensive lineman has fallen faster and farther than Dan Koppen. I challenge any NFL offense to succeed with a 296 lb. man flying through their backfield, limbs flailing, arms akimbo, feet kicking up dust (just like Elaine Benes), immediately after every snap. It looks for all the world as though he has been launched, which he probably has. The Patriots have to do something about Koppen, whose quickness and intelligence has now been neutralized by stronger forces, literally. I’m not sure what can be done right now, other than to plug Russ Hochstein in there, but over the long-term? I’d put it this way – do you really see the Patriots ever going on any kind of run again without first redefining and rebuilding their lines on both sides of the ball? Because whatever they’re doing now is not f#@king working. Whatever ‘enhancements’ they’ve made since they last won a Super Bowl – particularly to the offensive line scheme – are being countered by their opponents in increasingly bolder fashion.

Here’s the other thing from Sunday night. I agree, Deltha O’Neal was hardly inspirational in his defense of all those passes that went over his head.  Deltha O’Neal is not going to cause us to write home, ever. Deltha O’Neal was not a savvy signing at the wire; it was simply a marriage of last-second convenience between a declining veteran and a questionable secondary, the sort of bloodless transaction that often happens between desperate strangers at closing time.

Okay? It was all Deltha’s fault. Except it wasn’t, unless you believe that the safeties bear little responsibility for the deep part of the secondary. I think James Sanders might have worked himself into the camera shots of those long passes – once. Otherwise, there was only a single, miserable, beaten cornerback, be it O’Neal, Hobbs or Wheatley. Criminy. There are three safeties on the field for a lot of these plays, and not one of them can get close enough to the receiver to get on television?

Oddly, I attribute some of this to Rodney Harrison, the veteran safety turned faux linebacker who plays almost every play at the line of scrimmage these days. The fact is, I don’t know whether Rodney can hold down the back line anymore, but I do know that the guys they have doing it now can’t. Whatever advantage Harrison’s positioning is supposed to be creating, or whatever liability it’s supposed to be covering, is it more mission-critical than the wide-open barn door at the back of the secondary?

I’ll trade a few more completions to the opposing tight ends for a cutback on the throw-it-as-far-as-you-can crap. And if Harrison can’t be of any more help than Sanders and the others back there, then how the hell did the Patriots allow themselves to get in that position?

Look, the Patriots corners aren’t great, or even good. All the more reason not to leave them out on an island. The fifteen yard cushions are bad enough. By the way, since the deep secondary is no longer sacred ground, the Patriots should let their corners play up at the line of scrimmage, where they could at least punch the receivers in the nuts or something.

This brings me to Dean Pees, the Patriots defensive coordinator. Talk about things that aren’t working. Pees’ defense has become little more than a human blocking sled in the three seasons he’s been in charge. Yeah, the opposing offenses have to push, sometimes a little uphill, but if they just keep pushing, they’ll move the sled from one end zone to the other as many times as they like. There’s nothing there to stop them.

It’s funny that Foxbrough is thought to be a place of innovative defensive game planning, because the Patriots defense has become the worst sort of bland. Reactive rather than proavtive, they don’t do anything but trot out to their positions and then trot back. They’re just there, because somebody has to be there, it’s the rule. Anything that happens is someone else’s doing, not theirs. I think the worst part of every Patriots game is when, during an opponent’s drive, you realize that there isn’t any way in hell that anybody’s going to force a fumble or step in front of a pass or throw the other quarterback through the air. Nobody there is going to change the game; as mere observers, it can only pass them by. It would be hard to argue that Dean Pees’ rival coaches haven’t passed him by too.

All of this can’t be attributed to just one thing, of course; let’s just say if Belichick and Pioli had produced even respectable defensive players with the offensive draft picks they’ve chunked lately, things might not look so grim today.

I also wonder how about their modern-day personnel acumen when I see what’s become of Adalius Thomas, who was once a feared pass rusher.  Now, he’s twenty yards downfield chasing ballcarriers when he’s not lost somewhere else. There’s no explosive sacks, no tackles for loss, no athletic interceptions downfield. There’s just nothing. Aside from a spurt here and there, he has done zero for the Patriots, nor have they done anything for him. Why the hell not?

I think a situation like this possibly dissolving season raises all kinds of interesting questions, both in the short and long terms. I think it’ll be interesting to see if they can make anything of this year, with a team that is as imperfect now as it was undefeated just a year ago. In the long-term, I’m interested to find out whether the Patriots will end up treating this as simply a lost season for the Team of the Decade, moving resolutely ahead with the same script and cast, or if they’ll take the more sober view that for all intents and purposes, the decade is over, and act accordingly.

Opportunities

It’s not like people haven’t been moving the ball and scoring points on the Denver Broncos, the Patriots’ opponent when they finally return to Gillette next Monday night.

The Broncos, despite their 4-2 record, are 30th in defense (giving up almost 400 yards a game) and 28th in scoring defense (allowing almost 26 points a game). They have the worst pass defense in the league (ranked 32nd, giving up more than 250 YPG on a 72% completion percentage) and are 26th against the run (138 yards a game, with nine rushes going for more than 20 yards).

You may ask yourself what that has to do with the Patriots and their inconsistent popgun offense. After all, the numbers – especially pass defense – were nearly as promising last Sunday night, and after blowing their one chance to make a game of it with perhaps the most discouraging First and Goal sequence in history, the Pats were reduced to calling time outs with one second left just to save face. They failed to convert that one too.

The theory has been floated over the last month that Matt Cassel has merely been keeping the seat warm until third-round choice Kevin O’Connell could take over. If so, I’d suggest there’s no time like the present. Cassel has shown nothing but decidedly mediocre production, and there’s appears to be little hope for tangible and lasting improvement before the season goes all the way down the tubes. If O’Connell is going to get a shot at any point, why not now, in a home game against the worst pass defense in the league?

Threats

Of course, playing from behind for 60 minutes may not be the best atmosphere in which to nurture a rookie quarterback. It seems almost certain that the beleaguered Patriots will find themselves trailing early next Monday night, when they line up against the 4th best offense in the league. The Broncos may be flawed, but they rack up the points (6th in scoring at nearly 28 points a game), particularly through the air (2nd, with 1600 yards and 12 touchdowns). If trends continue, the Pats will do a respectable job against Denver’s 10th ranked running game, but be completely at Denver’s mercy whenever they go back to pass.

Comments

  1. I was saying this the whole night: can’t anyone on this defense make a frickin’ play? Just one. A big hit even. And Cassel is looking for the ripcord when anyone gets within five yards of him. It’s time for some of the vaunted “leaders” on this team to lead someone someplace. They’re old and slow so it’ll no doubt be an orderly, plodding march.

  2. DryHeave1 says:

    nice column, Scott….my biggest pet peeve is the lack of a pass rush. I’m getting tired of hearing how great the Pats D-Line is. Yes, they are pretty good against the run but none of them ever get near the QB…Thomas seems to have 1 move which is the “Bull Rush” if he’s lucky enough to go up against a small running back it works fine other than that….Vrabel seems to have lost some quickness. Another FRUSTRATING thing is that even when they Bliz they can’t get to the QB. The Blitzers always seem to get caught up in the wash or arrive just as the QB lets the ball go.

    My one disagreement is that I WOULD NOT replace Cassell for the Bronco game. However I would make this his “make or Break” game. If he struggles against the Broncos horrible defense?…..Then It’s O’Connell time.

  3. DryHeave1 says:

    …I have one quick off-topic note…Looks like people are jumping off the bandwagon left and right….There are a HUGE AMOUNT of tickets available for the Bronco game. Yes I know Monday night games are tough for alot of people but still.

  4. It might be worth considering firing the head coach. It’s sad but it appears he can’t motivate this team anymore. There is too much talent on this defense to get manhandled the way they have.

  5. Terry Fields says:

    Scott
    On every point you are right on the mark. The more I see of Belichick without Brady around, the more I see of mediocrity. Brady made his defensive moves look like genius, made his offensive line look powerful and adequate, made everything seem better because we were always playing from ahead. Now, with Belichick stubbornly and mindlessly clinging to Cassle, every decision looks dumber and the players very ordinary. And no matter what anyone says, the players do get discouraged when they know that their QB is not going to make a difference on the positive side. They’re human. You can see their half-hearted efforts throughtout the game. Keeping Cassle in there is really an insult to the fans. We all know what a real duck looks like.

  6. Too much talent on the defense? Where, exactly? I’ll give you Wilfork overall, and Seymour and Warren against the run. Other than that, I don’t see it.

    My point had nothing to do with motivation. It has to do, I think, with a defensive philosophy that was at one time effective but has since been adjusted to by their opponents. That means they need either new players who can carry out that old scheme (these guys don’t seem to be able to do it anymore), or a new scheme that better exploits whatever talent that remains.

  7. Great work Scott.

    I’ve been wondering exactly what is going on with Dean Pees because whatever he’s doing, it isn’t working. And we’ve also got Dom Capers in that mix but I’ve only seen the secondary regress this year.

    Isn’t it time to completely cut the ties with the players of the past and go with the younger and faster players? I know you’ve been calling for young players in D for years, isn’t past time Belichick hands the keys over to them?

  8. To a degree, he’s already done some of that out of necessity. Mayo of course, and Wheatley/Wilhite. Meriweather was in on 82% of the d-snaps against the Niners, and unless I’m mistaken, he probably was in at about the same rate Sunday night, maybe a little less.

    At the same time, though, Crable has yet to dress for a game. I don’t suppose I would care too much abut that if they were getting any consistent pressure off the edge. I’m not holding out hope that Crable would change that around by himself, but this Vrabel-Thomas duo is just not getting to the quarterback.

  9. So am I reading the stats from Sunday night correctly, zero catches for Ben Watson? When is the shine from “but he ran down Champ Bailey” going to finally wear off? At least Dave Thomas had a catch for 13 yards. One tackle apiece for Bruschi (not even solo) and Vrabel? For crying out loud, Hanson had friggin’ solo tackle, and actually, might’ve been the best executed tackle all night.

    Surprised that they actually totaled 106 yards rushing – granted 29 came from Cassel.

  10. DryHeave1 says:

    …sorry Terry, but Belichick IS NOT the problem……It’s TALENT….TALENT…TALENT….we lost our most talented player and our last few drafts have yeiled crap (yes, you CAN blame Belichick for that, I guess) combine that with players getting OLDER (Bruschi, Harrison, Vrabel) and you get a team that is struggling. Not to mention the “mental” factor. You can’t tell me these guys weren’t TOTALY DEFLATED when Brady went down…..not to mention how delated they get everytime Casell misses a WIDE OPEN Moss

    I hope I’m wrong but I just think it’s “one of those years” relax and look forward to NEXT YEAR…..you’ll feel better

  11. Their defense front is all first round picks. They have a top rookie at linebacker, surrounded by Pro Bowl players. The secondary is mediocre. Why are they allowing 4.6 yard per carry? That is the same as the Colts and there is no comparison in regards to talent. Motivation, coaching, something is amiss.

  12. I think I’m with DryHeave on most of these points but I’d argue that the whole ‘deflated’ thing is overplayed. DH, the D may feel deflated when an open pass is missed, but by the same token, I’d be pretty deflated as an offensive player after watching the defense give up 95 yard drives when they had SD pinned against their own goal line. I agree that the 17-3 deficit looked pretty hopeless when Cassel couldn’t get them in on First and Goal to start the second half, but the game sure as shit was over the minute the Chargers took it from there and scored. Maybe the game didn’t have to be over if they’d held SD to a 3 and out and force them to punt from their own end zone. My point is it goes both ways; there’s been just as much dispiriting play by the defense as there has the offense.

  13. John, Richard Seymour was a first round pick in 2001. That’s EIGHT years ago. Warren was 02; seven years ago. A lot of water under the bridge since then. Where they were drafted is not really relevant to what’s happening now.

    I’d suggest you’re not seeing them for what they are as players in the here and now. No comparison between them and the Colts in terms of talent? You’d be right if this was 2004. In 2008, I’d say that’s actually a good comparison.

    The names Bruschi and Vrabel and Harrison still carry a lot of weight in our hearts and minds for what they did five years ago. They don’t carry a whole lot of weight on the field today, though. That couldn’t be any more obvious. Watch Vrabel try to come off the edge on a passing down now, and tell me if his problem is motivation, or of he’s 60% of the player he was when they were winning championships.

  14. If BB is the bloodless automaton that he is made out to be, then he would have no problem getting rid of these guys at the first sign of aging. Does he put more value in knowing the system even if it comes at the expense of a player having lost several steps? Also, as you mentioned Scott, how does that explain bringing a guy in his prime like Thomas on board and then trying to turn him into something he’s not?

  15. Lost in all of the hype surrounding the 16-0 regular season and the pyrotechnics on offense in 2007 was the simple fact that the Pats were ranked a mediocre 11th in the NFL’s defensive passer rating category, and that was with Asante Samuel starting at corner, and with Mike Vrabel posting his career high in sacks. In the Super Bowl, the pass defense folded up like a lawn chair in the 4th quarter, allowing two TD drives of 80+ yards to blow the perfect season.

    In 2008, Samuel is gone and Vrabel’s name has hardly been called at all in the first five games (is he hurt, or has he pulled a “Jim Rice, 1987″, career-falls-off-the-cliff maneuver in just 8 months since the Super Bowl?)

    The defensive lineman are still effective against the run, but really, other than Seymour in his absolute prime, how many of the three starters ever generated much pressure on the QB in their careers? It’s not their job to do that–Jarvis Green was actually their best pass rusher on the line during the glory years, not any of the three starters.

    It’s the job of the LBs to get pressure on the QB, and they’re simply not doing it.

    I don’t know why Adalius Thomas hasn’t been very productive with the Pats. Maybe the fact that they signed him as he was turning 30 (that’s old for a football player, even in today’s game) has something to do with it.

    The fact that BB and Pioli completely ignored the Front 7 in three consecutive drafts after lucking into Wilfork at #21 in 2004 has more to do with this decline than anything else. I still don’t know what they were thinking when they went whole-hog after offensive players in the 2006 draft, including TWO tight ends(!), when they clearly had issues in the secondary and at linebacker.

    I believe Scott nailed it: the problem is that the defensive philosophy that won them championships in the earlier part of this decade is either no longer working because other teams have gameplanned for it, or they simply need to inject younger talent into the key positions that are still being clogged up by the old warhorses like Bruschi, Vrabel and Harrison.

    I also think that Pees could be part of the problem. Since he took over the D in 2006, upon Mangini’s departure, there have been more receivers running free through the middle of the Pats’ defense than I can ever remember, even in the bad old days of Rod Rust. They also haven’t tackled very well in the last few years–that’s coaching. That requires the defensive coordinator to put the fear of God into any defender who whiffs on a big tackle during the game. Romeo Crennel would do that; I’m not sure that Pees has it in him.

    But all of that said, I still have confidence that they can turn this thing around quickly in 2009. Losing 7 or more games this season will lead to higher draft picks next April, and they’ll also probably be given an extra 3rd rounder as compensation for losing Samuel–so the tools will be there to reload right away. If they go into free agency again, I’d like to see them stay away from the 30-somethings and actually sign somebody young enough to be as productive as Thomas was BEFORE he came to New England and instantly got old.

  16. Scott – great points (and thanks for taking all of my wonderful stats for the Broncs). I think that there was only one person who had any fire in his belly and that was Josh McDaniels at the end of the half; jawing into Belichick’s ear.

    Is it me or does Pees look like a stand-in for Belichick? There are no wrinkles from week to week (I’m sorry but a four man front line is not a wrinkle), no mid-game or halftime adjustments, no friggin’ ballhawking. The players are no longer adaptable; no longer multi-purpose. They play their role and that’s it.

    At some point, the inlfux of new blood needs to take place; even at the expense of their record. Especially when you consider that Brady will only be behind center for not much longer than 5 years.

  17. Beaker, I think you hit it – at first blush, it may seem like blind loyalty to the veterans, but its really that they think the smarter, more experienced guy is always going to be better than the young guy even if the young guy can jump over buildings and the vet gets older every day. That worked for them to great effect for a long time, but its hard to see how its working for them now.

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