|Patriots Bye-Week Breakdown: Defensive backs||11.05.12 at 12:29 am ET|
With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We’ve looked at the offense. Now, we flip things around to the defensive side of the ball — we opened with the defensive line, and then focused on the linebackers. Up next, the defensive backs.
Overview: The Patriots secondary has become a lightning rod for criticism over the first eight games. Whether it’s the number of big pass plays allowed (New England has yielded 42 pass plays of 20 yards or more), the fact that the Patriots seem to find new ways each week to give up more and more passing yardage (four quarterbacks have topped 300 passing yards against New England, and five of them had season-highs in passing yards when facing the Patriots), or apparent recurring problems with technique and coaching style, there’s no shortage of issues with the defensive backs. My “NFL Sunday” co-host Matt Chatham does make a compelling argument: Because of injuries to safeties Pat Chung and Steve Gregory, the Patriots have had a distinct lack of continuity at defensive back. That, combined with the relative youth at the position, can be a recipe for trouble. There’s also the feeling that the Patriots aren’t playing the sort of team defense needed — particularly when it comes to the pass rush — to help out the group of young defensive backs. Regardless, while things appear to be trending gradually in the right direction, it will be interesting to see how the group finishes the season, particularly with the addition of cornerback Aqib Talib.
(One thing that should give New England fans some optimism is that the Patriots pass defense had many of these same issues last year. Coming out of the bye, they were able to do a good job finding a way to minimize the problems in the secondary, and eventually figured out a way to get to the Super Bowl. Given New England’s historical ability to self-correct and diagnose problems coming out of the bye week, that could be a good sign for the Patriots pass defense, and the secondary in particular.)
Depth chart (stats based on coaches’ film): CB/S Devin McCourty (34 solo tackles, two interceptions, nine passes defensed), S Tavon Wilson (24 solo tackles, three interceptions, five passes defensed), Chung (19 solo tackles, two passes defensed), CB Kyle Arrington (24 solo tackles, three passes defensed), Gregory (11 solo tackles), one interception, one pass defensed), CB Sterling Moore (11 solo tackles), one pass defensed), CB Alfonzo Dennard (10 solo tackles, two interceptions, three passes defensed), CB Ras-I Dowling, CB Marquice Cole, S Nate Ebner, CB Malcolm Williams.
Best moment: Keep moving — nothing to see here.
Worst moment: Likely the late pass play from Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson to Sidney Rice that went for 46 yards and turned out to be the game-winner for the Seahawks. On that play. Rice was able to get behind rookie safeties Wilson and Ebner and come away with the catch. In a year when the Patriots secondary continues to yield big plays, that was perhaps the biggest and most costly breakdown.
By the numbers: As bad as New England’s pass defense has been over the first eight games, the Patriots actually are allowing fewer passing yards per game this season than they did last year. Through the first eight games of 2011, the Patriots allowed an average of 314 passing yards per game. In the same stretch this season, they have yielded an average of 281 passing yards per game. In addition, while the Patriots have one fewer interception through the first eight games of the 2012 season than the first eight games last year (nine picks instead of 10) they have 11 more passes defensed (38, as opposed to 27) than the first eight contests of 2011.)
Money quote: “There are some technique things that we can improve on. A lot of times, it’s different with different guys. Maybe one guy is struggling with something and another guy is struggling with something else. Maybe there are some things that we can do structurally to help that. Those are all things that we take into consideration every week going into the game. Those guys are working on the individual things that they can do to get better. Again, being younger, a lot of the experience those guys get, it helps them. They understand things a little bit better, they see the game a little bit better, they understand the film study a little bit better. Those things will help them improve as we move forward.” — Cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer on overlapping technique changes the team can make to the defensive backs to improve things down the stretch
|Patriots Bye-Week Breakdown: Linebackers||11.04.12 at 2:22 pm ET|
With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We’ve looked at the offense. Now, we flip things around to the defensive side of the ball — we opened with the defensive line. Now, it’s the linebackers.
Overview: The New England linebackers have fallen into two distinct camps over the first eight games of the season. There’s the Jerod Mayo-Brandon Spikes-Dont’a Hightower troika, which has become one of the better young linebacking corps in the AFC, particularly against the run. Mayo leads the AFC in tackles, has forced three fumbles, intecepted a pass and recovered a fumble. Spikes has three forced fumbles, and while there are times where he appears lost in pass defense, he appears well on his way to the first 100-tackle season of his career while developing into a classic, run-stuffing thumper. And while Hightower has struggled to stay healthy because of a hamstring injury, he has a pair of sacks, three quarterback hits and is perhaps New England’s best linebacker when it comes to pass coverage. (It will be interesting to see what will happen to the Patriots’ pass defense when Hightower is back to 100 percent. Not saying that the issues will completely disappear, but Hightower’s play over the first few games certainly suggests that things will improve.) The rest of the group is primarily for depth and special teams work, with Tracy White continuing to be a valued member of the unit because of the value he displays in both areas on a weekly basis.
Depth chart (stats based on coaches’ film): Jeff Tarpinian, Hightower (24 solo tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits), Mayo (64 solo tackles, one sack, three forced fumbles), Spikes (50 solo tackles, three forced fumbles), White, Mike Rivera, Niko Koutouvides. (Bobby Carpenter has been on and off the roster throughout the first half of the season, usually at the expense of Tarpinian and Koutouvides. Meanwhile, Dane Fletcher is on injured reserve.)
Best moment: Mayo, Hightower (when healthy) and Spikes have provided several big moments this season, but our pick goes to Spikes and his forced fumble on the goal line late in the first half of the win over the Bills. The hit on Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller was a colossal momentum changer — New England was struggling to that point, and a big stop deep in its own territory turned the tide. It was one of two forced fumbles on the day for Spikes.
Worst moment: We listed the Ravens game as the worst moment for the defensive line, but it also holds true for the linebackers as well. The Patriots defense allowed a season-high in passing yards (382 passing yards by Joe Flacco) and it was the only game where an opposing running back topped 100 yards on the ground (Ray Rice, 101 rushing yards) against New England. That combined with the fact that they couldn’t get off the field on third down over the last two-plus quarters makes this a no-brainer.
By the numbers: Per Pro Football Focus, Mayo leads the Patriots with 31 stops on the season. (A stop is defined as a “solo defensive tackle which constitutes an offensive failure, including a sack.”) Spikes is second with 23.
Money quote: “Those guys have a lot of energy and they’re excited about playing and they’re happy about playing the game. It’s fun to coach them, and it’s great to see them go out there and play. They’re having fun, so that’s a good thing for us.” — linebackers coach Pepper Johnson on his group this season.
|Patriots Bye-Week Breakdown: Defensive line||11.03.12 at 12:51 am ET|
With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We’ve looked at the offense. Now, we flip things around to the defensive side of the ball, and start with the defensive line.
Overview: With the defensive line, it’s complicated. Led by old warrior Vince Wilfork, the group deserves all the credit in the world for helping making New England one of the toughest teams in the league to run against, particularly along the interior. Only one back has broke 100 yards against them this year, and the group continues to do its part to make opposing offenses one-dimensional. But for a unit that preaches “team defense” more than anyone else, the group must bear at least some responsibility for the fact that the Patriots continue to struggle against the pass. (However minimal, their culpability lies in the fact that the group as a whole isn’t doing enough to get to the quarterback, so as to cut down on coverage times for the secondary. And while it’s improved — particularly among Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich — it’s something that bears watching going forward.) In the end, it’s been a mixed bag for the defensive line, but with more good than bad through the first eight games.
Depth chart: Kyle Love (22 tackles, 1.5 sacks), Wilfork (26 tackles), Jake Bequette, Justin Francis, Jones (37 tackles, 6 sacks), Jermaine Cunningham (14 tackles, 1.5 sacks), Ron Brace, Trevor Scott, Ninkovich (32 tackles, 5 sacks).
(We’ll include Ninkovich here as a defensive lineman — specifically, a defensive end — because even though he’s also played outside linebacker, he’s been on the line more often than not.)
Best moment: A handful to choose from: Wilfork surprisingly dropping into coverage against the Rams, Jones’ terrifically athletic, sweeping 17-yard sack (also against St. Louis), Ninkovich’s strip sack at the end of the overtime against the Jets or Wilfork’s rag-dolling of Matt Slauson to force a safety against the Jets. But for pure out-of-your-seat awesome, we’re going to go with Wilfork’s blast of Donald Jones late in the win over Buffalo. How a man that size got the acceleration he did in such a quick fashion — and managed to lay such a terrific hit on an opponent — needs to be dissected in the next episode of “Mythbusters.”
Worst moment: It wasn’t so much the defensive line, but the defense as a whole stumbled down the stretch in the road loss to the Ravens. Despite the fact that New England held a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, the Patriots’ defense couldn’t do much of anything right down the stretch against Baltimore. It was the only game of the year where a running back topped 60 yards (Ray Rice ran for 101 yards), and the 382 yards from Joe Flacco was the most an opposing quarterback threw for against New England over the course of the first half of the season.
By the numbers: Through eight games in 2012, the Patriots are allowing an average of 46.5 total yards per game fewer than they did over the first half of the 2011 season. Through eight games this year, they’ve also allowed 14 fewer points than they did through the first eight games of 2011.
Money quote: “I think I’ve been blessed with a good group of guys, starting with our leader, Vince [Wilfork]. Great football player. I think I’m learning a lot from him [laughs], just like I try to [teach] being a coach. But with his experience, him and Kyle Love, all those guys have done a good job – Rob Ninkovich, all hard workers, diligent workers. And that’s the biggest blessing for me in terms of that they’re professionals, they work hard and that’s all you can ask for, really.” – defensive line coach Patrick Graham
|Patriots Bye-Week Breakdown: Offensive line||11.02.12 at 7:43 pm ET|
With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We’ve looked at the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and quarterbacks. Now, it’s the offensive line.
Overview: After what appeared to be a shaky preseason where everyone was waiting for Brian Waters to come walking back through the door, the New England offensive line has come together very nicely over the first half of the regular season. It hasn’t been without a few issues — they’d probably like the Seattle game back, like most of the offense — but overall, the group has done very well against some of the league’s elite pass rushers. In addition, they’ve been a big reason why the New England running game has had a resurgence this season. (Go back and watch Stevan Ridley’s 41-yard run in the second half against the Rams — one of the most sharply executed plays of the year, right down to the picture perfect work on the blocking assignments up front.) Even without All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins for three games — Donald Thomas has filled in admirably — it’s been a very good start to the year for the New England offensive line.
(In retrospect, it was foolish to make broad-bush judgments on the play of the New England offensive line based on the preseason, particularly when you’re dealing with a line that had as many moving parts as the Patriots did over the spring and summer months. The coaching staff was in the process of making judgments on veterans like Robert Gallery and Dan Koppen, as well as trying to assess the rehab process for injured returnees like right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and Mankins. Bottom line? They were using their time trying to get a look at as many different groups in as many different stressful environments as possible, and they found out which combinations worked and which ones didn’t.)
Depth chart: Left tackle Nate Solder, Mankins, Thomas, guard/center/ tackle Nick McDonald, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, tackle Marcus Cannon.
Best moment: So much good stuff came out of last Sunday’s game against the Rams, and that includes the performance of New England’s offensive line. Facing one of the better pass rushing duos in the league in Chris Long and Robert Quinn, the Patriots’ tackles were more than equal to the task. The win over the Rams marked the first game all year the New England offensive line did not yield a sack or a quarterback hit.
Worst moment: Brady was sacked four times against the Cardinals and four times against the Broncos, but the low point was likely the loss to the Seahawks, where the quarterback was under fire all day thanks to pressure from the Seattle pass rush. Per Pro Football Focus, Tom Brady was hurried 10 times in that game, was hit four times and sacked once. While the numbers may not look it, Brady never appeared comfortable that game, and the offense line was a big reason why.
By the numbers: According to Pro Football Focus, Wendell has played all 645 offensive snaps for the Patriots this season. He’s the only member of the New England offense not to miss a single play this season. (Solder is second overall with 644 snaps and Brady is third with 635.)
Money quote: “We’re a 5-3 football team. As has been stated around here many times, you are what your record is. A lot of people wouldn’t want to be 5-3, we would like to be better than 5-3 but that’s what we are. What we need to do is have a great week this week and next week hopefully get to 6-3 and see where it goes. We have a tough opponent next week to do that though, so I don’t know how much it’s improved. That’s up to others to say, we just feel like we have to improve every day, or we’ll never get to where we want to be.” – Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia on how much the team has improved since Week 1.
|Patriots Bye-Week Breakdown: Quarterbacks||at 9:07 am ET|
With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We’ve looked at the running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. Now, it’s quarterbacks.
Overview: Tom Brady remains the centerpiece of the franchise, and while the Patriots added several key components on both sides of the ball over the last six months, it’s clear this team will go as far as the 35-year-old signal-caller can take it. Over the first eight games, there’s been a couple of bumps in the road for the two-time NFL MVP. First, there’s the offense’s occasional inability to take advantage of scoring opportunities, something that’s burned the Pats in their three losses. Second, there was the ugly loss to the Seahawks in which the quarterback was hooted off the field by Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman. However, he was New England’s unquestioned offensive MVP for the first half of the season and remains among the league’s elite quarterbacks, even in his 13th season. Between the health of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, the up-and-down year for Wes Welker and the continued acclimation of Brandon Lloyd, the New England offense continues to try to find an identity. But with help with a revived running game and a steady offensive line, it appears Brady and the Patriots offense are well-positioned for a productive second half of the season.
Depth chart: Brady (209-for-320, 65 percent, 2,408 yards, 16 touchdowns, three interceptions), Ryan Mallett (1-for-3, 17 yards)
Best moment: This is a tough one — we’ve gone back and watched film from the first eight games. And while we’re already on record as saying Brady’s work against the Broncos was the best of the season (and his late performance against the Jets was vintage Brady), a closer look reveals that it’s actually last Sunday against the Rams. In that one, he only missed on a handful of throws, and was able to adroitly capitalize on a series of mismatches, particularly ones involving Gronkowski. He finished 23-for-35 for 304 yards with a season-high four touchdowns along with zero picks, zero sacks and a season-high 131.1 passer rating.
Worst moment: While Brady set a season-high for passing yards against the Seahawks, it was the one game he would like to have back. He was 36-for-58 for 395 yards with two touchdowns but also two really ugly picks. In addition, he was flagged for intentional grounding twice, including once in the Seahawks’ red zone. And he underthrew at least six balls on the afternoon. All in all, a forgettable afternoon for the QB.
By the numbers: Brady had 209 completions through the first eight games of the season. He’s on pace for 418 completions, which would be a career high. In addition, he has thrown for 295 fewer yards through the first eight games this year than he did last season (2,703 yards to 2,408 yards). And while he has four fewer touchdowns in that same stretch (20, as opposed to 16 this year), he also seven fewer interceptions (10 to 3). One more for you: according to Pro Football Focus, Brady has lost 280 yards on dropped passes this season, second most in the league.
Money quote: “The big picture in my mind? As long as they have Brady under center, they have a chance to win every Sunday, and that’s the bottom line.” – A high-level NFL personnel man on Brady and his influence on the Patriots.
|Patriots Bye-Week Breakdown: Tight ends||10.31.12 at 7:51 pm ET|
With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We kicked things off with the running backs and wide receivers. Now, it’s the tight ends.
Overview: Entering their third full season together, it was believed that no team could match the young tight end combo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And while they’ve both been banged up over the course of the first eight games of the year, it’s clear that they are without peer when they are healthy and work together. While the Patriots have had to make some tweaks to their passing game with the two of them at less than 100 percent, it will be interesting to see how the New England offense changes when they’re back at full strength. Over the first half of the season, both Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui have provided depth and blocking skills. In fact, the entire group — even Hernandez, who is an occasionally reluctant participant as a blocker — deserves credit for their work as road graders, particularly in the running game. It’s one of the big reasons the Patriots have been able to become one of the more balanced offenses in the league.
Depth chart: Gronkowski (43 catches, 580 yards, seven TDs), Hernandez (17 catches, 143 yards, two TDs), Fells (two catches, 53 yards), Hoomanawanui (two catches, 22 yards), Winslow (one catch, 12 yards). For a closer look at how Gronkowski and Hernandez’s numbers compare to last year, CLICK HERE.
(If Gronk’s numbers seem kind of pedestrian compared to what he did last year, keep two things in mind: One, with the addition of Brandon Lloyd, his numbers were likely to take a dip. We saw that with Wes Welker. And two, it’s important to keep in mind that, at least statistically, he had a better second half in 2011. Over the last eight games last season, he had 46 catches and 11 touchdowns — including five games where he had two touchdowns each. Is he poised for a similar streak down the stretch in 2012?)
Best moment: We’ve got two. First, Gronkowski’s eight-catch, 146-yard effort last Sunday against the Rams was vintage Gronk, right down to his two touchdown celebrations. Second, Hernandez’s performance in the season opener against the Titans was amazing not so much because of his numbers (six catches on seven targets for 59 yards and a touchdown), but because he lined up at 10 different spots on the field.
Worst moment: Hernandez going down with an ankle injury in the first half against the Cardinals. Much of the offense is built around the versatility and flexibility of the Florida product, and the sudden removal of the tight end from the lineup caused the New England offense to struggle against Arizona. He’s still not at 100 percent.
By the numbers: After Sunday, Gronkowski now has 34 touchdown catches in his first 40 career games, the most in that number of games since Randy Moss started his career with 40 touchdowns in as many games between 1998-2000. (John Jefferson had 34 in his first 40 career games; Bob Hayes scored 35 touchdowns in his first 40 games; and Jerry Rice had 32 in his first 40 career games.)
Money quote: “That little nutcracker dude that’s guarding the house. I like how he just sits there and stays still. It’s pretty cool.” — Gronkowski on who he was honoring with his first touchdown celebration last Sunday against the Rams.
|Patriots Bye-Week Breakdown: Wide receivers||at 2:16 pm ET|
With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We kicked things off with the running backs. Now, it’s the wide receivers.
Overview: It’s been an interesting year to this point for the wide receiver group. At the start of the season, there was talk about how Wes Welker was getting phased out of the offense. (It was a field day for conspiracy theorists, who overlooked the fact that maybe the reason he didn’t get as many snaps at the start of the year was because the wide receiver himself said he wasn’t ready for the start of the season.) But after a bumpy start, it has been pretty much a typical year for Welker, who is close to the same numbers he put up through eight games last season thanks in part to the fact that tight end Aaron Hernandez continues to struggle with injury. (See below for the numbers.) After it appeared there were times where they were forcing the ball to him, Brandon Lloyd has started to click with Brady, and had his best effort in the loss to the Ravens where he caught nine passes for 108 yards. After a solid start, Julian Edelman has had injury problems. Meanwhile, Deion Branch — who was released on Aug. 31 and brought back on Sept. 19 — hasn’t posted crazy numbers, but has been a dependable presence in key moments for New England. His best moment probably came when he drew a pair of defensive pass interference calls on St. Louis defensive back Bradley Fletcher on a drive just before the end of the first half last Sunday.
Depth chart: Welker (60 catches, 736 yards, two touchdowns), Lloyd (37 catches, 435 yards, three TDs), Edelman (13 catches, 100 yards, one TD), Branch (five catches, 50 yards).
Best moment: Welker has had four elite level performances over the course of the first eight games, but perhaps his best effort came in the loss to Seattle, where he had 10 catches (on 14 targets) for 138 yards and a touchdown. It wasn’t so much the overall yardage that stood out in this one, however, but the fact that he took a tremendous shot in the second quarter from Seattle defensive back Brandon Browner and only missed three plays before returning to the field to catch a pass that helped move the chains for a first down. On an afternoon where very little was working for New England, Welker stood out.
Worst moment: Not many over the course of the first eight games, but our guess is probably Lloyd’s one catch (on eight targets) afternoon in the overtime win over the Jets, a game where Lloyd had at least two drops.
By the numbers: When compared with the first eight games of 2011, Welker’s production has dipped slightly, but instead of getting phased out of the offense, much of that can be attributed to the effect of having an extra receiver like Lloyd on the roster. Over the first half of last season, he had 66 catches on 93 targets for 960 yards and six touchdowns. Through the first eight games of 2012, he has 60 catches for 83 targets for 736 yards and two touchdowns. (That’s a difference of six catches, 10 targets, 224 yards and two touchdowns.)
Money quote: “I love Wes. He’s like one of my best friends. What he does on a daily basis to prepare himself really motivates everybody else. He’s a leader. He’s so tough. I’ve been in so many critical, critical situations with him where he’s worked so hard to do the right thing and vein the right place and make the play. He’s a phenomenal player.” – Quarterback Tom Brady on WEEI, Sept. 17.
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