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Thoughts on the loss of Sebastian Vollmer

Posted by Erik Frenz October 30, 2013 10:35 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With yet another season-ending injury to a key player, the New England Patriots' starting roster may soon look reminiscent to the third quarter of a preseason game.

The latest injury, a broken right leg for right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, is the first blow dealt to the offensive line.

Some quick thoughts on the injury, and what it means to the Patriots and Vollmer:

  • When healthy, Vollmer has been one of the best tackles in the NFL. According to stats website Pro Football Focus, Vollmer was the 11th-best tackle in pass protection, yielding 12 hurries, one hit and two sacks of quarterback Tom Brady on the season. His 6-8, 316-pound frame made him tough to beat in the running game.
  • Vollmer was brought back this offseason on a four-year deal worth $16.75 million, according to sports contracts website Spotrac. It was a largely incentive-laden deal. This year alone, he will miss out on $2 million total -- $1 million in bonus money for not playing 80 percent of the snaps, $750,000 in bonus money for not playing 90 percent of the snaps, and $250,000 for not making the Pro Bowl. Vollmer has dealt with several back injuries throughout his career, which probably contributed to his getting such a bonus-heavy deal in the first place.
  • Next man up is third-year tackle Marcus Cannon. He was in on 50 of 68 snaps against the Dolphins after Vollmer went down. Cannon has filled several roles this year, including playing 72 of 88 snaps at right guard against the Saints when starter Dan Connolly was sidelined with a concussion. He allowed pressure on Brady just once against the Dolphins in 23 snaps as a pass-blocker.
  • "I think he’s gotten better each year," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick of Cannon, "he’s got good skills for his size. He’s an athletic guy who has good feet, can move people in the running game and has the quickness to block them in protection; good playing strength. He had an opportunity to play last week and stepped in, did a good job for us there in the second half against Miami. I’m sure he’ll have a good attitude, good week of preparation this week against Pittsburgh and be ready to meet that challenge too. He’s been a solid guy for us and it looks like he’ll get an opportunity to play here in the near future.
  • Cannon's next assignment will be a big one, as the Patriots host the Steelers and star pass-rusher Lamarr Woodley, who is currently the second-best pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker in the league (16 hurries, five hits, five sacks).




Patriots Take 2: Second-half adjustments lead to Patriots' best third quarter of the season

Posted by Erik Frenz October 30, 2013 08:00 AM

"Third quarter."

Two words signifying 15 minutes of game clock, spelling doom for the New England Patriots for the entire 2013 season -- that is, until Sunday against the Dolphins, when they turned back the hands of time and looked as dominant as ever in a huge third quarter that changed the tone of the game and gave the Patriots permanent control.

The Patriots have been on the wrong end of a couple of those this season, giving up a 10-point halftime lead over the Saints and an 11-point halftime lead over the Jets in the third quarter in their previous two games.

On Sunday, they outscored the Dolphins 17-0 in the third quarter, and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the process.

Here's a look at that and more in this week's film breakdown.



Aggressive defense

Speaking to Dolphins players after the game, one thing became clear: it wasn't just the Dolphins giving up the game in the second half. The Patriots made their share of adjustments to get back in the game. No one, however, made it clear what those adjustments were.

After review, it's clear that adjustment was to the dial on their blitzometer. The Patriots sent more than four defenders on the rush on 28 of 50 dropbacks (including penalties). Of those, 22 were in the second half.

Specifically in the third quarter, they called 10 blitzes on 12 pass plays.

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One of those was the pivotal play in the game, a sack by linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who came through the A-gap to bring down quarterback Ryan Tannehill for a nine-yard loss on 3rd-and-2.

Hightower and Brandon Spikes ran a stunt, each heading through the A-gap opposite the one they were standing in front of at the snap.

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By no consequence of the aforementioned linebacker stunt, defensive end Rob Ninkovich initially came unblocked off the edge, probably due to an egregious miscommunication on behalf of the Dolphins offensive line.

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Once Ninkovich made a mess in the pocket, all Hightower had to do was clean it up.

This proved to be the first snowflake in what would become a large snowball and then eventually turn into a full-on avalanche. The Dolphins were still within kicker Caleb Sturgis' range, but his field goal try doinked off the right upright, and the Patriots were able to get a head of steam in the right direction.

If that play got the Patriots moving, the touchdown drive that followed put the foot on the gas, and the Patriots slammed the accelerator to the floor on the Dolphins' next possession.

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Cornerback Logan Ryan blindsiding Tannehill on a corner blitz in the third quarter, forcing a fumble which was recovered by the Patriots at the 13-yard line.

The Patriots sent six defenders on their initial rush, with Spikes reading the running back and crashing the line once the back stayed in protection. Cornerback Logan Ryan (circled in blue) came off the offense's left, meaning that tight end Charles Clay (42) was initially uncovered on the drag route over the middle.

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Clay was just about to break behind the rushing linebackers, and Tannehill was getting ready to throw to him. Had Tannehill been able to throw the pass, Clay may very well still be running. Instead, the blitz got home, Ryan forced the fumble, and the rest is history.

It looks like running back Daniel Thomas (33) was supposed to pick up the blitz, but he sought to block Hightower coming up the middle instead of Ryan coming off the edge. Had he picked the right defender, Tannehill would probably have had time to get the pass away.



Aerial approach

Much has also been made of the Patriots not attacking the middle of the field in the passing game. In the first half, seven of Tom Brady's nine pass attempts were outside the numbers, the other two over the middle. In the second half, Brady threw 11 passes to the outside and five over the middle -- still not quite the balance they're looking for, but better.

This is an adjustment that's been a long time coming; Brady has always excelled throwing over the middle, but the Patriots have continued to bang their head against the sideline in calling repeated throws to the outside -- low-percentage throws that could be leading to much of the offense's struggles, and did in the first half.

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Perhaps it was just as simple as getting Rob Gronkowski back in the lineup. The Patriots went to him on this play, a 2nd-and-10 in the third quarter on their first touchdown drive of the day, and picked up 23 yards on the pass.

The Dolphins left just one defender over the middle, and Brady made them pay once Gronkowski broke past the linebacker in zone coverage.

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Look at all the open space around Gronkowski. For years, the key to stopping the Patriots was to take away everything over the middle. This year, they've gone outside more, and defenses have matched that. Now, with Gronkowski back, they can start going over the middle and catching defenses off-guard.



Problems lie ahead for Patriots run defense

The Patriots traded for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga on Tuesday, just minutes before the trade deadline. After watching the Jets and Dolphins pull out the battering ram on the middle of the Patriots defense, it's not a surprise they called in some reinforcements. They'll have to sturdy things up quick, because it wasn't pretty.

The Dolphins had not previously been known as a dominant running team, but against the Patriots, they piled up 156 yards on 31 carries, including 103 yards on 22 carries in the first half before they got away from the running game while the wheels fell of in every other area imagineable.

No matter the down or distance, the Dolphins were having their way with the Patriots on the ground.

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Daniel Thomas picked up 15 yards on 4th-and-1 on a run straight up the gut. Considering the Dolphins marginal success rate on short-yardage runs (43.8 percent converted for first down, second-lowest percentage in the NFL), the fact that they were able to reel off such a big gain is kind of a big deal.

The Dolphins deserve some credit for well-executed blocks, but so much went wrong on this particular play for the Patriots, it's easy to say they let them off the hook.

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Defensive tackle Marcus Forston shot through the A-gap between the center and left guard, and Joe Vellano got taken out of the A-gap on the other side. Ordinarily, a linebacker would be there in clean-up duty, but Hightower filled the B-gap between right guard and right tackle, where the fullback was headed, and Spikes got cleaned out by Dolphins guard Richie Incognito at the second level.

Forston and Vellano figure to be the two players that will see their roles decrease the most with the arrival of Sopoaga.



Aaron Dobson emerging as reliable target

The rookie wide receiver experiment hasn't been a 100-percent success, but Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have each enjoyed their own moments in the spotlight during the first eight weeks of the season.

dobson's career.pngIf recent trends continue, though, Dobson could emerge as one of Brady's most trusted targets in the future. He's already on his way.

Don't be fooled by the fact that Dobson's first target and first catch as an NFL receiver went for a touchdown; his pro career couldn't have gotten off to a much rockier start than catching just three of 10 passes thrown in his direction, dropping three of those passes.

Recently, though, Dobson's performance has taken a turn for the better.

He's been getting separation all season, but only recently has it turned into production. He's turning a higher percentage of his targets into catches, and although he's still dropped a few passes --including one on Sunday -- Brady hasn't stopped looking his direction. Dobson had as many targets as Gronkowski against the Dolphins.

Dobson rewarded his quarterback by running great routes and making some difficult catches, specifically on his touchdown catch. He ran a beautiful stop-and-go route down the left sideline, faking two steps to the inside and setting up cornerback Nolan Carroll perfectly to get open in the end zone.

Dobson maintained his focus and hauled in the touchdown.

He had another big play, a 26-yard reception down the left sideline on a curl route. Cornerback Dimitiri Patterson implored the official for a flag for pass interference, but it was for naught.

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In Patterson's defense, he has a point. Dobson clearly put his hand on him as he stopped his route.

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Perhaps Patterson might have had a better case if he hadn't continued running another five yards downfield after the initial interference. It didn't look like Patterson kept running because he was pushed; it looked like he just kept running, not expecting Dobson to stop short.

Either way, it wasn't called on the field, so no harm, no foul.

There have been enough signs of progress not to lose faith in the development of the young receivers, and Dobson has been riding a recent wave of success.





Scouting the Pittsburgh Steelers

Posted by Erik Frenz October 29, 2013 07:00 AM


AP Photo/Joe Kay

The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers were once bitter rivals, going back-and-forth for AFC supremacy in the postseason.

Now, the Steelers are on the verge of missing the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since the 1998-2000 seasons and for the first time since Ben Roethlisberger became the quarterback in 2004.

The defense has not played true to Steelers history, yielding big yards in the running game (121.8 yards per game) and nine rushing touchdowns this season, the fourth-highest total in the league through Week 8.

Despite all that, make no mistake; this team has been competitive. Three of the Steelers' five losses have come by a one-score margin. As such, they are still a dangerous team. Here's a scouting report on what to expect when the Steelers come to town.



Record: 2-5

How they got here: Four straight losses out of the gate sent the Steelers spinning out of control into the bye week. They pieced together two wins against the Jets and Ravens, with their defense finally turning in a pair of solid performances after allowing 27.5 points per game in their first four contests. Now, coming off a disappointing loss to the Raiders in which they nearly overcame an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit in what ended up being a three-point loss, the Steelers are searching for vindication.

Key cog, offense -- Antonio Brown, WR: The Steelers do not have prototype X-receivers, instead relying on smaller, quicker receivers with some speed like Antonio Brown. At 5'10" and 186 pounds, Brown isn't winning many jumpballs, and he doesn't use his size to separate from a jam, but he runs great routes, has great initial burst and quick feet to help him get off the line and in and out of his breaks, and has enough speed to get downfield. Brown has been the most reliable receiver on the team, catching 56 of 70 aimed passes in his direction (80 percent) and dropping just one.

Key cog, defense -- Lamarr Woodley, OLB: Coming out of Michigan in 2007, Woodley fell to the second round because he had been labeled as a "tweener" -- either a defensive end or an outside linebacker, depending on the scheme. The Steelers ended up with a pass-rusher who's been among the league's best, regardless of position, every year since entering the NFL. This year, he ranks second-best among 3-4 outside linebackers in pass-rushing productivity (17 hurries, five hits, five sacks), according to stats website Pro Football Focus. He has solid hand technique to keep blockers at bay, and burst to help him avoid blockers in the first place. His closing speed is also exceptional, and has helped him log nine forced fumbles in his career.

X-factor -- Jerricho Cotchery, WR: Cotchery is familiar with the Patriots from his time with the New York Jets from 2004-2010. He was sometimes the second option on those teams, but now, he is the Steelers' third option at wide receiver behind Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Depending on whether cornerback Aqib Talib makes his return for the Patriots, Cotchery may end up matched up on either Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington or Marquice Cole, perhaps some combination of the three.

Stats and notes:

  • Notable injuries: linebackers Lawrence Timmons (hand) and Jarvis Jones (concussion) were the Steelers' only injury-related game-time decisions in Week 8, and both ultimately were active for the game. The Steelers are thin on the offensive line, having already lost center Maurkice Pouncey and tackle Levi Brown for the season.
  • The Patriots have stayed afloat because they don't turn the ball over and they also create turnovers on defense. The Steelers have been the antithesis of the Patriots in both areas, with 14 giveaways among the eight highest totals in the league and five takeaways among the four lowest totals.
  • The Steelers on first down have thrown the ball 116 times and have run the ball 80 times for a near 60-40 split. On third down, they have thrown the ball 78 times and have run the ball just 16 times, for a split closer to 83-17. Roethlisberger has been sacked or thrown an interception on 13 of those 78 pass plays, and the Steelers have converted 26 (one-third) for a first down.
  • The Patriots seemed to fix their third quarter offensive woes against the Dolphins, but the Steelers have given up zero points in the third quarter of the past three games. Their average of 3.9 points per game allowed in the third quarter ranks tied for ninth-lowest in the NFL. Opponents have been successful throwing the ball against them in the third quarter, where they allow 68.3 percent completions. 8.8 yards per attempt and a 101.7 passer rating. Their run defense has been what's stepped up most in the third quarter, yielding just 2.8 yards per carry and one rushing touchdown.




Miami Dolphins offensive line exposed in four-game losing skid

Posted by Erik Frenz October 27, 2013 08:26 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Like their quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins have fallen hard and fast in losing four straight games after winning their first three to start the season.

They saw a microcosm of their season unfold in a 60-minute football game against the Patriots on Sunday. Up 17-3 in the first half, it looked like they had the Patriots in check and were primed to finally knock off the king of the AFC East. With a few moves of the chess pieces, the tables turned, and the Dolphins were on their heels.

"Well, we stopped scoring points. Then they started scoring points. And that is how it turned around," said Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline. "You guys are seeing it from a bird's eye view, you guys tell me [what happened]. There really isn't any explanation."

There are a few explanations, though, and the easiest one to see is the offensive line -- from a bird's eye view or the view from the couch.

Tannehill has been sacked a league-high 32 times. He's on pace to be sacked 73 times, which would shatter the team record of 53 sacks allowed in a season set in 1969. The Dolphins haven't seen an offensive line this bad in nearly half-a-century.

Make no mistake; the Dolphins have taken some measures to fix their protection woes, and traded for former Ravens offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, who made his first start in a Dolphins uniform on Sunday.

Even trading for him, and moving former left tackle Jonathan Martin back to the right side, wasn't enough to save Tannehill from being decked, or to save the Dolphins from letting a 14-point halftime lead slip away as a result.

"They're definitely a team that you can't really make mistakes with, especially when you're on the road," McKinnie said, "so that's something we'll just learn from as a team."

While they had things under control in the first half against the Patriots, they came unraveled yet again in allowing six sacks in the second half, including a game-changing sack-fumble by Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan.

The Dolphins did a great job protecting Tannehill and paving holes for their running backs in the first half (103 yards on 22 carries) but they were on the wrong end of the highlight reel at the wrong time in the game because of those six sacks.

"That's a lot of sacks, yet again," said Martin. "I thought we played well for the most part, a couple plays in there we obviously didn't play well, so you know, it's still something that we need to work on."

Tannehill has now been sacked 13 times by the Patriots defense in his first two trips to Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots definitely turned the heat up on Tannehill in the second half, sending far more blitzes than they had previously.

"They made some nice adjustments, no question about it," said Martin. "They're a good defense, they have a lot of talent, even with their injuries. At the same time, yeah, we didn't do a good enough job executing our base game plan."

This week wasn't the first time the Dolphins did a stand-up job of protecting Tannehill until crunch time. Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7, Tannehill was sacked just twice, both times in the fourth quarter, one a sack-fumble that gave the Bills new life and allowed them to take the late lead.

As was the case on Sunday against the Patriots, the Dolphins will have to find the form that got them off to a hot start before they finish out of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.

"It's frustrating, no question about it," said Martin. "We had such a hot start, and then we've had, you know, three tough games in a row now, so you know, we've got to find a way to regroup, because we have another game coming up in three days."

That next game, by the way, comes against a Cincinnati Bengals defense that has logged 22 sacks this season, and four against the New York Jets on Sunday.




Patriots stock report: Patriots defense makes big plays to stymie Dolphins

Posted by Erik Frenz October 27, 2013 04:08 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- You can say a lot of things about the New England Patriots this season, but you can't say they're boring.

The Patriots erased their worst half minutes of football this season, in the span of about 3:31 game clock in the third quarter, and after being held to just three points in the first half, they pulled out the 27-17 win with 17 points in the third quarter, almost double their third-quarter output for the whole season.

With any game as up-and-down as this one, there are bound to be some players who stand out on either end of the spectrum. Here are my thoughts on those players.



Stock up:

Logan Ryan: Was benched in the first half after his controversial touchdown celebration on the pick-six against the Jets last week, but quickly made an impact with his second forced turnover in as many games, logging a sack-fumble of Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill that helped the Patriots climb back into the game. Ryan was also in coverage on a 3rd-and-long pass for Rishard Mathews which was incomplete, with Ryan tightening the window for the throw. Nearly intercepted another pass on 3rd-and-2 late in the third quarter, jumping a short route to bat the pass down.

Aaron Dobson: Had one drop, but ran a beautiful sluggo route for a touchdown, the Patriots' first touchdown of the day. He also had a big catch down the sideline on third down that helped the Patriots keep another scoring drive alive. Dobson showed incredible concentration in making a difficult catch in traffic on a slant while being hit. His play remains up-and-down, but he was a bright spot for the Patriots in finishing with a team-high four catches for 60 yards and the touchdown.

Devin McCourty: Was on the right end of a pair of big plays, the first a pass broken up intended for Charles Clay and the second a pass tipped up in the air down the sideline, which was then intercepted by Marquice Cole. The Patriots called on McCourty to be a team captain when Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo both went down, and he has stepped up both on and off the field.

Stevan Ridley: It is just me, or does the Patriots offense seem to have a little extra boost with Ridley in the game? The Patriots coaching staff might disagree with me, but the stats don't: 14 carries, 79 yards and a touchdown. A big day for Ridley yet again. Let's keep this simple: get him the ball more.



Stock down:

Tom Brady: Brady continues to be up-and-down, and was the biggest part of the Patriots struggles in the first half with his costly interception on the Patriots' second play of the game. He didn't complete a pass until there was less than two minutes left in the first quarter, and went 6-of-8 for 25 yards and a pick in the first half. The Patriots can get by with struggles at wide receiver, on the offensive line and at running back, but are not equipped to win consistently unless Brady is playing up to his standard.

Logan Mankins: Allowed three sacks of Brady, two by defensive tackle Jared Odrick and another by defensive end Olivier Vernon. The Patriots offensive line has played well for much of the season, but seems to show up on the wrong end of plays at the wrong times.

Referees: There were 12 penalties for 96 yards on the day, and bad calls both ways, including a holding penalty that wiped away a Rob Gronkowski touchdown and a pass-interference on a pass by Brady to Gronkowski into triple coverage among others.




Patriots vs. Dolphins matchup breakdown: RT Sebastian Vollmer vs. LE Cameron Wake

Posted by Erik Frenz October 25, 2013 08:00 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There is little mystery to Cameron Wake's game. The Dolphins defensive end lines up generally at the same spot. He has a variety of pass-rush moves, but the one he likes the most (and his best) is the speed rush.

The only mystery is how to stop him. Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has been on the case for years, and while he's found some clues, it's hard to find the proverbial case that sticks against such a slippery defensive end.

"He has a lot of different moves," Vollmer said of Wake. "Like any defensive end, they don't just do one thing, so you kind of have to be ready for all of it."

tale of the tape vollmer vs wake.pngVollmer is considerably larger than Wake, so it would stand to reason that Wake would have a hard time beating a man so much bigger than he is. It's not always that easy, though; a smaller defensive end can more easily win leverage against his opponent when he already has low ground.

"I wouldn't say he's small," Vollmer said of Wake. "He's been doing this for awhile. He's pretty excellent at what he does. I mean, he gives a lot of tackles problems. He's very explosive and strong, he knows what he's doing, he knows how to get leverage. He's an all-around good pass rusher, no doubt.

The two have gone back and forth in their battles, and according to Pro Football Focus, each one dominated a game and got dominated in the other. Wake logged three hurries, a hit and two sacks in the first meeting last year, but was held to just one hurry in the second meeting. Important context for the first meeting: Vollmer was listed as questionable with a back/knee injury, and he wasn't even sure he'd play.

I asked Bill Belichick if he could compare Wake to another player. He didn't give a specific name, but sang Wake's praises in other ways.

He's just a good football player. I don't think there's any one thing that just jumps off about him. It's just all solid and good. He plays strong, he's athletic, he's active. He can rush the edge but he can also rush with power. He's got a good variety of moves. He makes a lot of plays on effort, plays where he gets initially stalemated but just outworks the blocker at times and makes plays on the quarterback or plays in the running game. He's a good run defender. He can definitely hold the line of scrimmage. He not just a pass rush, run up the field kind of guy. It doesn't look like he makes very many mistakes on film. He's not out of position much. I think he's just got a good, solid overall game. It's all good. I wouldn't say one area is -- it's not all power rushes and no speed rushes or vice versa, that type of thing. I think he does a good job, has a well balanced game, does a pretty good job on everything. He's a good football player.

In reviewing the film, a few things stand out:

  1. He really is a good football player.
  2. His burst off the line is so rare, perhaps there's really no one that compares.
  3. As good as his burst is, the speed rush is not his only move.

He will often get in the backfield on speed alone. He used it to help him log a key third-quarter sack of Brady in the first meeting between the two teams last season.

Wake began in the four-point stance, which he uses to maximum efficiency. With two hands on the ground, Wake is coiled up and ready to unleash all that energy off the snap.

Vollmer was one-on-one with Wake on the offense's right with Brady in the shotgun, and could do little as Wake brushed Vollmer's arms to the side and quickly made his way around the edge for the sack.

He had so much speed off the edge, he nearly broke Brady in half on impact.

Seriously, someone might have had to call Jim Ross.

Like Belichick said, it's not all speed. He also has incredible speed-to-power. We got a good example of that later in the same game. Wake started off with his speed rush, but when he was forced to engage the block from Vollmer, he quickly switched to his bull-rush.

The idea is to get a blocker on his heels with the speed, then knock him off his feet altogether with the bull rush. Wake accomplished all that, but not in time to stop the pass from being delivered. He was still able to deliver a pretty good hit on Brady.

As mentioned above, though, Wake is not always the winner in these matchups.

Wake tried to use his speed to get around Vollmer here, but a quick jam by the tall, long-armed tackle got Wake off his preferred route to the quarterback. That extra mileage bought Brady enough time to make the read and get the ball out.

The Patriots' level of respect for Wake is clear just from watching film. In the second meeting, the Patriots were keen to helping Vollmer out with a tight end.

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This wasn't an every-down thing, but on 3rd-and-1 in the first quarter of their Week 17 meeting at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots put tight end Rob Gronkowski next to Vollmer with Brady in the shotgun. Gronkowski wasn't going to release into a route; on this particular play, his sole responsibility was to help Vollmer keep Wake off of Brady.

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To his credit, Wake fought like hell through that double-team, eventually getting through the block of Gronkowski and onto Vollmer, but to no avail. Forcing Wake to play in traffic bought Brady enough time to let tight end Aaron Hernandez get past the coverage of the linebacker and move the chains.

Who knows how often these two will line up against one another, or whether Wake will even be at 100 percent for this game, but if they do, and if he is, the winner of this battle has a leg-up in winning the war.




Patriots Take 2: How did Rob Gronkowski look in his first game back?

Posted by Erik Frenz October 23, 2013 08:00 AM

Believe it or not, there's more than just one play from the Patriots loss to the Jets that's worth watching again. The NFL Game Rewind of the controversial final penalty has become football's answer to the Zapruder film, but there were over 60 minutes of football before that point.

This was the first game back for Rob Gronkowski, and it was also the first game of the year without both Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. They were also without Aqib Talib and Danny Amendola. The Patriots felt the impact of all those players, lending to some thoughts about the impact of each.

We look into that and more in this week's film review.



Return of the Gronk

There were some signs of rust from Gronkowski in his first game back, but for the most part, he played well. His physicality was on display in getting off jams and blocking, he absorbed hits well, and for the most part, he was getting open.

He lined up eight times on the outside, after lining up there 18 times all of last season. The feeling here is that the Patriots may have wanted to keep him clean and away from traffic. Maybe the Patriots saw a matchup they liked better with Gronkowski out wide; in all, Brady targeted Gronkowski on 13 passes with safety Antonio Allen in coverage and completed five of them, not including a penalty that wiped away a big catch-and-run by Gronkowski in the first quarter.

Allen was the safety in coverage on Gronkowski for the big 30-yard catch in the first quarter that set the Patriots up on the one-yard line.

The Patriots didn't shy him away from contact completely, though, using him as a run-blocker, including on running back Brandon Bolden's one-yard touchdown run.

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Gronkowski has been a dominant run blocker in his career, and the Patriots were feeling the loss of his impact in that role. According to Pro Football Focus, the Patriots had 68 runs for 311 yards off tight end in 2012. Prior to facing the Jets, that number dipped to 19 runs off tight end for 34 yards. Against the Jets, they ran six times off tight end for 37 yards. Gronkowski, himself, was a blocker on 12 of his 51 snaps against the Jets.

His impact wasn't all positive, though. There were some signs of rust, including two missed opportunities on a deep pass near the end zone and a pass he nearly hauled in with one hand.

The latter of those two was more Brady's fault than Gronkowski's, but that's a play he could have made, and might have if this wasn't his first game back.

He's been practicing since the beginning of September, but a little rust was to be expected. As he gets back in the swing of the game, he'll knock the rust off and his impact will only grow.



Alfonzo Dennard's dominant day in coverage

The Patriots were without Aqib Talib, but a couple other cornerbacks stepped up in his stead. One was Logan Ryan, with a pick-six in the first quarter that put the Patriots up by a touchdown. The other was Alfonzo Dennard.

According to Pro Football Focus, he's allowed 18 receptions on 39 throws into his coverage. Against the Jets, he allowed just two receptions on five throws in his direction, and broke up a long pass intended for Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill in the fourth quarter.

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Talib has rightly garnered the attention for his dominant play, but Dennard has been solid in coverage all year long. Between the two of them, the Patriots have a legitimate and underrated duo of shutdown cornerbacks.



Mix of looks in first week without Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork

The Patriots are always mixing up their looks on defense, but against the Jets, they were almost always in a 3-4 front.

It's interesting, because they opted to shift to the 3-4 front after losing Wilfork, who is regarded as one of the best 0-technique (head-on over the center) nose tackles in the NFL.

For the most part, the front consisted of Joe Vellano at left end, either Chris Jones or Marcus Forston at nose tackle, either Chris Jones or Chandler Jones at right end, Rob Ninkovich at left outside linebacker, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower at inside linebacker, and either Chandler Jones or Jamie Collins at right outside linebacker.

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They were in a 3-4 front on seven of the 12 plays on the Jets' opening touchdown drive; the other five times, they were in some form of sub package.

The 3-4 personnel grouping was used to counter the Jets two-tight end or two-back sets, and the Patriots stayed mostly in three-man lines when they went to the sub package.

This might be a sign of things to come, or the Patriots remain a game plan defense that changes its scheme each week based on its opponent.



12:26 stretch defined momentum swing for Patriots

The Patriots seemed to have the game in hand headed into halftime, but the momentum began to swing ever so slightly with 29 second left in the half, and by the 3:13 mark of the third quarter, it had completely flipped in favor of the Jets.

In that stretch, the Jets forced a punt to end the half, sacked Brady three times, forced three three-and-outs, and had a pick-six.

Left tackle Nate Solder came into the spotlight for giving up two of those sacks, one each against defensive ends Quinton Coples and Muhammad Wilkerson.

On the first play of the second half, Coples was able to swipe Solder's arms away before the long-armed left tackle could get into his pads. The defensive end then flipped his hips and turned straight upfield for the quarterback.

In much the same manner, Wilkerson was able to keep Solder's hands off him. The only difference was, Wilkerson went inside unlike Coples, who used a swim move to the outside.

Solder is a dominant left tackle, but he's not perfect. Wilkerson was drafted in the first round the same year as Solder; Coples went in the first round the very next year. The Jets strength is their defensive line. It should be no surprise that that unit is the one that came up big to help get the Jets back into the game.

We'll remember the plays where the Jets got to Brady, but the offensive line did a good job of keeping him clean for the most part, allowing pressure on only 16 of 50 dropbacks. Solder, specifically, was perfect outside of those two sacks.



Aaron Dobson becoming go-to target over Kenbrell Thompkins?

We know Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski will always have a special place in Tom Brady's heart, but two rookies are vying for his affection as well.

On the day, Brady threw seven passes toward Aaron Dobson and five toward Kenbrell Thompkins. Dobson earned his targets while running a route on just 32 snaps, whereas Thompkins' five targets came on 49 snaps as a route-runner.

Dobson's solid release was evident throughout training camp, and while he wasn't always open, he was making easy work of Jets rookie cornerback Dee Milliner.

Despite being open, he caught just three balls thrown his direction. Why? A mix of reasons. He came open on the sideline on a comeback route the very next play, but Brady threw it too wide.

A couple of times, Jets cornerbacks simply played great defense and stayed with Dobson stride-for-stride.

Dobson was lined up at the top of the screen on the above play, and appeared to get past the coverage of Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, but the veteran caught up with the rookie and the coverage was too tight for Dobson to make a play. The ball was also a bit overthrown.

The rookie was open once again deep down the right sideline, and although it's a tight window, that's a throw Brady should be able to make. Instead, it was launched a couple of yards too far, and fell harmlessly out of bounds.

Long story short, Dobson gets open, and the idea to throw it to him wasn't bad, but the throws, sometimes, were.

Special thanks to readers Jan Bergmann and Eitan Katz for asking me to look into this.



Tom Brady looking less terrific lately

"Is Tom Brady's age catching up to him?"

It seems this question comes up every so often. Usually, it's around the time the Patriots lose in the postseason. Almost always, the question is answered -- definitively, no -- very shortly after it's posed.

Brady hasn't had many games in his career as bad as the one he had against the Jets, and coupled with his poor performance against the Bengals a few weeks ago and the overall erratic state of the offense, that question is being asked once again.

Of Brady's 24 incomplete passes, two were dropped, one was lost in the sun, two were thrown away because of good coverage, six were good plays in coverage by the Jets, one was incomplete because Austin Collie didn't drag his toe, and the other 11 (including the interception) were bad throws by Brady.

brady deep.pngThe focal point of some of the issues has been his deep ball. His accuracy has dipped on the deep ball in each of the past three years, but the volume of attempts has increased, putting more of a spotlight on that particular area of his game. The Patriots wanted to gear their offense more toward a vertical attack with receivers like Dobson, Thompkins, Josh Boyce and Danny Amendola, but as of yet, it hasn't fully paid off.

When's it time to hit the panic button?

It may seem hard to believe, given that we're three months into the new offensive experiment, but one scout told me he believes Brady's struggles may still be due to a lack of chemistry and trust with his new wide receivers.

"The deep ball accuracy still has do to the different receivers he has had to work with," the scout said. "It takes time to develop timing knowing where his receivers are going to be and developing trust."

While, certainly, the receivers share some of the burden, this game might serve as a perfect example that the Patriots can overcome a lot of offensive problems, but not when the source of their problems is Brady. He still hasn't had his full complement of weapons yet this season, so he gets the benefit of the doubt until that happens.

Even still, consider this: Brady was 11-of-18 in the first half, and 11-of-28 in the second half. He had just 12 incomplete passes in the first 51:47 of the game. The final 12 incomplete passes all came in the final 18:16.

He may not seem like the same quarterback 100 percent of the time, but Brady's still in there somewhere.




Scouting the Miami Dolphins

Posted by Erik Frenz October 22, 2013 07:00 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The season may not have gone exactly as the Miami Dolphins or the New England Patriots thought it would so far, but their Week 8 matchup is just as big as it looked this offseason.

First place in the AFC East isn't on the line, but the Dolphins could draw within one game of the Patriots for the division lead. Both teams lost in Week 7, and the sense of urgency is beginning to build as we hit the midway mark of the season.

Here's a look at the Dolphins in advance of the big division showdown.


Record: 3-3

How they got here: With a 3-0 start, the Dolphins looked ready to threaten the Patriots in the AFC East. Three weeks and three losses later, they've slipped to .500 and the contenders-or-pretenders debate has begun. The Dolphins lost to the Bills this past week despite playing at home, coming off a bye and facing the Bills' third-string quarterback Thad Lewis.

The Dolphins' two biggest issues have been protecting the quarterback (26 sacks is the most in the NFL) and running the football (78 rushing yards per game is the eighth-lowest average). On Monday, the Dolphins made a move to sure up the offensive line by trading a conditional late-round pick for Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who was benched a few weeks ago after the Ravens traded for Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe.

Key cog, offense -- Brian Hartline, WR: Mike Wallace got the big contract, but Brian Hartline remains quarterback Ryan Tannehill's most trusted target. He has helped the Dolphins keep the chains moving, and he leads the team with 20 of his 31 receptions picking up a first down this season. Hartline is 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, giving him enough size to win matchups on the outside, but it's his ability to create separation that has earned him the trust of his quarterback. He has sneaky speed, and ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the 2009 scouting combine. Bill Belichick would be a big fan of Hartline's three-cone drill, a blazing time of 6.65 seconds. Mostly, he is at his best working underneath routes -- slants, digs and drags -- but he is good running a comeback route or an out route.

Key cog, defense -- Cameron Wake, DE: Just like with the Jets, you could put the Dolphins defensive linemen in a hat and pick any one as your key cog on defense. Wake's explosion off the line is rare, and he's known to beat offensive tackles consistently on burst alone. The Patriots are plenty familiar with how much of an impact Wake can make in the pass-rush; he has logged at least one sack in five of his eight career games against the Patriots. Wake has been asked to rush the passer from several different spots in his career, lining up as a 3-4 outside linebacker from 2009-2011 and a 4-3 defensive end from 2012-2013. He is battling back from a mild MCL sprain, and played just 32.4 percent of the snaps against the Bills.

X-factor -- Reshad Jones, S: Right now, Jones is the true definition of an x-factor. We're really not sure what we'll get from him. He has been victimized by the Saints and Ravens in coverage, but he proved there's still some playmaker left in there with a pick-six off Joe Flacco. He looked primed to emerge as one of the NFL's top young safeties, but after receiving a four-year, $29.36 million contract this offseason, he has had a rough ride in 2013 so far. Jones made several big plays in the first meeting with the Patriots last year, intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble. He was a maven in coverage for the Dolphins in 2012, and he allowed more than one completion into his coverage in just five games last year. He's already matched that number through six games, allowing 21 receptions on the year.

Stats and notes:

  • Notable injuries: Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe injured his shoulder against the Ravens and was inactive against the Bills. Cornerback Dimitri Patterson has been nursing a groin injury for over a month, and was a game-time decision against the Bills, but was ultimately active.
  • The Dolphins put the emphasis on forcing turnovers on defense and not allowing big plays in the passing game this offseason. They currently have 10 turnovers, just six shy of their total output last season. The 23 pass plays of 20 yards or more against them is almost right on pace for their total of last season (60).
  • Turnovers on offense seem to be a bigger problem, though -- namely from Tannehill. When he stays turnover-free, the Dolphins are 7-4; when he turns it over at least once, they are 3-8.
  • The last time these two teams met, Tannehill was sacked seven times. That kick-started the Dolphins on their way to allowing a league-leading 26 sacks through the first six games of the season.
  • The Jets just ran the ball 52 times against the Patriots; The Dolphins have run the ball 55 times in the past three games. Look for an increased focus on the running game against a Patriots defense that currently ranks 31st against the run.
  • There's a battle of strength vs. strength brewing in the red zone. The Dolphins offense converts 72.22 percent of their red zone possessions into touchdowns, the second-highest average in the league; in allowing conversions on 42.86 percent of opponent's possessions inside the 20, the Patriots red zone defense is the sixth-best in the NFL. The winner in this area could determine the winner of the game.




Give the Jets credit for shutting down Tom Brady, exploiting Patriots weaknesses

Posted by Erik Frenz October 21, 2013 08:47 PM

It's been over 24 hours since the Jets beat the Patriots, 30-27 in overtime, and the topic of discussion remains one penalty that gave the winning team new life in the game's final moments.

It's time to come to terms with what many Patriots players, and their head coach, have already admitted: the penalty hurt, but the Jets played a good game, and deserve credit for the win.

Credit has been hard to come by for the Jets against the Patriots this year; the focus was squarely on the Patriots' offensive miscues in the first meeting, a 13-10 Patriots win.

"It has nothing to do with us," head coach Rex Rex said, facetiously, of the media coverage following the first game. "I understand we were just out there. Certainly that was well reported and all that. So, we’ll get to see. We’ll see if there (are) some of those issues that exist this week."

patriots offense vs jets.pngThose words were cryptic, considering the events as they unfolded.

In fact, the Jets became the only team to hold Brady below 50 percent completions twice in a season (including teams that faced him in the playoffs).

Give the Jets' defensive line credit for generating four sacks in a momentum-swinging stretch of 11 minutes and 26 seconds from the end of the second quarter to the middle of the third quarter. With three first-round picks to their name, that group was built for just such an occasion, and they rose to it on Sunday.

Defensive end Quinton Coples got around left tackle Nate Solder with a flip of his hips and a swat of the hands and arms.

A few minutes later, defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson got underneath and inside Solder's pads, and ripped his arms to the side.

Those weren't simply gifts from a Patriots team in a giving mood; the Jets were backed into a corner, down by 11 points at halftime, and those were plays the Jets made that helped them climb back into the game.

The Jets put the pressure square on that group with a conservative defensive game plan that had the Jets rushing more than four defenders on just 12 of 50 pass plays according to stats website Pro Football Focus. On the season, the Jets blitzed Brady on just 21 of 90 pass plays (23.3 percent), far below the Jets average of 35.8. For reference, the league average is 31.7 percent.

That's a good game plan on defense, but the Jets deserve credit for executing and committing to an offensive game plan that focused on running the ball at a Patriots defense without defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. The Jets may have even drawn up a blueprint for attacking the Patriots defense for the rest of the year.

The Jets coaching staff could even take credit for that overtime penalty.

That's a smart move by the Jets -- and obviously, the timing of the penalty didn't hurt.

Brady is not playing up to his usual standard; the Patriots have been snakebitten by injury; the offense still isn't quite in sync.

Those are all issues the Patriots will have to address now and going forward, but even if they get players back from injury, and get improved play from Brady and the skill position players on offense, that doesn't erase this loss -- a loss which was earned in the same manner the Jets earned the victory.





After hot start, Miami Dolphins hit a crossroads

Posted by Erik Frenz October 21, 2013 08:00 AM

Just shy of one month ago, the Dolphins knocked off the Falcons in surprising fashion to move to 3-0 on the season.

Flash forward four weeks, and the Dolphins have fallen to 3-3 after a 23-21 loss to the upstart Bills, starting third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis. The Dolphins have yet to even face the Patriots this season, but are already two games back in the AFC East, and one game behind the Jets for second place.

Unless that gets corrected sometime in the next 10 weeks, the Dolphins will be answering some serious questions this offseason.

The Dolphins were gearing up to make a run at the division title after spending an estimated $248.06 million this offseason. Now, headed into a Week 8 showdown with the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, the Dolphins could be fighting to keep their season alive.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill finally threw for three touchdowns in a game, hitting that mark for the first time in his 22-game career, but that didn't come without three costly turnovers, including a sack-fumble with less than three minutes to go. The Dolphins have not played consistently enough to overcome turnovers from their quarterback; they are 7-4 when he does not turn it over and 3-8 when he does.

The Dolphins offensive line allowed just two sacks on the day, both at the hands of right tackle Tyson Clabo (has allowed eight sacks on the season), but the sack-fumble came at the most inopportune time, and brought the pass protection issues back to the forefront. They have allowed 26 sacks as a team this season, and are on pace to allow 69 sacks -- just seven shy of the NFL record.

They used the bye week wisely, and made some great adjustments to try to protect their quarterback, including their increased focus on running the ball and getting Tannehill outside the pocket on rollouts to protect him from pressure, but this is the second game in a row where the Dolphins have had some questionable coaching decisions in a late-game situation.

The Dolphins had run the ball successfully in the first three quarters, picking up 116 yards on 22 carries (5.3 average) but they reverted back to their old tendencies (ranked 29th in rushing prior to Sunday) and ran just three times in the fourth quarter.

"There's always more than one option when it comes to doing things," said Philbin after the loss.

A 46-yard pass play set the Dolphins up at the Ravens' 34-yard line, and with the clock ticking and 1:01 left in the game, Philbin had his quarterback spike the ball to stop the clock.

In that moment, they had the Ravens on their heels, and they were in field goal range, needing just three points to tie it. On one hand, they didn't want to blow their shot at a field goal by taking an unnecessary risk; on the other hand, running a play in this spot wouldn't have exactly been a huge risk -- the whole field was in play, and worst-case scenario, they could have spiked it on the next play.

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One look at the Ravens defense, which hardly got set by the time the Dolphins ran to the line to set up for the spike, tells the story of a missed opportunity for the Dolphins. The next play, Tannehill was sacked (go figure), the next pass was dropped, and kicker Caleb Sturgis' 57-yard field goal try was eventually wide left.

It's understandable if a coach realizes he made a mistake, but Philbin stood by the decision the day after.

"I do. And I was the one who made the call," Philbin said, addressing the thought that Tannehill had autonomously decided to spike the ball.

It's important to remember these are sometimes singular moments in a 60-minute game, and while they shouldn't necessarily forge our lasting impression of these individuals, those decisions are often the difference between winning and losing.

General manager Jeff Ireland is an interesting case. The fourth-year GM quietly received a one-year contract extension this offseason, so it would appear he's safe. While NFL front office

Philbin and the offensive line are less safe,

It's impossible to pinpoint where the changes would be made. Really, it depends on how the rest of the season unfolds. At this point, though, drastic changes look necessary on the offensive line.

The Dolphins season isn't lost -- especially with a win in New England on Oct. 27 -- but a loss in the same spot will have a lot of people wondering what major changes, if any, the offseason holds.





Patriots stock report: Tom Brady sets new career low in loss to Jets

Posted by Erik Frenz October 20, 2013 04:49 PM

In losing to the New York Jets, 30-27 in overtime, the New England Patriots fall to 5-2 on the season and are just one game ahead in the AFC East through seven weeks.

The game appeared in hand at halftime, with the Patriots nursing a 21-10 lead, but the offense went 1-for-12 on third down and had just 318 yards of total offense. Both sides made mistakes, but in the end, the Patriots made the critical one, a penalty on Chris Jones for pushing his teammate into the pile during a field-goal try, a new rule from this offseason.

Here is a look at some players who can feel good about their performance, and others who need to step up if the Patriots are going to get back on the winning track.

Stock up:

Devin McCourty: Had a strong game with five tackles, two assists and two passes defensed, including one in the end zone breaking up a would-be touchdown. With Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo out, McCourty will be called upon to make plays in the middle of the defense.

Rob Gronkowski: Patriots tight ends had nine receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown in the first six games of the season. Gronkowski matched that output and then some, finishing with eight receptions for 117 yards. He took several hits on his previously injured forearm and was blocking with confidence, but dropped a pass that he was nearly able to corral with one hand. Overall, it was a strong first-game back for Gronkowski.

Chris Jones: The rookie will be on the wrong end of the spotlight this week for his controversial penalty on the Jets' 56-yard field goal try, but he had a strong performance outside of that one mistake. He consistently disrupted his gap, and for his effort, he finished with five solo tackles, five assists and two sacks.

Stock down:

Kyle Arrington: Jets wide receiver Jeremy Kerley had a career day with eight catches for 97 yards and a touchdown, and did most of his damage with Arrington in coverage, including the touchdown. Arrington played the inside hard, and allowed Kerley to break off a half-hearted jam to the outside, wide open on the pivot route. Arrington was taken off the field at times by Marquice Cole.

Tom Brady: With 47.8 percent completions, Brady has had less than 50 percent completions in three games this season, which is a new career-high for him in one year. This time, the blame doesn't fall on his receivers, who dropped just two passes on the day.

Offensive line: Brady was sacked four times, the third week in a row he has been brought down that many times or more. The Jets defensive line has some studs; first-round picks Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples each finished with a sack, while the emerging undrafted free-agent Damon Harrison had a sack of his own. Calvin Pace rounded out the group.




Patriots vs. Jets matchup breakdown: CB Kyle Arrington vs. WR Jeremy Kerley

Posted by Erik Frenz October 18, 2013 08:00 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A quarterback was without one of his best slot receivers the last time the New England Patriots and New York Jets faced off.

That statement could apply to Patriots receiver Danny Amendola, but here, the subject of discussion is Jets receiver Jeremy Kerley. He is primarily a slot receiver, and as a result, he could draw the coverage of Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington.

Kerley has run 73.8 percent of his routes from the slot this season, and Arrington has spent 63.5 percent of his coverage snaps defending slot receivers.

arrington vs. kerley.pngThe two players have nearly identical measurables.

Kerley is a small guy who makes a big impact for the Jets offense. He led the Jets in receptions in 2012, and in his four career games against the Patriots, he has logged 21 receptions for 320 yards and a touchdown.

The two battled twice last year, and Kerley picked up five receptions on seven targets for 70 yards against Arrington in the first meeting, but the second time around, he was targeted twice and did not record a single reception in Arrington's coverage.

Kerley had two big catches in the first meeting against the Patriots last year -- both from the slot, both with Arrington in coverage, and both on similar looking routes.

kerley 1.png

On the first, Kerley ran a corner route toward the right sideline.

He simply turned Arrington around at the line of scrimmage (trail technique) and was able to beat him at that point with a double-move (fake inside, break outside).

kerley 2.png

Mark Sanchez put the ball in a spot where only Kerley could make a play on the ball, and the receiver tracked the pass down and made the catch with both feet in-bounds.

The pass went for 26 yards, and was emblematic of one of the Patriots biggest problems last year -- defending long pass plays.

kerley 3.png

Sanchez went to Kerley in overtime, and Arrington was in coverage once again. Kerley ran his route out of the slot, and was running stride-for-stride directly next to wide receiver Stephen Hill on the right side. The two receivers waited, and broke in opposite directions at nearly the same time.

kerley 4.png

Kerley was able to create separation simply by out-accelerating Arrington toward the sideline, and once again made the catch in-bounds.

The diminutive slot receiver Kerley had built a strong chemistry with Sanchez -- Kerley's 63.6 percent catch rate was the highest for any Jets receiver with more than three targets last year, and Kerley's 88 targets were 42 more than the second-most on the team.

Kerley's best weapon is his quickness. He's like Houdini slipping away from contact. Defensive backs always have a really hard time getting their hands on him. He often has a free release running routes from the slot, but his quick twitch helps him shake defenders in open space, as well.

He put some of those slick moves on display against the Atlanta Falcons on an eight-yard screen. Kerley waded through traffic, shook one defender and dragged another with him past the first-down marker.

He's one of the Jets best receivers at creating yards after the catch. Put him in that role more often and he can continue to move the chains for the Jets offense -- 13 of his 16 receptions this year have picked up a first down.

He couldn't shake free of Kyle Arrington's coverage on this play in their Thanksgiving matchup last year. Kerley was trying to run an in-breaking pivot route, but Arrington kept inside leverage and created too much disruption for Kerley to freely spin and break to the middle.

As a result, Arrington was able to get his hands on the pass and broke it up.

With the Patriots playing primarily nickel defense this year, Arrington has spent most of his time in the slot. According to stats website Pro Football Focus, he has allowed 15 completions on 28 throws into his coverage when in the slot. He has an interception, and also ranks second on the team with five passes defensed this season.

The battle between Kerley and Arrington may not determine the outcome of the Patriots-Jets war, but two players who are very good at what they do will lock horns on Sunday.




Patriots Take 2: Stevan Ridley needs to remain the lead running back

Posted by Erik Frenz October 16, 2013 08:00 AM

You can put your nailclippers away. You'll be biting your nails for the rest of the season.

The Patriots ensured that with yet another game that came down to the wire, the fourth game that has come down to the final possession. Tom Brady was far from perfect, but he delivered another signature moment in his storied career with his last-gasp touchdown toss to rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, capping off his second fourth-quarter comeback of the season.

Brady covers up a lot of problems, but the Patriots solved one of their biggest offensive problems when they finally got things going in the red zone and in the running game -- in one fell swoop.

Here's a look at all that and a little more in this week's film review.



Stevan Ridley deserves to be the workhorse running back

Ridley wasn't completely phased out of the offense after fumbling in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, but his workload was notably lighter than last year. In 2012, he had just five games with 16 carries or fewer, and he's already at four in 2013.

The Patriots were 6-of-17 in the red zone headed into the game, and went 3-of-5 on the day, thanks to Ridley's first two touchdowns of the season, in the first game of the year where he's had more than 16 carries.

Coincidence? You tell me, but he ran hard on Sunday and clearly had something to prove.

He dragged defenders, bounced off them, and otherwise found ways to keep his legs moving. Ridley finished with 60 yards after contact, breaking four tackles in the process and showed both the explosive burst and the toughness that has made him the Patriots best option in the backfield two years running.

He had two stiff-arms on one 19-yard run off right tackle, and was able to keep the ball safely tucked away in the process. That's the kind of hard-nosed, decisive running that helped Ridley rush for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012.

His four-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was a prime example. Ridley took the handoff off the left side, with fullback James Develin and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui blocking the defenders to the inside so Ridley could bounce to the outside.

When he got there, however, safety Kenny Vaccaro and linebacker Kevin Reddick were both waiting for him. Ridley turned straight upfield, lowered his shoulder and quickly secured the ball using proper high-and-tight technique, falling forward for the touchdown through the two defenders.

On the day, Ridley finished with 10 carries for 45 yards on runs outside the tackles and 10 carries for 51 yards on runs between the tackles.

The Saints have given up the 11th-most rushing yards despite the fourth-fewest rush attempts against them. Their average of 5.1 YPA allowed is the third-highest in the NFL. Maybe that was the nudge Ridley needed to get things going after a slow start to the season.

With the cold weather right around the corner, Ridley couldn't have picked a better time to get moving in the right direction.



Shutting down Jimmy Graham

Tight ends have run rampant through the Patriots secondary in recent years, and few have been as dominant this season as Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. Quarterback Drew Brees threw six passes in Graham's direction, had one intercepted, one broken up and completed none of them.

The Patriots are one of few teams in the NFL that has a cornerback with the physicality and frame to match up with Graham, and Aqib Talib was up to that challenge. Talib was in coverage on Graham for 19 of his snaps on Sunday, and was targeted three times while in coverage on Graham.

Talib went toe-to-toe with the physical Graham, and broke up the pass on this play in the first quarter.

graham PBU 1.png

The Saints have gotten used to having Graham (circled in black) run slant routes against smaller cornerbacks on the outside. Graham almost always wins the physical matchup on those routes. He wasn't able to use his basketball skills to box Talib out like he is able to do against so many other cornerbacks.

graham PBU 2.png

Talib didn't get his hand on the ball, as this screen grab might suggest, but his presence and hand technique were enough to cause some disruption for Graham trying to catch the pass.

While his role in locking down Graham was somewhat of a surprise, his standout performance in doing so was not a shock. On the season, he has allowed 13 completions on 33 throws into his coverage, and has allowed just one touchdown while intercepting four passes and logging five pass breakups.

He performed admirably, but he wasn't the only that had that responsibility. He left the game with a hip injury in the third quarter, and at that point, he was covered by cornerback Kyle Arrington.

GRAHAM PBU 3.png

Arrington found himself in coverage on Graham long before Talib's hip injury sidelined him for the rest of the game. Graham leaked out of the backfield after initially lining up next to Drew Brees in the shotgun. He motioned to the slot, thus making Arrington accountable for him as a receiver.

To Arrington's credit, he stayed with Graham stride-for-stride, but safety Devin McCourty came over to help out in coverage.

jimm graham double covered by arrington and mccourty.png

Graham would ordinarily be able to climb over a defender, but Arrington was able to get inside position on the pass, and would have intercepted it were it not for Graham turning into a defensive back for a moment.

The screen grab above encapsulates an overriding theme on the day, the season, and the Patriots defense over the years: regardless of how it gets done, the Patriots are one of the league's best teams at game-planning an opponent's best player out of a game.



Anatomy of a touchdown

The final touchdown will live on in infamy like unicorns and show ponies, but it almost didn't happen.

thompkins TD 1.png

The Patriots went with the 11 personnel grouping (1RB-1TE-3WR) and the Saints matched with their dime defensive package. Former NFL safety and Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen says the defensive call is "Red" 2, which is "a defense played in the red zone to create a 'fence' across the goal line," while the Patriots ran four vertical routes -- two on either side.

thompkins TD 2.png

The coverage from the Saints panned out perfectly, with defenders across the goal line, in position to defend a pass thrown in any part of the end zone.

The Saints had the right defensive call to stop the Patriots, but just didn't execute.

hi-res-7751664_crop_exact.jpg

Just look at how close Jabari Greer's fingertips were to the ball on this play. If he had timed his jump right, this would have been incomplete, and the Patriots would have had to try again.

Here's a look at the whole thing at full speed.



Nate Solder rebounds after tough outing vs. Bengals

Solder was responsible for three hurries and two sacks of Tom Brady against the Bengals, but he didn't allow a single pressure of Brady against the Saints.

And to think, it was all nearly undone by what could have been holding on the touchdown to Thompkins.

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Envision yourself in the referee's shoes. It looks, here, like Logan Mankins and Sedrick Ellis are engaged in a battle directly in front of his vantage point for Solder blocking Junior Gallette.

Solder certainly hooked Ellis around the neck a little bit, but usually, those holds will only be called when they're especially egregious. If Gallette had fallen to the turf, he probably would have gotten the call.



An interesting defensive wrinkle

The Patriots mixed things up quite a bit defensively.

Here are two snapshots of pre-snap alignments on back-to-back plays in the first quarter.

odd alignment 1.png

This is a 4-2-5 nickel package, but they lined up in a unique way. Cornerback Aqib Talib was lined up deep as a safety, and safeties Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty were lined up close to the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Kyle Arrington was also lined up deep on the outside.

odd alignment 2.png

On the next play, the Patriots came out with two down linemen, five linebackers in a two-point stance as linebackers (including Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the edges) and four defensive backs.

They weren't even close to done yet.

odd alignment 3.png

In the fourth quarter, the Patriots came out in an alignment you'll hardly ever see. There were just two defensive backs -- a cornerback and a safety -- along with three defensive linement and six linebackers (Jones and Ninkovich on the edges). Brandon Spikes (LB at the bottom of the screen) followed the fullback as he motioned out wide after starting out lined up in the I-formation.

Between running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, in addition to Graham, it's no surprise the Patriots wanted to beef up their coverage over the middle.




Thoughts on the loss of Jerod Mayo

Posted by Erik Frenz October 15, 2013 09:14 PM

Bill Belichick stepped on one too many cracks in the sidewalk this offseason. He crossed paths with one too many black cats and broke one too many mirrors.

That's the only way to explain the poor injury luck the Patriots have had already in 2013.

The latest player on the list is linebacker Jerod Mayo, according to a report from Les Carpenter of Yahoo Sports:

Mayo joins a lengthy list of injured Patriots that already includes defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Danny Amendola, guard Dan Connolly, tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Shane Vereen.

Here are some thoughts on the litany of injuries, Mayo's specifically:

  • It looks like there could be increased snaps for rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, who currently has just 52 defensive snaps this season according to stats website Pro Football Focus. He has been primarily a strongside linebacker for the Patriots, but he played all over the defense in preseason, and his athleticism is comparable if not better than Mayo's. Dane Fletcher has been primarily a special teams player this year, but has four years of experience in the defense, and has been dependable when called upon. He had previously played just five defensive snaps all year prior to Mayo's injury, and played six after the veteran linebacker left the Saints game.
  • The team's plans in the sub package remain a mystery. Collins and Fletcher are the two more athletic linebackers, but Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower have been the top two linebackers in sub packages next to Mayo, who has been a mainstay. A big part of Mayo's game was covering running backs in the flat, and sometimes tight ends over the middle. Look for all four linebackers to be used in some capacity, but Hightower and Spikes more frequently than the others.
  • Like with Wilfork, the Patriots may miss Mayo's leadership as much as they miss his on-field talent. He has worn the green dot helmet as the signal-caller for the Patriots defense for years. Looking back to a previous storyline, Hightower earned some experience wearing the green dot helmet in training camp and in preseason games. That practice could come in handy. Fletcher also has experience in that role, and could be asked to be the new backup.
  • Mayo has the seventh-most tackles in the NFL since joining the league in 2008. He's remained consistent despite switching positions several times in his career, going from 3-4 inside linebacker to 4-3 middle linebacker to 4-3 outside linebacker. The Patriots have linebackers who are great at some things, but no singular player who is as solid at everything as Mayo.
  • The sheer volume of injuries to key players may make the 2013 season Belichick's biggest test yet as the Patriots head coach. There are currently seven starters injured (pending the status of Talib, Connolly and Kelly), and Vereen is one of the top role players in the offense. Has there been another year where the Patriots were hit by this many major injuries? The 2011 season comes to mind, with Julian Edelman at cornerback and Matthew Slater at safety due to injuries in the secondary.




Rex Ryan thinks Jets can beat Patriots with help from the fans at MetLife Stadium

Posted by Erik Frenz October 15, 2013 06:17 PM

Winning football games is all about getting 11 men to work together. According to Jets head coach Rex Ryan, it may take a 12th man to put the Patriots away this Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

In his weekly appearance on 98.7FM ESPN New York, Ryan asked the home crowd for a little extra noise in helping to picking up the victory over the Patriots to move to 4-3.

This is not the first time Rex has put out an APB for fan assistance against the Patriots. The Jets head coach recorded a voicemail that was sent to every season-ticket holder prior to that '09 game, urging Jets fans to "make it miserable for Brady and company" by making as much noise as possible.

He wants to recreate the atmosphere from that game, which was the first Patriots-Jets showdown of the Rex Ryan era. The Jets won the game, 16-9, and sent souvenir-sized game balls to their fans for their help and support in creating a raucous environment.

"It was so loud," Ryan said, "like, I've never been in a stadium before where it shook. The floor was shaking. And I think if you make it like that, we're gonna beat this team."

What about the guarantee? On one hand, it's interesting how far Ryan's opinion on making guarantees seems to waver over time (hat tip Barstool Sports for the screen shot).

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This, however, wasn't quite a guarantee, because it came with a caveat, but Ryan thinks the fans in the stands could have just as much of an impact as the players on the field.

"Our guys are going to give everything they have, there's no question about it," said Ryan, "and it starts with the preparation, but oh, it'd be nice to get a little help from our fans, that's for sure."

That '09 game, however, took place at the old Giants Stadium, a bedrock of hardcore Jets fans cheering their team on. MetLife Stadium, like many new buildings, is cavernous and loaded with club suites that don't harbor the kind of raucous fans required to create a real "12th-man" advantage.

When the two teams last met on Sept. 12, the Jets also got a little help from Brady and the Patriots offense. Passes indiscriminately hit the turf, going high, low and wide of targets at times, and were dropped or deflected at other times. Brady completed 48.7 percent of his passes that day, for what was his lowest completion percentage since Dec. 20, 2009 against the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots receivers also dropped four passes.

They're not expecting to get that much help from the Patriots this time.

"We know they're going to make adjustments," Ryan said in the interview, "so you've got to be ahead of it. If you stay with the same plan, don't expect the same results, because it's not going to happen. This [Patriots] team will prepare like nobodies business, and we know that going into it."

Here's brief rundown of the history of Rex Ryan's guarantees/pseudo-guarantees against the Patriots:

  • November 26, 2010: Rex said, "Our football team believes we can beat anybody, and we're going to prove it. We've won eight in a row on the road, and we plan on making it nine.” The Jets lost, 45-3 at Gillette Stadium.
  • January 15, 2011: Rex said, "We respect 'em. We do not fear 'em,. And we're gonna win the game." The Jets won, 28-21 at Gillette Stadium.
  • October 15, 2012: Rex said, "I want them to know, and they know, that I think we're going to beat them." The Jets lost, 29-26 at Gillette Stadium.

Mixed results, no doubt, but the guarantee means nothing if Jets fans don't bring the noise and make communication difficult for Brady and Co.




Scouting the New York Jets

Posted by Erik Frenz October 15, 2013 08:00 AM

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AP Photo/Seth Wenig

For a short period of time, the rivalry between the New York Jets and New England Patriots was considered one of the more exciting feuds in the NFL. The two teams went back-and-forth, exchanging big wins from 2009 through 2010. Since then, the tide has shifted dramatically for the Patriots, with a win streak over the Jets that now stands at five games.

There have been some close calls -- one game each season has been decided by nine points or less. There have also been some blowouts -- the Patriots have won the second meeting in each of the past four years, and by a combined score of 162-51.

The Jets had a chance to beat the Patriots in Week 2, but were undone in a 13-10 loss by interceptions from quarterback Geno Smith -- a theme that has become a trend in the Jets losses this season.

A lot has happened since then, so let's get an early look at what lies ahead for the Patriots.



Record: 3-3

How they got here: Three close wins, two tough losses and one bad blowout have left the Jets with a .500 record. Smith has already built a reputation for late-game heroics, leading two fourth-quarter comebacks and three game-winning drives already in his young six-game career. Over the four weeks since the two teams last played, Smith has given Jets fans both reason for hope (no turnovers and a 147.7 passer rating against the Atlanta Falcons) and despair (four turnovers in a 38-13 thrashing by the Titans). Coming off a tough loss against the Steelers, the Jets are staring ahead at a tough three-game stretch, with the Patriots, Saints and Bengals up ahead on the schedule. He has now turned the ball over 13 times this season (10 interceptions, three fumbles lost). Their defense ranks fifth in yards, but has not yet had a signature Jets defensive performance, as evidenced by their lack of takeaways (three).

Key cog, offense -- Jeremy Kerley, WR: Kerley may be one of the most underrated undersized slot receiver in the NFL. He has caught 16 passes this season, 13 of which have resulted in a first down. His combination of quickness and speed makes him a difficult assignment in the slot, where the open spaces are much wider for a defender to cover. He also consistently shows the ability to find soft spots in zone coverage, settle down and stay open long enough for his quarterback to find him.

Key cog, defense -- Muhammad Wilkerson, DL: Put the names of the Jets defensive linemen in a hat and pull one out. Whether you end up with Damon "Snacks" Harrison, Sheldon Richardson or Muhammad Wilkerson, you have a good start for who to account for in the Jets defense. Wilkerson is the mainstay of the group for his versatility, strength and toughness. He plays both the 5-technique and the 3-technique, and manages to create pressure from either spot, whether singled or doubled (11 hurries, four hits, five sacks in 2013). Explosiveness isn't his forté, but he uses his hands well to keep blockers at bay, and he plays with sound leverage technique to quickly win battles and get into the backfield.

X-factor -- Jeff Cumberland, TE: Okay, Cumberland may not be the most athletically gifted player on the Jets offense, he may not bet he kind of player that puts stress on a defense and forces them to double-team him, but he is remarkably consistent and has become ultra-reliable for Smith. He has been targeted 12 times and caught 11 passes. He has not yet dropped a pass, and has two touchdowns in the past three games. With Kellen Winslow out due to a suspension, Cumberland's role has expanded, and he is the more versatile of the two tight ends for his ability to contribute as a blocker in the running game.

Smith has looked to Cumberland in some big spots, including on this touchdown pass against the Falcons. It was a great throw by Smith to put it on the back shoulder in the one spot where only Cumberland could get it, but the tight end gets props for going up over the linebacker to make the catch above his head. We all know about the Patriots struggles defending tight ends, so Cumberland's name could pop up once or twice in a key moment.

Stats and notes:

  • Notable injuries: wide receiver Santonio Holmes (foot, hamstring) and cornerback Dee Milliner (hamstring) both missed Week 6; cornerback Antonio Cromartie (hip, knee) was active, despite an injury that took place in practice last Thursday.
  • Tight end Kellen Winslow was suspended four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs; he served the first game of that suspension last week.
  • Who will line up on who between the Jets receivers and the Patriots defensive backs? That remains very much a mystery, with so much uncertainty around the health of both groups. If the Patriots have cornerback Aqib Talib in the lineup, he will probably be on Stephen Hill, as he has the most comparable skill set. If the Jets have Holmes back, that could force the Patriots to put cornerback Logan Ryan on the field for extensive snaps; the rookie played a career-high 33 snaps against the Saints in Week 6.
  • The Jets defense ranks first against the run in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics.
  • The Jets are usually known for their stingy pass defense, but through six games, they have just one interception -- and it came off Josh Freeman in Week 1. From 2009-2011, the Jets forced 92 turnovers on defense; in 22 games from 2012-2013, they have forced just 21 total turnovers.
  • The Jets defense gives up a league-low 3.39 average yards per play on first down in 2013; the Patriots offense picks up 4.88 yards per play on first down in 2013, the sixth-lowest average in the NFL.
  • Geno Smith's 74.7 passer rating through the first six games of his career is the 23rd-best (out of 108 qualifying quarterbacks) for any rookie with at least 60 pass attempts in their first six games. His 10 interceptions are tied for eighth-most, and are exactly as many as former starting quarterback Mark Sanchez had in his first six games.
  • According to stats website Pro Football Focus, Smith completes 70.2 percent of his passes and has a 90.9 passer rating when there's no pressure in his face (131 dropbacks), against completing 39.4 percent of his passes with a 44.3 passer rating while under pressure (93 dropbacks).
  • The Jets rely on Smith's big arm, and thus far this season, he has delivered. Smith the third-highest deep accuracy rate in the NFL, with 53.3 percent of his aimed deep throws hitting their target; his deep attempt rate of 15.8 percent is the fourth-highest in the NFL.
  • Running back Bilal Powell has 497 yards from scrimmage, the second-most in the AFC East behind Bills running back Fred Jackson (13 more yards on six fewer touches).





Patriots begin pulling away in competitive AFC East

Posted by Erik Frenz October 14, 2013 08:00 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The road is not always smooth. It is not always headed the same direction, and there are sometimes some detours.

But if there's one thing the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins have grown accustomed to over the past 13 years, it's that the road will almost always run through Foxborough.

The Bills fell to 2-4 with a 27-24 loss in overtime against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Jets stumbled to 3-3 in their 19-6 loss to the previously winless Pittsburgh Steelers. The Dolphins are on a bye this week, but after winning their first three games, they have lost two straight games to fall to 3-2.

The Patriots sit at 5-1 in the AFC East, and with the Dolphins on a bye, they will take a 1.5-game division lead into Week 7, the first time they've had more than a one-game lead all season.

They can't rest on that too long, though; their mettle will be tested once again with a trip to MetLife Stadium to take on the Jets -- the Patriots riding high off an emotional win, the Jets hungry after a tough loss to swallow.

"They're going to be motivated," said quarterback Tom Brady. "They lost, they're playing at home and we've already played them once."

History tells us, however, that the Jets tend to crash-and-burn against the Patriots in their second meeting of the season. New England has outscored their border rivals 162-51 in the second meeting the past four seasons. That includes a 45-3 blowout in 2010 and the "Buttfumble" game in 2012.

It seemed like the Jets had turned a corner with a thrilling 30-28 win last week over the Atlanta Falcons, but some of the most time-tested issues facing the Jets resurfaced. As a team, the Jets currently have 14 turnovers on the season; they went without a turnover against the Falcons, but quarterback Geno Smith threw two interceptions against the Steelers -- one on an ill-advised throw into triple coverage, fit for a rookie.

The Patriots defense, on the other hand, has created 11 turnovers this year, and has now forced at least one turnover in an NFL-record 33 games.

The outcome of the next two games could decide whether the Patriots walk away easily with their 11th division title in the past 13 years, or end up in a dog fight until the very end of the season. The Patriots play the Dolphins in Miami in Week 15, and host the Bills in Week 17.

For now, though, the Patriots remain atop their division, and with the Patriots trending the opposite direction from the rest of the group, they have put those teams on notice that to keep up with the Patriots in the AFC East doesn't mean simply making the right moves in the offseason, it also means consistently winning games in the regular season.

That's something the rest of the division has failed to do for a long time, and so far in 2013.




Patriots stock report: Vintage Tom Brady when it mattered most

Posted by Erik Frenz October 13, 2013 08:36 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The outlook was bleak, but Tom Brady proved why he is Tom Brady with his 17-yard touchdown to Kenbrell Thompkins, with five ticks remaining on the clock.

The Patriots squandered a 10-point halftime lead, having scored just six points in the first 29:55, but with 1:13 left in the game, they put together the game-winning drive when it mattered most and pulled out the surprise win, 30-27.

The victory is deodorant for the stink of the Patriots' first loss of the season, last week against the Bengals, but now at 5-1 on the season, this passes the smell test as a resilient team that will be in the mix until the very end.

Even in victory, the Patriots weren't perfect, so let's take a look at some players whose stock went up and some others whose stock took a hit this week.



Stock up:

Tom Brady: Brady started red hot going 16-for-20 for 163 yards in the first half, but appeared to lose his touch in the second half, and was 4-for-15 for 36 yards and a pick before going 5-for-8 for 70 yards on the comeback drive. It was Brady's second fourth-quarter comeback in the 2013 season, and the 27th of his career.

Stevan Ridley: A huge performance for the Patriots lead running back. He piled up 61 yards on 11 carries in the first half, and scored his first (and second) touchdown of the season in the process. He finished the game with 20 carries for 96 yards and the two touchdowns. Ridley missed Week 5 against the Cincinnati Bengals, but ran hard and determined on Sunday night, stiff-arming and breaking tackles left and right.

Kenbrell Thompkins: Hauled in the game-winning touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone. The 17-yard touchdown was Thompkins' fourth touchdown catch of the season, and although there have been ups and downs along the way, he has mostly shaken off the stigma of his tough start.

Kyle Arrington: Made two big plays in coverage on tight end Jimmy Graham: the first, an interception, gave the Patriots the ball deep in Saints territory; the second, a pass-defensed, temporarily prevented the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.



Stock down:

Injuries: Lots of them for the Patriots today, and big ones. Dan Connolly (concussion), Aqib Talib (hip), Danny Amendola (concussion) and Jerod Mayo (shoulder) all left the game and didn't return. The loss of Wilfork, the continued absence of Rob Gronkowski, and a second injury to Amendola have brought the offseason narratives of the Patriots as an injury-prone team back to the forefront.

Patriots defensive line: Struggled to get much pressure on Drew Brees, especially up the middle, and logged just one sack of Brees on the day (courtesy of defensive end Chandler Jones). The Saints began running straight down the throat of the Patriots defense in the second half and were successful doing so, logging 112 yards on 20 carries in the final 30 minutes of regulation.

Aaron Dobson: Had a very strong showing, but three negative plays really hurt the Patriots. He dropped an easy pass on the first play of the game, had a key offensive pass-interference penalty on the first play of the second half, and a drop on a failed 4th-and-6 pass.




Words With Frenz mailbag: Julian Edelman has ably replaced Wes Welker

Posted by Erik Frenz October 11, 2013 10:00 AM

"Dependability is more important than ability."

The quote, from a Bill Belichick press conference in early September, helps explain a lot about the Patriots' personnel decisions over the years. It also helps explain why Julian Edelman has been the most productive wide receiver on the team through five games.

That's not to say he doesn't have ability -- his shiftiness running routes makes him tough to cover. He flew under the radar during training camp because of the focus on the rookie wide receivers, but he was always in the mix with the top unit when he was healthy. However, his chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady and his knowledge of the system have helped him remain a bright spot in what's otherwise been a disappointing season for the Patriots offense.

Let's start there in this week's mailbag.

Consider this Julian Edelman Appreciation Day in the Words With Frenz mailbag.

  • Edelman is on pace for 115 receptions, 1,133 yards, 9.8 yards per reception and six touchdowns. Wes Welker last year had 118 receptions, 1,354 yards, 11.5 YPR and six touchdowns.
  • In the creepy department, Edelman and Welker both have the same yards per route run (1.78), according to Pro Football Focus.
  • Brady is 36-of-48 (75 percent) for 354 yards and two touchdowns, giving him a passer rating of 109.2 when targeting Edelman. Brady's rating on the season overall is 80.5, so Edelman has been one of Brady's most efficient targets.
  • As you alluded, Edelman has fewer drops (3) than any of the Patriots top four receivers despite more targets than any of them.

Lots of uncertainty in the Patriots receiving corps, but Edelman has been a bedrock of consistency through the trouble.

Oh, Alison, please never change.

We're going on 39 days of "day-to-day," but it sounds like this might finally be the week. It was reported by ProFootballTalk earlier this week that Gronkowski is likely to play this week against the Saints. He might be on a limited snap count, but he's been practicing now since the beginning of the season, so he should be in -- or close to -- football shape.

The Patriots really need him in the red zone, where they have converted just six of 17 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line and rank better than only the winless Jacksonville Jaguars. Gronkowski has 29 red zone touchdowns in the regular season since 2010, the most in the league despite him missing 10 games in the past two seasons.

Hans, I wouldn't read too much into it.

You're right, Kellen Winslow was on the field for just 20 of 47 snaps against the Falcons, with Jeff Cumberland earning his biggest workload of the season (percentage-wise) at 36 snaps. It looks worse because the game plan was focused, clearly, on attacking the linebackers over the middle.

The Jets rolled out a unique offensive game plan against the Falcons. They were lining up in a lot of different formations to keep the Falcons guessing. As a result of that very multiple attack, the Jets went with the most versatile players on the roster.

Cumberland and Winslow actually ran the same number of routes (17 apiece), but Cumberland was used as a blocker 19 times (18 runs, one pass), where Winslow was used just three times as a run-blocker.

Winslow isn't an incredibly versatile player. I think this was just a case of one game plan where he simply wasn't a fit.

Kara, this will ultimately come down to two teams.

At 2-3, the Bills aren't out of the mix yet, but they were dealt a devastating blow with the injury to quarterback EJ Manuel that could keep him out for six to eight weeks. Safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Stephon Gilmore have both missed the first five games, but are expected to make their return this week against the Bengals. They then have two tough road games against the Dolphins and Saints, then home against the currently undefeated Kansas City Chiefs.

The Jets could make a bigger push than expected if rookie quarterback Geno Smith continues to develop. A week after turning the ball over four times against the Titans, Smith didn't commit a single turnover in a 30-28 win over the Falcons. We have come to expect big things from the Jets defense, and Rex Ryan's group has not failed to deliver (second overall). Their defensive line is a force, with three first-rounders in Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and Sheldon Richardson. Teams dream of being built as well up front as the Jets on defense.

To me, though, the Dolphins still look like the bigger threat. They still have the best defense of the bunch and the better skill position players. They're on a bye this week, giving them some time to get key players healthy like defensive end Cameron Wake and cornerbacks Dimitri Patterson and Will Davis. The Dolphins haven't played a single game against an AFC East opponent, so that will be a big test for them. For now, though, I feel safe sticking with the Dolphins as the No. 2 team in the division.

It's certainly a lot more interesting when the rest of the division is competitive, though, isn't it?

It's about 600 pixels wide and holds two to three stocking stuffers.

Thanks for the questions, everyone! Further questions can be directed to me via Twitter or in the comments.




Slowing down Jimmy Graham should be Patriots No. 1 priority

Posted by Erik Frenz October 11, 2013 07:00 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are used to having the dominant presence at tight end. This week, their defense will have to account for such a player.

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is a matchup nightmare. He has the speed to test a defense vertically, the quickness to get open over the middle, and at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds with four years of basketball experience with the Miami Hurricanes, he also has the size to win jump-balls.

How does a defense account for a player who can do so much?

"Everybody has tried everything," Bill Belichick said, "tried to jam him at the line, at times he’s had linebackers on him, safeties on him, double cover him. Each team’s kind of got some of their own matchups. But he’s seen a lot of different coverages -- man, zone, in-and-out, short-and-deep, jam at the line of scrimmage -- he’s seen all of it."

Whatever the coverage, Graham has beaten it. He leads the NFL in receptions (37) and yards (593), and ranks second in receiving touchdowns (6).

His production is off the charts, relative to the rest of the Saints offense.

There's no doubt that stopping Graham will be priority No. 1 for the Patriots defense, and we'll likely see a mixture of coverages to keep the Saints guessing.

Reviewing some film on the Saints offense, it's pretty clear that teams have tried just about everything.

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Graham's slowest performance of the season was a four-catch, 45-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Falcons. They would sometimes cover him with a cornerback, and a linebacker would help out over the middle or a safety over the top.

On this play, for example, the Falcons are in a simple Cover 2 Sink, with five defenders dropping into intermediate zones, two safeties over the top and four rushers. However, a cornerback is lined up over Graham, and a safety rolls over on him when Graham gets deep into his route.

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Brees was initially looking down the middle, hoping to attack the safeties with a deep post, but thought twice once he saw a corner in coverage and went to his next read, wide receiver Kenny Stills. The pass would eventually fall incomplete.

The Patriots could match up cornerback Aqib Talib on Graham. He lines up all over the field, and according to stats website Pro Football Focus (via MassLive.com), he actually spends more time as a wide receiver (166 snaps, 65 on the outside) than at tight end (103 snaps).

The problem with cornerbacks in coverage on Graham is that they can sometimes be boxed out by his big frame.

He had a 27-yard touchdown catch against the Dolphins for that very reason. In fact, the Dolphins had him doubled over the top and still couldn't stop the highly athletic Graham from making the catch.

Graham is used to winning matchups like this due to his basketball experience, and in those situations, all you can hope for is to make life as difficult for him as possible.

"He's so tough because of what he is," said Talib. "He's 6-7, 250, 260 (pounds) or whatever, and he's got ball skills out this world. That's the main thing that makes him so tough."

In so doing, they also dictate matchups at times.

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One strategy the Patriots have been known to use on tight ends is to chip them at the line of scrimmage, and to have a safety help out in man coverage at that point. They used just such a strategy against Chargers tight end Antonio Gates in 2011, and while that was a different situation with a different cast of defensive players, the Patriots could borrow on some of the lessons from that game.

They were able to hold Gates without a reception, and he was targeted just once the whole game.

Where ever he went, the Patriots jammed him and pushed him around. They would often have

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Rob Ninkovich, then a linebacker, jammed Gates off the line on this particular play. Safety Patrick Chung then rolled into coverage, further disrupting his path within the five-yard window.

Not only does this get Graham off his route, but it could throw quarterback Drew Brees out of rhythm as well.

It's not a sure bet, though, as Graham proved on his seven-yard touchdown catch against the Falcons.

On the above play, linebacker Kroy Biermann gets a jam on Graham off the line, but once the tight end gets into his pattern, safety Thomas DeCoud is late getting over to help.

It's a tough job, but someone's going to have to do it.

The primary safety in coverage could be Steve Gregory, but there will be multiple linebackers used on him at any given time. Dont'a Hightower seems like the best bet right now, but perhaps Ninkovich could reprise his role. Hightower has the size to give Graham a good jam off the line of scrimmage.

Jamie Collins, specifically, has not played much this season so far. His snap totals by week: two, four, 18, 12, 10. His role, however, has primarily been in pass coverage, where he's been seen on 35 snaps. Perhaps we will see more of him this week in an effort to give Graham multiple looks. He is a rookie, but he was brought in for just such a matchup, and if the Patriots' strategy to stop tight end Tony Gonzalez is any indication, it won't be up to any one particular player.

Unfortunately, more than one player may still not be enough to shut down Graham.





Patriots Take 2: Where does the blame lie for woes in the passing game?

Posted by Erik Frenz October 9, 2013 07:00 AM

In losing to the Cincinnati Bengals, 13-6, the New England Patriots offense has once again come into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Before, the stench was wiped away by the deodorant that is winning football games. Now, though, the Patriots offense is sweating profusely and needs to reapply that speed stick as quickly as possible.

Fixing what ails the Patriots offense is not a one-man job. It's going to take improvement from all parties involved.

"There's no magic potion or formula you use," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels of how to fix the Patriots woes, "and you certainly try to give them every opportunity during the course of the week to practice the things that they're going to do on Sunday, and then hopefully those happen to carry over."

For years, the defense has been referred to as a "read-and-react" unit, in that they look for certain clues from the offense as a play unfolds (alignment, assignment, etc.) but as former Boston Globe NFL writer Greg Bedard points out, the Patriots' offense is nearly as close to that description as the defense.

Without knowing the calls, including how a receiver is supposed to run a route against a certain coverage, it's impossible to know for 100 percent certain who is at fault on each play. Here is a series of educated guesses, though, that might help us get closer to the heart of the problem.



Bad passes and reads from Tom Brady

There were six negative plays that I put on Brady -- one was a sack where he held onto the ball too long (4.23 seconds), three were bad throws (one in driving rain), and two times, he didn't see an open receiver.

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With 12:00 remaining on 1st-and-10 in the second quarter, Brady had intended to go deep over the middle for wide receiver Julian Edelman. The Bengals, cognizant of the fact that Edelman is Brady's most trusted target, opted to bracket him with safety help.

Brady threw it away, out of bounds, but had he simply looked to his checkdown, he would have found fullback James Develin wide open in the flat, with plenty of space in front of him.

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Who knows why Brady didn't look for the easy completion underneath to Develin, but it was right there, and could have given the Patriots some easy yards and potentially a first down. The Patriots punted three plays later.

Brady made a similar decision, throwing to a double-covered Danny Amendola down the seam on third down, when he had Edelman breaking open to the right and could have probably moved the chains.

Those were not the only easy yards Brady left on the field. There were also a pair of bad throws that, if more accurate, could have helped the Patriots sustain key drives.

He had tight end Michael Hoomanawanui coming open over the middle of the field on 2nd-and-8 with 8:08 remaining in the second quarter.

Brady tried to fit the ball into a tight window, and may have felt he needed to throw it behind the safety underneath. The ball was thrown so fast, however, that the safety wouldn't have been able to react in time, anyway. Had Brady thrown this in front of Hoomanawanui, it might have been completed. Instead, it was incomplete, and running back LeGarrette Blount fumbled on the very next play.

Who knows if the Patriots would have scored on this drive. Either way, it's a pass Brady would probably love to have back.



Bad routes and drops from receivers

There were six dropped passes, or eight if you want to count two drops that would have been extremely difficult catches -- one by wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins that was initially ruled a catch, but was overturned on review; another on a would-be touchdown catch by Edelman.

edelman drop.png

It's hard to blame Edelman too strongly for this drop; he was being interfered with by Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, who never once turned to look for the ball and wrestled with Edelman the entire time the receiver tried to catch the ball.

Thompkins had to dive for his catch, and nearly came down with it, but in truth, this would have been an incredible catch. We see receivers make these catches in the NFL, but it's hard to hold Thompkins at too much fault for failing to corral this one. I put the offensive line at fault for this one, but more on that later.

There were some drops, however, that were inexcusable. That statement could apply to all three of Amendola's drops.

He dropped one on the final drive, on 2nd-and-10 from the Bengals' 44-yard line.

The rain had stopped falling at this point, and Amendola created enough separation from the coverage of safety Chris Crocker. Amendola let the ball get into his chest a little bit, and he was unable to tuck it away before it slipped out of his grasp.

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One of the most inexcusable drops of the day was on a screen pass for running back Brandon Bolden in the first quarter.

The execution, across the board, was perfect. There was a guard out in front, ready to get a downfield block on anyone in front of him, and there was plenty of open real estate in front of Bolden to get at least 15 yards on the play.

In all, three players dropped passes: Amendola (3), Bolden (2) and Edelman (2) with two more drops (Edelman and Thompkins) deemed too difficult to catch.

dobson wrong route.png

Of course, the one play that sticks out in everyone's mind is the bad route by Dobson, who broke toward the middle of the field when Brady threw to the corner (here's the .gif)

dobson wrong route 2.png

It's hard to place the blame for these types of misreads, because again, we don't know the call or what sight adjustments the receiver is expected to make on his route. It's easy to see, however, that Dobson begins breaking toward the corner for a brief moment when Brady starts to throw that direction, before Dobson then cuts back inside over the middle.

We also know that Brady has 12 going on 13 years of experience in this system, and Dobson has five going on six months of experience. That leads me to side with Brady on this one.



Great defensive plays

Make no mistake about Sunday's loss; the Patriots left some opportunities on the field, but the Bengals played great defense. I counted 10 plays on which the Bengals did something that could constitute disrupting the pass -- whether it was creating pressure on Brady that caused a bad throw, breaking up a pass or simply blanketing receivers downfield.

dobson.png

Cornerback Terence Newman made the play of the day on a deep pass from Brady to Dobson in the fourth quarter. Dobson ran a fade route toward the right pylon in front of the end zone, but Newman stayed with him every step of the way before leaping at just the right moment to knock the ball out of Dobson's grasp.

The Bengals logged two pass breakups on the day -- this one, and the pass for Edelman in the end zone broken up by Adam Jones.

On this pass, there were at least three Bengals defenders pushing Patriots offensive linemen up field and right into Brady's lap. With so much traffic at his feet, he had no way of stepping into the throw, and it landed short of the mark -- and was nearly intercepted.

He had no pocket on the throw to Thompkins that was ruled a catch but reversed. Both Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer gave up the edge rather quickly, but with enough room from the interior offensive linemen, Brady was able to wiggle his way out of trouble and got the pass off to Thompkins.

With a bit more time to settle his feet, Brady could have made this a much easier reception for Thompkins.

Overall, Brady was pressured on 18 of his 42 dropbacks (42.9 percent of the time); two of those pressures directly led to incomplete passes like the one above, and four were sacks.

The Patriots won't face a defense as good as the Bengals every week -- but they will at least one more time this season.



Coaching

Rarely will you see me call out the coaching staff. They work tirelessly to devise a game plan, and I won't pretend to put in nearly the work these guys do every week.

Why, though, would they call a pass to tackle Nate Solder in the end zone? Yes, he has some experience as a tight end, and if it works, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels looks like a genius, but being that the Patriots had so few opportunities in the red zone, you'd think they would want to maximize those opportunities with sure-fire plays. Solder has some experience at tight end, having played there before moving to tackle for Colorado, but he admits that's pretty far in the past.

"It's been a long time since I've been a tight end," he said with a laugh, "and I think I'm more of a tackle now, for sure."

It's understandable that the Patriots would try anything and everything to score down in the red zone, where they've struggled (35.3 percent of their red zone possessions end in touchdowns, second-lowest in the league ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars). This is just further proof of how badly the Patriots miss tight end Rob Gronkowski.



Some positives

It felt wrong going through and assigning blame for all the bad plays without at least pointing out some of the positives.

In his first game back after missing four weeks with that groin injury, Amendola did a nice job of separating. He's never had a problem with drops in his career (11 drops from 2009-2012). Those will probably go away when he gets back in the swing of things.

He contorted his body to make the difficult catch that set the Patriots up at the one-yard line. It's a tough break that he didn't make it into the end zone, but it's a small miracle he even corralled that pass -- and to contort that way on a sore groin is impressive.



Conclusion

Final incompletion tally: seven on the receivers, five on Brady, three on the pass protection/pass rush from Cincinnati, two pass break-ups by Cincinnati, one difficult drop, one spike, one bad play call

And a partridge in a pear tree.

Plenty of blame to go around, it seems, but the final conclusion is that everyone has to step their game up -- Brady with more accurate throws, receivers by hanging onto the ball and running the correct routes, and the offensive line with better blocking up front.

Getting Thompkins and Dobson assimilated is going to be a process. Because of that, the veteran receivers can't afford to make mistakes. The offensive line needs to buy Brady time to go through his reads and find an open man. Brady needs to start putting the ball in spots where his receivers can catch it.

A little improvement from each group goes a long way to helping the Patriots offense find its groove, and improvement is one thing we can count on from the Patriots year-in and year-out.

Since 2010, the Patriots have lost 10 regular season games; nine of those losses have come in the first eight games of the season.




Scouting the New Orleans Saints

Posted by Erik Frenz October 8, 2013 07:00 AM

The New Orleans Saints have been known as one of the NFL's best offenses for years with quarterback Drew Brees at the helm, but in 2013, their defense may be the hallmark of the team.

Many wouldn't have dreams of such a scenario just last season, when the Saints gave up an NFL record 7,042 yards of offense to their opponents. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has brought his aggressive scheme with him, which has given the Saints their attitude back.

The fact that those Saints finished with a 7-9 record, without their head coach and with an historically bad defense, is a testament to Brees' dominance at quarterback. Even with all the dysfunction, Brees still led the league in passing yards and touchdowns for the second straight year.

Let's take a look at the best the Saints have to offer, and a quick recap of their season to this point, headed into Sunday's matchup with the Patriots.



Record: 5-0

How they got here: The Saints are off to their second 5-0 start in the past five years, having reeled off 13 consecutive wins to start the 2009 season. They have won games every which way this year. They grinded out their first two wins of the season, winning two division contests by a combined eight points against the Falcons and Buccaneers, needing a late field goal to pick up a 16-14 win over Tampa Bay. The Saints then rolled to big wins over the Cardinals (31-7) and Dolphins (38-17) before their most impressive win of the season in Week 5 against the Bears, holding Chicago to just 10 points in the first 57 minutes of action.

Key cog, offense -- Jimmy Graham, TE: Brees would be the easy answer, but Graham is having an outrageous season to this point, and the Patriots haven't defended tight ends very well in awhile. Graham leads the NFL in receptions (37) and yards (593), and ranks second in receiving touchdowns (6). At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Graham is the quick, big-bodied tight end that can create problems up the seam and in the red zone. He played basketball from 2005-2009 with the Miami Hurricanes, and has plenty of experience winning jump-balls as a result.

Key cog, defense -- Cameron Jordan, DL: The Saints defensive line has created a lot of pressure this season, but one of their best defenders has been Cameron Jordan. He has 19 quarterback hurries, five hits and four combined sacks, making him the second-most productive pass-rushing 3-4 defensive end behind Texans defensive end J.J. Watt this season. Jordan has a 6-foot-4, 287-pound frame to help him hold stout at the point of attack, but also a quick burst to get through the line when rushing the passer. Jordan will likely face off with left tackle Nate Solder for the majority of the game.

X-factor -- Darren Sproles, RB: Sproles is the true definition of an X-factor because he can contribute in so many ways. The Saints will look to get him involved with different matchups, either on a linebacker or a safety, but they'll even split him out wide and get him matched up on a cornerback from time to time. His average of 11.8 yards per reception is on par with some receivers (the NFL average is 11.9 yards per reception). There are so many ways that Sproles can hurt a defense, from screens out of the backfield to running routes as a receiver and even on standard running plays. For some perspective on his versatility, he has 25 rush attempts and 26 receptions this season.

Stats and notes: Here are some interesting stats and notes on the Saints.

  • Drew Brees is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in more than one season; he holds the record with 5,476 yards in 2011, and he's on pace for 5,510 passing yards this season.
  • According to stats website Pro Football Focus, Brees has posted a 121.9 passer rating when blitzed this season; he has completed 70.9 percent of his aimed throws and has five touchdowns and just one interception when blitzed.
  • Jimmy Graham's seven targets and five catches on passes 20 yards or more downfield are both the most for any tight end this season so far.
  • Brees uses the play-action fake quite often (26.4 percent of his dropbacks is seventh-most in the NFL), but he's much better without play-action. He completes 74.8 percent of passes without play-action, but just 55.6 percent of his passes when he uses play-action. His passer rating is also 37.5 points higher without the use of play-action.
  • The Saints gave up nearly two passing touchdowns per game in 2012, but have given up just six in five games in 2013 (on pace for 19).
  • The Saints are a little small up front. Aside from defensive tackles John Jenkins and Akiem Hicks, the Saints don't have a single defensive linemen over 300 pounds. Their primary inside linebackers are both 240 pounds or less, and their primary outside linebackers are both 260 pounds or less.





Are the Dolphins a threat to the Patriots in the AFC East?

Posted by Erik Frenz October 7, 2013 07:00 AM

The Miami Dolphins have lost two straight games to fall to 3-2, but are just one game behind the 4-1 New England Patriots in the battle for the top spot in the AFC East.

With nearly one-third of the 2013 NFL season in the books, the Dolphins remain in contention for the AFC East crown, and if the Dolphins want to hold onto this feeling, their margin for error is slim to none.

For starters, the Patriots already have a leg up with a 2-0 record in the division; the Dolphins have yet to play a single division opponent this season; however, New England's next 11 opponents are a combined 29-23, while Miami's are a combined 22-28.

The two teams first face off on Oct. 27 in Foxborough, Mass. and again on December 15 in Miami, Fla.

The Dolphins are on a bye in Week 6, after a stretch of grueling opponents in the Colts, Falcons, Saints and Ravens. The week off gives the Dolphins extra time to scout a pair of division opponents in Weeks 7 (vs. Buffalo Bills) and 8 (at Patriots), and to do some self-scouting and sniff out the areas they need to improve.

"[There are] some good, some things really need correcting and working on," said Miami head coach Joe Philbin. "I told the team we have an excellent group of men in the locker room and we're going to fix the problems that we have. We're not going to sweep them under the rug. We're going to identify them, and find a way to improve."

There are multiple problems, but they won't have to look too far to find their biggest weakness: the offensive line. On the season, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 24 times, which puts them on pace for 77 sacks, which would be a team record and the fourth-most in NFL history.

The protection has been there at times -- Tannehill was only pressured on 33.5 percent of his dropbacks for the first four games of the season -- but it's hard to get anything going through the air if the quarterback has no time to throw.

"I've said it before, I'll say it again -- the starting point in the passing game is protection," said Philbin. "You've got to have protection to function."

The pass blocking on the edge was a topic of concern for Miami headed into the game, and things went about as bad as expected against Ravens outside linebackers Terrell Suggs (three sacks) and Elvis Dumervil (one sack).

"We've got to keep fighting," said offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. "It's a long season. We've got a lot of ball games to be played and we've got time to turn it around. But it is a concerning trend so far and something that we need to get corrected now."

The Dolphins' blocking woes apply to the running game, as well, with a paltry average of 3.7 yards per carry on the season. On Sunday, they rushed 11 times for 22 yards.

In that way, the eventual matchup of the Patriots defensive line and the Dolphins offensive line isn't exactly unstoppable force vs. immovable object, and it will be interesting to see how far the Dolphins have come, and whether the Patriots have suitably replaced nose tackle Vince Wilfork, by the time these two teams meet for the first time.

The Dolphins pass-catchers should also spend some time on the JUGS machine over the bye week. They have dropped 14 passes on the season.

Tight end Charles Clay dropped a pass on the final drive of the game. Wide receiver Mike Wallace finally got a bit more involved in the passing game, with seven catches for 105 yards against the Ravens, but dropped two key passes, upping his 2013 total to five drops.

"We have to make plays regardless," Wallace said. "Whatever the situation is we need to make plays on our side, so no matter what is going on we still have to make plays."

Passes like this, hitting the receiver in the hands, have to be caught. Especially when that receiver is paid $12 million a year to receive.

The Dolphins could have predicted some of these painful drops, though. Wallace had five drops in 2011 and six in 2012, among the higher drop rates in the NFL in that span. That being said, there may be no cure for his case of dropitis.

Clearly, however, it's not just about Wallace. Not when he's making sweet catches like this.

Make no mistake; many of the Dolphins' problems are also being experienced by the Patriots. Dropped balls. A passing game that, too often, is forced to dink-and-dunk its way down the field.

Both the Patriots and Dolphins defenses have performed very well to this point in the season. It would have been hard to picture the Patriots as a defensive team just 12 months ago, but it would be hard to envision the Dolphins as anything but a defensive team based solely on their performance over the years (sixth in scoring defense in 2011, seventh in 2012).

That unit, which has let up just 7.1 passing yards per attempt and an 82.5 defensive passer rating on the season, figures to make life pretty difficult for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and company.

These two teams can quibble over the AFC East title, and the Patriots are still a step or two ahead in that battle, but both need to find rhythm on offense if they are going to compete consistently with the best teams in the league.




Patriots stock report: Ryan Allen's strong performance keeps Patriots competitive

Posted by Erik Frenz October 6, 2013 06:51 PM

The Patriots aren't used to winning as narrowly as they have recently, but they really aren't used to losing.

Several streaks ended on Sunday, including the Patriots' four-game winning streak to start the season. The Patriots had won six straight road games dating back to 2012. Quarterback Tom Brady had thrown a touchdown pass in 52 consecutive games dating back to 2010.

Even with so much going wrong for the Patriots, there were still a few things that went right. Here's a look at some of the players that stood out, for better or worse, on Sunday.

Stock up:

Ryan Allen: The Bengals had plenty of opportunities to put the game away, had it not been for awful field position. Allen averaged 42 net yards per punt, one of the two best marks of the season, and he landed a career-high five punts inside the Bengals' 20-yard line and four inside the 10-yard line. Allen has been up-and-down thus far, but he has picked himself up off the ground after tough games against the Bills (36 net yards per punt average) and Buccaneers (38.7 net average).

Brandon Spikes: The definition of an impact performance; finished the day with seven tackles, five assists and five stuffed runs, along with the team's lone interception of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Spikes' value has come into question at times due to his limited role in run defense, but he was spotted in the nickel defense at times in favor of second-year linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

Stephen Gostkowski: Gostkowski went 2-for-2 on field goals of 42 and 19 yards. He is now 13-for-14 on the season (92.9 percent), and is tied for second-most attempts in the NFL. Gostkowski has not missed a field goal since Week 2 against the Jets, and has made at least two field goals in each game this season.



Stock down:

Nate Solder: Yielded some early pressure on Brady, and was at least partially responsible for sacks by defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Wallace Gilberry, which resulted in third-down stops on the Patriots first and second drive, respectively. It was an uncharacterstic performance for an offensive tackle who has been responsible for just seven total pressures on Brady this season, and no sacks.

LeGarrette Blount: Seldom is there a "good time" to fumble, but it certainly wasn't when Blount fumbled on the Patriots' fifth drive of the day, their second of the second quarter. The Patriots moved 29 yards in four plays before Blount fumbled on the Bengals' 32-yard line. He only carried the ball three more times for the remainder of the game. With Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley both out, the Patriots can't afford poor output from Blount.

Tom Brady: The franchise quarterback completed less than 50 percent of his throws for the second time this season; that's the most times it's ever happened in one season in his career (2003, 2006, 2009). With a 52.2 passer rating on the day, it was his first game below a 55 passer rating since Week 2 of the 2009 season against the Jets. In general, Brady didn't look comfortable in the pocket, a sight which has been all too common of late.





New York Jets claim TE Zach Sudfeld off waivers

Posted by Erik Frenz October 4, 2013 06:36 PM

Let the gamesmanship begin.

The New York Jets have claimed tight end Zach Sudfeld off waivers from the New England Patriots, according to a report from Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, which only further serves to fuel the rivalry between the two teams.

Sudfeld became a popular name in the summer months. He first showed up on the radar following OTAs in May, then really built his reputation in training camp as an athletic big-bodied tight end with the ability to make some pretty acrobatic catches.

Summer became fall, and the summer of Sudfeld led to the fall of Sudfeld.

For the Patriots, releasing Sudfeld could mean one or a combination of these three things:

  1. The Patriots were pleased with tight end Matthew Mulligan in his Patriots debut.
  2. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is close to making his 2013 debut.
  3. Sudfeld simply wasn't the player they thought he was when they announced the roster.

The Jets are getting a 6-foot-7, 260-pound tight end who showed what he can do in preseason, but simply hasn't developed that talent into on-field production yet. Tight ends Jeff Cumberland and Konrad Reuland are the primary backups to starting tight end Kellen Winslow.

Not only have the Jets a player who might be able to provide some insight on the Patriots offense, but of Sudfeld can refine his game and develop some consistency as a receiver, he could be yet another tight end to give the Patriots linebackers and safeties a headache.

The Patriots play the Jets again on Oct. 20.

Here is a list of the players that have switched allegiances between the Patriots and the Jets since 2009:

  • QB Kevin O'Connell
  • QB Tim Tebow
  • RB Danny Woodhead
  • TE Chris Baker
  • TE Matthew Mulligan
  • TE Zach Sudfeld
  • DE Shaun Ellis
  • LB Larry Izzo
  • CB Marquice Cole
  • S James Ihedigbo




Buffalo Bills quickly learning about dangers of EJ Manuel as mobile QB

Posted by Erik Frenz October 4, 2013 05:43 PM

For the second time since being drafted in April, Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel has an injured knee. That's a pretty big problem in the short-term, as we saw that backup quarterback Jeff Tuel is wholly unprepared to carry an NFL offense in the regular season.

Luckily, the injury itself may not be a big deal, according to Bills head coach Doug Marrone.

It hasn't taken long for the Bills to see both the risks and the rewards of having a mobile quarterback run their offense.

At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, running a 4.65-second 40-yard dash, Manuel can be tough to stop when he gets his legs moving. He must also know when to stop himself.

Manuel had an operation on his right knee as a result of some swelling following a game against the Vikings. He entered at halftime and was sacked on 3rd-and-8 with 25 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

There wasn't much Manuel could have done to prevent his first injury. He had nowhere to go, with Vikings defenders flying in from every direction, and got crushed by multiple defensive linemen. He missed the remainder of the preseason, and it was unclear whether he would be ready for Week 1 until days before.

On Thursday night against the Browns, though, Manuel simply got a little too greedy for his own good.

manuel knee.gif

Good friend Michael Schottey brings up an interesting point as it relates to mobile quarterbacks:

What's more important, the extra yard when you've already gotten past the sticks? Or are the more important yards all the yards that you could rack up in seven days when you're not sitting out with injury?

It's hard to know exactly where to draw the line in the sand.

That being said, give Manuel all the credit in the world for fighting for every single yard, and his coaching staff for sticking up for him after the injury.

"EJ's a tough kid," Marrone said. "He took a shot, he scrambled, he made a first down (and) he was trying to score a touchdown. What do you say? ‘Don't scramble, don't score touchdowns.’ What do you think?"

It's a valid point; the Bills don't want to prevent him from doing what he does best. The problem with that is, if his mobility is limited or his knee is less than 100 percent, that allows the defensive front to rush a little harder at the quarterback, worrying less about the threat of the run.

There's also the issue of a player's lack of confidence in the injured knee once they return. Look no further than Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III for a perfect example in that respect.

Those concerns will be waiting for Manuel when he returns; in the meantime, the Bills have a daunting four-game schedule ahead of them: at home vs. the Cincinnati Bengals (2-2), then they travel back-to-back weeks to face the Miami Dolphins (3-1) and the New Orleans Saints (4-0), then wrap up at home to host the Kansas City Chiefs (4-0).

Those four opponents have a combined 13-3 record.

The injury, the Bills unpreparedness for it, and the upcoming schedule have put the team in a bind.

Who is that quarterback? That's anyone's guess -- although former Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman is the obvious choice, at this point.

The Bills don't face the Patriots again until Week 17, so they'll likely have Manuel back by that point, but with such a daunting schedule ahead and such dire circumstances, the immediate future is bleak for Buffalo.




Patriots vs. Bengals matchup breakdown: LT Nate Solder vs. DE Michael Johnson

Posted by Erik Frenz October 3, 2013 03:33 PM

If the Patriots are going to move the ball on offense, it starts with good blocking up front.

Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins earned high praise from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, and often commands double-teams up the middle.

If there's likely to be one man-on-man situation up front, it's Patriots left tackle Nate Solder against Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson.

solder vs. johnson.pngThe battle pits two of the league's best at their position. According to Pro Football Focus, Solder is the second-highest-graded offensive tackle in the NFL, while Johnson is the second-highest-graded 4-3 defensive end.

On the season, Solder has allowed just seven total pressures (seven hurries, no hits, no sacks) on quarterback Tom Brady; Johnson, on the other hand, has 18 pressures (10 hurries, six hits, two sacks).

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Solder is known for his size and long reach, which allows him to keep defensive ends off his frame and re-route them all the way around the quarterback. On this play, however, he simply smothered the pass-rushing defensive end to the ground.

The Patriots ran a play-action fake from the one-yard line. Solder eliminated the threat of the blindside rush by grinding defensive end Cliff Matthews to dust. That bought Brady all the time he'd need to find tight end Matthew Mulligan just barely open between two defenders.

Matthews is 6-foot-4 and 268 pounds, which is not small by any stretch, but Johnson's extra three inches of height and his long reach make him Solder's most formidable opponent yet.

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Johnson put his length and explosiveness on display against the Packers, rushing against left tackle David Bakhtiari. He started out in a four-point stance, coiling up his body like an animal hunting its prey, and used his burst off the line to quickly get upfield. Bakhtiari waited to engage Johnson, letting the rusher come to him instead of lunging and exposing himself in the process.

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Bakhtiari made a valiant effort to get leverage on Johnson and keep him away, but Johnson's reach was too much to handle. He jacked Bakhtiari backward and tossed him to the side in the same move.

All Bakhtiari could do was grab hold of Johnson's gangly arm, which drew a penalty, and even then, he couldn't stop Johnson from hitting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

He has the explosiveness off the edge, but is also adept at warding off blockers to make plays against the run.

draw run 1.png

The Packers lined up with the 11 personnel grouping (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) with Rodgers in the shotgun and running back James Starks flanking him to his right.

The play was a draw run right up the middle, looking to attack the A-gap between the left guard and center.

draw run 2.png

Those players did a nice job of blocking down on the Bengals defensive line, but even with a tight end helping Bakhtiari, Johnson was still able to get penetration and stop the run for just one yard.

Solder, however, is used to doing a lot of the dirty work all by himself.

ridley run 7.png

On the Patriots first offensive play against the Falcons, Solder was lined up across from defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound interior linemen is a much bigger foe than Solder is used to blocking, but he handled his business admirably.

ridley run 8.png

Before Ridley had even taken the handoff, Solder had blocked Babineaux to the outside, while left guard Logan Mankins got downfield to block the linebacker. The combination of solid blocks gave Ridley a window big enough to drive a Mack truck through, and all he had to do was plow straight ahead for a five-yard gain.

Johnson and Solder are both used to manhandling the player in front of them, so whether it's a running or passing situation, this matchup figures to be one of the most intriguing and important battles to watch this Sunday.




Patriots Take 2: Closer look at impact of losing Vince Wilfork

Posted by Erik Frenz October 2, 2013 07:00 AM

The Patriots win over the Falcons is being talked about a lot less than the loss of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.

Re-watching the game, the focus naturally shifted to the defensive tackle position at times. That's where the focus will remain in the near future, as the Patriots turn to defensive tackles Tommy Kelly and Joe Vellano to step up in big roles with big Vince out of the big picture.

Several other players stood out, as well, including cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and others.

Here are some thoughts on the game after a second watch, using NFL Game Rewind's All-22 for assistance.



Defensive line scheme

After Wilfork left the game, the Patriots used a mix of different looks on the defensive front. That trend is likely to continue in his absence for the remainder of the season, at least until they find a mix that works.

Traditionally, the Patriots have been a two-gap defensive line with Wilfork. Sometimes, they have run a unique hybrid defense, with a one-gap scheme on one side of Wilfork and a two-gap scheme on the other side. We've also seen them utilize a different mixture of techniques, with the defensive tackles responsible for two gaps while the defensive ends are responsible for one gap.

two-gap 1.png

The above is the Patriots' first defensive snap after Wilfork left the game. Defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Tommy Kelly are both responsible for the A- and B-gaps on either side of the center and guards, while defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were responsible for setting the edge and containing the C-gaps.

kelly nose 1.png

Later in the first quarter, though, we saw another interesting alignment. This time, Kelly lined up over the nose, but two yards away from the line of scrimmage. It wasn't something we've seen a lot in the past.

"It's similar to when a linebacker blitzes," Belichick said on WEEI's Salk and Holley show on Monday. "Sometimes a little space can clear things up as to if the line is going to slide and how the protection is going to go and all that, rather than being right on top of it and getting off on the ball and trying to get on the offensive linemen in a hurry."

One thing this might do is force the interior offensive linemen into a bind, where they must be ready for the potential of Kelly rushing in their direction. In theory, this would occupy blockers, without actually having them all block Kelly.

Who knows if we'll see that look on a consistent basis, but the Patriots will probably test out multiple methods to replacing the presence of Wilfork, and these are two that stood out on Sunday night.



Joe Vellano set for bigger role

The Patriots might still call on practice squad defensive tackle Marcus Forston, but after playing a career-high 33 snaps against the Falcons, Vellano figures to be a big part of the Patriots contingency plan to replace Wilfork unless the Patriots add a new defensive tackle -- which looks like a longshot.

vellano 4.png

On this 2nd-and-2 running play in the third quarter, Vellano had both the A-gap between the left guard and center, and the B-gap between the left tackle and left guard.

Because Kelly was washed out of the play behind two blockers, Vellano had to make sure he could get inside to wrap an arm around Falcons running back Jason Snelling. Vellano was able to shed the block of the left guard and brought down Snelling.

He showed his two-gap ability on that play, but his ability to split a gap and get into the backfield came up on the next play.

vellano 1.png

Vellano pulled a nifty swim move to get around center Peter Konz, splitting the A-gap and getting a good interior rush on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who tried to evade the rush but was unable to do so.

The Patriots have been searching for a defensive tackle that can create some pressure up the gut, even when they had Wilfork at their disposal, and it appears Vellano may contribute in that respect. He finished Sunday with three total pressures (two hurries and a sack).

The burden of replacing Wilfork is not all on the shoulders of Kelly, Vellano or any one man; it's up to the entire coaching staff to figure out ways to keep the defense trending in the right direction even without their best player.




Solid blocking opens up running game

The Patriots running game has really found their legs in recent weeks, and it's thanks to a combination of more determined running from their backs and better blocks from the guys up front.

Right from the very first offensive snap against the Falcons, it looked like the Patriots offensive line would have their way with the falcons front seven when running the football.

ridley run 1.png

Running back Stevan Ridley picked up five yards simply by following the huge lane in front of him, created by left guard Logan Mankins and center Ryan Wendell quickly getting out to the second level to block a linebacker. Had wide receiver Julian Edelman gotten a block on safety William Moore, Ridley might still be running.

As it was, the run picked up five yards, but the Patriots were hardly done running the ball right down the throat of the Falcons defense.

ridley run 4.png

The Patriots came out with the 12 personnel grouping -- one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. The Falcons responded with a base 4-3 defense.

Ridley was set to take the handoff on a zone run through the A-gap between center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly, with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui helping to block defensive tackle Corey Peters while Wendell peeled off and to the second level.

ridley run 5.png

Wendell and left tackle Nate Solder found a linebacker to block in a hurry, opening up a lane wide enough that Ridley could have driven a Cadillac through it.

As a result, Ridley built up enough momentum that safety Thomas DeCoud probably felt like he'd been hit by a Cadillac when bringing him down.

Even at halftime, the Patriots weren't done.

ridley run 2.png

Ridley can thank Mankins for his seven-yard run off the right side in the third quarter.

The All-Pro left guard got out in front as a lead blocker on this stretch run, coming from the opposite side of the line to clear out linebacker Joplo Bartu.

ridley run 3.png

Mankins was able to drive Bartu backwards and into the lap of cornerback Robert Alford. That allowed Ridley to get the edge and pick up seven yards before being chased out of bounds by Moore.

The importance of the offensive line getting downhill quickly cannot be overstated; the Patriots' ability to run straight at the Falcons defense affected the strategy for the offense over the course of the game.




Play-action effective in second half

The Patriots ran the ball for 64 yards on 15 carries in the first half, averaging 4.3 YPA. With their linebackers getting abused up front, it was no surprise that they began to bite a bit on play-action to close up the running lanes.

However, it quickly opened up the passing lanes over the middle of the field.

People often talk about running to set up the pass -- that's a concept we haven't seen in awhile in New England, but it began to rear its head against the Falcons as a weapon the Patriots may turn to again in the future.

I charted Brady as going 10-of-14 for 201 yards and a touchdown when using a play-action fake against the Falcons.

play action 1.png

This particular play went for 34 yards. The Patriots lined up in the 12 personnel grouping, and Brady had used play-action on the previous throw, and had also gone to Edelman on an in-breaking route.

This time, Edelman (circled in black) ran a variation of a sluggo route, faking a slant and then running straight into the heart of the Falcons secondary.

play action 2.jpg

It helped that he was being covered by Bartu, who bit on the play-action, but Edelman's slant fake was so violent, he stumbled, but that didn't prevent him from collecting himself and running through the middle of the Falcons defense.

The entire offensive line pulled to the right, faking the run to that side, and the defense played along, completely opening up the middle of the field. DeCoud (circled in blue) also came way up, opening the deep half on the right side of the field -- right where Edelman was headed.

Brady waited for Edelman to get deep into his route before releasing the ball, allowing Edelman to work his way through Moore and DeCoud.

With explosive threats at the receiver position, the Patriots are in a better position to take advantage of play-action than they've been in recent years. If they can keep the running game going, those opportunities will be available all season long.




Aqib Talib is going to get paid a lot of money this offseason

Talib has long had the ability to be a shutdown cornerback, but this year, he has also been a model of consistency. He has allowed no more than three catches for no more than 60 yards in each game, and has made at least two plays on the ball (pass break-up or interception) in each of the past three games.

On Sunday, Talib lined up at different spots and on different receivers. He was mostly on the perimeter, covering either Julio Jones or Roddy White. It didn't matter who he was covering; he was in position to prevent the pass from being caught.

Ryan targeted Talib seven times, and Talib didn't allow a single completion into his coverage.

This is a trend that's quickly developing this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Talib is one of the best starting corners in the league in several categories:

  • He leads all cornerbacks in snaps in coverage per reception allowed, giving up a catch on just one of every 28.7 snaps in coverage.
  • He yields a 24.8 passer rating on throws into his coverage, the second-best in the NFL.
  • He allows completions on 30 percent of throws into his coverage, the best rate in the NFL.

Talib is having a great season for himself, and on a one-year deal in 2013, he couldn't have started playing his best football at a better time.



Kenbrell Thompkins shows big play potential, still needs to be consistent

Thompkins' ability to win one-on-one matchups on the perimeter and to keep a defense honest when running vertically are key assets the Patriots offense has lacked in recent years.

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How many times have we seen the Patriots run this double-reverse-fake to an epic failure? It will always stand out to me as the first of many failed pass attempts for Brady in Super Bowl XLII.

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Everything worked out perfectly, with the defense keeping their eyes mostly in the backfield while the play unfolded. The Patriots sold the play perfectly; nine of 11 players were somehow involved in the run, while Thompkins and Edelman both ran routes.

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With the ball up for grabs, Thompkins leaped over safety William Moore and snared the football off the side of Moore's helmet, keeping his balance and control of the ball as he went to the ground.

He won a jump ball situation the likes of which we haven't seen a Patriots receiver win in quite some time.

The Patriots traded Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings right around this time in the 2010 season. They have been searching for a boundary threat at wide receiver ever since. It's unfair to compare anyone to a Hall of Fame candidate in Moss, but Thompkins has the skill set that Moss had, just not to his "Freak" extent.

Before he broaches that territory, he'll need to clear one very important hurdle: catching the ball on a consistent basis.

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Thompkins made progress in terms of his production, but at some point, the hot-potato drops have to stop -- like this one in the first quarter, on a third-down pass that could have kept the Patriots first drive alive. This would have been a great catch, but it is still a catch he has to make.

On the day, Thompkins caught eight of the 11 passes thrown his way -- but it could have been 10, had he not dropped two. It's hard to expect 100 percent consistency, especially from an undrafted rookie, but a recent Bill Belichick quote comes to mind: "We like to say that dependability is more important than ability."

Thompkins has plenty of ability. Top that off with some dependability, and the Patriots could be looking at one of their go-to receivers for the future.




Scouting the Cincinnati Bengals

Posted by Erik Frenz October 1, 2013 08:00 AM

The Cincinnati Bengals are a prime example of how quickly the culture can change for an NFL franchise. Prior to 2011-2012, the Bengals had not made back-to-back playoff appearances since 1981-1982, when they lost Super Bowl XVI. Now, the Bengals have become a team most expect to make the playoffs year-in and year-out.

They compiled a 19-13 record in 2011 and 2012, but stumbled to defeat against the Houston Texans each year in the Wild Card round, traveling to Houston both times to meet their fate.

The continued development of quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and other offensive weapons, coupled with the arrivals of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard threatened to make the Bengals one of the most complete and dangerous offenses in the NFL.

How are things working out for the Bengals headed into their matchup with the Patriots? Here's a quick recap of their season and some of the biggest challenges that await the Patriots on Oct. 6.



Record: 2-2

How they got here: We already reviewed the offensive weapons, but the Bengals are quickly learning that as the quarterback goes, so goes the offense. Their offense had a chance to close out a win over the Chicago Bears in Week 1, but went three-and-out on two of their final three drives, with the other drive ending in a Dalton fumble. The Bengals have topped 21 points in just one of their games -- a 34-30 home win over the Packers in a wild game that posed a true test of character for the Bengals, who blew a 14-point lead and then rallied from down 16 points in the third quarter. They are coming off a 17-6 road loss to the Cleveland Browns in which Dalton turned the ball over twice. On the season, Dalton has five touchdowns against six turnovers.

Key cog, offense -- A.J. Green, WR: Virtually a carbon copy of Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, and was taken two spots earlier than Jones in the 2011 NFL draft class. Green runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds, presenting the perfect blend of size and speed on the perimeter -- which is where he spends most of his time going long and winning jump balls. He's not the most physical receiver at the line of scrimmage, but he makes difficult, contested catches look routine. The Patriots will probably single up cornerback Aqib Talib on Green, as he is far and away their best receiving threat.

Key cog, defense -- Geno Atkins, DT: The Bengals know how important Atkins is to their defense, having inked him just prior to the 2013 season for a five-year, $55 million extension. He was dominant for them last year, finishing with 84 quarterback disruptions (53 hurries, 13 hits, 16 combined sacks, two batted passes), and although he had a quiet start to the 2013 season with defenses focused on taking him out of the game, he hit stride against the Browns with four hurries, a hit and two combined sacks. Center Ryan Wendell will have his hands full, and may need help from his fellow interior offensive linemen.

bengals RBs.pngX-factor -- Giovani Bernard, RB: Patriots fans are well aware of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the dependable back that never fumbled in New England, but the Bengals are looking to get more explosive in the backfield with Bernard. Through four games, Bernard has 118 more yards on 10 fewer touches. Bernard average 4.6 yards per carry, while Green-Ellis averages just 2.7. The Patriots have struggled against hybrid backs like Bernard in the past. Will the Bengals finally make the switch to Bernard as their lead back for this game? Or will they show us Albert Einstein's definition of insanity in action?

Stats and notes: Here are some interesting stats and notes on the Bengals.

  • Green has been prolific over the course of seasons, but has just two games with 10 catches in his career.
  • The Bengals are 4-6 when Andy Dalton throws two or more interceptions.
  • The Bengals have scored as many points as they have allowed -- 81 -- and rank 11th in scoring offense and 11th-worst in scoring defense.
  • According to Pro Football Focus, Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson gets pressure on 12.9 percent of his pass-rush snaps, and grades out as the second-best 4-3 defensive end in the league.




About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »

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