If the New England Patriots are going to beat the Cleveland Browns, the game plan on defense starts with doing what no team has done in over a month: contain wide receiver Josh Gordon.
Their best bet is to put cornerback Aqib Talib on him in coverage, and double him over the top with a safety.
At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Gordon has both the size and speed that often draws comparison to other high-profile receivers around the NFL.
"He reminds you of those names, the Calvin Johnsons, the Andre Johnsons, a bigger guy with little-guy speed and quickness," said Talib. "He can turn the eight-yard curl into a touchdown in a heartbeat, so definitely a challenge."
In the past, the Patriots have been very good at taking away an opponent's best weapon. That has held especially true this year of receivers facing Talib, but Gordon feels he is up to the challenge.
"Iím pretty sure heíll make some plays, but Iím definitely going to make more plays,'' said Gordon, according to The Plain Dealer.
And why shouldn't he be confident? He's been making plays for weeks, and last week became the first receiver in NFL history with back-to-back 200-yard games. There hasn't been a lot that's changed for Gordon to bring about his sudden string of strong performances.
"You see the same things all year," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "The plays he's made the last couple weeks are the same plays he's made all year. He's a great player. He can attack all three levels of the defense. He can run through them, he can take the short plays, catch-and-run plays, crossing patterns, look patterns, plays like that, quick three-step drops and break tackles. He's very good on the intermediate routes, the in-cuts, the crossing routes, comebacks, stop-routes, things like that that attack the middle levels of the defense."
He has a selection of routes he runs well, and for the most part, you know what to expect from Gordon. Defensive backs have to stay honest to Gordon's speed, and he has the quickness to take advantage of extra space when he is given a cushion.
One of Gordon's better routes is the intermediate curl. Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor gave Gordon (circled in yellow) a 10-yard cushion off the line of scrimmage. This is the situation defensive backs have been forced into because of all the big plays Gordon has made already in his young career.
Gordon quickly ate up the cushion, and turned to look for the ball as soon as his quarterback had begun his throwing motion. Taylor is attacking the receiver by the time the ball gets there, but Gordon quickly turns the corner and scoots around Taylor, then toward the sideline where he's finally met by safety Troy Polamalu, but not before gaining 42 yards on the play.
The quickness to make a defender miss in the open field, and then the speed to make him pay once you get past him? That's gotta be difficult for a defensive back.
"Yeah, I mean, [when] you get a guy [that's] 235 pounds running like he's 35 pounds, I mean, that's a definite challenge, man," said Talib.
It's a challenge that shouldn't be given to just one man. The Patriots would be wise to put a lid on the top of whatever coverage they have on his side of the field, to ensure that there's nothing going over their head. That's where safety Devin McCourty comes into play. It will take a disciplined game from McCourty to make sure that Gordon is accounted for when he hits the second level of the defense.
Gordon ran a slick double-move against the Minnesota Vikings in his first game back from a two-game suspension. The defense showed a two-deep look, but they only had one safety covering deep. Appropriately, it was the safety shaded to Gordon's side of the field.
However, this play might not have gone for a touchdown if that safety had stayed disciplined. He stopped reading the quarterback, instead reading the routes on the left side of the field. If he had kept his eyes on the passer, as is the duty of a deep safety, he would have seen Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer staring down Gordon on the left side.
Unfortunately, he didn't realize until it was too late.
Give Gordon a lot of credit for setting up this route so beautifully. He looked as if he was going to stop and turn toward the quarterback, but just as soon as he had taken his foot off the gas, he put the pedal to the metal and raced right behind the cornerback unhindered for the score.
Gordon is just one of the Browns' playmakers on offense -- although they only have a couple others in tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receiver Greg Little. Their biggest question mark, however, remains the lack of a playmaker at the most important position on the roster. Heck, forget about a playmaking quarterback, the Browns probably just wish they had more than one healthy quarterback.
Belichick says it won't affect the Browns gameplan -- "Their offense is their offense," he said on Wednesday -- and if this season is any indication, it won't affect "Flash" Gordon, either.
A few tidbits that jumped out from the Patriots 34-31 victory over the Texans on Sunday:
Tom Brady continues dominant streak vs. Texans blitz
Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is probably sick of seeing Brady under center for the Patriots. Brady has owned the showdown over the past two years, but some of his best work has been against the blitz.
His rate of completions is over 2.5 percentage points higher, and his 7-0 TD-INT ratio is superlative. He averages a full two yards per pass attempt more when the Texans blitz than when they send four or fewer defenders on the rush.
Those extra yards don't come from attacking the defense deep -- with a heavy rush, there isn't much time to wait for routes to develop downfield. Instead, Brady earns his keep by getting the ball out quickly, finding the gaps left in the defense by the blitz.
The Patriots had 2nd-and-10 from the Texans' 19-yard line, looking to complete their comeback from a 10-point halftime deficit. Wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) was given a solid seven yards of cushion by the cornerback, and with five defenders at the line of scrimmage, Brady recognized the blitz prior to the snap.
No sooner was the ball in his hands than his throwing motion had begun, and the ball was out before the rush had a chance to even sniff Brady.
Edelman was able to put his open-field running skills on display by getting around the cornerback, scooting to the edge and running upfield. He went down, but not after a timely lunge toward the first-down marker to move the chains.
Short passes can be just as effective against a blitz, sometimes even more so. With fewer defenders available to tackle, the possibility is greater for a catch-and-run.
That was part of the reason running back Brandon Bolden (38) was able to scoot untouched for an 18-yard gain on a dumpoff, as was some nifty pre-snap orchestration by the maestro.
With the defense showing a blitz, Brady shifted both Bolden and wide receiver Danny Amendola (80) in motion at separate times, getting the players in perfect position to maximize the play. With Bolden hitting the flat quickly, and a blitz coming from that side, this was a prime opportunity to take advantage of some extra space at the second level.
There were defensive backs accounting for both Edelman and Amendola, but no one was accounting for Bolden in the flat. Eighteen yards later, he had finally been stopped -- and it could have been more if the receivers knew he had caught the pass and were blocking downfield.
These are just a couple of examples, but on the day, Brady went 10-of-15 for 171 yards and a touchdown when being rushed by five defenders or more.
Expansion of the 3-4 defense
The Patriots entered the season with the 4-3 as their base, but critical injuries have forced a step in another direction. The 3-4 was the base defense of choice for nearly a decade under Bill Belichick, and it has made a return in recent weeks.
One of the favorite groupings has featured Rob Ninkovich (50) and Chandler Jones (95) at outside linebacker, with Joe Vellano (72) and Chris Jones (94) at the ends and Isaac Sopoaga (90) at nose tackle. Dont'a Hightower (54) and Brandon Spikes (55) are the two inside linebackers -- Hightower on the weak side, and Spikes on the strong side.
Chris Jones and Vellano earned the majority of the snaps, with Sopoaga and newcomer Sealver Siliga (71) rotating on the line. No one spent the whole day at the same spot.
It's hard to be too critical of them, simply because of the situation they've been thrust into. The defensive line was considered paper thin before the season began, and it's the group that's had its depth tested the most this season so far.
The Patriots went back to a four-man line at times, and on Texans quarterback Case Keenum's lone interception, it was a group of Chris and Chandler Jones, Ninkovich, and veteran Andre Carter (96) that lined up in the trenches.
Despite all their changes and injuries on defense, the Patriots have used 186 unique lineup combinations on defense, which is actually the 11th-fewest in the NFL. However, they've fielded 11 different starting units on defense, tied with the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers for the second-most different combinations.
On Sunday against the Texans, 19 different defenders earned playing time on defense -- that's tied for their highest total in a game this season.
Just for kicks, here's another interesting look from them on a fourth-quarter incompletion by Keenum. Chandler Jones and Ninkovich lined up in a two-point stance and shot the A-gaps at the snap. Jones was able to get in the backfield to force some pressure and an off-balance throw by Keenum.
Belichick really is pulling out all the stops to get some stops on defense.
Different players, same plays
Thought it was interesting that running back Shane Vereen (34) caught a touchdown pass and a near-touchdown pass on exactly the same route as tight end Aaron Hernandez caught a touchdown against the Texans on Monday Night Football in 2012.
Then I went back and noticed it was the exact same play.
The Texans might want to put that one on film the next time they're preparing to face the Patriots, just in case they decide to run it...again.
Unlike Hernandez's catch last year, which was delivered right in his chest, Vereen had to adjust to the ball in order to make the catch. He did a little pirouette in midair, coming down with the ball and breaking toward the end zone.
It looked like Vereen made it over the goal line, but had he been awarded the touchdown, fullback James Develin would have never had an opportunity to break seven tackles on a one-yard touchdown run on the very next play.
The most difficult part of the New England Patriots schedule is out of the way, and now, they prepare to take on their second straight opponent with a losing record -- the Cleveland Browns.
The quarterback search has been going on for a decade and a half, spawning one of the most infamous custom jerseys in all of sports. Three different quarterbacks have started for the Browns this year as a result of injuries to Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell. The carousel has spun, figuratively and literally, with Weeden and Campbell trading places over the past few weeks.
As a result of the shaky quarterback situation -- and a few other factors, to boot -- the Browns field one of the league's worst offenses.
Don't be surprised, though, if Patriots coach Bill Belichick is prepared at his Wednesday press conference with more than one stat that will indicate just how well the Browns are capable of playing.
Here's an early look at the Browns.
How they got here: What started off as an up-and-down season for the Browns has devolved to mostly down. After leading the team to an 0-2 start, Weeden injured his thumb, ushering in the shortly-lived Hoyer era. The Browns won their next three games under the former Patriots backup, but their season has spun out of control since Hoyer was injured in Week 5 against the Buffalo Bills. Now, the Browns have one win in the past seven games, sandwiched between two three-game losing streaks. In this most recent three-game skid, they've turned the ball over 11 times. They held a 28-25 lead over the Jaguars, but Browns cornerback Joe Haden gave up the game-winning touchdown catch to Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts with 45 seconds remaining. The Browns are once again playing the role of a postseason spoiler.
Key cog, offense -- Josh Gordon, WR: Offensively, Gordon is one of a few building blocks for the Browns. For a 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, you'd think he would be a focal point in the red zone, but he hasn't been much of a red zone threat to this point, with just four catches on 11 targets and one touchdown inside the opponent's 20-yard line. He's not yet polished as a route-runner, but his long speed has helped him take the top off plenty of defenses this season; he leads the league with 19.5 yards per reception and 22 receptions of 20 yards or more. In registering 237 receiving yards against the Steelers and 261 against the Jaguars, Gordon has set the Browns record for receiving yards in a game in back-to-back weeks.
Key cog, defense -- T.J. Ward, SS: Drafted in the second round in 2010, Ward has developed into one of the better young safeties in the league. At 5-foot-10 and 211 pounds, Ward isn't the biggest safety around, but he is a heavy hitter and is around the football a lot, with a team-leading 62 solo tackles. He's played well in both man and zone coverage, and he allows a passer rating of just 56.8 into his coverage (one touchdown, two interceptions). He has also been effective when called on to blitz the quarterback, and has 1.5 sacks this season to show for it. He is one of the most versatile safeties in the NFL, and Tom Brady will have to make sure he knows where Ward is on every snap.
X factor -- Jordan Cameron, TE: Cameron is the big-bodied, athletic tight end that has given the Patriots problems in the past; he has rare athleticism for a 6-foot-4, 245-pound tight end. He started the season strong and logged 45 catches for 515 yards and six touchdowns in the first seven games, but he has just 18 catches for 189 yards in the past five games. He knows how to use his frame to win jump balls, and recorded all six of his touchdown catches in the red zone. Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins could see some time in coverage on him, but while starters Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes are not considered great coverage linebackers, but their size and strength could help them match up with Cameron, who is not unbearably quick.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: As mentioned above, the Browns have been the walking wounded at quarterback. They already lost Hoyer for the season, but Weeden left Sunday's game against the Jaguars with a concussion, and Campbell missed the game with a concussion of his own. Aside from those three, the Browns have been relatively healthy, but they have already lost wide receivers Travis Benjamin and Armanti Edwards, linebacker Quentin Groves and running back Dion Lewis for the season.
- The Browns defense has been better than advertised this year; they currently rank third in both passing yards per attempt and rushing yards per attempt. They have also allowed just 28 pass plays of 20 yards or more, the fourth-fewest in the NFL. That's another tribute to Ward's impact at safety.
- Despite not allowing many big plays, the Browns have struggled in clutch situations. They rank 28th in defensive third down percentage, yielding conversions on 41.6 percent of third down tries; they are also the league's third-worst red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 64.7 percent of opponent's possessions inside the 20-yard line.
- The Browns have struggled to put points on the board on a weekly basis, but their biggest struggles come in the second half of games; they're averaging 11.3 points per game in the first half, but just eight points per game in the second half.
- With a minus-nine ratio, the Browns rank 27th in the NFL in turnover margin; they are minus-6 over the past three games, all losses. They have lost the turnover battle in four of their five road games, and are 1-3 in those contests.
- Pat McManamon of ESPN writes that there's plenty of blame to go around for the Browns' 32-28 loss to the Jaguars.
- Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes that Browns fans are once again looking ahead to the NFL draft.
- Daryl Ruiter of 92.3 The Fan says that while the Browns don't believe in curses, they may want to rethink that stance.
A slap of the wrist, a wag of the finger and it's back to the starting lineup for Jets quarterback Geno Smith.
After being benched in the Jets' 23-3 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, Geno on Monday announced he'd been told by the Jets coaching staff that he will once again be the starter in Week 13 vs. the Oakland Raiders.
"If it was a tactic to wake me up or get me going, it definitely worked," Smith said.
If that's the case, head coach Rex Ryan felt two quarters was a strong enough message for the 21 quarters since the last time Smith threw a touchdown pass.
It's more likely that Ryan simply feels Smith still gives his team the best chance to win. Why he feels that way is anyone's guess. Smith has thrown one touchdown and 12 interceptions in the past seven games, and the Jets have gone 2-5 in that span while scoring a league-low 91 points (13 points per game).
"Now granted his mistakes are pretty glaring," Ryan said after a loss to the Bills, "but there was equally as glaring mistakes, guys losing one-on-one battles up front that weíre really not accustomed to seeing. So, I think that contributed a lot to it. I think Geno has a chance to be a good quarterback, but again, everything starts with protection, first with any quarterback. And then, thereís times where quite honestly, we have to get open. We weren't getting separation. A lot of things contribute to a poor performance like that."
Smith isn't getting much help, but the last time he actually helped his team's chance to win -- instead of simply not squandering it -- was a Week 5 win over the Atlanta Falcons, whose defense gives up the highest passer rating in the league to opposing quarterbacks at a staggering 105.1.
If Smith's going to have a bounceback game, this should be it; the Raiders are fifth from the bottom on that very same list, yielding a passer rating of 99.4.
That being said, he'll still be throwing to the same group of receivers that can't get open, and he'll still be protected by the same porous offensive line. It's hard to imagine any quarterback thriving in the conditions presented to Smith this season.
As such, it's unfair to assess Smith off his performance in 2013. He should certainly get another chance, but it's impossible to expect his performance to get better without significant improvement from Smith's teammates.
The New York Jets were never expected to make any kind of noise in the hunt for the 2013 playoffs -- their strongest supporters won't let you forget that fact, no matter how low their season sinks.
But their fall out of the playoffs -- a graceless thud after lifting the hopes of so many -- may be a harder fall than the one they would have taken by simply struggling throughout the year.
For the third straight season, the Jets have suffered a three-game losing streak in the final eight games. Now, our last remaining memories of the Jets are at their lowest point of the season. Quarterback Geno Smith has lost his job -- at least for now, if not for the foreseeable future -- and head coach Rex Ryan might be coaching for his.
It's clear he's in desperation mode. There were some reasonable decisions made amid a 23-3 stinker against the Dolphins, the Jets' seventh loss of the year and the proverbial dagger in their faintly-beating playoff hearts.
The problems run deeper than their rookie quarterback, and Smith was not the only player benched by Ryan on Sunday, and was joined on the sideline in the third quarter by rookie cornerback Dee Milliner, who missed a tackle on a 28-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Rex stopped there, or else he might have benched the entire starting lineup.
"We've been so inconsistent, and a lot of it [is] in all [three] phases," Ryan said after the game.
That's been the case throughout the downward spiral for both Smith, who has thrown one touchdown and 12 interceptions in the past seven games, and the Jets, who are 2-5 in that same span. Not many other quarterbacks would do better with a wide receiver corps that features veteran wide receiver David Nelson, cut twice in the past 10 months.
That's a reflection on the receiving corps, constructed primarily by the previous general manager Mike Tannenbaum and inherited by new front man John Idzik. The Jets have the second-fewest receptions at wide receiver of any team in the NFL, ahead of only the 49ers' 75 receptions from their wide-outs.
Just like Idzik inherited the receiving corps, he also inherited Ryan.
Not even Rex's hallmark, the defense, could avoid embarrassment on Sunday.
A sack-starved defensive line was hoping to feast on the Dolphins, emitting blood in the water like they'd been bitten by Jaws. Instead, they only brought quarterback Ryan Tannehill to the ground once all day.
In the meantime, the Dolphins scored their most points since Week 5, and their most points in a win since Week 3.
The Jets defense can't hang its hat on the strong performances against Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan this season when it has to look back on awful showings against Tannehill, EJ Manuel and Andy Dalton. The phrase "consistently inconsistent" is mind-numbingly tedious, but goes a long way to describe what the Jets have been through this year.
One thing that's been consistent is Ryan's inability to develop a quarterback.
One could argue that Ryan was doomed by being saddled with bad quarterbacks, but Smith is the second quarterback that has not only failed to develop, but has tangibly regressed under Ryan's tutelage. Mark Sanchez went from serviceable to service light in a span of four years, and was the league's second-worst quarterback from 2011 to 2012.
In a quarterback-driven league, that has been unquestionably the Jets' worst position on the roster for the past three years -- and it's been worse than nearly every other team in the NFL, as Smith is currently the lowest-rated passer in the league.
We don't know whether Smith is beyond repair, but we do know that Rex most likely does not have the tool kit for the job -- which might also require a wrecking ball, if not for a face-saving win or two in the final four games of the season.
Well, that was a close one. The Patriots weren't expected to be in a dogfight with the Texans, who rode a nine-game losing streak into their Week 13 contest, but a 17-7 halftime deficit was met with yet another resurgent second-half effort in a 34-31 victory for the Patriots.
The march to the postseason continues, as the Patriots draw ever nearer to the AFC East crown.
Here's a look at some players who shone in the face of adversity, and others whose stock took a hit on Sunday.
Logan Ryan: Second straight week with an interception for the rookie cornerback. With an injury keeping starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard out of action against the Texans, the Patriots called on Ryan to play a bit more than usual.
James Develin: Took his first career carry for his first career touchdown from the one-yard line, with a third and fourth effort to bowl over a couple of Texans defenders to get to the end zone. Develin has taken a roundabout path to becoming a starter, but his determination paid off on Sunday, as it has throughout his time with the Patriots.
Julian Edelman: Injuries have sidelined the Patriots two rookie receivers, Aaron Dobson (out today with a foot injury) and Kenbrell Thompkins (left early with a hip injury), but Edelman continues to be a reliable target for Tom Brady. He hauled in nine of the 12 passes thrown his direction, and accumulated 101 yards. It could have been more had he caught a well-thrown deep pass that was lost in flight.
Joe Vellano/Chris Jones: The two rookie defensive tackles were responsible for losing a gap on two separate touchdown runs by Texans running back Ben Tate in the first half. Otherwise were blown out of their gaps yet again on a consistent basis, as the Patriots yielded 121 rushing yards on 28 carries to the Texans.
Stevan Ridley: If there was a "stock way down" section, Ridley would be in it. He was inactive for Sunday's game as a result of his continued fumble issues. He's been mentored by former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk, who had fumble problems of his own early in his career.
Kyle Arrington: Gave up a 66-yard bomb to DeAndre Hopkins, completely losing the ball in flight as well as the receiver. As a result of the injuries in the secondary, Arrington was thrust into a role covering on the outside, where he has struggled.
If there is a dominant, leading receiver on the New England Patriots, that player has yet to show himself. The roles for each have waxed and waned. When it comes to consistency and dependability, though, Julian Edelman has been in a class of his own this year.
Tom Brady has turned to a different receiver nearly every week to help get the passing game going. Through 11 games, the Patriots have had six different leading receivers in terms of receptions.
On Sunday against the Broncos, he had just two catches in the first half before pulling in six in the fourth quarter (two for touchdowns) and one in overtime.
Considering he was targeted 11 times, his nine receptions are impressive. According to stats website Pro Football Focus, Edelman was covered by five different defenders, and had a reception against each one.
Edelman (circled in yellow) gave the Patriots their first points of the night when he caught this touchdown on the Patriots first drive in the third quarter.
Sometimes, you'll see a perimeter (X) receiver run a clearing route to help get another receiver open. That doesn't work as well in the red zone, where the shorter field tightens the windows for a quarterback to complete a pass.
On this play, both Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola ran in-breaking routes while Edelman ran a wheel route toward the back corner of the end zone. This is a pick play, and the Patriots got away with one here, but Edelman's job wasn't made easier by the pick.
In fact, Broncos cornerback Quentin Jammer had a great play on the route, and was stuck to Edelman in coverage as he ran toward the back pylon -- one could even argue he was interfered with, but Edelman continued to track the ball in flight and managed to get just enough separation to haul in the pass as he tumbled to the ground and out of the back of the end zone.
It's nice to be able to throw to open receivers all the time, but it's also nice to know that your receiver can make a catch in traffic.
Brady would have a chance to throw to an open Edelman later in the game, this time to give the Patriots their first lead of the night.
He ran a five-yard out and quickly got open, allowing Brady to release the ball shortly after taking the snap. Once Edelman caught the ball, he turned around to try to get upfield. The cornerback overpursued on the tackle, allowing Edelman to spin away. He has made moves like this on punt returns for years, and once he broke away from the cornerback, he weaved through the remaining defenders and leaped into the end zone.
Edelman showed, however, that short routes aren't the extent of his ability.
The Patriots biggest play of the game was a 43-yard reception by Edelman in the third quarter, where the receiver ran a deep post through the heart of the Broncos secondary. On the play, Edelman (circled in yellow) and Dobson were the only receivers running routes.
Brady set up the play-action fake from the two tight end set to get the defense thinking run, and Edelman and Dobson sprinted downfield.
Edelman broke his route once he reached a depth of 12 yards, but he didn't stop there, breaking again toward the left sideline. Brady had all the time he needed to find Edelman open in stride, near the sideline, where the receiver hauled in the pass and ran out of bounds.
We don't normally think of Edelman as a "deep threat" but he has proven he possesses the speed to run these routes. That's not his strength, by any stretch -- he has just 14 receptions on throws of longer than 10 yards this season, compared to 47 receptions traveling nine yards or less through the air.
For all the talk of rookie receivers and Amendola's battles with injuries, the Patriots have stumbled into a nice security blanket in Edelman.
Expectations soared high for the Houston Texans this offseason, but those dreams of postseason glory were dashed relatively early in the season.
Almost exactly a year ago, the Texans carried an 11-1 record into Gillette Stadium for a prime time showdown with the New England Patriots. They are 4-13 since that game, and are far from the contender we saw dominate foes last season.
That being said, there are plenty of reasons to take this team seriously. Here's an early look at what the Texans bring to the table.
How they got here: After starting the season with a dramatic come-from-behind victory against the San Diego Chargers, the Texans won just one more game before kickstarting a nine-game losing streak that has carried them into their Week 13 matchup with the Patriots. The Texans became the first team in NFL history to have their quarterback throw a pick-six in each of the first six games of the season. Matt Schaub was the quarterback for the first six games before tearing ligaments in his ankle, which brought in T.J. Yates off the bench. Yates was almost equally dreadful to shop, before he was yanked in favor of second-year undrafted free agent quarterback Case Keenum. Aside from the quarterback carousel, the Texans have been dreadful on defense, and despite ranking first in total defense, they rank 26th in scoring. The Texans have been embarrassed on a regular basis this season, but reached the high (or low) of embarrassment with their home loss to the Jaguars, and have now lost each of their past five games by seven points or less.
Key cog, offense -- Andre Johnson, WR: The struggles of the Texans have not stopped Andre Johnson from putting up another monster season. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound wide receiver was drafted in the first round in 2003. Johnson is no longer the downfield threat he once was, with just five receptions on passes traveling 20 yards or more through the air. He's also on pace for seven touchdowns, which would be the most for him in a single season since 2010, but 13.5 yards per reception is his lowest since 2008.
Key cog, defense -- J.J. Watt, DE: JJ Watt didn't reinvent the position of 3-4 defensive end, but he did reset the expectations. Instead of just rushing the passer, we look for those edge defenders to get their hands up to bat down a pass if they are unable to reach the quarterback now more than ever. That is a trend Watt started, with 20 batted passes in 2012, which set an NFL record for a defense of and in a single season. Oh, by the way, he can still rush the passer. He logged 20.5 sacks in 2012, just two short of Michael Strahan's single-season record. He is scary explosive for a man of his size, but it's his strengths at the point of attack that has made him one of the rare game-changing 5-technique defensive ends in the NFL.
X factor -- Case Keenum, QB: There isn't much tape on Case Keenum, but the Patriots have seen plenty of quarterbacks like him this season. He has the mobility to extend plays, but the Texans have yet to really expand the offense to make use of his legs. His stat line is one of the more perplexing for any NFL quarterback; he has eight touchdowns, two interceptions and an 89.6 passer rating, but his team has lost all five games he's started. He has not turned the ball over much, but he has completed 60 percent of his passes just once in those five starts, and his passer rating has progressively declined in recent weeks. We've seen what Keenum can do, but we haven't seen him do it very long.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: The Texans' disappointing season has not come without a fair share of poor injury luck. Defensive back Danieal Manning, linebacker Brian Cushing and running back Arian Foster are all done for the season. Tight end Owen Daniels has been out since Week 5 and is not expected to return until Week 14. Cornerback Kareem Jackson missed Week 12 with a broken rib, and is considered week-to-week.
- The Texans have lost six games by seven points or less, more than any other team in the NFL. They have also run 464 plays while trailing by at least one point, the the third-most in the league behind only the Redskins and the Jaguars.
- Texans linebacker Darryl Sharpton has missed nine tackles, and ranks fifth-worst in Pro Football Focus' tackling efficiency rating among inside linebackers. He also gives up a reception on one in every 7.4 coverage snaps, for the worst rate among inside linebackers.
- As mentioned earlier, the Texans rank first in total defense despite ranking 26th in scoring defense. That could have something to do with their league-leading six pick-sixes, but also because they've turned the ball over at least once in 10 of 11 games this season; that's tied for second-most in the league.
- John McClain of the Houston Chronicle points out that the Texans would be in the thick of the AFC Wild Card race if they could just handle their business at home.
- According to Tania Ganguli of ESPN, Texans coach Gary Kubiak knows that the Texans have been competitive, but not competitive enough to win.
- Texans fans have been perplexed by the team's struggles, but according to Kevin Patra of NFL.com, Andre Johnson thinks the explanation is simple: "We suck."
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The wind, for the win.
We'll remember Sunday night's thrilling finish for a lot of reasons, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick ensured we'd once again remember an unorthodox decision in a classic showdown between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Given the chance to take the ball after winning the overtime coin toss, the Patriots instead chose to take the wind.
"The wind, it was a strong wind," said Belichick. "We just had to keep the out of the end zone, obviously. I just felt like the wind would be an advantage if we could keep them out of the end zone on that first drive. We were able to do that. The wind was significant in the game, it was definitely significant."
If Manning and the Broncos had scored a touchdown on their first drive, or even just a field goal on either of their last two drives, the narrative would be much different. Belichick would be vilified.
In the aftermath of the victory?
"Bill's a genius," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "He's a genius. I mean, even the captains didnít know. We [were] like, 'Defer? Take the wind?' And, it was obviously the best call, and it was a great call by him."
McCourty was one of the team captains charged with making the call of being gone with the wind. The captains repeatedly asked Belichick to make sure they were doing exactly what Belichick wanted. Due in part to that decision, the Patriots left Gillette Stadium with the 34-31 victory.
There were likely several factors at play in Belichick's decision.
The first that comes to mind is the advantage on field goals. The Broncos drove the ball to the Patriots' 37-yard line on their second possession of overtime; it would have been a 54-yard field goal try, but that's usually within range of Broncos kicker Matt Prater, who is 19-of-25 in his career on attempts of 50 yards or longer.
The Broncos didn't feel confident kicking the field goal into the wind, and they ended up punting.
Not only did the wind limit the length of a potential field goal try by the Broncos, but Manning had to throw into the wind for the remainder of the night, where he had struggled to that point.
Great analysis by @TDESPN pointing how that Tom Brady higher accuracy and more yards into wind than Peyton Manning in entire game— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) November 25, 2013
The impact may have been most greatly felt in the kicking game, namely on punts. Broncos punter Britton Colquitt's final overtime punt netted just 22 yards, setting up the Patriots near their own 20-yard line where they may have otherwise had their backs against the goal posts.
Then, there was the final punt.
"That was a great punt by Ryan [Allen] there at the end, getting it up there high and making it a tough play," said Belichick. "We were able to take advantage of it."
Make no mistake; the sequence on that final punt may have looked fluky when it happened, but with all the talk of who was to blame for that final play, an invisible influence may have had the greatest impact.
It looked like former Patriots receiver Wes Welker became tentative and indecisive with the ball in the air, and that may have had to do with the wind affecting the trajectory of the punt.
Whether the wind impacted that fateful play or not, it certainly impacted the other 31 plays in overtime. Some will undoubtedly still question Belichick's decision, but there's no question that his decision helped secure a Patriots victory.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Go have a cigarette; if you sat through this game, you deserve it.
A muffed punt by the Broncos in overtime brought an apt ending to an insane game, as the Patriots went on to win 34-31.
With any game as wild as this one, there are bound to be some players on either end of the spectrum, so let's take a look at whose stock went up and who has some work to do.
Shane Vereen: Was a first-down conversion machine, with four of them on the night, including two third downs converted for a first down. Finished with 17 touches for 83 combined rushing and receiving yards.
Jamie Collins: Got the start at linebacker in place of Brandon Spikes and made a pair of big plays on the first drive with a tackle on Virgil Green and then on Wes Welker to hold the Broncos short of a first down.
Julian Edelman: Caught two touchdown passes that helped the Patriots mount their comeback in the fourth quarter and had a nifty, shake-and-bake punt return of 20 yards that helped set up a field goal drive in the fourth quarter.
Tom Brady: Brady has owned Jack Del Rio in recent years, and Sunday night was no different. He finished 34-of-50 for 344 yards and threw three touchdown passes, all in the second half, to help the Patriots gain the lead. Brady's 56th career 300-yard performance is the fifth-most all-time.
Stevan Ridley: With his third fumble in as many games, it's getting tough to defend Ridley's struggles holding onto the football. He had four carries before being pulled from the game, and he didn't see the field again from that point. It's fair to wonder whether the Patriots have run out of patience for their top running back.
Offensive line: A continuing story line this year has been the amount of pressure on Tom Brady. He has been sacked 31 times in the first 11 games and is on pace to be sacked a career-high 45 times. Center Ryan Wendell and left tackle Nate Solder were charted for sacks allowed.
Chris Jones/Joe Vellano: Blown off the ball continually in the running game, as the Broncos amassed 280 rushing yards on 48 carries.
Peyton Manning may not have the laser rocket arm anymore, but he still has the laser accurate arm, and that has helped the Denver Broncos run one of the most efficient precision offenses in the NFL.
So how do you slow that kind of offense down? By getting physical. The New England Patriots should know better than anyone; the blueprint for beating them from 2010-2012 was much the same. The Patriots offense was always slowed down by teams that could jam them at the line of scrimmage and capitalize by getting pressure with a four-man rush.
And in that simple truth, the Patriots have their game plan for how to slow down the Broncos offense. The Patriots must find a way to mess with Manning's internal clock with hits on both him and his receivers.
Manning is in the midst of an historic season, but not because he's launching the ball down field. In fact, his deep accuracy is about average this season. He has hit his intended target on 43.1 percent of his attempts of 20 yards or more downfield, which ranks 15th of 36 qualifying quarterbacks this year.
It's no surprise, then, that 2013's most prolific passer is getting the ball out of his hand quicker than any other quarterback in the NFL. Beyond the schematic aspect of jamming receivers and disrupting the timing, there's a fundamental aspect to slowing down the Broncos offense: tackling.
Those quick passes have defined the Broncos offense this year. They rank first in the NFL in total yards after catch with 1,891 -- roughly 53 percent of their total receiving yards -- and third in the league with 6.57 yards after catch per reception.
One of their favorite plays -- to Manning's favorite receiver, Demaryius Thomas -- is based entirely on yards after the catch. That usually works its best when there's a comfortable cushion on the outside for the receiver, allowing him to turn for the pass and turn upfield with blockers getting in front of him in time for a big play.
Thomas is simply too fast, and his linemen too quick to get out in space, to be stopped before a short pass turns into a big play. One bad angle by Ravens safety Michael Huff (now, coincidentally, with the Broncos) freed up the lane Thomas needed for a 78-yard touchdown.
The Colts cornerbacks were aggressive with the Broncos receivers from the get-go, almost to the point of being penalized (they drew one contact penalty and one pass interference).
There were 33 plays in which the Colts played straight press coverage in the secondary. They played "off" seven times, and had some kind of a mix of coverage on another seven plays. Only once did they run zone coverage. There were another five plays in which the Broncos offense came out in a bunch formation, forcing the Colts out of press coverage.
Defensive backs can't be successful when they give receivers a huge window underneath. They must affect the receiver.
One problem with that, however, is that getting too far upfield can allow a receiver to get behind the defense, which would expose them to the big play. Manning tried to exploit this with long passes; he went 5-of-13 on throws 20 yards or more downfield, and those 13 deep attempts are still more than twice as many as his next closest (he's had six deep attempts in three games this year, and averages just over five per game).
A good jam followed by great downfield is the stuff a defensive coordinator's dreams are made of. Colts cornerback Vontae Davis made that dream a reality in Week 8 against the Broncos, and on this play, he re-routed Thomas to the outside and stayed with the receiver stride for stride down the field.
As a result, he was able to break up the pass despite being interfered with by Thomas.
Granted, that interference by Thomas was in an effort to prevent Davis from intercepting the pass, but it was also probably a sign of frustration with how that night went for the Broncos overall.
One of the flaws of such a coverage scheme was exposed in that game, however. The Colts cornerbacks were locked in a physical battle with other physical players, which wore them down after awhile. Both Vontae Davis and Darius Butler had to leave the game with injuries.
If Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington were all at 100 percent, they would have a puncher's chance of doing what the Colts did. With Dennard possibly out, and Talib and Arrington both battling through injuries, it's fair to wonder what to expect -- and how much playing time the Patriots will get -- out of those guys.
If the Patriots are going to execute the necessary game plan for slowing down the Broncos, players like Marquice Cole and Logan Ryan may have to step up in bigger roles than they're used to.
The way this season has gone, though, is it any shock?
New Englanders are still buzzing over the controversial call that ended the Patriots' comeback hopes against the Carolina Panthers on Monday night.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, they don't have that long before they have to turn the page on that loss. The Denver Broncos are right ahead on the schedule, and the Patriots will have to be better prepared -- and a lot healthier -- if they want to slow down Peyton Manning and that high-powered offense.
Here's an early look at the Broncos.
How they got here: The Broncos started out 6-0 before they finally met their match against the Indianapolis Colts. They had a thrilling showdown with the Dallas Cowboys, but other than that, most of their games have not been left in doubt too long. They won by 16 points or more in four of those wins. The Broncos first eight wins came against teams that were a combined 31-50, and until beating the Chiefs, not a single victory had come against a team with a winning record.
Key cog, offense -- Demaryius Thomas, WR: Manning has done a fantastic job of spreading the ball to his receivers, but Thomas remains the biggest threat of the three. The Patriots know all about his talent; the 6-foot-3, 230-pound receiver was drafted in the first round of the 2010 draft by former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels. Manning knows how to use his combination of size and speed in various ways, and he has greatly improved his route-running ability. When defenders come up, he goes over the top. When they give him space, he lives underneath. Peyton will throw him at least two quick screens a game to take advantage of his open-field speed.
Key cog, defense -- Von Miller, LB: Few linebackers have been compared to Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas as frequently as Miller, but the 6-foot-3, 250-pound outside linebacker deserves the praise. His combination of speed and strength is rare and allows him to beat offensive tackles a variety of ways. The Broncos primarily use him as a pass-rusher, but his athleticism allows him to be used a variety of ways, including in coverage on tight ends and running backs.
X factor -- Trindon Holliday, KR/PR: The small guy has a big impact for his ability to take kicks and punts to the house. At 5-foot-5 and 170 pounds, Holliday is by far the smallest player in the NFL, but he is an explosive return specialist who knows how to set up blocks and burst through. Holliday ranks third in the league in yards per kickoff return (31.9) and is the only player in the NFL with a touchdown on both a kickoff return and a punt return this year. Partly due to Holliday's ability on returns, the Broncos rank a respectable 11th in average starting field position.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: The Broncos have already lost tackle Ryan Clady and center Dan Koppen for the season, but Sunday's win over the Chiefs was a costly one for the Broncos. Safety Rahim Moore is out indefinitely after having surgery to repair lateral compartment syndrome in his left leg. Wide receiver Wes Welker went down with a concussion, and although there are some questions as to whether proper procedure was followed in allowing him to return to action, he is expected to play on Sunday. The same goes for tight end Julius Thomas, who is listed as questionable with a knee injury and was described by interim coach Jack Del Rio as "day-to-day." Other notable injuries include cornerback Champ Bailey (foot) and tight end Joel Dreessen (knee).
- Speaking of Del Rio, it's worth noting that Brady is 137-of-185 for 1,430 yards (7.7 YPA), 14 touchdowns and a 121.2 passer rating against Jack Del Rio's defenses -- granted, those numbers largely came against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
- The Broncos have run 461 plays on offense when leading, over 100 plays more than the second-place Panthers.
- The Broncos have only trailed in five of their 10 games this year, and only once by more than 14 points. The Broncos defense has only had 80 plays run against them in which they were trailing, with a balance of 47 passes to 33 runs. Opponents still feel inclined to lean a bit more heavily on the pass, even when ahead against Manning.
- A whopping 37 percent of their drives have ended in a touchdown. That's around nine percent better than the Saints, whose 28 percent conversion rate is second-best. Denver's offense is the best in the league in many categories, but most notably in the red zone; they convert 79.1 percent of their red zone drives into touchdowns, more than 12 percent better than the second-best Cowboys.
A new section where we relay some interesting articles from the opposing view.
- John Meyer of The Denver Post thinks America will be pulling for the Broncos over the "whining New England Patriots" on Sunday -- although I honestly have heard no one in the Patriots organization whine; fans, sure, but actual Patriots, no.
- Jeff Legwold of ESPN goes to the tape to find out why the Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper was in man-to-man coverage on Demaryius Thomas so often.
- According to David Krause of 9 News Colorado, the Broncos are hopeful that a new indoor practice facility could help attract free agents in the future.
The Patriots weren't surprised by Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's ability to run, but all that preparation for the read-option couldn't help the Patriots completely shut him down.
What was surprising, however, was that the Patriots defense -- maligned for its inability to stop the running game in recent weeks -- held Panthers running backs to 41 yards on 16 carries.
It was three carries by Newton -- all on third down, all of longer than 10 yards -- that really flipped the script in favor of the Panthers.
Second quarter, 7:37 remaining, 3rd-and-6 on the Panthers' 46-yard line
Newton's first big run of the night might have been stopped if two defenders hadn't occupied the same gap, leaving another gap open for a run.
The Patriots had their secondary in man coverage, and sent a five-man rush at Newton off the snap. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower looped around from the right side through the A-gap, but he ended up getting behind defensive tackle Joe Vellano instead of splitting Vellano and defensive end Chandler Jones.
Hightower tried to recover in time, but was tangled up with Vellano before he could react to Newton's speed. Other than that one missed gap, the Patriots pocket containment was good on this play. No one got too far behind Newton.
Third quarter, 8:04 remaining, 3rd-and-7 on the Panthers' 37-yard line
The .gif says it all.
Newton made six Patriots defenders miss on his way to running nearly 75 yards for a 14-yard gain. Unlike on the first run, when one player was caught out of position allowing a big gain, this time, several Patriots defenders had a chance at him before he was able to escape.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich had two chances at Newton, missing on the initial contact and again as Newton looped around to evade the rush.
"It's just a tough situation where you got to contain a quarterback that can run the ball, that can throw the ball," he said following the game. "So it's our job as a defensive line to keep him in the pocket. So if we don't do that, bad things happen. And I hold myself accountable for a quarterback that scrambles. That's on everybody on the d-line. We're not supposed to let that happen."
Few quarterbacks other than Newton would be able to pirouette in the pocket, keep their eyes downfield and still find a way to make a play.
For the most part, though, the Patriots did a really good job of keeping Newton in front of them on this play. Only defensive end Chandler Jones ever truly rushed beyond Newton, and that was only after several seconds of dancing around.
Hightower got behind Newton slightly, but gets major props for chasing down the play from all the way across the field.
Fourth quarter, 5:42 remaining, 3rd-and-6 on the Panthers' 21-yard line
At least they tried.
The Patriots defensive line came on a four-man rush, with Ninkovich and Chandler Jones pinching the pocket around Newton.
Pocket awareness is a key for any quarterback, and Newton was able to subtly step up in the pocket to avoid the pressure of the two ends. Once he did that, he simply continued to scramble, seeing an open lane and room in front of him. He ran straight through an arm tackle by defensive tackle Chris Jones and picked up 15 yards before being stopped.
At the second level, Hightower started off in the right spot, but floated toward the middle of the field when wide receiver Brandon LaFell ran a crossing pattern. It's hard to tell if that was his responsibility, but his movement gave Newton a little extra space to run.
The open space in front of Newton was almost always a result of man coverage in the secondary. It was believed that the Patriots would use a spy on Newton to help contain him at the second level, and safety Nate Ebner saw a few snaps in that role, as did linebacker Dane Fletcher.
Executing a game plan flawlessly is hard to do for any stretch of time, but aside from two more games against Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, the Patriots won't have to deal with a dual-threat like Newton again this season.
Needless to say, there'll be much less of an emphasis on pocket containment and QB Spy duty when Peyton Manning and the Broncos roll into town on Nov. 24.
The Patriots were on the wrong end of yet another controversial call in the final seconds of a loss, this time a 24-20 letdown against the Carolina Panthers.
It would be too easy to focus in on the one play at the end of the game. Instead, let's look at some of the players over the course of the game who had an impact on the outcome, for better or worse.
Rob Gronkowski: Dragged three defenders with him into the end zone for a touchdown, and caught a big 23-yard pass on 4th-and-10 to keep the Patriots final drive alive. Hauled in five of the seven passes thrown his direction and was generally a mismatch for the Panthers where ever he went on the field.
Shane Vereen: Plenty of action for Vereen in his first game back in the lineup, with a team-leading 11 targets and turned it into eight catches for 65 yards, adding a carry for seven yards. They used him a lot on curl routes and screens, getting him in space and with an opportunity to make a play. The Patriots offense has been missing that kind of security blanket all season long.
Tom Brady: One of Brady's best passing performances of the season, with his highest completion percentage (72.5) and his third-highest yards per attempt (7.4). People will remember his game-ending interception for many reasons, but they should also remember that few quarterbacks would have even been able to put their team in position to win the game.
Aqib Talib: Was on the wrong end of the spotlight from an early point, allowing a 43-yard reception to wide receiver Steve Smith and being called for two penalties for 20 yards. Talib's lone pass-defensed was on a poorly thrown pass over the middle for Smith. It was not a good return to action for Talib after missing the past three games with a hip injury.
Defensive line: At least three times, Cam Newton was able to evade the rush and find an open lane to get upfield. Pocket containment was a key for this game, and in an effort to get pressure on Newton, the Patriots defensive line rushed too hard upfield and lost their gaps. This allowed for runs of 24, 14 and 15 yards. Newton finished with seven rushes for 62 yards on the night.
Stevan Ridley: Landed in the doghouse for yet another fumble, but it's worth noting that this is Ridley's second straight game fumbling, returning to the game and scoring a touchdown.
On Sunday, the New York Jets became the first team in NFL history to alternate wins and losses for the first 10 games of the regular season.
The Jets are on an unprecedented run of inconsistency, but they're no worse off than the Miami Dolphins, who won three straight to start the season, only to show their true colors over the past seven games and have floated around .500 in that time.
We can argue the validity of that statistic, although it seems perfectly legitimate from this perspective -- if you can't string together wins in the regular season, how can you expect to be able to flip that switch in the playoffs?
While it's indicative of their up-and-down play, one could just as easily point to their opposite records at home (4-1) and on the road (1-4).
That being said, it all begs the question: what do we really know about the 2013 Jets?
Stats don't tell the whole story, but they do tell part of the story, so here's a bunch that give you an idea of what the Jets really are this year:
2-5: The Jets' record when they turn the ball over two times or more as a team. Conversely, the Jets are 3-0 when they turn it over once or not at all. What it means: The Jets are not a good enough team to overcome multiple turnovers from their offense. Geno Smith must do a better job of reading coverage and of putting the ball in spots where only his receivers can make the play. No less than 10 of his 16 interceptions have been a result of poor decisions.
2.9: Opponent's rushing average against the Jets defense. That's the best average in the league. What it means: The Jets defensive line remains one of the best in football. They don't have the gaudy sack stats of other groups, but they're a lunch pail group that can come through in a pinch and is almost always in the right spot.
43.5: Geno Smith's passer rating in the Jets' five losses, where he's thrown one touchdown and 12 interceptions. Conversely, Smith's passer rating is 89.4 in the Jets' five wins. What it means: When Geno Smith plays badly, he melts down. And when he melts down, the Jets lose. Rex Ryan gave Geno a vote of confidence after losing to the Bills, but it's fair to wonder where the breaking point lies; Smith has thrown just one touchdown and nine interceptions in the past five games.
176: The number of first downs allowed by the Jets defense this year, which ranks fifth in the NFL. On the flip side, the Jets offense has 174 first downs, the fourth-fewest in the league. What it means: A defense that prevents its opponents from moving the chains, and an offense that cannot move them on its own. A lot of things have changed for the Jets over the five years of the Rex Ryan era; this, however, is not one of them.
302: The Jets' total rushing attempts this season, the seventh-most in the NFL. Their 310 pass attempts are the fourth-fewest by any team this year. What it means: The Jets are still trying to be a balanced offense, and they largely stuck to that game plan even when losing to the Bills. They ran the ball 52 times in their 30-27 overtime victory against the Patriots. They are at their best when they can run the ball consistently and effectively.
2: The number of teams with a negative scoring differential that have a record of .500 or better. Those two teams are the Jets and the Dolphins (yay AFC East!) What it means: The Jets have won their five games by a combined 19 points (3.8 points per game), but have lost five games by a combined 104 points (20.8 points per game).
6: The playoff seed the Jets would have if the season ended today. What it means: Despite all the problems outlined here, the Jets have managed to win half of their games to this point, and if the playoffs began today, they would be traveling to play the Indianapolis Colts. The Jets have beat good teams in the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots, and have proven they must be taken seriously if they get to the postseason. They can't expect to go far, though, unless they learn how to play good football consistently.
Dolphins fans have done it again.
On Sunday, prior to kickoff of the Miami Dolphins' home game against the San Diego Chargers, a flying banner made the rounds over SunLife Stadium imploring owner Stephen Ross to take action against general manager Jeff Ireland.
The banner read: "Mr. Ross: We told you so 2 years ago #FireIreland"
A group of Dolphins fans used WePay.com to collect donations for the banner, which flew over the stadium from 1:00-3:00pm Eastern, prior to the 4:05 kickoff of the game. There are air space restrictions over the stadium during the playing of the game.
In the final home game of the 2011 season, Week 17 against the New York Jets, Dolphins fans raised $1,500 to fly a banner over the stadium that read, "Mr. Ross: Save our Dolphins. Fire Ireland."
This is the second time in the past 24 months a banner has been flown over the stadium in protest of Ireland.
Last time, Chris Joseph (a writer for the Miami New Times) and Roger Paul, both avid Dolphins fans, led the charge. Both are members of a Twitter clan that identifies with the hashtag "#WAARF", which stands for We Are All Ray Feinga (Feinga is a former guard for the Dolphins who bounced from the active roster to the practice squad to the unemployment line from 2009-2012).
"#WAARF is kind of a movement and state of mind," said Paul. "It's a general sense of malaise with being a Dolphins fan during the last six years or so."
Last time, it took $1,500 to fund the banner. This time, Dolphins fans were able to raise $1,000 in less than an hour, taking donations from approximately 50 people, with donations ranging from $10 to $100.
"We did it because we're sick and tired of the organization embarrassing themselves," said Paul. "This act is nothing compared to the way the front office misrepresents what was at one time a prestigious, classy organization. Now it's a mess.
"As fans, we have every right to expect more than a sub-.500 record by our GM and coach during their tenure."
The seat continues to get warmer for Ireland with the drama surrounding the situation between offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. He has already come under fire for a number of questionable personnel decisions, including trading wide receiver Brandon Marshall for a pair of third-round draft picks and allowing running back Reggie Bush to walk away in free-agency.
Ireland's teams have gone a combined 42-47, and have lost at least nine games in each of the past four seasons. Ireland's contract was set to expire after the 2013 season, but he was signed to a one-year extension before the season began.
Ross was effusive in his support of head coach Joe Philbin when speaking to the media regarding the Martin-Incognito incident, but he didn't have much to say about Ireland.
Whether Ross looks at the roster, the record, the sky or the empty seats in his stadium, he's reminded of the shortcomings of his general manager. It's fair to wonder how much longer that will go on before the unrest prevails.
Dolphins fans are growing eager for change -- either on the field, in the front office, or both. That being said, maybe fans should fly those banners overhead more often: the Dolphins are 2-0 in games where a #Fireland banner is flown over the stadium.
This post was modified from its original version to include the quotes from Paul.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Panthers receiver Steve Smith will face off with the Patriots for the fourth time in his illustrious career, and it looks like he could be tested by the best cornerback on the Patriots roster, Aqib Talib.
After missing the past three games with a hip injury, Talib returned to practice on Thursday as a limited participant. He spoke to the media on Thursday -- usually indicative that a player will be available on game day.
"Just that competitive nature, man," Talib said of Smith. "He brings it every Sunday or Monday or whenever the game is. Steve gonna bring it, man. I think [when] you're competitive like that, you're gonna be pretty successful."
Smith has stood the test of time. He has caught 13 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns in his four career games against the Patriots; those aren't earth-shattering numbers, but they're indicative of his explosive nature.
It's been nearly 10 full years since the Patriots were first acquainted with Smith, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick says not a lot has changed over the years.
"He's not returning punts and kickoffs, but he's very competitive. He's still a tough guy to handle. He's very strong for his size. He's a shorter player but he's stocky, he's thick, he has good balance. He's tough, he's hard to bring down. He has strong hands, you can see him really reach out there and take the ball aggressively. He has good quickness and run after the catch ability is still good. He's taken some shorter passes and broken some tackles or beaten guys in the open field. He's a tough guy to handle. His playing strength, his quickness, his speed, his experience -- but just his competitiveness. He's a tough, competitive player. The bigger the situation, the more he wants to be out there and step up and take the shot, so to speak. I have a lot of respect for Steve Smith and I think he's still very effective in that role for the Panthers. He's a good player. I think he brings a lot of heart and toughness to their team."
Tough is one way to describe him. Competitive is another. Either way, those traits manifest themselves on the field time and time again.
Smith's strong hands have made him a reliable target on third down, where he has converted 11 for a first down.
The coverage couldn't have been much better from Vikings rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes, but Smith was able to use his quickness and strength to fight through the contact for the catch. His concentration was incredible to bat the pass to himself and make the catch as he tumbled to the ground.
His competitive style of play shines through when he's fighting through contact, but that fiery nature comes out other ways, as well.
"Steve, he do his talking on the field," said Talib. "I mean, you've got a lot of guys who do a lot of talking to you guys, and we get out there, and they don't say too much on the field. Steve is definitely one of those guys, he's gonna do [his talking] on the field."
Will Talib fire back?
"Yeah, I'll say a couple words."
Smith may do a lot of his talking on the field, but a lot of his play does the talking.
Up against Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in Week 1, the All Pro cornerback could be seen backpedaling before the snap, giving Smith some cushion on the outside with the Seahawks in Cover 3.
Smith ran a corner route to the sideline, and by the time he had made his break, he was already away from Sherman's coverage. The linebacker underneath wasn't deep enough to provide help, giving Cam Newton a big enough window to thread the pass through.
Smith went down and made the grab on the sideline to keep the drive alive.
The veteran receiver doesn't have the long speed he once had, but his quickness is still very much in-tact. He's caught just one pass that traveled 20 yards or more through the air this season, as opposed to a combined 26 over the past two years.
The Patriots are well aware of Smith's run-after-catch ability. So is Talib. He was victimized on a 37-yard touchdown pass in Week 2 of the 2010 season.
The Buccaneers sent a blitz after quarterback Matt Moore, but the rush didn't get home in time, leaving Talib on an island in the slot against Smith.
In Smith's heyday, that was not a spot you wanted to be. He's not busting long gains after the catch as frequently these days, but he's still a threat over the middle for his quickness and ability to create separation for his quarterback.
Talib has been building an All-Pro season with shutdown-level performances against top-tier receivers. His next challenge, while no longer one of the top receivers in the game, still brings a variety of skills to the table.
As the Patriots prepare to take on the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football, they can tip their cap to the former Patriots backup quarterback for helping them get a jump start on their preparations for the read-option, one of the predominant elements of the Panthers' offense.
Thank Heaven for Tim Tebow? Not exactly, but dating all the way back to the preseason, the Patriots have been gaining experience defending the read-option, and it all began with Tebow.
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork commented, at the time, that getting to practice against the read-option provided an advantage for the defense.
"I do [like practicing against Tebow]," Wilfork said. "There might be some times this year that we have to face a quarterback like that. He brings a whole different aspect to the game for us, being able to play against a guy who can run that type of offense is a plus for this team. Not just Tim being here, but it's a plus for this defense because we have to be able to stop some teams that come out and do that to us."
It's important to point out these aren't all read-option plays -- at least one was a naked bootleg for a six-yard loss by Drew Brees -- but Newton's abilities running the ball obviously aren't limited to the read-option, either. Their experience practicing and playing against the read-option and running quarterbacks will come in handy.
Head coach Bill Belichick reflected on that, noting that they've already seen those looks frequently this year dating back to preseason (bolded for emphasis).
I think our exposure to it going all the way back to Philadelphia in preseason, working against the Eagles and of course we saw some of it last year, especially against San Francisco. We knew coming into the season this was going to be an area we needed to make sure that we had enough defense for and we spent enough time so our players understood their different responsibilities with this type of offense. We saw it at Philadelphia, we've seen it twice with the Jets, we saw it from Buffalo; whether it was hurry-up or not, but the plays and the overall type of attack that those teams use and Carolina uses. I'd say that Carolina probably has a little more volume in the type of plays that they run. I don't know if they run it more than Buffalo or the Jets. That kind of varies sometimes from game to game. They have overall a lot of volume in the running game, so thatís one part of it you have to defend with Carolina. Itís certainly not all option like it is, or read like it is, let's say at Philadelphia. I mean thatís by far the majority of what they do. Or at least when we practiced against them it was. But, with Carolina, that's only part of it and of course the ability of the quarterback with [Cam] Newton handling the ball makes it even more dangerous because he can rip off a lot of yardage like [Colin] Kaepernick could, that same type of thing. We have to do a good job, be disciplined on that. But yeah, definitely the fact that we've worked against those teams that have used that or some element of it has been beneficial. Miami as well -- Miamiís another team that was in the gun almost every play with their running game. They had a few runs under center but most were in the gun. Thatís another exposure to it. So really I'd say over half the season so far we've dealt with it or some element of it on a weekly basis.
This will be the fifth time in the Patriots first 10 games in which they'll be facing some elements of the read-option.
The principles have been hammered home -- gap containment and pocket containment chief among them.
The Patriots have had mixed results against those quarterbacks. Bills quarterback EJ Manuel only ran the ball three times in Week 1 against New England, but he had the best passing performance of his pro career with two touchdowns and a 105.5 passer rating.
Smith also ran the ball three times in his first meeting with the Patriots, with the Patriots using a containment game plan for a second straight week. They were able to keep him in the pocket, where he threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter and completed just 42.9 percent of his throws on the night.
The Patriots were less disciplined against Smith the second time around, giving up 32 yards on six carries by Smith, including a 14-yarder on 3rd-and-14 when defensive end Michael Buchanan rushed too hard upfield and lost containment of his gap, allowing Smith to scramble to the first-down marker.
Mistakes like that can't happen against the Panthers; Newton, however, is a one-of-a-kind talent as a dual-threat quarterback. His experience as an NFL passer is far better than any such quarterback the Patriots have faced this year.
His 62 rush attempts are the third-most by any quarterback this year. Despite that fact, he's still on pace for a career-low in rush attempts and yards. In fact, he's also on pace for a career-low in pass attempts. They are, however, on pace for the most rush attempts as a team since Newton joined the Panthers in 2011.
This is his most efficient season as a passer yet. His passer rating, completion percentage and touchdowns are all higher than they've ever been for him through nine games -- and there are good reasons for that.
Regardless of his running ability, Newton is still one of the better passers the Patriots have faced all year. The threat of the run only adds to the Patriots preparations.
The Panthers aren't asking Newton to be Superman anymore, but that hasn't stopped him from being Superman from time to time. He's not being asked to do everything, but the Patriots still have to be prepared for it.
Fortunately for them, they got an early start on their preparation, and that preparation has continued throughout the preseason and the regular season.
The Patriots have had plenty of practice with the read option dating back to preseason. Practice may not make perfect, but the Patriots will have to be pretty close to perfect if they want to come out of Carolina with a win.
The last time the Patriots faced the Panthers, Cam Newton was at Blinn College winning the NJCAA National Championship. In that time, he has added the 2010 Heisman Trophy, the 2010 BCS National Championship and the 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year award to his trophy case.
The Panthers won't get a trophy for beating the Patriots in a regular season game, but it would most definitely be a banner win for their team. Truth be told, though, Newton doesn't have to deliver the win on his own.
The defense has been playing some of the best football the league has to offer, currently ranked second in both points and yards. They have the formula to give the Patriots problems, with a front four that can get after the quarterback with seven defenders in coverage.
Here's a closer look at the Panthers.
How they got here: The Panthers dropped their first two games of the season, despite leading in the fourth quarter in both games. The Panthers lost those games by a combined six points, but have earned their six wins by an average of 20.2 points. They have won six of their last seven, and have won five straight headed into this week's game. Those wins, however, come against opponents that are a combined 18-37
Key cog, offense -- Cam Newton, QB: Let's not get cute here. The Panthers are more committed to running the ball this year than years past, but Newton is what makes it all work. His rare combination of pocket passing ability, along with athleticism, speed and strength as a runner in the open field, make him the NFL's best dual-threat quarterback. His passer rating is at a career-high, despite a career-low in passing yards per attempt. That's indicative that he's doing a better job of taking what the defense gives him, and
Key cog, defense -- Greg Hardy, DE: You could easily fill in any of the Panthers defensive linemen in this spot, but Hardy has the biggest all-around impact of that group. Hardy entered the league considered somewhat of a pass-rush specialist, and he remains effective in that role, but he has become a more well-rounded player in his ability to set the edge in the running game. He has an impressive burst off the snap to get upfield in a hurry when rushing the passer, and at 6-4 and 290 pounds, he's not easy to move off the ball when running his direction. There are few, if any, holes in his game.
X factor -- Mike Tolbert, FB: Very few fullbacks show up on a scouting report these days, but Tolbert may be one of the most versatile ones in the league. He contributes in the running game as a lead blocker and short-yardage back, and in the passing game as a blitz protector and a pass-catcher. He has a compact frame at 5-9 and 243 pounds, which allows him to get low on his assignment when blocking. He's not running in a track meet anytime soon, but he will certainly bowl you over; according to stats website Pro Football Focus, Tolbert has 116 yards after contact, more than half of his rushing total of 213 yards.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: The Panthers have stayed relatively injury-free, but they have been without starting cornerback Charles Godfrey since after Week 1 and starting guard Amini Silatolu since after Week 3. Running back DeAngelo Williams (quadriceps) has been hobbled in recent weeks, but has not missed any time.
- The Panthers have allowed nine touchdowns on defense, the lowest total in the league, through their first nine games. The last team to allow an average of one touchdown per game was the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who went on to win the Super Bowl that year.
- If the Patriots plan on struggling again in the third quarter, the Panthers will be happy to take advantage. They are tied for third in the league in third-quarter points-allowed per game (3.3), and are tied for 10th in third-quarter points-scored per game (6.1). The Patriots rank 27th on both defense (6.4 3QPPG) and offense (3.2 3QPPG) in third-quarter scoring.
- The Panthers gave up 46 net yards of passing against the 49ers, the second-lowest total in team history (their best is 29 net passing yards against the Chicago Bears in a 23-6 loss). They also did a nice job of bottling up big plays, and the 49ers biggest play was a 31-yarder -- quarterback Colin Kaepernick gained 16 yards on a scramble, and was hit late for a 15-yard personal foul penalty. Besides that, the 49ers didn't have a play longer than 17 yards.
- The Panthers get a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks with a four-man rush; according to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks are pressured 36.98 percent of the time they drop back to throw, despite sending a blitz just 23.67 percent of the time. Linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are the primary non-linemen pass-rushers. The Panthers rarely send their defensive backs on a blitz, with safety Michael Mitchell (13) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (10) chief among the defensive backs sent on the rush.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross spoke on Monday for the first time since the NFL began its investigation into the brewing situation between suspended guard Richie Incognito and absent tackle Jonathan Martin.
He started by detailing the course of events over the past two weeks since Martin's departure, and went on to outline the selection of an independent advisory group, who will be brought in to make recommendations for guidelines on locker room conduct.
Ross mentioned that the two have been in touch "as recently as this weekend" via text messages, and the owner also said he plans on meeting with Martin on Wednesday.
"I look forward to that meeting. I think that can help us move forward," Ross said. "I'd like to hear from him what had happened, why he felt that way and what we did and what we could have done to prevent something like this from happening. I want to hear the circumstances, the facts."
Martin has yet to speak to the media, but he remains in contact with his coaches and Ross.
The main takeaway from this press conference was a resounding show of support for head coach Joe Philbin.
"Joe Philbin is probably one of the most organized people I've ever met," Ross said. "When I interviewed him that stood out, but what also stood out was his character. I don't think there is a better person, a more respected person, a more caring person in the National Football League than Joe Philbin."
Just as interesting as any of the words Ross said, however, were the words he didn't say. He only mentioned Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland once, to name him as one of the members of the second committee, in place to review Dolphins policies.
The group in place to review locker room conduct, however, is an impressive list of high-profile former NFL coaches and players: Don Shula, Tony Dungy, Curtis Martin and Jason Taylor, with more announcements to come.
"Together, these men bring integrity, respect and diverse experiences to the discussion, some having just recently retired from the locker room," said Ross of his committee. "Joe Philbin and others will be a part of the process, as will current Dolphin players. I want to be clear: this effort is to improve the Miami Dolphins only and is not intended to be a blueprint for other franchises. The working group will begin its charge after the season."
Whether they intend to or not, the Dolphins model could prove to be the first model teams look to, if the NFL investigation brings about any widespread change in the NFL.
The Patriots have managed to keep winning through myriad injuries, but they've learned a few things about their team as a result.
A team's depth will always be tested over the course of a season, but rarely as vigorously and through the losses of as many key players as the Patriots have had to endure.
Backups Joe Vellano and Chris Jones are playing better than expected, but there's some room for concern as to the long-term stability of the defensive tackle spot for several reasons.
Let's get right to the questions in this week's mailbag.
Vellano and Jones have been as good as could have been expected of an undrafted free-agent and a waiver-wire pickup.
Neither is an elite pass-rusher, but they're both creating some pressure up the middle -- which has been missing for awhile. Vellano has just one sack, but Jones has logged five; according to stats website ProFootballFocus.com, he's brought down the quarterback five times on 11 total quarterback pressures.
It's hard not to notice, however, that the Patriots run defense has fallen off a cliff. Opposing teams have begun to take a greater interest in establishing the run in recent weeks. The Bengals, Saints, Jets, Dolphins and Steelers ran the ball 168 times (42 attempts per game).
It hasn't been all bad, as those two have done a good job using their burst and good technique to penetrate the line to bring down opposing backs in the backfield at times, but holding gaps is not their strong suit at this point.
@ErikFrenz Based on where we stand today, what should the Pats priorities be in free agency and the draft respectively?— Brian Medeiros (@medeirob) November 7, 2013
Despite the better-than-expected production from Vellano and Jones, the Patriots could still use some help on the inside, whether it's through free-agency or the draft. Those two will make nice rotational rushers next season, but they will probably still be best suited in a limited role.
The Patriots have defensive tackles Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Isaac Sopoaga all under contract, but there are questions around each. Wilfork, Kelly and Sopoaga will all be 33 years old next year, with the first two coming off season-ending leg injuries.
Kelly is slated to count for $3 million against the cap next year, and Sopoaga is on the hook for $3.75 million. Both are candidates to restructure their deals, and if not, that could be a big blow to the Patriots depth at the position.
@ErikFrenz Why has a Thompkins disappeared? Can't he and Dobson both be productive?— Jordan Boss (@JBoss_) November 7, 2013
Good question, Jordan.
There's certainly enough space on the field for two X receivers, but that also limits the offense by forcing throws outside the numbers. Those are low-percentage throws that aren't always easy to hit. Tom Brady, himself, hasn't always hit those throws with resounding consistency. Therefore, to play to his strengths, it's probably best not to have two out of three to five receivers running routes on the boundary.
Dobson has been the more productive of late, so he's getting the longer look. Thompkins could find his way onto the field as a Z receiver, running underneath routes and lining up in the slot. There will be plays from time to time that will call for both on the field at once, but right now, I think the Patriots are focused on trying to make opponents respect the whole field with receivers that can go long and short, play inside and outside and run routes over the middle and on the perimeter.
As for the up-and-down performances of each, this is just part of the ebb and flow of a rookie season. Said wide receiver coach Chad O'Shea:
We have guys that have different skill sets, obviously, [and] they all bring a lot of contributions. We all have a lot of confidence in each of them, and, you know, it's a long season obviously. We're going to need all of our receivers. They're all going to make contributions, and there's going to be some ups and downs along the way, and I think it's important that they're able to handle the ups and downs and just stay very level-headed and stay the course, and they work very well together, and that's all we can ask.
I'm assuming this is between Jets quarterback Geno Smith, Dolphin quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Bills quarterback EJ Manuel.
Smith has been (way) up and (way) down throughout his young NFL career, but has shown some signs of progress along the way. Smith has a big arm and the Jets haven't been afraid to use it, throwing deeper than 20 yards downfield on 14.7 percent of his passes (fifth-most in the NFL) and with a 47.5 percent accuracy rate (fourth-highest in the NFL). I like his patience as a runner -- he doesn't take off all that often (36 rush attempts through nine games, where Robert Griffin III had 81 rush attempts through as many), so that will help keep him healthy longer.
Speaking of which, we don't have much of a sample size on Manuel for that very reason. The Bills QB was injured in Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns and has not seen the field since.
I'll go with Tannehill because I think he's the more refined passer and he still possesses much of the athleticism the other two boast. Much of the problem has been a coaching staff that hasn't done enough to buy him time in the pocket (roll-outs, screens, running game and play-action). Much of his problems this year can be attributed to the beating he's taken from a league-leading 35 sacks through the first nine games.
Talked about this more in-depth in this spot, but let's just say I'm not ready to put them in the playoffs until they win two games in a row.
There are a few opportunities for the Jets to do that between now and the end of the season. They have just one game against an opponent with a winning record, against the Carolina Panthers on the road in Week 15. After the bye week, they face the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens on the road. They then have home games against the Dolphins and Raiders in Weeks 13 and 14, and close out the season with a Week 16 home game against the Browns and a road trip to face the Miami Dolphins in the season finale.
Either the Chiefs (9-0) or Broncos (7-1) will probably end up with the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs, leaving the Jets to fight with the Chargers (4-4), Dolphins (4-4), Titans (4-4), and Browns (4-5) for the sixth seed. Whichever one of those teams gets to nine or 10 wins is likely to earn the final playoff spot.
Not soon enough for fans of the rival AFC East teams. He'll play until he's 40 just because that's what he's always said and he's so competitive, I don't know that he'll have it any other way.
Thanks for reading! Any more questions, send them my way on Twitter. We'll do this again next week.
There was reason to doubt the Patriots offense was capable of the efficiency we've seen from them in years past, but after hanging 55 points on the Pittsburgh Steelers, there's proof that they're still a dangerous unit when they get things going.
As a team, they played 45 minutes worth of some of the best football we've seen from them all season. Sandwiched in the middle, though, was yet another troublesome third quarter that saw the Patriots gain 103 total yards while being outscored 17-3.
The other three quarters? Just 507 yards and a 52-14 scoring margin. If only that's how football really worked.
What did the offense do to finally get off the ground? Here's a look at the film.
Aaron Dobson's experience is showing
When the Patriots drafted Aaron Dobson in April's draft, they were looking to add speed, size and athleticism on the perimeter of their offense. Dobson has brought all three, but until the past few weeks, those skills have not manifested in the form of on-field production.
Against the Steelers, it was a perfect storm coming together for Dobson. Quarterback Tom Brady went 5-of-9 targeting Dobson, and went his way for two touchdowns.
The Patriots have been trying to hit the back-shoulder fade to Dobson with almost no success this season, until a fourth-quarter try finally yielded positive results. Steelers cornerback William Gay was locked up on him in man coverage on the outside, and did about as much as he possibly could, short of drawing a penalty, to defend this throw.
Dobson got a good release off the line of scrimmage, running toward the front pylon as he sprinted downfield. He turned around just in time to look the ball into his hands, and he tapped his left foot down as the rest of his body crossed the plane, which was enough for the touchdown.
There's a bit of a myth surrounding the second touchdown, an 81-yard strike late in the fourth quarter.
Brady mentioned in the postgame press conference that Dobson had an option on the route, and that he chose correctly. However, Dobson raising his hand was not the signal which caused Brady to throw the ball.
The quarterback, knowing his receiver was headed straight through the Steelers' secondary, had already begun winding up his arm for the throw as Dobson began putting his arm in the air.
The ball then traveled roughly 50 yards through the air before being caught by Dobson at the Patriots 40-yard line.
It's not just on the big plays that Brady is looking to Dobson, though.
On 3rd-and-6 in the fourth quarter, needing to keep a drive alive, the quarterback -- and the coaches -- trusted Dobson to both get open and catch the ball.
He lined up wide in a trips bunch formation, with running back Brandon Bolden motioning out to the left from the backfield.
The advantage of a trips bunch formation is that it allows at least one of the receivers to get a free release, since the space is so condensed that the corners can't possibly all play close to the line of scrimmage without being exposed to a big play.
Dobson made a nice adjustment on the ball, which was thrown slightly behind him, and he picked up the first down. Over the past four weeks, Dobson has caught 18-of-31 passes thrown his way for a team-high 287 yards and three touchdowns, with 12 of his 18 catches yielding a first down.
If the rapport between he and Brady continues to develop as it has so rapidly over the past few weeks, the future is very bright for this duo.
Fight aggression with aggression
How was the offense able to rack up so many big plays (five passes of 20 yards or more, eight runs of 10 yards or more)? By taking advantage of the Steelers aggressive style of defense.
They did it with deep throws -- six of them, to be exact -- of which, Brady hit four. They also did it with play-action; Brady attempted 11 passes off play-action, and went 8-of-11 for 238 yards and two touchdowns on those throws.
The long touchdown to Dobson was a play-action fake, but so was this 27-yard completion to tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots came out in their 13 personnel grouping -- one running back, three tight ends, one wide receiver. The run-heavy look caused the defense to crowd the line of scrimmage with nine defenders in the box.
With only two receivers running a route, Brady had limited options. Luckily, the Steelers made his job easier by attacking the line of scrimmage with eight defenders. That left three in coverage -- two on Amendola, one on Gronkowski -- and all Brady had to do was find the single coverage.
That happened to be Gronkowski, who came open over the middle, right where the safeties and linebackers would have been had the entire defense not bit on the run fake.
Instead, this was just another big play for the Patriots, and just another example of Brady carving up Dick LeBeau's defensive scheme.
Stevan Ridley running hard
Raise your hand if you thought Ridley's night was over after he fumbled in the third quarter. That's been the pattern throughout his career, but for at least one night, that pattern finally broke.
Coaches showed confidence in Ridley by putting him back in the game, and he was not about to take that faith for granted.
"For the coaches to stick with me and ride it out, it said a lot," Ridley said. "I think on my team, everybody's made their mistakes at different times, and that's something that I've had to work on and focus on since I've been here. But for me, I just couldn't hang my head. It wasn't a time for me to hang my head, it was a time for me to go out there and try to close that game out, because that's what our team needed me to do, and that's really what I did. I just leaned on my offensive line, and they made some creases in there for me the whole night, and that was a tough defense that we went against. So, I hated it, and like I said, it made me sick, but I really think that it motivated me more to go out there and finish the game strong."
Ridley's ability to hold onto the football has come under scrutiny this season, but no one will ever question his toughness.
He is always churning forward for the extra yards, and he regularly shows remarkable balance and quick-thinking to pick up yards after contact.
On this third down in the third quarter, Brady was in the shotgun with Ridley to his right.
The Steelers lined up with six defenders in the box, but one of those was a defensive back, meaning there were six defensive backs total on the field against the Patriots' 11 personnel package (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers).
With left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins doing their part to anchor the left side of the line, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui held the edge, creating the alley for Ridley to run through.
Ridley charged hard through the hole, and was able to gain a few extra yards despite being tripped up by a linebacker. He did a little pirhouette move as he stumbled forward toward the ground, helping him keep his balance briefly to pick up a few extra yards.
This was an overall well-blocked play, but highlighted the importance and added value of having offensive linemen who are quick on their feet and can get out in front of a running back to create some extra space.
Ridley can thank a pulling guard for the space provided on an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter. This time, it was Mankins pulling across the formation to clear the way.
This time, the Patriots came out in the 12 personnel grouping with two tight ends and a running back, a bit more run-heavy personnel. The Steelers matched with their base 3-4 defense, so there was no number mismatch on this play -- just a standard man-on-man running play.
Once again, Hoomanawanui and Connolly are part of the group creating the hole for Ridley. With Mankins out in front to block the linebacker, all Ridley had to do was navigate his way through the traffic.
He ended up brushing shoulders with Mankins, but kept his legs moving forward and lowered his shoulder as defenders circled around him.
"There's gotta be a fine line," said running backs coach Ivan Fears, "between being as aggressive as you can -- and I mean, really going after it, trying to make a play -- but also being smart."
This is a play that shows us that fine line -- Ridley toed it to perfection.
The Miami Dolphins announced on Sunday night they have suspended guard Richie Incognito indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team.
Incognito was the primary individual being named in reports over the reported harassment of left tackle Jonathan Martin, who left the team on Oct. 29 to be with his family.
Here is the full statement from the Dolphins:
The Miami Dolphins have suspended Richie Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team. We believe in maintaining a culture of respect for one another and as a result we believe this decision is in the best interest of the organization at this time. As we noted earlier, we reached out to the NFL to conduct an objective and thorough review. We will continue to work with the league on this matter.
This announcement came less than 15 hours after the team had issued another statement, saying that the "notion of bullying is based on speculation and has not been presented to us as a concern from Jonathan or anyone else internally."
A few hours later, they issued another statement to say that they had been contacted by Martin's representation about allegations of player misconduct, and added, "as an organization, we are committed to a culture of team-first accountability and respect for one another."
Accountability and respect. There's no grey area with regard to those words, but what will the truth reveal?
There are little clues throughout the Internet as to what has transpired, but no one knows for sure quite like Incognito and Martin -- and even they probably have different views on the story.
A report on Sunday from ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen indicates that the matter was under review, and early signs point to Incognito as a prime suspect in multiple incidents of harassment, apparently not exclusive to Martin.
As of Sunday, Martin has not filed a formal complaint with the Dolphins or the NFL because he fears retribution from Incognito, but fear of Incognito has also driven other actions from Martin, according to the report.
Sources told ESPN that one of the significant allegations being reviewed is that Incognito...got Martin to contribute $15,000 to help finance a trip to Las Vegas by a group of Dolphins last summer, even though Martin preferred not to travel with the group. Rather than go, Martin simply gave Incognito the $15,000, sources told ESPN, fearing the consequences if he did not hand over the money.
Incognito took to Twitter on Sunday to say that he wanted his name cleared, saying that the reports were all speculative and slander.
@AdamSchefter Stop slandering my name. You hide behind "sources" who are not man enough to put their name behind the BS you report— Richie incognito (@68INCOGNITO) November 3, 2013
Earlier in the week, Jeff Darlington of NFL Network relayed some text messages between Incognito and Martin, which seemed to indicate some passivity and understanding on behalf of Martin.
In middle of a conversation that lasted 19 texts, Martin said the following to Incognito: ďYeah, Iím good man. Itís insane bro butÖĒ (conít)— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) November 1, 2013
Martin to Incognito: ďJust know I donít blame you guys at all itís just the culture around football and the locker room got to me a little.Ē— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) November 1, 2013
The latest reported contact between the two, however, paints a much grimmer picture of the relationship between the two offensive linemen.
Schefter's latest tweets outline racially charged comments and threats from Incognito directed at Martin and his family. Martin turned over to the league and the Dolphins a voicemail which Incognito left for Martin in April 2013, after Martin's rookie season.
Hey, wassup, you half n----- piece of (expletive)...I saw you on Twitter, you been training ten weeks. (I want to) (expletive) in your (expl) mouth...(I'm going to) slap your (expletive) mouth. (I'm going to) slap your real mother across the face (laughter). ...(Expletive) you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you.
If true, it looks like this situation is stretching well beyond "conduct detrimental to the team" and is now bordering on criminal activity.
For now, the Dolphins have a tricky decision on their hands. They have already suspended Incognito, and would probably wait until having all the information before taking any conclusive action as to his status on the team.
However, by Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, the Dolphins must decide whether to carry Martin on the roster, or to list him with a non-football illness, which would make him no longer a member of the active roster. There is almost no chance that Martin would return to the team by that point, so the Dolphins will have to continue to pay him to be away from the team, or toe the line of more than a couple labor laws.
The investigation will likely bring the truth to light, but we won't know what happened for sure until we have all the facts. In any case, it's clear this situation will continue at least that long, or potentially longer, as long as Martin feels unsafe in his work environment.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots coaching staff showed confidence in running back Stevan Ridley, despite a fumble in the third quarter. He rewarded them by turning in one of the best performances of his career.
Against the Steelers on Sunday, Ridley notched his fifth career game with over 100 yards rushing, and his fourth career game with two touchdowns.
Make no mistake; in the past, a fumble might have been the death knell for Ridley, and the last we'd see of him for the rest of the game. For some perspective, this was the first game this season in which Ridley crossed the 20-carry plateau.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained that there wasn't much Ridley could do about his fumble in the third quarter. Ridley caught the ball with his back to Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who came in and ripped the ball out instead of simply trying to make the tackle.
"I don't think Stevan really had much of a chance to do anything but turn," said Belichick. "Sometimes turnovers are a result of real good defensive plays. Sometimes they're the result of sloppy plays offensively. I would, unfortunately, have to credit that one to Polamalu. He made a great play on it and that's one of those things you have to live with. Stevan ran hard, like he always does. He always run shard. He's a tough runner, he gets his yards and he then always gets a few more because of his running style and his toughness and his pad level and getting downhill. He gave us that again. But he pretty much gives us that every week."
Ridley's 12 first-half carries yielded just 40 yards (3.3 YPA), but he ran hard and effectively in the second half, taking his 14 carries for 75 yards (5.4 YPA). His touchdowns were split evenly between the two halves at one apiece.
In the past, it may have seemed foolhardy to focus too heavily on running the ball just for the sake of balance. With Tom Brady at quarterback, the Patriots strength has always been throwing the ball. Brady isn't being greedy, though, and doesn't mind watching the back of Ridley's jersey from time to time.
"He runs so hard," Brady said. "You give it to him and you have so much confidence that we're going to gain yards on those plays. He runs hard. He has a great spirit and energy about him and what he brings our offense in emotion. When he's confidence, it helps our team immeasurably."
Wins and losses are not an individual stat -- despite what some quarterback enthusiasts might have you believe -- but when Ridley gets at least 20 carries over the past two years, the Patriots are a perfect 8-0. For context, five of those wins were by more than 10 points, indicative that Ridley may have earned some of his carries down the stretch with the team milking time off the clock.
That simple fact, however, may serve as another example of Ridley's value. The Patriots know they can turn to him when they need to seal the deal for a win. On Sunday, they were able to turn to him to help them gain the advantage in the first place.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Another miserable third quarter by the New England Patriots nearly undid a solid first half, but the Patriots were able to get their mojo back in the fourth quarter and carried it through the rest of the game to finish with a 55-31 win.
Here is a look at some players who are trending upward with the win, and others who need to step their game up to keep the Patriots on the right track.
Aaron Dobson: Dobson finished with two of the Patriots four receiving touchdowns on the day, including one on an 81-yard touchdown catch where Dobson got open almost immediately off the line of scrimmage, showing that vaunted release that was on display throughout training camp. The Patriots have been lacking a field-stretching boundary receiver since Randy Moss left the fold in 2010, and with Dobson's emergence over the past few weeks, it appears they have found what they were looking for.
Devin McCourty: Intercepted a deep pass for wide receiver Antonio Brown in the first quarter, running from the middle of the field all the way to the sideline to make the grab. He was also in on four tackles. After having an up-and-down start to his career at cornerback, McCourty has had an opportunity to settle into his new role, and is quietly putting together an All-Pro season at safety.
Rob Gronkowski: Gronkowski has proven to be the difference in the red zone, where he had two receptions on the day, including a 19-yard touchdown and another that put the Patriots at the one-yard line. He finished with nine receptions on 10 targets, 143 yards and a touchdown. His presence over the middle has really helped a Patriots offense that spent entirely too much time trying low-percentage throws outside the numbers instead of Brady's bread-and-butter, the throws over the middle.
Danny Amendola: Managed to get wide open on two big plays of 34 (touchdown) and 57 yards in the first half, and continued to wreak havoc on the Steelers secondary, finishing with four catches for 122 yards and the score. Amendola's return, along with the return to health for Gronkowski, has elevated the Patriots offense to the group they were expecting to have on the field when they assembled this team in the offseason.
Kyle Arrington: Got burned on two touchdowns, one a 20-yard catch by wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery over the middle that was close to indefensible and another on an eight-yard catch by Emmanuel Sanders. Arrington also gave up a 42-yard reception to Sanders down the sideline. Arrington gets more grief than he deserves, but today was a tough day for him by any measure.
Kenbrell Thompkins: The undrafted rookie was inactive for this game, and based on injury reports throughout the week, he was a healthy scratch, unless he got injured on the team's off day on Saturday. Fellow rookie Aaron Dobson has supplanted him as the top X-receiver in the base offense.
Julian Edelman: His 43-yard punt return gave the Patriots a spark in the third quarter while the game was tied at 24, but outside that play, Edelman was a non-factor in the offense. He dropped a pass and finished with just one catch on four targets for 11 yards. There was a time, not too long ago, where it appeared Brady would have to rely on Edelman for a majority of the team's production at receiver (27 targets in the first two games of the season, six in the past two games). Now that the younger guys have become more acclimated to the offense and Amendola and Gronkowski have returned, Edelman has become less of a key component in the offense.