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Sunday Football Notes

Patriots’ best, worst at the midway point

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / November 13, 2011

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Before the Patriots start the second half of the season with a crucial “we’ll see what this team is made of’’ game against the Jets tonight in New Jersey, let’s take a quick look at the first half and give out a few awards, both good and bad.

■ Most valuable player: Tom Brady, quarterback.

As the team’s talent has dwindled, the Patriots have become more and more reliant on Brady. If he plays his usual outstanding game, they win just about every time no matter what happens with the rest of the team. If he’s off - the gall of that guy to start each half against the Steelers with a three-and-out - the Patriots will have a hard time beating even average teams.

■ Least valuable player: Jermaine Cunningham, defensive end.

You’re almost stunned to learn that the 2010 second-round selection is not on injured reserve at this point. This may be a little unfair because we think he’s been dealing with an injury that hasn’t been brought to light, but he’s not listed on the injury report.

■ Best offensive player: Wes Welker, receiver.

Brady’s performance in the past two games and his 10 interceptions means there has been at least a little inconsistency on his part. Not so with Welker. He has been the best and most consistent player, and he is on pace to break the league record for receiving yards. How would the Patriots move the ball if he went down with an injury?

■ Worst offensive player: Chad Ochocinco, receiver.

We haven’t changed our tune that we think he’s going to bust out in the coming weeks. But considering his nine-catch production so far, two catches in a game would be considered breaking out.

■ Best defensive player: Andre Carter, end.

With all due respect to Vince Wilfork, Carter is the most valuable and best on defense so far. Who would generate any pass rush if Carter hadn’t been signed as a free agent? In our tabulations, Carter leads the team in sacks (6.5; officially, he has 4.5), quarterback knockdowns (13.5), total quarterback pressures (27.5), and stuffed runs (13.5). Carter’s 41 impact plays (pressures plus run stuffs) are almost double the next player’s (Wilfork with 24.5).

■ Worst defensive player: The safety next to Patrick Chung.

You can take your pick from Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, and James Ihedigbo. They have been a revolving door of missed tackles, poor pass defense, and communication miscues.

■ Most improved player: Kyle Arrington, cornerback.

At one point in training camp, he was behind Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden, and Ras-I Dowling. Now he is by far the best cornerback on the team and is tied for the NFL lead with five interceptions. He still has issues locating the ball when a player gets behind him, but it hasn’t killed them - yet.

■ Least improved player: McCourty, cornerback.

As a rookie, he was second-team All-Pro after tying for second in the NFL with 10 interceptions. This season, opponents have constantly picked on him, with a lot of success. The early switch to man coverage didn’t agree with him, and that might not be his fault.

■ Most underrated player: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, running back.

He may not be as flashy as rookie Stevan Ridley, and plenty of fans think having a better running back would help the team (as if this is 2001), but Green-Ellis consistently gets what is blocked - and usually more. His pass-blocking has been suspect, however.

■ Most overrated player: Logan Mankins, left guard.

He was so good in just nine games last season that he was named first-team All-Pro, the best left guard in the NFL. After getting a contract that made him the highest-paid interior line player in league history - $21.5 million in cash this season - he has been good but not great. Mankins has allowed as many sacks as rookie Nate Solder (2.5), he is second to Dan Connolly in knockdowns (4.5), and is tied with Solder with 6 run stuffs allowed. In total impact plays allowed (quarterback pressures plus stuffed runs) Mankins’s number (17.5) is similar to Matt Light (17) and Connolly (19.3). That’s not good enough.

■ Best offseason decision: Signing guard Brian Waters.

He has been, without question, the best offensive lineman, basically performing the way Mankins usually does. Waters has allowed just four quarterback pressures and 5.5 stuffed runs for 9.5 impact plays. Every other position has at least 17. And to think, Waters is doing this with two inexperienced players (Connolly and Solder) on either side of him.

■ Worst offseason decision: Not drafting or signing a bona fide pass rusher.

Three of the four positions on the line have been fine, but the left defensive end spot in both base and sub packages is a big reason why this team can’t rush the passer consistently, and that’s killing the defense. Shaun Ellis has played like he’s 45. Mark Anderson is limited. Rob Ninkovich has played too many snaps between linebacker and rush end. Cunningham has been MIA. Mike Wright couldn’t have been counted on because of his unfortunate concussion history.

Still hard to believe the team didn’t take a swing at a pass rusher early in the draft (hello, Jabaal Sheard or Brooks Reed). It has gotten so bad that when the Giants were driving, down, 13-10, Brandon Deaderick was the left end. Seriously?

■ Runner-up: Releasing safety James Sanders.

Have no qualms with the other releases and, yes, Sanders had lost a step. But that secondary at least could have used Sanders’s leadership and smarts in the meeting rooms, even if he was overpaid.

■ Best assistant coach: Brian Ferentz, tight ends.

Hard to get better than the job he’s done with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both have improved in their second season, which can’t be said for a lot of positions on this team recently. He has to be the next from this staff to get a big offer.

■ Worst assistant coach: Josh Boyer, defensive backs.

The only defensive back who has gotten better since Boyer assumed the post in 2009 is Arrington. That leaves a bunch of others who have not.

ON THE SPOT

This night will be telling

You can talk matchups and strategies all you want, but tonight’s game against the Jets boils down to this for the Patriots: Does this team have what it takes, in both talent and in character, to win a tough game on the road against a rival in a huge spot? In years past, this was never a question, which kind of tells you all you need to know about the state of the Patriots.

And it’s not just the players, either. Does this coaching staff have what it takes to put together the right game plan and get all three phases to execute properly? The execution has been shoddy, especially in the past two games after the bye week, and that falls on the coaching staff.

It needs to start up front with both lines.

The offensive line needs to stop having execution breakdowns. That unit is too good and too experienced to be blowing assignments, especially on running plays, and committing stupid penalties. It has to be cleaner. The defensive line needs to own the game up front so the secondary has a chance and the linebackers can flow to the ball.

The two players most on the spot in this game are linebackers Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton.

Mayo may still be hurt, but with Brandon Spikes out, the Patriots need much more from him. He has to be the playmaker in that group now. Mayo just needs to cut it loose.

And if the Patriots are to make the Jets one-dimensional and force Mark Sanchez to win the game - which is where New England wants it - then Guyton is going to have to have the game of his life. He has to play better against the run, and can’t get caught flat-footed in pass coverage as he has most of the season.

LOCKOUT FALLOUT

Injuries to Achilles’ rise

An interesting lockout-related study appeared last month in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy.

A group of five doctors - Gregory Myer, Avery Faigenbaum, Chad Cherny, Robert Heidt, and Timothy Hewett - looked at the effect the lockout had on Achilles’ tendon injuries.

The issue is alarming because the study points out that those types of injuries are career-altering at a minimum, and often career-ending.

Their data states that “one-third of the players who sustain an Achilles’ tendon rupture in the NFL never return back to competition.

“The remaining two-thirds, who are able to return back to play . . . require approximately 11 months of rehabilitation,’’ and don’t perform at the same level.

On average, there are eight Achilles’ tendon ruptures a year in football, with 35 percent coming before the season. After the lockout, there were 10 in the first 12 days of training camp, and another two by the end of the second week of exhibition games.

In a previous study, 31 Achilles’ injuries were studied, and the injured players had been in the league for an average of six seasons with an average age of 26.5. This year, rookies sustained five of the 12 ruptures, and the average service time was 1.4 years and the average age was 23.9.

According to the study, younger players were more susceptible to injuries because their bodies weren’t acclimated to the rigors of pro football, as they would have been had they been under the care of team trainers with a full complement of offseason workouts.

Veterans also had an advantage because they knew what to expect, and could afford proper offseason training.

The study states that this season could be a warning of what is to come.

“This reduced time almost certainly decreases opportunities for players to interact with medical staff and the team’s strength and conditioning professionals,’’ the study reported.

“In addition, shortened coaching time may influence NFL coaches to get more done in less time by increasing the intensity, volume, and frequency of training to complete the necessary predetermined plays, tactics, and training before the season starts. Ironically, NFL players are the ones who have [pushed] to reduce the amount of preseason contact time.’’

ETC.

They must remember this

The Falcons (5-3) and Saints (6-3) renew their NFC South rivalry today at the Georgia Dome, with first place on the line. Expect the Falcons to have a little extra motivation. After the Saints’ 17-14 victory at Atlanta last season, the Saints’ defensive linemen took a picture with position coach Bill Johnson on the Falcons’ midfield logo. Tackle Remi Ayodele told Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com that he urinated on the logo, which prompted a Falcons official to say that the team would remember that incident. If the Falcons are using that as fuel, they’re not saying so - or have had their brains washed by the public relations department. “Oh wow, that’s kind of crazy,’’ said receiver Roddy White. “They came down here and got a ‘W.’ They can kind of do whatever they want to do. They won, so congratulations to them.’’ Right tackle Tyson Clabo said, “I didn’t realize that it even happened. That’s not one of my concerns.’’ Yeah, sure they don’t remember.

Nickel package

1. Sorry, Eli Manning, you’re very good, but you’re not an elite quarterback. Let’s see how you do against a real defense today in San Francisco.

2. One further reflection on “War Room,’’ Michael Holley’s book on Bill Belichick, Scott Pioli, and Thomas Dimitroff (which is wonderfully written but a little short on Patriots tidbits - thanks, Hoodie): All this time is spent on Belichick’s former personnel lieutenants, yet there is hardly any mention of current director of player personnel Nick Caserio.

3. I sent all my Rust-Oleum to One Buccaneer Place in Tampa. Have a feeling Albert Haynesworth will still be knocking off all that rust. That being said, don’t let anybody tell you that Haynesworth didn’t play some good football here, because he did.

4. If the Packers try to place the franchise tag on tight end Jermichael Finley, they just might get a fight. As profootballtalk.com first reported, Finley might seek to be classified as a receiver, which is what he truly is because he’s split out so much. The tag price is almost double for a receiver. This further makes a mockery of people who think Finley or the Saints’ Jimmy Graham deserves All-Pro consideration at tight end. Rob Gronkowski is a tight end. Graham and Finley are not.

5. What more does Chargers general manager A.J. Smith need to see for him to finally fire coach Norv Turner? That the Chargers consistently underachieve is an understatement.

New England update

Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka (Needham/Middlebury) doesn’t have any extra motivation for today’s game against the Ravens, but it would only be natural if he did. The Ravens released Hauschka nine games into the 2009 season after he connected on 69.2 percent of his field goal attempts and missed an extra point. After four games with the Broncos last season and being cut in training camp this year, Hauschka was claimed off waivers by the Seahawks and has made 83.3 percent of his field goal attempts, including two of three over 50 yards (only miss came on a 61-yard desperation attempt in Week 4) . . . Word out of Miami is that after being a whipping boy for the first six games of the season, right tackle Marc Colombo (Bridgewater-Raynham/Boston College) has played very well the past two games. He didn’t give up a pressure in the win over the Chiefs.

By the numbers

7: Scoring drives led by Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow in the fourth quarter or overtime in his last four games.

9: Sacks allowed by the Bills in eight games.

70: Points the 4-4 Chiefs have been outscored by this season. There are only two teams worse: the Rams (111) and the Colts (155), who are a combined 1-16.

3,475: Net offensive yards for the Eagles, a club record through the first eight games of a season, and the seventh-highest total in the NFL since 1940. Now, about that defense . . .

Short yardage

In three games since being traded from the Broncos to the Rams, receiver Brandon Lloyd has 17 catches for 207 yards and one touchdown. Chad Ochocinco has 9 for 136 and zero touchdowns after being traded in August . . . Andy Dalton’s 12 touchdown passes for the Bengals are the most by any rookie in the first eight games of a season since the 1970 merger . . . The hits just keep on coming for the Bills, as defensive tackle Kyle Williams was placed on injured reserve with bone spurs. The Bills will be fine against the run, but they need him against the pass because they don’t have any edge rushers. And left tackle Demetrius Bell will miss his fifth straight game, which means fourth-round pick Chris Hairston gets to line up against Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Have fun . . . A lot has been said about the relationship between Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley, but Pioli finally went on record this past week. “I think it’s a good working relationship. I really do,’’ Pioli told the Kansas City Star. “We’re both focused on the same thing, which is winning football games.’’

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