An imperfect plan?
Fans questioning Pats' gameplan vs. Indy
Eight games into the season, the AFC picture is starting to come into sharper focus, and everyone is chasing the Colts (8-0). The last two weeks solidified Indianapolis as the AFC team to beat, as Peyton Manning and Co. went into Denver and New England and posted wins. That's impressive.
So where does that leave the Patriots? At 6-2, Bill Belichick's crew is in a second tier of teams that currently includes Denver (6-2), Baltimore (6-2) and San Diego (6-2). The next group after that is led by Jacksonville (5-3).
Some Patriots fans are scratching their heads as to why the team didn't run the ball more in the second half against the Colts. Others were curious why the cornerbacks played so far off the receivers, while some wondered whether the Patriots might have been holding something back against Indianapolis (not a chance).
On to the questions ...
Why didn't we see the run against Indianapolis in the second half mixed almost exclusively with play-action passes? The team rushed for 97 yards on 22 carries in the first half, which is 4.4 yards per carry. Do we need a new offensive coordinator? Maybe Bill Belichick needs to be more involved in play calling?
Ed Mahan, Boston
A: When I watched the game-tape over again on Monday morning, I really only found two situations in the second half that I felt called for more running -- on the final three-pass sequence at the end of the third scoring drive (right before Stephen Gostkowski's 49-yard field goal) and at the start of the early fourth-quarter drive in which Tom Brady was intercepted by Cato June. The Patriots weren't running well in the second half, with their first seven carries of the half netting only 13 yards. Of those seven carries, four were for negative yardage or no yardage. I felt as if the Patriots conceded the run a little too quickly in the second half, but I didn't think it was over-the-top egregious based on the production they were getting, and the defense (8 in the box) that Indianapolis was playing.
I think the coaches coached a bad game on Sunday night. We were too preoccupied with the Colts scoring lots of points and trying to keep up. This, in many ways, contributed to coaches and players trying to do too much. We would have been better off just playing our own game by power running on their poor run defense and mixing up with some short passes.
A: I agree that it wasn't the coaching staff's best performance. Specifically on offense, I would have scrapped some of the slow-developing screen plays -- which in many ways are runs -- and replaced them with actual straight-ahead runs. I also would have stuck with the run a little longer in the third quarter despite the Colts bringing safety Bob Sanders into the box as an eighth player. Again, I thought the Patriots conceded the run a little too quickly in the second half. But the Colts put eight in the box, basically daring the Patriots to pass. The Colts won that chess match, because the Patriots couldn't cash in.
What's going on with Rodney Harrison?
A: One report in the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle Tribune said the Patriots feared that Harrison, who looked like he injured his right shoulder, has a torn rotator cuff. I haven't heard anything else regarding Harrison.
So much for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. I will admit that I was surprised at how sloppy the Patriots looked against Indy. Even though they were driving for the tying score in the last 2 minutes, it never appeared to me throughout the game that they were going to win. They just played poorly in so many areas: penalties, turnovers, bad throws, and dropped balls. There's still a lot of football left to be played but I just can't see this team beating the upper tier teams in the AFC (Denver & Indy) especially on the road. Am I missing something?
Mike Wells, Rutland, Vt.
A: I do think you're missing something, Mike. It's only Week 10 of the regular season, and there's still a whole half season of football to be played. A lot of things can happen to all of these teams -- injuries, players stepping up, etc. -- that we can't project now. I agree that Indianapolis and Denver are the top two teams in the AFC, but I still wouldn't count out the Patriots at this point. I still think the Patriots have the pieces to be the most complete team by the playoffs. And while I'd always choose a home game over a road game, consider that the Patriots are 4-0 on the road and 2-2 at home this year.
Was it just me, or was that tip by Kevin Faulk in the 2-minute drill in the 4th quarter very uncharacteristic? Usually, he always catches the ball. And, what thoughts do you have on playoff-seeding for our boys now, and do you see the Colts dropping 2 or 3 games this year?
Edvin Jenssen, Trondheim, Norway
A: Center Dan Koppen had commented on the play by Faulk after the game, saying: "Kevin has the surest hands on the team and he makes that play 10 out of 10 times usually. It is one of those things where it wasn't happening. That is our fault. They made enough plays to win and game and we didn't." As for the Colts, I don't see them dropping more than 2-3 games this year.
It seems like Tom Brady is trying to out-Manning Peyton Manning. Should Brady have thrown the ball so much? He doesn't seem to have the same touch as Manning with those long passes.
A: Three long throws by Brady stand out to me as particularly poor -- the first-quarter interception in the back left corner of the end zone, the pass to Benjamin Watson at the end of the second quarter that was tipped and intercepted in double or triple coverage, and the third-quarter over-the-middle ball to rookie tight end David Thomas that needed more arc. I thought Brady had an off night, even though three of his interceptions were off tipped balls.
I have two questions. First, from TV angles it didn't seem as if the Patriots tried to bump receivers off their routes from the line nearly as much as we have seen in the past. As a result, Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, and Dallas Clark seemed to run free all night. Your thoughts? Second, for years the Colts have been vocal about the Patriots' defense getting away with mauling receivers. Last night the officials seemed to call the game so far the other way it was ridiculous. Nobody wants to blame officials for a loss, but I am wondering if you got the sense from the players that they weren't getting a fair shake out there?
Rick Delello, Lansdale, Pa.
A: The corners didn't jam the receivers much at all, from what I saw. I'd characterize the Patriots' plan this way -- pressure Manning up front, with the coverage players keeping everything in front of them and thus hoping that the rush would get to Manning before the receivers finished their routes. I felt as though this was the way the Patriots hoped to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the Colts' lethal offense, but the synergy between the rush and coverage was a bit off throughout. The rush was pretty solid, as Peyton Manning was hit 12 times according to the official stat sheet. From what I've seen in the past, when Manning gets hit that much he usually doesn't perform as well, but he was masterful on Sunday night. Some credit needs to go to the Colts here as well. As for the officials, I got the sense that several people on the Patriots' side weren't too thrilled with Ron Winter's crew.
I put the loss to the Colts mainly on the offense. The defense held the Colts to 27 points, which is better than Denver did with Champ Bailey. The Pats DBs had to defend the entire field. I think the defense won the 2nd half and only allowed that spectacular TD catch by Harrison, while the offense sputtered many opportunities away.
A: I wasn't as sold on the Patriots' D being that much better in the second half as some others who watched this game. I still saw plenty of big plays by the Colts in the second half, from a 36-yard catch by Marvin Harrison on the first play, to a 29-catch by Harrison, to a 35-yard catch by Dallas Clark in which linebacker Junior Seau seemed to take a bad angle, to a 14-yard run by Joseph Addai, to catches of 15 and 16 yards by Ben Utecht. I suppose the Colts make those plays on most teams, but the Indianapolis offense had five total drives (minus the post-Dillon fumble drive and game-ending kneel downs) and all advanced as far as the New England 31 yard-line (two missed field goals kept the score down). I thought the Patriots' best chance to win was if their offense could put together time-consuming drives and the offense, defense and special teams could combine on a complimentary game. That didn't happen.
Is it me or does it seem like whenever Laurence Maroney is on the field good things happen. Don't get me wrong, I think Kevin Faulk is a good player but why not put Maroney in on third down and passing situations? He has to be able to catch the ball better than Faulk has lately and is a more explosive player all around. I think it's time to get Maroney more touches; he's the best back on the team.
D Fresh, Park City, Utah
A: That was one of the thoughts that I had after this game: if I'm Bill Belichick, I have to find a way to get Maroney more touches. Maroney had 13 carries for 63 yards (4.8 avg.) and five kickoff returns for 139 yards (27.8 avg.) and yet I still felt as if the Patriots had left some bullets in their gun by not getting Maroney the ball more. A few weeks earlier, I had suggested that rookie Willie Andrews should be returning kickoffs instead of Maroney, based on the possibility of injury. I've since changed my mind on that. The more Maroney gets the ball, the better.
The Patriots certainly hurt themselves badly with 8 penalties but there were 3 really bad calls. Taunting on Troy Brown, hands-to-the-face on Mike Vrabel in the second half when replay showed he never touched anyone, and a call on Asante Samuel when it appeared he never touched the receiver. Do you think Bill Belichick will complain to the league to try prevent a repeat of this? It seemed the officials were picking on the Pats DBs while the Colts seemed to have more leeway with hands on the Pats DBs getting no calls.
A: Teams regularly ask for explanations from the league office on specific penalty calls each week, and I would imagine Belichick did the same, although it probably won't make much of a difference for future games. I agree that the call on Brown was a bad one, while the call on Samuel looked correct to me. I couldn't tell on the Vrabel penalty. On the flip side, if I was the Colts, I'd be requesting an explanation from the league on how Tom Brady picked up that first down at the end of the second half without an official measurement. Brady looked like he was stopped short.
After Sunday night's horrible game against Indy, there is one thing that is really bugging me. Is Josh McDaniels the sole play caller? Does Bill Belichick have the means to squelch a call at any time? Can Tom Brady change a call he does not like? Just wanted to know, because I believe the play calling was questionable at best at times.
Steve, Westminster, Vt.
A: Here is my understanding of the situation: Belichick checks off on all game-plans and naturally has direct input to what the Patriots' plan is each week. McDaniels ultimately formulates the plan. On game-day, McDaniels makes the calls, with Brady having the flexibility to change things at the line based on the defensive look.
Following the loss against the Broncos and again against the Colts, Belichick said that not only did the Pats get outplayed but outcoached as well. Why do you think that happens for two of the biggest games of the year? It seems the rest of the games the Pats had a clear game plan, stuck to it, and made adjustments when needed. The games against the Broncos and Colts were the complete opposite. They didn't seem to have a clear plan and when it came time for adjustments nothing materialized. Why is that?
Jason Saraceno, Wilmington, NC
A: I think one reason that Belichick mentions the team was outcoached is so it doesn't look like anyone on the coaching staff is pointing fingers at anyone in the locker room. I agree with him that the Patriots were outcoached in both the Broncos' and Colts' games, and I guess I'd attribute it to the fact that Mike Shanahan and Tony Dungy are excellent coaches as well. No coaching staff wins the battle of the wits 16 times a year.
A problem that I have noticed with the Patriots, in my opinion of course, is that the offensive play calling has been horrible. Even in the games we won, in particular the Jets, the calling was not that great. Do you think the Pats will change the coordinator in the offseason and also take some of the play-calling away from Brady or do you see it as a developmental thing?
Peter Williment, London
A: I'd be surprised if coordinator Josh McDaniels, who will probably be a head coach in the NFL in the future, has his play-calling duties stripped. It was just one week ago that some were raving about the team's offensive plan to use the spread attack against the Vikings, so it's not as if McDaniels suddenly became a bad coach. This is his first year as the team's official coordinator, and like anyone else in their first year on the job, he's going to continue growing into the role.
Should the Patriots go out and get some threatening receivers and go and sign a veteran kicker? Stephen Gostkowski doesn't inspire confidence.
Nicole LeBlanc, Grafton
A: I think they can win with the receivers they have, and it's not as if there are any threatening receivers available on the free-agent market. As for Gostkowski, he's 8 of 12 on field goals and 23 of 23 on extra points, and has been pretty strong on kickoffs, with a slight dip of late. Rookie kickers generally struggle -- Adam Vinatieri did too back in 1996 -- so I think eight games is too early to give up on Gostkowski, who has shown a powerful leg.
What's been going on with Gostkowski's kickoffs in the past few games? We've seen far fewer touchbacks, if any. Is that a conscious decision by the coaching staff, and if so, why? He was putting them into the end zone on every kick earlier in the season.
A: I think the coaching staff wants a touchback every time. I thought he had an off night in Minnesota, with six kickoffs and only one touchback in the Metrodome. On Sunday night, I'd attribute Gostkowski's short kickoffs mostly to the field. He had five kickoffs and there were no touchbacks (Vinatieri had 6, with no touchbacks). That's probably the way it's going to go the rest of the year at Gillette due to the field conditions.
How do you explain the huge discrepancy in points for/against, home and away? They're 66 (for)/71 (against) at home, and 121/43 on the road. I realize the Denver and Indy losses skew the numbers a bit, but it almost seems like they're playing scared at home. The Miami and Buffalo home wins were both nail-biters.
Michael G., Tewksbury
A: No question that the Patriots have played better football on the road than at home. One theory is that the team has played with a sharper focus on the road, because it has realized the only people to count on are those in the locker room. That us-against-the-world approach was a theme in the postgame locker room in Cincinnati on Oct. 1.
Mike -- Just a couple of questions/observations on the Pats-Indy game: Have the Pats beaten the Colts since Ty Law left? I think their lack of a "shutdown corner" really hurts them when they play a good team like Indy. Also, just seeing the rhythm that Manning has with Harrison and Wayne can only make you wonder what Brady would look like if we had kept David Givens and Deion Branch. In my opinion, Brady is such a special talent that only comes around once in a lifetime (look at the 49ers after Joe Montana and Steve Young retired) and I think they aren't making the most of the current situation by failing to re-sign Givens and Branch. It's sad because the Pats had the opportunity to keep this magical ride going for another five years and let it get away from them.
Paul Cabral, Saratoga Springs, NY
A: The Patriots beat the Colts, 20-3, in the 2004 playoffs when Law was out with a foot injury. The Colts have won the last two games against the Law-less Patriots. There aren't too many shutdown corners in the NFL these days, and I would agree that the Patriots' chances at victory would be greater with a player like Law, who is at the top end of the pay scale for players at his position. I'd be surprised if too many people thought otherwise, but I also think people understand there are a lot of factors that go into personnel decisions when it comes to the team-building process. As for the Branch and Givens situations, I don't think the Patriots expected to lose both of those players, and that certainly has affected the passing game in the early part of this season. But I don't think those personnel decisions have necessarily derailed the team's "magical ride."
Al Michaels made an interesting point during the Pats game that the officiating crew working the game that night had a history of calling a lot of penalties (he implied). Can you look this up? Even though the penalties were not the only reason for the Pats loss I felt they were very picky and were taking away from the game and ultimately slowing down the pace. Every good athletic play seemed to come with a yellow flag.
A: Ron Winter's crew had called an average of 12.6 assessed penalties entering the game. The league average, through eight weeks, had been 12.2 assessed penalties per game. The teams combined for 15 assessed penalties in the game -- 8 by the Patriots, 7 by the Colts.
Mike, in your blog about Patriots workouts you will sometimes refer to a player wearing a black jersey who is chosen as "practice player of the week." How is this player chosen and what is the significance?
Tony Grossi, Chattanooga, Tenn.
A: The Patriots' coaches choose a practice player of the week, who is recognized for helping the starting team prepare for the previous week's game. Often times, it's a player who gives the starters the best "look" of what they'll see on game day.