New Challenges Same Results for Patriots

In an effort to make this blog more than just weekly NFL picks, I am going to step out of my comfort zone . I am going to take a look at the New England Patriots through the first four weeks of their 2013-2014 campaign.

Patriot Nation was obviously concerned coming into 2013 with Wes Welker donning Bronco Orange, Aaron Hernandez imageswearing State Penitentiary Orange, and Rob Gronkowski out for an unknown amount of time (sorry no orange reference there).  Through four games, the Patriots have traded in their high-flying ways for more of a smash mouth variety with a concentration on playing stout defense.  Most will be quick to argue the Patriots have been the beneficiary of an easy schedule opening against the Bills, Jets, Bucs and the 1-3 Falcons.  Most will be quick to argue the Patriots beat rookie quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Geno Smith, and beat a now benched Josh Freeman.  The same people forget guys named Dan Orlovsky, Mark Sanchez, and Ryan Fitzpatrick have thrown up serious numbers against the Patriots in years past.  It has been refreshing to see the Patriots get off the field after third down.  It has been refreshing to see the Pats defense make stops to win ball games,

The biggest reason for the defensive success has been Aqib Talib.  Talib is the first true shut down corner I can remember theaqib-talib-boss-face-570x320 Patriots having since Ty Law.  Talib’s coverage of Julio Jones on Sunday night was masterful throughout the game.  On Atlanta’s last chance, he batted the ball away from Roddy White in the corner of the end zone.  Over the last several years, the Patriots cornerback would’ve been beaten like a drum and the Falcons would have tied the game.  Not with Talib on the field.  Talib’s off the field troubles are well documented.  Off field problems are a particularly sensitive subject in New England nowadays.  From a public relations perspective, they have to tread lightly with Talib.  Be that as it may, I believe re-signing Talib as soon as possible is in their best interests.  I was stunned when he decided to come back to New England over the summer on a 1 year deal for $5 million.  Cornerbacks that can shut down opposing receivers are at premium in today’s NFL.  The Patriots have one of the best in the business.  They need to evolve from “The Patriot Way” and pay the man.

Speaking of paying the man, I have to wonder if Rob Gronkowski would be back on the field by now if he hadn’t of signed RobGronkowski-dllp-570xthe 6 year $54 million extension back in June of 2012.  Why Rob Gronkowski does not receive an iota of the criticism Jacoby Ellsbury receives in this region is beyond comprehension.  The scoreboard says Jacoby has a championship ring and Gronk does not.  The scoreboard says Ellsbury and Gronk are real life versions of Samuel L Jackson’s character in Unbreakable.  I feel that since the Patriots signed both tight ends to long-term deals, the young men repaid them with reckless behavior.  Gronk has his money and will play when he wants to.  I can’t appreciate that out of Gronk as fan.  At the same time, I will risk speaking out of both sides of my mouth.  The Patriots have been fine without Gronk through the first four games of the season.  Given the choice, I’d rather have Gronk healthy for the playoffs than the beginning of the season.

Lastly, I would like to speak to the genius of the coach, Bill Belichick.  Belichick introduced the hurry up, no huddle, fast break style offense to the NFL.  Many teams have now employed that strategy to the point where it is now the norm in the NFL.  Belichick has already gotten away from that strategy out of necessity and also to defend it.  Many wondered why the Patriots were carrying four running backs coming into the season.  The answer is now clear.  Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, LaGarrette Blount, and Brandon Bolden are all work horse backs that can fight for tough yardage.  They all can get at least 4 yards in a carry which is all you need in football to get a first down. Taking the air out of the football is Belichick’s way of defending the fast break offense.  Adding the ground and pound element to a stout defense is a recipe for winning football games.

It also does hurt the Patriots that the greatest quarterback of all time is under center.  And it doesn’t matter who is receiving corps is.

 

I can be followed on Twitter @ScottieNTCF

Free Agency Grades

I know I am not alone when I say that I am thrilled to have football back in my life. The last week has been great with all of the additions and subtractions teams have been making. I want to take a look at the AFC East and get you all up to speed on winners and losers within the division.

Winners:

New EnglandPatriots
Bellichik is at it again! The signing of Albert Haynesworth and the acquisition of Chad Ochocinco are two great moves. They address two major needs for this team and provide proven producers that seem to be already buying into “the patriot way”. Don’t underestimate the importance of the resigning of mainstay Matt Light along the Pats offensive line. Bringing back Light allows them to develop Solder and also allows him to learn from a guy who they hope he will eclipse in the very short future. The only problem I have with the past week forNew England is that they haven’t addressed the pass rushing need enough in my opinion. Relying on a total rebirth of Big Al (that’s what I’m calling him) is a lot to ask for given his recent “transgressions” and I expect them to continue to turn over rocks to find another pass rusher. They brought in Matt Roth for a workout who is a former Brown and Dolphin who I believe would be another solid signing for them. The law firm has also been resigned and they could benefit by bringing in another back however their lack of movement leads me to believe they are going to give the draft picks a shot. Let’s not forget this team was 14-2 last year and it has improved its roster by a good amount.

Grade: A-

BuffaloBills

Dare I say they are on the right track? This is a young team that is still trying to find its identity. They made the transition from being a 4-3 defense to implementing the 3-4 (a good move). The personnel on the team was still a mix of guys that were either tweeners or didn’t fit. They bring in nick Barnett off of a season ending injury who is only two years removed from being a top 3 inside linebacker according to pro football focus. They retained talented corner Drayton Florence and also signed former wide receiver/kick returner (he is listed as a QB on the depth chart) Brad Smith from the Jets. Gailey also brought in Tyler Thigpen from the Dolphins whom he had while he was in KC and who was the 15th best QB (again according to pro football focus) in 2009. Are they there yet? Absolutely not, but they WILL win some games they aren’t supposed to this season.

Grade: B+

Losers

New YorkJets

Rex Ryan is never short on words and just recently he pleaded with the league for another team to beat the Patriots besides the Jets. I have a question for you Rex, who have you beaten in free agency? The answer to that would be very few teams, oh and your shin tattoo is gay….super gay. Resigning Santonio Holmes was no doubt crucial however you didn’t add any depth on the again over rated defensive line (I think the rookie DT they drafted is over rated) and your big move is Plaxico? Without a workout they have committed 3 million to a guy years removed form the NFL who wasn’t fast to begin with, and is a wrong club venue away from another suspension. On the other hand you let go Braylon Edward, another high character guy, who has proven to come up big in the playoffs the last two seasons for you. I’m sorry but I can’t give the Jets a great rating here.

Grade: C

MiamiDolphins

The Dolphins have been pretty busy in free agency and I want to preface this by stating that they actually addressed positions of need. However this rating will not be good for them. They cut Channing Crowder who was a one dimensional run stopper and could not play on 3rd down with Kevin Burnett fromSan Diego. Burnett is a very solid signing who is above average in coverage and has an all around better game than Crowder so an upgrade to an already strong defense. The next need for this time was help on the interior line. They drafted Pouncey who will start at Center and has impressed in camp so far.  They have recently signed formerBostonCollege standout Marc Colombo.Colombo is coming off a rough year last year from injury but has worked with Dolphins coach Sparano before. Vernon Carey (starting RT last 7 years) will move inside to RG and fulfill yet another need forMiami. The team needed more speed so they drafted Edmund Gates and traded for Reggie Bush. Gates will mostly be a special teams player returning punts and have a deep route here and there. Bush is supposed to be “the guy”? This baffles me and while I fully anticipate rookie Daniel Thomas to develop into a solid running back, I don’t expect Bush to be the guy because quite frankly, he never has been. So why did they lose in my opinion you ask? They STILL do not have a quarterback. Balking on the Kyle Orton trade has the fan base chanting for him while Henne stinks it up at Dolphins practices. The team brought in Matt Moore, which would be the equivalent of trying to get revenge at your girlfriend by taking out a girl with a deformity.  This my friends is no an upgrade. So while the Dolphins have improved in need positions, it is a quarterback driven league and they have done nothing.

Grade: D

In Belichick We Trust

I know everyone and their cousin is saying that the Patriots are going to stomp on the Jets today and a big part of me feels that way as well.  However, I’m nervous as hell.  Everyone thought that the Pats were going to smack around the Giants in the Super Bowl a few years back…we all painfully know the result of that.  The only thing keeping me sane the last few days is that I’m 99.9% certain that Bill Belichick would NEVER let his team get into the hype of being such a heavy favorite.  I think it would be even more true now that they have such a major core of young impact players.

Is this going to be another 45-3 drubbing?  Not even close.  However, I wouldn’t hate that because I did take the Patriots (-10) and the over (45).  I do see this being a little bit closer but the Pats offense need to continue to hold onto the ball and avoid any and all turnovers.  The Moss-less New England Patriots are built on ball control and that trend needs to continue.  As long as this young defense minimizes their mistakes and forces Mark Sanchez to make his own miscues this game will turn out just fine.  The defense, as it has been all year, will be the ultimate wild card.

PS…I keep thinking “In Belichick we trust.”  That’s the only thing getting me through the day…

What to Look For…

One of the biggest indicators of the direction that a team is headed is how they rebound from a big loss or deal with the emotions of a big win.  The New England Patriots are trying to rebound from a big loss via the Cleveland Browns while the Pittsburgh Steelers are dealing with the emotions of a big win against division rival Cincinnati.  This game, in my mind, will be very telling of how realistic each team’s Super Bowl aspirations are.  Here are a few things to look for in this Sunday night showdown:

-It is known throughout the football world that it is nearly impossible to run the ball of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  They are allowing a ridiculous 58.2 yards per game on the ground (consider that the second best rush defense in the league, San Diego, allows just under 81 yards per game).  The Patriots have yet to stick with the run game over a series of games, so I’m not overly which direction they are going to try and go in on Monday.  Logan Mankins’ insertion back into the starting offensive line certainly will improve their run game a bit, but I still doubt the overall effectiveness.  Look for most run plays to be draws out of shotgun formations.  The tough thing for the Pats is that without a substantial contribution from the running backs, the short passing game is going to get shut down.  What to look for: How much the run game is utilized against the league’s best run defense.

-As much hype as the Steelers defense gets, their passing defense is 24th in the league, allowing 240 yards per game.  I take credit for being one of the first people to question the effectiveness of the Patriots passing game without a viable deep threat.  Last week finally opened the eyes of the masses.  Without a receiver that can consistently get behind the defense, safeties are creeping closer to the line of scrimmage which closes passing windows in the 5-10 yard passing range.  That means less yards after catch, which has made Wes Welker an all-pro since he came to New England.  Against a moderately porous defensive unit, it is time for the Patriots to open the flood gates and air it out, making the league again respect the Pats’ passing game.  What to look for: How effective the Patriots’ passing game is against a mediocre passing defense.

-If you allowed me to pick one running back between Rashard Mendenhall or Peyton Hillis, I’m taking Mendenhall every time. That is a scary thought if you are a Patriots fan.  Hillis ran all over the Pats last weekend, compiling the best game of his career en route to an upset victory.  Mendanhall may not be as big or as much of a bruiser as Hillis is, but he is a lot faster and much more dangerous.  Mendanhall is seventh in the league, averaging just under 88 yards per game.  Prior to the Browns game I saw vast amounts of improvement in this young defense against the run (especially in limiting Adrian Peterson), but now I’m much more skeptical.  The one thing working in the Patriots’ favor is that the Steelers offensive line has been decimated by injuries.  What to look for: How the Patriots run defense rebounds from a terrible game and tries to slow Rashard Mendenhall.

-What I am most looking forward to seeing in this game is the effectiveness of the two different coaching styles.  It is well documented the levels of success that both Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick have had over the past several seasons.  What amazes me is the two completely different ways that they go about coaching.  Tomlin is an eccentric leader, a loud motivator that isn’t afraid to get in a players face or give them a chest bump when necessary.  Tomlin speaks his mind, but is the quintessential realist, understanding what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. Belichick on the other hand rarely let’s you into his thoughts, insight, or feelings about a gameplan or situation.  He rarely is seen being overly vocal with players, aside from discussing strategy or gameplan changes mid-game.  This year more than years past, coach Belichick has been seen being very congratulatory after games, especially with the young guys.  He understands that with a young team comes lack of confidence.  But, whatever moves he makes, they are always very well calculated.  I love seeing matchups between two great coaches, and these two are arguably the two best in the game.  What to look for: How the different styles and approach to coaching effect/influence the play on the field.

-THIS WEEK’S PREDICTION – Patriots 18 – Steelers 17

The Mankins Situation

“Well, right now we’re just focusing on coaching the players that are here, I think we’ll go out and get things done, hopefully have a good practice today, and that’s where our emphasis is: the guys that are here.’’  Those were the ever-predictable words of New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick yesterday in response to a question regarding Logan Mankins’ contract situation.  Did you expect anything else?  Would you like Belichick to come out and say, “Oh man I don’t know what we are going to do without Mankins here, that beard is just so amazing!”  If that came out of Bill’s mouth, then you know that something would seriously be wrong.

I understand Logan’s point of view.  The man has performed since the day he put on a New England Patriots’ uniform.  Ever since being the 32nd overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, Mankins has been a model of consistency on the field.  Starting 16 games every season since being drafted, Logan was selected as a Pro Bowl starter twice (2007, 2009).  So, does he deserve to get paid?  Yes.  Should the Patriots pay him?  Absolutely not.

Nobody in the NFL really knows what is in store for the 2011 NFL season.  With the current Collective Bargaining Agreement situation completely unresolved, it is becoming more and more likely that there will be no football in the 2011.  Why would the Patriots dole out presumably top five offensive guard money (Saints’ guard Jahri Evans recently signed a 7-year $56 million deal) when they have no idea if they will play any games next season?  So, for Mankins to vocalize his disappointment isn’t completely outrageous, but he needs to realize that the team is in a very awkward position.  Balancing player happiness (or at least content) with being fiscally responsible is a fine line to toe, and we all know that if the Patriots waver off the line at all, it is certainly always towards the fiscally responsible side.

Also, let us not forget that back in December Vince Wilfork was a very large unhappy man.  He was complaining about the team not being loyal to him, vocalizing his desire to play in Miami, and voicing his complaints about the team’s disrespect towards veteran players.  But, sure enough the Patriots took care of their core players and gave Wilfork a 5-year $40 million contract.  I say this to you Logan: Stop complaining, bitching, moaning, and requesting trades, because as soon as the Patriots know when they will be playing football again after the conclusion of this season, you will get paid and be a Patriot for a long time to come.

The Patriot Philosophy

Regular contributor and Patriots specialist Matty O chimes in on the state of the Pats:

With the recent signing of Ben Watson to the Cleveland Browns, one point continues to be hammered home: The Patriots will not overpay for players.  As of March 5th, 2010 there has been much speculation as to which direction the New England Patriots would go in regards to available free agents.  Whether it was Julius Peppers, Aaron Kampman, Thomas Jones, or Ladanian Tomlinson.  Whether is was possible trades for Brandon Marshal or Anquan Boldin, the Patriots proved that no matter the amount of speculation, they stick to their philosophy of not overpaying for players.  The moves that the Patriots have made this off-season have been geared towards keeping their own players.  Resigning Vince Wilfork, Tully Banta-Cain, Leigh Bodden, Stephen Neal, and Kevin Faulk are all moves in which their importance is overlooked.  Many times, radio personalities and Patriot fans think they have solutions to the Patriots’ problems, when in fact their suggestions may not fit into Bill Belichick’s system.  Julius Peppers was considered to be the solution to the Pats’ pass rushing woes.  Yet, Peppers has never played any other position that 4-3 defensive end.  Yes, he amassed 10.5 sacks in the 2009 season, but after week 8 he only had 3.5 sacks.  His lack of desire and enthusiasm has always been put into question.  Could his good season last year be due to the fact that it was his contract year?  Whether or not Julius Peppers would fit into the 3-4 outside linebacker role is something that we will never know, but paying a guy 91.5 million dollars over six seasons (with $42 million guaranteed) isn’t the way to figure it out.  The same is true for Aaron Kampman.  He recently signed a four year, 26 million dollar contract with $11 million guaranteed with the Jacksonville Jaguars.  The Green Bay Packers prove to be a prime example of what can happen when you place a player in a position where he does not fit.  Kampman was one of the better defensive ends in the league, compiling 43.5 sacks from 2005-2008.  When the Green Bay Packers brought in Dom Kapers as their defensive coordinator prior to the 2009 season and decided to switch to a 3-4 system, they assumed Kampman would easily make the transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker.  Their experiment proved to be unsuccessful as Kampman had only 3.5 sacks over 9 games before losing the rest of the season to injury.  Not only was Kampman unproductive, but he was unhappy with the transition and wasn’t afraid to vocalize his discontent.

              For the aforementioned reasons, the New England Patriots, in my opinion, have done a great job this off-season of avoiding the big price tag, and sticking to players that they know fit their system and have shown the ability to perform within their system.  We know that Vince Wilfork is one of the best 3-4 nose tackles in the NFL.  That Tully Banta-Cain can rush the quarterback (9.5 sacks in 2009) in Belichick’s system.  Stephen Neil is one of the better run blocking guards in the league.  Leigh Bodden is a very good second or thrid cornerback in their defensive scheme.  We all know how well Kevin Faulk performs his role as a third down running back.  I’m sure that the Patriots will look to keep making additions to their team, but don’t expect them to make any blockbuster signings or trades.

              All of this talk about sticking to the Patriot philosophy leads us to player’s who’s contracts are up in 2011.  These players include Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Laurence Maroney, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Gary Guyton, and Stephen Gostkowski.  In my opinion, I believe that the only players to remain Patriots after the 2011 free-agency period has ended will be Tom Brady, Logan Mankins, and Stephen Gostkowski.  Matt Light made the pro-bowl roster in 2007 (as an injury replacement) and in 2008 (as a starter).  Since his 2008 Pro Bowl season, Light has been plagued by injury and inconsistent play.  Also, the emergence of Sebastian Vollmer at the left tackle position makes Light (and his demand for left tackle money) expendable.  As effective as Randy Moss has been since he became a New England Patriot, his time here is coming to the end.  When Moss made the proclamation that, “…You know the Patriots don’t really pay, so when I got my second contract from them that was a blessing in disguise. I understand the business. I don’t think they’re going to re-sign me back. I’m not mad. I’m not bitter. It’s just the way things are in this NFL, so like I said after this year I’ll be looking for a new team.”  There was a lot of controversy about how Moss was causing trouble and stirring up nonsense.  Contrary to popular belief, I believe that Moss was in fact just telling the truth.  In 2007, at the age of 30 and following a season where he put up 553 yards and 3 touchdowns in Oakland, Moss was very lucky to get a three year $27 million deal, with $15 million guaranteed.  That contract was a “stretch” in the Patriot philosophy, giving an older veteran player an over market value deal for the production that he was giving you.  But, the contract, in regards to a current production standpoint, was a good deal for the Patriots.  But, after the 2010 season, Moss will be a 34 year old wide receiver who has battled several injuries over the last couple of seasons but will be looking for his last big pay day.  Sadly, it is not going to come from the New England Patriots.  They are not going to give Moss the $8-10 million annually that he is going to demand.  So, when Randy Moss allegedly “criticized” the Patriots’ organization, he was just telling the truth.  In regards to both Laurence Maroney and Gary Guyton, they are two completely different players from completely different situation.  Maroney, a former first round pick, has not lived up to expectations for many reasons.  Maroney’s lack of consistent playing time, playing in a pass-first offense, injury troubles, and inconsistent play have all contributed to him being a very inconsistent and underachieving player.  Guyton,  a former undrafted free agent signee, exceeded all expectations by becoming a starter on a decent Patriots’ defense, but his lack of size and inconsistent play don’t lead to Guyton being projected as a started for years to come.  Both Maroney and Guyton will not be resigned because they will receive better offers from other teams, and because the Patriots will not overpay for players.

              Just because the Pats won’t overpay for players doesn’t mean that all hope in the franchise is lost.  Consider this: Tully Banta-Cain recently signed a three year, $13 million deal, while in 2007 Adalius Thomas signed a five year, $35 million deal.  In 2009, Banta-Cain had 9.5 sacks, while Adalius Thomas had 3 sacks.  Bill Belichick has always done a decent job of finding mid to lower level free agents that don’t have a big price tag, but seem to fit and perform relatively well in the Patriot system.  The Patriots will continue to build through the draft (one first round selection and three second round selections in 2010) and keep signing those mid level free agents that fit into the system.  What you can expect is for the Patriots to deal away their 2011 first round pick that was received from Oakland for Richard Seymour (likely a top 10 pick) because, quite frankly, with the lack of a rookie salary cap, they don’t overpay for players.

 

Final Word: The Patriots will not abandon their philosophy!