Week 12 – The Mattyoshow Review

In this segment I will provide a weekly review for the previous weekend’s Patriots game, as well as my prediction for next weekend’s game.

-The New England Patriots got off to a slow start in Thursday Thanksgiving Day battle in Detroit, finding themselves in a 17-10 hole going into halftime.  But, a reestablished focus combined with a fiery halftime speech from Tom Brady amounted to a 35 point second half and a blowout of the Detroit Lions.  Much has been made this season of the Patriots young defense not being able to stop the bleeding when teams began piling on points.  Well, on Thursday their defense did just that.  After allowing 17 first half points, the defense tightened up, essentially shutting down Calvin Johnson, and subsequently allowing only 7 Detroit points in the second half.

-It seems that in every edition of the Mattyoshow Review, I can not mention the defense without bringing up two names, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty.  Jerod Mayo had yet another game where his effectiveness can not be measured in terms of stats.  Although he posted a good stat line (8 tackles, 4 assists), Mayo was seemingly in on nearly every play.  Detroit’s run game was surprisingly effective early in the game, but once the defensive line settled down and started plugging holes, Mayo began to shine.  He stuffed a few runs at the line of scrimmage, and then when the Lions began to abandon the run game, Mayo made nearly every play on the underneath passing routes that the Lions ran.  Countless times Mayo and teammates would crush Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew on catches that they made over the middle.  That’s what is needed and expected from a middle linebacker, and Jerod Mayo continues to deliver.  This guy deserves serious consideration for defensive MVP.  As far as I know, Devin McCourty has missed only one defensive snap the entire season.  It is for a good reason because McCourty is one heck of a football player.  As the season progresses and McCourty becomes more comfortable in the Patriots’ defensive scheme, his personal statistics are beginning to pile up.  McCourty recorded two interceptions against the Lions, which gives him 5 interceptions in his last six games.  The more I am afforded the opportunity to watch McCourty play, the more I see a shutdown corner in the making.  This kid is a special football player, and defensive rookie of the year might be one of many awards McCourty will win in his career.

-Prior to Thursday’s game, Tom Brady had thrown for over 300 yards only one time this season (week 10 @ Pittsburgh).  But, on Thursday Brady looked like the 2007 version of himself as he surgically picked apart the Lions defense en route to a 21 of 27 effort for 341 yards and 4 touchdowns, not to mention compiling a perfect passer rating.  Brady did a great job spreading the ball around, completing passes to seven different receivers.  What may have been more impressive than that was his reliance on his two top receivers, Deion Branch (3 catches, 113 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Wes Welker (8 catches, 90 yards, 2 touchdowns).  There has yet to be a game that both Branch and Welker had very good numbers, but Thursday proved to be the day.  Brandon Tate dropped a couple of key passes, which hurt the success of some drives, but Branch and Welker stepped up to pick up the slack.  Hopefully, their joint production will continue throughout the remainder of the season.

-Fred Taylor was active for Thursday’s game, but didn’t see any time on the field.  Thankfully, the Patriots didn’t need him.  BenJarvus Green-Ellis capitalized on the few carries that he got (12 carries, 59 yards, two touchdowns), finding his way into the end-zone twice.  I was wary of how much work BJGE would get with Taylor returning, and in the first half he very rarely saw the football (mainly because the Pats were forced to pass as they were down), but in the second half when he was called upon to ice the game and punch the ball into the end-zone, Green-Ellis delivered.  Looking ahead, a backfield consisting of BJGE, Danny Woodhead, Fred Taylor, and the occasional Sammy Morris sighting could be very effective complimenting Tom Brady and the passing attack.

NEXT WEEK’S PREDICTION: Patriots 20 – Jets 10

Just a Quick Review

Reviewing what was encouraging and what questions remain after the Patriots second preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday, August 19th.

Encouraging Signs…

-How can I not begin with the return of Wes Welker?  The man has just returned to action in the National Football League just seven and ½ months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL.  Extraordinary.  I was encouraged to see how Brady tried to incorporate Welker into the offense immediately.  The first play of the game was a holding penalty, but the next three plays were directed at Welker.  Granted, two catches for 20 yards doesn’t look huge in the box score, but the simple fact that he is healthy enough to even be on the feel is a great sign for the season to come.  Forget about trying to develop young kids to fill in during Welker’s absence.  We are now developing these young receivers to compliment Welker and Randy Moss.

-Big ‘ol Ron Brace finally got his oversized ass onto the field.  It only took him a little more than two weeks to pass the team’s conditioning test (pathetic, I know).  But, he saw his first day of practice a week ago today (the Monday before the Thursday preseason game), and then finally got some game action in the game Thursday night.  Brace played decently, piling up 3 tackles and one forced fumble.  But, what was most encouraging was not his actually performance, but just his presence on the field.  The Patriots are thin at the defensive end position, still trying to fill in from the losses of Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green.  Newcomer Gerard Warren will likely start on one side with Mike Wright across the way, but behind those two there is little depth.  If Brace can catch up quickly through practice then he may have a shot to contribute to this defense in 2010.

-For the second game in a row the Patriots ran the ball with a good amount of success.  In the first game against the Saints, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Laurence Maroney led the charge as the team compiled 125 yards on 35 carries, topped off by 3 rushing touchdowns.  On Thursday Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris got the bulk of the work as the team compiled 120 yards on 30 carries, topped off by 2 rushing touchdowns.  Belichick’s emphasis on the run game is something that I have been calling for since 2006 when the Pats made Maroney a first round pick.  The real question is whether or not this trend will continue into the regular season?

-Earlier this summer I predicted that rookie cornerback Devin McCourty’s biggest area of impact would be on special teams, especially in the return game.  I am certainly excited to say that I may have been wrong.  For the second week in a row, McCourty has started opposite Darius Butler and has impressed in both outings.  We knew that he was fast, but his level of physicality was something that I just wasn’t expecting.  Compile that with his exceptional closing speed and we may be looking at a rookie cornerback that will make a huge impact this season in nickel packages (assuming Darius Butler and Leigh Bodden will win that starting spots).

-Man, do I love Brandon Spikes.  This kid was born to play as a 3-4 inside linebacker.  He is tall, strong, has the ability to shed blocks, can fill holes, blitz is he has to, and can even run sideline to sideline.  Spikes and Mayo, within a season or two, could comprise the best inside linebacker tandem in the NFL, they both have that kind of talent.  I’ve repeatedly knocked Belichick for his inconsistency in terms of success with high draft picks (see Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Adrian Klemm, etc.), but, so far at least, it seems like Bill got it right in 2010.

-Zoltan Mesko can kick the hell out of the ball.

Remaining Questions…

-The offensive line still scares the hell out of me.  Yes, the Patriots had pretty good success running that ball the past two weeks and the line has done a decent job of protecting the quarterbacks (although Hoyer takes some mean shots).  But, there is no way in hell that I feel good about this o-line going against the Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Chargers, Dolphins…damn just about anybody!  I’ve pretty much given up on Mankins at this point, but I really think that a move needs to be made to sure up the middle of that line.  (JUST HEARD ON WEEI WITHIN THE LAST 30 SECONDS THAT NICK KACZUR IS OUT FOR THE SEASON BECAUSE OF BACK SURGERY).

-Although the running game has put up some good numbers over the past few weeks, I would still like to see coach Belichick define roles within the running back group a bit better.  At this point there are four possible starters for the 2010 NFL season at running back, Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, or BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  I don’t know whether Maroney is going to put up 1,000 yards or is going to get cut.  I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore!  It has to be frustrating as a player to not know whether you are going to carry the ball 30 times or sit the entire game.

-I really hope that Brandon Tate lives up to the hype that has been surrounding him this training camp.  If Tate plays the way that he has supposedly been playing throughout camp then the Pats will have five or six viable options to catch passes (Moss, Welker, Edelman, Hernandez, Gronkowski, and Tate).  If Tate’s talents fail to translate onto the field then that split end receiver position opposite of Moss will be a dead zone for the third consecutive season.

Super Bowl or Bust?

As we look forward to the 2010 NFL season for the New England Patriots, it is hard to ignore the past.  Between 2001-2009 the New England Patriots were the most successful franchise in the NFL.  The Pats amassed three Super Bowl titles (2001, 2003, 2004), no losing seasons, the only sixteen game undefeated regular season in NFL history, seven AFC East titles, four AFC Championship game victories (out of five appearances), arguably the greatest offensive season of all time, and compiling 111 wins.  There is little argument against the New England Patriots being declared the team of the decade.  But, as successful as the past decade has been for the Patriots, 2010 is a new season that brings about its’ own set of challenges.  Even though it is time to look ahead towards the future and leave the past in our rear-view mirror, the past decade can certainly be used as a building block that the New England organization can mold its’ future with.

As for the 2010 season, there are certainly a number of questions that need to be answered before 1pm on Sunday September 12th when the Cincinnati Bengals come to town to open the season.  The biggest question, in my opinion, may lie under center with number 12.  2010 will mark Tom Brady’s second season since returning from a torn ACL and MCL suffered in the 2008 season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.  Almost 4,400 yards, 28 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions (Brady’s 2009 statistics) are certainly nothing to scoff at, but at times last season (particularly towards the end of games) Brady’s play become sloppy and lacked the crispness that has always defined his play.  The Patriots success will rely completely on the play of Tom Brady (as it has over the past 4-5 seasons).  I expect Brady to return to his 2007 self (granted expecting 50 touchdown passes is quite outrageous) and play like the Tom Brady that we have come to know and love.

The running game has been a question mark since the Patriots drafted Laurence Maroney with the 21st overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft.  Sammy Morris is returning from an injury plagued 2009 season, as is Fred Taylor.  I’ve been calling for Belichick to put more influence on the run game for three seasons now, and I’m going to call for it again.  Establishing the run with three very capable running backs will do nothing but open up alleys for the passing game.  But, I expect little to change with the Pats’ philosophy and for them to use the run sparingly as usual.

I have lofty expectations for this group of receivers/tight ends for the upcoming season.  Randy Moss is a year older, but he is still a number one wideout in the league and will put up good numbers.  Welker has undergone arguably one of the fastest recoveries from ACL surgery for a professional athlete ever.  It is complete truth when they say every ACL surgery that gets done, the surgeons get a little bit better and the recovery time becomes a little bit shorter.  I think it will take a few weeks for Welker to get his head back on straight (you need to expect at least a minimal amount of apprehension towards making sharp cuts on his bad knee), but after week four or five I expect him to be back to his old self.  Torry Holt has certainly lost a step, but he will provide a target on the opposite side of the field from Moss that the Pats haven’t had since Stallworth left.  I am very excited about the contributions that will come from Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez.  I expect Hernandez to make the biggest contribution right out of the gate.  He has the perfect body type/athletic ability/skill set to excel in the “H-Back” position (similarly to Chris Cooley).  But, Gronkowski will be the starting tight end by the end of the season, and I expect Tate to contribute to the team by that time as well.  Coming from a small school, Price may need time to develop and master the playbook, but his speed alone makes him a great asset.

The Logan Mankins contract situation is certainly something that worries me.  Mankins seems prepared to sit out for a while, and as one of the best guards in the league, the Patriots cannot afford that loss.  Nick Kaczur has some experience and was supposed to fill Mankins’ spot at left guard, but an injury has sidelined him thus far in training camp.  Aside from Mankins, the offensive line will look the same as last season.  I’m excited to see how much Sebastian Vollmer has developed with one offseason of NFL workouts and preparation under his belt.  Matt Light becomes more and more of a liability every season.

Within the next couple of days I will preview the 2010 New England Patriots’ defense and special teams, as well as provide my expectations for the 2010 season as a whole.