Week 11 – 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.

-Whew!  That game was much closer than it had to be, but what else could be expected when the team on the opposite sideline is led by arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play.  Peyton was sent out their with his top three wide receivers (Wayne, Garcon, and Collie), but lost Collie by the end of the first quarter, and the tight end Tamme couldn’t seem to catch anything meaningful (even though he finished the day with 7 catches for 60 yards, he had a few key drops in the red zone). Interceptions by Devin McCourty, Brandon Meriweather, and James Sanders were all wonderfully timed, proving to be huge momentum changers (McCourty and Meriweather) and game sealers (Sanders).  The secondary was exposed a bit as Manning through for almost 400 yards and 4 touchdowns, but came up with big plays when needed.

-What more can be said about Jerod Mayo that already hasn’t been.  This guy is playing like a flat-out animal.  On Sunday he racked up another 11 tackles (with 4 assists) which gives him 120 combined tackles on the season, according to NFL.com.  Mayo seemed to be in on many more plays than the stats imply, making stops on almost every crossing route that the Colts tried to run.  The Colts, who tallied up a surprising 20 carries, but only amassed 71 yards.  That lack of rushing production was due in part to Mayo’s effectiveness, but also to the play of Vince Wilfork, Gary Guyton, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes.  It was an all around solid effort to slow the Colts’ rushing attack.

-I was very disappointed with the Pats’ inability to pressure Peyton Manning.  Granted, the Colts give up the fewest sacks in the NFL, so getting to him and putting him on the ground isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible either.  Cunningham and Banta-Cain couldn’t seem to generate a consistent enough pass rush to disrupt Manning’s rhythm.  That being said, James Sanders’ game sealing interception (on a drive where the Colts looked destined to score and win the game) was caused by pressure put on Manning by Tully Banta-Cain.  So, to be optimistic, I guess it could be said that the pass rushers have very good timing, but they need to do a better job more consistently reaching the qb.

-186 yards and 2 touchdowns is a stat line that you expect from Colt McCoy or Josh Freeman, not Tom Brady.  But, as we all know stats can often be very deceiving.  On Sunday, Brady delivered passes with pin point accuracy, connecting on 19 of his 25 passes.  Brady spread the ball around to six different receivers.  Noticeably missing from the stat sheet once again was speedster Brandon Tate.  Wonderfully showing near the top of the stat sheet was Wes Welker (5 catches, 58 yards, 1 touchdown), who grabbed his first touchdown since week 2 and has performed well in the second consecutive game.  I have made a big deal out of Welker’s ineffectiveness since the Moss trade, and I’m not ready to abandon my stance on that just yet.  Tate still needs to become a bigger part of this offense before Moss will become a distant memory.  But, Welker’s revitalization is something the certainly has me excited for the upcoming weeks.

NEXT WEEK’S PREDICTION – Patriots 34 – Lions 24

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Week 9 – 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.

-I want to start this post by congratulating the Cleveland Browns for winning Super Bowl XLV.  It was a majestic scene as Mangini got doused with Gatorade, the offensive coordinator was flopping around the field like a fish out of water, and the players were hugging each other, expressing their pure joy after spending an entire season working towards this one goal…Seriously Cleveland?  I know it was a big game for you.  The Patriots had the best record in the NFL, this game has probably been circled on your calendar’s since the schedule was released.  But a Gatorade bath in the first week of November?  You’re better than that Cleveland…or at least we thought you were.

-The lack of a deep threat finally reared its ugly head in Sunday’s loss in Cleveland.  I’ve been calling out this receiving corps for three weeks now, and we finally got to see how much the offense is hindered when you can’t get a receiver behind the defense.  The four longest completions of the day, 22, 22, 26, and 22 yards went to Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Woodhead, and Sammy Morris respectively.  That means every pass completed over 20 yards were essentially dump off passes where the receivers ran after the catch.  Welker was blanketed for the fifth week in a row.  Without a deep threat, this offense will continue to struggle.

-BenJarvus Green-Ellis did his best Houdini impersonation today, disappearing a week after having the game of his career.  Nine carries just isn’t enough to get his guy rolling.  Granted, being down the whole game almost forced the Patriots into a no-huddle offense, where the majority of plays were passes, giving Woodhead more playing time.  But still, nine carries for BJGE isn’t enough to establish the run game, isn’t enough to force the defense into respecting the run, isn’t enough to make the play action pass effective, and isn’t enough to get victories.

-So much for the improving and impressive run defense for the Pats.  Hillis ran into, over, and around New England’s front seven early and often, leading to a career day (29 carries, 184 yards, 2 touchdowns).  Jerod Mayo again led the team in tackles, but he seemed to be one of the few Patriots even attempting to slow Hillis down.  Tully Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich, and Jermaine Cunningham were all terrible at attempting to set the edge.  I counted at least five or six times that Banta-Cain flew up the field and Hillis ran right underneath him.  If the Pats want to be considered among the elite teams in the league, their run defense can never have another performance like that again.

-Colt McCoy was 14-19 for 174 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions….unacceptable in my opinion.  When facing a rookie quarterback it is imperative that you not only confuse him, but force him into turnovers.  Colt McCoy was eerily accurate on Sunday, completing severely tight passes through small windows, and often on crucial downs.  I am aware that the Pats defense is essentially as young as McCoy, but Belichick’s scheme needs to be complicated enough to put his defense in places to make plays off of mistakes.  I failed to see it on Sunday, and that was very disappointing.

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

The Cuts are In…

In accordance with the NFL rules, the Patriots cut their roster down to the league mandated 53 players on Saturday evening.  Although a formality every off season, some cuts are expected while others bring along with them big question marks regarding the future of the team.  Notable cuts for New England included Derrick Burgess, Sam Aiken, and Pierre Woods.  Coinciding with released players, safety Brandon McGowan was placed on injured reserve.

An article written by Mike Reiss on ESPNBoston.com brings up some very valid points about the differences in personnel between this season and years past.  Before this season, coach Belichick and the Patriot organization made a living on having immense depth throughout the entire roster.  That afforded them the luxury to deal guys like Richard Seymour, David Thomas, LeKevin Smith, etc. for draft picks.  As we all know, stockpiling draft picks is one of Bill’s favorite pastimes.  But, this season it seems as the Patriots are on the wrong side of the equation.  Depth concerns have led the organization to trade undisclosed draft picks to other teams for players such as Quinn Ojinnaka (OL, Falcons), Jarrad Page (S, Chiefs), and Tracy White (LB, Eagles).  Ojinnaka’s addition provides some much needed depth on the offensive line, while recently acquired Page looks to replace McGowan.  White, on the other hand, was acquired for a 2012 undisclosed draft pick and is expected to contribute on special teams.

The release of Burgess is clearly the most surprising development out of Foxboro.  Not only did the Pats allow Burgess to miss almost the first two weeks of training camp to deal with “personal issues”, but they welcomed him back with open arms and almost immediately inserted him into the starting lineup, opposite of Banta-Cain.  Preseason play made it apparent that Burgess’ transition from defensive end to outside linebacker wasn’t proving to be a successful one (let us remember that Derrick Burgess was acquired from Oakland for a 2010 third and fifth round draft choice!).  Outside linebacker was already a position of need before they released Burgess…

As the roster stands right now, the four outside linebackers remaining are Tully Banta-Cain, Jermaine Cunningham, Marques Murrell, and Rob Ninkovich.  Outside of Banta-Cain, none of the other players have any starting experience in the NFL.  Cunningham has barely played at all this preseason!  With these remaining players, it becomes a necessity that the Pats scour the  waiver wire to try and find some players to help their team.  Luckily for them, there is a decent amount of talent that has become available…but not much at outside linebacker.

Notable Cuts:

Pat White, WR/QB

Myron Rolle, S

Raheem Brock, DE

T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR

Justin Hartwig, C

Jarvis Green, DE

Troy Smith, QB

James Hardy, WR

Chad Jackson, WR

Matt Leinart, QB

Chevis Jackson, CB

Jarron Gilbert, DE

Dre Bly, CB

Ladell Betts, RB

Jay Richardson, DE

Nathan Vasher, CB

I’ve bolded the players that I think the Patriots should look at for their need positions.  Much has been made of their depth, or lack there of, on the defensive line.  Who better to fill that void than former Patriot Jarvis Green or jumping-out-of-pool extraordinare Jarron Gilbert?  Cornerback has also become a need position with the loss Leigh Bodden.  Dre Bly is a seasoned veteran that could provide some guidance and leadership for the young corners, while Chevis Jackson is still a relatively young player that could provide some depth.  As for Raheem Brock, he was a pass rushing expert throughout his time in Indianapolis (mainly as a third down substitute) and the Pats could consider transitioning him to outside linebacker to help on passing situations.  Pat White, Myron Rolle, and Justin Hartwig are all very talented players that just could not find a spot on their team’s roster.  Allegedly, the Patriots were looking very much into drafting Pat White in the mid-rounds of the 2009 draft, but the Dolphins grabbed him in the second round.  Myron Rolle is an exceptionally intelligent player, which is just what coach Belichick likes.  Hartwig could possibly help fill the void left by Logan Mankins.

I’m interested to see what moves this team makes within the next few games, amidst preparing for Cincinatti.  But know this, if the Patriots carry their current 53 man roster into the regular season, it is going to be a long 4 ½ months for Patriot fans…

Super Bowl or Bust (Defensive Edition)…

A majority of the draft picks that the New England Patriots have made since the 2008 season have been defensive players.  The Patriots top pick in 2008 was stud linebacker Jerod Mayo, and he is accompanied in that draft class by Terrence Wheatley, Shawn Crable, and Jonathan Wilhite.  The team’s first selection in the 2009 draft was safety Patrick Chung, and he is accompanied in that class by Ron Brace, Darius Butler, Tyrone McKenzie, and Myron Pryor.  The 2010 draft selections followed suit as the Pats chose Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes.  There certainly was some great offensive talent mixed in those three drafts for the Patriots (2009: Sebastian Vollmer, Brandon Tate, and Julian Edelman; 2010: Rob Gronkowski, Taylor Price, and Aaron Hernandez), but the majority of those draft picks, and more importantly most of the higher draft picks, were dedicated to defensive players.

One of the main focuses over the last few years for coach Belichick has obviously been to develop a younger, faster, and more athletic defense.  This is the year when all of that work needs to translate into one of the best defenses in the league.  The transition from the Seymour, Bruschi, Harrison defense is now complete, and it is time for the new set of stars (Wilfork, Mayo, Meriweather) to step up and make this defense their own.  Similarly to the offensive side of the ball, there are many questions surrounding the 2010 New England Patriots’ defense.  How those questions are answered throughout the course of the season may very well determine that amount of success that the Patriots have this upcoming season.

The defensive line had always been a spot of consistency for Bill Belichick’s defense.  Since drafting Vince Wilfork in 2004, the Wilfork, Warren, and Seymour combination always was consistent and performed their duties wonderfully.  The team has just undergone their first full off-season without Richard Seymour, and the right defensive end position is an area of concern.  Free agent signee Gerard Warren seems to be the front-runner to fill the void at right end.  But, don’t discount the skill set and experience that Mike Wright brings to the table.  Wright has been the fourth lineman, filling in at both the nose and two end spots, for the past four seasons, and dangling a starting position in front of him will certainly elevate his play.  Defensive line depth is certainly a strength for the Pats as backups consist of previously mentioned Wright, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, and 2010 seventh round draft picks Brandon Deaderick and Kade Weston.

The one position group that has me most excited for the 2010 season (and actually even more excited for the preseason games to see the young kids play) are the linebackers.  In my opinion, there is only one linebacker spot filled, and that is with Mayo in the middle.  I know that it is highly likely that Tully Banta-Cain will be starting come opening day, but with so much young talent and athleticism behind him it may be tough for him to keep that spot.  I really hope that Brandon Spikes begins the season as a starter alongside Mayo, but just the other day Belichick was talking about how different the Patriots’ defense is than the Gators’ defense, which may slow Spikes’ arrival into the starting lineup.  Once Spikes nails down the playbook and becomes comfortable in the defense (which is something that Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess were never able to do, so it is no easy feat) he fits perfectly into the Pats’ 3-4 defense and will be a certain upgrade to Gary Guyton.  Speaking of Guyton, he better get onto the practice field because Spikes and Tyrone McKenzie are gunning for his spot.  McKenzie apparently used his season on IR to his advantage as he was receiving praise from Belichick about his knowledge of the playbook.  There were high hopes for McKenzie (2009 3rd round pick) as a rookie, but his season was derailed by a torn ACL.  In 2010 McKenize hopes to push for a starting spot, and would also be an upgrade to the undersized Guyton.  As for the remaining outside linebacker spot, your guess is as good as mine.  Rookie Jermaine Cunningham has the natural ability to play the position immediately, but he is changing positions (from defensive end in college to outside linebacker in the NFL) along with trying to pick up one of the most difficult defensive systems in the league.  I expect Cunningham to contribute more towards the end of the season rather than at the beginning.  Remaining players consist of Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, and Rob Ninkovich.  I don’t see any of those guys as viable starters in the league.  One area I would like to see the Pats explore is signing Aaron Schobel.  Schobel has been a pain in Matt Light’s side since arriving in Buffalo in 2001.  His rushing ability alone would make him a good addition to this Patriot defense.

Brandon Meriweather is a Pro Bowl safety that will be a staple in the Patriots’ defense for years to come (pending any Mankins-like contract issues).  Addressing the free safety spot is where it gets interesting.  James Sanders has the experience factor and certainly does what is asked of him, but he lacks big impact in the run game and rarely makes big-time plays.  Pat Chung has apparently made great improvements in the off-season and it primed for a big year.  Chung dedicated his off-season to hitting the weight room and studying film.  I expect that Chung will overtake Sanders for the starting free safety spot by at least mid-season, if not by the opening game.

Simlarly to Pat Chung, Darius Butler spent most of his off-season hitting the weights and watching tape.  Butler is one of the most physically gifted corners in the league.  At 5’11” 190lbs, Butler posted a 4.4 40-yard dash and a 43” vertical jump.  Those numbers alone make him the most athletic corner on the roster.  Combine that athleticism with ball-hawking instincts and you have a great corner in the making.  I expect 2010 to be Darius Butler’s breakout season and for him to be supplanted as the starter alongside Leigh Bodden for most, if not all, of the 2010 season.  Bodden is pretty solid and you know what you are getting from him.  The Patriots were sadly a victim of a poor cornerback market this off-season, considering Bodden was the second best corner available.  But, his experience complimented with Butler’s athleticism should be a decent 1-2 punch.  The third cornerback spot looks to be locked up for the moment by Jonathan Wilhite.  Wilhite’s play has been nothing short of inconsistent, but his talent level certainly makes him the best option to play the nickel.  2010 is a make or break season for Terrence Wheatley.  Expectations for Wheatley were high after being selected in the second round of the 2008 draft, but he has struggled to stay on the field and when he has played he has looked very sloppy.  Another bad season and Wheatley’s days in New England will most likely come to an end.  Rookie cornerbacks have notoriously struggled in Belichick’s system and I do not expect that to change with Devin McCourty.  The 2010 first round pick is an exceptional athlete, but any contributions outside of special teams will be an unexpected bonus.

As for the special teams, Gostkowski is one of the most consistent kickers in the game, and in my opinion signing him is priority number two, after signing Mankins.  The punting position seems to be rookie Zoltan Mesko’s job to lose.  Mesko has seemingly impressed so far in training camp and I fully expect him to win the job.  The return game has been a sore spot for the Patriots for a few seasons now.  Last year, the combination of Maroney, Slater, and Edelman taking back kicks never really got the job done.  I expect McCourty to return kickoffs this season (maybe with some help from Brandon Tate and Taylor Price) and hopefully use his exceptional speed to grab a few touchdowns.  Punts will most likely be returned by Kevin Faulk and maybe occasionally by Welker.  Although I hate seeing Welker back to return a punt as that is just one more play where there is a risk of injury.

As for the 2010 season as a whole, I expect nothing less than greatness from this group of New England Patriots.  Their mindset alone gives them an edge on most teams in the league.  When ESPN’s Adam Schefter stopped by Patriots’ training camp on Friday and asked Welker to sign the Patriots’ logo after explaining what Rex Ryan wrote on the Jets’ logo (“soon to be champs”), Welker simply signed his name and then wrote, “one game at a time.”  You have to love that attitude.  Getting back to business, I expect the defense of the Patriots this year to be better than most expect.  Any offense led by number 12 will be good, and hopefully Maroney can have a decent season to accompany one of the best passing attacks in the league.  An AFC East title should be expected, and I would love to see a Colts vs. Patriots matchup in the AFC Championship game.  I think you know what my prediction from there would be, but I’m not going to say it just for the odd chance that I jinx the season and the in week one Brady goes down with a torn ACL in the other knee…oh shit…

Position Rankings (OTA Edition): Outside Linebacker

  The outside linebacker wears a lot of hats within the 3-4 defense.    They must first contain the edge in the running game, rush the passer to create pressure, as well as drop back in coverage to play either zone, or possibly matchup man with a TE, WR, or RB out of the backfield.  Outside linebackers must possess a combination of speed and strength to perform these jobs effectively.  Speed will allow them to get to the sideline to string out a run, and also to sprint pass the tackle in a pass rushing situation.  Strength will allow them to be stout against the run and to shed blockers while attempting to make plays in the backfield.

 1) New York Jets- The Jets receive the number one ranking in this category based on the combination of experience and outright talent here.  Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas, and Jason Taylor give the Jets a heck of a three-headed-monster at the outside linebacker position.   With an average of 10 years experience between the three, this triple-threat allows the Jets to keep fresh talent on the field at all times.  All three men are great at getting to the quarterback, and with Rex Ryan’s schemes, it creates a lot of different looks for opposing offenses to deal with. 

 Calvin Pace is entering his 9th season in the NFL and with 54 starts under his belt he has 21 sacks.  Pace made the transition from a 4-3 end to an outside linebacker while he was at Arizona.  Since then he has averaged around 6-8 sacks per season and with this Jets improved defense this season,  should see those numbers rise a bit.  Jason Taylor showed that he still had some gas left in the tank last season contributing with 7 sacks and 3 FF for the Miami Dolphins.  It was a bit of a shock to the AFC East when Miami allowed the veteran to sign with the rival Jets, and Ryan has said in his system Taylor could have “20 sacks”.  Let’s be honest, he would be thrilled to get double-digit sacks for the 6th time in his 14 year career.  Taylor isn’t as stout against the run, but with the best run defense in the league, he will have plenty of help around him.  Bryan Thomas has 25 career sacks for the Jets and will spell Taylor on the outside this season.  Entering his 8th season, Thomas should gain great knowledge from Taylor on rushing the passer, only improving his value.  He may even start giving Taylor the 3rd down pass rushing responsibilities, while he provides run support.  This is what make this core so good, there are a number of combinations for Ryan to play with, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets all three players on the field at the same time in certain blitz packages. 

 2) New England Patriots- At first glance it seemed as if this would be a tough decision, but with two new starters for Miami, one being a rookie and the other a career backup, I just can’t put them ahead of a proven starter and a promising rookie.  Tully Banta-Cain finished in the top five in sacks for the AFC last season with 10 .  He seems to be comfortable with his role and in his 8th NFL season seems prime to step up as a leader amongst a young linebacking group.  After spending a year in San Fransisco, Bant-Cain returned home to New England and had a career year in both sacks and tackles.  It will be interesting to see how he performs in a non contract year.

 Jermaine Cunningham in my opinion will win the starting job.  While Belichick loves experience, I don’t think he has a choice but to start the Gator.  Pierre Woods has a whopping 1 sack in his limited time, and Shawn Crable has not seen the field yet so I put him below the rookie out of Florida who is healthy, younger, and was slightly more productive in college.  I was a huge fan of this pick for New England in the second round.  It’s no secret that Belichick an Urban Meyer have a football “coachmance”, so I’m sure Bill was very confident in picking this young player. The transition from defensive end to linebacker will be crucial to his role as a possible starter, but I doubt New England spent a 2nd round pick at a need position with the thoughts of bringing him along slowly. I think Cunningham will be able to make the transition and contribute right away for the Pats.

 3) Miami Dolphins- This linebacking group for the Dolphins is very interesting, and is the talk of camp thus far.  After losing both starters in Taylor and Porter, Miami addressed its linebacking group this off-season quite agressively.  They made Karlos Dansby the highest paid middle linebacker in the league to fill a need in the middle, and drafted Koa Misi out of Utah who projects to start at strong side linebacker.  Misi has taken most of the first team reps so far in OTA’s and seems to have the edge.  There has been plenty of compliments thrown his way by analysts but until I see him on the field I can’t be sure.  

 The weak side linebacker spot seems to be Charlie Anderson’s job to lose.  I have raved about the talent of Cameron Wake in football circles, however, it seems he has not developed in areas not relating to rushing the passer.  Anderson has been a career back up in the NFL and has been productive in spurts for the Miami Dolphins.  He has shown that he can rush th passer and provide adequate help in the passing game.  His tackling is average and if he is consistent throughout camp and pre-season I think he will start.  Cameron Wake is a pure pass rusher.  If he can show the coaching staff that he can contribute against the run and in coverage, he will take this spot.  Wake was able to register 39 sacks in two seasons playing in the CFL, and last season in a limited role recorded 5.5 for the Dolphins.  Wake is a definite double-digit sack player if he is a starter and Mike Nolan needs to find a way to get him on the field.  The battle for weak side starting linebacker will be the most watched in training camp for Miami and it probably wont be decided until the opening kickoff.

 4) Buffal Bills- On paper the Buffalo Bills could arguably be ranked second in this category.  There are a couple of  reasons I have them listed fourth; 1- this is the first year they are running the 3-4 defense, 2-the projected starters both played defensive end last season, 3- new coaching staff, 4- with a bad offense, they will be on the field a lot.

There is certainly a lot of potential on this defense.  I am a big fan of Aaron Maybin, I think he projects well as a weak side outside rush linebacker.  I think he will struggle against the run and I don’t know how he will be in pass coverage.  He comes from linebacker university and has a good frame for a 3-4 linebacker.  I just don’t know how he will handle learning a new defensive scheme with new coaches, in only his second year in the league.  Aaron Schobel has played defensive end for 10 years in the NFL and is one of the more underrated players in this division.  He has been a pest for that defense and he always finds himself around the ball.  He has battled injuries the last couple of years and again, this new position/system/coaching staff could be challenging to the veteran.  Chris Kelsay has also been a productive pass rusher for the Bills and will most-likely split the strong side duties with Schobel.  If the team buys into the new system and stays healthy, they very well could end up being the second most productive group in the division, but for now, they have to show me first before I rank them above the other teams in the East.