Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday Morning Coffee - Christmas Edition

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

First off, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Fantastic Festivus, Krazy Kwanzaa, and a Happening Hanukkah to all as we roll into the last days before the madness of Christmas.  Here South of Boston we're looking at a potential white Christmas and left wondering why the NFL took control of Thanksgiving but gave Christmas to the NBA?  At least ESPN has a quintuple-header lined up all day.  Christmas is all about family and friends that are as close as family, and that's how the day will be served up from dawn to dusk.  My shopping for the lovely Mrs. B is done (and wrapped! Thank goodness for unused vacation time!) and even though there is a lot of wrapping to do for the spoiled brats kids, we still have a few days to get it done. May the holiday season wrap all in its love and pageantry, and now onto the sports:

PATRIOTS:

It's easy for the Patriots to look past the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins these next two games.  Hopefully, they can get out to big leads and let the bench get some action.  The offense and defense still have a lot of work to do to get ready for the playoffs, so these two games need to focus on fixing their flaws against flawed squads.  The offensive line is struggling to get in rhythm with guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly back in the line-up along with tackle Sebastian Vollmer.  Hopefully, their time off for injuries this year keeps them fresh in January and allows them to run defenses off the field with the no-huddle.  The no-huddle is a huge weapon. With the success on offense with Nick McDonald and Daniel Thomas at guard, it almost makes sense to continue to work them into the game, even playing a few series or coming on in the 4th quarter to help keep the line fresh.

The defense got away from making stops and defending the big play until San Francisco went into their "prevent offense" in the 3rd quarter.  No one confuses this defense in New England with the 1980s New York Giants with Bill Belichick at the helm, but they are better than they have played.  These last two weeks are chances to add some confidence to a unit that needs it going into the playoffs. Jacksonville, with no Maurice Jones-Drew or Rashad Jennings, could be a team to get some confidence against.

Expect the Patriots to try to start early, punch the Jaguars in the mouth, and then work on getting consistency on both sides of the ball.  Expect the same game plan next week at home against Miami.

* * *

I think if I am Bill Belichick, I am trying to pry Mike Pettine away from Rex Ryan and the Jets this off-season, to fix the defense.  Belichick needs to be a head coach, not the defensive coordinator.  Short of burying the hatchet and bringing back Eric Mangini (NEVER going to happen) it is time to admit that, like many second round draft picks the past five years, defensive coordinator Mike Patricia is not cut out for his role and move on.  The players are there. The weakness is the caching staff.  Pettine has proven himself in New York, taking a squad with (outside of the cornerbacks) next to no talent into a perennial top defense. The Patriots need to be as open to change as possible to fix this team and get back to a dominant squad like the were early in the Belichick era.

* * *

MISC NFL:

Speaking of the Jets, the Jets are a mess.   Rex Ryan won't, but should be fired. He lost control two years ago and has no prayer to get it back. He should be a defensive coordinator. General Manager Mike Tannenbaum is a goner, and expect the Jets to try to keep him on to manage the cap. Someone has to take the hit for quarterback Tim Tebow and the Mark Sanchez insane contract extension.  I think both deserve it, but only one will go.

More proof Ryan needs to go? What in the world was he doing hiring a special teams coach who got a job in Miami as a FOB (Friend of Bill, as in Parcells)? Did Rex Ryan owe the Godfather, Bill Parcells, a favor?  Tony Sparano was an abject failure in Miami, was ostensibly brought in to run the wildcat offense with Tim Tebow, which never happened.  The Jets would have been better off with ANYONE at offensive coordinator.  But, owner Woody Johnson, thanks from all the Patriots fans.  We appreciate you screwing over your team this season with all your inane moves.  Keep up the good bad work.

* * *

I hate Eli Manning.  Forget the two Super Bowls. One of my fantasy football teams was in the playoffs and I made the indefensible move of benching Ben Roethlisberger and playing Eli last week at QB.  I have no idea what made me do it. I lost by 5 points. Roethlisberger scored over 20 fantasy points, Eli pooped his pants and got me all of 4 points.  So instead of two championship games this week, I have one and a consolation game. 

In my Yahoo head-to-head league I finished in 9th place with the 3rd most total points.  How did that happen? Straight up bad luck.  My team was one of the best, but just ran into hot teams at the wrong time.  Week in, week out, the team was so much better and consistent, but couldn't put together wins.  Frustrating as all get-out, but nothing to second guess about 3rd most points. 

* * *

CELTICS:

I'm trying not to watch the Celtics this winter, but with the NHL strike (and my eleven-year old son's interest in the NBA) I keep putting the games on and raising my blood pressure. This team doesn't miss Ray Allen at guard; they miss Avery Bradley. The team needs a big body in the middle, and as much as I hate to admit it after defending the move these past two years, Danny Ainge may have made a mistake trading Big Kendrick Perkins away for forward Jeff Green.  They lack a shot-blocking big body in the middle to clear space and punish guards driving the lane.  Kevin Garnett is a power forward who belongs on the wing playing smothering defense.  They miss a big body of ANY kind in the middle on defense.

Green is lost on the court. I don't think his game fits an offense with Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. Jason Terry and Courtney Lee are lost on both sides of the ball at guard.  Neither is playing defense (which the return of Avery Bradley solves) and nor are they comfortable on offense.  They cannot get in rhythm and look like a team battling for the last playoff spot, not a title contender.  They have stopped NOBODY on defense, and don't have the offense to  stay with anyone and run and gun.  This team is stuck in neutral, and almost 30% of the season gone by, I don't see it getting much better from just bringing back Avery Bradley.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Offseason Red Sox Review

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

There are one-hundred days until opening day of the new and (not-quite) improved MLB season with inter-league games each and every day as the borders between the American and National League break down further.  With the Houston Astros moving to the American League to balance the two leagues at 15 each, this season seems set to be a bit different than any before. Also putting this season on an uneven kilter, the favorites in the American League East are the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles. Grab the flannel shirts already, it's the early 1990s all over again.

The Boston Red Sox waved the white flag on the Theo Epstein era last August, unloading a boatload of contracts in the washed-up Josh Beckett, the over-paid Carl Crawford, and the over-rated Adrian Gonzalez.  In order to rid themselves of the horrors of Bobby Valentine as manager, the Sox traded their starting shortstop (Mike Aviles) to pick up the manager they wanted (former pitching coach John Farrell) who was already on his way out in Toronto.  Keeping their mouths shut for awhile may have got them Farrell for nothing, but the wanna-be Liverpool lads couldn't keep their intentions secret. 

Recent news has the Red Sox trying to fix their gaping hole in the back of the bullpen with a trade for Joel Hanrahan (Jonathan Papelbon looks like a deal right now, eh?) created by trading for an injury-prone closer in Andrew Bailey for which they received a whole 15 ineffective innings and a season of Alfedo "as crazy as Izzy Alcantera" Alceves closing games.  With Bailey still an unknown and "shoulda been closer" Daniel Bard struggling all season in Pawtucket trying to fix the nightmare issues with control that came back after an ill-advised move to the rotation. So, in hindsight, for a few million dollars, the Sox could have kept Papelbon at closer and kept Bard at set-up and not screwed up their biggest strength in 2009 to 2011: the back-end of the bullpen. Heck, coughing up for a free agent closer instead of trading for Bailey, the Sox could have kept the status quo and won a bunch more.

Also, the Sox first base issue (remember, they traded Kevin Youkilis for no good reason for nothing in return) is still open with reports of issues with the physical for Mike Napoli.  Without Napoli at first, there is no real option available in-house.  Assuming Napoli eventually signs onto a modified deal, they have a decent, power-hitting first baseman who can fill in at catcher in a pinch.  If the Sox keep Jarrod Saltalamacchia at catcher (and other than the fact that he is a "Theo Epstein guy" why would they actively shop him?), that leaves him and David Ross to carry the load and leave Napoli at first base.  Ross, if nothing special, is at least a decent backup at catcher. Second base and third are locked in with Dustin Pedroia and future star Will Middlebrooks.  At shortstop, the Sox filled the gaping hole from the trade of Aviles with injury-prone Stephen "brother of J.D." Drew.  Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly good.  

Pedroia and Napoli are grinders, seeing a lot of pitches, getting on base, providing a little pop.  Middlebrooks is the top prospect in the organization and expected to provide middle-of-the-order power.  He showed a lot before being injured last year.  Drew is an enigma (gee, that phrase sounds familiar to Red Sox fans!).  After being injured a good chunk of the last two seasons, but could be a good complement at shortstop to Pedroia.  Last we saw him on the field for an extended period, Drew had a good bat, a little pop, lots of doubles, decent glove, and a good fit for a top or bottom of a line-up.  He is not going to grind out at bats like his older brother (and drive the WEEIdiots insane: "Why don't he swing da bat more? Walks are for losers!"), but should be a great fit for Fenway Park and pound doubles off the green monster like Pedroia has done.

Outfield is a mess.  Gone is the long tradition of great left fielders in Boston (Ted Williams begat Yaz who begat Jim Ed Rice who begat...uhh, forget about Mike Greenwell...who begat Manny Ramirez) and the Sox turn from Carl Crawford to.. Jonny Gomes? I ranted about Gomes previously, as he is not someone who is going to bring a team to the level of contender; however, he may hit better at Fenway (although not facing Sox pitchers brings the stats down a bit).  He can fill in at DH, but with David Ortiz already there and more inter-league games leading to less games with a DH (any road game versus an NL team), there is little need for him there.

At least center field has a Scott Boras client in a contract year (Jacoby Ellsbury) which is like holding a 30-30 guarantee. With Shane Victorino set to play a poor man's J.D. Drew in right field (moving to center whenever Ellsbury is dealt/leaves), the Sox also have Ryan Kalish to work into the mix.  Kalish has potential to be a Josh Reddick type outfielder (as Bob Lobel would say: How come we don't get players like that) and at least give Sox fans desperately missing Trot Nixon (for whatever reason) a similar player to cheer for in 2013.  Expect Ellsbury to be traded in July and Victorino to move to center field if the Sox are out of contention again near the trade deadline.  

The starting rotation is set with Ryan Dempster brought in to join fellow mid-thirty-something, overpaid, back of the rotation local hero (SARCASM ALERT) John Lackey. The Sox are hinging the next two years on new manager John Farrell getting young starters Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester back into the 15 win, 200 innings, 150 strike-outs, sub 4.00 ERA range.  Anything short of these two being #1A and #1B starters have the Sox looking at a battle for fourth place the next couple of years.  Mixed with the hopes for the future and the middling veterans is Felix Doubront, a big lefty with decent stuff who, in a best case scenario, can be a 12 win 3rd starter who matches up against lefty-heavy line-ups (Yankees...cough-cough).  Add in Franklin Morales and Alfredo Aceves as long relief/swing starter/depth and the starters, if healthy, have the POTENTIAL to improve.

The bullpen needs Joel Hanrahan (or anyone else with closing experience) if only to not depend on Andrew Bailey again.  The real need is for Daniel Bard to get his head on straight and his mechanics back in whack so he can go back to his 6th/7th/8th inning stopper role.  Why the Sox took him out of his comfort zone with his history in the minor leagues for having not been able to keep control outside of the bullpen is a mystery to this day. Their best weapon (a reliever coming in to get strike-outs with runners on base is the most valuable relief pitcher, not a closer getting three outs against the bottom of the order with a three run lead) was gone last year and it showed.

The rest of the bullpen is a crap shoot every year.  Do you find an Allen Embry, or is it another Jeff Grey?  Craig Breslow, Mark Melancon, Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales, and Junichi Tazawa could come in and be light out, or could all have plus 5.00 ERAs.  There is no real projection of relievers year to year short of the pitcher being the type to have a consistent record of success with an "out pitch" that bails them out of tough situations.  Any of these pitchers could succeed, and all are just as likely to be in AAA by the end of May.  The good news is the signing of Koji Uehara who actually is a consistent reliever who should help the bullpen plenty.  Uehara, beside being set-up man insurance for Bard, was successful in Japan, was successful in the majors, and is safe, inexpensive pick-up.  Mark this down, Uehara is the best free agent pickup by the team this year.

The team is set for 2013 for all intents and purposes.  Sure, things will change a bit before Spring Training and there are always unexpected injuries, but the team is basically set for the time being barring a major change. Love them or hate them, these are the 2013 Boston Red Sox.

* * *

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Rear View Mirror

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

The less said about the Patriots loss to the 49ers, the better.  The Patriots came out with their absolute worst performance of the season, losing their third game of the season to the NFC West. All three phases of the game were abysmal, as the Patriots were 
beaten soundly on offense, defense and special teams.  They trailed 31 to 3 in the early third quarter and were a total mess from the onset.  

The game started with running back Steven Ridley fumbling (which was overturned by review) and then getting stuffed on 3rd and 1.  Punt. 49ers march down the field (coverage switched to the President speaking about the horrible tragedy in Newtown, CT, which was more important than the game--I was surprised that the NFL didn't stop the game and broadcast the President on the big screen) and Randy Moss catches a touchdown burning the "new and improved" secondary.

After trading punts, the turnovers began: Brady intercepted trying to throw deep to Welker, and then San Francisco fumbles. It's still a game, when the first special teams failure mistake rears its head: fake punt by the 49ers which led to a missed field goal and another opportunity for the Patriots to miss out on. After running back Shane Vereen coughed up the ball, the 49ers offense continued to shoot themselves in the foot and allowed the Patriots to kick a field goal and stay in the game.  San Francisco scored twice (TD pass to tight end Delanie Walker and field goal) and it was only 17 to 3 at the half.  

When safety Devin McCourty picked off 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the end zone, it appeared the Patriots were ready to make their move. Unfortunately, it was in the wrong direction. A fumble by running back Steven Ridley and an interception by quarterback Tom Brady turned into two quick scores for San Francisco and it was 31 to 3.  

Yes, the Patriots came back and tied the score while San Francisco took their foot off the pedal and Brady got into rhythm, but when they needed it most in the clutch, all three areas of the game blew it again.  First a special teams breakdown allowed a long kick off return to completely turn momentum.  Then, an all-out blitz failed to get to Kaepernick, horrible cornerback Kyle Arrington missed a tackle, and the Patriots were back in a hole.  The offense had two shots to tie, and shot themselves in the foot each time.  

To say the game was frustrating is an understatement.  To say it was encouraging to see the team come back and it's a "good loss" is delusional.  The team threw their helmets out on the field and thought they were invincible. They got smacked across the face, just like they did int he Super Bowl last year and in 2007.  It's tough watching a team that made its bones in 2001, 2003 and 2004 by being the "Smackers" now being the "Smackees".  The team got beat up, snuck back in, and then got gobsmacked when the game called for toughness.  This team needs to get into playoff mode ASAP.  Last Sunday night was a playoff game, and the Patriots got knocked-out. 




Sunday, December 16, 2012

Patriots Preview: Best of the NFC

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

What a great game for NBC on Sunday night.  Two teams building their defense around big, athletic linebackers, and with creative, outside-the-box offenses;  Balanced offense, play action, and gadget plays are on display with each team; Hard-hitting and opportunistic defenses on each squad: Coaches Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick have a lot of mutual respect for each other, and rightly so.  This game matches the best the NFC has to offer against a team that just dismantled a team in the Houston Texans that was supposed to have passed the Patriots as the best of the AFC.

PATRIOTS DEFENSE VERSUS 49ers OFFENSE: 

The 49ers have the controversial Colin Kaepernick as their starting QB, benching Alex Smith, who was leading the NFL in completion percentage and in his last start before being injured, set an NFL record for completion percentage in a game with more than 20 pass attempts.  Kaepernick is a new-age college QB who can run the pistol, has a gun for an arm, and runs like a gazelle when he gets outside the pocket.  Kaepernick comes across like a gadget-QB, Tim Tebow 2.0, but really seems to be more like a west coast RGIII.  The problem with Kaepernick is that he is young, inexperienced, and not polished.  Is he the future for San Francisco? Sure. Is he getting them to the Super Bowl this season? I doubt it. 

The NFL Network had a a great stat up on Kaepernick, who has gone 31 as a starter beating New Orleans, Chicago, and Miami, while losing to St. Louis: 8-17 in the Red Zone; 20-54 on 3rd down.  Those types of numbers are going to kill a team going against Tom Brady on the other side.  Kicking field goals and/or turnovers and punting is what puts teams in a deep hole early and takes a team off its game plan, just ask Matt Schaub and Houston.  Kaepernick will make some plays, he is a play-maker, but he is not a pocket passer who can read the defense on 3rd down and make the right call and convert third downs over and over again to move the ball down the field against New England. With wide receiver Mario Manningham out, the 49ers are looking to extend drives with Randy Moss (yikes) and Michael Crabtree out wide. Tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker had better show up (and Kaepernick had better have him in his sights) because San Francisco needs yards in the air to convert third downs.

Against the Patriots, running the pistol is playing to the strength of the Patriots linebackers.  This lets New England play Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower at linebacker all game and let them diagnose Kaepernick and put some hits on running backs and a running quarterback.  Last year, the Patriots faced Denver and Tim Tebow and destroyed him both times.  Letting this defense play downhill and get in the backfield is not what a team needs to do to win against New England.  Can 49ers running backs Frank Gore and 

With Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory established at Safety, the Patriots pass defense is set in the secondary and not giving up the big plays that Brandon Merriweather 2.0 (I mean, Patrick Chung) gave up earlier in the year being out of position again and again. Cornerback Aqib Talib and rookie surprise Alfonzo Dennard have settled in on the outside, allowing Kyle Arrington to play his natural position covering the slot receiver. This has the Patriots secondary in position to be a strength and not a weakness.

The Patriots defense has made huge strides in the past four weeks since settling the secondary after acquiring Aqib Talib from Tampa. Last week against Houston was a huge test, which they passed with flying colors. This week is a new challenge in San Francisco and their multiple offense looks. As good as the 49ers defense may be, holding Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to under 30 points at home is not likely to happen. This offense needs to move the ball and convert third downs, convert in the red zone, and keep the Patriots offense on the sidelines. I can see Colin Kaepernick coming out, throwing 3 interceptions and get blown out, but if they can click and keep the Patriots offense grounded and grind out long drives, I can see Kaepernick keeping the 49ers in the game and stealing a win on the road.   

PATRIOTS OFFENSE VERSUS 49ers DEFENSE: 

The Patriots offense against Houston found wide receiver Brandon Lloyd after he'd disappeared the last few weeks. While still not running out their two-headed monster at tight end (Rob-Aaron Gronkandez?), the Patriots offense still comes out with wrinkles that create big plays against mismatches.  Houston was supposed to have a defense that would take the Patriots offense out of their game and get them off the field, which they did in the middle of the game, but for the first time all season, the Patriots defense picked up the offense and held a big lead and never let Houston back into the game. What Houston could not do, was to come up with the big plays on defense and special teams to turn the game around. 

Credit the quarterback first and foremost.  Watching other teams with quarterbacks not named Peyton Manning, it is astounding how Brady and Manning take over a game pre-snap and identify and dissect the defense in front of them.  Very rarely is the wrong protection called, and when it it, Brady can throw the ball away knowing that one missed tackle on the next play is all it takes some days to keep the drive alive.  Tom Brady rarely makes a mistake throwing an interception. He still has the arm strength and smarts to get the ball where it needs to be.

His offensive line is getting healthy at last and will again face a big test as the 49ers bring the Smith boys around the corners. Aldon Smith and Justin Smith are premier pass rushers. The Patriots balance needs to be on display to off-set the pass rush much like they did last week. Expect to see the quick slants to the tight ends and slot receiver Wes Welker and screens to the running backs (especially Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen) to slow that pass rush.  Having running back Brandon Bolden back from his idiotic suspension for PEDs may be a boost to the running game, as his style is similar to Steven Ridley's (one cut and go hard) and can make an impact in a hurry.  Expect to see the Patriots continue to run the ball on second and long, as it has worked well for them all season long.

While the 49ers have a big pass rush outside, they are probably the only NFL team that has linebackers similar to the Patriots. The 49ers have their own Jerod Mayo in ILB Patrick Willis. Willis can cover in space in a zone defense, pick up a running back or tight end in man-coverage, and play downhill and find the running back and bring him down time and time again. The Patriots can only hope that linebacker Dont'a Hightower develops into a facsimile of NaVorro Bowman.  Bowman is yet another great Penn State linebacker who does everything on the field that his coaches ask of him. He is an all-pro machine who mirrors Willis on the field.  Tom Brady is going to be busy to identify Willis, Bowman, Smith, and Smith each and every play.  It is hard to believe Ahmad Brooks is the forgotten man in the 49ers linebacking corps with his 5.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a pick six so far this year.  

If there is a weakness to the defense in San Francisco, it is the secondary. When the safeties have to come up in run support and the pass rush doesn't get to the quarterback, they can be beat. Cornerback Carlos Rogers seems to shoot his mouth off more than make plays on the field lately, and on the other side, Tarell Brown is hardly a shut-down corner.  The safeties are the stars of this secondary, as Donte Whitner is a familiar face to the Patriots having played five years in the purgatory of Buffalo.  49ers Safety Dashon Goldson is hands-down the best player in the secondary, and if San Francisco cannot lock him up long-term, is going to be a hot name on the free agent market after being franchised last offseason.  Goldson is 28 and in his prime, can cover and tackle, and is a rare safety who can ball-hawk and run-stuff.  He is a beast (and would look great in the red, white, and blue of New England, hint, hint).

Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker is the X-Factor on offense for the Patriots.  The 49ers were ripped in their tie (ugh, how embarrassing) against St. Louis by slot receiver Danny Amendola last month. The Welker clone caught 11 passes for 102 yards and gave the 49ers fits all game long.  No doubt, former Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been running the tape of that game and taking notes all week long. The Patriots can stretch out the 49ers horizontally and pick apart the match-up all night long. Add in the weather, and that is a huge advantage for New England.  Wet field and ball favors the wide receivers and offensive linemen.  New England and Bill Belichick learned many years ago that running into the line is the worst game plan in existence when the weather is bad, yet teams not used to the elements do that consistently in some weird belief it is "conventional wisdom".  

Expect the Patriots to move quickly, not to get the 49ers caught substituting, but to wear down the defense and slow the pass rush.  A balance of mixing in runs on 2nd down and passing on 1st down inside to Wes Welker can put the Patriots in a position to dictate field position and force young 49er QB Colin Kaepernick into playing from behind and making mistakes.  Either way, I'll be waiting all day for Sunday night!



Saturday, December 01, 2012

Saturday Morning Patriots Preview

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

A cup of coffee or three (oops, this is cup number four), a sleeping dog, a cat or two lounging around, wife hard at work (sorry, Honey), morning exercise completed, and a huge footy match-up on the telly (Everton vs Manchester City) and the kids sleeping in and relaxing as the snow flurries fall outside the window as New England welcomes December in style: Sounds like a recipe for a lovely Saturday morning to put aside my Baseball Mogul computer game and time-consuming obsession (SportsMogul  puts out baseball and football games where you take over a franchise, play general manager, play seasons...yes, it is an addiction that takes up way too much of my time, but it is a great game for know-it-all people like me who want to show that they can run the Red Sox better than these current bozos. And no, they don't pay me or anything, I just love the games. They don't cost much [less than $30.00] and they allow you to download a demo version to try out before buying the game.) and touch base on a few thoughts on the Patriots game coming up Sunday:


  • PATRIOTS GAME PREVIEW: SUNDAY, 12/02/2012 AT MIAMI DOLPHINS:
    • First things first, all Patriots fans who remember the 1980s and Don Shula at the helm and Dan Marino behind center are automatically queasy about the Patriots going on the road to Miami. It becomes something like a fight or flight primitive reflex where the bile rises just hearing "Patriots play on the road in Miami". In the pre-Belichick and Brady era, the greatest win ever (seriously, there is no debate to this) was the "Squish the Fish" game on the unexpected journey to Super Bowl XX behind coach Ray Berry, Tony Eason and Steve Grogan splitting time at quarterback, Craig James and Tony Collins at running back, and deep threat Stanley Morgan at wide receiver. The Patriots, against all odds, went down to Miami in the playoffs (after beating the Raiders and their linebacker Matt Millen clubbing team general manager Pat Sullivan after the game). No one expected the Patriots to win in the Orange Bowl in the AFC Championship game.
    • The Dolphins are--surprisingly--the second-best team in the AFC East. Now that may be damning with faint praise, but the Jets imploded at long last and the Bills proved once again (see Philadelphia Eagles, 2011) that spending in free agency does not equal success in the NFL.  Miami at least went out this off-season and traded away the malcontents and brought in a quarterback in Ryan Tannehill.  I don't believe Tannehill is a superstar in the making and was an end-of-first-round pick, but kudos for the Dolphins for going out to make an attempt to address a position where they desperately needed help (Jay Fielder, Cleo Lemon, Matt Moore, Trent Green, Chad Henne, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper and Gus Ferrotte took snaps for the Dolphins in the last ten years).  Why the Dolphins didn't get into the Robert Griffin III derby is beyond my understanding. I still think that in the long run, as good as Andrew Luck is going to be, RGIII is going to better. I said it before the draft, and I have seen nothing to change my opinion. Both great, yes, but RGIII has that something special. Ryan Tannehill, unfortunately for the Dolphins, is not on the same level as those two rookie QBs.  In fact, he's battling Russell Wilson in Seattle for the title of third best rookie QB.  
    • The Dolphins offense is running back Reggie Bush. Wide receivers Brian Hartline and Devone Bess are just adequate, no more or less. Tannehill has struggled lately, as the league has learned his tendencies and adapted their defense. He is not sneaking up on anyone anymore.  The Patriots have done well containing Reggie Bush in the past, and like they did with CJ Spiller against Buffalo, the defense has to find him on each play and contain him as their focus.  With the secondary showing signs of settling down in the past two weeks, the Patriots need to get their run defense back on track.  Hard to believe, but the Patriots have missed Chandler Jones as much if not more so in the run defense rather than generating pressure on the QB.
    • The Patriots defense also has to generate pressure on Tannehill to keep forcing turnovers for the offense. Without defensive ends Chandler Jones (injury) and his back-up and surprise contributor Jermaine Cunningham (suspension for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs), the Patriots will test their depth again with former Raider Trevor Scott likely getting a number of opportunities to rush the quarterback.  The losses on the defensive line of free agent signing Jonathan Fanene (released prior to the regular season due to undisclosed injury) and Myron Pryor (injured reserve) leaves the Patriots cupboard thin.  If I'm Tully Banta-Cain I would be hitting the gym and having my agent get the Patriots front-office on speed dial.  The Patriots are an injury to Scott or Rob Ninkovich from calling up Tully. 
    • On offense, the Patriots need to keep doing what they've been doing. No tight end Rob Gronkowski again, but Aaron Hernandez should be available.  All four wide receivers are dinged up, but all should play.  Yes, the numbers are short, but expect Deion Branch to return when healthy.  I am sure there was a wink-wink-nod-nod agreement to free up a roster spot until he is healthy.  If not, he'd be in the hideous green of the New York Jets running routes for them.   As long at Tom Brady is behind center, the best QB in football should give the Patriots the chance to put up a large number of points, even against the Dolphins good defense.
    • The running game of the Patriots is again key. Running backs Shane Vereen and Steven Ridley have taken over from suspended Brandon Bolden, departed Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis and suddenly losing snaps Danny Woodhead. Ridley and Vereen have been ridiculously good on second and long this season, and who can blame any defense for not dropping seven or eight into coverage when it's second and long?  The Dolphins need to get the Patriots in third and long and unleash their pass rush on Brady to have a chance to win. Defensive end Cameron Wake is a beast and one of the best pure pass rushers in the league.  The Patriots need to stay out of the pass rush's wheelhouse and in second and third and short situations like they have done these last few weeks. 
UPDATE: Sad,sad news this morning to report as well in an unrelated note: Per various reports Kansas City Cheifs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend and then at the Arrowhead practice facility committed suicide shooting himself.  Just horrible news. 
  


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Morning Coffee Break - 11/25/2012

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com 

Sunday mornings are all about relaxing, making a big breakfast, drinking coffee, and (today) gearing up for the NFL games (even if the Patriots have already played this week), Friday's impressive victory by the Celtics, bemoaning Everton leaving points on the table against a cellar-dweller (AGAIN!) while waiting for the Red Sox to do something (ANYTHING!).  With that, let's look at what's going on in Boston Sports with a run-through the major sports teams in town:




  • A few left-over thoughts from the New England Patriots Turkey Day beat-down on the New York Jets: 
    • Jets safety LeRon Landry appeared to the only Jets player who was playing for a new contract next season.  His ringing helmet-to-helmet hit on Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman was the main down note of the second-half, but one wonders "what if" as the Patriots had Landry in Foxboro in the off-season but did not sign him.  Granted, the safety problems have been the deep middle of the field, not pounding ball-carriers near the line of scrimmage, and Landry would be a third safety with the same skill set as Steven Gregory and Patrick Chung.  
    • Edelman, after once again finally inserting himself into the Patriots offensive game plan and making big plays on special teams, is injured again.  After hurting his hand earlier in the season, Edelman finally worked his way back to the field and is again out for an indeterminate time pending his recovery from this likely concussion. This is frustrating as Edelman has shown he can contribute and make plays, but has not shown he can stay on the field. 
    • With wide receiver Greg Salas traded for, released, placed on the practice squad, promoted, released and now signed by Philadelphia, the Patriots will have a void at wide receiver behind Brandon Lloyd.  Certainly, an option is to bring back one of the receivers already cut. Deion Branch, who was released two weeks ago when he injured a hamstring, is the most likely target. However, his health is unknown. Also, if healthy, there is competition for his services, as the team in Green just defeated is looking for healthy receivers.  If I am Deion Branch, I'm sitting in New Jersey in front of the media with my hand out to the Jets driving my price as high as I can get it. 
    • There's not much else left-over on the wide receiver market at this time, as the only possible target (outside of trading for Greg Salas again!) would be pre-season surprise cut wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, who ended up in Miami before being released last week.  However, Gaffney, in addition to being released, has a knee injury that kept him out of action, and topped his week with news of a two game suspension for an off-field incident in 2010. So signing Gaffney, if he is healthy enough to play, would still be out two games.
  • There is one ungrounded JET, guard Jason Terry of the Boston Celtics:
    • Terry finally had his "Jason Terry meet Boston, Boston meet Jason Terry" moment on Friday night when Terry removed all lingering negative feelings about losing Ray Allen to the Heat when Terry nailed a huge 3-pointer against the Oklahoma City Thunder with 36 seconds to go in the fourth quarter to put the Celtics up after the Thunder clawed back into the game cutting the lead to five points.  That deep dagger is what everyone missed when Allen left and wondered where that play would come from.  Terry pumped in 16 points and was 4 of 6 from three-point land Friday night. It was a big-time shot by a big-time late-game shot-maker. The JET has taken off in Boston!
  • Red Sox continue to wow everyone with their lack of action:
    • I would list all the players the Red Sox have missed out adding at reasonable cost for reasonable years who could help this team, but I have no desire to type until my fingers bleed.  After adding back-up DH/platoon LF Jonny Gomes, the Sox are still in the game for C/1B Mike Napoli and their own free agent, OF Cody Ross.
      • The Red Sox will likely give Ross two years with a vesting option for the 3rd year that he should meet easily if healthy.  Ross is an excellent fit at Fenway Park, and he knows that at the end of the day.  Three years is hardly excessive for him.
      • Napoli brings nothing new to the Red Sox; They already have an aging slugger with no position in David Ortiz.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia is younger, a better defender, and put up better batting numbers than Napoli last year, despite being seven years younger.  Seriously, what is the big deal with wanting Napoli? Seattle wants him to replace Justin Smoak? Let them have him.  They need a big, empty salary to replace Chone Figgins. 
    • The problem with free agents is that there is a reason their original team has not re-signed them.  This is not 1976, Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter are not available. The Red Sox need to identify who can bring in young talent and move those players.  I fully support the complete re-building effort this team requires.  I say trade SP's John Lackey, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, RP's Alfredo Alceves and Andrew Bailey, OF's Jacoby Ellsbury and Ryan Sweeney, and IF's Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. Trade them all; this team is ticketed for last place anyway, do it right. Who cares if they lose 90 or 105 at this point? Do what's right, blow it all up, load up on prospects, and see what they can do.   Of course, we all know this won't happen. The team will add a bunch of over-priced sluggers, a bunch of over-the-hill pitchers, and make a run to try to finish 81 and 81 and finish 4th in the AL East. Pardon me for not bringing the champagne and streamers. 
  • Everton Ties a Lesser Opponent Again:
    • This is getting to be like Groundhog Day here, I just railed last week about the Toffees blowing leads and only getting one point out of soon to be relegated teams.  Suddenly, the boys in blue are looking like a middle-of-the-pack squad instead of the top 5 club they have been so far this season in the EPL.  Norwich City bangs in a goal in the 90th minute to tie Everton.  NORWICH-FREAKING-CITY! 
    • Yes, Marouane Fellaini was suspended and they had to bring in Bryan Oviedo to start, and yes, there was an injury to Seamus Coleman, but there is no excuse for a club at the top quarter of the table to lose this match. Steven Naismith netted a goal in the 12th minute to put the Toffees up early and not have to come from behind, but this time the lead was only one goal, and it was not enough. Arsenal and West Ham are nipping at their heels, and Chelsea and West Brom are moving ahead of the Toffees. Since October, Everton has only gained one point instead of three against Wigan, QPR, and now Norwich City.  Arsenal, ManCity and Tottenham Hotspur loom large in the next three matches, and instead of playing down to the competition, they had better get in gear and play up to the level of competition coming up on the schedule.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Patriots Bring Down the Jets

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

Can you fly this plane, and land it? 
Surely you can't be serious. 
I am serious... and don't call me Shirley.

Like in Airplane, it was funny because main character did not seem to get the joke. With Jets coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez spending the post-game patting themselves on the back (look at the yards we gained in garbage time!), they didn't get the joke either. Jets fans no doubt consoled themselves by looking at the game stats and saw each team had 25 first downs, the Jets gained 405 yards on offense, Mark Sanchez threw for 301 yards, Shonn Greene had a 5.1 yard average per rush, and held a slight advantage in time of possession.  Of course, they trailed 35-3 at half time, had 5 fumbles (and lost 4), gave up 475 yards of offense, and allowed the Patriots to convert 11 consecutive first downs at one point.  The fact that Rex Ryan was making excuses for his team and wasn't kicking ass and taking names after the game shows how far the Jets have fallen this season.

After a frustrating start to the game on Thanksgiving night for the Patriots offense (Intentional grounding on the first play, a three and out for their first drive, and then following that with yet another missed field goal under 40 yards) the Patriots turned a tight game after one quarter (tied 0-0) into a catastrophe for the J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets on their home turf in New Jersey.  As usual, the offense put pressure on the opposition, and allowed the Patriots defense to capitalize and do what they do best (especially since Bill Belichick jumped back into the role of hand-on defensive coordinator after the defensive debacle in Buffalo): create turnovers.

When a 35 point second quarter features two defensive touchdowns and a play so horrible that kids will be pointing and laughing at its replay in 50 years ("Ha-ha, Sanchez went face into rear-end of his offensive lineman and fell down and fumbled!"), something is working.  My arm was sore from so many fist pumps that I had to spend halftime icing it.  The sequence of events was so horrible, that even uber-annoying super-fan Fireman Ed (purportedly) bailed on the Jets at halftime. A late arriving crowd (stadium looked half empty still at kick-off) was early leaving as the fourth quarter featured a continuance of the Tebow chants and the Patriots fans who drove down Route 95 into enemy territory to celebrate the game in style.

Back to the first quarter, though, while the game was still a game. After the Jets defense got the Patriots offense off the field in three plays, the Jets had the Patriots right where they wanted them.  Starting at the 35, the Jets began the game with Sanchez being sacked by blitzing Patriots rookie linebacker out of Alabama, Dont'a Hightower. Most impressive, on third and five, the Patriots defense forced the Jets into an incomplete pass and forced them to punt on their first drive. The Patriots jumped right into the no-huddle on the next drive (highlighted by a great 28 yard "I'm back, Baby!" catch-and-run by Aaron Hernandez); however, the drive ended with tow incomplete passes leading to Patriots kicker Steven Gostkowksi missing a 39 yard field goal.  

At this point, the Jets had held down the mighty Patriots offense twice in the first quarter, were winning the field position battle, and started riding running back Shonn Greene down the field mixing in a few short passes and finding themselves with second-and-six at the Patriots 23 yard line.  Then, the Jets implosion/Patriots explosion began: After the defense baited Sanchez into a rookie mistake (these are rookie mistakes by a five-year veteran) baiting him into throwing the ball into a safety sliding over into coverage and embattled safety Steve Gregory picking off the pass, the Patriots drove down the field methodically and deliberately from the 16 yard line in small chunks, with the big play being a 13 yard run by running back Shane Vereen (with a face-mask penalty added on).  Brady hit wide receiver Wes Welker in the end zone (no one missed Gronk on that red zone play) and the pressure was on New York.

After the Jets drove down into long field goal range, the Patriots defense made a great short-yardage stand, stopping Bilal Powell on third and two, then stuffing Shonn Greene on fourth-and-one, with linebacker Brandon Spikes forcing a fumble by knocking the ball straight up in the air and back to the defense to recover, negating any bad spot by a referee giving the Jets a first down. On the first play, the Patriots highlighted a match-up of decrepit, old Jets linebacker Bart Scott on Patriots running back Shane Vereen on a short crossing route. Eight-seven yards later, it was 14-0 Patriots on top. 

Sanchez followed that by getting a face full of his offensive lineman's rear-end after missing a hand-off (he's venturing into "high school freshman mistake" zone here) to end the next drive on a great effort by Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork to force Jets guard Brandon Moore back into Sanchez and forcing him to fumble, which was returned for a touchdown by safety Steve Gregory. Then, special teams got into the act, with Devin McCourty forcing a fumble on the kick-off and Julian Edelman scooping it up and scampering in to make in 28-0.  Not to be outdone, Sanchez followed with weak drive ended by a nice sack by blitzing Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo to force a Jets punt.  On third and five, Brady found wide receiver Julian Edelman behind the Jets defense (beating big mouth safety LeRon Landry) for 56 yards and it was 35-0 and the game was over with 3:08 to play in the first half.

Before the final first half drive to a field goal, Sanchez had 48 yards passing. That means he piled up over 250 yards in pure garbage time.  When the game mattered, he was showing why he struggles to break into the top 30 quarterbacks in the league, despite having a throwing arm and mobility that puts him in the top ten quarterbacks as rated by physical tools.   The second half was a victory celebration for the Patriots fans staying up late (which I did, even though I had to get up early and haul my butt to the office on Black Friday).

The Patriots get an extended break after the short week to recover and ready for the final push to the playoffs with again no real competition in the AFC East. Two big games loom against Houston and San Francisco; as usual, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has his squad getting better and improving as the calendar turns to December and readying again for a run deep into January. 

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Spare Neurons - Turkey Day Edition

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.  I am thankful that I have a forum to share my thoughts on sports with you all, and especially that you take your valuable time to read my little blog.  Readers can check-out my Thanksgiving Family Memories and Sports here, but this is all Boston Sports. Jumping right in as the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade rolls by on the television and my lovely wife and my nine-year-old daughter bake in the kitchen:


  • RED SOX:
    • Jonny Gomes. Well, cannot say it is a surprise. A lefty-masher to platoon in left-field and fill in at DH if Ortiz goes down with an injury was somewhere on General Manager Ben Cherington's list. Gomes will hit with some power, unfortunately make Manny Ramirez look like a gold glove outfielder in comparison, and strike out a lot. He is a spare part to fill in the bench: nothing more.  At best, he takes over for Cody Ross as surprise power hitter in the outfield for a year before moving on. It appears the Sox want to have rookies Ryan Kalish, Alex Hassan, and Jerry Sands compete for space in the outfield next to Jacoby Ellsbury (provided he's not moved for pitching and prospects this off-season).
  • PATRIOTS:
    • A Thanksgiving Day showdown against the hated Jets is on tap for tonight.  After the Jets lost their Super Bowl against the Pats the New Yorkers over-reacted as ususal and declared their season dead as a door-nail.  Following up with a win over the terrible St Louis Rams (they were creamed 45-7 by the Patriots after all), the pendulum has swung and suddenly the Jets are a win against the Patriots from being an unstoppable juggernaut rolling into the Super Bowl behind superstar Mark Sanchez.  
    • The Jets know they have to come out and play a perfect game against the Patriots, even without having to face Chandler Jones and Rob Gronkowski.  Turn-overs, special teams, and the match-up in the trenches looms large in this game.  The Jets have to rattle Brady, stuff the run, pass the ball effectively, and get Shonn Green in rhythm for 100+ yards on the ground.  Heck, that is EVERY team's recipe against the Patriots.  
    • The Patriots have the talent to win going away on the road against the Jets. What usually happens is Rex Ryan brings enough wrinkles on offense and defense to get the Patriots off their game. It's like fighting against someone more technically proficient and stronger. They cannot be beat by lining up and fighting traditionally. Instead, you have to have them dragged down to a brawl in the mud and negate their advantages, enrage them, get them to stop thinking and then there is a chance to gut out  a win.  The Patriots need to stay out of that trap.
      • WHAT TO WATCH FOR TONIGHT: 
        • Can Steven Ridley and the Patriots running backs get back to turning second and long into third and short or a first down?  They did it so effectively in the first half of the season and have lost that momentum.
        • Can the Patriots defense generate pressure on Mark Sanchez without Chandler Jones in the line-up? Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham have the ability, and don't discount Trevor Scott coming in on third down to rush the outside with fresh legs and Cunningham moving inside next to Vince Wilfork. 
        • Can the Patriots secondary eliminate their mental mistakes and get the squad off the field on third down?  The Patriots getting opposing offenses off the field in a three-and-out has been huge for the offense.  Then, the Patriots can go hurry-up and wear down the defense and run up a lead and turn the opposition into a one-dimensional offense as they play from behind.  It all starts with a stop on third down. 
        • Can the Patriots prevent big plays on Special Teams? Making big plays is as good as stopping them. Devin McCourty had that huge touchdown return for a touchdown last game, and the Jets special teams is usually one of the best in the league.  Giving the Jets a short field or cheap touchdown must not be allowed to happen. 
        • Can the real Brandon Lloyd step up? How many times has Lloyd and Brady just missed by a fingertip on a long pass? A couple big plays by Lloyd could roll Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie off of Wes Welker and open the middle of the field for Tom Brady.  Hopefully, Cromartie will be too tired due to jetting around to visit all his children across the country on Thanksgiving to chase the Patriots receivers. 
OK, that's it for today. Have a happy, healthy, and safe Thanksgiving!

Spare Thanksgiving Neurons Before Tryptophan Kicks In

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

Before I pass on a few quick thoughts across the Boston sports scene this Thanksgiving before turkey kicks in, I thought I needed a brief trip down memory lane, starting with Thanksgiving itself, so much to be thankful for here at BostonSportPage.com.  I don't usually write in a stream-of-consciousness style (I tend to be deliberate and re-write often), but what the heck, its a holiday:

Sports always makes me think of how my Dad imbued me, his tenth child and first son, with a love of sports at an early age, and watching the Red Sox find new ways to lose on Channel 38 back in the early eighties and listen to the diatribes about how the Sox started breaking his heart in the forties when he was a child, how the Boston Braves were the working-class baseball team in those days, how he drifted away in the early sixties only to be sucked in by the Impossible Dream in '67, losing in '75, '78, and especially '86, where I remember the entire family in the living room watching the ALCS as Dave Henderson hit his game tying home run, and then how I watched game six in the living room and my Dad's instructions to wake him up for the last out and watching with him as the Red Sox imploded in spectacular fashion. Then, as I had my own family, the joy of 2004 and 2007 where my Dad finally saw the loser pull out the world series championship at long last.

The Patriots were a constant as a child as well, though they were only on television on the road as their terrible teams were always blacked out at home as Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro Stadium never sold out. The improbable run to the Super Bowl in 1986, again in the living room as a kid watching the Patriots FINALLY beat the Dolphins (squishing the fish, as it were), and then the horrible destruction of the team by the Bears in Super Bowl XX.  I remember that I would create signs and posters for every Super Bowl (rooting against the 49ers at every opportunity) and cheering on the Redskins (my adopted team as a child, as were the St. Louis Cardinals in baseball). I remember in '83 missing the second half of Super Bowl XVIII after the Raiders were destroying the Redskins and I was grounded for beating up my younger brother after he was taunting me.  That is the only time I ever missed any part of a Super Bowl that I can recall.

There were many afternoons listening to the Celtics on the radio or with Tommy Heinsohn on CBS and my Dad telling stories of Tommy-Gun and his instant offense for the old Celtics teams when he was younger.  Rooting for Larry Joe Bird, Cornbread Maxwell, and M.L. Carr  taking on the dreaded Lakers and 76ers.  The occasional Bruins games on TV38 always leading to the story from my Dad about how he tried to recreate Bobby Orr's famous goal while ice skating with the older kids and broke his wrist.

Watching the Bruins always meant my memories turned to when I had met my wife and we were first dating, and the many nights we sat on the couch as her step-dad sat in his recliner watching the Bruins on tv.  Many, many nights were spent there (it was a true hockey family, with both couches filled with her family) and I remember them fondly. How Sonny would appear asleep, eyes shut, recliner-back, snoring, and with some goal-line radar would bolt up shouting "gooooooallllllllll!" as the puck slid into the net.  It was amazing how he never missed a single goal. Those wonderful days as I ingratiated myself into the family...young and head-over-heels in love. Now, I'm older, but still head-over-heels in love with the same wonderful woman.

Sports brings my thoughts to family, and my own family as well.  Watching the Patriots march to their first Super Bowl with my newborn son in my lap.  Sitting on the coach in our first house, with my wife and my two best friends, and a snowstorm whirled around us outside and the tuck rule and Adam Vinatieri kicking his clutch field goals. How I put my infant son to bed at half-time of Super Bowl XXXVI and when the Rams tied the score, I ran back upstairs to wake him up and sit with me, my wife, and my two best friends again for good luck as Tom Brady marched the Patriots down the field as they went onto their improbable win, a Patriots Super Bowl victory--something even more improbable than what happened in 2004. 

My then three-year-old son running around in 2004 while I watched the playoffs as "the Rally Weasel" running around again and again in a circle.  The Sox were playing the Angels in the ALDS, and I was trying to come up with a way to counter-act the Rally Monkey. I figured a weasel would eat a monkey, so thus my son, the Rally Weasel, was created.  Then lying in bed next to my wife, holding her as the last out of 2004 was recorded and watching the celebration with her, thinking I had never thought this would happen. 

Going to my wife's grandparents house to watch the major pay-per-view boxing matches  is another great memory, I hold. The kids sleeping on the couch, watching the bouts and hanging with family is a cherished memory.  My Dad, like Gramps, are boxing fans from way back when boxing was an integral part of the American sports scene. Watching the bouts brought that feeling of family and connection across generations. 

Sports, like Thanksgiving, mean family to me. Even today, watching sports with the family (whether they want to or not!) is what life and love really means to me. Sports gave me a special bond with my Dad that I still feel today, and I am so thankful that I get to share my family with him and my mom (a charter member of the Carl Yastrzemski fan club and long-suffering Red Sox fan).  My Dad's father passed away when I was three, so I always felt I missed out so much not having my grandfather knowing how close he and my Dad were, and am so thankful that my children have had the opportunity to know and be loved not only by grand-parents, but great-grandparents, step-grand-parents, uncles, aunts, cousins (my wife is also from a large family) and even an honorary uncle (my best pal, their Silly Uncle Tim).  Life is family and love, and sports has played a major role in my life to bring together family and bond and share the love we have for each other. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my family and how sports has played such a major role in creating that bond. Love, life, family and sports. I am so thankful to so many for so much. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Patriots Pyrrhic Victory Versus Colts - Part two: Defense

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

The New England Patriots rolled to victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, 59 to 24. As is par for the course in New England, the defense took a few series to get their feet under them.  As is rarely par for the course in New England, the Patriots defense put up 14 points off turnovers (and add in a punt return for a touchdown) and the Patriots turned the game around with Tom Brady sitting on the sidelines. Yes, Brady did come in and yet again make a case for NFL MVP (Peyton Manning will win it, but is anyone doing more to win week-in and week-out than Brady?), but after the first quarter, this looked like a consistent team effort.  Unfortunately, the all-world tight end/spike enthusiast Rob Gronkowksi left late in the game with a broken forearm that required surgery and is likely to miss a month at minimum. 

Some quick-hit thoughts on what transpired with the Patriots defense in Foxboro on Sunday:



  • Secondary becomes secondary:
    • Cornerback Aqib Talib burst onto the scene with an impressive debut in the red, white, and blue with a second quarter interception and 59 yard return for a touchdown to give the Patriots a lead they would never relinquish.  Yes, he allowed two touchdowns (Hilton's first was a great catch, no cornerback would have a chance to stop a diving catch on the ground in the back of the end zone). As many fans had hoped, Talib stepped in and paired with Alfonzo Dennard to give the Patriots some decent play in the secondary as Devin McCourtey stayed at safety with Patrick Chung inactive again.
    • As Chung was a game-time decision, he stands to be able to play Thanksgiving night in New Jersey against the Rex Ryan green team.  I still think it makes the most sense to have the two best cornerbacks (Talib and McCourtey) matching up against receivers and leaving Chung and Steve Gregory to man the safety position.  That would allow Dennard to come in as the nickel cornerback and push Kyle Arrington off the field, as Arrington has been dreadful.  What most pundits seem to indicate is that Talib and Dennard match-up at corner, with McCourtey and Chung at safety, and Gregory as big nickel safety (matching up with running back/tight end and playing closer to the line of scrimmage).  It will be interesting to see how the secondary eventually shakes out. 
    • Another thought that struck me while watching cornerback Kyle Arrington get torched repeatedly early on in the game, was wondering if the best free safety on the team would be Arrington. He has decent hands (seven interceptions a few seasons back) and seemed to thrive in zone defense and struggle playing man-to-man.  Arrington could be a fit playing the deep middle of the field and ball-hawking rather than being beat repeatedly in coverage. 
    • Alfonzo Dennard continues to look like a seventh-round steal at cornerback, apparently working to make second-round disappointment Ras-I Dowling the big name camp cut next summer. While Dowling has been unable to stay off injured reserve the past two season, Dennard (when finally healthy) has made a few big plays at cornerback. He keeps forcing his way onto the field, and while not a shut-down corner, at least shows promise. 
  • Blitzes!
    • The Patriots front seven finally brought some heat.  Forget the sack numbers, it's an over-rated stat.  Pressure is what causes incompletions and turnovers for the defense. The linebackers all got in on the pass rush to varying degrees and took rookie Colts QB Ryan Luck out of rhythm and made him get rid of the ball before he wanted to all throughout the second and third quarters of the game.  The defensive line brought pressure with Vince Wilfork collapsing the pocket and Rob Ninkovich getting around the edge.
    • The run defense was suspect again, but the Colts gave up on the running game once they fell behind. The defense was all about stopping Luck, apparently content to let Vic Ballard run for five yards at a time as a concession.  Hopefully, this is a mid-season hiccup, and the run defense will crack down again and make opposing teams one dimensional.  Giving up a few yards here and there in order to get at the quarterback and force turnovers is a trade-off worth making. 
  • Bitten by the injury bug: 
    • Bad enough the offense was already missing all-pro guard Logan Mankins and lost tight-end Rob Gronkowski, but the defense lost rookie star defensive end Chandler Jones to an ankle injury early in the game.  Jones did not return, and is out for the Thanksgiving game versus the Jets.  As the Patriots best pure pass rusher, the loss of Jones will be felt; however, the team did a nice job of continuing to generate pressure with Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham filling in.  Cunningham, thought to be a bust, burst back onto the scene this year as a consistent pass rusher. Number Ninety-Six has been in the backfield all season, rushing both from the edge and inside. Cunningham stepped in for Jones and did a great job keeping Luck off balance and hurrying throws. 
    • There is not a lot of news about Jones's ankle injury, but it may not be all bad if he gets back in a week or two. Free agent signing Trevor Scott can also help the pass rush short-term while Jones is out.  Also, a few weeks off now keeps Jones fresh for January. The lack of news is disconcerting, but a few weeks off with a sprain is not too bad a circumstance.  Short-term, the loss of Jones leaves the Patriots without their best pass rusher, but depth was built for a reason. Now to see if it works out.
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Monday, November 19, 2012

Patriots Pyrrhic Victory Versus Colts - Part one: Offense

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

The New England Patriots rolled to victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, 59 to 24. As is par for the course in New England, the defense took a few series to get their feet under them.  As is rarely par for the course in New England, the Patriots defense put up 14 points off turnovers (and add in a punt return for a touchdown) and the Patriots turned the game around with Tom Brady sitting on the sidelines. Yes, Brady did come in and yet again make a case for NFL MVP (Peyton Manning will win it, but is anyone doing more to win week-in and week-out than Brady?), but after the first quarter, this looked like a consistent team effort.  Unfortunately, the all-world tight end/spike enthusiast Rob Gronkowksi left late in the game with a broken forearm that required surgery and is likely to miss a month at minimum. 

Some quick-hit thoughts on what transpired with the Patriots offense in Foxboro on Sunday:


  • Winning in the air: 
    • The running game disappeared on Sunday. Twenty-five rushing attempts for 115 yards looks good on paper. Subtract wide receiver Julian Edelman's 47 yard run and 24 rushes for 68 yards brings back the not-so-fond memories of the plodding rushes of Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis these last few seasons. 
    • In defense of the running backs, the team was missing both starting guards (Dan Connolly and all-pro Logan Mankins) who have both been extremely effective in the running game this season. Shane Vereen had some extremely effective runs early on, but Steven Ridley never got on track all game.  
    • I would say something about Danny Woodhead, but since he went from weapon to goose-eggs in one week.  Of course, depending on the game plan, he could be in line for 15 carries or run 15 routes on Thursday against the Jets.
    • With no real injury issue, Steven Ridley just plain did not get it going.  A couple of runs he looked a bit indecisive, but that could simply be the product of a good plan/coaching/play by the Colts.  Of course, going up against New England and planning to stop the run sounds like a recipe for Tom Brady leading the squad to 38 points (on offense).
    • Brandon Bolden, though still suspended for idiotically taking (well, at least for being caught, I guess) PEDs, was missed in the running game.  His style of one cut, straight ahead, hit the hole hard, head-down and legs pumping hard was not seen. Vereen had two runs up the middle (11 and 13 yards) where he looked like he was shot out of a cannon and blasted forward like a whirling dervish. More runs like that would have helped, but since we're nit-picking an offense which scored five touchdowns (and had two field goal tries inside 40 yards--of which one was a miss) it's hard to be too negative.
  • Man, oh Edelman:
    • Running the ball, making receptions all over the field, running back a punt for a touchdown, even forcing a fumble? Quite the afternoon for Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman as he flashed game-changing quickness against the speedy Colts defense. Is this what the Patriots coaches saw this summer that had them taking snaps from Wes Welker to get him on the field? Edelman changed the entire momentum of the game with his second-quarter punt return. 
    • I think the best bet with Edelman is to have him and Welker both going over the middle of the field and doubling the match-up headaches for the opposing defenses.  Add in a healthy (sometime this year, hopefully) tight end Aaron Hernandez, and the Patriots have some shifty, effective receivers to catch short passes and rack-up the yards after the catch.  
    • Who I was looking for (unsuccessfully) during the game was wide receiver Greg Salas, recently added to the roster from the practice squad.  Salas played for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in St Louis last year and was added to the team in a trade 3 months ago, so knowing the offense is likely not an issue. With wide receiver Deion Branch injured and released (for now), I expected Salas to show up on the stat sheet, but he was rooted to the bench most of the game.  Hopefully, he will be the rare young wide receiver who gets developed into a starting wide receiver in the future. 
  • Bitten by the injury bug: 
    • Losing tight end Rob Gronkowski to a broken forearm is huge. Having it happen on an extra point try with less than four minutes left in a blow out is just bad luck. No one should be calling out the coaches for having Gronk out blocking in that situation. It was a fluke injury; Injuries rarely happen on PAT attempts (it is the play a team would put a fan out on the field for a play if there was some weird promotion like that).  Losing Gronk hurts, but if he comes back healthy and rested for the playoffs, it could be a blessing in disguise. The Patriots will still score a lot of points without Gronkowski, and the team brought in a plethora of back-up tight ends to help in this exact circumstance.  If the offense still can rated number one without multi-faceted threat Aaron Hernandez at tight end, the team will survive without Rob Gronkowksi.
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Coming soon: Patriots Pyrrhic Victory Versus Colts - Part two: Defense

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Morning Coffee

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

Coffee? Check. Daily workout done? Check. Still trying to pretend that the Aerosmith/Pepsi/Patriots Anthem doesn't exist and never did? Check. Still kicking myself for falling asleep and missing the end of the Oregon/Stanford game (in my defense, I was up at 5am) and thinking that ESPN executives woke up a little more excited than usual with the thought of an Alabama-Notre Dame BCS Championship game a very distinct possibility? Check. Ready for some NFL football and watching NFL Network's First on the Field at 7am because it's (as John Madden would say) "FOOTBALL!"? Check. Happy I grabbed Andy Dalton as a back-up to my back-up QB in fantasy football before Ben Roethlisberger went down? Check. Ready to empty my brain after a rough week? Check:


  • NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS:
    • Excited to see the new New England Patriot added to the roster this week making his big splash.  Should have a real impact this week.  No, not Aqib Talib (though he should be a huge upgrade for the secondary), but wide receiver Greg Salas.  With the injury/release of wide receiver Deion Branch (like he's going anywhere else), Salas should be inserted into the three receiver sets (no 2-tight end until Aaron Hernandez comes back 100% healthy) and it should be exciting to see him finally be inserted into the offense.  Unlike other receivers the Patriots have brought in, Salas has experience in the Josh McDaniels Offense with St. Louis last season and should be able (after his apprenticeship on the practice squad these last two months) to step in and make an impact.  A young, impact receiver? Haven't seen one of those since, well, since Deion Branch oh-so-many-years-ago.  
    • Aqib Talib helps the Patriots secondary just by resetting the roles of the other cornerbacks.    Bill Belichick has for some reason seemed to think he had Ty Law/Asante Samuel and Lawyer Milloy/Rodney Harrison in the secondary as Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard, and Sterling Moore (yes, he's back on the practice squad, but the real question is why does no one just refer to him as "Dinty"?) do not belong anywhere near a football field other than in extreme circumstances or in a specialized role (Arrington does ok as a nickel cornerback matching up on a not-very-quick third receiver).  Think Earthwind Moreland, Otis "My Man" Smith, and Hank Poteat: these guys were serviceable because they were put in the right position in the right role at the right time. Arrington and rookie Alfozo Dennard are pushed back (if the right move is made and Talib gets paired with Devin McCourty) to third and fourth corners, which is a better fit at this time.  If the safeties can get healthy and play to their potential, this secondary could take a big step forward. As always with the Patriots secondary, there are a lot of "ifs".
    • Talib also is best at man-to-man coverage. If the Patriots put him in a "Revis Lite" role (or the Ty Law role as it was known in New England) and have him take the left side of the field and cover whoever is there one-on-one up in his face, they could get a little more exotic on defense and try to confuse Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and get some key turnovers. Expect Bill Belichick to pull some old tapes of what the Patriots defense did to Peyton Manning when he was young and replicate them against Luck this week.
    • An interesting match-up forthcoming against Indianapolis. It will be interesting to see how Andrew Luck handles a huge road game with playoff implications.  The key to beating the Patriots has been the deep ball in the passing game, but Buffalo brought a disturbing amount of rushing offense to the table last week. Yes, the Colts have no one even closely approximating the two-headed beast of Buffalo with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.  Buffalo had the Patriots defense off-balance, and despite a few encouraging plays (creating turnovers is always a must with this Patriots defense), the inability to get more stops was tied directly to the Buffalo rushing game.  Did Buffalo see something on tape, or did the Patriots just have an off-game? 
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  • BOSTON RED SOX:
    • Oh, are they trying to win? I don't think so. An extension for a second baseman with average power and speed getting close to past his peak and already locked up for another three years? Sorry, it is a pure public relations move (see, we resigned your two favorites, Pedroia and Ortiz. Now buy tickets, bricks, pink hats, etc). No starting pitching? It's ok, John Lackey is back. No offense? Don't worry, we're hard at work finding another Troy O'Leary.  Non-existent bullpen? Don't worry, we put our popular former pitching coach in the role of manager. Problem solved. (That idea never went bad in Boston, right Joe Kerrigan?). Yes, Red Sox fans, this hot-stove season is all about choking back that bile in your throat that comes from seeing this dysfunctional off-season grinding along.  Think about this: the Sox  finished ahead of one team in the AL East (Toronto) and they stole your starting shortstop in exchange for their manager who they were going to fire eventually and made a series of huge moves to jump into the mix as a definite contender. Tampa keeps churning out great young pitching, the Yankees are the Yankees, and Baltimore gets Nick Markakis back to the middle of their lineup next year.  The good news? I got a ton of Red Sox gear on clearance, and I get to root for an underdog again. 
  • EPL/FOOTY/EVERTON:
    • Oh no. Not going there. Relegation losers Reading take three points from the Boys in Blue who slip to 5th in the EPL table? Not discussing this, not thinking about this. Now I'm glad that ESPN/Fox Soccer Channel did not have this match on the telly, as I would have been beside myself watching the Toffees blow a 1-nil halftime lead against a winless squad. Instead, I am just taking joy that Norwich (seriously, they are top division? Really?)  take out ManU.  Yes, Everton should have taken advantage and taken the easy three, but a ManU loss is always almost as good a win. 
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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Morning Coffee

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com


  • BOSTON RED SOX:
    • Start ordering those playoff tickets, Red Sox fans.  The Red Sox are making big moves! Backup catcher David Ross, a 35 year old defensive specialist is the first big free agent signing by General Manager Ben Cherington. This spells the end of the tenure in Boston for either starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia or trade bait Ryan Lavarnway.  This fails to excite anyone in the Hot Stove zone here in greater Boston.  There are so few qualified catchers (and the Red Sox apparently whiffed yet again when they traded for Salty and Yankees grabbed the much more dependable Russell Martin) and there are so many other area for the Sox to fill on their roster.  
    • Names I don't want to see signed to a long-term deal here in Boston this off-season: outfielders Nick Swisher, Michael Bourne, and Josh Hamilton. The Red Sox need to focus on value in free agency and long-term development in the minor leagues.  To escape big contracts only to hand out a bunch more is idiotic and short-sighted. I would prefer to see this team rebuild properly and suffer some poor seasons then spend a wad of cash (and likely suffer even more poor seasons!).
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  • BOSTON CELTICS:
    • With the Los Angeles Lakers taking care of the axiom "stumbling out of the gate", the Celtics have looked lost, being blown out in three games and narrowly edging out terrible teams like Washington (twice) and the Milwaukee Bucks (splitting two games with "the other green team").  This team is lost on defense.  Yes, they miss the energy and on-ball defense of Avery Bradley (who hid so many defensive flaws of Rajon Rondo) but this squad appears to have skipped the pre-season practices where they established defensive sets.  There is no pressure by the guards, no running through pick-and-rolls, no last line of defense at the basket: this team is lost on defense, which seems ludicrous with their history.
    • The team will score points...there are players out there who can get the ball in the bucket eventually (Jeff Green will bounce back, Jason Terry is a legitimate scorer). Yes, working in rookie Jared Sullinger is expected to be an issue, and Brandon Bass will never be anything more on defense than a wide body, but this team has so much more effort to expend on defense. Coach Doc Rivers has to find the correct button and start pushing it immediately if not sooner.
  • NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS:
    • The Patriots are matching-up with the Buffalo Bills in Foxborough this afternoon.  Two areas of concern to watch: 
      • The pass defense (duh, see my breakdown of the Patriots defensive breakdowns HERE) and more specifically with the defense, the pass rush.  Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones has effectively replaced veteran ends Andre Carter (was injured, now in Oakland) and Mark Anderson (now injured in Buffalo) with pressure on the edge, and defensive end/outside linebacker Rob "poor man's Mike Vrabel" Ninkovich has stepped up with some pressure.  The Patriots need the inside pass rush to be effective on defense, and that comes from the inside tandem of Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love on early downs, and Jermaine Cunningham on third down or in nickel/dime packages in obvious passing downs.  Where they need more pressure is from the trio of young linebackers: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont'a Hightower.  All three are great against the run, average against the pass while in man-to-man coverage, but graded as incomplete as blitzers.  
        • Coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Mike Patricia has to realize that if the defense is giving up big plays rushing they may as well switch things up a bit. Bring some pressure already! Stop letting opposing quarterbacks sit back in the pocket and wait for receivers to get deep downfield.  Let them worry about which of the three young linebackers is going to shoot a gap and get after the QB.  The Patriots showed a bit of this against St Louis, but this needs to become a real weapon in the Patriots defensive arsenal.  Getting more pressure through 5 man blitzes (no need for a desperate jail-break or corner/safety blitz) where the offensive line is guessing who to block can only help the secondary.
      • The second point is the offense. Buffalo is much improved on defense since the Patriots second-half spanking of the Bills in Buffalo earlier this season. The rust on offense needs to be brushed off early.  If the Bills exploit the Patriots holes on offense and jump out to a lead, this defense led by ball-hawking safety (and potential coverage matchup for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowksi) Jairus Byrd is better positioned to hold the lead.  If the offense can establish itself and get ahead early, then the blow-outs predicted by all the pundits this week may come about.  But this is not cakewalk for the Patriots. This game is the Bills season.  Win on the road against their division nemesis, and it is their Super Bowl victory. Lose, and it becomes time to start exploring a new quarterback in Buffalo next season.
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  • EVERTON TOFFEES:
    • The boys in blue were televised back in the states on Fox Soccer Channel this Saturday morning for their tilt against Sunderland: the return to Goodison by Luis Saha, a great treat to start a long weekend.  The match was as frustrating as watching a New England Patriots game, as Everton let a lower-level team dictate the first half and fell into a 1-nil hole in stoppage time before the half.  They looked lethargic and were playing down to the competition, letting Sunderland control possession and have multiple chances. Losing Kevin Mirallas to what looked like a hamstring injury early seemed to suck the energy out of the Toffees.  Sunderland, mockingly terrible on the offensive side of the pitch, seemed shocked to score themselves, as Adam Johnson banged home a goal and celebrated alone for a minute before the shell-shocked Sunderland lads realized that goals are able to be scored by both squads, not just the competition. 
    • After the half, David Moyes must have a lit a spark under the squad, as all eleven came out with fire in their eyes, and fettuccine-haired Marouane Fellaini scored the equalizer stuffing the ball into the corner of the net.  Not to be denied, the Blues kept the pressure on poor Sunderland, teetering on the relegation line, and Fellaini showed his creativity opening up an easy goal for Nikica Jelavic (Not going to say Fellaini drew away the entire Sunderland defense and goal-keeper, but I could have taken his pass and booted it into the net with ease).  After that, the Moyes Boys went into a defensive shell to protect their three points, holding off the lack-of-attack from Sunderland to gain the win and hold onto fourth place on the EPL table.
    • As Manchester United continues to run away with the Premiership lead, it is so encouraging to see Everton just two points behind the baby blue Man City and three points behind Chelski (aka the Soviet Supreme Squad, Chelsea).  With West Brom and Tottenham Hotspur behind Everton and ahead of Arsenal, this is shaping up to be a great season with some exciting mid-level teams making a strong push in the standings and taking on the big boys.  Everton just needs to keep taking care of business versus these lower-level teams and grabbing those three points when they are there for the taking. 
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