Sunday, September 23, 2012

Bring me the head of Joe Flacco so I may drink mead from it and sing songs of victory

by Hal Bent,

Big game in prime-time for the New England Patriots against the Baltimore Ravens on NBC on Sunday Night.  The Patriots travel to Baltimore to take on the 1-1 Ravens in a re-match of the AFC Championship game that was highlighted by two key errors by Baltimore players no longer employed by the team.  Former Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff famously missed a short field goal attempt to tie the game and send the Ravens to the Super Bowl in the closing seconds, mere minutes after former Ravens receiver Lee Evans had a game-winning-we're-going-to-the-Super-Bowl touchdown pass knocked out of his hands at the last second by defensive back Sterling Moore. That allowed the Patriots defense to survive another game and not surrender a game ending drive and touchdown until the Super Bowl against the Giants (still bitter? Me? Nahhh!).

The Patriots come to Baltimore on Sunday with an inconsistent offense and a top-three defense through two games.  Quarterback Tom Brady has been sacked five times in the first two games, and the team is still working right tackle Sebastian Vollmer into a full role as he has alternated with Marcus Cannon.  Add in right guard/center Dan Connolly having been out with a concussion, and the offensive line which was still working in a new left tackle (Nate Solder), a left guard coming back from serious knee surgery (Logan Mankins) and a revolving door at center and right guard with long-time stalwart Dan Koppen cut and last year's pro bowl guard Brian Waters refusing to report and this line has justifiably struggled so far this young season (the Boston Globe reported this week that Waters reneged on a deal to return, then turned down an offer to triple his salary.  I think that officially absolves the Patriots of any shenanigans and potential wrong-doing in the negotiations with a player under contract as they have not done anything short of bending over backwards to accommodate Waters).

The Patriots have a tough match-up to get their offense on track.  The key to beating Baltimore will be getting their linebackers up to stop Steven Ridley and allowing Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski to take up the open spaces on the field due to Baltimore over-committing to the play-action fake.  If Brandon Lloyd can get deep early and keep Ed Reed away from the line of scrimmage, that too will be a big help to the running and short-passing game.  Ray Lewis has never had to over-commit to the run against New England until now.  If the play-action pass can keep him bottled up at the line of scrimmage, he is not going to be able to drop back quickly enough on his old legs to make a play.

The Patriots finally have a defense that can take away the power running game of Ray Rice.  The "big three from the SEC" linebackers (Jerod Mayo, Dant'a Hightower, and Brandon Spikes) are primed to take the running game off the table against any running back, even one like Rice who has gashed the Patriots in the past. Expect the secondary to target wide receiver Anquan Boldin (especially with deep-threat wide receiver Torrey Smith possibly out due to a death in the family), and force quarterback Joe Flacco to play a perfect game to win.  If the Patriots' secondary continues their strong play by getting the defense off the field on third down and letting the offense grind out some long scoring drives, they have a chance to get ahead early and control the tempo and the game.

Simple formulas to follow to victory.  The Patriots offense can get their points even against Baltimore  if they can establish the run and work that play-action to perfection, but the Patriots defense needs to step-up to stop Ray Rice and force Joe Flacco into going away from his strengths

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Fantasy Football Frenzy - Week Two

by Hal Bent,

This is more like it.  Another week with my teams going a collective 4-1 this week, and my Survival League pick won as well.  As I stated before, I just cannot write a Fantasy Sport/Fantasy Football column without the little caveat that I first needed to be actually winning, rather than just saying "I used to manually track Fantasy Baseball League stats in 1988 with my buddies" as my disclaimer to be qualified to write it.  So here goes the quick recap and thoughts on week two while looking forward to Sunday:

The early rounds of the draft are where teams land the stars, and --although sometimes it is dumb luck--you have to hit a home run in those first three rounds of the draft to have that consistent, big-point superstar.  Yes, Mike Shanahan running backs are always available as are the usual sleepers who fall through the cracks on draft day.  Being aggressive in the late rounds and early in the season on the waiver wire are critical for success, but without a trio of superstars as the backbone of the team, your chances of winning are much lower.

Fortunately, I had a big "Do Not Draft" on Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, passing over him when he was available in the first two rounds of the drafts.  I missed out on drafting New England wide receiver Wes Welker as he was snapped up early as well.   These are two examples of superstars who have done next to nothing so far in the first two weeks.  If you have these two, you have to decide whether to work a trade or keep the players.  If you don't have either one, an early-season slump is a great time to work a trade and pick-up a superstar on the cheap.

Welker's role is going to increase quickly.  With tight end Aaron Hernandez out for a month, his production and playing time is going to jump significantly.  The early season experimenting on offense so far in New England has limited Welker's role, but that is going to change.  Without Hernandez (now sitting out for a month on one of my team's roster) Welker will pick up a lot of that slack as New England deals with how to replace the TE/WR hybrid.  Welker had lost time due to the team prepping the offense to avoid the mistakes in the Super Bowl last year.  The Giants dared New England to run the ball and throw outside the numbers.  The team could do neither.  This year, they have forced the ball outside to WR Brandon Lloyd (instead of going deep down the sidelines with him) and experimented with preparing for life without Welker.  Week three will be the return to form for Welker.

Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson is a bit of enigma.  Riding on the past successes of huge seasons, this year Johnson has been saddled behind an offensive line that has not given him a single hole to run through so far this season. He has 21 rushing yards on 19 carries over two games.  That's former Patriots running back Harold Shaw kind of numbers, which is why he was found a few years back in Rhode Island playing semi-pro football.  If I had taken Johnson with a first or second round pick, that is not the comparison I want to be hearing. Johnson needs his team to commit to him and get creative opening some holes.  Playing Detroit (good, not great defense) should help him get into a groove, but with week four's match-up against Houston's swarming 3-4 defense just waiting to eat him up like they've destroyed running backs since Wade Phillips got there, it is not looking good for #21.  I would play Johnson this week, sit him in week four, and then ride him out the rest of the way.  He will get his numbers, but not until something changes in the game planning and offensive line.

One of my top picks who has under-performed is Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.  No touchdowns and five receptions for 69 yards over two games.  That's a typical first half for Fitzgerald!  Despite going against Philly's tough pass defense this week, there is hope he improves, but no real evidence that it is coming.  Fitzgerald was targeted by New England's improving defense and was double-teamed constantly.  Arizona, trying to straighten out the quarterback position, should get their only consistent threat, Fitzgerald, up and running and productive very soon. If only to get him in the offense, they need to run specific plays to get him going early because otherwise it is hard for them to move the ball without him.  If Fitzgerald cannot get involved in the offense, it is getting close to thinking about other options on the bench to play instead of him.

I got lucky in one league last week with a good match-up covering up some bad luck and a poor decision I made at running back in week two.  I have two running backs and three receivers with a tight end and no flex position in this league, and I had Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson starting with Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush and New England Patriots running back Steven Ridley riding the pine. In week one, I had Peterson sitting and Bush starting, and Peterson put up two touchdowns. I reversed for week two and watched Reggie Bush put up huge numbers on my bench.  Also, I kept Ridley sitting while Forte went out and got injured (again!).  I over-reacted after week one with Bush.  One thing I hate doing is over-reacting and making a bad decision and I did exactly that in this situation. Peterson is still not all the way back, despite a week one where he found the end zone.  That balanced out in week two.  Reggie Bush is the Dolphins entire offense, and I let one week where he put up good numbers but by random chance did not score a touchdown color myself and make a rookie mistake.  

With Forte out, I have Ridley, Bush, and Peterson to choose from on Sunday.   Bush, playing the  Jets, should get 100 yards on the ground and catch a few passes.  He is a definite start.  Ridley and the Patriots play Baltimore's tough defense, but Adrian Peterson and the Vikings go against the San Francisco 49ers and arguably the best defense in the NFL. The question is, do the Patriots plan to run Ridley despite a tough match-up?  I say, all signs point to yes, and this is the better match-up for me. 

One final note, my one loss? Blame Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones. I went into Monday night knowing that if Jones, my one remaining player, could duplicate his week one numbers (6 receptions, 108 yards, 2 touchdowns) I'd win. Instead, I got 4 receptions and 14 yards, no touchdowns.  In truth, I had Tony Romo return to earth and lose 15 points compared to week one, I had Larry Fitzgerald doing nothing, and Aaron Hernandez out injured.  That is a lot to overcome.  That said, I still had a shot going into Monday night.  Hard to be upset about losing only one of five match-ups, other than the caveat that I do have to deal all week with the team owner who beat me, as I am married to her!  (Maybe, I should just console myself by saying that I taught her well.) 

As always, good luck this week to all (unless you're matched up against me!) 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Spare Neurons - September 21, 2012

by Hal Bent,

Here is where you find the random thoughts, caffeine-fueled rants, "smacking the dashboard and screaming at radio hosts" diatribes, and bizarre observations that pop into my head and, while interesting, need an outlet: 

Darko Milicic in Boston.  How great is that?  The Celtics lured the former #2 overall pick away from Real Madrid (basketball squad, not footy) and now have another back-up big man in the fold joining Chris Wilcox and Jason Collins.   Darko is basically cheap depth and fun to think of as being drafted ahead of Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. 

* * *

The more I see Daniel Bard blow a game, the madder I get thinking of how the Red Sox "Team" (Cherington? Lucchino? Valentine?) thought switching their best reliever to a starter and managed to destroy six years of turning a lost pitcher to an all-star back into a head case.  The team had Bard's head in the right place, a comfort level where he was the stopper, not pitching the ninth inning with a three run lead and the bottom of the order coming up for a cheap save, but rather coming in the late innings with runners on base and pitching out of a jam against the middle of the line-up.

* * *

Caught the Everton versus Newcastle tilt from Monday on the DVR. What a frustrating match.  Two off-sides against the Toffees wipe goals off the boards (one legitimate, one a terrible call) and a goal by Anichibe not allowed despite it clearly crossing the goal line on a header.  After the injury to Jelavic, the first Newcastle goal by Ba was a case of American Timmy Howard being out of position and then falling on his rear end. He made up for it by making two huge saves later on.  The match looked over when Anichebe got one back in the 87th minute for the good guys in Blue.   However, not a minute later Ba netted an equalizer by catching the defense napping and scraping a bouncing ball past Howard.  A win would have snuck Everton into the top three in the Premiership standings, instead the tie keeps them at 7th.   

* * *

I swear off doing something like this every month at confessional while at church (OK, I don't go to confessional), but again I sin by attacking the Hollywood Sports Guy (fka Boston Sports Guy fka Sports Guy at ESPN/Grantland/Bill Simmons the Godfather of all Sports Blogging), as I was a huge fan (in his pre-ESPN days and when he occasionally writes something these days) and acknowledge that this blog would not exist without him and his trail-blazing ways.  That said, I finally was forced to send him a comment/email this past day. Reading last week's mailbag:

RE: Q: In honor of Mike Trout's night against Tigers I would like to propose the following: If a player hits a home run and steals a home run in the same game, that should be called a "Mike Trout." I would really appreciate your help in popularizing this.— Colin, Wegener, Whittier, CASG: So if you're scoring at home, we now have to keep track of "Roethlisbergers" and "Trouts." 
MY RESPONSE TO HIM: It's been called a "Fred Lynn" my entire life. You shame the entire city of by letting this go without correcting the poor, ignorant Cali sports fan not familiar with why Mike Trout is referred to as "Fred Lynn 2.0" in these parts.

For an alleged Boston Red Sox fan from the 70s and 80s, this is inexcusable.  I have once again expunged from my memory any thought of Simmons as "Boston" anything.

* * *

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Spare Neurons - September 15, 2012

by Hal Bent,

Here is where you find the random thoughts, caffeine-fueled rants, "smacking the dashboard and screaming at radio hosts" diatribes, and bizarre observations that pop into my head and, while interesting, need an outlet: 
    • Not liking the off-season free-agents available for the Red Sox.  Is that good? Limiting spending?  Does Theo Epstein get his much needed bridge season a year after he gets forced out of the front office?
    • I think anyone who believes that signing John Lackey, Carl Crawford, Daisuke Matsuzaka, resigning Josh Beckett, and trading away the best prospects for Adrian Gonzalez were baseball, not marketing decisions, made by the front-office and specifically made by Theo Epstein shows a lack of perspective.  Theo had a plan that worked. The Larry Lucchino marketing machine needed a product, and correct me if I'm wrong, but a President has final say over a General Manager (just ask Ben Cherington about his field manager choices!).  This was a mess made by the Red Sox Business Operations, not the Baseball Operations.  With Lucchino still in charge, nothing is going to change for the better. 
    • I would not want to be a Cleveland Browns fan today.  Reminds me of the post-Chuck New England Patriots days of my youth. Or, even worse, the post-Super Bowl beat-down by the Bears bottoming out in the early 1990s before "Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe (and Robert Kraft) rode into town to rescue the franchise" squad. 
    • After victories over ManU and Aston Villa to open the Premiership season, before a depressing loss to the West Brom Baggies.  Add in Marouane Fellaini talking about checking out of town at the end of the season and an injury to midfielder Darron Gibson, the early momentum is grinding to a halt.  All of a sudden, Monday's match against Newcastle is a must win.  Teenager midfielder Ross Barkley was just loaned out to Sheffield in the Champ division, so now down two midfielders leaves the Toffees scrambling a bit.  Fortunately, the match is on ESPN2 here, and I will be able to get in a viewing on the DVR after getting home from work.
    • Not sure how the NHL owners can think a lock-out is a good idea while there is a real national television contract , high fan attention in Original Six markets, and television ratings (especially for the Winter Classic) at a high.  The last lock-out ended with the players taking a gut shot from the owners and the player's percentage of revenues cut "for the good of the sport". Now, the league has rebounded, and the owners want to take it to the players. again? Now?  Sorry, there is stupid, and there is REAL STUPID. The NHL owners have crossed the line.  Professional hockey barely recovered from the last lock-out, now is not the time to tempt fate again.
    • I am looking forward to the end of the Daisuke Matsuzaka era in Boston.  The failed experiment has finally ground to a merciful end in just a few short days. From all the promise of the bidding process, the scouting reports, the news crews following jets, the talk about the transition, the Boston Globe profiles on his interpreter, the spring training madness, the mania: it was a heady time in the those early days of Dice-K Mania.  Sadly, the experience did not bloom, but fizzled.  The pitch counts, the nibbling on the corners, the interminable length of time to throw so many pitches, the arm problem drama, the hurt feelings. So long, Dice-K, don't let the door hit you on the way back to Japan. 
  • MEDIA NOTES - The CSNNE Edition:
    • Talking about NESN (New England Sports Network) is akin to supporting the Red Sox Ownership Troika and Jeremy Jacob's locked-out Boston Bruins as they own the station.  Forget it, I'm going rebel with the competition.  
    • Really enjoying Comcast Sportsnet (CSNNE) trotting out three ex-players (Scott "Zo" Zolak, Jermaine "Wiggy" Wiggins, and Matt "NoNickname" Chatham on Patriots This Week.  Three ex-players who know the media game (Zo), personality (Wiggy), and have interesting insight (Matt Chatham--his knowledge and communication is impressive) helps with understanding the complex Patriots offense and defense goals and game plan that traditional media personalities/writers/bloggers can't match.  They break it down in an easy to understand manner and entertain.  It is hard to beat that combination. 
    • I like QuickSlants on CSNNE, although Tom E. Curran is a bit too buffoon.  It is obvious that staff writer/co-host/demeaning role as computer girl in tight shirt Mary Paoletti has more Patriots knowledge in her pinky finger than the ex-Projo writer Curran is able to express between pitching hair transplant surgery and flexing for the camera.   
    • Patriots Football Weekly with Fred Kirsch, Paul Perillo, and Andy Hart is a great, informative show, but the three of the co-host together have as much chemistry and charisma on screen as an old sneaker.  Perillo does well on his weekly Felger and Mazz radio show visit, and Andy Hart is informative as well when hopping on 98.5 the SportsHub on the radio, but all three still look scared of the camera on the show.  They're just not TV guys!
    • Thursday night's New England Tailgate is without doubt the worst of all the Patriots TV shows.  Big Show WEEIdiots Glenn Ordway, Fred Smerlas, and Steve DeOssie, between hawking their own products (which I refuse to mention here), play their usual roles much as they do on the radio.  Ordway plays disinterested know-it-all, Smerlas plays the over-the-top Patriot cheerleading clown, and DeOssie takes the contrarian "Parcells Always, Belichick Never!" role from the radio.  Nothing very interesting or relevant happens, but I never miss an episode because I am convinced one of these weeks one of their heads will just explode from forcing their considerable girth into television appropriate garb. 
    • At the end of the day, Uno's Sports Tonight and Sportsnet Central are the headliners. Gary "Tang-God" Tanguay and Michael Felger blather endlessly about the day's events, but mostly like to rile up the masses. Felger delights in tweaking the obsessive Boston sports masses (as he does on the CSNNE simulcast of his Felger and Mazz radio show each weekday afternoon), and Tanguay just has the best old-timey deep timbered voice of any in the local media. Sportsnet Central is the local highlights show, but has all the station's major players on at some point.   Overall, they do a good job covering the local sports scene.  They serve as the option beyond the NESN/WEEI monster that ran so long with no real competition and now runs scared with stations delivering content and opinion in town rather than team-controlled megaphones and cheap, manufactured opinions.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Fantasy Football Frenzy - Week one

by Hal Bent,

I figured, first and foremost, with a Fantasy Sport/Fantasy Football category that I first needed to be actually winning, rather than just saying "I used to manually track Fantasy Baseball League stats in 1988 with my buddies" as my disclaimer to be qualified to write it.  Fortunately, my teams went a collective 4-1 this week, and my Survival League pick won as well.  We'll completely forget about my Fantasy Pick 'em league results (reason #24 why I don't bet real money on football).  So here goes the quick recap and thoughts on week two:

For one week at least, my decision to pass on a big-three quarterback (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers) and going with Tony Romo in three leagues.  Romo put up a huge numbers week one (I'm ashamed to say my first thought was thinking about trading him) and carried me in all three leagues.  My other two starting quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Eli Manning, had down games for them, but no one is over-reacting after week one.  Those two should always be penciled in for 16 games. That said, back-up Ryan Fitzpatrick (in two leagues) has a tenuous grasp on the bye week fill-in job.  If there is a good quarterback that someone gives up on, or is still out there, don't hesitate to make a move.  Even for one week (and injury insurance), quarterback  is your most important position each week.

At running  back, the big break-out stars were Steven Ridley in New England and Alfred (I am not Batman's butler) Morris in Washington.  I got Ridley as a mid-round pick in a few leagues (and had him starting in one, fortunately!). Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden are not going to steal any carries, but fellow 2011 draft pick Shane Vereen will start taking some from him starting this week.  Expect Ridley to run the ball in the end zone a lot, but 12-15 carries is what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is looking for from him. 

Alfred Morris is the reason why I absolutely refused to draft a Redskins running back. Washington Coach Mike Shanahan has been driving fantasy football owners for the past twenty years.  Heck, I remember the days of thinking "Clinton Portis? This guy's never gonna play out there in Denver."  Grrrrr.  Morris is it for this week, but will he last? It makes sense to grab a handcuff running back (back-up to keep for injuries/lack of production: i.e. pick up Vikings back-up Toby Gerhart if you have Vikings starter Adrian Peterson at running back) from Washington.  

The running back crap-shoot I appear to have lost is in Pittsburgh.  I got Isaac Redman (who ran well late last year) in a couple of leagues with Rashad Mendenhall out injured.  He rewarded me by playing terribly and anchoring himself into the third running back spot. have take chances sometimes.  Put him on the bench, and chase the next sleeper. 

Defense can be a crap-shoot each week. I have gotten to the point (in unlimited transaction leagues) of picking my defense each week based on match-ups.  Whoever is playing Cleveland, Miami, Jacksonville, Tennessee, or Buffalo is good enough to start for me.  Those teams are interceptions, fumbles, and field goals waiting to happen.  

Kickers are even more random.  It is almost impossible to grab that one guy head and shoulders above the others.  Grab someone on a high-scoring team (Dallas, Green Bay, New York Giants, New England, Denver) and ride them if possible, otherwise, take a shot on a team with no red zone threat and pray for long field goals (Oakland, for example).

This week, keep an eye on your players who under-performed.  I try to make  my decisions at week four (1/4 of the season) at the latest.  By then, if a player I picked has not stepped up, it's time to cut bait and scramble for the next big thing.  Also, it is interesting to how games get called by the replacement referees.  Last week, some teams were buried under flags, others didn't call holding all game.  Are the receivers able to run free, or are the defenders free to harass down the field without a flag.  This year has extra uncertainty, so looking at patterns and trends in how the passing game (i.e big points to be made) early on may pay dividends later.  

Good luck this week to all (unless you're matched up against me!) 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

They still play baseball in Boston?

by Hal Bent,

A thrilling victory in September against the Yankees. Ahh, that's what baseball is all about.  Too bad the Red Sox are stuck playing spoiler, being 15.5 games out at the current time.  At least the dramatic victory (it still counts even though the Yankees don't have Mariano Rivera? Sweet!) Ahh, it feels so 1983... 

Fire Ralph Houk! Watch Jerry Remy go zero home runs for 647 plate appearances! See Yaz bang out 24 doubles at age 43! See Ed Jurak play 75 games! Check out those prospects, Jackie Gutierrez and Marty Barrett! See a first baseman (Dave Stapleton) put up a mind-boggling low .661 OPS (bad for a middle infielder, historically terrible for a first baseman)!  See Tony Armas strike out 131 times and bat .218 with a .254 OBP! See Luis Aponte in the bullpen! Watch Dennis Eckersley and 5.61 ERA! 

I take it back, that team was way more entertaining.  Add in 3 lefty starters (Bruce Hurst, John Tudor, and Bobby Ojeda) and Oil Can Boyd, and at least this team had hope.  The 2012 Red Sox are a train wreck managed by a not-so-hot mess. The gave away half the team for nothing and the cupboard is bare of prospects who can contribute in the near future. 
* * *

It's a sad day when a crusade comes to an end:  When logic trumps passion, and soap-box standing, podium pounding, and righteous indignation give way to principles of sound thought. In that regard, I have to thank Ben Lindbergh at for reminding me of something from one of favorite auto-biographical/memoirs I read as a youngster, "Veeck as in Wreck" by Bill Veeck and Ed Linn: 

On the Fans:You do, of course, have a small, loyal cadre of perhaps 83 technicians who will come out, regardless of the standings, to watch the geometric pattern of the game unfold in all its beautiful precision and balance. To them, the game’s the thing. You will generally find them sitting in the bleachers. I have discovered, in 20 years of moving around a ball park, that the knowledge of the game is usually in inverse proportion to the price of the seats.If you depend solely on people who know and love the game, you will be out of business by Mother’s Day.Inside the echo chamber of the internet, we wonder why, when everyone despises a certain announcer, that announcer has been allowed to keep announcing from time immemorial. The answer, of course, is that you, and I, and everyone else reading this article, are the “83 technicians.” We’ll watch the games regardless of the announcer’s identity. We might mute, and we might mock, but we’ll continue to tune in. And if broadcasters base their decisions on what we statheads want, they’ll run the risk of alienating the rest of their audience. That’s why you still have to put up with [announcer who annoys you]. It makes sense. I’m sorry.

That announcer? Here in Boston it is Jerry Remy of NESN.  I understand again now.  I, too, am one of those 83 technicians and I thank you, Ben Lindbergh for silencing one voice crying out in the wilderness about this bozo in the booth. 
The entire article is available here, and is strongly recommended. 
* * *

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remember the Titans - New England Patriots Game One

by Hal Bent,

Game one of the regular season in the books for the Patriots, and the performance matched expectations for the New England Patriots as they shook off a slow start to trounce the Tennessee Titans 34-13.  A balanced offense (First time anyone has seen that in New England since...well, 2004?) and a fast, strong defense (also last seen in 2004-ish) combined for a balanced victory.  A strong running game, stout run defense, precision passing, and timely pass defense against an over-matched Tennessee squad was more than enough to take home a road win to start the 2012 season.

Three Keys to Victory:

  1. Tom Brady:  Remember that, it's always about the quarterback in the offense, #12 Tom Brady.  Brady had some early rust to work off (bouncing a screen pass, missing some throws low) early in the game.  Once he found his rhythm, Brady looked like good old reliable Tom, simply the best quarterback in the game.  Once the game got going, Brady starting throwing his usual strikes, moving away from pressure, making connections to the receivers and tight ends.   Add in a running game again, and Brady's impressive play-action becomes twice as effective. 
  2. Tight Ends: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez continue to amaze.  My game notes had "Gronk unstoppable" or "Unable to cover Gronk" multiple times.  Both were excellent blocking in the running game and both found the end zone.  They were on the field for every offensive snap, showing that this offense is built around #81 and #87.  One great play that got overlooked was late in the second quarter when the Patriots drove down the field to pick up a touchdown pass to Gronkowksi: on third down and four and up 14-3, the offense picked up the first down on a direct snap to Hernandez who was able to pick-up five yards and a first down.  It was an athletic play by Hernandez to grab the off-center snap with one hand (the ball was snapped to his right as he was moving left on the snap) and then to get the yards on the ground.  There are few tight ends capable of making that play, let alone wide receivers. It extended the drive and led to a big score before the half.  
  3. Team Defensive: The defense had a good first game of the season.  If this is a building block, then things look good.  The speed on defense was evident, as the linebackers were all over the field making plays.   Some great work by the defensive line to generate pressure with four rushers.  Chandler Jones looked explosive, Vince Wilfork was strong up the middle, and Jermaine Cunningham looked fast and powerful rushing inside in the sub package generating pressure up the middle and collapsing the pocket.  Some hiccups by the defensive backfield early, but they picked up the step in the middle of the game. The defense did a great job taking Titans running back Chris Johnson out of the game, and for the most part kept the big plays at a minimum.  The team defense did a good job of putting the Titans in third and long, and--unlike last year--took away the deep pass and was able to shut down the short, underneath passes and force a punt. 

Plan for Improvement:

  • The defensive backfield was improved on in game one, but still gave up some chunks of yards, especially early in the game.  Throw in the pass interference penalties, and after the Titan's first drive the defense looked like it was going to be i for a long day.  Titans receiver Kendall Wright ran right across the field and broke a weak tackle attempt by Ras-I Dowling for a first down on the first drive of the game.  Add in his pass interference penalty, and the season was five minutes old and I was cursing Ras-I something fierce.
  • As great as the running game was when Steven Ridley was blasting through arm tackles and picking up yards, there were too many rushes where he went absolutely no where.  A few times in the first half, rushes up the middle were just being stuffed back.  The running game seemed to thrive with the athletic big guys (tight end Rob Gronkowski, guard Logan Mankins and tackle Nate Solder) out in space to open holes for Ridley.  The best part of a running game is the play action that quarterback Tom Brady uses when the running game is effective.  As great as Brady has been, with a running game that actually produces yards consistently, he can be more efficient and make the offense more productive converting more first downs and controlling the clock.

Huh? What was That?:

  • Wide Receiver Wes Welkter spent 1/3 of the offensive plays on the sidelines.  Believe me, Julian Edelman is not good enough to take snaps away from Welker.  So what was going on? There was no sign of any injury, and other than taking a pass off the face-mask, there were no huge mistakes made by him out on the field.  Was this a message from the team not to make waves in the off-season?  A subtle "we can win without you, so take the contract we offer this coming off-season?"  Either way, Welker was not lighting up the stat sheet on Sunday.  Definitely something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
  • The 1st quarter drop by wide receiver Brandon Lloyd was hard to figure out where it went wrong on television. It looked initially like Lloyd stopped running and then couldn't recover and catch up to the pass.  As he was five yards behind the safety, it was a touchdown if the connection was made. On second view, it looked as if Lloyd was running to the middle of the field and Brady's pass led him out towards the sidelines.  Lloyd had to turn all the way around and was unable to adjust with the pass just beyond his stretch.  Not sure where it went wrong, but it needs to tighten up.

Odds and Ends:

  • The addition of a healthy Shane Vereen at running back (presumably some time soon) should be interesting to watch as to how it affects the carries by Steven Ridley.
  • Second round pick safety Tavon Wilson with an interception and first round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower comine for a sack/fumble/recovery for touchdown.  Not a bad start for the kids.
  • Only one sack to talk about all week after all the fretting about the offensive line. There was some pressure, but overall a good job up front.
  • Hope Dan Connolly is back soon and not injured too bad. Not much news about the injury (head) or if a concussion. Depth is a problem right now on the offensive line and losing a starter is not how to start the season.
  • Jerod Mayo looks faster and more athletic with Hightower and Brandon Spikes beside him.  His pass defense has improved and hopefully he will be able to make more plays.  Has some great pressure on run blitzes as well blowing up the play in the backfield.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

New England Patriots - Roster Gets Tight

by Hal Bent,

Well, so much for the idea of the New England Patriots offense under new/old Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels being a radical change back to 2007's version of a pound and bomb offense with wide receivers and fullbacks on the field.  After bringing in a number of fullbacks and wide receivers from these past teams, the offense looked again like Brady and a number of veteran receivers on the field.  However, reality interceded, and Patriots have looked at their team and concluded that this team really is essentially running at all times with a slot receiver (Wes Welker currently), and outside receiver (Brandon Lloyd) and the two-headed tight end monster (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) along with a running back (take your pick based on down and distance). 

The big surprise was the cut of wide receiver Deion Branch who many thought was a lock to make the roster as Tom Brady's security blanket.  To me, the surprise was the cut of wide receiver Jabar Gaffney who looked like he had a little hop in his step and good hands before being injured in the pre-season.  Branch looked slow and Donte Stallworth had hands of stone this summer. As the Patriots are down to four wide receivers, the expectation is that despite keeping four tight ends, another wide out other than special teams mavens Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater is needed for depth.  

Seventh round pick Nate Ebner is a candidate for the practice squad, but I would not discount Jabar Gaffney being back on the team once he is healthy.  One thing to watch with any veteran cut before the season is that the team can bring the player back after the season starts, on a non-guaranteed contract for the season. That leaves a glimmer of hope for bringing back a veteran and sneaking a young player through waivers to the practice squad when the other teams roster is set and less likely to be scooped up while other teams circle the Patriots cuts like vultures.

It was no surprise that tight-end Daniel Fells made the roster despite injuries early in camp.  Visanthe Shiancoe making the roster while sitting in the trainers room was the biggest surprise of all.  The obvious explanation is Super Bowl XLII.  Without a viable option with Rob Gronkowski injured, the offense struggled as Gronkowski was not effective as a receiver or blocker.  With no depth behind him, the offense sputtered out against a Giants defense that needed a big play receiver or strong running game to off-set the lack of big plays in the passing game.  Exit Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis and enter Brandon Lloyd and a myriad group of tight ends and receivers to provide depth behind the big play offensive players. No doubt Super Bowl XLII was in the back of Bill Belichick's mind as he set the roster this summer.

At quarterback, the team goes again with only two, as Brian Hoyer and his $1.9 million dollar contract hits the road.  It was very surprising that there wasn't a market for Hoyer via a trade for a draft pick before the roster was trimmed.  Of course, Hoyer was a restricted free agent this off-season and was available to any other team for the cost of a draft pick.  Not one nibble.  Apparently, Hoyer is not equal to former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel in the minds of the other teams.  Ryan Mallett looked like the better quarterback this off-season, and showed the growth needed to lock down the back-up quarterback spot.  Look for a young QB to be added to the practice squad at some point.

At running back, it was no big surprise that Brandon Bolden made the team. Bill Belichick wisely handed-out a redshirt to rookie running back/kick returner Jeff Demps.  Demps may be the first Patriot on the new short-term injured reserve.  The team can keep him now without going through waivers (where he would no doubt be snapped up).  After missing training camp, Demps clearly needs polishing and can serve to digest the playbook and get from sprinter conditioning to football ready. 

With no fullbacks on the roster, speculation runs high that one will still be added.  Tony Fiammetta was expected to compete with Spencer Larsen.  Larsen was placed on injured reserve and Fiammetta left the team for personal reasons.  Eric Kettani really was not a true fullback and had little chance of making the squad.  The good news for Josh McDaniels is that there are plenty of fullbacks that get cut each summer.  Right now, Ovie Mughelli was released by the St. Louis Rams and Jacob Hester was bounced out of San Diego. Either one could very easily be scooped up by the Patriots. 

The offensive line was reset with veteran Dan Koppen getting cut.  When a veteran is out on the field fighting for a job in the fourth pre-season game against a younger veteran who makes a lot less, the writing is on the wall.  With Nick McDonald earning a spot with his versatility and Donald Thomas performing well in his pre-season appearances, the spot came down to Ryan Wendell and Koppen.  Wendell performed as well as Koppen, and earns a lot less.  The Brian Waters question still remains unanswered, but expect a resolution soon.

Not quite the same fireworks on defense, as the big surprises were the players who snuck onto the roster.  Rookie Justin Francis, Marcus Fortson and Jake Bequette earned a spot on a defensive line that desperately needs athleticism and youth.  Mission accomplished. Add in the resurgent draft busts, Jermaine Cunningham and Ron Brace, and veteran Trevor Scott, and the Patriots big guys on defense are reloaded and ready to contribute.

At linebacker, the three starters and top back-up Bobby Carpenter are set.  Jeff Tarpinian, last year's wonder and veteran special teams player Niko Koutouvides got cut.  Surprisingly, veterans Tracy White (injured all of camp) and Mike Rivera edged their way onto the roster.  Rivera just plain outplayed Tarpinian, plain and simple.  Being last year's star is not worth anything this year.  

At cornerback, rookie Alfonzo Dennard and second-year player Sterling Moore showed enough in the pre-season game to earn another look at a position desperate in need.  Marquice Cole fortunately earned his way on the roster. He impressed on both special teams and in the defensive backfield. Rookie safeties Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner stepped up and impressed this pre-season, leaving Sergio Brown and James Ihedigbo looking for work on the waiver wire.  

As far as sticking on the practice squad, wide receiver Nate Ebner seems likely to stick if he clears waivers. Tight end Alex Silvestro showed enough as a big body (moving from defensive end to learn a new position) who can back-up Gronkowksi in the future and should gain a spot to develop this season. All four rookie free agent offensive linemen showed flashes of potential to take a shot developing them.  Add Derek Dennis, Dustin Waldron, Jeremiah Warren and Darrion Weems to the practice squad roster if they clear waivers.  Always expect a player that the Patriots have an eye on from another squad, or perhaps another player cut (tackle Matt Kopa, receiver Jesse Holley, defensive lineman Marcus Harrison) can squeak onto the squad. New England Patriots’ Top 2019 NFL Draft Picks Show Evolution on Both Sides of the Ball

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