Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Spare Neurons - Tuesday, 10/30/2012

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

  • Remember all the hyperventilating talk show hosts predicting the end of the Patriots during pre-season with the retirement of tackle Matt Light and release of center Dan Koppen? I guarantee none of them are revisiting the offensive line of the Patriots which has gelled into the strongest unit on the team outside of quarterback.  Opening running lanes, shutting down pass rushes, pulling out on runs, clearing out in space on the rejuvenated screen-pass calls, this unit has done it all, even without all-pro guard Logan Mankins most of the season.  Players like center Ryan Wendell and guards Dan Connolly and Donald Thomas have quietly done an excellent job.  Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer (even Marcus Cannon when he rotates in at right guard to spell Vollmer occasionally) have quieted some serious pass rushers so far this season.  Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has once again made the Patriots offensive line, once filled with question marks, into one of the best units in the league.
  • Is this the year? Does big mouth Rex Ryan run himself out of New York?  As Hurricane Sandy battered New York and New Jersey, Rex Ryan is hopefully bunkered down trying to  figure out how to apply his defensive acumen to the Jets offense.  After the New England Patriots spent their previous Sunday afternoon driving the fan base nuts with their inability to play effective pass defense and trotting out an inconsistent offense that sputtered and moved in fits and bursts as they outlasted the hapless New York Jets in overtime 29-26. Let me be clear on one thing: Rex Ryan is an excellent defensive coach.  His game plan to stop the Patriots high-powered offense with a defense missing all-world cornerback Darrell Revis was nearly fool-proof and was good enough to earn a victory. Fortunately for the New England Patriots, as good as he is on defense, he appears to be lost on the offensive side of the ball, handing the reins to former Dolphins head coach and Dallas Cowboys assistant Tony Sparano, who seemed to do everything in his power to give the game to the Patriots. After last off-season, the Jets blamed everything on offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and replaced him with Sparano, who has made Schottenheimer look like Mike Martz.  The Jets game against the Patriots was their Super Bowl (just as it was for Arizona, Baltimore, Seattle, Buffalo, etc. The Patriots may as well change their name to "the Measuring Sticks") and they folded in the end.  After trash-talking all week, they got blown out by the Matt Moore (not a typo!) led Miami Dolphins.  This team is imploding in a hurry (much to the delight of everyone in New England) and may cost Sexy Rexy his job this off-season.  Memo to Bill Belichick: Rex Ryan would be a hell of a defensive coordinator in New England.  Just putting it out there.

  • Everton faced the John Henry Eleven (Liverpool) in the Merseyside Derby on last Saturday morning.  For the third match in a row, Everton slinked away with one point and a tie.  This time, however, they came roaring back in the first half to tie Liverpool after falling into a 2-nil hole courtesy of Liverpool's resident villain, Luis Suarez.  An own goal (thanks to Suarez) and another goal by him had Everton down early. After coming back to tie it up in the first half courtesy of Leon Osman and Steven Naismith goals, the Toffees fought back, but only after putting themselves in the untenable position of being down early for the third straight time. Falling behind early and digging out may build character, but it only nets one point.  Now in 5th place ahead of Arsenal by a point sounds good, but thinking that coming out stronger and picking up a few extra points would have them neck-and-neck with the Manchester squads (City and United) at #2 and #3 is hard to swallow. 
  • Both squads in the derby had chances in the second half, especially Liverpool where Suarez was denied an extra-time winner by a terrible call by the referee, but the good guys in blue were lucky to escape with a point this time.  This squad has to get over this hiccup and come out ready to perform.  They cannot let this fast start be squandered.  A draw versus an emotionally charged Liverpool is acceptable. Slow starts and draws versus Wigan and Queens Park was embarrassing for an Everton squad expected to be a top performer this season.  Fulham, Sunderland, Reading, and Norwich City are the next four fixtures for the Toffees, and they need to buckle down and pick up all twelve points (or a minimum of ten--Fulham is a legit opponent and a draw versus them would not be unexpected).    Sunderland, Reading, and Norwich City are bottom-feeders: sitting and idling at the relegation station.  Everton needs the points as November turning to December brings Arsenal, Manchester City, and Tottenham Hotspur back-to-back-to-back. 

  • Congrats to the San Francisco Giants for winning a World Series that half the country ignored completely by sweeping the Detroit Tigers.  I enjoyed the games immensely, maybe knowing I have to wait five months until baseball is back, but Giants are an entertaining squad.  Detroit had their offense go out right when they ran into a National League team whose pitching staff peaked at the right time.  Hardly a classic, all time great series, at least it was somewhat entertaining for a sweep.
  • Pablo "Panda" Sandoval is a great entertainer, and leaves me scratching my head as to why the Red Sox did not trade for him last season to replace David Ortiz as DH.  Seriously, how did they miss the opportunity? His trade value was zero (San Fran had benched him) and he was the perfect designated hitter and replacement for Ortiz.  Now, there is no chance to get him and Red Sox have to look at bringing back Ortiz at top dollar.
  • I bitched about it all last year, and I'm not stopping now: shortstops Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie both made more sense to stay in Boston and play rather than trading them for nothing in the off-season. The Giants (after trading for the much-traveled Scutaro) and the Astros got stellar play from both (see: NLCS MVP, Marco Scutaro; see: 16 home runs by Jed Lowrie), and the Red Sox dump their replacement, Mike Aviles, to Toronto for the right to hire their lame-duck manager, John Farrell.  As far as I'm concerned, the Red Sox have a gaping hole at shortstop for no reason yet again. Three starting-quality shortstops gone in the past year with absolutely nothing of value back in return.  I hate to say it, but I have no confidence in the talent evaluation of general manager Ben Cherington going into the off-season.  
  • Halloween, World Series, NHL Lock-out, Red Sox managerial search, East Coast Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Perfect Storm Sandy, and despite all these distractions at the end of October, the Boston Celtics are ready to kick-off the NBA season with a match-up against the world champion Miami Heat.  Certainly, the Ray Allen saga is the big news of the match-up, but for the Celtics fans, the real news is the new look Celtics. The Boston Green Team went from old and tired to the San Antonio model of wily veterans surrounded by gobs of young talent and athleticism.  The Celtics have three young, talented guards in Rajon Rondo, Courtney Lee, and (the currently injured) Avery Bradley and super-sub Jason Terry. Big guy and defensive role model Kevin Garnett mans the middle again, but now there is a lot of depth behind him with (stifle your chuckles) Darko Milicic and Jason Collins at center. What are the odds two players go down with heart issues? The Celtics had two last season in forward/center Chris Wilcox and forward Jeff Green who both will be key contributors to this squad.  Add in returning wide body Brandon Bass and new wide body Jared Sullinger, and this team is ready to load up behind Paul Pierce and go big or small against anyone.  They are big, they are veteran, they are small, they are young and athletic.  This team has serious balance, youth, athleticism, and depth for the first time in a long time.  This entire season will be a great battle between the Heat and the Celtics.  It all starts tonight. I cannot wait.
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Monday, October 29, 2012

Patriots Have a Jolly Good Time in London

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

A blow-out at last.  At Wembley Stadium in London, the New England Patriots trounced the St. Louis Rams 45-7 with the offense finally leaving their inconsistencies behind and mixing the run and pass like a perfect storm and finally looking like the best offense in the NFL. As they wait to fly home into the downpours of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy for a much needed and well-deserved bye week.  Although St. Louis doesn't boast an all-pro, world-beater quarterback like Mark Sanchez, Kevin Kolb, and Russell Wilson (yes, that was sarcasm), they do have former number one overall pick Sam Bradford who was likely drooling in anticipation of facing the Patriots porous (even before their numerous injuries) and now depleted secondary.

The game started with the usual agony on defense that Patriots fans have grown so used to without the Ty Law/Lawyer Milloy or Asante Samuel/Rodney Harrison secondaries which dominated the AFC back in the glory days of Patriot defenses which drove Kordell Stewart to tears and Donovan McNabb to pick up a Super Bowl barf-bag.  Taking a play from the Seattle Seahawk's playbook against the Patriots earlier this season, Bradford tossed a 50 yard bomb right down the middle of the field on a double-move by Chris Givens off play-action two and a half minutes into the game.  I guarantee, I was not the only couch-bound viewer who jumped up and shouted at the television in frustration, "Not #&@*%(*ing again?"

But then, something strange happened.  The offense decided that with tight end Aaron Hernandez sidelined, instead of putting a crappy back-up tight end out on the field, the Patriots put their best offensive play-makers on the field together, and moved down the field with precision scoring on the first six drives and touchdowns on the first five.  Meanwhile, the defense continued stopping the run (as they have all season) and the defense decided to finally blitz the linebackers and put pressure on the quarterback while playing tight man coverage.  Instead of playing weak, zone, no-pressure crap, the defense stepped up (literally and figuratively), jamming receivers off their routes, playing aggressive, "go get the ball" style defense.  Granted, Seattle is not an offensive power-house, but neither was Arizona, Baltimore,     Buffalo, nor the Jets, but they all moved the ball through the air far too easily.   Finally, the Patriots decided to make it difficult for an offense to pass the ball.  And, hold onto your hats, it actually worked (yup, more sarcasm).

To illustrate how the Patriots offense actually clicked on all cylinders, the Patriots got two touchdowns out of Brandon Lloyd-o-cinco. Tom Brady and the offense spread the field with three wide receivers and tight end Rob Gronkowski and then played the match-up exploiting whoever had the worst defender in coverage out of the strong, but overmatched, defense of the Rams.  When the Rams dropped back to flood the middle of the field, the Patriots ran the ball down their throats picking up big yardage against a defense on their heels.  Much attention should be focused on the two twin tower tackles, Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, who not only kept two of the best young outside pass rushers away from Tom Brady (that would be rookie sensation Bruce Irvin and "son of Howie" Chris Long, who had spent the previous weeks terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.  When the Patriots ran, the big guys (along with Donald Thomas filling in for the injured All-Pro guard Logan Mankins) cleared some impressive lanes for the Patriots running backs.

The Patriots game had the feel of a pre-season game as the Patriots already depleted team kept having players leaving the field injured. Cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole left injured, and with Ras-I Dowling going out on injured reserve earlier in the week and both starting safeties Patrick Chung and Stephen Gregory out, the much maligned defensive backfield really stepped up, including Sterling Moore, who had been on the injury list the past few weeks.  Add in a linebacker corps hobbled with injured, but gutting it out, starters Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo (alongside Brandon Spikes), and a defensive line with an ill Vince Wilfork, injured Kyle Love, Trevor Scott, and Ron Brace leaving the game injured.

The offense had its share of injuries as well, as running back Brandon Bolden and tight end Aaron Hernandez stayed home, tight end Rob Gronkowski and receivers Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman, and Wes Welker (who left the game injured in the fourth quarter) were all dinged up, and offensive linemen Sebastian Vollmer and Nick McDonald injured as well. The Patriots put the ball in the hands of Tom Brady and let him do what he does best: exploit match-ups. Letting Brady dictate the offense is what this team does best.  

Despite injuries, past poor performances, and inconsistencies, the team showed-up big time in London and rolled to a 45 to 7 victory over the Rams.  With a bye week coming up as a chance to rest up and get healthy, the Patriots face six winnable games and two tough opponents (both at home, however) in the second half. The Patriots play the Bills, the Colts, the Jets, the Dolphins (twice) and Jacksonville.  Add in two tough home games versus the 49ers and Texans, and the Patriots may be in line for another post-season run with home field advantage. A lot of games to play, but the Patriots may have a formula (at last) to combine good defense with an electric offense and be ready to roll into January. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Patriots Go West

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

The New England Patriots busted out their old-school with a twist game plan again on last Sunday afternoon in Foxborough, MA to defeat the Peyton Manning led Denver Broncos 31 to 21.  Displaying balance on offense with a power running game rearing its head and bringing back wistful memories of Corey Dillon while the offense works out the kinks with a visibly hobbled tight end Rob Gronkowski and without multi-faceted weapon tight end Aaron Hernandez, the defense worked on mixing in rush defense and a mix of coverage and pressure to hold a Peyton Manning led offense that went off last week putting up 37 points on the Oakland Raiders. It was a solid, though not spectacular, effort against a good team with a hall of fame quarterback by a Patriots team with injuries on both offense and defense and still executed the game plan. 

This should shut up the WEEIdiots who shout on Boston talk radio about how "the Patriots can't beat a good team" or "the Patriots never beat a good quarterback".  The Patriots don't make the schedule, they just play it. This week they travel to Seattle for an intriguing match-up with the resurgent Seattle Seahawks and Pete "Pumped and Jacked" Carroll out at "Random Corporate  Logo" Field where, unlike the laid-back Foxborough Fans, crowd noise affects the game and gives the Seahawks a legitimate home field advantage.  Between the return of Pistol Pete and the hurry-up offense of New England versus the top-rated defense of Seattle, this week offers a number of intriguing match-ups.  Here I will examine three of the most important ones that the Patriots face on Sunday afternoon against the Seahawks:

  • The Patriots hurry-up offense versus the crowd noise in Seattle:
    • The Patriots use the hurry-up to limit defensive substitutions and control the tempo and match-ups on the field.  Denver's defense seemed surprised by the hurry-up, and despite practicing a mile-high all week and purportedly having an advantage in conditioning, they spent too much time catching their breath with hands on hips and not in position to play defense. So, therefore, Bill Belichick being Bill Belichick, the offense will huddle-up and run out of traditional sets with Seattle expecting hurry-ups and gadgets, right?
    • The crowd noise matters when the Patriots are inside the 20s.  Controlling field position, scoring early and often, and running the ball effectively will keep the crowd in their seats and quiet.  Falling behind early, losing the field position battle, stupid turn-overs, three and outs on offense, and allowing big plays while on defense will have the Seattle crowd pumped and jacked like Coach Carroll and having a significant effect on the game.  
  • The Patriots Run Defense versus Marshawn "The Beast" Lynch:
    • The Patriots defense actually may have an advantage this week, with a stout run defense anchored by defensive tackles "Big" Vince Wilfork and Kyle "Feel the" Love, and linebackers Jerod "Pass the" Mayo and Brandon "Homophobe/Porn Star" Spikes.  This is 1970's football when Seattle has the ball: Big running back lining up and smashing into big linemen and backers.  The Patriots are likely going to play more base defense with deep safeties against Seattle and try to take away Marshawn Lynch from the game plan and force rookie quarterback Russell Wilson to make a lot of short completions to Sidney Rice and Golden Tate and try to put together 10 to 12 play scoring drives to try and keep up with the explosive New England offense.
  • Seattle's Attacking Defense versus Tom Brady: 
    • Seattle, in the tradition of the Pete Carroll defenses, get after the quarterback. The Seahawks have four defensive end that they rotate in and out of the game to keep them fresh and attack opposing quarterbacks off the edge.  With a second year left tackle in Nate Solder (what ever happened to all the talk about him being over-matched in training camp and the preseason?) and a dinged-up Sebastian Vollmer on the right side, the Patriots offensive line needs to again be ready for a defense with their ears pinned back and ready to attack.  Seattle brings starters Chris Clemons and impressive rookie Bruce Irvin (a combined ten sacks already this season) off the edge and bring pressure up the gut with Patriots free-agent target this off-season Red Bryant.  
    • The Patriots offense needs to run screen passes (to backs, receivers, and event the tight-ends), run the ball often and effectively, and use the play-action to attack the Seahawks defense and keep them off-balance and off quarterback Tom Brady. If the Patriots can run out of their base set with two-headed rushing attack of running backs Steven Ridley and Brandon Bolden (Stevod Ridden? Branven Bolley?) and have dynamic tight-ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski healthy and effective as blockers and receivers in the game-plan, it goes a long way to negating the pass rush.  Add in wide receivers Wes Welker running over the middle of the field, Brandon Lloyd outside the numbers, and Deion Branch in clutch third-down situations, and the Patriots get to test their "Beat the Giants" offense that was the subject of the off-season make-over to start being able to beat teams like the New York Giants who can get pressure without blitzing.

PREDICTION: It won't be easy to win on the road, but expect the Patriots offense to click and the defense to slow down Marshawn Lynch and allow the Patriots to run away in the second half and a 31-17 win. 

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Sunday Morning Coffee

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

Columbus Day weekend means a relaxing Sunday morning to pontificate on Boston sports while still basking in the glow of winning last weekend's illegal, underground Texas Hold'Em game for the first time. It definitely made up for the fantasy baseball season ending another big stinkeroo for me and watching my fantasy football teams being betrayed by Tony Romo yet again.  Grabbing my cup of joe and ready to go:

Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning is always the marquee matchup any week in the NFL, and eleven years after their first meeting and with Manning in Denver now, it is still a big game.  The Patriots are 2-2 and need to start putting together wins to get some momentum going and stringing wins together.   Yes, their two losses were by a combined 3 points and came down to the last play, but they have to be ready each week to face a team that is playing their personal Super Bowl.  Every team sees the Patriots as one of those "measuring stick" teams where they are bringing extra motivation because it is the Patriots they are matching up against.  This is nothing new and is certainly the case against a Denver team whose defense was blown off the field twice last season by the Patriots offensive attack.

Both teams are predicated on the play-action pass, using it to open up the short pass and getting their receivers open in space.  While the Patriots are going to be using their Big 3 running backs (Steven Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and Shane Vereen replacing Danny Woodhead when he is healthy) to pound against nickel and dime defenses that opposing defenses bring out to combat the Patriots passing game, the Broncos have Willis McGahee at running back and desperately need to get linebackers and safeties caught up inside the box because Peyton Manning is not going to be airing any deep passes, rather going outside the numbers with short passes to the wide receivers in space to let them make yards with their legs.  Bill Belichick is going to have to have his defense get up on the Denver receivers and bump them and be in their face within the five yard legal bump area.  Beyond five yards, the Patriots are going to have to make Manning try to throw deep, strong, and accurate passes down the field, which he has yet to show he can do.

The second big key I want to see is if former Patriots center Dan Koppen can hold off Big Vince Wilfork and Kyle "Feel the" Love inside.  Remember, at training camp these two abused Koppen and played a key part in making sure he was not in the red, white and blue this season.  Getting pressure up the middle on Peyton Manning is a sure-fire way to disrupt his rhythm and timing.  He can wave his arms around like Big Bird all he wants pre-snap, but it doesn't do any good if he's being forced out of the pocket.  Just like Tom Brady, Manning is excellent at stepping up or sliding away from outside pressure, but both have their worst games against consistent pressure up the middle. Watch the two Super Bowl losses to the Giants, the pressure right up the middle is what derailed the Patriots.  If either team is able to get up the gut at the opposing quarterback, that is a huge step towards pulling out victory.

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Second place...oh crap.  One week after leapfrogging the EPL standings, the Toffees lay an egg against Wigan (freaking Wigan, really?) and struggle to tie a match that they need to be winning if they are to be a legit challenger this season. Everton has been a solid, top-of-the-middle-of-the-pack squad these last few years, but to make a real run this season, they cannot drop these kind of matches. Falling behind 1-0, then dropping behind 2-1 after coming right back with the equalizer by Nik Jelavik is frustrating to say the least.  Credit the boys in blue (well, they had broken out the black kit for this match) for not giving up and not taking any points, but having to pull out a draw with an 88th minute penalty kick (Leighton Baines saves the day again!) is the old Everton, not the 2012 squad that takes down ManU and is at the top of the fixtures.  With a bye week and then Queens Park Rangers on the schedule, the Toffees should be well rested and ready for John Henry's Liverpool goons in Goodison Park on the 28th of the month.

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The Celtics opened the pro basketball season in Turkey this week, and as they move across Europe in a (hopefully) team building pre-season as they get ready for the season.  Again, it looks like a three team race in the East, with Boston and Miami fighting it out with Indiana. Chicago has one big question (Derrick Rose's health) that looms over their season and their chance to be a contender this year. 

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If I never see another Peyton Manning commercial, it is too soon.  Yes, Tom Brady makes a number of commercials, but nothing like Manning. It seems as if a viewer can see an entire block of nothing but Manning commercials.  Gotta say, the DirectTV ads with Deion Sanders where he (and brother Eli) have little fairy wings is particularly annoying. Of course, when I get annoyed by his crappy car commercial, or pizza pitching, I just thank the Lord I'm not watching the Manning boys sucking down Oreo cookies talking about "Lick-Offs".  Ugh.

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Finally, congratulations to the best manager in Boston Red Sox history, Terry Francona, as he leaves the announcing booth to get back in the dugout with the Cleveland Indians.  With Bobby the Bozo Valentine being fired, the Red Sox once again start their search for a manager with all the Terry Francona traits while not admitting they made a colossal mistake in firing him in the first place. As the Sox ended up cleaning house anyway in the clubhouse, it made less and less sense to fire the best  manager for this unique baseball squad.  As fans, we should cross our fingers and hope for Dale "Francona-lite" Sveum in the dugout next year.

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