Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Morning Coffee Break - 11/25/2012

by Hal Bent, 

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,

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,

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).
    • 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.
        • 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,

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  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,

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.
* * *

Monday, November 19, 2012

Patriots Pyrrhic Victory Versus Colts - Part one: Offense

by Hal Bent,

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,

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:

    • 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? 
    • 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. 
    • 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. 
* * * 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Morning Coffee

by Hal Bent,

    • 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!).
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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. 
* * * 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Patriots Secondary Somnambulating on Sunday

by Hal Bent,

Somnambulating is an activity akin to sleepwalking, which is a lovely activity for an autumn afternoon in Southeastern New England, but not for a professional football team's secondary.  Unfortunately, for the New England Patriots, their defensive backfield spent the first half of the season.  As the football team has bounced back from a rough start, the Patriots are back from the bye week facing the inconsistent Buffalo Bills.

With the acquisition of Aqib Talib from Tampa for a 4th round pick (Patriots got a 7th round pick in return as well), the Patriots (after Talib's suspension ends on Monday) can bolster their secondary with a cornerback who may actually be able to cover a receiver now and again.  Despite the obvious improvement the last two weeks with Devin McCourty moved to safety and paired with rookie Tavon Wilson, this secondary is not holding a lead against any playoff caliber team at this point.  

Putting McCourty back deep has helped because one of his strengths is playing the ball when he is facing the quarterback.  At cornerback, he was fantastic his rookie season sitting in zone coverage and making plays on the ball. Since then, when his back is turned to the quarterback and he is running with the receiver, he has been beat downfield on long completions constantly and on too many other instances he has been numerously and  frustratingly flagged for interference deep down the field again and again over the past few seasons.  At times, he seems to have a glowing neon sign on his back that says "throw the ball when you see this" for quarterbacks to beat the Patriots secondary.

Despite these flaws, McCourty is the best cornerback on the roster.  The defense will function best when Talib and McCourty are both at cornerback. To move McCourty to safety full time is short-sighted and foolish.  The Patriots have serviceable safeties who can play at a high level when they get healthy.  Aqib Talib will be close to McCourty's skill level if he can get on the field, stay healthy, and learn the defense.  That allows the Patriots to move 7th round draft pick Alfonzo Dennard to the nickel corner or coming in on the dime, where he belongs.  He may yet turn out as a serviceable cornerback in the NFL, but he needs time.  Marquice Cole is best in small doses covering a slot receiver in the dime.  He plays well in short bursts, but does not seem to be able to be a consistent corner. 

Cornerback Kyle Arrington is a passable nickel corner on his best day, and he is out for a while with an injury. Sterling Moore, last seen playing the whole game at nickel corner, was released, passed over by every other NFL team, and re-signed to the practice squad, where he will be playing on the scout team in practice from now on.  Newly re-signed defensive back Malcolm Williams joins safety Nate Ebner as another Patriots player drafted specifically to play special teams after not being a starter in college (that means, if you see them in the regular defense, grab a paper bag and start hyperventilating. Either of these two in the regular defense means things are going from bad to worse.).

Safety has been decimated.  Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung have both been effective NFL safeties in the past, when healthy.  Obviously, neither was 100% earlier in the season, and both should be healthy very soon and able to resume their starting roles.  Rookie Tavon Wilson seems much more effective playing closer to the line of scrimmage at safety and helping defend the middle of the field and in run support. He is obviously a fit for his original role this season in the big nickel or a dime defense playing the third safety.  It obviously plays to his strengths.  As a rookie, he obviously has flaws, and the deep middle has been his achilles heel. Yes, that was Wilson who was burned deep against Seattle, and against St Louis on their first touchdown.  Playing "centerfield" or the deep middle at safety and keeping the receivers in front of him has been a challenge for the rookie. 

Unfortunately, we at home watching the games on television don't have the luxury of watching hours of coaches tape (the aerial overview of the entire field for each play) and knowing what the defensive play call was for all these 20+ yard plays the Patriots secondary has surrendered.  Whether the breakdown in play calling, is a mental or physical mistake by the safeties, or by the cornerbacks, or a combination of all three.  Certainly, the last game against St Louis had the Patriots shore up some of the deficiencies in the defensive backfield by effectively utilizing the front seven in a variety of different fronts and pressure schemes.  

The Patriots defensive front seven has not generated consistent pressure since the days of Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel at linebacker, which is no coincidence.  Beyond Jerod Mayo these past few years, the linebackers have been average to non-existent while the team played a vanilla 3-4 front with a zone behind them and generating next to no pressure. Where was the pass rush since 2008? Imagine, that team won 11 games with Matt Cassel at quarterback.  Kansas City wins that many games with him over three seasons.  That defense carried a Patriots team for the last time.  Without linebackers that Bill Belichick can trust to get to the quarterback, to know the assignment, to have the football sense to make adjustments as needed, he kept them on an incredibly short leash.  In his defense, Coach Bill Belichick was screwed over by General Manager Bill Belichick who could not bring any linebackers in through free agency or the draft who had any skills. New England Patriots’ Top 2019 NFL Draft Picks Show Evolution on Both Sides of the Ball

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