Spare Neurons - 01-16-2013

by Hal Bent,

The New England Patriots defeated the Houston Texans last Sunday in an exciting win 41-28. I've added a couple of stories on where I am contributing to their Patriots coverage (you can read the articles here and here), but as always, there are other stories from the game that overflow.  This is all Patriots right now as the Patriots and the NFL Playoffs are dominating my attention, but have no fear, I will soon touch on more general Boston sports events including the hoopla regarding the MLB Hall of Fame inductees (or lack thereof), the surging Boston Celtics, and the return, at long last, of the Bruins and NHL Hockey.

New England Patriots:
There were three points of emphasis coming out of the Patriots win over the Texans that stood out to me: 

  • Secondary play/Aqib Talib slowing/stopping Andre Johnson
    • The Patriots secondary had a decent showing against Houston last week. Certainly, they did not shut down the high-octane offense of the Texans, but they did slow it down.  I hate the idea of a defense being "bend but don't break", but that is what the Patriots are going to be.  The elite defenses are hard to find. The Texans were supposedly elite, and the Patriots put up 40 points twice this year. The San Francisco 49ers are probably the best in the NFL in regards to talent and scheme, but they gave up 28 straight to the Patriots this year and almost blew the game (to say nothing of not being able to beat the St Louis Rams in either match-up).
    • The NFL wants offense, and they have tweaked the rules to make it so.  Think back to the 2001 Patriots, that defense would be taken off the field in handcuffs considering the amount of contact allowed by the defensive backs. Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy would owe the NFL millions in fines playing today like they did then, just 10 to 12 years ago.  Patriots coach Bill Belichick was at the head of the change, and has adapted, building an elite offense these past 5 years.  Considering that, it makes the play of the Patriots secondary this second half of the season even more impressive.
    • By importing cornerback Aqib Talib and moving Devin McCourty to safety, the Patriots get 2nd round mistake Patrick Chung off the field, and 2nd round not-yet-ready for prime-time Tavon Wilson off the field. Add in diamond in the rough Alfonzo Dennard (7th round pick starting in the AFC Championship game--that's impressive) and free agent pick-up Steve Gregory able to play closer to the line, and the secondary is at minimum adequate and really above-average at this point. 
    • Although they had trouble matching-up with the tight ends and running backs, the Houston receivers were largely kept in check.  Talib and McCourty trailed Andre Johnson all over the field and kept him from making any big, explosive, game-changing plays.  In today's NFL, that can be just enough to be what is needed.
  • Pressure versus sacks on defensive line/linebackers
    • Funny how the pre-seaon was dominated with the gloom and doom of the Patriots pass-rush not being able to execute without defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson.   Well, Carter was invisible in Oakland (once he got healthy) and Anderson was trumped as "worst contract of the off-season" as he gave the Buffalo Bills almost zero production for a good-sized chunk of their salary cap.  Meanwhile, outside linebacker/defensive end Rob Ninkovich and rookie defensive ends Chandler Jones and Justin Francis picked up the slack this season.  Ends Jermaine Cunningham (pre-suspension) and veteran Trevor Scott (when called upon) filled in ably as well. 
    • The Patriots defense also brought pressure this season from blitzing linebackers once they solidified the secondary and were comfortable to match-up man-to-man on occasion.   In addition, they were able to get some pressure on the quarterback, even if they did not generate a sack, but got three quarterback hits and got Texans quarterback Matt Schaub off his spot a few times.  Schaub seemed very aware of pass rushers, and even seemed to get some passes off in a rush with phantom rushers near him. As the game progressed, and the Texans were in obvious passing downs, predictably the pressure increased. 
  • Offensive Line quietly excellent
    • The Patriots allowed only one sack, but seven quarterback hits on Sunday. Yes, they gave up some hits, but the one sack was when they whiffed on the fake stretch play that netted a touchdown against the Texans in the regular but this time they let two rushers in almost untouched.  Other than that one sack, the offensive line did a great job keeping quarterback Tom Brady on his feet.  Brady is always going to take a few hits a game, no matter how good the protection may be.  He is going to hold the ball until the last second available in order to wait for a receiver to get open, regardless of the number of pass rushers.  
    • What has been most impressive with the Patriots offensive line this year has been their ability to plug in back-ups and not miss a beat.  The Patriots have lined up Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald up and down the line. Marcus Cannon has also jumped up to fill in when right tackle Sebastian Vollmer missed some time. Add in center Ryan Wendell beating out long-time center Dan Koppen at center in the pre-season, and left tackle Nate Solder stepping in for the retired Matt Light, and what was often referred to as a weakness all pre-season turned out to be a strength yet again. 
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