Vince Wilfork, ball hawk.
I have already taken a detailed look at how the New England Patriots offense played against the Oakland Raiders. That was a little different from my usual reviews in that I tried to dissect one formation they used. I'm going to go more traditional in looking at the defense, and I'm also going to make a couple of general observations I feel I left out.
It has been a rough start for the D, with a rash of injuries. Ten of the fourteen names on their injury report are from the defensive side of the ball, and four are defensive backs. The team is dead last in yards allowed in the NFL. The offense, which is first in yards gained, is to a certain extent carrying the team. But there are some deceptive stats involving the team that also have an impact on the record.
Bill Belichick is using a 4-3 base defense this year. This shift came partly to accommodate the addition of Albert Haynesworth to the team. At the moment, Haynesworth is questionable, and he did not play against the Raiders.
More after the jump
Perhaps to try and compensate for some of the injury-caused deficiencies, the Patriots showed a lot of five man fronts, going to basically a 5-2 alignment for nearly half the snaps on defense. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich played up on the line in this scheme, and he would rush the passer, support run defense, or pick up a tight end, depending on the read. The Patriots rushed five on a lot of the passing downs, but did not have a huge amount of pressure on Jason Campbell, who wound up having a pretty good day statistically. He threw for 344 yards and a touchdown. However, he threw two interceptions.
I want to address the interceptions, because they seem a bit typical of what happens to teams playing the Pats. The first was not really a defensive play at all. The Raiders were in the red zone, with a 2nd and goal from the 6. Campbell had plenty of time, but no one was open and there was no running lane, so he attempted to throw the ball away. However, he inexplicably threw low towards the back of the end zone, and put the ball right in Pat Chung's hands. This was a crushing 6 to 10 point swing, because the Raiders had driven the length of the field only to turn it over, and the Pats then went the opposite way and got a field goal.
The second interception killed a drive. Campbell was throwing a crossing pattern and lost sight of Vince Wilfork (not an easy man to overlook), who snagged the ball and returned it 19 yards. Wilfork has now intercepted two passes this season. And the returns are . . . have you seen the original Disney cartoon Fantasia? The one with the dancing hippos?
The real point is that the NE defense gives up tons of yards but seems to find a way to get turnovers and stop the other team from scoring. It is hard to say quite how they do this. In this game, one play was just a total mistake on the quarterback, and the other was on a throw that was also questionable. Both were right in the hands of the defenders.
The defense seems porous, quite frankly. In addition to the passing yards, the team gave up 160 yards on the ground. Even taking out a 30 yard end around by Jacoby Ford, they gave up an average of five yards a carry. And Campbell was getting 8.8 yards per attempt. WR Darrius Heyward-Bey and TE Kevin Boss both had big days, and two of Heyward-Bey's receptions were passes where he just stopped and jumped above the defenders, who looked totally out of place and a little confused. Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and Jason Witten should have very good days against this crew. And the running game should be productive if the Cowboys stick to it.
When the team went to an extra defensive back, it would usually go with a 3-3-5 alignment, which then did not often get a great deal of pressure. In watching the game, I saw the Raiders repeatedly gash the Patriots, but they got stopped on three drives that really hurt them. I mentioned the interceptions, and there was a very strange call in the third quarter. Oakland was at the NE 15 with a 1st and 10, and Campbell threw a pass. A flag was thrown for interference, and on the replay it looked like the defender clearly initiated contact and just pushed the defender down. But the refs huddled and picked the flag up, announcing that the feet just got tangled and there was no interference. The Raiders wound up settling for 3. Patriot luck, I guess.
While the Cowboys have a chance to pile up some yards and some points, they have to find a way to stop Tom Brady and company. One thing that stood out in the video was how well Brady was taking care of the ball. He has a very good sense of when the pressure is coming, he is very good at throwing the ball away, and he also knows when to eat the ball, although he only got sacked once. However, he almost always threw an incompletion just before he got hit and knocked to the ground. He doesn't have to be sacked, it appears, but you cannot let him stand around all day as he did on some of the passes. Consistent pressure can limit his effectiveness. It's just difficult to get with the protection he enjoys.
Overall, I think the Cowboys match up well. The big issue is going to be protecting the ball when they have it, which we already knew from the two meltdowns. Throw in some running, get both Miles and Dez on the field, and let Rob Ryan go to work on defense, and this is a winnable game. But Dallas has to be largely mistake free, particularly on offense, and in covering Wes Welker, who is now a force on the field.