Blogging The Boys: Is there any concern about the play of Tom Brady recently, or is the concern more focused on the personnel around him?
Pats Pulpit: When looking simply at the stats over the last few games, one could get concerned with Brady’s play and start thinking about the D-word (decline!). However, the context is important and it cannot be denied that the support cast has been wildly inconsistent as of late: the offensive line has had its ups and downs, the wide receiver group has been hit by injury (Mohamed Sanu hurt his ankle last week versus the Philadelphia Eagles, Phillip Dorsett suffered a concussion), and the running game is virtually non-existent. Add some sloppy execution across the board and you get why the offense has not hit its groove just yet.
Brady has to carry some of the blame for New England’s offensive struggles, especially after an inaccurate performance last week, but he still ranks at the bottom on the list of problems. After all, there are some positive signs still: New England went to 11-personnel, no-huddle looks extensively against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9 and the entire unit started to click more smoothly than at any point since the first few games. The Patriots did the same in Philadelphia, and scored their lone touchdown of the game that way. Along the way, Brady was able to get into a good rhythm — an encouraging development that is only somewhat reflected in the raw numbers.
BTB: The Patriots offense is not clicking right now, what are the major issues on that side of the ball?
PP: As already mentioned above, the personnel turnover — be it because of injury, performance issues, or off-the-field problems — has played a big role in the Patriots’ struggles. The team lost starting center David Andrews before the season and had to watch left tackle Isaiah Wynn go down in Week 2. Fullback James Develin and his replacement Jakob Johnson were both placed on IR, as was first-round rookie wide receiver N’Keal Harry. Meanwhile, Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown were released while the tight end position had to deal with short-term injury (Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo) and suspension (Benjamin Watson). Add it all up, and you get a group that is still trying to build chemistry.
This is most obvious along the offensive line. While replacement center Ted Karras has been serviceable (but a downgrade from Andrews nevertheless), the left tackle position saw an immense drop-off in production from Wynn to Marshall Newhouse. As a result, Brady had to move off the spot more often while the ground game — which relies on all blockers performing in unison — never got going on a consistent basis. On the bright side, however, Wynn is expected to return to the starting lineup this week while Brady and company had another week of getting used to each other. The potential is certainly there, but the execution so far has been inconsistent due to all the moving parts within the offense.
BTB: The defense has been a shutdown unit for most of the year. What happened in the game against the Ravens?
The defense played like [poop emoji] against the run, plain and simple. The numbers — 213 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries for an average of 5.6 yards — show just how badly New England performed. So were the reasons for that breakdown?
For starters, the Ravens had a very good game plan that involved using the Patriots’ aggressiveness and defensive scheme against them: Baltimore would patiently attack the gaps in the running game versus New England’s two-gap system, that is built on linemen reading their keys and making decisions about which gaps to attack based on them. The Ravens, however, played a very disciplined game which caused this read-and-react concept to break down at times. Furthermore, the Patriots’ linebackers oftentimes ran themselves out of position by biting on misdirection concepts. Not only did this lead to defenders shooting the wrong gaps while run-blitzing, but also to the edge not getting set properly.
Run-blitzing in particular was a problem. New England consistently attacked the A-gaps, seemingly to prevent Baltimore from getting strong double-team push on gap and power plays. The Ravens run these concepts as well as any team in the league, so the Patriots’ plan was sound and helped limit big plays up the middle. The problem was that this approach created space on the perimeter by essentially taking one defender away to blitz the run — something that was felt on stretch and outside runs and also in the passing game, as New England was unable to properly man the underneath zones.
All in all, though, the Patriots were simply outplayed and failed to come up with the stops when they needed to make them.
BTB: At 9-1, most fanbases would be ecstatic and counting on a Super Bowl, but expectations are different for the Pats. So how confident are the fans in this edition of the team?
PP: According to the latest FanPulse numbers, 82% of Patriots fans are confident in the direction of the franchise — the lowest number since before the draft, and likely a reflection of the team’s offensive struggles against the Eagles last week. This pretty much tells you all you need to know: it’s Super Bowl or bust in New England, which is not at all surprising considering that the club is lead by two future Hall of Famers in Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
On the whole, however, I feel as if there is plenty of confidence in the team still. The defense bounced back nicely from its loss in Baltimore by holding the Eagles to 10 points and 255 yards of offense, while the offense — as noted above — did find some rhythm by using no-huddle concepts and does have the talent across the board to get back on track. And then, of course, there’s Brady and Belichick who have a track record of getting going late in the season and into the playoffs. The Patriots, more likely than not, will be fine in the long run.
BTB: How do you see the game playing out on Sunday and what’s your score prediction?
PP: While the Patriots and Cowboys both rank top-five in scoring, I think the game will not turn into a shootout and instead be a close affair with no team hitting 30 points. New England’s defense is really good and capable of slowing down Dallas’ offensive attack, while the offense a) has struggled against an Eagles defense that is similarly built as the one it will face this week (very strong up front, some weaknesses in the intermediate range) and b) could be without the aforementioned Sanu and Dorsett (although there is confidence the latter will be ready for Sunday’s game).
With all that in mind, I still think the Patriots take this game simply because I have learned never to pick against Brady and Belichick — especially at home. So I’m going with something like 20-17 in New England’s favor… but now that I’ve said this the Cowboys will probably win 45-38.
Thanks for the knowledge, Pats Pulpit.