Warning...this is a long read.
I attended this week's Patriots/Ravens game, and I have to say it was quite entertaining to say the least. Both teams played well and I was very impressed by many components of the Patriots. However, there were some other things that perturbed me to say the least.
I will try to go unit by unit here...so i will start with the gunslinger himself. Tom Brady had a slightly better game than most will give him credit for. In the first half, he had at least four passes dropped by receivers. He certainly was not perfect, but then again, the first half was far from a bright spot for anyone on the team. When it counted, though, Brady delivered.
One of the most interesting plays of the game, in my mind, was the deep ball to Tate on first down from midfield in the fourth quarter. I personally liked the call, a lot. That play will sit in the minds of teams for weeks. It shows that the Patriots are willing, and able, to stretch the field vertically. Lardarius Webb happened to have great coverage on that particular play, but that does not mean it was unnecessary. It may have been one of the reasons that the game went to overtime, but it was important all the same.
Read the rest of the review after the jump!
Brady's accuracy was decent, his arm strength was good. Overall, this was a good but not great game for him. However, one thing I did appreciate was how he spread out the ball. Six different receivers had receptions, seven counting Tate's end around/deep ball try. More impressively, four receivers went over 50 yards for the day. That is a balanced passing game at its finest, and if the Patriots can maintain that, this offense will be competitive with any team's in the league. Heck, even when Brady had his second worst game of the season (the Jets debacle notwithstanding), the Patriots were still able to pull out the win. That is very encouraging.
The running game did its job as well. I tend to count all the Patriots' runners as one entity, so averaging 5 yards a carry and picking up 127 yards on the ground seems like a nice game to me. Six different Patriots ran the ball, including two receivers in Tate and Aaron Hernandez. BenJarvus Green Ellis was decent, though he only averaged two yards a carry. I actually think he may be a viable fantasy pickup as a goal-line back for the Patriots, but I'm still not sold on him as an every down runner.
Danny Woodhead, on the other hand...this guy is for real. I'm pretty sure that one of the key aspects of the bye week was to get Woodhead up to speed, and he looked good today notching 115 total yards. He hits holes hard and is pretty amazing in terms of his change of direction. He reminds me just a bit of Ahmad Bradshaw with his running style. I think he could be our Faulk of the future; he is still young and he has 4.3 speed, good hands and, it seems, an ability to grasp concepts quickly. Woodhead was a key contributor today, and I am thrilled the Jets let him go. One man's trash is truly another man's treasure.
The receivers had a huge spotlight on them without Randy Moss, and for the most part they did not do too well. Brandon Tate was a non-factor for most of the game, though he did have a huge play on an end-around. I would love to see Brady get Tate the ball more. He reminds me of Greg Jennings a bit, and I hope that he will be worked into the playbook a bit more in the ensuing weeks. Wes Welker was stellar as usual, though I do think that the Moss trade will lessen his numbers more than expected. However, that is not all a bad thing, as it will prevent excess wear and tear on his knee. He looks just about 100 percent though, and impressed me with his punt return ability. Julian Edelman was a disappointing non-factor before his concussion, but this is all merely leading up to the true story of the game: Deion Branch.
Branch has not lost a single step since he left. I do not know what happened in Seattle, but he looked every bit as effective as he did in 2004 on the field today. He still has very good hands, he can get downfield, and he can make big plays. If Randy Moss was starting instead of Deion Branch today, I do not think the Patriots win the game. Moss would have stretched the defenses, but Branch is a better fit for a Brady offense, plain and simple. He is clutch, he knows how to win, and he makes plays when a play needs to be made. I am fine with this receiver corps going forward, as long as Tate gets just a little bit more involved in the offensive scheme.
Tight end wise, it was an up and down day for Aaron Hernandez. He dropped a couple of passes, but those mistakes are merely rookie errors. He will figure it out eventually; I have faith. His presence on the field makes the Patriots a better team, it is that simple. He is dynamic with the ball in his hands and does not need Randy Moss to get open; he proved that today. His opposite number, Rob Gronkowski, is an impact player as well. That 1st and 25 play was one of the biggest plays of the game for me; it showed Gronk, matched up one-on-one with a linebacker, adjusting to a slightly off pass, maintaining his balance and helping his team. Gronk also drew a key pass interference penalty. He is an X-Factor of a different sort, and I think he will be utilized a bit more without Randy. Finally, Alge Crumpler looked good as a blocker, not so good as a receiver. However, he is a captain now, so congratulations to him. It is nice to see a new addition fit into the locker room and function as a leader for the young guys. At this point, I would say that he is doing a pretty good job.
The offensive line, overall, was decent today, though all made some mistakes. Dan Koppen struggled mightily against Haloti Ngata, and the other two interior linemen were not very helpful either. Stephen Neal looked good on run plays and held his own against the pass, as did Dan Connolly. Sebastian Vollmer was slightly better than Matt Light, though neither was perfect. Vollmer did not give up a sack on the day, but he might as well have on the Brady interception, when a missed block let Dawan Landry get a free shot at Tom Terrific. Overall, I would rank the OL's performance in this game as follows: 1. Neal, 2. Connolly, 3. Vollmer, 4. Light, 5. Koppen. Against a tough defense, I think they did OK. Next week it will be a bit easier, because San Diego is not nearly as stellar on that side of the ball.
On the defensive line, the team did better today with its rotation. Vince Wilfork was a monster all game, eating up blocks and helping to stop Ray Rice, who only had 88 yards on 28 carries. The fact that this team held Rice to under 3 yards a carry is incredible, considering last game the run defense was the main reason why we lost. Brandon Deaderick was much more solid against the run than Mike Wright, who came in as a pass rush specialist. I much prefer this rotation to Wright playing every down. On the other side, Gerard Warren looked good. I did not notice Myron Pryor or Ron Brace all game, so I assume they held their own at the point of attack but did nothing else of note. The line did a decent job, but it was the linebackers and defensive backs who need to be talked about most.
First, the linebacking core. This was a huge game for the young group and, for the most part, they played really well. The interior duo of Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes played, for me, their best games of the seasons. They were instrumental in handling Rice and the Ravens' rushing attack. They combined for 31 tackles, a huge number. They set a tone and looked good in all aspects of the game. Spikes even covered a bit, which impressed me; he looked very natural running with Rice on short routes, and was the major reason he averaged less than 5 yards a catch. Even Dane Fletcher got in on the act, making two huge plays in the fourth quarter. He looked really agile on the field, and could be an intriguing rotational option in the future. Gary Guyton came on in sub packages and played pretty decently. However, I do not think he is the best cover linebacker on the team anymore. That title belongs to Rob Ninkovich who, once again, had a very solid outing.
Ninkovich, like last game in Miami, was a stalwart against the pass this week. He maintained his responsibility at all times and was, overall, very solid in the passing game. However, where he impressed me most was his pursuit and willingness to stop the run. One of the single dumbest officiating moves in the game in my mind was the tripping penalty that was called when Ninkovich snuffed out the wide receiver reverse. What is he supposed to do on that play? The trip was negligible and I have, seriously, never heard that called on a defensive player before. I will chalk that up to a good play by Ninkovich, and I think he has earned a starting spot for weeks to come. Opposite him, Jermaine Cunningham was superb as well. He didn't pressure Joe Flacco quite as consistently as I would have liked, but he did provide quite a bit of push. He forced a fumble, set the edge in the running game, and got a sack. That is a pretty solid day at the office. All Cunningham needs is more game experience, and I think he could be special. Heck, Ninkovich could be special as well! I am so excited about this linebacker core now that we have a Vrabel (Nink) and a McGinest (Cunningham)...not to mention a Bruschi (Mayo) and a Bryan Cox (Spikes.)
Now...for the piece de resistance...the secondary. There was one aspect about this game that one had to be at Gillette Stadium to see, it was not readily apparent via TV. One statistic that I find absolutely dumbfounding that, I think, can help explain why the Patriots did not look so great for the first three quarters when it came to stopping Joe Flacco. The youthful mistakes and the penalties definitely did not help matters...but coaching moves like this one just amaze me.
For the first three and a half quarters or so, until safety Jarrad Page got injured, the Patriots never had more than two cornerbacks on the field. And those two cornerbacks were...Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington.
Even more amazing; which safety was taking the place of the nickel cornerback on most of the snaps? None other than Patrick Chung.
Now...is that seriously the best way to utilize Chung? I would personally have preferred to see Page play slot and Chung play more in-the-box or on the tight end. Heap had a big day (Chung was in zone on the touchdown catch) partially because of this. Jonathan Wilhite did not see a defensive snap until the fourth quarter! That is pretty amazing. Of course, I would prefer to see Darius Butler in there instead of Wilhite, but that seems to be moot at this point
Overall, the secondary was not terrible. They grew up before our eyes. Devin McCourty was very solid when he was matched up on Anquan Boldin. He only gave up a five yard pass play to the Ravens' number one target. And, against Derrick Mason, he was stellar as well, only giving up one catch. The penalty was a rookie mistake of not looking back for the ball when he was covering Houshmandzadeh, but he more than made up for it with the huge pass defense in overtime, when he took a tight end one on one, skied for the ball and batted it away. That screams "elite talent" to me. I think we will continue to see McCourty assert himself as a top cover corner in the league over the next couple of years. What a draft pick.
Kyle Arrington, on the other hand, is probably going to have a lot of people come down hard on him. I will not. I think that Arrington played decently today, considering the style he was forced to play. He was noticeably more comfortable playing further up on receivers, but Mason is shifty enough to get off the jam. That was what killed him against Derrick. Against Boldin, he was stellar for the most part. On the touchdown pass, he started playing off and simply got beat when the safety help never came. That happens on occasion. Also, on the first down pass to Mason when Arrington went for the INT, I do not have a problem with that at all. He had safety help, knew so, and decided to go for the pick. He nearly got there, and it was a worthwhile gamble in my mind. I would still have loved to see Butler on the field, but Arrington is a stellar starter who will only get better over time.
The safeties as a whole were a bit underwhelming today. Jarrad Page was decent, though not so hot in coverage, before he got injured. Patrick Chung was the best of the bunch by far, but he will have better games than this one. I do love the fact that Coach Belichick is using him just like he used Rodney in coverage though; the next step would be to increase blitzing looks. Brandon Meriweather did not have his best game either. He made a bonehead play and laid out Todd Heap, drawing a penalty and probably a fine as well. He looked a bit lost in coverage, though he did help out on that tipped ball when the Ravens were looking for the end zone early in the fourth quarter. I think he will get it together eventually, but Chung has surpassed him as the best safety on the team to this point.
Now, for the best part of the game...special teams! I will keep this short and sweet. Stephen Gostkowski was clutch and kicked the ball well, Zoltan Mesko came up huge with his 65 yard punt, and the return games were relatively mediocre. Tracy White, though, is a beast on kick coverage.
This week, the Patriots played, in my mind, a roughly equal or maybe slightly superior team. Unfortunately for the Ravens though, all the favorable position matchups in the world have no bearing on the result of a game if your quarterback is mediocre. Joe Flacco did well in the first three quarters (when the Patriots were matching up a safety on the slot receiver much of the time) but struggled in the fourth and in overtime. I am still not sold on him as a possible Super Bowl winning quarterback, but I suppose that stranger things have happened. All around, it was not the best game for the Ravens, though Haloti Ngata was a beast as usual, and I think Lardarius Webb has a chance to be a very good cornerback down the road. Michael Oher was abused by Cunningham all game, the Ravens offensive line did not impress me one bit, and I am not buying this receiving core. At the end of the day though, i think the Ravens are still a playoff team, and the Patriots should be thrilled with this victory.
Now, onto next week. This matchup between the Patriots and Chargers will be an interesting one. The past couple of weeks I have been negative about the Patriots' chances and that strategy has worked, so I will attempt to be as pessimistic as possible. The Chargers have a great QB and TE and a good secondary. They are young and athletic at all positions. However, considering that the Patriots were able to essentially shut down the Ravens' number one rushing and receiving threats last week, I am betting that there will be a similar gameplan in place to slow down Antonio Gates and co. Not to mention that I expect the Patriots will find it far easier to generate pressure against a weak Chargers offensive line. Jeromey Clary, their right tackle, is especially susceptible to the rush. It will be a great game, and I cannot wait to continue to see this young defense grow up before my eyes.
We are all witnesses.