Thursday Morning 3rd and Long

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 16: Brandon Spikes #55 and Andre Carter #93 of the New England Patriots celebrate after Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys was sacked in the second half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on October 16, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Patriots won 20-16. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Another week, another fantastic win. I have to tell you though, this past Sunday was not easy on my heart. With about six minutes left in the game, I had too much nervous energy to sit down. I watched the last third of the fourth quarter pacing back and forth behind my couch.

There are two sides of the coin when it comes to these past two wins for the New England Patriots. The first side of the coin is the pessimist viewpoint- the New York Jets are only 3-3 at this point in the season, and the Dallas Cowboys have an even lesser record, at 2 wins to 3 losses. Neither team is an established contender going into Week 7.

However, one can certainly look at these last two weeks from an optimist's point of view. Even though the Jets are struggling, they have been the Patriots biggest adversary in the AFC East for the last few years, and were projected to continue that trend until the Buffalo Bills picked up the pace in 2011. The Cowboys are "paper tiger" defined, but with one caveat- the paper portion of that adjective involves the very dangerous talent that Dallas possesses on both sides of the ball.

I wasn't shocked at Dallas's strategy going into this week- head coach Jason Garrett obviously determined that the Patriots were weakest in defending checkdown passes to tight ends, running backs, and receivers, and designed a game plan to exploit New England's weakness. And that game plan worked, with the Cowboys extending two massive clock-killing drives in the game that were heavily reliant on check downs. It was clear that the Patriots would have to play deep off of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant in order to eliminate any big play, and that strategy would open up the middle of the field.

The only problem would be the Cowboys execution, or lack thereof, in the red zone. Tony Romo was clearly frustrated when his team marched down the field early in the third quarter only to settle for 3 points, and considering how dangerous New England's offense is each time they step foot on the field, Romo had every reason to be frustrated.

Scoring field goals is not going to cut it against the Patriots this year, and the Dallas game was a clear indication of that fact. No matter how well an opposing defense plays against the Pats, Tom Brady will only need two minutes and one possession to grab the reigns and drive his team to victory.

This "W" cannot be attributed entirely to TB12, however. New England's defense picked the perfect moment to have a defining three-and-out, and did so without stud linebacker Jerod Mayo. Brandon Spikes is showing glimpses of a perfect complement to Rob Ninkovich and Mayo upon Mayo's return, and it is directly because of his impact on the line of scrimmage. Most often, we look at edge rushers and pressure from the side as the key to disrupting a passers rhythm. This week was completely different, and in no small part due to Brandon' ability to take on centers, and the intensity he brings to the field.

 

When Spikes blitzes the opposing center, he is not looking to come through a gap and get to the quarterback. It seems that his responsibility is to blow the center out of the water, and gain one-on-one matchups for New England's defensive tackles. Even when he fakes this blitz up the middle, he forces the center and opposing quarterback to account for this movement in their protection, and this will be a valuable tool going forward.

Brandon Spikes is the "teeth" that I've been waiting for on the New England defense. He talks (often to himself), plays with intensity on every down, brings the hammer whenever possibly, and has shown an increasingly high motor throughout the last few games. That motor drives Spikes to be in on seemingly every tackle, and constantly swarm to the pile. I also love the visor he wears, and the ridiculous foot shuffle he did in the third quarter after stopping the Cowboys on a second down in the red zone.

Rob Ninkovich doesn't shine, but he isn't dull either. Ninkovich, Spikes, and Guyton have proven to be a reliable trio at linebacker- but Jerod Mayo, Spikes, and Ninkovich will be formidable.

I've said in the past that the strength of the Patriots' defense lies in their defensive tackles, and with the activation of Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick from the Physically Unable to Perform list I will again say that the overlying strength of New England's defense is the defensive tackle position. Vince Wilfork is clearly the stud and leader of the group- not only pressuring the quarterback, but also nearly grabbing his third interception of the year this past Sunday. Vince was also responsible for forcing a fumble in the first half, when he stripped the ball from Tashard Choice simply by hammering Choice's arms with his own meaty hook.

I really don't believe that the Patriots will field six defensive tackles on Sundays, so I'll be interested to see what happens with Brace and Deaderick. Both have played relatively well in their tenure, but Deaderick registered two sacks last year. At 6'3", 330 Brace is known as an extremely physically strong tackle, and he'll be most likely be returning to the defensive tackle role he played opposite of Green Bay Packer B.J. Raji at Boston College. At 6'4", 305 Brandon is more of a hybrid DE/DT, and he'll probably be used similarly to Shaun Ellis. I was surprised to see that both were activated as soon as they were eligible from the PUP list. Belichick has only three weeks to decide how they can be used. Gerard Warren filled the void left by Myron Pryor going on Injured Reserve, but the Patriots are still left with Mike Wright's defensive end position to plug. That means there are two defensive lineman competing to fill a single void, unless Belichick decides to modify the roster in some other way. I wouldn't be surprised if Ross Ventrone gets cut, again. And then again.

At some point in the last two weeks, I commented on a post on Pats Pulpit that I believed Kyle Arrington was the premier cornerback for the Patriots at that point in the season, and this past weekend only solidified that opinion in my mind. Arrington is by far New England's best ball-hawking cornerback, evidenced by following his solid 2 interception and 1 sack preseason with 4 interceptions and an additional 2 passes defensed in the first six games of this season. Kyle started 14 of 16 games last year, and has started 4 of 6 this year. He's primarily occupied a slot role for the Patriots, but I envision that changing in the future. Though listed as the same height as Devin McCourty, Arrington seems much more physically imposing. He has good coverage skills, the strength to press receivers, and a willingness to engage running backs in the open. As long as Kyle learns to avoid helmet to helmet contact (to prevent concussions) and stays generally healthy I see him being a long term starting option for the Patriots. (I would have loved for him to crush Mark Sanchez on his hit last week, but it appeared that Arrington miscalculated his trajectory.)

The Patriots have been remarkably consistent with their rushing attack this year- piling up 100 yards or more in 5 of 6 games, and 94 yards in the sixth. Even against the top-ranked Cowboys' rushing defense, the Patriots managed to gain 101 yards- Dallas' average prior to this week had been slightly shy of 62 yrds/game. And this was with Dallas having an extra week of preparation for the Patriots! I've said this multiple times, but I'm starting to see it written more often recently (including in this week's TMQ) and it bears repeating- having two versatile tight ends, and especially Rob Gronkowski, is the key to New England's offensive balance. Paraphrasing what Tom Brady has said before- New England needs to be able to rush when their opponent is expecting a run, and pass when their opponent is expecting a pass. However, the fact that the Patriots can gain 7 yards on the ground out of one set and then pass for 15 on the next play from the same set will give defensive coordinators fits going forward.

Also, there seems to be some debate as to what impact Kevin Faulk will have going forward, after being activated from the PUP list. Though he's getting older, let's get one thing straight- if Kevin is healthy, he is an incredible asset to the Patriots. It might take some time for Faulk to get acclimated back to the speed of the game, but his blitz pickup skills are unparalleled and he is a premier receiving weapon on third down.

A few extra notes from this game:

- I really liked all of the pre-snap movement from the Patriots' defensive lineman. I'm sure that most people noticed New England's lineman shifting gaps or from a gap to lined up directly on an offensive lineman, and I think it did a good job of confusing assignments for Dallas. Bill may be adding different foils to the defense as the newer players become more comfortable in the progression of the season, and Andre Carter seems to be a fixture of that versatility. Carter lined up as a defensive end on a three man line, a four man line, and an elephant outside linebacker on some occasions. He is a tremendous player, and I hope the two sacks he gained on Sunday are an indicator of his progression in the system.


- Key play: 3rd and 10, 10:50 left in second quarter. Wilfork, Warren to left side as down lineman, Ninkovich and Carter standing. Presnap, Carter goes down on a hand, Nink switches to left. Wilfork, Warren, and Carter line up tight over center. Carter stunts around, isn't picked up, and forces Romo to throw incomplete.
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- Key play: After 8+ minute drive, Andre Carter beats Tyrone Smith one-on-one for second sack of game to force the Cowboys into a 3rd and 17, which they can't convert and must kick a field goal to tie the game. Cowboys had very close second and goal after sustaining their second consecutive massive drive. Romo is clearly frustrated.


Next week: I'll be breaking down the matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Enjoy your bye week everyone!

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