Thursday Morning 3rd and Long

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 02: Stevan Ridley #22 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball during their game against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum on October 2, 2011 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

 

Last week I lamented the "Bill Belichick as defensive guru" stigma that most pundits and fans have attached to the New England Patriots coach, and asked why Bill had not recently lived up to that reputation.

I've heard this gripe everywhere- message boards, sports radio, heck even on ESPN and the NFL network. People are confused, because the former defense-first prophet, whose imprint was all over the Super Bowl winning New York Giants and the original LT, has become an offensive minded head coach since the 2007 season.

Leave it to Gregg Easterbrook, of TMQ fame, to put everything into perspective:

"In 2007, the Patriots set the NFL record for points in a season. Yet Bill Belichick cut his teeth as a defensive zealot. His big break was as defensive coordinator for the Bill Parcells Super Bowl Giants, a grind-it-out defensive team. As head coach in Cleveland, Belichick emphasized defense. Now he's an offensive wizard, while the Patriots rank last in the NFL in defense. Impostor, tell me where the real Bill Belichick is and what you've done with him!

The New England coach is nothing if not analytical, and realized -- especially with the past decade of rule changes intended to favor offense -- that defense-oriented teams sometimes win but high-scoring teams almost always win. There are coaches who strategize to come out ahead in a low-scoring defensive struggle. For the past five years, Belichick has been strategizing to spin the scoreboard. The Patriots under Belichick are now 62-3 when scoring at least 30 points. A high-scoring team almost always wins, so Belichick has undergone a religious conversion, from defense to offense."

Emphasis mine. It's become clear to me why Belichick is now okay with running an offensive minded team; 62-3 is a ridiculous statistic. Completely unbelievable. The fact that the Patriots have scored over 30 points in their last 12 regular season contests, and only lost once in that span (in a game where Tom Brady threw 4 interceptions) is staggering.

Some more eye-opening statistics after the jump.

Week Patriots TOP Opp TOP Result Patriots P/Y Opponents P/Y Pats t/o Opp t/o pats points opp points
1 28.27 31.33 W 7 for 50 8 for 60 1 1 38 24
2 29.02 30.58 W 8 for 80 6 for 44 0 4 35 21
3 35.15 28.45 L 8 for 93 9 for 77 4 2 31 34
4 26.40 33.20 W 5 for 45 9 for 85 0 2 31 19
5 9 135 98
Week pats yards opp yards pats y/m opp y/m pats p/m opp p/m avg y/p opp avg y/p
1 622 488 22.00 15.58 1.34 0.77 16.37 20.33
2 504 470 17.37 15.37 1.21 0.69 14.40 22.38
3 495 448 14.08 15.75 0.88 1.20 15.97 13.18
4 409 504 15.49 15.18 1.17 0.57 13.19 26.53
2030 1910 68.94 61.87 4.61 3.22 59.93 82.42
avg y/m 17.24 avg p/m 1.15 avg y/p 14.98
opp avg y/m 15.47 opp avg p/m 0.81 opp avg y/p 20.60

What you see above is a statistical breakdown of the Patriots offense and defense, disregarding things like first downs and yards per down. The bottom statistics are completely based around total points, total yards, and time of possession.

The first thing that shocked me when I first looked at these statistics was how against the grain of conventional football wisdom the Patriots' 2011 offense seems to be. In New England's three wins, they had less time of possession than the other team each time. In New England's lone loss, they had a positive time of possession by the largest differential of any game this season. It was also the only game that the Patriots lost the turnover battle, and gave up a defensive touchdown to their opponent.

The three categories I looked all related to the efficiency of the Patriots offense versus the efficiency of their opponents' offenses (or the efficiency allowed by New England's defense). They are:

- Yards per minute of possession
- Points per minute of possession
- Yards per point scored

Because the Patriots ran a hurry-up style of offense primarily in their first two games of the season, it's easy to see a base for the differences.

In the Patriots' wins this season, they consistently had more points per minute of possession, more yards per minute of possession, and less yards per point scored. This means that the Patriots' offense moved the ball faster than the opposing defenses, scored at a much higher rate in their time on the field, and needed less yardage to score more points. All of these would point to the obvious- that New England's elite offense operates on a much different level of efficiency than their opponents.

In the lone loss so far this season, the statistics were completely flipped. Does this mean that the less time New England is on the field, the more likely a win for the Patriots?

 

Does this defense need to be better? Indubitably. The lack of pressure they're generating to this point, while satisfying Pepper Johnson's standards, is the cause of ire for all Patriots fans. Seeing a middle of the road quarterback like Jason Campbell drive the length of the field like an All-Pro is frustrating beyond belief.

Jerod Mayo's injury will definitely not help this team in transition. The Pro Bowl linebacker has been a stalwart of New England's defense throughout his entire tenure, and is the only linebacker on the Patriots that can seemingly do it all- defending zones, stopping runs, shading tight ends and running backs- in short, Mayo is the only elite linebacker on the roster.

I've never considered myself a glass half-full kind of person; I'm certainly not a pessimist, but I'm not an eternal optimist by any stretch of the imagination. However, this time maybe there is a silver lining to Mayo's injury, much like I posited for Chad Ochocinco in Aaron Hernandez's absence. With Mayo down, the other linebackers on the roster will be forced to step up. The youthful bunch will get invaluable repetitions knowing that they don't have their "big brother" to cover up for their mistakes. It's a sink or swim venture.

The reason I'm being optimistic is that I've seen some very positive plays out of Spikes and Fletcher throughout the first quarter of the season. Spikes is trying to bring a much needed intensity to this group- much like the "teeth" I think they lack. The former Florida Gator is hitting with purpose, and bringing a big attitude with him; I think this ‘swagger' can only be a positive for the group. Mayo is a quiet leader- showing through example and hard work. But this team needs a Bash Brother, the guy who treads the line, sometimes falling short but bringing the hammer when necessary. At one point last week, Spikes speared a running back, and a smile came over my face. (I watched that play in slow motion no less than 15 times- Spikes took on the best running back in the league one-on-one, and he completely demolished Run DMC).

The one problem with this group? Probably speed. Spikes, Fletcher, Guyton, and Ninkovich are quality linebackers, but none are dynamically fast. However, the Patriots played one of the fastest and most athletic teams they'll face in the season in the Oakland Raiders, without Jerod for a good amount of the game, and were not overtaken by the Raiders' speed. This upcoming week, New England will be facing their divisional rivals in the New York Jets. The Jets definitely have talent, but outside of Santonio Holmes I really don't see playmakers or playbreakers.  Plaxico Burress has been a great addition to the Jets, but is providing only slightly more offense to this point than Chad Ochocinco is for the Patriots.   Although, against New England I wouldn't doubt Burress has triple digit yards and a touchdown, because that has become the norm.

If Rex Ryan's words aren't a ruse, and the Jets are going to try to pound the football down the Patriots throats, they're going to have a long day in store. The Patriots' defense's best attribute is their ability to stop great running backs (at least in the running game). Could LaDainain Tomlinson hurt us with checkdowns? Absolutely. However, don't be surprised if you see a lot of Jeff Tarpinian and James Ihedigbo in this game, with Mayo off the field. Tarpinian is an undersized LB and Ihedigbo is a massive safety, and both might be utilized specifically to prevent checkdowns and designed screens to LT. Will Tomlinson throw up a goose egg on the stat board? Probably not. But him, and Shonn Greene, should see a lot of throwback red Patriots jerseys every time they get handed the ball. Andre Carter has done a fantastic job this season of rushing from the defensive end position but also maintaining the integrity of his gaps. If Albert Haynesworth plays, it's a huge positive for the Patriots. If not, Big Vince, Kyle Love, and Gerard Warren should be able to hold off the Jets' offensive line. Is it a crazy prediction to think that the Patriots might start this game in a base 3-4 alignment?

The Jets are known as a gameplan oriented defense, and I expect much of the same this upcoming weekend. Though Rex wouldn't ever give his scheme away, I, like most, expect Revis Island to be Wes Welker's next destination. Though I don't think Darrelle will completely shut Welker out, I expect him to have far less of an impact on this game than in the previous two weeks. I also wouldn't doubt that Antonio Cromartie is asked to cover the Patriots' other primary receiving threat in Rob Gronkowski. Cromartie is tall, long, and definitely quick enough to keep stride with Rob. I think that New York will try to bear down on these two weapons, and force Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco to have an impact in the receiving game- which I think will definitely happen.

Many have said that the Jets run defense has suffered this season, when in fact they are allowing 4.2 yards/carry to the Patriots 4.8. Because of the early leads New England builds, their opponents often have to abandon the run game in second halves.  Maybe it's my homerism getting the best of me, but I'd taking the emerging Stevan Ridley and the workhorse BenJarvus Green-Ellis over Greene and Tomlinson. Ridley put up a career day last week, and was said to get to the stadium only hours after New England touched down.  He, much like the Law Firm, clearly wants to put in work and get the most out of their touches.  With Danny Woodhead out, both are going to have to.

One more note on Ridley- if I had to make a comparison to another running back, I'd say Stevan reminds me most of Adrian Peterson without the top end speed.  He hits the hole with anger, and if he's given any green he can burn past the pack.  Maybe it's his straight up running style that reminds me of AP the most.

Will the return of Nick Mangold have a large impact on this game? Mangold is dangerous even when he's hurt, and will definitely be a factor in running the ball. He is known as one of the only centers in the league that can take on Vince Wilfork one-on-one, so we'll have to see how much Nick has been hampered by his injury, but he is practicing this week.

This week, like in weeks past, comes down to the opposing quarterback. Sanchez has looked pedestrian so far this season, but has always stepped his game up when it came to playing the Patriots. If Mark can keep from making bad decisions, it will be a hard fought game for the Patriots. If New England's front four can somehow turn a corner and force Sanchez into making quick throws, this is the Patriots' game to lose.


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