Thursday Morning 3rd and Long

Hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving (for those of you in the States)!

11 games into the season, the 2011 New England Patriots are looking a lot like their 2010 counterpart, and in many ways that's a very good thing. The only negative? Well, that the 2010 Patriots were knocked out of the first round of the Playoffs, much like the 2009 counterpart. I feel like this fact is creating a lot of negativity for Patriots fans- I think that we've become so focused on the end game that we do not have a chance to kick back and enjoy the season. For teams that are consistently in the hunt that don't have a decade of dominance under their belts- take, for instance, the Chargers, Texans, etc.- the talk of the season is whether or not their team will be able to make it to the postseason.

Not so much for Patriot fans- we've been spoiled with so much elite play that we now dissect victories to the point that holding a team to 3 points is not enough- it's almost like we should have held them to a negative amount. Beating the Jets is expected because Mark Sanchez isn't an "elite" quarterback. Dominating the Eagles isn't good enough because the defense still allowed too many yards, and what the heck is Bill Belichick thinking by cutting Philip Adams?

Is this New England team perfect? I think they're far from it, personally. I see a problem with consistently targeting the same four receiving options game in and game out. I dislike that the Patriots have no semblance of a kick return game, sans Julian Edelman's 75-yard return against the hapless Chiefs. Like most, I'm waiting for the second shoe to drop for a secondary that is full of practice squad players and undrafted no-names.

But I see a spark. I see the "teeth" in the defense that I've written about. The defense this year gets fired up and seems to definitely have more energy and more aggression than in years past. Two weeks ago, there was the Kyle Arrington interception set up with three massive hits- Rob Ninkovich getting to the quarterback, Sterling Moore to break the ball loose from Steve Breaston, and then Kyle Love juggernauting (that's right, I made it a verb-Kyle deserves it for that hit) an offensive lineman during the return. This past week, Arrington stuck Jason Avant so hard I thought the Eagle had to have internal bleeding. A 5'10" career offensive player had arguably the best QB hit of the game, when Edelman got a free shot on Vince Young.

With Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher returning to practice, and Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty returning to full health, I'm truly excited for the potential of our defense.

After the Patriots fourth game, I broke up New England's statistics versus their opponents in terms of yards/minute, yards/point, and points/minute. I thought that these statistics best demonstrated the efficiency of the offense and how hard the Patriots made opponents work for points. Nine games later, I've done a full review of the season up to this point in a similar manner, but with one twist- I've decided to compare the data I've compiled versus three other top-tier teams in the league against opponents the Patriots have also faced.

Let's start out with the data for the Patriots:

Week

Patriots TOP

Opp TOP

Result

Pats t/o

Opp t/o

pats points

opp points

1

28.27

31.33

W

1

1

38

24

2

29.02

30.58

W

0

4

35

21

3

35.15

28.45

L

4

2

31

34

4

26.40

33.20

W

0

2

31

19

5

33.92

26.83

W

1

0

30

21

6

27.18

32.82

W

4

2

20

16

7

20.63

39.37

L

0

1

17

25

8

29.72

30.28

L

4

2

20

24

9

30.10

29.90

W

0

3

30

16

10

28.50

31.50

W

1

3

27

3

11

32.70

27.30

W

0

1

38

20

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

Chargers

3

495

448

14.08

15.75

0.88

1.20

15.97

13.18

Bills

4

409

504

15.49

15.18

1.17

0.57

13.19

26.53

5

446

255

13.15

9.50

0.88

0.78

14.87

12.14

6

371

377

13.65

11.49

0.74

0.49

18.55

23.56

7

213

427

10.32

10.85

0.82

0.64

12.53

17.08

8

438

361

14.74

11.92

0.67

0.79

21.90

15.04

Giants

9

389

378

12.92

12.64

1.00

0.54

12.97

23.63

Jets

10

380

334

13.33

10.60

0.95

0.10

14.07

111.33

Chiefs

11

457

466

13.98

17.07

1.16

0.73

12.03

23.30

Eagles

4724.00

4508.00

14.64

13.27

0.98

0.66

15.17

28.05

(For purposes of making this purely about offensive vs. defensive efficiency, I've chosen to exclude special teams and defensive scores)

As we now have an additional two losses to look at, we can draw from the numbers what particularly hurts the Patriots. Against Buffalo, the Patriots had less points per minute, less yards per minute, and more yards per point. The Patriots also had four turnovers in that game, which becomes somewhat of a "double whammy" because even though New England had the ball for significantly longer than the Bills, the Patriots were far less efficient on the offensive side of the ball- most likely because the Patriots kept driving only to have the ball intercepted. From this, we see that limiting turnovers is key (duh).

In the Patriots next loss against the Steelers, they were significantly outgained on offense- mostly because Pittsburgh completely dominated the time of possession. The Patriots frequently win when they have the ball for a few minutes less than their opponents, but it is almost impossible to win when their TOP is doubled. Despite this, New England was in the game late into the fourth quarter, until a strip sack and what should have been a penalty by Troy Polamalu put the game out of reach. Even though it looked like the Patriots were thrashed by the Steelers, the offensive efficiency numbers put the contest in a slightly different light. Though the Steelers had a slightly better yards per minute average, the Patriots were actually better in points per minute and yards per point. The key statistic in this game? The Patriots were held to a season low 213 total offensive yards which is far, far below their season average. Although on the surface the Patriots were dominated in yards and time of possession, they were still in the game until the last seconds. That speaks volumes to mental toughness.

Finally- the loss to the New York Giants. In this game, the Patriots averaged more yards per minute, but also far more yards per point. This indicates that the Giants made the Patriots drive for longer to score, which leaves more room for giveaways. The points per minute comparison looks to be a wash, so we return to the turnover battle which New England lost 4-2. Again, this was a game that was competitive into the final seconds.

If we examine the season averages for New England, we can see the true indicators of the offensive versus defensive efficiency for this team. The team averages nearly the same amount of yards per minute on both sides of the ball. However, the Patriots average nearly a third of a point more per minute than their opponents on average; this doesn't seem like a large amount, but consider that this average is over 150% of what the Patriots give up. Then, move to the most staggering season average- yards per point. When we hear the facts about New England's "terrible" defense allowing one of the worst yardage totals in the league, but ranking 10th in points against, we then look to this statistic. This is really the reason that the Patriots are 8-3, with three very close games lost. New England's offense needs nearly half the yards gained per point that the defensive is allowing to opposing offenses.

Now, Lets take a look at the aforementioned teams against common opponents:

TOP

OPP TOP

Points

OPP Points

Yards

OPP Yards

Y/M

OPP Y/M

P/M

OPP P/M

Y/P

OPP Y/P

OPP

Steelers

33.5

26.5

13

9

290

252

8.66

9.51

0.39

0.34

22.31

28

Chiefs

Packers

29.75

30.15

31

38

368

460

12.37

15.26

1.04

1.26

11.87

12.11

Chargers

Saints

28.5

31.5

49

24

577

465

20.25

14.76

1.72

0.76

11.78

19.38

Giants

For the three top tier teams I've chosen for comparison, I went with teams that are consistently among the elite in the NFL- The Steelers, Packers, and Saints- and chose wins they had over common opponents.

NFL math doesn't work, because each game is unique. One simply cannot say that because Team A>Team B, and Team B> Team C, that Team A will be better than Team C. Nevertheless, we can definitely examine the manner of a victory, and how efficient a team was against a common opponent in having grounds for comparison.

The Steelers beat the Chiefs in a defense-oriented game, one week after the Patriots had dismantled Kansas City. Pittsburgh's offensive and defensive efficiency numbers are nearly identical, mostly because Pittsburgh once again dominated the time of possession. Sure, the Steelers allowed much less total yards, but they also surrendered three times the amount of points. Whereas the Patriots numbers for points per minute and yards per point allowed are nearly off the charts for this season, the Steelers were able to simply keep the ball for longer and grind out a 15-9 win.

Looking at the best team in the NFL in the Packers, I decided to use their win over the Chargers for comparison (Once again, the defensive scores were excluded). The Patriots and Packers allowed nearly identical yards per minute and total yards to the Chargers, but the Patriots allowed nearly half the points per minute and also doubled the yards per point- meaning that New England made the Chargers work much, much harder to put points on the board. Obviously, the fact that Green Bay's defense had two scores on the day evens out the statistics- still though, Green Bay was completely relying on turnovers to win the game. If those interceptions were still made, but resulted instead in an offensive possession and a field goal and not an immediate touchdown, the Chargers would have won. This is purely hypothetical, but shows why there is a similar sentiment for the Packers' defense as there is for New England's.

Finally, I looked at the New Orleans Saints' recent domination of the Giants. The Saints allowed more than 100 more total yards to the Giants, but were very stingy with points per minute and yards per point allowed. The Saints also won this game, whereas the Patriots lost against the Giants (darn you, Sergio Brown).

So this has become the hallmark of the 2011 New England Patriots- a team that truly defines the bend-but-don't-break mentality. Another thing that makes this team eerily resemble it's 2010 counterpart- the Patriots had a 1 to 1 ratio of touchdowns allowed versus interceptions last year (25). This year, the Patriots have intercepted the ball 16 times, and given up 16 passing touchdowns.

Around the Team

I could not be more impressed with the quality play of this team, especially considering all of the injuries on defense. Playing a good portion of their season without multiple defensive starters, this ragtag group of undrafted and unheralded players are completely buying into Bill Belichick's philosophy and doing exactly what they need to do to win games.

I think that although James Ihedigbo has made an impact with his physical play on the field, his primary impact has come where no media and no fan can see him- in the locker room. James takes a lot of responsibility for the secondary, and considering that this is his first year with the Patriots, it's almost eerie how well he comes off in interviews. He is a prototypical Belichick player- willing to earn his stripes on special teams, and stepping up when he was asked to. Though he's far from perfect, I think that he's an excellent and unheralded offseason acquisition.

Julian Edelman continues to impress with his play. His open-field tackle of Vince Young has been thoroughly dissected by now, but it still is notable how physical Julian plays for someone his size, especially considering his background. All of those times that us fans would grimace when Julian would refuse to call fair catch on a punt return seem to shine through when he can slow down an excellent runner like LeSean McCoy enough to let the rest of the defense rally to the ball. His hit on Vince Young was a perfect form tackle- almost surprising to see, because most of us are used to defensive backs trying to dive like a missile into their targets, often forgetting that using arms is a huge portion of successful tackling. Edelman is a converted quarterback turned receiver, who plays cornerback like a linebacker. I'm not sure if we'll continue to see Edelman at defensive back when Devin McCourty returns, because he is the most reliable and well-versed third receiving option. For now though, it is certainly a treat to watch such a versatile player, and one who seems to enjoy playing the sport so much.

I've been high on Taylor Price since last season- so it's both telling and somewhat depressing that the Flattop known as Tiquan Underwood saw playing time and targets over Price this past week. Though I respect the closed-lip policy of the Patriots' staff, I do wish that we knew what was going on with Taylor. He's still listed on the injury report with a hamstring injury, so I really hope it simply comes down to the coaching staff not seeing a reason to exacerbate the injury in a blowout.

Mike Reiss beat me to it this week, but expect Markell Carter to be a name that you should know next season. I doubt that he'll be added to the roster later this season, but it's very telling that the Patriots' have kept him under wraps and shied away from making any roster transactions involving the sixth round pick. From Reiss's notes, Carter has gained 10-15 lbs this season and is filling into his massive frame. He has frequently been given a black jersey for practice squad player of the week, which means that New England is impressed with his contribution to scout teams (most likely mimicking the last few sets of dangerous defensive ends the Patriots have faced). If you have never seen Markell in action, definitely YouTube his highlights at some point. He was raw coming out of college, with limited repetitions in the defensive end role, but still seemed to completely dominate the line of scrimmage. With added weight, and a great core of defensive lineman to look up to, I'm very excited for Carter's eventual contributions to this team.

I'm not going to break down the Colts this week, because everyone knows how dangerous Indianapolis can be. However, Dan Orlovsky (from my alma mater, UCONN) will be starting this week. Dan is most commonly known for possibly being the only quarterback ever to relinquish a safety by not having the game awareness to not run out of the end zone. Orlovsky can't possibly be an upgrade or downgrade for the Colts. The Patriots just have to hope that no freakish occurences happen, and they can get to 9-3.

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