The life of an armchair quarterback is an easy one. Relatively injury free, comfy- and built in a reality where hindsight is as good as Jerod Mayo's Lasik-altered eyes.
I want pass rush! I want a running game!
I'm not one to believe in moral victories, but I'm not as upset as maybe I should be after the Patriots' loss to Buffalo this past weekend. Am I perturbed that Tom Brady appeared to be human for two quarters? Perhaps. Is it disconcerting that New England's defense could not put the game into overtime after Brady and the iron man Wes Welker were men possessed on our final drive? A little, yes. Am I in disbelief that Chad Ochocinco blew his first opportunity to endear himself to Patriots faithful with his awful drop on that final drive? Absolutely. But I've become tired of this team winning by the skin of its teeth. I want them to finally improve on their defensive deficits, and not rely on Brady to get them out of jams time after time. I hope this loss is a learning experience.
Let's start with #85. I've been almost as big of a proponent of his as any Patriots' fan since last year. I predicted to my friends last year that Chad would end up a Patriot if his time in a Bengals' uniform ever reached its end, mostly because of his dynamic performance against New England last year and his relationship with Bill Belichick. The reason that this move made so much sense to me was that Chad wasn't a "deep threat" as many mistakenly lauded him to be- Ocho runs precise routes, does not mind going over the middle of the field, and is physical off the line of scrimmage. These are all qualities that would merit success in a Patriots' uniform.
I'm not one to abandon ship three games into the season, but Chad has looked so far from what I envisioned that I have began war cries to see my beloved Randy Moss back in New England this year; ESPECIALLY after seeing Randy's interactions with Belichick in the recent NFL documentary "A Football Life." I know very little about the X's and O's of football beyond what I read and see, but here's what I do know: Moss and Tom Brady have an uncanny chemistry when they're on the football field.
Chad has five catches for maybe a hundred yards in his first four games as a Patriot. In his first four games in New England, Randy had over 500 yards and 7 touchdowns. The difference in numbers is so stark that it's almost unbelievable to see. Are the roles of each receiver different? Absolutely. Moss was an elite downfield threat, while Chad is an above-average career receiver. The Patriots offense in 2007 was practically designed to get Randy touchdowns, while the 2011 offense is designed to spread the ball. But at some point, we really have to question the chemistry between Brady and Ochocinco when Tom is targeting Chad three or less times per game.
Even while I type this, I understand why Chad has had such little impact on New England's offense this year. I've acknowledged how he struggled to get reps over Welker and Branch in the first two games when the Patriots were primarily running two receiver and two tight end sets. In this last game, Wes Welker was unstoppable and uncoverable. Brady wasn't forcing Wes the ball for those 16 receptions; Welker was simply getting open, and Tom was finding the open man.
We (fans and media) really cannot criticize Ochocinco because the Patriots' offense has been so dominant in the first three games that a player can't be singled out for their lack of production. The four horsemen so far have been our two tight ends, Deion Branch, and Wes Welker. But we know how this situation ends. The Jets took on that team last year, and were able to stymie the Patriots' offense to a certain degree. In my (humble) opinion, New England absolutely needs a new wrinkle in their offense. As we've already seen, health will be the mitigating factor for New England. Rob Gronkowski is not going to stay at 100% while taking the amount of hard hits he does- it's just too much to ask for someone to contact NFL defense lineman half of the time and expose themselves to missile-like defense backs the other half. Rob will miss games this season, as Aaron Hernandez already has. It's the same story for Deion Branch- while he was fantastically productive in the first two games of the season, he was completely shut out against the Bills. While I would attribute that mostly to the "zone" that Wes Welker was in, we still have to face the reality that our offensive composition and production will change from week to week. These four studs can't possibly be relied on for otherworldly statistics through a season's entirety and into the offseason.For this reason, Ochocinco needs to step it up. Big time. I'm tired of Tom spitting out clichés that he's working hard, because you know what? Hard work is great, but he needs to take some of the pressure off of New England's other weapons. We can't expect that every team is going to play fair all of the time, so we should expect other teams to start targeting different Patriots for hard hits. Frankly, I'm surprised that someone didn't try to lay Welker out in Buffalo. I'm not saying that NFL players intend to be dirty, but there's a reality that must be faced. Defensive players, especially hot-heads and people that don't like being shown up, will start looking for big hits, regardless of penalties incurred. You think if Wes goes for a hundred in the first half against a team that a safety or corner won't be looking for the right moment to put him down in the second? 15 yards for helmet to helmet? Well worth it for a second half of a Welker-less Tom Brady. ‘Hey golden boy, you've lost your security blanket. And we're coming for you next.'
The pressure is on Ocho for another reason- the inactivity of second-year player Taylor Price. Taylor's presence hasn't been needed so far this season, but the day will come. Right now, he can't answer the bell because of a nagging hamstring injury. At some point, Deion will be down and the last options will be Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman. While I'm a fan of both from a depth standpoint- and especially from the abilities both have on special teams- I'd rather have a bonafide presence split out wide. Edelman has come up big in the clutch before (2009 playoffs against the Raiders), but we have seen only little improvement since then. Slater had a huge catch to start off the 2011 season, but he's far from a consistent option to this point- though with Slater's dedication to hard work, it's not out of the realm of possibility for him to become a Troy Brown-esque player for the Patriots (a little hyperbole, but both began making impacts on special teams).
For some reason, I can't tell if Edelman is on the hot seat, or if Belichick sees a playmaker that he needs to incorporate in the game however possible. Julian lined up everywhere last Sunday, including at running back, but produced a minimal amount of offense. The dilemma I see is that while he's perhaps New England's most diverse offensive threat- returning, receiving, rushing, and maybe even quarterback in a true bind- he's not particularly elite at any of those areas. We see flashes of brilliance, and a tremendous amount of determination; but when it comes right down to the statistics, Edelman just isn't showing up. So when Bill was trying everything possible to incorporate Julian, was he doing this with the thought of expanding their playbook and having confidence in the young receiver, or was he saying "here's your opportunity to do something, ANYTHING, to prove yourself- otherwise, I have to find another option." I'm more inclined to believe the former situation, but the latter wouldn't surprise me. The elephant in the room for the Patriots is whether Edelman is the heir apparent to Welker should New England choose not to resign Wes- after the start to this season that #83 has had, and the amount of production he's generated throughout his career with the Patriots, how would they not? I just refuse to believe that Wes won't receive a contract extension because Belichick, Caserio, and Robert Kraft are holding out hope that Julian Edelman can be an effective doppelganger in that role.
One more note on Wes- so far into this season, he looks almost unstoppable. He seems as speedy as he's ever been but also appears more diverse and crafty than I've ever taken notice of. Is it possible that last season, when coming off an injury and incapable of operating at 100%, Welker actually progressed as a receiver due to his physical limitations? In any case, he is putting it all together, and making a statement while doing so.
On to the root of the Patriots' struggles for the past few years- the defense.
Why does it seem that the Patriots are unable to do anything on defense? I have confidence in the group, and I know that New England has elite talent- Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo especially. But barring the performance against Chad Henne, it seems that the Patriots are doomed for another year of mediocrity. Make no mistake about it- Ryan Fitzpatrick and Philip Rivers are GREAT talents, with more talent around them. Fred Jackson is a man possessed in the backfield, Scott Chandler is an up-and-comer, Steve Johnson is a burner, and David Nelson was turning into the second option for the Bills even before Roscoe Parrish went down. But even mediocre defenses don't look as bad as the Patriots seem to have the potential to look. Maybe they were put in some bad positions, but the amount of yardage New England gives up is immense.
Bill Belichick made his name in the NFL as a defensive guru, a genius on that side of the ball- but why does it seem that none of his recent defenses can muster any semblance of a pass rush? Yes, the team was short handed in defensive tackles, but I watch games where virtual unknowns put pressure on the quarterback. Heck, Jonathan Wilhite has two sacks in three games this season for the Broncos! It is that the Patriots really are too vanilla in their playcalling? I can't recall a recent time that any defensive formation blew me away, or I was even overly impressed after a full 60 minutes since the domination of the Jets last year.
Hopefully, the loss to the Bills wakes something up, either in the locker room or with the coaching staff. As frustrating as it is for a fan to see the Patriots implode with a 21 point lead, after watching ‘A Football Life' I can guarantee its as frustrating to the Hooded One. But what is the answer? I'm grasping at anything to pick out of the game, but while watching the Redskins play the Cowboys on last Monday night it occurred to me- New England has no teeth. They're like a pitbull who has been defanged- all exterior appearances would indicate that they're nasty and physical, but I'm not seeing anything that would intimidate opposing offenses. Laron Landry of Washington laid a hit on some receiver on Monday that I must have rewound to watch 5 times. A perfectly clean, football hit; but one of those that make the viewer just say "wow." Patrick Chung has that capability- seeing him let loose on Miami's Fasano was awesome. But it seems that on other teams, every player is doing that. On the Patriots, the role players look to the studs to make the big plays. On the big goal line stop against the Chargers? Who else but Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Devin McCourty. They need to lead this defense, to alter the mindset of getting off the field for Brady to resume his "magic" to hitting the opposing offense so hard that they might consider taking the next series off. Andre Carter or Albert Haynesworth need to flatten the oppositions quarterback and force them to hear footsteps coming from the backside.
Before anyone jumps on my back, and questions the faith I have in the team- it's not that. Belichick was given such a short amount of time to scheme around his big name acquisitions in Haynesworth, Carter, and Ellis that there's no way we're seeing a finished product on the field. However, none of these players are showing through as elite acquisitions. Big Al isn't shaking the earth under him and Carter isn't blindsiding the quarterback even a few times a game. The defensive line, while possibly switched into attack mode, is not cutting it with four pass rushers. And because Belichick seems to call blitzes so irregularly, I think New England's defense is getting gameplanned against with designed running back screens and check downs. Often times on third downs, a team will either go with an empty backfield or have a running back to protect against a blitz. Against the Patriots, the running back on third down often doesn't even wait for a potential blitz- they pop around just beyond the defensive line or run somewhat of a delayed slant to pick up a first down. It almost looks to me like teams are designing these types of plays, knowing that the Patriots will spread the field with a nickel or dime package and rely on their four man front to generate pressure.
The lack of blitzing is putting pressure on New England's defensive backs on passing downs, especially because the Patriots have gone primarily with defending man to man this season. With the pass rush entirely handled, and the linebackers moving into zones to protect against short passes, they are often subject on 3rd and 4 or 3rd and 5 to short checkdown passes, which almost never get stopped before the opposing back gains a first down. For a fan, there's almost nothing more frustrating than a team converting a third down with their running back- I can't imagine how much more frustrating it is for the team, or the coach.
One thing that stuck out to me particularly when rewatching this past game was how ineffective Rob Ninkovich seems to be. Ninkovich often rushes from the edge without his hand on the ground, but he rarely is set when doing so. He adjusts his feet often, and seems to have below average burst off of the line- not only this, but he comes off the line a split second slow, and isn't strong or fast enough to do anything against the offensive tackle. In short, Rob is just not a good pass rusher. I'm not sure if it's technique or a deficiency in physical abilities, but Ninkovich is just not a good option at outside linebacker/ defensive end. I've seen him make good plays in the past against the run, and he's decent in pass coverage, but pass rush is definitely not his strength. Something occurred to me though- I've seen Ninkovich set up in a four point stance similar to Cameron Wake with moderate success; would this be a good option for him going forward? Since he doesn't have a good burst coming off the line of scrimmage, maybe compensating for his speed by just going full out on his pass rush would be beneficial.
The threat this upcoming week is definitely different from the past three. While Miami, San Diego, and Buffalo had good running games, they didn't have the commitment to running the ball like the Oakland Raiders do. Darren McFadden is quickly establishing himself as a premier running back, and dominated the lowly-ranked New York Jets defense last week. There's no secret what Oakland wants to do- they're going to try to get after Brady, and make the entire contest an ugly, smashmouth, slugfest. The only hope they have of doing so is keeping Tom Brady from putting up early points, a task that has been very hard to do thus far. Oakland has a great defense, but New England's offense is simply elite. The amount of consecutive 30-point regular season games the Patriots have put together is staggering, so the Raiders have to assume this won't be a low scoring contest. Oakland has to come at New England in the same manner Cleveland did last year- take chances and create turnovers. And these turnovers aren't just interceptions on their side of the field; Oakland is going to need to force fumbles on the Patriots' side, and hope that they can take advantage of short field opportunities. They're probably going to take chances on special teams to get advantageous fields positions.
The reason Oakland is going to need to do these things? Put simply, they aren't any of the teams New England has faced. While they have speedy talents on the offensive side of the ball, none of those players are more talented than who the Patriots have competed against already this year. Jason Campbell is a mediocre quarterback, and I think the Patriots will treat him that way. I envision Belichick planning to generate a lot of confusion on offense for the Raiders, to take advantage of Campbell and his youthful group. On offense, it's going to be hard for the Pats. I know that Richard Seymour is going to have a game and a half, and that he'll be a huge motivating force for the Raiders' ferocious front line. The absence of Logan Mankins in practice is certainly not a good sign, especially considering that Sebastian Vollmer is still out and not looking good for this game. The reserves in the offensive line are going to need to be on point- and I would expect to see Danny Woodhead in a limited role. Woodhead is good at picking up blitzing, and great at creating confusion in the run game- but Oakland's defense is very, very physical. The Patriots are going to need the size of Stevan Ridley and BenJarvus Green-Ellis as a safety net against an aggressive defense- mostly because Belichick knows the ultimate foil to Brady's consistency on offense is putting him on his back. The Raiders might bring the house on every down just to dirty #12's jersey, and make sure he doesn't have time to pick apart their secondary.
Oakland has gotten an interception a game this season, so they definitely have playmakers. However, two of the three quarterbacks they've faced passed for over three hundred yards, and the other- Ryan Fitzpatrick- passed for 264. So the Oakland secondary is by no means impenetrable, especially for Brady. But Tom can't make force bad passes like he did on 2 of the 4 interceptions last week, and I don't expect him to. Brady is the type of player that follows a mediocre performance with a masterful one, and that is what I expect.