Category Archives: football

Defending Champs Watch: Pats Win Comfortably vs Struggling Broncos

Positives

Special Teams

It’s hard to take much away from great special teams play because it only really shows against bad teams. Isaiah McKenzie’s muffed punt against the Pats to begin the game was his fifth punt return fumble of the season. I don’t put too much into Bill Belichick’s left-footed punter philosophy (Belichick favors lefty punters because the ball spins a different way, confusing some returners), but the Broncos’ special teams coach should have benched McKenzie against a lefty punter when he clearly can’t even catch righties. A win on special teams speaks to the overall ineptitude of the opponent, and the consistency and preparation of Coach Belichick.

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Sunday night was a win on special teams. By the time the Patriots had jumped out to a 20-6 lead with 8:47 remaining in the second quarter, New England had scored 17 of their points off of special teams. Their first touchdown was a 14-yard pass to running back Rex Burkhead, which capitalized on starting at the Denver 24-yard-line as the result of McKenzie’s muffed punt. After a Denver field goal, Dion Lewis returned the kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown. In the second quarter, Burkhead’s blocked punt at the Denver 30-yard-line set up Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yard-field goal to take a 20-6 lead. Early special teams highlights helped the Patriots jump out to an early lead, and they didn’t look back.

Dwayne Allen

Congratulations to tight end Dwayne Allen for making his first catch of the 2016 season. Allen, who was acquired from the Colts for a fourth round draft pick, registered his first reception with a 11-yard touchdown catch.

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Tight Ends and Running Backs

The Patriots have seemed to find a new way to preserve Brady as he continues to age. Tight ends and running backs have been integral to the offensive scheme since Rob Gronkowski was drafted in 2010. This year, Brady has preferred targeting running backs and tight ends over targeting wide receivers. This may be the result of injuries to Malcolm Mitchell and, most notably, Julian Edelman. During Sunday’s game, 16 out of 28 of Brady’s completions were to tight ends, running backs, and fullbacks (57.14%). Competitively, out of Brock Osweiler’s 18 completions, just four were to running backs, tight ends, and fullbacks (22.22%).

Negatives

Malcolm Butler

Sunday night was likely Malcolm Butler’s worst outing this season. So far, Butler has had a subpar season in the last year of his contract, but showed improvement in the three games that Stephon Gilmore missed due to injury. Butler was mostly matched up in one-on-one coverage with Emmanuel Sanders, who is not very easy to cover. Sanders made six catches for 137 yards, including a 38-yard completion on Denver’s first play of the game. Butler was in position to make a play on most of Sanders’ receptions, but he was burnt several times. He must play more consistently in man coverage for the remainder of the season, and if he does improve, maybe the Patriots could resign him (unlikely, though).

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Run Defense

The New England run defense on Sunday night demonstrated the importance of Dont’a Hightower in the middle of the group. Denver rushed for 118 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per attempt. Hightower’s season-ending injury will force the Patriots to piece it together against the run, something that they have been having a difficulties with when he isn’t in the lineup. The Patriots currently rank 26th in the NFL in running yards allowed per game with 121.1 yards, ranking last in yards per attempt with 5.0 yards per attempt. Despite missing Hightower on Sunday, the Patriots held Denver to 16 points. However, like Julian Edelman, Hightower’s absence seemingly impacts the game at the worst possible time. For instance, in Week 15 the Patriots play the Steelers in a game that will likely decide home field advantage in the playoffs. With an aged Ben Roethlisberger and a prolific Le’Veon Bell, the Patriots will probably be forced to stop the run if they want the AFC Championship Game to be at Gillette.

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Challenge Flag

Bill Belichick’s mismanagement of the throwing the challenge flag during a catch by Rob Gronkowski was the worst in-game mistake that he has made in a while. It definitely was not as bad as his mismanagement of Jimmy Garoppolo (who he traded for the 49ers’ second round pick, when Cleveland was likely offering at least a first round pick over the offseason), but Coach Belichick is different than GM Belichick. On the Patriots’ field goal drive following Burkhead’s blocked punt, Rob Gronkowski appeared to make a diving touchdown catch that the officials ruled incomplete. Belichick called a timeout before throwing the challenge flag and have the call stand on replay. On a conference call with reporters Monday, Belichick admitted his mistake saying, “I could have just challenged it in the first place. I didn’t do that, I probably should have,” seeming as though he hadn’t thought about it until that very moment. I can’t remember Belichick admitting fault for a miscue on the football field. His acknowledgement of the blunder speaks to the magnitude of his mistake. That being said, first half timeouts are not as meaningful as second half timeouts, and the game was almost over at that point.

Next Game in Mexico City vs. Oakland

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The Raiders are too inconsistent to get a read on. After beating the Chiefs 31-30, they have lost 34-14 to the Bills and beaten the Dolphins 27-24. The secondary should have its hands full between covering Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, especially if Derek Carr is on his game. This is a streaky team and this game will really depend on what the Raiders are able to do on offense. Tom Brady could be in for a long day going up against Khalil Mack, unless the offensive line plays as well as they did this week.

Prediction: Patriots 34, Raiders 17

Joe Flacco is NOT Elite and the Ravens Should Sign Colin Kaepernick because Who Fucking Cares

The Ravens suck, Joe Flacco sucks, and our season is over. This may not sound very substantial considering they beat the Dolphins 40-0 just three nights ago, but this is not nearly the same team that won the Super Bowl five years ago. 4-4 is not a bad record at this point in the season by any means. We’ll most likely end up going 7-9, barely missing the playoffs, only to repeat the whole process over again in 2018. Our lack of success right now, in my objective opinion, can 100% be placed on Joe Flacco. Luckily for the Ravens, I have devised a way for them to get rid of Flacco, avoid the cap hit, and escape the eternal limbo of being a fringe playoff team. Listen up, Ozzie*:

*Disclaimer: This article contains little to no actual football analysis. I have never played football in my life, but I got a 3 on my Statistics AP exam, so I’m basically qualified to be the GM of an NFL team.

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Step 1: Addressing the Issue

In 2017, Joe Flacco is not an elite quarterback. Watch him lob a screen pass to Mike Wallace on 3rd and 12 for the 8437th time and you’ll understand. Flacco has only played one season in which he accumulated more than 4,000 passing yards, Our defense carried him to a Superbowl, and he hasn’t been able to bring the Ravens to the playoffs since 2014. Pretty impressive, right? Couple all of that information with the fact that he has one of the worst contracts in the NFL, and you get a player that has stunted the Ravens’ growth for the past five years. Realistically, a 32-year old Joe Flacco is not getting any better. And let’s be honest, the Ravens’ real best weapon on offense right now is the GOAT Justin Tucker. Might as well accept that our best case scenario as a team right now is an early-round playoff exit with him at the helm.

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After watching this dirty hit made by Kiko Alonso a few nights ago, I think it’s safe to say that Flacco joins the old Taylor and Gordon Hayward on the list of celebrities who have died in 2017. Our defense may be one of the best in the league (scoring 20 points yesterday off of turnovers is no joke), but Ryan Mallett is not going to win us any football games. Which leads me to step 2:

Step 2: Signing Colin Kaepernick

I don’t give a shit about Colin Kaepernick, but not in a, “how dare Colin Kaepernick kneel for the national anthem #alllivesmatter” kind of way. It’s absolute horseshit that he hasn’t been signed yet. He’s no Tom Brady, but he is definitely one of the 32 best quarterbacks in the NFL and would be a great replacement for Flacco for at the least the next few weeks.

The Ravens are no strangers to controversy; just look at Ray Rice and Ray Lewis. One of them was a face of the franchise when he beat his fiancee in an elevator, and the latter pled guilty to obstruction of justice in a DOUBLE HOMICIDE. That’s some Aaron Hernandez shit. Regardless, Ray Lewis is still regarded as one of the greatest Ravens of all time. This goes to show that people have no issue forgetting about controversy when it’s convenient, A.K.A. when the perpetrator can really play.

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Obviously, Colin Kaepernick has the potential to be a PR nightmare. However, if he leads the Ravens to the playoffs, he would be regarded as a hero. Considering the fact that half of the team knelt for the week three game against Jacksonville, I am sure that he would be welcomed to the Ravens organization with open arms, by the players at least. You and I both know that whoever the Ravens sign would be signed to eventually replace Flacco, but for the time being, Ozzie can just say that he is on a tryout until Flacco gets healthy.

If he plays well, then we can keep him and let him play for the starting spot. If not, we can cut him after a week or two and everyone will understand. But for the sake of this article, let’s just say he plays well.

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Step 3: Trading Flacco

Joe Flacco’s contract sucks. But why pay him $20 million a year when we can let someone else pay him their entire salary cap? If the Texans can get rid of Brock Osweiler, we can definitely find suitors for a quarterback with a Super Bowl under his belt. Unfortunately, I doubt that the Browns would bite, but another team like that would be perfect. Once we trade Flacco away, we will have all of that cap room to sign some big name free agents. Guys like Alshon Jeffery, LeVeon Bell, and Larry Fitzgerald are all Unrestricted Free Agents in 2018 and could propel the Ravens offense to where it needs to be. We will never be an offense-first type of team, but if we can put a few offensive touchdowns on the board each game, then our defense should put us in a position to win football games.

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Alshon Jeffery (pictured) would figure to be the perfect signing for the Ravens in the 2018 offseason.

So there you have it. It’s not a perfect plan, but I would rather watch the Ravens make an actual attempt at solving their problems than wait until 2020 to try and win football games. Best case scenario, we can be a Super Bowl contender in a few years. Worst case scenario, we gave it a shot. Trust the process, baby.

 

Defending Champs Watch: Pats Win the Super Bowl Rematch

Sunday night’s fog-filled Super Bowl rematch doubled as the Patriots’ best win of the season. Most importantly, the defense was able to shut down the Falcons, a team with a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball. That being said, this was far from a statement win. The 3-2 Falcons have been sputtering after winning three in a row to begin the season. In week five, Atlanta blew a 17-0 halftime lead at home to the Miami Dolphins, who outscored them 20-0 in the second half. Given the way that the Falcons played on Sunday, I have a hard time giving the Patriots too much credit. It was a good win because the Falcons are a good team on paper, and the Patriots defense has struggled greatly up to this point, but they will have to play just as well against far better competition if the Patriots have true Super Bowl aspirations.

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Strengths

Malcolm Butler

There is no doubt that Butler’s play this season has been impacted by the big offseason acquisition of cornerback Stephon Gilmore. After the undrafted Super Bowl XLIX hero played himself into being one of the top cornerbacks in NFL, it must have shaken his confidence to see $65 million given to a Buffalo Bill. Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels acknowledged this in the broadcast booth during Sunday night’s game as matter of fact, despite being mere speculation up to this point in the season. It comes as no coincidence that Butler has played much better in the two weeks that Gilmore has missed with a concussion. On Sunday, he was very effective in man coverage, breaking up a pass in the end zone on third and goal early on in the fourth quarter, and recording six tackles including a big hit in the backfield to break up a Tevin Coleman rush. Butler’s play has been encouraging for two straight weeks, and hopefully this trend continues as Stephon Gilmore likely makes his return to the lineup this Sunday.

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Third Down Offense

The Patriots offense was extremely effective on third down on Sunday, converting seven of thirteen attempts. Third down efficiency was one of my biggest concerns following the Edelman injury in the preseason. Thus far, Brady and the offense have proven me wrong, converting on 45.65% of their third down attempts, good for third best in the league. While converting on third down has been an issue at times this season (5-15 against the Chiefs in week one and 4-12 against the Buccaneers in week five), they have been effective for most of the season and especially in the last few weeks. Brady and his group of receivers have really stepped it up on third down. Brady’s statistics in situations of third and six or more have been best that they have been in the post-Garoppolo era (since 2014). He currently has a 65.1% completion percentage and a 124.0 quarterback rating on third and long. The offense has truly stepped it up on third down to help mitigate Julian Edelman.

Offensive Line/Running Game/Dion Lewis

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The offensive line has played well for a second straight week, allowing two sacks for just eight yards and giving the Patriots the opportunity to run the ball effectively. On Sunday, New England rushers combined for 162 yards, the most all season, on an average of 4.5 yards per rush. The running game has been indicative of the improvement in offensive line play, as the Patriots have rushed for at least 100 yards in the last three games. This only happened once last year, excluding the four games that Brady missed due to suspension, and it was in the last three games of the season when the Patriots may have been looking to take some heat off of their then-39 year old quarterback. It is also not a coincidence that in the three weeks, Dion Lewis has been given a larger role and has emerged as the lead back, for now. Lewis has the capacity to be electric, and has the ability to jumpstart the offense. Last year’s AFC divisional game against Houston could have been a much different game if it weren’t for Lewis’ kickoff return touchdown. On a team that is so reliant on the passing attack, Lewis should remain the Patriots’ primary back, unless he needs to be preserved to avoid injury.

Negatives

Stephon Gilmore

The defense has shown improvement over the course of the last two weeks, as Gilmore has been sitting out with a concussion. Butler’s aforementioned recent success is almost certainly a product of Gilmore missing time. It is never a good sign when commentators are debating starting Johnson Bademosi over a healthy Stephon Gilmore. However, Gilmore should be in the starting lineup this Sunday, and should be in man coverage against Tyrell Williams, the bigger receiver in the Chargers’ group of wideouts.

Containing Opposing Offenses

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The defense has had some uncharacteristic issues so far this season. They are currently last in yards allowed per game and yards per play. While it is not surprising that the Patriots are giving up a lot of yards, they typically do not allow big plays. Even though New England finished 25th in yards allowed in 2016, they were tied for eighth in yards per play. Similarly to allowing big plays, the Patriots have failed to contain quarterbacks this year, unlike their history of handily being able to do so. On Sunday, Matt Ryan rushed for 37 yards on three attempts. Allowing rushing first downs to Matt Ryan is extremely problematic for a defense that hangs its hat on discipline. The amount of big plays and lack of containing lead me to question the players’ reaction to coaching on the defensive side of the ball. These are not issues of talent, but rather issues of executing defensive schemes coached up by Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. If the defense is unable to do that, there are bigger issues than just Stephon Gilmore and problems in coverage at hand.

Next Week: Home vs. Chargers

The Chargers have won three straight after beginning the season 0-4. Three of their four losses have been by three or fewer points, and two were lost on missed last second field goals. On defense, they have the formula to beat the Patriots; they are able to pressure the quarterback without blitzing. The Chargers are currently tied for fourth in the NFL in sacks with 23. Defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram both rank in the top six in sacks with 7.5 and 8.5 respectively. This will be a big game for the offensive line, especially for center David Andrews and guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. If the Chargers are able to get pressure up front, it will be a long and painful game for Tom Brady.

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Prediction: Patriots 27, Chargers 24

The Giants Need to Make a Coaching Change

The New York Football Giants have started their 2017-2018 NFL season, which was supposed to build upon their 11-5 playoff season last year, at a dreadful 0-4. For the second time in two games, the Giants lost on a last-second field goal, something t reminiscent of Tom Coughlin’s last season in charge, in which the Giants lost eight times in one-possession games. For the second time in two games, Ben McAdoo’s play calling and decision making have directly led to the Giants losing. Following the aforementioned 6-10 season, Coughlin was relieved of his duties as the Head Coach. He was replaced by McAdoo, who had contributed a few bright spots to an otherwise bleak season as Offensive Coordinator. However, I believe that most of the problems plaguing the Giants currently have still not been resurrected from that 6-10 season, and I believe that in order to fix those mistakes, McAdoo must either be fired, or at the very least, be relieved of play-calling duties.

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In that last season in charge, there was a lack of quality decision-making coming from Coughlin, which led to his firing. Yet, not even two full seasons later, the same poor decision making is rearing its head. The Giants have left points on the field time and time again in back-to-back games, and this has directly led to their 0-4 start. Take for example, last week’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Midway through the first quarter, the Giants started a drive with rather good field position, starting on their own 37, when a third down and short came up. On a third and one, McAdoo dials up a toss play for a loss of four. Not very many coaches in the NFL are going to be calling for a toss play to the side of your offensive line that is subpar on a third and short. Furthermore, this play would bring the Giants back from Philly’s 34 to the 38, effectively knocking them out of field goal range, with McAdoo opting to punt rather than attempting a 55-yard field goal. With the game continuing as a low scoring affair in the first half, the Giants found themselves having their game-tying touchdown reversed and facing a third and one from the Eagles’ one yard line. Eli Manning fails to find his target and the Giants have fourth and one, and once again we have a fatal faux pas from McAdoo. Rather than taking some form of points from the drive and going into the half down 7-3, the decision was made to attempt to go over the top of the pile, and, needless to say, things did not go according to plan.

While a 55-yard field goal with an inexperienced kicker is somewhat understandable to not attempt, not taking three points at the half and giving your offense some semblance of confidence is absolutely inexcusable. This play-calling that has exhibited cases of being passive at the wrong times and uber-aggressive at the wrong times led to at a minimum of six points being left on the field in a game which would be lost by two. An inexperienced Philadelphia kicker, Jake Elliot, kicked the longest field goal in the history of Lincoln Financial Field, a 61-yarder which left Odell Beckham Jr. and all of the Giants faithful watching with nothing that could be done. It is worth noting that one could put nearly as much blame on punter Brad Wing in this loss, as he shanked his final punt of the game, only 28 yards, leaving the Eagles with the time and the field position to eventually win the game.

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By some unbelievable stretch of the imagination, things would pick up right where they left off very early in the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the Buccaneers taking an early 7-0 lead at home, the Giants began their drive downfield, which stalled on fourth and four at the Tampa Bay 30. Now, most, if not all coaches in this situation would gladly take three points and answer back to the opposition taking the lead on the next drive. McAdoo does not think like most coaches. So, naturally, instead of taking the field goal, McAdoo leaves the offense on the field, resulting in a turnover on downs for the Giants offense, and a huge stop for the Bucs’ defense. This would again directly lead to the Giants losing the game, as the Buccaneers kicked a field goal as time expired to win the game, courtesy of ex-Jet Nick Folk.

There was one more decision that I could not fathom near the end of the game, and that one revolved around the use of the Giants’ third and final timeout. Going into Tampa Bay’s final drive, the Giants did not have all of their timeouts, so their only option was to hope for a stop and play off of the two minute warning. A stop never came, and facing a third and one with 90 seconds remaining, Jameis Winston found his man in Cameron Brate for 26 yards, effectively ending the game. The Giants did still have one timeout remaining, and instead of saving it to potentially ice Nick Folk prior to his eventual field goal attempt, McAdoo called a timeout with 34 seconds remaining following a Jameis Winston kneel on first down. It is also worth noting that the Giants finally managed to get a rushing touchdown in this game (their first of the season), a 14-yard scramble from none other than Eli Manning, who, despite his team being 0-4, should not be shouldering anywhere near the blame that he is currently being given. Manning is sporting a near 70% completion rate on the season, which is good for third amongst qualified quarterbacks, while also having attempted the second most passes in the league to date. Needless to say, Eli is doing just fine. However, the extreme lack of a running game, along with injuries and struggles with the offensive line, and the offense managing to not stay on the field and exhausting their stout defense is what is ailing the Giants this season.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-New York Giants at Green Bay Packers

While I personally did not agree with Coughlin being fired after coaching the team to two super bowl victories, I do feel that something needs to change this season, and there are no more second chances for McAdoo. That needs to start in week five with McAdoo being relieved of his play-calling duties, and if it seems that this was not the problem, the Giants should bring in a new offensive coordinator. There are simply no excuses for a team led by Eli Manning, with weapons in the passing game such as Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and Brandon Marshall, to be averaging a meager 15 points per game. Had the Giants been 2-2 at this moment, then many people including myself, would not be calling for changes in the coaching hierarchy. However, with the season looking all but over sitting at 0-4 in a year in which 9-7 is more than likely not going to win the division, things are not looking good.

Defending Champs Watch: Pats Win Again in Week 3

Positives

Passing Attack

For the second straight week, the passing attack is the highlight of a Patriots victory. Tom Brady finished the game 25/35 for 378 yards and five touchdowns, including the 25-yard game winner to Brandin Cooks. Rob Gronkowski had a second straight big game, despite leaving with a groin injury in last week’s game against New Orleans. He finished the game with eight receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown. After a week one in which he and Brady looked disconnected, it is nice to see Gronk back as an integral part of the offense. With the absence of Edelman, a consistent and healthy Gronkowski is the only way that I see the Patriots hoisting their second straight Lombardi Trophy.

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Brandin Cooks looked like the receiver the Patriots gave up a first round pick for. He led the team in receiving with five catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns. Not only was he making big plays, but he also created space for other receivers. Cooks was almost solely responsible for Chris Hogan’s two wide-open touchdowns, drawing the defenders away on both plays. Cooks also showed off his speed on a 42-yard touchdown and made an incredible toe-tap reception to win the game. Last week, I wrote that Brandin Cooks was a player to keep an eye on, given his performance in the first two weeks to go along with Brady’s history of having a hard time of integrating new wide receivers into the offense. If he continues to flash like this and draw away defenders on deeper routes, I was absolutely wrong.

Negatives

Devin McCourty

This was the worst game that I have ever seen McCourty play as a safety. He was at least partially responsible for two touchdowns. On the first, Deshaun Watson fired a 29-yard touchdown to Bruce Ellington, who was left in single coverage with Jonathan Jones. On this play, the eyes of the rookie quarterback fooled McCourty. To be fair, Watson looked to star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who got safety help almost all game, on the fake. However, it looked like Gilmore was playing pretty good man-coverage on Hopkins and McCourty did not need to jump the gun like he did. On the second touchdown, McCourty simply got beat in single coverage by tight end Ryan Griffin, who has never been known for his playmaking capabilities. McCourty was symptomatic of issues that the entire Patriots secondary faced against Watson, who completed 22 of 33 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions (one came on an attempted hail-mary at the end of the game). Watson had success scrambling, and he was also able to simply drop back and beat the Patriots defense. Being a veteran leader and an established player, I expect McCourty to bounce back next week, but this secondary, which was projected to be one of the best in the league, has raised many questions with no answers through three weeks.

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Offensive Line

Through three weeks, the offensive line has been the biggest issue with the team. I cannot remember a year when the Patriots had a remarkably good offensive line. I can, however, remember years in which the Patriots have had a bad offensive line. Those years, like 2007 when Brady was sacked five times for 37 yards in the Super Bowl, never end well. Last week, I wrote that this game against Houston would be a good test for the offensive line. After allowing five sacks for 41 yards on Sunday, it is safe to say that they failed, and were the reason that the game was much closer than it should have been. The fact that the Texans only recorded five sacks is a product of Brady’s amazing play.

According to Greg Bedard of Boston Sports Journal, the Patriots offensive line allowed pressure on almost 50% of Brady’s drop-backs. Going up against a Texans defensive front with J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney is a tough task, especially when missing right tackle Marcus Cannon who was out with a concussion. However, the biggest issue on the line was not LaAdrian Waddle, who was filling in for the injured Cannon; it was Nate Solder. According to Bedard, Solder was responsible for three sacks on Brady, and did not even touch the pass-rusher on one of them. If the Patriots wish to have success against defensive teams like the Texans, the offensive line will have to do better to protect a 40-year-old Brady.

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Things to Keep an Eye On

Third and One

So far this year, the Patriots are 1-5 on third and fourth down with one yard to go. Last season they were 19-26, boasting a success rate of 73.1%. Up to this point, the Patriots have only attempted a quarterback sneak with Brady once, a play that has been extremely successful in past years. This could be an effort by the Patriots to protect their 40-year-old star quarterback, but such inefficiencies in these short yardage situations may also be due to poor play from the offensive line. The Patriots currently rank 23rd in the league in rushing yards per attempt, which is likely a result of poor blocking. Third down efficiency is extremely important for this Patriots team, especially with the absence of Julian Edelman. They cannot afford to miss out on such short yardage opportunities, and the offensive line must do better to protect in these situations.

Next Week: Home vs. Carolina

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This game should be a big opportunity for the defense to rebound after allowing 26 points to Houston. Cam Newton is not playing well, and the Panthers put up a mere 13 points against an abysmal Saints defense last week. After allowing Deshaun Watson to have a big game, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots defense plays against another mobile quarterback. The Patriots should generally not have any difficulty moving the ball against a Carolina defense which carried it to a 2015 Super Bowl appearance but has since lost its edge. The New England defense should have a field day against a sputtering Carolina offense.

Prediction: Patriots 34, Panthers 16

Defending Champs Watch: Analyzing the Patriots’ Week Two

Sunday’s one o’clock game against the New Orleans Saints featured a far more Patriot-like performance than that of last Thursday’s opener against Kansas City. The 36-20 decisive win featured a clicking offense, an improving defense, and, of course, brilliant play at the quarterback position. The game was effectively decided after a 20-3 first quarter in which Brady completed 11 of his 15 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns. He finished 30 of 39 for 447 yards, the fourth most in his career, and three touchdowns. Despite an impressive start, the Patriots were far from perfect. Here are my positives, negatives, and nit-picks from Sunday’s win.

Positives

The Passing Attack

The Patriots offense in the first quarter was the biggest takeaway from their week two game in New Orleans. They scored touchdowns on all three opening drives pummeling 75 yards down the field twice, and 67 yards once. After an underwhelming performance in week one by Brady and his receiving core, the offense looked to spread the ball around, with nine players recording receptions (compared to six players from week one). Rather than attempting to force the deep passing game, New England moved back to their bread and butter, 10-20 yard intermediate passes and exploiting whatever matchup they saw fit. It was good to see the Patriots distancing themselves from the deep passing game plan that we saw in week one. After a subpar week one from Rob Gronkowski, James White and Chris Hogan, they turned it around to lead the receiving corps in week two. Most importantly, the Patriots were six of twelve on third down, improving on five of fifteen from week one.

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Unheard-of Defensive Players

In the first two weeks, I have seen nothing impressive from the Patriots’ top defensive players, which I will address later. But in their absence, a few surprising players stepped up and turned in big performances. Defensive End Deatrich Wise, the Patriots’ fourth round draft pick this year, led the way for a New England defensive line which allowed 185 rushing yards to the Chiefs in week one. Wise recorded two tackles, a sack, a run stuff, and five hits on the quarterback in a disruptive day on the line for him. Wise’s strong start overshadowed veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch’s poor performance. Against New Orleans, Branch saw his playing time reduced, and failed to record a single tackle. I would like to see an even better performance from the run defense which allowed 4.8 yards per carry this week against the Saints. However, week two was certainly an improvement on the run defense compared to week one, and Deatrich Wise was a big reason why.

The biggest defensive standout from Sunday was cornerback and second-year undrafted player Jonathon Jones. He finished the game with two passes defended, the same amount as big-name corners Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore combined. The highlight from his game was breaking up a would-be touchdown reception from Ted Ginn Jr. and forcing fourth down. If Malcolm Butler continues to struggle, Jones may see an increase in playing time.

Negatives

Big-Name Defensive Players

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It has not been a good couple of weeks for Malcolm Butler. The Super Bowl 49 hero-turned stud cornerback had some offseason conflicts with the Patriots organization over his contract negotiations. The restricted free agent refused to sign his restricted tender, which would increase his salary to $4 million, as he was asking for more. At one point, it seemed as though a trade with the Saints involving Butler was imminent. When talks fell through, I was under the impression that Butler would still be an effective member in the Patriots secondary, especially in a contract year. Through two games, he has been anything but effective. Butler was benched at the start of week two against New Orleans in favor of Eric Rowe (who later suffered an injury which put Butler in the game). It was the first time since the beginning of the 2015 season that Butler did not start a game. However, Butler does more than just start; he plays almost every single down. Since 2015, Butler has been on the field for 98% of defensive snaps. However, his recent poor play earned him a spot on the bench. If Butler fails to improve his play, his name could join Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins on the list of Patriots who were traded in a contract year.

Things to Keep an Eye On

The Brady-Cooks Connection

It is impossible to deny that wide receiver Brandin Cooks has talent. However, earning the trust of Tom Brady is not an easy thing to do. Many receivers have failed to get on the same page with Brady, and never shine in New England. Through two weeks, Cooks has yet to flash the prowess that he showed on the Saints. Despite a couple of big plays, he has not had a few weeks. It may just be an adjustment period, but I’m not too sure that a big-play receiver like Cooks will fit well in the Patriots’ short yardage passing attack. It is far too early to be pressing the panic button, but Cooks may need a prolonged adjustment period, and may not work out as a Patriot.

Second Half Performance

Do the Patriots have an issue late in games? Through two weeks, the Patriots have scored a mere 16 points in the second half, and only three points in the fourth quarter. It is easy to look at the game against the Saints and believe that the game was over after the first quarter, and so the Patriot offense took their foot off the gas. While this may be the case, New England was outscored 28-10 in the second half and 21-0 in the fourth quarter during their week one game against Kansas City. The Thursday night opener was the first game in Tom Brady’s career in which he lost a home game with a lead in the fourth quarter. Normally, I would not worry over a lack of offensive production after a 36-20 win featuring a 20-point quarter, but given the second half of week one, I would say that the Patriots’ second half performances are something to keep an eye on.

Red Zone Production

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So far this season, the Patriots have not had much of an issue with moving the ball. They currently lead the league in total yards, a statistic aided by Sunday’s 555-yard performance. However, New England has struggled to cap off many of their drives once they reach the red zone. In two games, the Patriots have scored touchdowns in six of their thirteen trips to the red zone, ranking twentieth in the NFL. The last time that the Patriots finished the season ranking outside of the top ten in red zone efficiency was 2009 when they ranked twelfth. You don’t win the Super Bowl by kicking field goals, and if the Patriots continue to settle for three points in the red zone, the offense may come up short in the playoffs.

Next Week at Home vs. the Houston Texans

This game will be a big test for the Patriots offensive line, as the go up against J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilous and the rest of that relentless Texans pass rush. Marcus Cannon may miss the game with a concussion, providing even more of a challenge for the questionable offensive line. With some recent turmoil in the secondary, pay attention to who will cover star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Stephon Gilmore is the safe bet, given his height and the poor play of Malcolm Butler. The Texans offense currently ranks 29th in the NFL in both total yardage and points per game. Their two games have featured a 29-7 blowout at the hands of the Jaguars and a 13-9 win against Cincinnati. If the defense has problems in this game, they will likely have problems all season.

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Prediction: Patriots 30, Texans 6

NFL Sleeper Teams for the 2017 Season

The teams that are expected to seriously contend for a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in 2018 are not shockers. The New England Patriots, with their brilliant offseason acquisitions of TE Dwayne Allen, WR Brandin Cooks and CB Stephon Gilmore look primed to defend their title, even after a week one loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. To the delight of Dallas Cowboys fans all over the country and no one else, the suspension of RB Ezekiel Elliot for his various off-field incidents has been postponed. They also still have the game’s most dominant offensive line, and if QB Dak Prescott is able to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, the Cowboys offense will be electric.

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The Green Bay Packers look to make another deep postseason run with their star QB Aaron Rodgers. The Packers retooled their offense with the free agent signing of TE Martellus Bennett from the Patriots and have decided to commit to former WR Ty Montgomery as their primary backfield option. The Pittsburgh Steelers still have QB Ben Roethlisberger and the two most dominant players at their respective positions in RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown in addition to a defense that finished in the top ten for lowest average points allowed per game. Last but not least, with the return of QB Derek Carr from injury and a talented defense led by Khalil Mack, the Oakland Raiders should make serious nose in the AFC as well.

While there are undoubtedly other teams that I am overlooking as Super Bowl contenders, the four aforementioned teams have the best chance to make a deep postseason run based on their roster, and the odds makers in Las Vegas feel similarly. The Patriots open the regular season with 11-4 odds to hoist the Lombardi trophy, while the Packers and Raiders both come in with 8-1 odds to win. The Steelers have 10-1 odds to win the championship, while the Cowboys trail with 12-1 odds.  However, there are certainly quite a few teams that are being overlooked for a chance to make the playoffs. These teams are often referred to as “sleepers.”

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The Steelers return yet again as favorites to make the playoffs.

My first sleeper team is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The subject of HBO’s famed Hard Knocks series this summer, the Bucs are a dangerous team that have added some serious firepower this offseason. They signed WR Desean Jackson from the Washington Redskins to complement Second Team All-Pro WR Mike Evans. They drafted TE O.J Howard from Alabama to provide franchise QB Jameis Winston with a reliable tight end weapon to contend in the NFC South, a much-improved offensive conference. The Bucs will go as far as Winston takes them, as their defense still has holes with a below average secondary and a talented, but very young linebacker core.

The Tennessee Titans finished with a solid 9-7 record, and if QB Marcus Mariota had not picked up a substantial knee injury late in the season, the Titans might have been able to make some noise in the playoffs. The acquisition of WR Eric Decker, who the New York Jets released in an effort to save money, and the selection of WR Corey Davis from Central Michigan, has now turned one of the Titans’ weaknesses last year into one of its main strengths. Mariota had very few dependable options to throw the ball to last season, but assuming the health of the Titans receiving corps, their offense will improve a great deal in comparison to that of last season. The Titans also possess a dynamic backfield duo in both Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry. They remain as options to improve on their running game that ranked third in the league last season.

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In addition, the AFC South is a glaringly weak division since the Texans are struggling to find a quarterback to help out JJ Watt and the Texans defense, and Andrew Luck has struggled to stay on the field and is still experiencing shoulder issues. If Blake Bortles can find his form, the Jaguars could be a threat to the Titans’ division chances, but I believe that the Titans have a solid chance of winning a playoff game at the very least. The Jags’ resurgence took a hit in week one when top receiver Allen Robinson went down with an ACL tear. Because of the Titans’ new receivers that will allow their already dynamic running game to become even more of a threat, Tennessee will be able to surprise a lot of teams in the league and become contenders. Once again though, if Mariota is not able to remain on the field, the Titans’ playoff chances take a huge hit

My final sleeper team is the Cincinnati Bengals. Due to the midseason injury of their best player, WR AJ Green, the Bengals failed to meet expectations for their 2016 season. After winning the AFC North division two of the past three seasons, the Bengals finished in third place in their division with a sub-.500 record. The return of Green will help QB Andy Dalton find his form again. However, the losses of guard Kevin Zeitler to the Cleveland Browns and left tackle Andrew Whitworth to the Los Angeles Rams are tough to swallow. If the Bengals struggle again this season, their failure to re-sign these players will be looked at as the biggest reason why, as their offensive line now looks shaky at best. Despite being shut out to the Ravens this past week, look for Cincinnati to regain their footing and fight for a spot in the playoffs.

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On the bright side, all of these teams will undoubtedly be better than the New York Jets, who look poised to be the first winless team since the 2008 Detroit Lions.