2014 NFL Season Opener: Patriots-Dolphins Analysis

Patriots On Offense

After a very promising first 30 minutes of action, the course of the offense’s performance throughout the contest could only be described as a tale of two halves. Firstly, the response to a Miami punt-block and subsequent opening-game touchdown was very resounding. Notably, the impact of mercurial star tight end Rob Gronkowski–severely hampered by injury in the previous season–became evident long before his TD grab at the 8:37 mark in the second quarter. Despite a few years away from his true breakout campaign, Gronk nevertheless garnered plenty of attention from Dolphin pass coverage, opening up valuable space for the other recipients of Tom Brady’s darts (which turned wobbly later on in the contest) in the first half of the game. Beneficiaries namely included Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, and even Shane Vereen out of the backfield, as well as the rushing attack to a lesser but still considerable extent. After utilizing short to medium passes for progress downfield for most of the first half, Brady finally slung a deep ball with 11:31 left in the second quarter, a pass with just enough air under it to neatly fall in the hands of Edelman. This explosive play–of which the Pats had few and far between–jumpstarted what would ultimately turn into the team’s second touchdown drive, but Brady mysteriously chose not to challenge Miami’s secondary in the remaining relevant junctures in the game (before the insurmountable deficit towards the end).

Wake (91) forced fumbles on both on both of his sacks of Brady (12). (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Wake (91) forced fumbles on both of his sacks of Brady (12). (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Yet a 17 unanswered point-streak and 10-point advantage constructed in the first half figured insignificantly in the final outcome, as in the latter 30 minutes of play, the Fins defensive effort–particularly the overwhelming pass rush–drowned out any rapport Brady built with his receiver corps in the first 30. Furiously-pressing defensive end Cameron Wake and company grabbed a stranglehold on the battle at the line of scrimmage, but it was the now-punchless and helpless Patriots offensive line that harshly disrupted the rhythm of both Brady and the entire offense more so. The key to countering the New England attack has always centered on the amount of time Brady has to throw the ball, so one can only speculate how Logan Mankins (freshly and inexplicably shipped to Tampa Bay weeks prior to the season’s start) could have mitigated the Fins’ QB pressure. As a result of the line’s instability, Brady had much poorer placement on several of his throws in a half that his offense was brutally shut out, a reaction to a pressurized pocket that the Patriots can only hope to be anomalous for him with respect to the remainder of the season.

Patriots On Defense

The final Dolphin touchdown drive was the unequivocal coup de grace, but beforehand, it would be unreasonable to think that the Patriots defense should shoulder the responsibility for the first two times Miami crossed the goal line. A shocking blocked punt 75 seconds into the game saw the Fins start their first drive 15 yards away from seven points, and a strip-sack by the aforementioned, terrorizing edge-rusher Wake gifted QB Ryan Tannehill and his offense the ball at the opposing 34-yard line (9:14 mark in the third quarter). Both of these momentous plays gave the recently-augmented Patriots D horrible positioning–an aspect of the game the unit simply cannot control.

Perhaps one cause for concern pertains to the eerie similarity of this year’s defensive squad–supposedly a revamped one that would get the team over the proverbial hump, and possibly rank among the league’s finest–to those in the recent past: once again, the tendency on this side of the pigskin is yielding plenty of yardage but clamping down effectively once backed up in its own half of the field, and limiting the opposition to field goal tries while opportunistically manufacturing turnovers (in fact occurring on two consecutive Miami drives in the second half). This of course can prove effective when coupled with an excellent offensive personnel, but the Pats defensive group appears capable of much more, and should aid rather than burden an aging leader of the offense in Tom Brady on the other side of the ball.

The play of Darrelle Revis:

However much buzz surrounded the matchup between the newly-minted Patriot Revis and a rebound season waiting-to-happen in WR Mike Wallace, and how the former would stay true to his character, establish his suffocating “island” in the secondary, and cruelly render the latter ineffectual, it just didn’t happen. Wallace, in his second year as a Dolphin, ended up with a flashy stat line of seven receptions for 81 yards and a score. On a few of his catches, Wallace did shed Revis off himself along the progression of his route, but the result of this WR-CB clash was more of Revis not living up to his billing than anything else. It may just be part of an acclimation process to a new defensive structure, and it’s worth noting many regard his opposition as one of the swiftest in the league, but Revis often failed to stick with his marker, granting Wallace more freedom than one would expect in this contest.

Moreno (28) torched the Pats run defense on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Moreno (28) torched the Pats run defense on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Miami’s game-sealing drive:

Critical third-down conversions would ultimately put the Dolphins ahead 30-20 in the fourth quarter–as part of a drive in which 6:01 elapsed, and that clinched their opening-season victory–but even more notably, the drive highlighted the influential play of Miami’s run game. Knowshon Moreno paved the way with an overpowering 134 yards on 24 carries, and along with another 59 yards on the ground from Lamar Miller, the Fins rushing attack dictated tempo throughout 60 minutes of play, a notion that materialized only in retrospect of the entire game’s action. By instituting a formidable ground game that continually ruptured through the Pats’ unit hovering around the line of scrimmage, Moreno and Miller attracted increased defensive attention to create two important by-products: shifting New England’s focus off Tannehill and thus giving him more comfort in the pocket, and decreasing the number of opportunities for the Pats offense by simply keeping it off the field.The Dolphin offensive line deserves much praise as well in this area, and in addition to allowing more time for its quarterback to throw, perhaps has begun the process of proving its many detractors wrong.

World Cup Day 13: Italy-Uruguay Game Log

Pre-game thoughts: Costa Rica’s match with England in Belo Horizonte will not be of utmost importance, but for an unlikely scenario: Los Ticos have shockingly already clinched the group–without having faced what has now become the group’s weak link in England–and will likely win it outright with a +3 goal differential and four goals scored in only two games. That leaves the Italians and Uruguayans to duel it out for a second-place finish and knockout stage berth (teams which have +0 GD/2 GS and -1 GD/3 GS, respectively, making it highly improbable that their victory even compounded with a Costa Rica loss would result in winning the group). The Azzurri enter the crucial game in Natal with an upper hand, as a draw would allow them passage into the round of 16 as well. But after a stellar first outing against England, the Italians were surprisingly trounced by upstart tournament darlings Costa Rica, a game in which several questions concerning Italy’s defense arose. With a truly powerful attack, one reinvigorated upon Luis Suarez’s return, Uruguay will prove a formidable opponent that has gained key momentum as of late. While the Uruguayans will seek to replicate their WC success–a process that extends with a victory against Italy–the Italians will want the same result (or a tie) to reclaim their sense of European soccer authority, and progress out of the group stages for the first time in eight years. With all the international talent from both sides involved, and the stakes being as high as ever for each country, Tuesday’s clash will surely be entertaining as it is competitive.

First half:

-Mario Balotelli has struggled to settle into his role in Italy’s altered offensive formation that has placed him up top with Ciro Immobile; frustration might have now sunk in for the mercurial striker, as Balotelli commits two dumb fouls within a minute that earn him a yellow card (his second in the tournament, meaning he misses the team’s second round game if they advance today)

-in the first 25 minutes of the contest, while the Azzurri controlled possession and mostly dictated the pace of the game, Uruguay developed more dangerous attacks composed of better runs and spacing in the offensive third of the pitch than their opponents; yet after this mark in the game time, the Italians have gradually begun to translate their ball control into more concerted and fluid offensive pushes

-a couple of quick and effective pass combinations lead to La Celeste penetrating the left-side goalmouth (from the perspective of the attakcers), signifying the best offensive chance for either side in this game–legendary Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon works his magic again though, getting a hand on two Uruguayan shots while situating himself well outside the goal line

-for a Uruguayan side that cannot settle for anything less than a win to advance, it’s a worrying sign that Italy has so heavily and overbearingly dominated the ball in this opening half, leaving with Uruguay with an inadequate amount of chances on goal

-the play of midfield talisman Andrea Pirlo often determines his team’s fate: through 45 minutes of action, he has had 46 touches on the ball, compared to 72 in his first game (a win) and 36 in his second (a loss) at the same halfway point in the game

Second half:

A stunned Marchisio contests his ejection. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

A stunned Marchisio contests his ejection. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

-Italian manager Cesare Prandelli abandons his Balotelli-Immobile combo experiment, subbing out Super Mario–who will see his next WC action only if Italy advances to the quarterfinals now–for 29-year old Marco Parolo, also electing to not take the risk of allowing a carded player to remain in the match

-as Uruguay begins to pressure the opposing goal more and more to begin the final half, it receives a massive help: the referee hands Italian midfielder Claudio Marchisio a red card for a dangerous tackle with his cleats up–though it doesn’t seem too egregious (perhaps meriting only a yellow), adding a controversial nature to such a significant, game-changing decision

-GK Buffon, who energetically and furiously sprinted to the other side of the pitch to contest his teammate’s expulsion, will factor in hugely in the remaining time of this game, spearheading his team’s primarly defensive effort playing with 10 men–so far, in the minutes following the red card, Buffon has risen to occasion and already saved a few Uruguayan shots

-despite Italy producing some attacking pushes, it’s feeling more and more like a hockey game in which one team has a power play (a 31-minute one for Uruguay) and the other must settle for clearances downfield (Italy); such a strategy will be effective–notably returning to the team’s traditional, defensive-first mindset–but if the Italians are to close out this game with a tie, they must attain control of the ball in the opposite half of the pitch in order to shave off at least some time

-it’s as if Luis Suarez needed to fulfill his notorious, questionable on-field character in order to truly jumpstart his team and propel it to victory: on the 79th minute, a tussle between Suarez and Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in front of the goal ends with Suarez moving his head into Chiellini’s left shoulder and apparently biting down, as he’s done in two other infamous incidents in the past; interestingly, Suarez also goes down after the clash (a result of taking a hit to the face that doesn’t seem too harmful), perhaps learning from his past biting episodes that if the bitten player falls, he should do the same in order to hide and offset the infraction–then, just within a few minutes of this moment and subsequent dispute, Uruguay earns a corner kick, on which centerback Diego Godin capitalizes with a header (that in fact bounces off his upper left back) to give his team a 1-0 lead (81′)

-a chaotic flow to the game ensues, as while Italy must press forward to look for an equalizer, the team also sustains a few dangerous counterattacks, that fortunately amount to nothing; until the game’s end five minutes into stoppage time, the Italian bench bickers and clamors vehemently–likely stemming from the red card shown to Marchisio and lack of one to Suarez by the referee–with one of the team’s trainers getting sent off, and other bench players and coaches helping to collect and pass balls to on-field Italians to speed up play; finally, about half a minute past the allotted five for injury, as every member of the Uruguayan coaching staff surrounds the line judge and frenziedly motion to their wrists to signal that the final whistle is overdue, the tense and frantic match concludes, as Uruguay advances to the knockout stages, and Italy fails to do so for the second consecutive time in the World Cup

Godin (3) knocks in the go-ahead goal to vault Uruguay into the second round. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Godin (3) knocks in the go-ahead goal to vault Uruguay into the second round. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

World Cup Day 11: Thoughts On Belgium’s Victory Over Russia

1) With all three of their goals coming in the final 20 minutes of games (70′ and 80′ against Algeria, 88′ most recently versus Russia), and all of which either tied or won a contest, Belgium has made a habit of springing to life late during the World Cup within the last week. Whether the additional pressure playing as the clear favorite when the game winds down proves stimulating–which seems unlikely, as the scarcity of WC experience on the roster would only indicate a poor reaction to facing a deficit/deadlock late–or culminations of game-long offensive attacks and possession advantage, the Red Devils have thrived like no other squad in last-gasp opportunities. Just as the rest of soccer world settles on writing off this rising European power, as talent-packed as its continental contemporaries, and decries the team for its overrated label, Belgium strikes–often following an extensive, dispiriting lull in the game–and emerges victorious, to where it’s now clinched a second round berth with six points in Group H. Such a naturally-developed tendency has worked to the their favor in perhaps the weakest group in the tournament, but the Belgians will have to start much more sharply once commencing play in the knockout rounds. There were signs of this kind of effort to begin forcefully in the early-going during the game against Russia, but those ended in vain, as Belgium couldn’t not sustain their attacks towards goal until they resurfaced late in the second half.

2) It was a given that Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard would make an impact in Brazil, but it wasn’t until Sunday that he truly made his mark–and in typical 2014 WC-Belgium fashion, doing so as the game reached the final whistle. As the Red Devils pushed animatedly for an elusive go-ahead score, Hazard was right in the middle of the action, his creativity shining amid solo runs and productively slick distribution to his teammates. As the game progressed, his touch and ability to weave through the opposing defense became more refined and noticeable. The midfielder set up several chances–ones that his fellow Belgians should have undoubtedly better capitalized on–before finally exhibiting his best run with two minutes left in regulation, with Hazard’s pass finding 19-year old substitute Divock Origi, who had enough room to comfortably power home the winner.

3) Finally, Belgian manager Marc Wilmots has continued to display a magic touch in managing and tinkering with his squad, another one of his substitution decisions paying major dividends late in the game: after he sent Origi onto the field on the 57th minute, the young striker scored 31 minutes later to give Belgium a thrilling 1-0 victory. Wilmots’s other two subs helped the cause as well, providing fresh legs and buffering the team’s offensive drives. And while the Red Devils shouldn’t rely on this golden touch (a lucky one for the most part, unless he’s in the midst of revealing his unheralded coaching genius) in future games as much as on their performance on the field–which alone should carry the team far–it’s quite reassuring to have a coach that can positively effect the course of the game like Wilmots, based on his knowledge and feel for a squad that has lately experienced some chemistry issues.

World Cup Day 8 England/Uruguay: England’s Woes A Matter Of Efficiency

With a discouraging 2-1 defeat to a Uruguay squad led by a familiar face in Luis Suarez, England now lies on the brink of World Cup survival. To advance out of Group D, the English would have to beat Costa Rica and then need Italy to topple both Costa Rica and Uruguay, with Costa Rica losing either of their next two games by at least two goals.

Yet despite having sustained losses (both on 1-2 counts) to Italy in their first game and most recently Uruguay in their second, the Three Lions possessed the upper hand in shot categories during these two games, and thus developed more goal-scoring opportunities than their foes. Much of this disparity could result from a combined 84 minutes that the team has trailed so far (42 in each of their WC matches)–the opposition adopts a more defensive mentality once obtaining a lead, so most of the Englishmen’s activity would take place in their offensive third of the pitch–but it still doesn’t explain how England faltered in the most important statistic in the game: goals.

Consider the following table, that includes the total shots, those on and off target, and those blocked, below:

Total shots On target Off target

Blocked

England

18 5 11 2
Italy 13 4 8

1

England

12 6 5 1
Uruguay 8 2 5

1

Assuming an advantage in nearly every one of these measurements of a team’s efforts towards goal, and notably in the most significant and insightful ones (totals shots and shots on target), England did more damage with its attack than either of its two opponents.

But that’s when efficiency with these attempts and offensive drives factors in prominently–taking into account the outcome of these shots. In terms of shots intended towards goal, Italy converted two of their 13 (15.4%) while England did so on one out of their 18 (5.6%) in the first game, and Uruguay slotted home two of their eight (25%) with England at just one for 12 (8.3%) in the second game. Upon evaluating the percentages of shots on target that resulted in goals, these numbers become all the more striking and noteworthy, as well as further vital to understanding the Three Lions’ struggles: the Italians scored on two of four SOG (50%) and the English did so on one of five (20%), and in the second match, the Uruguayans scored on each of their two SOG (100%) whereas the English went one for six (16.7%).

The distinction between the offensive effectiveness of England and its competitors is unmistakable. Italy and Uruguay have maximized and took full advantage of their opportunities; though producing fewer than England in number, these two teams better capitalized on their chances, and outperformed England in the facets of clinical goal-scoring ability and finishing. So as much as the Three Lions contain youthful talent and dynamic attacking capabilities, they are evidently lacking in the most significant offensive aspect–an inadequacy that, as of now, will likely undo the team, and grudgingly send them home earlier than expected.

World Cup Day 8 Colombia/Ivory Coast: Blame Goes To The Coach

Lamouchi (right) has hurt more than helped his team with his roster decisions.

Lamouchi (right) has hurt more than helped his team with how he’s handled his lineup.

At least for the first three games, the World Cup is not a single-elimination tournament. Such a setup allows team managers to learn what they did right and wrong with respect to their starting lineups, and going from their first to second game and then second to third, can implement reasonable adjustments to improve their teams’ performance. Yet whether impelled to move on from and leave his country’s older stars tucked away in the past, or oblivious to the effect these players currently have on his team, Ivory Coast’s coach Sabri Lamouchi has obstinately refused to make changes the rest of the soccer world deemed clearly necessary, and likely cost Les Elephants the chance to play to their fullest capacity for the entire match against Colombia on Thursday.

It was just five days ago that we witnessed how upon entering an opening game against Japan on the 62nd minute as a substitute, Didier Drogba galvanized the Ivory Coast unlike any other player on any other team could. Within a mere four minutes after his insertion, the Ivorians overcame a 48-minute long 1-0 deficit by netting goals on the 64th and 66th minutes. The palpable impact of Drogba on the flow of the match comprised two shots, one on target, and three drawn fouls, but most importantly, the legendary goal-scorer spurred the key attacking efforts that ultimately produced a 2-1 advantage and victory.

So why does his coach Lamouchi continue to sit him until the second half, as he did in the team’s second game against Colombia, subbing Drogba in at the 60th minute, after which although the opposition outscored them 2-1, Ivory Coast had never played better prior to his entrance, and wasted a plethora of opportunities to equalize? It shouldn’t be a dilemma of whether or not to pay homage to the country’s superstar, or considering the effect of his age (36): Drogba, without even needing to score, catalyzes the Ivorian team with his composed and creative presence on the pitch–making it undeniably vital for him to participate from the game’s opening whistle. Reports indicate that Drogba himself has expressed unhappiness over his coach’s controversial decision, forcing Lamouchi to publicly clarify and attempt to quell any problems.

Furthermore, Lamouchi mismanaged his squad in relation to other players as well. In placing Drogba into the game, he replaced Wilfried Bony–one of the players that cooperated well with and perhaps felt Drogba’s influence most in the last match against Japan, in which he netted Ivory Coast’s first goal to equalize the score. Then the realization hit that until his 67th minute substitution, Salomon Kalou–another aging team stalwart but still a productive midfielder–had not played the entire game. Another incomprehensible move by Lamouchi, Kalou had proven himself a useful cog in his team’s offense that led the 2-1 comeback win, and contributed significantly to late-game attacks by Les Elephants in only 27 minutes of play against Colombia–one can only assume he’d create even more goal-scoring opportunities had he received more time on the field.

Thus, with all these mismanagements and inability to understand the Ivorian roster’s strengths to the point of failing to start the best combination of his players, Lamouchi has already foiled his team’s chances against Colombia, and likely squandered a great opportunity to win Group C (and have a potentially weaker Group D opponent in the second round if the team advances). There’s still a final group match to make amends, as well as more than plausible round of 16 ambitions to achieve, but Lamouchi nevertheless has proved and remains the biggest hindrance to the success of his team, one that’s the best Ivory Coast has ever sent to the World Cup.

World Cup Day 7 Spain/Chile: How The Reigning Champ Was Eliminated

Spain’s abandoned identity 

Following two or three close goal-scoring chances by Chile to begin the match, Spain has quickly reacted to these developments with impatience and rashness. The team has pressured upfield as if already facing a deficit, abandoning its methodical and composed identity in the process, and thus resulting in decreased efficiency in pass connections between players. Once the Spaniards entered the offensive third of the pitch in the early-going, they have taken much more risky passes–ones directed vertically towards goal, rather than horizontally or diagonally as Spain typically uses throughout all areas of the field, the method around which the team constructs its attack. This trend lasts for the rest of the contest, as the team has displayed a restless and unorganized mentality, and perhaps most striking, an increase in costly, inaccurate passes.

A weakness exposed (again)

On the first powerful attack for Chile, that also included a corner kick, the Spanish defense has continued where it left from its last game: defenders, as well as midfielders dropping back, have left several players unmarked within the goalie box. This defensive incompetency–the Spaniards choosing not to fulfill key responsibilities on this side of the pitch–has resurfaced throughout Chile’s subsequent offensive pushes too, as balls into the goalmouth often go unhindered by defenders.

Vargas (11) electrified the pro-Chilean Maracana crowd. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Vargas (11) electrified the pro-Chilean Maracana crowd with his goal. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Finally, on the 20th minute, Spain got burned on a counterattack again (similar to what occurred in its prior game against the Dutch), initiating from an errant pass and turnover by the team in its side of the pitch near the midfield line. The Spanish defenders remained flat-footed and simply could not keep up with the racing Chilean attackers as they paced vigorously towards goal. Once play slightly slows down in front of the net, Chile’s passes became more horizontal, but nevertheless Spain’s back line couldn’t mark its opponents, as Eduardo Vargas found enough open space to tap in the score and give Chile a 1-0 lead. The lack of awareness and execution by the Spanish defense reappeared and got exploited once more 23 minutes later: a deflection by Iker Casillas from a free kick bounced right to the feet of Chilean midfielder Charles Aranguiz, who without a defender in front, behind, or beside him, easily finessed a shot into the net (43′), left of the outstretched hands of the Spaniard goalkeeper.

Forward-line problems

Placed atop his team’s lineup, Diego Costa has retained the same cluelessness in the first half while operating in Spain’s offense from his previous outing against the Netherlands. Having lost possession several times already, Costa has not shown the ability to competently participate in the pass-oriented Spanish offense. The striker prolonged his horrid and uninspired performance–defined by a poor touch and lack of control on the ball, which regularly stalled the Spanish attack near goal–into the second half, in which he squandered his best opportunity he saw all game on the 49th minute (a perfect through ball by Andres Iniesta that goes for naught, as Costa staggered and failed to release a clean shot).

After a game without a viable forward presence and productive work at this position–discounting Costa who has proved a poison to his team’s chemistry–and the same scenario repeating itself for another half in Maracana, it’s absolutely inexplicable for manager Vicente del Bosque to not have inserted veteran striker David Villa at some point during Spain’s litany of struggles. With five goals in the 2010 World Cup (tied for the most), three goals in the 2013 Confederations Cup, 13 goals for Atletico Madrid during the 2013/14 La Liga campaign, and 58 goals since the first time he represented his nation in 2005, Villa is without question the most reliable and prolific forward off the bench–and most certainly not Fernando Torres, who has already made two appearances as a substitute in as many games in Brazil. Any concerns about his ability at his age (32) are baseless, as Villa frequently demonstrated over the past few years how well he fits up top in the Spanish offense, adeptly fulfilling the role of a clinical goal-scorer. Furthermore, his exclusion in Spain’s two most important 2014 World Cup matches only adds to the general, disrespectful under-appreciation for and underrated value of David Villa during Spain’s prosperous 2008-2012 era.