2014 NFL Week 13: Patriots-Packers Analysis

Defensive highs and lows

The final boxscore paints an ugly picture, and would point to this game being closer than it really was. Yet despite yielding a gaudy 368 yards in the air and 130 on the ground, a once formidable Patriot defense did nothing if not hunker down once backed up in its own territory. Allowing a final tally of only 26 points, and most significantly forcing a currently unrivaled Packer offensive machine to a 0-4 mark in the red zone certainly represents a triumph in this aspect of the game. Greater talent and added reinforcements for the defense in 2014 no longer made the usual–giving up plenty of yards but sufficiently bottling up the opposing offense enough for Brady & Co. to leap ahead–acceptable. Yet in the context of facing a furiously hot Packers team, with perhaps the most balance and dynamism on the offensive side of the ball, forcing four field goals en route to a sub-30 point performance lifted at least some blame from the New England D. However, Aaron Rodgers’s 45-yard strike to Jordy Nelson with 14 seconds left in the half proved destructive. The lapse in late-half discipline obviously falls squarely on the pass defense, and notably disrupted the team’s progression into the second half of play. A hallmark of Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ game plan has been to finish the opening half strongly, so as to fluidly continue momentum into the second half in which the team often starts with the ball (Belichick nearly always defers possession to the second half). Yet by allowing this devastating late touchdown score–to stretch the deficit to nine–such a crucial transition could not occur. The Pats failed to carry momentum into the break, and subsequently flamed out on their first possession of the third quarter without a first down.

Nelson (87) ran about 35 yards after his catch and gave a huge boost to Green Bay heading into halftime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Nelson (87) ran about 35 yards after his catch and gave a huge boost to Green Bay heading into halftime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Rodgers’s vital adjustment 

Secondary to the much anticipated Brady vs. Rodgers showdown, the Patriot secondary (Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner) and top Packer wideouts (Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb) matchup was initially won by the former group. The New England cornerbacks controlled the explosive Green Bay receivers for the majority of the first half, even deterring the typical amount of targets from their quarterback. Yet Rodgers adapted to this situation, and maintained offensive efficiency, albeit with many drives culminating in mere field goals, while shifting the route of his passes to lesser known recipients. Rodgers acclimated himself perfectly, connecting with an array of new targets headed by rookie third-string WR Davante Adams, who ended the game with a career-high 121 yards. Rodgers had already led the Packers to 13 points before completing his first pass to either of his top receivers, the first to Cobb at the 11:22 mark of the second quarter. This, in turn, necessitated a change in the organization of the Patriot defense. As the game progressed into the second quarter and second half, Rodgers’s ability to sustain offensive potency diluted the defensive pressure placed on Nelson and Cobb, spreading it to other parts of receiver coverage. Consequently, the powerful duo became more freed up, ultimately attaining a combined 138 yards despite early struggles, all working towards Green Bay dictating the flow of the game.

An abandoned offensive dimension 

Encountering a porous 30th-ranked run defense, the Patriots at first seemed inclined to develop an effective rushing attack for the third consecutive game. Three running plays in the first four offensive drives indicated at least some focus on establishing this facet of the offense, especially when the first third down situation called for LeGarrette Blount instead of Brady (which resulted in a failure to convert). But even though Blount gained 58 of the team’s total 84 yards on the ground, the Patriots did not adequately exploit this potential advantage. Offensive balance has not only keyed the previous seven-game win streak, but has facilitated Brady’s mid-season renaissance. For several long stretches during offensive drives, and particularly in the first half when the team permanently fell behind, the Pats elected to exclusively pass the ball. It was as if New England felt it was already in a late fourth-quarter hole–and not in an early game situation, where it failed to devote enough patience to establish a ground attack against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL.

Life after loss

Although the heavyweight tilt concluded in a loss, several factors work towards New England’s favor moving forward. Despite the aforementioned lack of a true rushing attack, a clinical job done by the opposing, future MVP quarterback, and the top receiver (Julian Edelman) hampered by injury for much of the day, the Patriots contested the game well. Losing by only five points in one of the toughest road environments proved not so much a demoralizing result, as indicated by the upbeat character of Patriot players following the game. And since New England did not necessarily play to its full capacity on Sunday, and suffered a loss but was not pummeled, such a defeat often works positively once evaluated in retrospect. For whatever reason, entering the postseason with a long win streak and long-built momentum doesn’t always bode well. If the Patriots finish the regular season powerfully, this Week 13 loss could easily serve as a blessing in disguise and stabilize this playoff-bound team’s sense of momentum.

Brady (right) and the Patriots have likely faced their toughest opposing quarterback in Rodgers (left) this last Sunday. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)

Brady (right) and the Patriots have likely faced their toughest opposing quarterback in Rodgers (left) this last Sunday. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)

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Patriots Offseason 2014: Thoughts

In the early parts of the 2014 offseason, it appears that the New England Patriots will let more key players go, such as Aqib Talib and eventually Vince Wilfork, than they will retain, such as Julian Edelman. Yet in these decisions, and also by adding two new faces to the secondary, the Patriots brass have handled the offseason period fairly well for the time being.

Parting ways with two defensive anchors in an already mediocre unit seems questionable in theory. But allowing Talib to sign with the Denver Broncos and eventually releasing Wilfork after his refusal to restructure his contract only makes financial sense. Perhaps these moves can now give leverage to Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick in either pursuing offensive weapons for Tom Brady or bolstering the defense.

And while New England has not yet acted on the potential loss of Wilfork, it responded within days to not resigning Talib by inking Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to two- and three-year contracts, respectively. The additions of these two former Pro Bowlers–and for Browner after he serves a 4-game suspension at start the season–will certainly shore up a usually suspect pass defense, and can help fill the void created by Talib’s departure. Furthermore, these signings reveal a proactive approach to the offseason by the Patriots front office, one that if continued for the rest of the offseason could pay dividends.

On that point, the Patriots cannot let up now: bringing Julian Edelman back on board was the right move, but beyond that, plenty of work has yet to be done if the Pats want to make the most of their championship window. It starts by maintaining their aggression with this free agency period, and continues into the upcoming draft, which holds several enticing offensive options.

Patriots 2013: A Turbulent Offseason and the Road Ahead

As the New England Patriots stand less than ten weeks away from their 2013 season opener, the offseason has strangely been a mixture of the “same old, same old”, and some worrisome new developments.

There’s no doubting the Patriots, under the leadership of the one of the best quarterback-head coach combinations in history, will cruise to the AFC East title. The lackluster division has retained the usual mediocrity on all fronts but Miami’s, as the Dolphins have made an uncharacteristically bold statement during this year’s free agency period.

Regardless of any newfound competition, Tom Brady remains one of the premier players in the NFL today, while Bill Belichick’s mastermind status on the sideline is not fading away anytime soon. In other words, the two franchise faces will engineer success with whatever tools they have at their disposal.

Yet however much their wisdom and experience with the game can yield triumph, the magnitude of what they can’t control—which has reached an apex in the past months—will unquestionably make its scarring mark in the upcoming 2013-14 campaign.

The brewing difficulties, yet to be fully experienced, first initiated with star tight end Rob Gronkowski’s endless string of injuries. The polarizing figure on and off the field first sustained injuries during the last season, forcing his absence from key New England games, and therefore playing a vital part in why the Patriots could not return to the Super Bowl while not actually playing at all.

While in the process of recovery, the amount of debilities his body has suffered only grew. The rehabilitation effort certainly had lapses in itself, but Gronkowski wasn’t making it any easier on his body to recuperate (roughhousing behavior is not necessarily the best medicine to someone who’s aching all over).

So as the scheduled surgery dates continued to mount, it seemed more and more definite that the league’s best tight end would miss time heading into next season. The exact total of time Gronkowski will stay put on the sideline is ambiguous at this point, as his healing is entirely dependent on how he conducts himself during this period—preferably in a non-abrasive, calm manner.

Then, as many New Englanders perceived it, the unthinkable occurred: the adored slot receiver Wes Welker, bypassed by the Pats to an extent, bolted westward to join forces with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Along with the assured exit of the underwhelming Brandon Lloyd, the receiving corps was looking slim to say the least: passing options in general for Brady were essentially limited to Julian Edleman and Aaron Hernandez after Danny Woodhead’s departure.

Signing Danny Amendola (the analysis of which I’ll get to later) was of utmost necessity after Welker walked out of Foxboro: he filled the void the previous slot receiver left, as well as gave some comfort to an uneasy Patriots fanbase.

And when Belichick and the Pats stockpiled wide receivers during the NFL draft—Aaron Dobson from Marshall and Josh Boyce from TCU—the outlook on the approaching season did not look as grim.

Hernandez's arrest left the Patriots stunned and disgraced.

Hernandez’s arrest left the Patriots disgraced.

Then came June 18th.

It was just part of an investigation pertaining to a crime that occurred less than a mile away from his house—that’s all. Nothing to worry about. It should resolve itself in a couple of days.

When reports surfaced that the other dynamic, Patriots tight end—Aaron Hernandez—was being simply asked questions about a dead body found nearby his North Attleboro mansion, the last thing anybody could think of was that he had a connection to a murder. Not that he was the perpetrator himself, but that he had any link whatsoever to the killing.

But the consensus belief and assumption towards this matter could not have been more erroneous.

Over the buildup of one lengthy, deflating, infuriating—from the perspective of a Pats’ fan specifically—week, the world gradually found the once-heralded football star Aaron Hernandez to be a criminal. Not only was he arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd a few days ago, but along the path of the investigation regarding this case, plenty of other “dirty laundry” arose.

Dating back from his college days at the University of Florida, Hernandez had continually partaken in misdemeanors ranging from dangerous night club disputes to incidents involving guns. Whatever the crimes were—as well as those just being discovered now—cannot be pardoned or even diminished in any form due to his upbringing in a gang environment, or the brazen attitude he acquired after a luxurious contract. It’s as simple as that “he threw his life away”.

And this kind of string of ill-minded decisions, from a player he cooperated with and helped, is something Bill Belichick will not tolerate, even if a true verdict has not been handed down in this case yet.

So back to the gridiron aspect of this frustrating event. The Patriots will not start with either part of their (once) potent tight end duo, which would seem incomprehensible just half a year ago. Here are the passing attack pieces Brady will be forced to extract the most out of next year, in order of importance:

  1. Danny Amendola
  2. Julian Edelman
  3. Jake Ballard
  4. Shane Vereen
  5. Donald Jones
  6. Stevan Ridley
  7. Andre Holmes
  8. Brandon Bolden

In all candidness, it is not a stellar group by any calculations. Clearly, the Patriots brass must add more pieces to the passing mix, perhaps some veteran free agents that will attempt to sustain the passing game fluidity Tom Brady’s accustomed to orchestrating.

Before I weigh into how the current receivers/backfield options will perform this upcoming season, take a look at how statistics do not favor the Patriots transferring their passing efficiency into next year after losing so many pieces (at least in the early-going, while Gronkowski is still held out because of injury).

Percent of Brady’s 2012 passing yard totals that return for the start of 2013—9%

Percent of Brady’s 2012 passing TDs that return for the start of 2013—12%

Percent of Brady’s 2012 passing completions that return for the start of 2013—9%

It would not be nonsensical to think that Brady, a sure-bet hall-of-famer, will gradually assimilate to his new targets; because of the essential communication/chemistry he creates with his receivers, as well as his overall quarterbacking ability to make the most of his options and make his ball-recipients look great, such a premise would not be outlandish.

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Brady must build good rapport with his new targets to ensure early-season success.

But as Brady and his Patriots progressed from one season to the next in their history, the common factor between each campaign was familiarity. Old faces stayed put for the most part, and if there were some alterations in the roster, they would never be as groundbreaking and numerous as those seen going into this next season.

Brady will undoubtedly require some time to familiarize himself with the new teammates running routes for him—players lesser in quality than the Welker’s, Gronkowski’s, and Hernandez’s he went to battle with last year.

So upon looking at New England’s first games of the 13’ season, don’t be surprised for a slight dropoff in stability, as well as times of uncertainty and difficulty.

Week 1 & 2: AFC East Intros

@Buffalo

-as inconceivable as it may sound, the upstart, Manuel-led Bills may stun a disoriented Pats team still trying to settle down from being in limbo

vs. New York (J)

-a defeat at home against the despised Jets would be as shocking as it would be impossible

Week 3 & 4: The true test

With back-to-back road games against playoff contenders in the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals, the Patriots will without question find where they stand after losing so many integral offensive components. Coming away with just 1 win from this mini-road trip would be termed a success for New England, and perhaps hope that the team can stall just a little longer until Gronkowski returns.

Even though their opponents won’t present the fiercest of defensive challenges, these two road games (the 3rd and 4th game of the season) will truly serve as a checkpoint of sorts—a measuring stick that will foretell success or lack thereof for the remainder of the season.

Passing game options- analysis

Amendola-

I don’t think the Patriots could have better bounced back in the period following Welker’s departure. It was more of a panic move, but just based on Amendola’s thoughts coming into New England, he seems a tad more grateful and “devoted to the cause” than the Pats’ last slot receiver—excited to catch passes from Brady, be part of a great organization, and play in a sports-enthused area of the map. If you recall, following the Boston marathon bombings, Amendola pledged he’d give monetary donations to aid the victims for every one of his catches. Not to be meant as an insult, but do you think Welker would do something like that? A benevolent action such as this one—that immediately conveys one’s respect—is not part of a player contract or obligation at all. It’s just something done out of the heart, which means Amendola might—might—just have a stronger connection with the fanbase, and not nonchalantly cruise through his playing days.

Amendola is also significantly undervalued. A collarbone injury playing for the Rams cut short an efficient season, where he showed signs of promise as a dynamic, swift slot catcher. Obviously, he won’t completely fulfill or surpass Welker’s contributions while in New England, but don’t write off Amendola too easily.

Edelman-

Julian Edelman is another Welker prototype, whose impact stretches beyond the passing game, and into special teams. Most importantly, he serves as Brady’s most reliable link from last season to the start of the impending season. If he allows Brady to have comfort in him, and become a trustful weapon, that would only ease the process for the Patriots quarterback who’ll be in need of plenty more assistance this year.

Ridley's role has increased tremendously headed into the 2013 season.

Ridley’s role has increased tremendously headed into the 2013 season.

Rushing Attack: The Rise

The proficient rushing game was regarded as just a bonus last season: the corps amounted for an impressive 2184 total rushing yards, as there was one 1000+ yard-runner and three players that surpassed the 275-yard mark.

But this time around, the likes of Ridley, Vereen, and Bolden will be heavily counted on to keep the pressure off Brady’s back. Furthermore, if the trio builds upon their success from 2012, they will in fact carry this team through the regular season.

Health and discipline will be vital to any promising output this group provides. The former California Bear Shane Vereen, a speedy back looking to make up for the loss of Danny Woodhead this year, missed time last year due to injury. Assuming Vereen remains mostly in good condition in 2013, he could serve as a potent and electric compliment to Ridley’s style of running.

Brandon Bolden challenged number-one back Ridley for carries, but his 12’ campaign was hampered by a four-game suspension for taking performance-enhancing drugs. The chance that happens is slim to none, as Coach Belichick surely instilled in the youngster that it’s not the way to go, so expect Bolden’s bruising style to favorably impact the Patriots offense.

And of course, I can’t discuss the rise of a once-dormant New England rushing attack without mentioning the ascendency of Steven Ridley. Last year, the former LSU Tiger finally got his opportunity at the number-1 running back position—and he exceeded expectations by any measure. To run for 1263 yards in a pass-first offensive system, while occupying the RB 1 slot for that matter, is just mind-boggling. Ridley is certainly on course to be a top running back in this league, and if his development can efficiently coincide with Patriot success, there might not be anything else you could ask for outside of Tom Brady.