NEPD Staff Writer: Doug Kyed
Bill Belichick has either lost his mind, or he’s somehow become an even greater defensive mind this year.
It’s either one or the other. Let me explain.
We have seen two offensive players receiving a starter’s share of snaps in the secondary, one of whom was a quarterback for most of his football playing life.
We have seen a practice squad cornerback start at safety for three weeks straight inexplicably released, then brought back to the practice squad, then signed to the 53 man roster, then brought in to replace the team’s best cornerback.
We’ve seen one starting cornerback placed on injured reserve when he could probably be helping the team right now.
We’ve seen another starting cornerback released mere hours before said rookie cornerback was placed on injured reserve.
We’ve seen a veteran edge rusher released the same week the best pass rusher on the team was placed on injured reserve.
We’ve seen players sit out for seven or eight weeks at a time with injuries that should take 2-3 to recover from. We’ve seen Ross Ventrone playing safety in actual games!
And now, we’ve seen Devin McCourty, last year’s rookie All-Pro cornerback, playing safety for most of the game. The craziest thing about all of that? It’s worked. The Patriots are 13-3 with the number one seed in the AFC heading into the playoffs.
Here are my six keys to victory over the Bills:
COMING BACK FROM ADVERSITY
Yes, it’s been three weeks straight now that this has been one of my keys, but it might be the best part of this team right now. The Bills got off to such a fast start, it’s almost hard to remember how it all happened. A 47 yard pass interference call against Antwaun Molden certainly didn’t help. Neither did the Bills exploiting matchups at the line that had Dane Fletcher covering a wide receiver.
Then we saw some very minor changes including an almost full time switch to the sub defense where we saw Brandon Spikes come in for his first snaps, Devin McCourty move to safety almost full time and the return of Julian Edelman as a defensive contributor. I may be completely out of my mind, but Edelman has some real potential as a defensive player. He reminds me a bit of Patrick Chung out there and who knows where his ceiling would be. He flies around, he’s always looking to get in on a tackle and he’s a physical slot corner. According to Pro Football Focus, he was targeted just twice for one reception and six yards on 41 snaps. He finished with five tackles.
On offense, one of the most important things we saw to spark the comeback was the return to the no huddle offense. I understand that the Patriots are dying to come out in a balanced offensive attack and to get the running game going, but it might be time to move away from that idea and I think they will in the playoffs. The running game really opens up for the Patriots when they’re in the no huddle.
One really important thing to come away from Sunday’s game was that Stevan Ridley was in on those early no huddle snaps. If the Patriots can trust Ridley to hang onto the ball (he coughed it up once this week) and they can trust him enough to know the plays in a no huddle, he could continue to be a huge asset to this offense.
While on the topic of the running game, I thought BenJarvus Green-Ellis showed more burst and speed on Sunday than what we’d seed from him in a while. Ridley finished with 81 yards on 15 carries while Green-Ellis finished with 22 yards on seven carries, but stats don’t tell the whole story with his game.
So can this McCourty at safety thing stick? Maybe. He’s had trouble in man coverage all season, so if the Patriots are thinking about going man for the playoffs, it might be best for McCourty to play deep at safety. He’s better in coverage when he’s reading the QB than he is when he’s reading the WR. Playing in a zone allows him to do that at cornerback, playing man doesn’t, but it does at safety. I thought that McCourty played better as the game progressed, getting an interception late in the game. I thought he struggled early with reading plays.
The problem with sticking McCourty at safety is that it likely throws Molden into a starting role. According to PFF, Molden allowed six receptions on nine targets for 62 yards and he gave up the huge 47 yard pass interference penalty. The biggest problem with that penalty was that he didn’t need to commit it. He was in good position, there was no need to push off.
If it were up to me, this would be my secondary: Arrington and Moore at the CBs, Chung and McCourty at safety, Edelman in during sub packages and either Nate Jones or Molden in for the dime. Moore played well at safety early in the year and looked even more comfortable at CB when he replaced Arrington. It might have been just one lucky game, but phenomenal allowing just one reception on five targets for five yards with two interceptions and a touchdown. His QB rating against was 0. You really can’t get much better than that.
Arrington struggled again allowing six receptions on ten targets for 81 yards and a touchdown, but he has been the most consistent Patriots CB despite his issues recently. How crazy would it be if the Patriots solved their secondary problems going into the playoffs?
WINNING THE TURNOVER BATTLE
The Patriots once again won the turnover battle and in turn, won the game. They’re getting better and better at making big plays, especially late in games. Moore had two interceptions while McCourty and Molden added one more apiece. Brady threw one interception, and like earlier against the Bills, it was on a tipped ball. I don’t really care if those plays lower Brady’s stats. I can safely say that throw was not his fault.
Penalties and turnover kind of go hand in hand for me, the Patriots committed four penalties to the Bills five, but allowed more yards off penalties with 77 to 45 because of that Molden call.
THE TIGHT ENDS
How incredibly frustrating must it be to try to game plan against the Patriots? Gronkowski, Welker and Hernandez are all so dangerous you simply can’t cover them all well enough. Hernandez touched the ball nine times against the Bills for 164 total yards and a touchdown. Gronk had eight catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
Lets really break down the tight ends’ production this year: Hernandez finished with 84 touches for 955 yards and seven touchdowns. Gronk finished with records in yards and touchdowns in a season for a tight end with 90 catches, 1327 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also had one “rushing” attempt for two yards and a touchdown. So overall, they finished with 175 catches, 2284 yards and 25 touchdowns. Who needs a third WR? No wonder these guys were always the no. 1 and no. 2 TEs through high school and college.
KEEPING BRADY UPRIGHT
I doubted the decision to start Ryan Wendell at LG this week after Donald Thomas did so well last week, well guess what? Wendell played even better this year. Thank God for Dante Scarnecchia. The Patriots allowed three sacks on Sunday with Pro Football Focus blaming two of them on Brady. Matt Light allowed the third, but didn’t allow another pressure all game. Nate Solder allowed two pressures and Dan Connolly, Gronk and Brian Waters allowed one each. That’s right, Ryan Wendell was the only starting offensive lineman to not allow a single pressure all game.
Marcus Cannon also played impressively for 25 snaps, subbing for Solder when he moved to TE and for Light late in the game. He didn’t allow a single pressure either.
The Patriots have played 12 offensive lineman this year: Waters, Sebastian Vollmer, Light, Wendell, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Cannon, Nick McDonald, Thomas, Solder, Connolly and Thomas Welch and everything single one of them has played at the very least decently. No one else in the league could possibly be that deep at offensive line.