|Notes and Observations Week 15: Patriots Blow Out Dolphins 41-13; Clinch AFC East||Connelly’s Top Ten: Patriots Defense, Special Teams Carry Home Team||Fantasy Football Start ‘Em, Sit ‘Em: Week 15||Right Idea? Red Sox Bring in Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Justin Masterson|
This was the game that everyone has been hoping to see. The defense continued to show how good they really are, and the offense finally found some type of rhythm to give the doubters something to be happy about. No one is picking the Buccaneers to win any Super Bowls anytime soon, but a win against a hungry 0-2 team looking for that first win is just what the Patriots needed to keep up their momentum. No matter how bad the offense has looked at times, this team is 3-0 and finding ways to win while the offense continues to find themselves.
- The first few drives from the Patriots’ offense were certainly frustrating. They punted on their first 3 drives and only benefited from a missed field goal and some tough defense holding the Bucs to just 3 points. Those 3 points were all they would get for the entire game. In three games so far, the defense has given up only 27 points (34 total, but 7 were on an offensive turnover for a touchdown against the Bills).
- I do understand that the Patriots have played three games that they were expected to win. They’ve played two rookie quarterbacks and Josh Freeman of the Bucs, who more than likely won’t have a job after the season. While all these teams don’t seem like legitimate threats, they were all starving to pick up a win against the Patriots. These games are huge to those teams and you know they are going to throw everything they have to seal that victory. For those three games the Patriots have managed a last minute, game-winning drive, a defensive struggle on a rain soaked field, and completely shut down the Bucs’ offense.
- As good as it’s been to watch the defense, it’s been that bad watching the offense. After the last three-and-out from Brady and company they exited the field to a chorus of boos. The fans at Gillette were plenty frustrated but you can bet anything that the guys on the offense were equally as frustrated. That three-and-out was their last drive of the first quarter. The second quarter was like a whole new team.
- Their first drive in the second quarter went 66 yards on 11 plays, taking up 5:13 on the game clock. That is a drive you expect when Tom Brady is your quarterback. Aaron Dobson, who had as tough a night as anyone against the Jets in Week 2, was targeted early by Brady and he did not disappoint. He caught a ball on a short in over the middle and took it for 15 yards. He then had a clutch grab on 4th and 2 to keep the drive going. That catch may have won the game. It kept the momentum on their side and built some huge confidence for the rookie receiver. If they don’t get that first on 4th down, the Bucs take the ball with good field position and more importantly the Patriots stay off the scoreboard.
- The touchdown pass was helped by a great run after the catch from the other rookie Kenbrell Thompkins. Thompkins, after having an impressive pre-season, hasn’t showed anywhere near the same abilities in the regular season. It was a short drag route and after the catch Thompkins showed great vision and was able to weave through about three defenders to find the endzone for the first touchdown of the day and the first of his career.
- The next offensive possession for the Pats saw almost identical results. Their second drive of the second quarter saw the offense go 63 yards on 10 plays in just 3:33. They were bailed out by a couple of defensive penalties (illegal contact, pass interference), each resulting in an automatic first down. What was impressive was that the offense took advantage of those mistakes, which was something they weren’t doing in the first two games. That sounds like progress to me. Once again the drive ended with a touchdown to Thompkins which was set up by terrific offensive line play. The line gave Brady plenty of time to step up and wait for Thompkins’s longer route to develop. Brady then hit Thompkins right between the numbers in the back off the endzone to give the Patriots the 14-3 lead.
- The Bucs had one last shot to maybe steal a field goal at the end of the first half, but it couldn’t have gone any worse for them. Aqib Talib showed his former team what they are missing when he made a terrific catch on an interception near the sideline. This set the Patriots up to potentially steal 3 points of their own, and they once again took advantage of the opportunity (there seems to be a theme developing). Stephen Gostkowski atoned for his sins from the missed kick against the Jets by nailing a 53-yard field goal right down the middle.
- The second half saw the Patriots driving once again on their first possession but it was abruptly stopped when Brady was picked off in the endzone by Mark Barron. Not sure what Brady was thinking on the pass as he basically threw into triple coverage. It looked as if he was trying for Zach Sudfeld in the back of the endzone and Barron stepped in front of the pass, but even if Barron didn’t jump in the way Sudfeld was double covered in the back. Not a good pass and Brady knew it right away.
- The Patriots added two more field goals to their total to get to the final score of 23-3. It definitely seemed as though they were content to just add the three points as the defense was giving them nothing to worry about. It’s apparent the defensive philosophy is still the same as it has been the past few years. They still employ the bend-don’t-break mentality, but now they have the talent to force the issue more so than in the past. The secondary has been a question mark for the last 5 years, but this unit looks great early on. Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib are proving to be strong, physical, man-to-man corners. Talib also has three interceptions in three games. Allow me to hop on the “Sign Talib to a long term deal” train early. He is undoubtedly the first shut down corner we have had since Ty Law, and having two corners on the outside like Talib and Dennard allows for more blitzing from the front seven.
- Speaking of the front seven, isn’t it shocking that when you pressure the quarterback good things happen? They had three sacks this game and pressured Freeman for most of the game. All the pressure forced some errant passes and bad decisions from Freeman which was a main reason the Bucs’ offense never got off the ground.
- The three sacks were attributed to Chandler Jones (1), Jerod Mayo (1), Tommy Kelly (.5), and newly extended Rob Ninkovich (.5). Jones has started his sophomore season off quickly as he already has three sacks, which is half of his total from his rookie campaign. All the “experts” were saying that Chandler Jones was going to need to step up and be the pass rusher the Patriots had hoped for and he has done nothing to disappoint early on.
- I’ve said it the last two weeks that the front seven is going to make this defense go, and they have shown they are up to the task early on. The linebackers have been the most impressive. We all know they are good in the run game, especially Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo. However the big hangup has always been their play in pass coverage. While there is still room for improvement, the linebackers have shown progress in pass coverage, especially second year player Dont’a Hightower. There was one play in particular where Hightower had to cover speedy Doug Martin who was motioned to the receiver spot. Martin ran a wheel route up the sideline and Freeman tried to float one over Hightower’s head but he successfully stayed with Martin and broke up the play.
- One thing that popped out about this game was how they managed the running backs. There was a constant cycle of Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and Legarette Blount. Blount and Ridley had more carries, 14 and 11 respectively, but Bolden filled into the Shane Vereen role. Bolden caught 5 passes on 6 targets for 49 yards. He had one big gain on a screen pass where he weaved his way for 17 yards. Cycling the backs in and out is a good strategy as long as they are all producing; in this case, they were. Blount had 65 rushing yards, Ridley had 35, and Bolden had an impressive 51 yards on three carries. The different styles of running can compliment each other as well as confuse the opposing defense. Possibly the biggest advantage this gives the Patriots is having running backs with healthy, rested legs as the season goes on.
- With everything that has happened in the first three weeks the main thing to take away is that the Patriots have found ways to win while their offense struggled, and they finally were able to put together some offensive momentum. The first true test will be next week against the Falcons in Atlanta. The Falcons are coming off a tough loss to the Dolphins and are sitting at 1-2, which means you can bet they’ll be looking to make a statement at home against the Patriots. The defense will need to continue their strong play while the offense is going to need to build upon their success in Week 3. There is a shining light though, as all indications are Rob Gronkowski will be back next week. He was healthy enough to play this week but they wisely held him out in a game where he wasn’t necessary. Gronk’s presence alone will open up the field for the other receivers.
- My biggest takeaway from this game was the fact the Patriots took advantage of the opportunities they were presented with, something they greatly struggled with in the first two games. While they have been criticized heavily, they sit at 3-0 with two wins in the division. Belichick knows you win by playing your best football in the later months of the season. They have played some of their worst football in the early stages and still haven’t lost, all without Gronk and largely without Danny Amendola. Somethings telling me Belichick isn’t exactly worried about his chances moving forward, so we shouldn’t be either.