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Considering questions and concerns raised by Vince Wilfork's injury

Posted by Erik Frenz September 30, 2013 05:00 PM


AP Photo

Losing nose tackle Vince Wilfork is so big, there's only one way I can think to describe it: 6-foot-2, 325 pounds.

Truly a mountain of a man, but even those words ring hollow.

Schematic centerpiece? That's a better alternative.

As colleague Shalise Manza Young reported in the wee hours of the morning, Wilfork is done for the season due to an Achilles injury.

There are plenty of questions that come out of such significant injury news, and while we'll have to wait until the games are played to get concrete answers, it's not too early to begin considering how this impacts the team in various ways.

Drawing double-teams

Wilfork's ability to soak up blockers, no matter where he lined up, gave the Patriots a huge schematic edge.

"Obviously, Vince is a huge asset for our team, not only on the field but off the field," said linebacker Jerod Mayo. "He’s a great leader, he demands double teams in the run game and he also coordinates some of the rushes in the pass game, so [he's] a great asset for this defense."

Boston.com film review from the Patriots win over the Buccaneers showed that Wilfork drew a double-team on 25 of his 51 snaps, nearly half the time he was on the field in that game. Who knows when he first injured his foot, but that's an impressive performance even on two healthy feet.

Defensive end Chandler Jones most often lined up next to Wilfork, so Jones may get more attention from opposing offensive lines if Wilfork's replacement isn't drawing double-teams on a consistent basis.

This may also impact their run defense in sub packages. Wilfork helped them stop the run even when they went light up front, and while the Patriots still have a group of solid run-stuffing linebackers and a pair of stout edge defenders in Jones and Rob Ninkovich, they may not suffer too greatly in that respect.

Who's the next man up?

Of course, Tommy Kelly and Joe Vellano can expect a bigger role, but the Patriots will need to add depth at a position that has been among the thinnest since training camp.

As usual, some people seem to think the Patriots' best option is not currently on their roster. Suggestions include free-agent nose tackle Kyle Love, who was released from the Patriots in May, claimed and then released again on Sept. 1 by the Jaguars. If Love hadn't already seemingly burned that bridge with some disparaging comments about the Patriots, it might be worth considering.

Speaking of burning bridges, Richard Seymour's name has also been thrown around. Even if he hadn't made some dubious, well-known comments about playing for 31 other teams before he'd play for the Patriots, he still hasn't played football since November 4, 2012, and didn't even get a sniff as a free-agent outside of some negotiations with the Falcons.

What do you have a practice squad for, if not for this exact scenario? Second-year defensive tackle Marcus Forston is waiting in the wings in the Patriots proverbial farm system, and looked like he would make the roster over Vellano in training camp. Forston isn't quite a space-eater in the middle like Wilfork (who is, really?), but he could provide depth at a position that now features just three players.

The Patriots also have defensive tackle Armond Armstead on the NFI list, leaving him off the field until after Week 6. There has been no news on the progress of his recovery from a surgery to treat an infection.

patriots DTs.pngIn the meantime, it's up to players like Joe Vellano and Chris White to step up. Both were asked to play significant snaps against the Falcons: Vellano with 33, White with 19.

"I think that’s what it’s all about, is preparation during the week and those guys prepare well and they came in to the game and did some good things," said Mayo. "Obviously we still have a lot of work to do and gelling together to get that chemistry but that comes with time. But last night was a good night for them."

Will the Patriots adjust their scheme?

The Patriots are known as one of the more schematically unique teams in the NFL, and Wilfork allowed them to do so much with their fronts. X's-and-O's expert Chris Brown wrote an interesting piece on Grantland dissecting Wilfork's value and role:

So what has Belichick done with his oddball assortment of defenders, anchored by Vince Wilfork? Did he choose 3-4 or 4-3? One-gap or 2-gap? Traditionally a 3-4 coach, Belichick ran this system even when almost every other NFL team was mimicking the 4-3 defenses popular in Dallas and Tampa. But Belichick now finds himself in a time when, by desire and necessity, he has largely moved to a four-man line approach. And yet, in typical Belichick fashion, he has chosen not to rely solely on the 4-3 or 3-4 or a 1-gap or 2-gap approach. Nor does he just alternate between 3-4 and 4-3 looks from play to play. Instead, Belichick has essentially combined both approaches in the same play. How?

The Patriots run a 3-4 to one side of the field and a 4-3 to the other, all on the same play. The key to all this is Wilfork. He lines up over the center and assumes his traditional spot of run-stuffing, blocker consuming, two-gapping war daddy. Belichick fills out the rest of the pieces based on the strengths and weaknesses of his other defenders.

It's safe to say the Patriots don't have that kind of player on their defensive line at the moment, but there will still be flexibility in the front seven.

"The defense changes every week anyway, we’re a game plan defense," said Mayo, "different fronts, different schemes -- we change every week. We’ll just have to see what happens."

Most likely, the Patriots are still primarily a 4-3 defense, but they've already been very multiple in their looks this year. Jones has moved around the line, playing both end and tackle in a 4-3 and end in a 3-4. They run different fronts for their nickel packages, too, going with 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 at different times and against different opponents.

Those labels are just window dressing, but it could take some creativeness from head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to come up with an answer to a player that has given them the ability to be so versatile on defense.

With defensive ends like Jones and Ninkovich, the Patriots will probably still line up mainly in four-man fronts to maximize the effectiveness of those two. They may also begin to utilize more one-gapping techniques in the middle, without a truly dominant space-eating nose tackle like Wilfork.

Jets should stick with Geno Smith despite QBs struggles

Posted by Erik Frenz September 30, 2013 08:00 AM

Whether it's Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith, New York Jets quarterbacks just can't seem to stay clean on the turnover sheet.

They also can't seem to avoid fumbles involving a butt.

Smith has yet to prove he is much different from Sanchez. Smith has five total touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) and 11 turnovers (eight interceptions, three fumbles lost). The former starting quarterback compiled 45 touchdowns (39 passing, six rushing) while turning the ball over 52 times (36 interceptions, 16 fumbles lost) from 2011-2012.

It would be easy to pull the plug on the Smith experiment, to say the new model looks too much like the old one, but would that be a step forward, or simply a step to the side?

Well, for starters, it would be too easy to place all the blame at one player after a loss, especially after that player turned the ball over four times in one game.

Jets head coach Rex Ryan isn't ready to do that, though.

Don't hold your breath for a new starting quarterback.

Sanchez was put on injured reserve/designated to return, and is out until at least Week 11 with a shoulder injury he suffered in the preseason. That gives Smith another seven weeks to show he has, in fact, improved.

It won't take much for the Jets to part ways with Sanchez -- none of his money is guaranteed after the 2013 season.

Would the team even turn back to Sanchez after his immature handling of the quarterback battle -- when he ran to NFL Network's Rich Eisen to air his opinion on how he won the competition?

Aside from all the drama with Sanchez, Smith has shown both the ability to throw the ball down the field and to make accurate throws. He has yet to show either consistently, but the potential is there.

"Did he -- this particular day -- give us a chance to win?" Rex said after the game. "I mean...I don't think...you know, none of us did."

The rookie was sacked five times and hit several more times behind an offensive line that didn't give him time in the pocket on a consistent basis.

For once, the Jets defense deserves some of the blame for the loss. They yielded four scores on the Titans' six first-half drives, three of which were touchdowns. The Jets haven't allowed 24 points in the first half since last Thanksgiving against the Patriots, and before that, not since December 18, 2011.

Yet there they were on Sunday, being carved up mercilessly by Titans quarterback Jake Locker, who only stopped when he got injured.

Given the other problems with the team -- and the recent history of Sanchez -- there is no guarantee that the team is any better with the veteran as the starter than they are with the rookie.

At least, with Smith, the Jets are building toward something. This is a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator, new running backs, two new starting guards and all the players trying to learn a new system. A timing-based offense like the West Coast system will take some time to get everyone on the same page.

That's to be expected.

Four turnovers in a game, however, is far from expected or acceptable, and the bottom line is, if it doesn't get cleaned up soon, it won't be too hard to draw the parallels between Sanchez and Smith.

Patriots stock report: Aqib Talib a key vs. Falcons, throughout 4-0 start

Posted by Erik Frenz September 30, 2013 01:52 AM

Was there ever any doubt?

It looked like the Patriots would run away with a win on Sunday night, and by the time the Patriots had turned in their 30-23 victory, most of America had probably tuned into their DVR of "Breaking Bad."

Breaking bad sounds like what a lot of Patriots fans would have been doing had a certain player not broken up a fourth-down heave into the end zone in the game's final seconds.

There's good and bad to be gleaned from any game, regardless of the outcome, so here's a look at the stock of some of the Patriots players after a tough Sunday night win.

Stock up:

Kenbrell Thompkins: Thompkins had two drops, but made several acrobatic catches, including a leaping catch over two defenders on a double-reverse-fake and a diving catch into the end zone for one of Brady's two touchdowns on the night. The chemistry experiment on offense looked like it might blow up in the Patriots face, but they've managed to find the necessary balance and with everyone taking a step forward, the results quickly manifested on the field.

Aqib Talib: He was flagged for pass interference in defense of wide receiver Roddy White, but made several big plays, including the two biggest plays of the night -- an interception in coverage of wide receiver Julio Jones, and a pass break-up against White on a last-gasp fourth-down pass into the end zone. Talib has allowed just one touchdown into his coverage while intercepting four passes this season. He was brought back on a one-year deal this past offseason, and if his sticky man coverage continues, he will be rewarded handsomely where ever he plays in 2014.

Joe Vellano: Stepped in for an injured Vince Wilfork and played a significant role in the defensive game plan from that point. Anchored a defensive line that plugged the lanes up the middle, and yielded just 3.9 yards per carry to the Falcons running backs.

Stock down:

Zach Sudfeld: Was targeted on an onside kick that bounced out of his grasp in the fourth quarter. It's been a rough September for Sudfeld, who has no catches this season thus far after emerging as a potential breakout rookie this summer.

Anyone trying to cover Tony Gonzalez: There's a good reason Gonzalez is considered one of the best tight ends to ever play the game, and it has a lot to do with the kinds of catches he was making against the Patriots defense. It didn't matter if it was a cornerback, a linebacker or a safety, Gonzalez was making them all look foolish and finished with 12 catches for 149 yards, the first time those marks have been reached since Week 1 of the 2010 season.

Patriots vs. Falcons matchup breakdown: DE Chandler Jones vs. LT Lamar Holmes

Posted by Erik Frenz September 26, 2013 07:30 AM

How on Earth will the New England Patriots cover the bevy of weapons in the Atlanta Falcons' offensive arsenal?

Defensive end Chandler Jones may be the answer -- no, not in coverage, but in pressuring quarterback Matt Ryan off the edge.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan has been under pressure on 44.8 percent of his drop-backs, which is the third-highest average in the NFL through three games.

Despite the constant pressure in his face, Ryan has managed to compile the fourth-highest completion percentage in the NFL, hitting 68.1 percent of his throws. When Ryan is under pressure, though, he is completing just 51 percent of his throws.

tale of the tape jones holmes.pngPressure has been the bugaboo for the Falcons offense, and Jones may have plenty of opportunities to create pressure, since he'll be lining up across from Falcons left tackle Lamar Holmes.

It's been open season on Holmes, who has allowed 20 combined pressures (15 hurries, four hits, one sack) in three games. He ranks 61st out of 62 offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking efficiency this season.

Jones, on the other hand, ranks 10th among 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity, with 10 hurries, two hits and four total sacks (half-sacks counting as full sacks).

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Two things Jones does exceptionally well: winning leverage, and using his long arms to keep blockers away from his frame.

Jones did both of those things on 2nd-and-8 in the third quarter against the Buccaneers.

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He added around 10 pounds of muscle this offseason, and has translated it into functional strength when bull-rushing an offensive tackle. Here, he got inside left tackle Donald Penn's pads, quickly jolted him back and to the side, and because of his long arms, Penn was hardly able to even get a jam on Jones.

Instead, he was left to helplessly watch as Jones wrapped around him and joined in the sack party with defensive tackle Tommy Kelly.

Those traits could come in handy against Holmes, who has already been exposed on the bull-rush this season.

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Holmes started out the season as the right tackle, but an injury to left tackle Sam Baker in Week 2 forced him to slide to the left side. While still at right tackle, though, he squared off against Rams left defensive end Chris Long, who comes with a similar skill set to Jones'.

Long started out in a two-point stance and rushed upfield slightly off the snap, then cut straight into Holmes' body.

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Just as Jones did to Penn, Long quickly gained leverage on Holmes and jacked him straight into Matt Ryan's lap.

The former Boston College quarterback scrambled away from the oncoming pressure, but was taken down by the backside rush from defensive end Robert Quinn.

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Another trademark move of Jones' is the upfield rush with an inside counter move. By charging hard upfield, it forces the offensive tackle to commit to blocking in one direction. At that point, most 300-plus-pound offensive tackles aren't quick enough on their feet to react quickly enough to stop an inside move.

Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon beat Holmes with a similar move in Week 3, Holmes' first as a left tackle.

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Vernon was able to get through the B-gap between the left tackle and left guard, getting his hands in Ryan's face as he fired a pass for the end zone.

Before facing the Falcons, Vernon had logged just six total pressures (four hurries, one hit, one sack) but he logged five pressures (all hurries) against the Falcons. If a struggling defensive end did that kind of damage, imagine what Jones could do to him.

chandler jones pressure 1.png

Jones has done it against some of the best, including Broncos All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady last year in Week 5. On this play, Jones lined up in a two-point stance with the Patriots in a nickel defense to match the three-receiver set the Broncos were in.

chandler jones pressure 2.png

The move was almost exactly the same as Vernon's, except Jones didn't even need to put a hand on Clady to get past him. It was just a quick hop-step to the inside and then a hard charge right at Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who was able to get the pass off in the face of the heavy pressure.

Will Jones win his battle against Holmes every time? Probably not, but he may not even face Holmes on every snap. The Patriots have moved Jones around a bit to start the season, putting him at various spots on the line as anything from a 5-technique (outside shade on the offensive tackle) to a 1-technique (inside shade on the guard).

Life is a track meet in a dome, though, and that may favor a hard-charging defensive end over an offensive tackle on his heels. While Jones may have the edge over Holmes, the Patriots need him to get to the quarterback in a hurry.

Patriots Take 2: Total team effort in win over Buccaneers

Posted by Erik Frenz September 25, 2013 07:30 AM

There are seven 3-0 teams in the NFL following Week 3, and each of them -- including the New England Patriots -- has faced some adversity (except the Denver Broncos, who hang 40-burgers on their opponents almost as easily as they hang their clean, sweat-less jerseys back in their lockers after the games.)

Given the unusually ugly way the Patriots have won their first three games -- compared to the often glamorous manner in which they laid waste to the NFL in recent years -- the Patriots' adversities have been somewhat magnified.

The offense showed a pulse after last week, when they flatlined against the New York Jets and caused some palpitations in Patriots nation.

The defense, however, has been the lifeline through the first three weeks of the regular season.

Let's take a look back at all the details from the Patriots' third win of the 2013 season.

Brandon Spikes proves value in niche role

The Patriots linebackers as a whole have been much maligned for their struggles in coverage. Specifically, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes has been the subject of scrutiny as a niche player in run defense and crashing the line of scrimmage in pass defense.

It's important to have a player like that on the roster, though, when faced with a team like the Buccaneers.

The Buccaneers ran the ball 13 times on 28 total first downs against the Patriots, so naturally, Spikes played a majority of those (19 out of 28), and his participation on first down accounted for 51.4 percent of his snaps on the day.

spikes attack 1.png

He made a great read on this running play in the first quarter on 1st-and-5 following a defensive holding penalty. Spikes came crashing through the gap between left guard and left tackle before either could respond.

Part of the reason he got through so easily was his early momentum, as he moved closer to the line of scrimmage before the snap, but also because left guard Carl Nicks had begun pulling across the formation to take out a defender on the play side.

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Still, Spikes had to take on and shed the block from fullback Erik Lorig, and Spikes then brought down Buccaneers running back Doug Martin just moments later for a one-yard gain.

He also made a key stop on 4th-and-1, but on this play, it wasn't instinct as much as simple smarts.

spikes 3.png

Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano put faith in three former Pro Bowl players, with Martin taking the handoff behind left guard Carl Nicks and left tackle Donald Penn.

Those blockers were quickly soaked up by defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and defensive end Chandler Jones, which allowed Spikes to stay clean of a blocker.

spikes 4.png

With no one in his face, Spikes was free to read and react as is the wont of any defender in the Patriots defense.

Once Martin chose which way he was going, Spikes pulled the trigger and brought him down for no gain, turning the ball over on downs.

linebackers snaps.jpgThis season, Spikes has played 84 of the team's defensive snaps (40.2 percent), which is nearly 100 fewer snaps than second-year linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Spikes comes off the field on nearly every snap in nickel defense.

When Spikes is on his game, however, there are few that set the tone in run defense quite like him.

Vince Wilfork's performance in review

When Wilfork is playing at the top of his game, he can be one of the most disruptive interior defensive linemen in the league -- whether as a 0-technique, a 1-technique (inside shade on the guard) or lined up as a 3-technique (outside shade on the guard). The problem is, no matter the technique, he hasn't been as disruptive as usual through the first two games.

Initially, it seemed that had continued. I stand corrected.

It wasn't a banner day -- not by Wilfork's lofty standards, anyway -- but he made a much bigger impact this week.

wilfork 6.png

For starters, Wilfork showed his classic ability as a two-gapping nose tackle, particularly on this running play in the third quarter. The Buccaneers ran a draw play right up the middle, but Wilfork stood up the center and was able to keep his eyes on Martin as he picked his hole.

wilfork 5.png

Once Martin decided, Wilfork shed the block and made the arm tackle.

His presence was felt even when he wasn't making the play.

wilfork 1.png

The Patriots sent just four defenders on this sack of quarterback Josh Freeman in the first quarter.

Wilfork created pressure with a quick upfield rush on Nicks, and got enough penetration to push the former All-Pro into the lap of Donald Penn.

wilfork 2.png

Chandler Jones promptly shook off Penn's block, and defensive end Rob Ninkovich broke free of his assignment as Freeman climbed the pocket for the sack.

It's debatable whether Wilfork actually gets credit for a pressure on this play, but there's no debate on his impact in helping his teammates make the play.

"That's what it's all about," he said after the game. "You can't double everybody, and you can't single everyone. I know if I have two (blockers), somebody's free. I know if somebody else has two, we have guys on the line of scrimmage that can win one-on-one battles. Through three weeks, we've seen that. It's just good to have guys that understand, if they have one-on-one battles, they must win."

Wilfork may not have had much of an impact on the stat sheet, but when it came to causing disruption on the line of scrimmage, he did well. Here's a brief rundown of his day:

Pass rush:
31 snaps
1 pressure
0 hits
0 sacks

Run defense:
20 snaps
2 tackles (one solo, one assist)

51 total snaps
25 double-teams drawn

Missed opportunities over the middle

At times, it looked like the Patriots may have had some opportunities for big plays down the middle of the field. One problem: The Patriots didn't have anyone running a route over the middle.

The Buccaneers defense looked all too willing to give away the middle of the field at times, opting to devote more resources to defend the sideline routes.

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In the past, it would have been unheard of to leave the middle of the field open on 3rd-and-4 against the Patriots, but that's exactly what the Buccaneers did in the second quarter. The Patriots came out with the 11 personnel -- one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. The Buccaneers matched with their nickel 3-3-5 package, and they sent five men on the rush.

Lined up against cornerback Darrelle Revis, it seemed like wide receiver Aaron Dobson would probably not get the ball. By some gift of a higher being or Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers called zone defense that failed to maximize Revis' elite man coverage skills.

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Revis passed Dobson off to the middle of the field, but no one was there to make the tackle. It looks like cornerback Johnthan Banks took wide receiver Julian Edelman in man coverage on the sluggo route downfield. As a result, Dobson had no one in front of him when he turned upfield, allowing him to gobble up an extra 12 yards and the easy first down.

This is such a stark contrast to previous years, when defenses have had their way with the Patriots offense in the playoffs by loading up the middle of the field and forcing quarterback Tom Brady to go deep and/or to the outside.

As we've learned, however, Brady is a master at taking what the defense gives him. They gave up the middle of the field, and Brady was happy to oblige. He went outside the numbers on just nine of his 36 pass attempts on Sunday, and between the numbers on the other 27 throws.

So, while he hasn't completely abandoned throwing to his favorite spots over the middle, it looks like defenses realize the outside-the-numbers threat the Patriots receivers now pose.

Where was Darrelle Revis?

Speaking of Darrelle Revis, it is unusual to see him in off coverage so often. That is clearly not his strength. The Patriots diagnosed this tendency, and exposed it.

You don't often say those things about Revis, but there it was, in plain sight on Sunday.

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In the third quarter, the Patriots came out in the 11 personnel grouping, with one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers, with two of those receivers flanked out to the left.

The Patriots ran a play-action fake to the offense's right, and with the entire defense headed that direction, Dobson cut against the grain and ran a drag route across the formation.

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The combination of Dobson's post pattern, Edelman's seam route and the confusion by the defense left acres of open greenery in front of Dobson.

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Brady settled in and hit his receiver, but didn't quite get him in stride. Had he put this pass a little in front of Dobson, the rookie receiver could have turned upfield, and he may still be running.

Instead, he turned around and caught the pass, only to be met briefly thereafter by a hard-charging Revis.

On the day, Brady went 3-of-4 for 18 yards into Revis' coverage, so Brady wasn't picking on him by any stretch, but a 75 percent completion rate is very un-Revis-like. The Buccaneers may want to consider playing more to Revis' strengths in the future.

Aqib Talib vs. Vincent Jackson

Looking back at pre-game thoughts, it was speculated whether the Patriots would match up cornerback Aqib Talib with Vincent Jackson, or whether they would put different corners on him depending on where he lined up. From an early point, it was clear that Talib would be trailing Jackson all day.

On the day, Freeman went 3-of-6 for 34 yards to Jackson with Talib in coverage. One of the three incompletions was considered a pass break-up, and another was intercepted just before halftime. Those are respectable numbers, and if you extrapolate those numbers to a full game (Jackson only played 42 of the team's 71 snaps before leaving with an injury), it's right on line with what he's posted this season so far.

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Jackson put his signature combination of size, speed and leaping ability on display on his biggest catch of the day, a 19-yard strike down the right sideline.

Jackson ran a wheel route out of the slot, and on the outside, Doug Martin faked the screen.

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The screen fake is key, because it freezes Jerod Mayo in place, right in Talib's way as he tries to stay with his man.

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Talib had good position on Jackson, but the receiver was able to gather his wits and make a play on the ball before Talib could react. Jackson went up and won the jump ball to help keep this Buccaneers drive alive.

Notice how Talib was able to turn his head and could see the ball coming, yet still couldn't make the play on the ball.

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That's important, because the next time Freeman would try to go deep to Jackson, Talib was only able to get his head around for an instant, and broke up the pass by turning his head away from the ball.

Jackson ran a go route, breaking slightly toward the sideline on his way toward the end zone. The Patriots ran Cover 1 with Devin McCourty as the single high safety, Talib and Alfonzo Dennard both in man coverage on the outside and safety Duron Harmon and linebacker Brandon Spikes both matched up on the tight ends.

With McCourty as the lone deep safety, disguising his coverage, he was unable to get to the sideline in time, leaving Talib to fend for himself.

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Talib saw the ball in flight, but turned back toward Jackson, and the veteran cornerback was able to break the pass up simply by waiting for the receiver to put his hands out. Once that happened, Talib swung his arm down to break up the pass, and timed it perfectly.

His shadowing skills would be an important factor yet again, and resulted in an interception toward the end of the first half.

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Jackson ran a 10-yard out, with wide receiver Mike Williams running a go route to clear out the coverage on the sideline.

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Talib played perfect trail technique, watching Jackson's hips as he ran the route. He mirrored Jackson's every move, and broke toward the sideline as soon as Jackson. was able to make a play on the ball down the sideline.

Against a No. 1 receiver like Jackson, you expect it to be a win-some lose-some situation. Talib is able to win his share of those battles.

Kenbrell Thompkins' big day

The rapport between Brady and rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins developed quickly throughout training camp, but hadn't really taken that next step in the regular season yet. The duo took a big step forward on Sunday when they hooked up three times for 41 yards and two scores.

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The first of the two scores was mostly a credit to Thompkins, who took a four-yard drag route all the way to the end zone.

With Revis once again playing off in coverage, Thompkins was able to get a free release and streaked across the formation with virtually no disruption from the Buccaneers defense whatsoever.

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One of the Buccaneers' major problems on this play was defensive end Adrian Clayborn dropping into zone coverage off left defensive end. Why? The Buccaneers defensive scheme befuddles me at times.

Regardless, Thompkins was able to weave through the Buccaneers defense and trotted his way into the end zone for the score.

The next touchdown, however, was just a great play design, great protection from the offensive line and a great throw by Brady.

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Thompkins ran a long-developing route on the offense's right, breaking toward the post in the back of the end zone.

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As Thompkins ran one way, tight end Zach Sudfeld cut the opposite direction across the defense. This created a huge window, and Brady put the ball in front of Thompkins, who put his hands out and had the touchdown.

The rookies will not become veterans overnight, and there could be some ebb and flow at the start, but if the offense can build off their successes against the Buccaneers, they could be well on their way to outstanding production down the road.

Has Tom Brady, Patriots offense moved beyond slow start?

Posted by Erik Frenz September 22, 2013 06:29 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- What a difference a week makes.

If you watched the New England Patriots offense put up 23 points on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, you may have wondered what happened to the offense that couldn't get the wheels moving on offense against the New York Jets.

They struggled to start against the Buccaneers, punting on the first three drives of the game, but hit the gas in the second quarter and did more than enough to come away with the win. The stark differences were easy to notice. The wide receivers actually received, and the quarterback put them in a good position to succeed.

"It's interesting," Brady said, "because you go through the spring camps and practices, and because it's not real competition and there's no scoreboard, in some ways, you get a false sense of security that things are going the right way, and then you have preseason games and practices and things are going the right way, and none of it matters because what matters is what you do during the regular season."

Now, they're 3-0 for the first time since 2007, when they had one of the best offenses in the NFL. Who knew?

It's just one game, but quarterback Tom Brady and his rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins looked like they had finally worked out all the kinks and could be well on their way to fielding a formidable offense.

The duo finished with 10 catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns, both by Thompkins.

"Everyone had questions about his receiving corps," Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said, "and this guy has turned so many receivers into stars because of him. As long as Tom is under center and that coach is over there, they are still the Patriots."

Brady had his best performance of the season thus far, going 25-of-36 passing (69.4 percent) for 225 yards (6.3 YPA), two touchdowns and an interception.

He wasn't about to name himself MVP, though.

"I certainly could play better," he said. "The interception will bother me for the rest of the week until I get a chance to get out there again. And the missed touchdown pass, that was terrible. I expect to make those plays."

The missed touchdown pass came on a play-action fake, where Brady had both Thompkins and wide receiver Julian Edelman open and streaking toward the end zone, but the ball came out like one of those throws in Madden where you push two buttons at the same time. The interception -- a throw to tight end Zach Sudfeld in double coverage in the end zone -- was about as poor of a decision as you'll see Brady make, but everything else was about what we've come to expect from the franchise in his 12-plus years as a starter.

Our sample size for the wide receivers, however, is much smaller.

It would have been more worrisome if Thompkins and Dobson were struggling to get open; however, that wasn't the case, and with a small disconnect between the receivers dropping passes and the quarterback putting the ball in bad spots.

Regardless of where the blame belongs, the pressure was beginning to mount, but they're beginning to feel like things are clicking.

"The week of practice definitely helped," Dobson said. "As you know, we had a longer week and we had more practices, so I feel like we're definitely on [the same] page with each other and it showed out there in this game."

One game, however, won't be the measure of these receivers. Beyond that, there were some disconnects that could be improved. Of course, there were Brady's aforementioned misfires, but add on a Dobson drop and a pass that bounced on the turf inches in front of a diving Thompkins, and there were some opportunities left on the field.

All the individual players took steps forward this week, but week-to-week consistency is the only way we'll know how far they've come as a unit.

Patriots stock report: Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson hit stride

Posted by Erik Frenz September 22, 2013 04:07 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots offense seems to have finally hit its stride.

They didn't get off to a great start, scoring no points in the first quarter, but they found their groove in the final three quarters to trounce the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23-3.

They got some help from the Buccaneers struggles on offense, but the defense did its share in logging three sacks of quarterback Josh Freeman and holding running back Doug Martin to 88 rushing yards.

Here's a look at the players who had a strong showing, and those who need to pick it up after a tough week.

Stock up:

Kenbrell Thompkins: Sunday was a coming-out party for the rookie wide receiver. He caught three passes for 41 yards and two touchdowns on the day, making up for what was a tough showing against the Jets. Thompkins began looking like the reliable receiver we saw throughout training camp and the preseason.

Aaron Dobson: Two rookie receivers really stepped up today, as Dobson caught the first four passes thrown his way and finished with seven catches for 52 yards, leading the team in both categories. Dobson came up big in some key situations, converting a third down and a fourth down on the day.

Brandon Bolden: Finished with 100 yards from scrimmage on eight touches -- three carries and five catches -- and had the team's biggest play of the day with a 46-yard run, on which it looked like he might be brought down behind the line of scrimmage. Credit goes to Logan Mankins for a nice block to spring him free on that run. Bolden has very much earned his role in the Patriots backfield rotation.

Stephen Gostkowski: Made all three of his field goal tries, including a 53-yarder. It was his eighth field goal of 50 yards or longer, which tied his own personal record. Also, an interesting stat per Mike Giardi of CSNNE: only one of Gostkowski's kickoffs has been returned. All others have resulted in a touchback.

Stock down:

Kyle Arrington: Had a costly pass interference penalty on Buccaneers receiver Mike Williams in the red zone, setting the Buccaneers up in excellent field position. He also was way out of position on a 13-yard completion to Williams on the play prior to his penalty. Arrington was taken off the field more frequently in the second half than we're used to seeing, in favor of rookie cornerback Logan Ryan.

Buccaneers receivers: Yes, the Patriots defense did a fine job of holding the Buccaneers to just three points, but they had a lot of help early on as the Buccaneers dropped three passes in the first half of play, including a dropped pass in the end zone. If any one or multiple of those balls were caught, the Patriots may have been in a bit more of a dog fight than what ended up being a blowout.

Vince Wilfork: Was, once again, taken out by just one blocker on many of the Buccaneers offensive plays. It's been a tough start to the season for Wilfork, who was taken out by just one blocker in both of the Patriots first two games. Wilfork is the centerpiece of much of the Patriots defensive scheme, so they need him to get right quickly.

Words With Frenz mailbag: Closer look at Patriots receivers vs. Buccaneers secondary

Posted by Erik Frenz September 20, 2013 07:00 AM

The AFC East is often called one of the laughing stock divisions of the NFL.

Funny, then, that it's also one of the divisions with the most reader interest.

Also funny that it's one of just three divisions that doesn't feature a single winless team (AFC East, AFC West, NFC West), and one of just two divisions with more than one undefeated team (AFC East, AFC West).

It's a long season, but this division is off to a good start.

The landscape is ever-changing, though, and with every week presenting new matchups, players returning from injury or new injuries to deal with, there's never a shortage of topics.

Everything was on the table for this week's mailbag, so let's get into some reader questions on the Patriots matchups with the Buccaneers secondary, the Jets defense with the return of [insert position here] Quinton Coples, the Dolphins struggling running game and a potential post-2013 free-agent departure for the Patriots.

Well, how much time do you have? The matchup will really be dictated by how the Patriots line up, and how the Buccaneers respond with their alignment.

Whenever you talk about the Buccaneers secondary, it has to start with Darrelle Revis. To this point in the season, he has lined up exclusively on the outside, but the Buccaneers may choose to match him up with Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who has become Tom Brady's most reliable target.

That would allow the Buccaneers to match up cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Leonard Johnson -- who are in their first and second year, respectively -- on the Patriots rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Those two have been the source of much debate this week, but they were getting open on a consistent basis against the Jets. They just need for Brady to get on the same page with them, and they need to do a better job of catching the ball.

Safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson both bring a combination of size, speed and strength on the back end, and both are versatile players who can play deep zones and take away a tight end or running back in man coverage, as well.

It will be up to those young receivers to take advantage of their matchups with Banks and Johnson, given Brady's track record of throwing away from Revis (targeted 20 times in the past five meetings).

Based on the size, speed and ability of the receivers to get off of a jam and separate from man coverage, I'm inclined to give the advantage to the Patriots receiving corps in this one -- granted they hang onto the football.

With an improved pass-rush, this defense will be much better.

There are a lot of reasons Quinton Coples' positional title doesn't really matter, since he'll be lining up all over the place, but the Jets really need him to be a dominant edge player.

Defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison and Kenrick Ellis have provided a solid set of players to dominate the trenches on the inside, but for years, the Jets have lacked that edge presence to really close the pocket. Last year, outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas combined for 5.5 sacks last year.

The Jets have put pressure on the opposing quarterback just 28.4 percent of the time this year. If that number goes up, they could enter "dangerous" territory, but let's wait and see.

Thus far, they've faced the Buccaneers and the Patriots. Give them credit for holding both teams to 17 or fewer points, and shutting down running back Doug Martin and Brady is a good start to any defensive resumé, but they got some help from downright bad performances by both Brady and Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman (15-of-31 for 210 yards, one touchdown, one interception vs. Jets).

At first, it seemed the Dolphins running game may take some time to get off the ground. There were problems with blocking, with backs being tentative, and simply bad play-calling. After rushing for just 0.9 yards per carry against the Browns, the Dolphins picked it up big-time against the Colts with a respectable 27 carries for 101 yards and two touchdowns.

Running back Lamar Miller, in particular, was one player who came under some scrutiny for totaling three yards on 10 carries against the Browns. We were reminded of his dynamic skill set after he ran 14 times for 69 yards and a touchdown against the Colts.

There are also fewer opportunities for the running backs with a heavier focus on the passing game. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill attempted 484 passes in 16 games last year (30 attempts per game), but has already thrown 72 passes through the first two games (36 attempts per game).

With a 65.3 completion percentage, it's understandable that they want Tannehill dropping back to throw. It's not as if all his throws are dumpoffs, either -- only 41.5 percent of his passing yards have come after the receiver has caught the ball.

That being said, the Dolphins will want to get back to running the ball effectively at some point. Tannehill has already been sacked nine times, tied with Jets quarterback Geno Smith for second-most in the NFL behind Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.

Got room for one more.

Anything could happen, Matt, but my general feeling is that he will be playing somewhere else after this year.

The Patriots have moved Brandon Spikes off the field in most nickel packages this year (see my tweet above for a snap breakdown of the Patriots linebackers this year). Spikes has played 47 snaps (34.1 percent) of the team's 138 total snaps this year. In all, 26 of those snaps have come on running downs, and he's crashed the line as a pass-rusher six more times.

Spikes is one of the best run-stuffing middle linebackers in the NFL -- in fact, he graded out as the best middle linebacker against the run in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus.

Given his niche role in the defense, and the limited number of snaps he plays as a result, making second-year linebacker Dont'a Hightower the backup signal-caller for the defense makes a lot of sense -- he's seen the field for 117 snaps (82.6 percent).

It may seem like the easy way out of this question, but with the Patriots, the long-term future of a player comes down to two questions: How valuable do the Patriots feel that kind of player is to their team? How does that value compare to the rest of the league?

Sometimes, the latter is greater than the former. It seems that will be the case with Spikes.

Alright, everyone, thanks for the questions! Anything further can be directed to me on Twitter.

Patriots vs. Buccaneers matchup breakdown: CB Aqib Talib vs. WR Vincent Jackson

Posted by Erik Frenz September 19, 2013 08:00 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Few receivers have given the Patriots the amount of trouble that Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson has caused them throughout his career.

In that time, however, the Patriots haven't had a cornerback that can track a team's top receiver like Jackson's former Buccaneers teammate, Aqib Talib.

Thumbnail image for tale of the tape.pngSince 2006, Jackson has played five combined regular season and postseason games against the Patriots, and has logged 27 receptions for 495 yards and three touchdowns. His 18.3 yards per reception is the second-highest for any receiver with over 10 receptions against them.

Needless to say, they could really use someone that can slow him down, but his versatile skill set presents a unique set of challenges for any defensive back trying to cover him.

"He runs routes like a smaller guy, and he runs them deep balls like a 6-4 guy," Talib said, "so I mean, he's kind of got the best of both worlds at wide-out so (he's) real hard to defend."

Jackson has lined up both in the slot and on the perimeter for the Buccaneers, but interestingly enough, he's spent most of his time in the slot, running 34 of his 58 total routes (58.6 percent) from the inside, as well as nine of his 12 receptions this season. You don't often say that about a 6-5, 230-pound receiver.

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He showed what makes him such a valuable slot receiver when he ran a seven-yard post against man coverage from Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

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The drag route from Buccaneers tight end Tom Crabtree cleared out the linebacker, creating a wide-open window for Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman to throw the ball.

Jackson shook the coverage of Antonio Cromartie, outmuscling him at the point of attack to get inside leverage, making it easy for his quarterback to complete the pass. From there, Jackson picked up a head of steam and turned a 10-yard throw into a 39-yard gain.

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On this play in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints, Jackson once again lined up in the slot and this time, ran a deep flag pattern toward the right sideline.

His teammate, wide receiver Mike Williams, ran a go route next to him, clearing out the coverage of the outside cornerback.

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That afforded his quarterback a window to throw the ball, but he had to be quick.

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The safety was sitting in Cover 2, ready to drop the hammer on any deep throw, and came crashing toward the receiver once the ball was released. That didn't stop Jackson from turning around and making the catch, then absorbing the vicious hit.

We've seen Talib line up on a bigger receiver in the slot already this season.

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Against the Jets in Week 2, the Jets put their 6-4, 215-pound wide receiver Stephen Hill in the slot on the first play of their second drive. He ran a seam route right through the middle of the Patriots defense.

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Talib had good position on Hill in coverage, but his path was interfered with by linebacker Brandon Spikes, who was out of position prior to the snap -- Talib was trying to get Spikes lined up over running back Bilal Powell, at the top of the screen.

The point is, Talib has the speed and coverage ability to handle responsibilities over the middle of the field. Regardless of where they line up Jackson, Talib should be following him. To this point, however, he has only played four snaps in the slot.

Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard, however, have both shown they are capable of lining up on the outside.

Indeed, preparing for a game-changing receiver like Jackson can be a mind-racking endeavor, but at least Talib has some measure of familiarity with him -- both from their time together with the Buccaneers and from the joint practices and preseason game between the two teams just three weeks ago.

"I mean, It's helped," he said. "I'm sure it helped them too, getting to practice against us. We got an early look at each other. Both teams kind of held a little back. You know, we don't show each other everything.

"We've got a small look, now we've got to go play the real game."

Patience is a virtue with Patriots rookie wide receivers

Posted by Erik Frenz September 18, 2013 08:00 AM

We're two weeks into the season, and some New England Patriots fans are already ready to give up on the team's rookie wide receivers. Bad call.

After the draft, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said his team was going through a "re-do" at wide receiver. A few drops later, we're demanding he hit the reset button? Get real.

The Patriots already have talented receivers on their roster. Their names are Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman.

These receivers were dominant throughout training camp, and proved in one practice after another that they are loaded with athleticism. These guys can run, cut and jump with the best of any group the Patriots have fielded in recent years.

Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce are two games into their pro careers. The worst thing the Patriots could do is stunt their growth by putting them on the bench. The San Francisco 49ers didn't throw in the towel when wide receiver Jerry Rice had a bad case of the drops to start his career. Seems to have turned out pretty well for them.

That's not to say any of these receivers will necessarily go down in legend as one of the best of all time, but their career stories are much closer to the beginning than the end.

Yet one by one, the list of potential adds pops up on Twitter as possibilities the Patriots should explore.

The Patriots explored signing Emmanuel Sanders as a restricted free-agent, giving him an offer sheet this offseason. The Steelers would have received the Patriots 2013 third-round pick as compensation for Sanders, but they chose to match the offer sheet instead. As a result, Sanders will be a free-agent again in March. Why give up something for him now when they can wait and sign him in six months? At that point, they would still have to sign him to a new contract if they wanted him to be with the team beyond 2013.

Titans wide receiver Kenny Britt recently tweeted his frustrations with his team. If the Patriots couldn't deal with Brandon Lloyd's personality, there's no way they'll tolerate Britt's generally sour attitude.

Perhaps he doesn't want to be picked up. He turned down offers from six teams -- including the Patriots -- according to ProFootballTalk. He may also have other career prospects in his future.

Seems like any receiver is a better option than the Patriots receivers right now, given the reaction to the early struggles.

A couple clichés come to mind here: "throwing out the baby with the bath water" and "cutting off the nose to spite the face," for example.

For one, it's not as though the Patriots receivers were having a hard time getting open against the Jets.

Both sides, however, share in the blame for the lack of production.

Brady, at times, was struggling to get them the ball. A bad read, an underthrown deep ball, an overthrown deep ball and a couple of inaccurate passes were among the mistakes by the franchise quarterback.

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The most notable from Thursday night was this deep pass to Thompkins in the first quarter.

The rookie ran a wheel route on the right side of the formation. He got instant separation from cornerback Antonio Cromartie off the snap, and raced down the sideline, throwing his hand up in the air to catch the attention of his quarterback.

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Brady wound up and delivered the pass, but it was well short of where it needed to be. If he led Thompkins into the throw, it would have gone for a touchdown.

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Instead, it looked like he might have ran the wrong route.

Brady has to make it easier for his receiver. That's the expectation of a future Hall of Famer. Instead, his mistakes are being magnified by the shortcomings of the wide receivers, and vice versa.

Make no mistake -- they can't afford to continue to drop catchable passes like some of those they dropped on Thursday night.

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There are plenty of drops that could go in these spots (four, to be exact) but these are two of the more memorable ones, particularly because they happened in sequence. The first was on an out-route on the left sideline, on a ball that hit Dobson square in the hands.

Can't excuse that one.

The drops, however, weren't always entirely the fault of the receiver.

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The very next play, Brady went deep to Dobson as he came open behind the secondary, but the ball was slightly overthrown. It bounced off his hands, so it counts as a drop, and those passes aren't going to land in the receiver's chest every single time, but if he had made the catch, it would have been one of the most impressive and difficult receptions of the season so far.

The conclusion: this offense is close to finding its stride. A little improvement from each side and the offense could be moving at a torrid pace. A little more chemistry between the two -- and more concentration from the receivers when it comes to catching the football -- will go a long way in this offense looking more like the high-powered unit that has taken the league by storm for years.

Developing that chemistry is a process, though, and will require patience from everyone: Brady, the receivers, the coaches, and the fans.

How Dolphins WR Mike Wallace proved he's more than just a deep threat vs. Colts

Posted by Erik Frenz September 17, 2013 08:30 AM

Whether you have it or not, speed kills.

The Miami Dolphins signed wide receiver Mike Wallace for that very reason.

They didn't have speed. It killed them.

Wallace is more than just a deep threat, though, and he proved it on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. There are multiple ways he uses his rare explosiveness, all of them effective. Like any receiver, he has his weaknesses, like we saw against the Cleveland Browns when he was taken out of the game by double coverage and one of the NFL's best young cornerbacks.

If the Dolphins can find ways to put his skill set to good use, though, he can be a weapon for their offense.

Wallace led the league in yards per reception in 2009 (19.4) and ranked second in 2010 (21.0). His 67 receptions of 20 yards or more since 2009 is tied for third in that span.

The Dolphins' need for speed was a given after the trouble the Dolphins faced on offense last season. They racked up 42 pass plays of 20 yards or more, tied for eighth-fewest in the NFL in 2012.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill's 6.8 yards per pass attempt for the 2012 season was the 11th-lowest among starting quarterbacks, and just 10.5 percent of his pass attempts traveled 20 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage. According to Pro Football Focus, that was the seventh-lowest percentage in the league last year.

"Your offense is really difficult to watch, because you're trying to manufacture yards without speed," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said of the Dolphins offense in 2012. "There's no vertical threat on a consistent basis. It's almost like watching an offense playing in a red zone for 100 yards, because defenses begin to compress on you."

As it turns out, speed can help even in compressed areas.

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Wallace caught all three of Tannehill's completions on the first drive, including a touchdown on an 18-yard screen.

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He turned on the jets immediately after making the catch, and his speed carried him into the end zone even after contact from the defensive back, but a lot of credit goes to a great blocks by center Mike Pouncey and tackle Tyson Clabo for getting out in front and springing him loose.

Misdirection plays like screens are a perfect way to take advantage of Wallace's track speed; get the defense moving one way, send the receiver bolting the other direction.

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There was no flashy scheme design behind his first catch of the day, no blazing speed. Just Wallace running across the secondary, coming open while his quarterback kept his eyes down the field.

It looked like the rush might get to Tannehill on third down, but he stepped up in the pocket to evade the pressure (as he did many times on Sunday) and delivered a strike to Wallace, who had just come open on his slant route.

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There were three defenders in the area, but Wallace was able to dig down to the ground for the ball and come up with the catch.

It was remarkable how open he was on his biggest reception of the day, a 34-yarder in the third quarter.

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He ran a curl-and-go route lined up wide to the right, and blew past the coverage of Colts cornerback Greg Toler.

The defender gave Wallace a lot of cushion off the line, so he really shouldn't have been beaten deep, but with one subtle move, Wallace created all the separation he needed.

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He faked the curl route at 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, which caused Toler to bite on the route. Wallace then turned back upfield and Toler could do nothing but grab a hold of Wallace's jersey and hope for the best.

With a more on-target pass, Wallace would have scored here. At least now, the Dolphins have officially put the league on notice that the deep threat is, in fact, a threat.

Wallace finished with a team-high nine receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown. A week after he seemed concerned about his role in the offense, he couldn't have been too upset about how things turned out in Indianapolis.

A strong performance against the Colts serves as a perfect complement to a strong outing by wide receiver Brian Hartline against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1. Now, defenses have been put on notice that the Dolphins have two legitimate receiving threats that must be respected.

Tommy Kelly's time with Raiders serves as reminder not to take Patriots 2-0 start for granted

Posted by Erik Frenz September 16, 2013 06:54 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are 2-0.

That's before you get to all the ifs, ands and buts that surround the team -- the ailing offense, the injuries to key players, and the overall lack of flash in those two wins.

Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly has a unique perspective after a long tenure with the Oakland Raiders.

"Even if they're ugly 2-0 victories, a victory is a victory," he said. "I'd rather have ugly wins than pretty losses any day, and I had a lot of pretty losses in my career, so I'll take the ugly wins. All that counts, man. It's going to stack up. I know as the weeks go by, we're going to get better as a team."

Kelly was a defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders for nine years from 2004-2012, during which time the Raiders went 45-99 (.313), the third-worst record in football in that stretch. He was never a part of a team that went over .500 on the season, and he was even a member of the 2006 team that went 2-14 and netted the first overall pick in the draft.

The Raiders started 0-2 four times in Kelly's nine years with the team.

So, naturally, he sympathizes with teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that don't start hot, and knows not to overlook a team that may be in desperation mode.

"I mean, you know they're desperate, but you also know they're a good team," he said. "I mean, from watching them on film, like you said, (they lost twice on) two field goals at the end of the game? Come on, you know. In another circumstance, they could easily be 2-0, so you can't take this team lightly at all. They're coming in here with their backs against the wall, you know they're going to give you their best shot, so you gotta be ready."

The Buccaneers lost their first game of the season when linebacker Lavonte David's penalty for a late hit on Jets quarterback Geno Smith set up Jets kicker Nick Folk's 48-yard game-winner. Their second loss came to the New Orleans Saints, with Buccaneers kicker Rian Lindell missing from 47 yards, allowing Saints quarterback Drew Brees marching his team into field goal range and setting up kicker Garrett Hartley's 27-yard game-winner.

There are currently six 0-2 teams: the Buccaneers, the Washington Redskins, the New York Giants, the Carolina Panthers, the Cleveland Browns and the Jacksonville Jaguars. After Monday night, there will be a seventh: either the Cincinnati Bengals or the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Patriots haven't started 0-2 since 2001, the year Tom Brady took over at quarterback. They are 148-44 in the regular season since then, the best record of any team in football. Few teams have ever enjoyed the kind of success the Patriots have seen lately.

Who knows how much longer their run of success continues, but it hasn't ended yet, and it could be much worse than being 2-0 right now.

A little perspective from the always-insightful Tommy Kelly.

EJ Manuel's late-game heroics lift Buffalo Bills to first win

Posted by Erik Frenz September 15, 2013 09:58 PM

ap photo bill wippert.jpg

AP Photo/Bill Wippert

Not exactly how you draw up your first win as an NFL quarterback, but EJ Manuel will take it.

The Buffalo Bills were staring down the barrel of an 0-2 start, but got their first lead of the game with just two seconds left on the clock as they beat the Carolina Panthers 24-23 in Buffalo.

Manuel looked like a rookie at times, turning the ball over twice in Bills' territory in the second half on a sack-fumble and then an interception, but his defense stepped up to bail him out by allowing only six points off those two turnovers.

He didn't look like a rookie when it mattered most, though. His throws weren't particularly impressive on the final drive -- consecutive dumpoffs to running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson netted 12 and 14 yards respectively -- and the biggest play of the drive was a 20-yard pass interference penalty that moved the Bills down to the Panthers' 11-yard line.

He didn't force the issue by trying to make a dazzling throw, but instead, showed some veteran savvy by throwing to the open receiver and making smart decisions with the football.

"We knew the situation," Manuel said. "I didn’t feel nervous or anything like that. We practiced it time and time again. I’ve been in too many situations before, not just in the NFL or in practice but also in college. We won games like that before. You’ve just got to go out there and operate the offense. If you can’t get anything deep, which they took away, check it down and you’ll get yardage that way so the guys can get out of bounds."

He didn't have to worry about anyone taking away a deep pass from the two-yard line, but the Panthers certainly didn't make life difficult for him in any way.

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The Bills ran a pick route to the left side, with Johnson running the flag pattern toward the back corner of the end zone and rookie receiver Robert Woods running the two-yard in right at the goal line.

This created enough separation for Stevie to get away from coverage.

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Doesn't get much more open than that.

His two turnovers were nearly backbreakers, but he was efficient in other areas, completing 69.2 percent of his throws for 7.6 YPA.

The Bills also finally began hitting on some of their bigger plays, with three plays of 20 yards or more and seven plays of 15 yards or more.

The performance was special, but it showed a lot about both Manuel and the Bills: mental toughness. They bounced back from a missed opportunity in a Week 1 loss to a division rival, shook off a slow start against the Panthers this week and were able to keep it close and give themselves a chance to win late.

As Manuel would explain, though, a chance to win isn't good enough.

"I think we all processed the loss (to the Patriots) and moved on," he said. "I definitely felt like the whole team knew we could’ve won that game. We don’t want to be a shoulda-woulda-coulda type team. We don’t want this game to be as close as it was but we won the game and that’s all that matters at the end of the day."

The Bills made the most of their opportunity, but they performed well in the clutch throughout the day, going 6-for-14 (42.9 percent) on third down and 2-for-3 in the red zone.

Who knows whether the Bills still would have scored without the costly pass interference penalty, but Manuel deserves no less credit for keeping his cool in the most important situation of the game, and helping the Bills come away with the win.

"He was focused. He was locked in," Johnson said of Manuel. "He was in there like a No. 1 quarterback."

Patriots Take 2: Defense hits a pressure point against Jets

Posted by Erik Frenz September 15, 2013 07:00 AM

The Patriots defense has become known as a unit that makes big plays at just the right time to ensure a win.

On Thursday night, "just the right time" just happened to last about 60 minutes worth of football.

It was a rare defensive performance for the Patriots -- it was their first game with at least four sacks and three interceptions since December 17, 2006 against the Houston Texans.

Of the same token, it was a rare offensive performance as well -- but the bad kind of rare. Like, bleeding cow rare.

So let's gut this Patriots performance and see if we can find out how our Patriots sausage is made in a film review.

One small swing of Aqib Talib's foot, one giant swing of momentum

The first big play from the Patriots defense seemed more like an accident than a well-executed stop.

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Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib is credited with a forced fumble, but how much "forcing" was really involved here?

Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill caught the deep pass down the seam from quarterback Geno Smith, but failed to get the ball properly tucked away before being brought down. He would have been home free had Talib's leg not swung back into the ball.

If that was intentional, kudos to Talib for possibly the craftiest forced fumble in NFL history.

Pressure leads to Jets offensive inconsistency

"You turn the ball over four times, and you are going to have a hard time beating anybody," said Jets center Nick Mangold, "especially on the road."

Well, the Jets were having a hard time beating the Patriots with even just one turnover on the stat sheet, so it might be a stretch to say the turnovers were the heart of the Jets' problem. Instead, it was a defensive front seven that came to play, and put pressure on Smith all Thursday night.

They finished with four sacks of Smith -- two by defensive end Chandler Jones, and one each by defensive end Michael Buchanan and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly.

Even when they weren't getting sacks, they were at least getting pressure.

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On back-to-back plays in the second quarter, the Patriots defense pressured Smith into rolling out of the pocket and throwing the ball away.

The first time was simply great effort by defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who got into the backfield in a hurry against Jets right tackle Austin Howard.

Ninkovich's quick inside move froze Howard, and Ninkovich was in the backfield before Smith had a chance to execute the play-action fake.

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The second pressure was a team effort, with the Patriots sending six men on the rush. Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork (circled in yellow) rushed up field off the snap, but came off his rush as the blitzing linebackers reached the offensive line.

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The confusion allowed three defenders to get into the backfield, forcing Smith to once again throw the ball out of bounds.

That was a dramatic change from Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, when the game plan was to contain Manuel in the pocket.

However, containment was still part of the plan against the Jets, and it paid off, as Smith rushed just three times for 17 yards (16 of those yards on one run) after running six times for 47 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"One of our goals is to put pressure on the quarterbacks," Wilfork said, "and we knew how important it was for this quarterback to be up in his face, and we knew how important it was for us to keep him in the pocket -- his ability to scramble; we knew we had to contain him."

Getting pressure helps, but only if the quarterback doesn't then break loose for a long run after escaping the pocket.

Chandler Jones' new role as defensive tackle

You can't talk about the defensive performance without bringing up Chandler Jones' standout night.

Jones lined up at both defensive end and defensive tackle, notching a sack from each spot.

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The sack up the gut came in a one-on-one matchup with left guard Vladimir Ducasse.

That's a matchup Jones is built to win just about everytime with his burst off the line and long arms to keep blockers at bay.

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He put both on display as he split the B-gap between the tackle and guard to get the sack.

Jones smelled blood, and he went hunting again on the very next drive.

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Not one but two players had the responsibility to block Jones -- first, Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes chipped the defensive end before releasing into his route. Then, left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson would pick him up.

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Why they had Holmes on that side instead of tight end Kellen Winslow remains a mystery to me, but none of it matters. Jones got around Ferguson with an inside move and got just enough of Smith's knee to bring him down for the sack.

He was the only Patriots defender getting any kind of pressure against the Bills, and he was the most disruptive player on their defensive front against the Jets with a team-high eight combined pressures: five hurries, a hit and two sacks.

Kyle Arrington will be tested deep by slot receivers

In Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, cornerback Kyle Arrington got beat deep by wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who ran a go-route from the slot and got to the back of the end zone before anyone wearing a Patriots jersey.

We could argue about whether Arrington or McCourty was responsible for allowing the touchdown, but either way, Arrington would be tested once again by the Jets on a deep pass to wide receiver Clyde Gates.

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The speedy receiver, formerly of the Dolphins, ran a go-route from the slot against Arrington, much like Johnson did in Week 1.

Once again, Arrington was caught in trail technique, and had already allowed Gates to get behind the coverage.

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Safety Steve Gregory was a little late helping out in coverage.

If the ball was thrown sooner or slightly deeper, it might have had the same result -- a touchdown. That, however, wasn't the case. The underthrown ball allowed Arrington to catch up and at least get some disruption on the catch, which was dropped by Gates.

We already saw the Jets attack the seam with a deep route earlier in the game to Stephen Hill, and were successful in completing the pass.

Patriots WR Julian Edelman vs. Jets CB Antonio Cromartie

I previewed this matchup headed into the game, and while the Jets mixed up coverages in terms of which cornerbacks were covering which receivers, we did see Edelman line up across from Cromartie on several occasions.

On the night, Brady went 2-of-3 targeting Edelman when covered by Cromartie. The lone missed opportunity could have given the Patriots more than the cushion they needed to come away with the victory.

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As expected, Edelman was able to take advantage of Cromartie's length with a nice double move on a slant-and-go route -- otherwise known as a "sluggo" route -- where Edelman fakes a slant and then breaks downfield.

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This gives the illusion of an underneath route, which makes Cromartie react accordingly, but Edelman's sudden change of direction catches Cromartie off-guard. The cornerback nearly tumbles to the ground, but keeps his balance, although he is already beaten by half a step or more.

With a more accurate throw, this would have been at worst a chunk play of at least 20 yards.

Juxtaposing offensive missed opportunities

There were times where the narrative of "new receivers plus difficult offense equals recipe for disaster" held true. Not every miscue was a result of a poor decision or a drop by a young receiver, though.

The Patriots can look to their MVP for some of the blame for this one.

There was the missed deep throw mentioned above, which was clearly Brady's fault, but what about the missed touchdown to rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson?

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Without knowing how the Patriots expect Dobson to run this route, here's what it looks like from an outside perspective.

Dobson is running an option route. If he sees a certain coverage, he runs a curl route. Another kind of coverage dictates he runs a flag route toward the pylon

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Brady read curl, Dobson read flag. The result is a pass that landed at Dobson's feet.

"Not knowing anything, I'm gonna blame Dobson," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, "because Dobson is the rookie."

Patriots fans probably share similar sentiment. The failed comprehension of the Patriots offense by a rookie receiver would certainly fit the narrative we've been painting in the media for months.

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With Dobson coming wide open in the end zone, though, it's hard to fault him for the decision on the route.

If there was any doubt on the aforementioned miss throw, there was no doubt on one of his first misfires of the night.

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In an offset I formation, wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins was split wide to the offense's right. The Patriots set up the play-action fake, and Thompkins ran a wheel route down the sideline against cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

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Thompkins was easily able to get past the coverage of Cromartie, and raised his hand down the sideline to indicate he was open.

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Clearly, had the pass been on-target, it would have been a touchdown. However, Brady's throw was well short of where it needed to be, and the result was an incomplete pass.

So, Tom wasn't 100-percent terrific on Thursday night -- he's mortal, who knew? On the other hand, the receivers didn't help their quarterback by dropping four catchable passes.

Everyone has work to do.

"Number 77 is reporting as an eligible receiver."

Words we heard quite frequently on Thursday night, the Patriots used Nate Solder as an extra blocker at tight end. He participated as both a pass-blocker (two snaps) and a run-blocker (four snaps) in that role.

He led the way on running back Stevan Ridley's longest run of the first quarter, a seven-yard burst off right tackle.

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The Patriots were lined up in a singleback set with, technically, the 12 personnel grouping (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers).

The Jets matched the personnel with their base 3-4 defensive front.

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Ridley took the hand-off to the right side of the offense, behind Solder's clear-out block on Jets linebacker Calvin Pace.

On the night, Solder was an extra blocker on four running plays gaining a total of nine yards.

Solder filled this role sparingly in his rookie season, and the Patriots are probably just trying to replace the presence of tight end Rob Gronkowski -- one they miss both in the passing game and running game -- however possible.

Now on short-term IR, is Mark Sanchez's New York Jets career over?

Posted by Erik Frenz September 14, 2013 12:06 PM

If it wasn't clear that the New York Jets were done with Mark Sanchez as their starting quarterback, it's crystal clear now.

The Jets placed the former starting quarterback on injured reserve/designated to return with a torn labrum.

The Jets stuck with Sanchez through two troubled years (2011-2012) in which he finished with the third-worst passer rating for any starting quarterback and a league-worst 52 turnovers. That might have been reason enough to cut him prior to the 2013 season, but Sanchez's contract made that impossible; according to Spotrac, the Jets are paying him $12,853,125 this year, but would have had to pay $17,653,125 to cut him.

His 2013 season isn't officially over, as there's a chance he could return, but he can't practice for six weeks, and can't play for another two weeks after that, which puts him back in Week 11 against the Bills.

At that point, one of two things will have happened: either the Jets will have bottomed out, and have no reason to turn back to Sanchez, or they'll be in the mix for a playoff spot, and have no reason to turn back to Sanchez.

Part of the reason for the decision may have been to eliminate a potential distraction. Sanchez has recently become more outspoken, and told NFL Network's Rich Eisen on Thursday that he felt he had "won the competition...it was a done deal."

Then, on Friday -- less than 24 hours after those comments and less than 24 hours prior to placing Sanchez on IR/DFR -- Jets head coach Rex Ryan denied having ever told Sanchez that he won the competition. In the same breath, Rex continued to call it an "ongoing" competition and called it "realistic" that Sanchez could play again this season.

"If we didn’t think it’d be realistic that Mark would get on the field, then he would be put on IR," he said, "and that’s not the case."

Well, it is now.

Rookie Geno Smith is the starter -- de facto or otherwise -- and he will remain as such at least until Sanchez is ready to return to action, but there's no reason to believe the Jets would go back to Sanchez at this point. Judging by his preseason performance, nothing had changed for Sanchez.

Geno hasn't been incredibly convincing in his bid to "win" the starting job in the first two regular season games, completing just 53.4 percent of his throws, taking a league-high nine sacks, and needing a bone-headed late-game mistake from Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David to sneak out a Week 1 win.

None of that really matters, though, because we've already seen what Sanchez has to offer, and it's comparable to the worst quarterbacks in the league. Unless Geno morphs into a similarly dreadful quarterback sometime in the next eight weeks, there's no reason to think Sanchez will get his chance any time soon.

Tom Brady, Patriots receivers share blame for offensive miscues

Posted by Erik Frenz September 13, 2013 08:00 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The growing pains loomed large for the Patriots offense all offseason.

As large as 299 lost receptions between wide receivers Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd, tight end Aaron Hernandez and running back Danny Woodhead.

We expected those growing pains from young, rookie wide receivers, but not from 36-year-old quarterback Tom Brady. At times, Brady's misfires were a result of he and his receivers not being on the same page. At other times, Tom himself hasn't been his terrific self in the first two games of the season.

Brady knew it was an uncharacteristic performance for this -- or any -- Patriots offense.

"I just want us to do a better job on offense and carry our end, and do the job that we're supposed to be able to do," he said. "We just need to do it better: all of us."

How uncharacteristic was Brady's performance? You have to go back to Dec. 20, 2009 in a Week 15 contest against the Buffalo Bills to find the last time Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes.

Want to find the last time Brady threw for fewer than 200 yards? Go back to his performance on Jan. 2, 2011 in a Week 17 home game against the Miami Dolphins, and he didn't even play a full four quarters in that game.

Want to know the last time Brady got that upset with someone on the sideline? Okay, it wasn't that long ago -- Dec. 11, 2011, in a shouting match against offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.

"I think everybody was (ticked off)," Brady said, "you know, when you don’t execute the way that you're capable. We just have to keep fighting."

We knew there might be some chemistry problems between Brady and his receivers early on in the season. We did not know that Brady would be as much at fault for some of those problems as his receivers.

"I feel like there are definitely things we can improve on," said rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson. "We had a short week this week, so we got that 10 days right now, so we just got to get our timing together this week going in to the next game."

There were timing issues, but there were also some drops -- at least three on catchable passes, by my count.

There will always be drops, though. Just ask Welker, who dropped key passes with the best of them.

On this night, however, Brady's mistakes magnified the mistakes of those around him.

There were more than a few of nearly every variety. A deep throw to a wide-open Julian Edelman was at least five yards overthrown. The missed deep throw to Dobson was catchable, though still slightly overthrown. He threw one behind wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins on a slant over the middle.

Yet, Brady didn't huff and puff his way to the sideline after any of those failed throws.

Add "body language" to the list of areas Brady has work to do.

"I think I have to do a better job with my body language," he said after the game. "I definitely can improve that. I wouldn’t say it's a real strong point of mine right now. We'll just try to keep doing better. That's what we’ve got to do."

And for all the growing pains, there was little to show for it on Thursday night.

Yes, there was the deep pass to Dobson that got the night started with a bang. The next Jets defender you see in coverage on that play will be the first, and despite his receiver being wide open on a wheel route out of the backfield all the way to the end zone, Brady still admitted that it "wasn’t even a great throw." Dobson, however, made a good adjustment to the ball in flight and reeled it in.

There was also the deep throw to Thompkins down the left side line for 37 yards. That catch, while only one catch, was the culmination of a lot of hard work in training camp and the preseason. Now, they have something to build off of. A little more inside, however, and Thompkins might have scored a touchdown, saving the patriots a nerve-racking final quarter of football. The quarterback and receivers will perfect their chemistry over time, but for now, it's going to be a learning process for everyone.

There are some signs of progress, and even if things were going perfect, the Patriots it would be quick to remind us that there is it still a lot of work to do.

Luckily for the Patriots, there are still 14 games left in the regular season, so there's still a lot of time to get a lot of work done.

With 10 days until their next game, things could improve as early as the next time we see them take the field against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

If Brady looks anything like he did against them in preseason (11-of-12, 107 yards, touchdown), that's not an unfair expectation.

Patriots stock report: Aqib Talib's two interceptions lift Patriots past Jets

Posted by Erik Frenz September 13, 2013 12:04 AM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots aren't used to winning as ugly as they won on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, but after a second consecutive ugly win over the Jets, they seem to be settling into the new look quite comfortably.

With a 13-10 win over the Jets on Thursday night, the Patriots moved to 2-0 on the season and an equal record in the division. If they can continue to win while they iron out the wrinkles, that's a huge plus.

It's pretty obvious, at this point, that there's still work to be done.

Here are some players whose stock rose and others who came out of the game a little worse for the wear.

Stock up:

Aaron Dobson: In his first game, rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson's first target and first reception led to his first touchdown, a 39-yard strike on an interesting play design. With Dobson lined up in the backfield, the Patriots set up a play-action fake and had Dobson run a wheel route out of the backfield, sprinting uncovered toward the end zone. He had a drop later in the game, and caught just three of 10 targets in his direction, but he was consistently getting open, and at least a few of those incompletions were not entirely his fault.

Aqib Talib: The veteran cornerback forced a fumble on a big catch down the seam by Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill, and safety Devin McCourty returned the fumble to the Jets 8-yard line. Also had a remarkable play on a tip drill interception that saved at least three points on the scoreboard, and an interception on Geno Smith's final pass attempt of the game.

Chandler Jones: Most of the Patriots pressure came from Chandler Jones, who logged two sacks and had another pair of hits on the quarterback. He did solid work from both the defensive end and defensive tackle spots, lining up as a 3-technique and 5-technique on his two sacks.

Ryan Allen: After a less-than-stellar outing in Buffalo, Allen got back on track and had four punts downed inside the 20-yard line with an average distance of 46.7 yards per punt. His 11 punts and 514 yards both tied single-game franchise records -- which is also a statement to the stagnant state of the Patriots offense on Thursday night.

Stock down:

Tom Brady: Tough night for the Patriots quarterback, who went 12-of-26 in the first half and finished 19-of-39 passing. It's the first time since 2009 that Brady has completed fewer than 50 percent of his throws. After a performance like Thursday night, the consensus might be that his receivers were not in the right place to catch his passes. That might be the case on some throws, but there were others Brady would surely like to have back (deep incompletions to Dobson and a slant to Thompkins come to mind).

Chandler Jones: Wait, didn't I just get done singing Jones' praises? Well, he had the two sacks, but there was also the penalty for a high hit on Geno Smith and several plays in a row on the Jets first-half field goal drive where the Jets ran in his direction repeatedly. Jones often talks about being a well-rounded defensive end, and while he's normally very stout on the edge in run defense, he's not perfect in that regard just yet.

Stephen Gostkowski: Hooked a 43-yard field goal attempt wide left at the end of the first half -- that was before it started pouring at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots would have loved those extra three points when they were sweating out a close win late in the game.

Mark Sanchez's perception of Jets quarterback competition far from reality

Posted by Erik Frenz September 12, 2013 06:43 PM

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Mark Sanchez may no longer be the starting quarterback of the New York Jets, but he is not ready to go gently into his good night.

Instead, he's raging against the dying of the light. In Sanchez's mind, he should be the starter after his competition with rookie quarterback Geno Smith.

"I won the competition," Sanchez told NFL Network's Rich Eisen. "There's no doubt. It was a done deal."

According to who? Certainly not according to Jets head coach Rex Ryan, who told the media repeatedly that the competition was "ongoing" -- even in the days leading up to the team's season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Those are strong words coming from Sanchez, though, who has been mum on both his rehab and his status as the Jets starting quarterback.

"There’s nothing I can do about it," he said in late August, when asked if it would be frustrating to lose his starting job due to injury. "I just got to keep rehabbing and try to come back as soon as possible."

It seems rehab is exactly what Sanchez will do. The former starting quarterback also revealed that he's not having surgery to repair a torn labrum, and will instead rehab with hopes he can return to action sooner than later.

By the time he's ready to come back, the starting job may no longer be available. His best chance is if Smith struggles, and even then, there's no guarantee that Sanchez will earn the job back.

It's probably more accurate to say he played himself out of the starting quarterback competition over the past two years, when he turned the ball over a league-worst 52 times and accumulated a passer rating of 73, third-worst in the league since 2011.

Sanchez wasn't a good quarterback with a healthy arm. With a bad throwing shoulder, he's probably not going to be better.

With a young quarterback at the helm -- one who just led a fourth-quarter comeback and earned a victory in his first NFL game, at that -- Sanchez may not get another opportunity.

The perception in Sanchez's mind is that he won the competition, but the reality may be that he ran out of chances a long time ago.

Patriots vs. Jets matchup breakdown: WR Julian Edelman vs. CB Antonio Cromartie

Posted by Erik Frenz September 11, 2013 07:30 AM

It used to be that the New England Patriots had more receivers than the New York Jets had defensive backs who could ably cover them.

In a stunning twist, due to injuries and the offseason departure of wide receiver Wes Welker, the Jets may have more cornerbacks than the Patriots have wide receivers who can ably catch the ball on Thursday night in New England's home opener.

On Sunday, veteran wide receiver Julian Edelman reminded us why familiarity could be his key to a big year in the Patriots offense.

There's another reason he might have a big year: injuries to his teammates.

Now, Edelman may end up matched up one-on-one with any combination of Jets cornerbacks: rookie Dee Milliner, and veterans Antonio Cromartie and Isaiah Trufant could be assigned to cover Edelman depending on the situation and where he lines up.

For the most part, the Jets will probably match their rookie on the Patriots rookie, Kenbrell Thompkins, who struggled last week, while matching up their better cornerback, Cromartie, on Brady's most trusted target, Edelman.

Thumbnail image for edelman vs. cromartie.pngEdelman may have a similar frame to slot receivers like Amendola and Welker, but he is primarily a boundary receiver for the Patriots. According to stats website Pro Football Focus, Edelman ran just 44 of a possible 182 routes from the outside in 2012.

That's also where he was found least often on Sunday against the Bills, with 16 of his 51 routes coming from the slot.

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He lined up in the slot initially on this 1st-and-10 in the fourth quarter, but motioned out wide to the right side of the formation and ran a seven-yard post. Notice how far cornerback Justin Rogers is lined up from the line of scrimmage.

The Patriots gave a convincing play-action fake, with a lead block from fullback James Develin and a block from tight end Michael Hoomanawanui as well.

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The linebackers froze, and that freed up Edelman over the middle. Because Rogers was so far off the line, he was out of position to make the play.

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There were still more yards to be had after the catch, and Edelman put his head down and broke through Rogers' arm tackle.

Cromartie's season, on the flip side, didn't get off to a great start.

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He was in coverage on Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, one of the best in the game. Patriots fans who attended training camp may recall Jackson as the guy no one could cover.

Jackson caught three passes for 68 yards with Cromartie covering him, including this 39-yard gain on a slant, which was the longest play of the day for the Buccaneers through the air.

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It was likely an option route for Jackson, where he runs his route based on the coverage of the defense. Freeman had begun his throwing motion before Jackson had even entered his break, because the window over the middle was so wide, he knew Jackson would take the slant over the middle.

Jackson might still be running were it not for a tackle by safety Dawan Landry.

On the day, Cromartie gave up five receptions on seven targets for 77 yards.

Don't underestimate him, though, by any stretch.

He is still one of the better cover corners in the league, and has made life difficult for the Patriots in recent contests. In fact, Tom Brady has gone 4-of-12 passing (33.3 percent) for 49 yards (4.1 YPA) throwing in Cromartie's direction over the past three meetings between the Patriots and Jets. Cromartie has also broken up two passes.

Thus, if Edelman and Cromartie lock horns on Thursday night, it will surely be a matchup to watch.

Patriots Take 2: How can the offense cure self-inflicted wounds?

Posted by Erik Frenz September 10, 2013 07:30 AM

The New England Patriots escaped Buffalo with a win over the Bills.

It didn't look good, but it was good enough.

It would be easy to focus on the negative after such a close win over a team the Patriots have dominated recently, but the margin of victory doesn't matter in the win-loss columns, and such a narrow triumph can often build character for a team.

Let's take a look at what went right and what went wrong in our weekly film review.

1. Exotic pressure packages lead to tough start

The Patriots weren't blindsided by the Bills exotic use of blitzes and sending rushers from different directions. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick knew it was coming.

"I would imagine that whatever the Jets did, Buffalo is certainly capable of doing from a scheme standpoint, whether they’ve shown it or not," Belichick said on Sept. 3. "We have to be aware of some of those things. Again, I think that’s part of the whole unknown of opening day."

Talk about "unknown," the Patriots looked like they didn't know who was rushing and who was dropping into coverage for periods of time on Sunday.

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The Patriots had started to move the ball in the second quarter when the Bills would mix it up with interesting rushes on back-to-back plays. The Bills rushed four defenders on 2nd-and-9, but defensive tackle Marcell Dareus started rush and then dropped into coverage on the play.

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As a result, he found himself in the right place at the right time to knock down a Brady pass intended for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.

Brady didn't see the 6'3", 319-pound Dareus in coverage because the defender did a good job of faking the rush.

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On the next play, the Bills rushed five defenders, but once again dropped a defensive linemen into coverage — this time, Mario Williams.

The Patriots offensive line missed safety Da'Norris Searcy creeping up to the line of scrimmage and allowed him to come free. He split the B-gap between right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and right guard Dan Connolly.

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Tight end Zach Sudfeld and running back Shane Vereen were both lined up on the strong side of the formation, so perhaps the offensive line thought one of those two players would stay at home to chip the blitzing defensive back.

No matter who was to blame, the Patriots offense got off to a slow start in part because Brady was under constant pressure from the Bills defense.

2. Vintage Tom Brady in the fourth quarter

It's important to be able to execute a two-minute offense, but a four-minute offense is a different animal. You want to score, but not too quickly to give the other team a chance to tie or win the game.

So, when the Patriots got the ball with 4:31 left in the game and kicked the game-winning field goal with 0:05 remaining, you could call that nearly flawless execution of the four-minute offense.

Brady dropped back to throw seven times, completing all of his attempts, and was pressured just once — on the most important pitch-and-catch of the game.

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The Bills didn't try to get cute with their pressure, but defensive end Alex Carrington got within arms reach. Still, Brady fired a strike down the seam for 10 yards to Danny Amendola on 3rd-and-9. With the pass delivered on-target despite the pressure, Amendola returned the favor with a dazzling reception.

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With a defender draped all over him, he secured the catch and took it with him all the way to the ground, capping off the beginning of the Amendola era in New England with his seventh third-down conversion on the day.

3. Shane Vereen the Patriots X receiver?

The Patriots have gone to great lengths in their search for an X receiver to line up on the outside and win one-on-one matchups while threatening an opponent on vertical routes. A 5'10", 205-pound running back is probably not what most people had in mind.

Yet, we saw Vereen line up as an X receiver on several occasions on Sunday. He finished the game with seven catches for 58 yards, but there were opportunities left on the field.

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On 1st-and-10 in the second quarter, Brady had Vereen open down the sideline when the running back ran a curl-and-go route in which he stopped five yards into his route, giving the illusion of a curl route, before breaking behind the defensive back.

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Brady's overshot his receiver by a good five yards, or else this pass could have gone for big yards.

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The Patriots were backed up inside their own end zone on another play, where Vereen ran a slant route through the middle of the Bills defense.

Once again, Vereen got open, and once again, Brady targeted the running back.

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This time, the pass was too far behind Vereen, who couldn't reach for the ball in time. If Brady put the pass a bit more on the inside, Vereen might still be running.

This is another instance of a lack of chemistry between the quarterback and the new weapons — although Vereen isn't a new weapon, his presence in the role as wide receiver is relatively new. With time, these kinks should work themselves out.

4. Where was the pass rush?

It seems like we've been asking this question for years, yet the Patriots' pass-rush rarely seems to improve. Sunday was another frustrating example of a quarterback having all day to throw in the pocket.

There were multiple reasons for the lack of pressure.

For one, any time you are facing a mobile quarterback that can run like E.J. Manuel, there's a hesitancy to go full-bore with an up-field rush. Instead, the emphasis is on gap discipline and pocket containment. Pressure is great when it forces the issue, but not when it opens lanes for a running quarterback to exploit.

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That's exactly what happened on Manuel's one long run of the day, a 19-yard scamper on 2nd-and-6 in the third quarter. Defensive end Chandler Jones and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly both got in the area of Manuel, and Rob Ninkovich appeared to be the designated "spy" responsible for chasing Manuel if he broke the pocket.

Ninkovich got caught charging too hard to his right, and Manuel cut back across the offense to elude Ninkovich and get into the open field.

The Patriots learned the hard way about one of the drawbacks of man coverage. With their backs turned and/or their attention devoted fully to their assignment, the defense is vulnerable to being caught off-guard by scrambles when a quarterback can run like Manuel.

Beyond that, Manuel was simply getting the ball out of his hands too quickly for the Patriots defense to get pressure. According to Pro Football Focus, Manuel got the ball out of his hands in less than 2.5 seconds on 14 of his 30 drop-backs. A quick-hitting, timing offense like the West Coast offense run by the Bills will always cause problems for a defense trying to get pressure.

So, too, will an offensive line like the Bills' that rarely gives up pressure on its quarterback (former Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was pressured on just 26.7 percent of his drop-backs in 2012).

5. Kyle Arrington helped the Patriots stay in the game

The Patriots offense made one mistake after another. Cornerback Kyle Arrington countered that by forcing one mistake after another on the Bills offense.

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His first came on the Bills' second offensive play of the game, a handoff to dynamic running back C.J. Spiller.

As you can see in the left frame, Spiller doesn't have two hands on the ball, and hasn't tucked it away in such a way that it would be difficult to knock out.

Arrington reached in, but then added the impact from his left hand on the back side, knocking the ball forward.

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This is no ordinary back; Spiller averaged six yards per carry in 2012, the second-highest for any back behind the best running back in the game, Adrian Peterson of the Vikings. So, needless to say, the Bills were hoping for big things out of him by making him the focal point of the offense.

"We're going to give him the ball until he throws up," Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said on WGR 550 Sports Radio in August.

The Bills coaching staff might have thrown up a little in their mouth at that early gaffe, which set the tone for Spiller's day (17 carries, 41 yards; five catches, 14 yards).

But Arrington wasn't done.

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If the first fumble was forced by Arrington capitalizing on an error by Spiller, the second was him simply fighting tooth-and-nail with Bills wide receiver Marquise Goodwin.

Arrington continued to rip and pull at the ball even as he fell to the ground, and eventually pried it loose.

The Patriots forced 42 fumbles in 2012, and recovered 21 of them, ranking tops in the league in both categories. They picked up right where they left off thanks to Arrington.

6. Is Stevan Ridley's "fumble problem" here to stay?

Every fumble is different, but when a running back has fumbled eight times on 434 career handles of the football, it's become a problem.

The problem showed up in training camp, with Ridley fumbling several times over the course of the three weeks of practices open to the public. The problem has now carried over into the regular season, with Ridley fumbling the ball once and nearly another time had he not been ruled down by contact.

ridley fumble.png

The fumble that counted, however, was inexcusable.

Ridley went down untouched, and barely had one hand on the ball when he hit the ground.

ridley fumble 2.png

He then tried to pick the ball back up, but was knocked from behind by linebacker Kiko Alonso.

At least a few of Ridley's previous career fumbles were nearly unavoidable.

He fumbled on his 28th carry of the day against the Denver Broncos in Week 5 of the 2012 season. 49ers safety Donte Whitner planted a helmet square on a rain-soaked ball to knock it loose in a 2012 regular season game between the two teams. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard planted a helmet square on Ridley's helmet (or maybe it was vice versa) that knocked Ridley out cold.

On Monday, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels repeated a sentiment that's heard quite often at Gillette Stadium.

"Ultimately, we will try to play the best guys that give us the best chances to win," McDaniels said.

With Shane Vereen laid up for a few weeks with a wrist injury (according to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports), the Patriots need to decide whether shelving Ridley is a means to an end, or if it's a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

7. What the Patriots might miss with Vereen out

Ridley's benching may have sent a message to Ridley for his fumble, but it also sent a message to Vereen. Consider that message received.

vereen 2 hands 2.png

vereen 2 hands.png

The above two plays, for example, show Vereen covering the ball with two hands as a defender would draw close.

Now, what do the Patriots do if they put Ridley back out there and he continues to fumble?

The Patriots also have LeGarrette Blount they could turn to, but he fumbled nine times in a two-year span to start his career. Leon Washington hasn't had more than three fumbles in each of the past five years, but he hasn't had as many opportunities as of late (357 combined rushes, receptions, kickoff returns and punt returns since 2010). Brandon Bolden doesn't have a fumble in his NFL career, but fumbled eight times on 562 touches at Ole Miss.

Bolden was one of only three other running backs active for the Patriots on Sunday, and with Vereen injured and Ridley coming down with fumblitis, we will probably see them add a player or two to their line-up in the backfield for Thursday.

8. Shotgun snaps

It seemed like the shotgun snaps from center Ryan Wendell were coming in low on a consistent basis on Sunday, and film review held true to the original impression. On final count, 21 of a possible 45 shotgun snaps came in low, with Brady reaching down to corral the snap before either dropping back to throw or handing it off to a running back.

Two of the snaps came in low and wide, with Brady reaching down and to his side to pick up the ball.

low snaps.png

Then, there were these two low snaps, with the Patriots backed up in their own end zone. If Brady had been unable to pull one of these two snaps in, the Patriots would have given up a safety. In a two-point game, that could have been the one last swing the Bills needed in their favor.

9. Julian Edelman's prior chemistry pays off

The Patriots offense got off to a slow start, but Julian Edelman didn't.

Only three passes in Edelman's direction fell incomplete. Two were drops — one of the routine variety, the other of the circus-catch-in-the-end-zone variety — and one was a pass that was well over everyone's head and went out of the back of the end zone.

On a day where the Patriots offense was out of sync, not one of Tom Brady's catchable passes in Edelman's direction fell incomplete without at least hitting Edelman in the hands.

That's not intended as a back-handed compliment, quite the contrary, it's a ringing endorsement of the chemistry Brady and Edelman already possess. Drops will clean themselves up, and Edelman has not been guilty of drops too frequently in his career (eight on 126 targets).

If young pass-catchers like Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce and Zach Sudfeld continue to struggle, the veteran Edelman could continue to thrive.

10. Danny Amendola appreciation day

This is another topic I already hit earlier, but can we just take a moment to appreciate another brilliant third-down catch by the Patriots new receiver?

amendola crazy catch.png

How about one more?

amendola crazy catch 2.png

I could do this all day, but Ice Cube and Chris Tucker may have put it best in "Friday".

Geno Smith impressive in debut, guides Jets to unlikely win

Posted by Erik Frenz September 9, 2013 10:34 AM

Much like throughout the 2012 season, the New York Jets offense struggled to get anything going on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Unlike much of last season, however, there's actually reason to be excited about what we saw from the Jets offense.

Rookie quarterback Geno Smith got his first NFL start, and got off to a rough start. He went 7-for-17 with an interception, but once Geno hit his lowest point, he rebounded. From there, he went 17-for-21 and threw the touchdown pass to tight end Kellen Winslow.

That's the kind of mental toughness we didn't see much from Mark Sanchez in recent years.

"I thought Geno did a really nice job," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said after the win. "Where he really helped us was when he ran. He made some big plays running. They did a good job with their coverage. They have a lot of tremendous players in the back end and they have a good pass rush. He had to make some plays, and those plays helped us win the game."

Smith added six rushes for 47 yards, including the most important run of the game, a 10-yard scramble where the rookie quarterback was hit late out-of-bounds by linebacker Lavonte David.

He led two drives in the fourth quarter to take a lead. The first was 14 plays for 65 yards, the second was a four-play drive that moved 50 yards (including a 15-yard penalty). Both drives ended in field goals.

The name of the game on those drives, as it was for Smith throughout the day, was poise. Smith maintained his composure under some fierce pressure from the Buccaneers defensive line. On the day, Smith was sacked five times, and he even fumbled on one of those sacks, allowing the Buccaneers to recover at the five-yard line.

"I was sure when I was hitting him early on he would be rattled, but the guy just kept sitting in there. 'Man, how many more times I got to hit you?'" Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "He definitely stayed poised and made plays when necessary. He took a lot of big hits today. He always bounced back up and went and made plays. That guy has a bright future."

While Rex Ryan may not immediately change his tune and declare Geno Smith the permanent starter, but Smith's performance in those two must-score scenarios proved that he's much closer to the answer at quarterback than one Mark Sanchez.

Geno won't always have players like Lavonte David making stupid mistakes on the other team, however. He'll have to eliminate his own mistakes, and get a bit more help from an anemic running game (Smith was the Jets' leading rusher, with 47 yards) if the Jets are going to make any noise this season.

Danny Amendola's first performance worthy of Wes Welker comparisons

Posted by Erik Frenz September 9, 2013 09:33 AM

Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola may not be Wes Welker, but he looked a lot like him against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

week 1 danny amendola wes welker.pngHis stat line — 10 catches for 104 yards — is a close representation of Welker's typical performance.

It wasn't just the number of catches, but when they came. Seven of Amendola's 10 catches came on third down and picked up a first down. That's the kind of reliability in big situations that we came to expect from Welker.

So was Amendola's confidence in catching passes over the middle in traffic. A few of his most important catches of the day were also some of the most difficult.

amendola catch 2'.png

Two catches on the final drive converted third downs into first downs. The first was on a modified slant pattern. Amendola would run forward one yard or less off the line of scrimmage before breaking inside. He would then change the angle of the slant slightly mid-route, to allow himself extra cushion in front of the defense.

amendola catch.png

Thus, it was no surprise to see him come away with the reception, despite three defenders in the area.

Hat tip to Tom Brady for fitting the ball into the tight window, but Amendola gets major points for concentration and for allowing himself to make the catch by adjusting his route.

amendola catch 4.jpg

He saved his best for last, with a 10-yard reception on 3rd-and-9 to set the Patriots up in field goal range, and allow them to kill the remaining time on the clock.

Amendola ran a seam route right through the middle of the defense, and found a soft spot in the coverage.

amendola catch 5.png

Once he hit his break, Brady threw the ball, leading Amendola inside. The shifty slot receiver leaped for the catch, coming down with it while absorbing a hit from the Bills defender.

On that note, one area that won't show up on a stat sheet or on game tape is Amendola's toughness. Aside from continually taking heavy hits on his catches over the middle, the veteran battled through a groin injury all week and was listed as questionable for Sunday's game.

He left the game in the second quarter after re-aggravating the injury, but that wasn't enough for Amendola, who probably got a bad vibe in the training room. He played through the pain and played a big part in the Patriots win despite that pain.

The Patriots offense didn't look like the well-oiled machine we've become used to seeing, but it looks like there's still one ultra-reliable component that bears a striking resemblance to the old model.

Julian Edelman capitalizes on familiarity with Tom Brady in Patriots win

Posted by Erik Frenz September 8, 2013 09:26 PM

Remember Julian Edelman?

You know, the wide receiver for the New England Patriots?

He's been under the radar all summer amid the emergence of the rookie pass-catchers — wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson (not in Sunday's line-up), and tight end Zach Sudfeld — and veteran free-agent Danny Amendola.

Edelman showed up on the radar screen several times, and at important moments during the course of the Patriots 23-21 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, with seven catches for 79 yards and both of Tom Brady's touchdown passes.

There was concern over the lack of familiarity between Brady and his receivers this offseason, but it turns out his most familiar target was also his most valuable on Sunday.

The rookie pass-catchers have been the object of praise throughout training camp and the preseason, but they all struggled in their own ways. Boyce struggled to get off press coverage, and was targeted just twice on the day.

Sudfeld was targeted just once all day, and bobbled the pass straight into the arms of cornerback Justin Rogers in one of the zanier plays on a day that was full of them at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Thompkins dropped a pair of passes, including one in the back of the end zone that could have put the Patriots ahead for good. Brady scrambled to his right, and instead of continuing to scramble with Brady, Thompkins stopped in what he thought was a soft spot in the coverage. The problem: Brady expected him to continue breaking away from the defender. With a few more weeks of chemistry between the two, problems like that will correct themselves.

Even Edelman had some struggles on Sunday. He dropped a pass down the sideline that could have helped the Patriots get out of their own end zone. He also dropped what would have been a difficult catch in the end zone.

As one of Brady's only familiar targets, their chemistry paid dividends against the Bills, and should continue to pay off until the other receivers can get involved.

Patriots stock report: Offensive chemistry experiment has its ups and downs

Posted by Erik Frenz September 8, 2013 07:36 PM

In a win as ugly as the New England Patriots' 23-21 nail-biter over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, there are sure to be some players under scrutiny on sports talk radio for the next few days.

They wouldn't have won, though, without a few key players stepping up in the most dire of circumstances.

Here's a quick look at some players whose stock went up, and others who got off to a rough start to the 2013 regular season.

Stock up:

Shane Vereen: Stepped up in a big way when Stevan RIdley hit the bench after his fumble in the first half, and finished with 14 carries and 101 yards -- the first 100-plus-yard rushing performance of his NFL career. Two hands were consistently on the ball every time a defender drew close to making the hit. He also had seven receptions for 58 yards, and looked to be on the same page with Tom Brady aside from one pass that was overthrown for Vereen after the running back pulled a nifty double-move down the right sideline.

Kyle Arrington: Forced two fumbles that were recovered by the Patriots, one on the second play of the game on running back C.J. Spiller and another in the second quarter, both of which set up eventual Patriots touchdown drives. It's hard to tell whether Arrinton should have had help from safety Devin McCourty on the touchdown pass to Bills receiver Stevie Johnson, but he did a solid job in coverage for the most part, and he nearly came away with an interception.

Julian Edelman: Rookie receivers be damned, Julian Edelman is still on the Patriots roster. He came out as the team's second-leading receiver on the day with seven catches for 79 yards and both of Tom Brady's touchdowns. He made a nice adjustment to the ball in the air on the first touchdown pass, contorting his body to reel in a back-shoulder throw from Brady.

Danny Amendola: Picked up right where Wes Welker left off in his role as the chain-mover on third down, with seven of his 10 receptions coming on third down, including two third-down conversions on the game-winning drive.

Stock down:

Stevan Ridley: Fumblitis. He put the ball on the ground twice on Sunday. The first time wasn't truly a fumble, as he was down by contact, but there was no doubt that he wasn't down by contact on the second fumble. He hit the ground untouched, and simply lost control of the ball. He didn't see the field again after that.

Kenbrell Thompkins: He had a pair of drops, including one on a touchdown catch in the back of the end zone that would have put the Patriots ahead for good. He also ran a bad route on the goal line and knocked his teammate, Julian Edelman, off his route. These chemistry problems were expected, to a degree, but it looked like Thompkins and Brady were hitting stride during training camp and the preseason. It's clear there's still work to be done.

Zach Sudfeld: The tight end was targeted just once, and bobbled the pass, which was then intercepted by Bills cornerback Justin Rogers. Sudfeld, like Thompkins, had a dominant summer, but looked like a rookie on Sunday. Replacing Rob Gronkowski is a thankless job, so the sooner their All-Pro tight end gets back, the better.

Ryan Allen: The rookie punter has seen better days than his Sunday average of 36 net yards per punt. He had one punt from inside Patriots territory that traveled just 19 yards, and another punt out of the back of the end zone that netted just 35 yards. The Patriots didn't help Allen out by putting so much pressure on him, but they felt the absence of Zoltan Mesko in their first game without him.

Previewing the 10 best one-on-one matchups in the AFC East this season

Posted by Erik Frenz September 6, 2013 04:35 PM

In a photo gallery recently posted on Boston.com, we look at the 10 best one-on-one matchups we'll get to see this year.

Football is the ultimate team sport, but it's hard not to watch closely when two top players lock horns.

Whether it's that dynamic edge rusher up against the dominant offensive tackle or the speedy wide receiver threatening to go deep against a team's shutdown cornerback, the one-on-one matchups can sometimes have a tremendous impact on the outcome of a game.

An offensive line may then have to adjust for that pass-rusher constantly getting into the backfield by chipping him with a tight end. A secondary may have to roll coverage to a specific side of the field to account for a receiver's ability to get open and make big plays.

Click here for the full gallery of the 10 best matchups this season.

Words With Frenz mailbag: Examining Shane Vereen's potential impact in Week 1

Posted by Erik Frenz September 6, 2013 08:28 AM

The 2013 NFL regular season finally kicked off on Thursday night with a real football game that actually counts in the standings.

Unfortunately, it's not one that has much gravity in the AFC East — save for the impactful performance of former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker who finished with nine catches (one of which a dubious drop that was not challenged by the Ravens coaching staff) for 67 yards and a touchdown.

Soon, the speculative questions will come to an end, and we can finally start analyzing real AFC East games.

For now, we are left to wonder things like what will Shane Vereen's role be on Sunday against the Bills, will the Bills trade Jairus Byrd this season, will Rex Ryan finish the season as Jets head coach, and why aren't the Dolphins getting any respect from the media?

Here are my answers.

Shane Vereen had the third-most snaps of any Patriots running back last year (162) behind Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead. With Woodhead out of the picture, Vereen has earned most of the snaps on third down. His prospects for a bigger role only increased further with the release of Leon Washington.

How big will his role be this week? It will all depend on the matchups.

A lot of the focus has been on the Bills defensive front, and the exotic schemes that could come with the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. It could be the coverage of the linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks that plays a bigger role in the outcome of Sunday's game.

Rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso may be able to cover Vereen out of the backfield — that's if Alonso isn't covering a tight end — but if Vereen lines up split out wide, that's a matchup Tom Brady will probably take. The same could be said of any of the Bills linebackers and safeties.

Vereen caught five passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns in a playoff game against the Texans, and he built off that this preseason with seven catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. Almost all of that came when Brady found Vereen matches up on a linebacker or safety.

One player the Patriots will have to watch out for is strong safety Aaron Williams, who converted from cornerback to safety this offseason. He has looked solid in his new role thus far, and his experience as a cornerback could be something the Bills tap into if they are having a hard time matching up with Vereen.

I wouldn't bet on it.

Jairus Byrd is the Bills best defensive back, and arguably their best defensive player. It's going to take quite a heavy price tag to get him off the Bills hands.

He's also in a contract year, and any team that's going to trade for him will have to pay him after the fact.

It wouldn't be unprecedented; in fact, it happened in the AFC East earlier this year The New York Jets netting the 13th overall pick in 2013 and a conditional pick in 2014 from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for cornerback Darrelle Revis.

However, Byrd is currently battling plantar fasciitis, a foot injury that usually only gets better with rest. Would a team be willing to trade for Byrd, then take on the potential risk of him not being 100 percent?

My guess is no.

Well, I wouldn't say they're being heavily favored. The Browns are only favored by one point.

That's probably a point they get for having home field advantage.

The Dolphins look like the better team, but it's not one you can chalk up as a win just yet.

The Browns have a solid offensive line that allowed quarterback Brandon Weeden to be pressured on just 27.7 percent of his drop-backs in 2012. While they may not have many weapons in the passing game, it may not matter if Weeden has all day to throw.

Offensively, Miami has more weapons than Cleveland, but the Browns have a great defensive coordinator in Ray Horton, who has a lot of young, athletic players at his disposal to help execute his aggressive blitz scheme. The Dolphins offensive line will be tested early and often.

Also, while the Browns haven't exactly earned a lot of media praise recently, neither have the Dolphins. People have their doubts about whether all the pieces the Dolphins acquired this offseason will come together quickly, and whether the spending will pay immediate dividends.

I would be.

It's a two-sided situation. On the one hand, the Jets have to know they're in the middle of a rebuild with a new offensive and defensive coordinator, a new starting quarterback and a new general manager.

Rex Ryan is on the hot seat, but he doesn't have to take the Jets to the playoffs to keep the job. In fact, with Geno Smith as the starting quarterback to lead off the season, there may be a bigger margin for error with Ryan in 2013 than there would be if Mark Sanchez was still the starter.

If the Jets finish 5-11 or worse, Rex might be looking for new work. A 6-10 record with a rookie quarterback and several holes on the roster could be good enough to save his job for one more year.

Thanks for the questions, everyone. Can't wait to get the AFC East season under way.

What EJ Manuel's Week 1 start means for Patriots vs. Bills

Posted by Erik Frenz September 4, 2013 12:58 PM

When the Buffalo Bills announced quarterback EJ Manuel as their Week 1 starter against the Patriots, it ended over two weeks worth of speculation.

It's been about that long since Manuel had surgery on his left knee on August 18, but head coach Doug Marrone said Manuel is recovering ahead of schedule. The quarterback practiced for the first time since his knee injury on Sunday, and participated fully on Monday.

Whether he is back to 100 percent, or reasonably close, we'll find out on Sunday. Any lingering effects of the surgery could impact his ability to use his legs to extend plays and/or pick up yards running the ball.

Either way, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick pointed out some of the difficulties in preparing to face a rookie quarterback.

"To be honest with you, there isn't a ton of Buffalo film on either one of them," said Belichick of Manuel and rookie backup Jeff Tuel, who would have started if Manuel couldn't play. "We saw them play in college and scouted them both coming out there, but that doesn't really mean as much as what they do in this offense and how they do it. There's not a whole lot of film on either guy."

One look at the Bills preseason tape makes the game plan obvious: get ready to defend a lot of short passes.

ej manuel preseason throws.png

A diagram of each of Manuel's throws (red indicates routes Manuel threw more than once) reveals Buffalo's tendency to keep things close to the line of scrimmage in the passing game. Manuel attempted 33 total passes in the preseason, and averaged six yards per pass attempt. For context, the NFL average in 2012 was 7.1 YPA.

In addition to sound coverage, the Patriots need to be ready to make a sure tackle. The Bills have a ton of speed at receiver in T.J. Graham (4.41 40-yard dash), Marquise Goodwin (4.27) and Robert Woods (4.51), and can be dangerous with the ball in their hands.

That being said, the Patriots can't afford to ignore the deep pass. Marrone wasn't necessarily in favor of not taking any deep shots with Manuel.

"I told [offensive coordinator] Nathaniel [Hackett], 'Let’s just make sure we get some go's. That’s what [Manuel] does best. Throw some deep balls,'" Marrone said. "It was just a matter of the play calls dictating that, not going into the game. I'm surprised that we didn't throw more go's. I think we had some other things that we were working, but I would have liked to have seen more go's."

With Manuel, though, the preparation goes beyond the short and deep throws, and includes his ability to run the ball.

The Patriots need to keep an eye on Manuel's knee, and how comfortable he is on it. Will he be brave enough to run through the heart of the Patriots defense if he sees a hole? Will he be limited in his ability to extend plays in the pocket? Will he step into his throws with strength and confidence?

All legitimate questions, none of which we'll have the answer to until after the first whistle blows on September 8.

About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »


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