Blanket Coverage: Injuries will not hinder Patriots' quest for Super Bowl
Thanksgiving is right around the corner, which means the games become more important. We’ll discuss whether the Vikings are truly contenders yet, Chandler Jones’ award candidacy, nonsensical touchdown rules, the Packers needing to overcome their stubbornness, Mark Sanchez’s chance for success, the off-field deeds of a Lion and our thoughts on Week 11, including whether or not Peyton Manning stays on the bench behind Brock Osweiler. But first we’ll start in New England, where the Patriots’ train might be set to slow a bit (a very little bit) down the stretch.
We’ve seen it so many times before that it doesn’t even register anymore: Patriots lose a player and everyone predicts that it will hurt them, and then it doesn’t.
Ho-hum. New England will bring up the next man (like David Andrews, Josh Kline, Jonas Gray, Kenbrell Thompkins, Mark Anderson, etc.) who not only gets the job done but excels at it, and Patriots will keep winning. The beat goes on and on.
At some point, there’s a tipping point, but even that’s relative. For most teams, a tipping point signifies when a season goes down the tubes and is never heard from again. For the Patriots, historically, it means they might not (gasp) win a Super Bowl. I’m sure fans from the around the league really feel for the Patriots in that regard.
I’m not saying the Patriots won’t reach the Super Bowl this year. With Edelman highly likely to return for the first playoff game, only an injury to Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski could keep New England from Santa Clara, in part because the AFC is so weak, but mostly because of Brady and coach Bill Belichick.
In 2011 I covered the Patriots for the Boston Globe, and I learned all that I need to know. After New England was dominated by the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and fell to 5–2, I wrote that Belichick the general manager had let down Belichick the coach, and that at some point their porous defense would cost them against an elite offense. Until Eli Manning completed 30 of 40 passes for 296 yards and put up a passer rating of 103.8 to defeat the Patriots 21–17 in Super Bowl XLVI, I was preparing to eat an entire buffet of crow. But I definitely took my medicine.
That season, I learned that Belichick’s coaching abilities are unmatched. He took a secondary of Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty (who was lost at cornerback for much of the season), James Ihedigbo, Patrick Chung (back when he was struggling in space and before his move last season closer to the line of scrimmage), Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, Antwaun Molden, Sterling Moore and Edelman (yes, that Edelman covered Anquan Boldin of the Ravens in the AFC championship game), went to the Super Bowl and should have won it even with a hobbled Gronkowski.
There is literally no other coach that could have done that with that group. But Belichick did, and I haven’t doubted him since. Talk about squeezing water out of rock—Belichick created a flood from a pebble.
So this season, despite all the injuries, I fully expect the Patriots to be in the Super Bowl, and I think there’s a reasonable chance they’ll win it, depending on the matchup and health going into the game. However, for the rest of the season, I would not expect the Patriots to roll like they have most weeks on the way to 9–0. The degree of difficulty will increase after the Edelman injury, and the Patriots can figure to be in a fight the rest of the way.
In some ways, they already have. After having their way with their first four opponents, the Patriots have won three of their past five by seven points or less. Outside of the 36–7 victory over the Dolphins, the Patriots have had issues in each of those five games, including a sluggish 27–10 victory over Washington, which couldn’t catch the ball (seven drops).
You saw some of it on display in the 27–26 victory over the Giants. Sure, coach Tom Coughlin and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo know how to play the Patriots and Brady sees some ghosts in those blue uniforms, but being without five blue chip, elite players (Edelman, Dion Lewis, Jamie Collins, Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder) took its toll. Going into that game, the Giants’ secondary was one of the worst in the league and couldn’t generate pressure on the quarterback. Against the Patriots, the Giants didn’t have much of an issue with either.
Losing Lewis and Edelman in the span of seven days took away two terrific outlet players for Brady and, understandably, he couldn’t unload the ball as quickly as he had in previous weeks, which was a big key to the offensive success.
Another factor has been the accumulation of pressure on Brady behind that shaky offensive line that was without Solder, Vollmer and backup tackle Marcus Cannon. Every quarterback, regardless of their greatness, will feel the effects of pressure if it becomes a constant issue.
Through the first four games, Brady was pressured just 26.7% of his snaps, which ranked fourth-best in the league. Since then it has been 33.5%, which is still good for eighth-best. But at least in the last handful of years, Brady’s threshold (and it seems to be the same for most veteran pocket passers) has been about 30% of pressure. Anything below that, he’s lights-out good. If he feels pressure on over 30% of his snaps, he’s still good, it’s just not as consistent because just like every other passer, consistent pressure speeds up a quarterback, making his reads not as sharp and his throws not quite as accurate.
In short, Brady has been good, but not quite as stellar as before as offensive injuries have taken a toll in the last two weeks.
With that as a backdrop, Brady now has to deal with Edelman’s injury. Danny Amendola is a very good replacement and he’s better than most know, but Edelman has elite athletic ability with his ability to avoid tackles and pick up chunk yards and crucial first downs. Amendola will make up for some of that (he has more consistent hands, for instance), but some will be missing. Add that to the drop off from Lewis to James White, the additional coverage that will be keyed on Gronkowski, and the inconsistent offensive line, and the Patriots should sputter a bit.
Also, the opposing defenses will ramp as well. The Patriots will face the Bills (13th in pass defense DVOA from FootballOutsiders.com), Broncos (first), Eagles (third), Texans (14th and climbing after shutting down the Bengals), Titans (eighth), Jets (sixth) and Dolphins (26th).
The bottom line is the Patriots will end up where they should: in the playoffs with a rested Edelman waiting for them to roll against the AFC and beyond. It would just surprise me if it’s the cakewalk most envisioned a few weeks ago. Of course, Belichick never ceases to astonish.
Wet Blanket Report
Are the Vikings for real?: The Vikings, which leads the NFC North by a game and is tied with Arizona for the second-best record in the conference, are a good, well-rounded team and may indeed be a contender before all is said and done. But I’m not buying in yet. Why? According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Vikings rank 19th in DVOA and 17th in weighted DVOA because they’ve had ridiculous fumble luck (which usually evens out), and they’ve played the second-easiest schedule (Falcons) to this point (Vikings are also 17th in passer rating differential, another solid stat). But from here on out, the Vikings have the league’s most difficult schedule (Packers twice, Seahawks, Cardinals, Falcons, Giants). So they’ll get the opportunity to show exactly how good they are.
Chandler Jones for DPOY: The Patriots’ end leads the NFL with 10.5 sacks, which has started some chatter about him being in the mix for the award given to the league’s top defender. Statistically, Jones should be a candidate if he stays on the same pace. In the end, it would be hard to give it to him. Jones is a very good player, against the pass and run, especially in the Patriots’ system. But he’s not a dominating player, the type that offensive coordinators game plan against. He’s not even the top player on his own defense (my personal Patriots list for this season: Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Patrick Chung, Malcolm Buter, Jones), let alone among NFL edge players (Michael Bennett, Pernell McPhee, Von Miller, Justin Houston, Cliff Avril, Cameron Jordan).
Stafford bashing: There’s plenty to get on Lions QB Matthew Stafford about, but his near-game blowing interception late in the third quarter against the Packers was not one. In real time, it seemed to be a case where a receiver (Lance Moore) chose the wrong option on an option route. Moore admitted he read it as middle of the field open (post route) instead of middle of the field close (dig). Stafford read it correctly and threw it where Moore should have been.
End zone catch rules make no sense: If Odell Beckham Jr.’s catch late against the Patriots was not a touchdown (when the ball didn’t come out until after his second foot was down), then how did Golden Tate score here and how did Steve Smith not have an incomplete catch here? Look, I get the need for a receiver to become a runner in the field of play (even though I disagree with it: I think there should be a clear line for officials of possession and then two feet down, and anything after goes), but I think sidelines and the end zone should be called differently, as its own category. If a running back doesn’t need to establish himself as a runner in the end zone (I realize he has in the field of play but stick with me) for a touchdown, when all he has to do is break the goal line with the tip of the football, then why can’t a receiver score a touchdown with possession and two feet down? It doesn’t make any sense if the player isn’t going to the ground. Who becomes a runner in the end zone, or going out of bounds? It’s like saying running backs should have to have possession and get two feet in the end zone before they get a touchdown. Do we do that? No. Why? Because that’s ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous: asking a receiver to establish himself as a runner in the end zone. On this, Tom Coughlin and I can agree.
Packers being stubborn: When they were 6–0 before their three-game losing streak, I wrote about the Packers’ choppy offense but said there was no reason to panic. I figured, with the bye week, the Packers would see their issues and adjust. Boy, was I wrong, and I have only myself to blame. I totally discounted the stubbornness of coach Mike McCarthy, offensive coordinator Tom Clements and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. I should have known better considering I have previously covered all three and dealt with their periodic lack of self-awareness. Like I said previously, the Packers’ offensive triumvirate has to realize they can’t keep running the same scheme (deep isolation routes, trying to hit a home run every play) and they have to get back to the quick rhythm passing game that allowed them to achieve great heights before. They’re just in denial otherwise, and they’ll keep piling up the losses.
Color it dumb: Just when you thought the NFL couldn’t come up with any dumber ways to grab fans’ money, it debuted the “color rush” uniforms (you can get yours by going to the NFL Shop!). Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that pitch. “How can we get people to buy more jerseys?” “Here’s a thought: monochromatic uniforms. Boom.” Next year’s idea: shorts!
Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 10 injuries?
QB Sam Bradford, Eagles (shoulder/concussion, day to day): Mark Sanchez is likely to get the call and while you want to believe in him because he has talent and his mobility is an asset to Philadephia’s offense, Sanchez has shown no improvement with his biggest weakness: taking care of the ball (as illustrated by his interception last week). It’s simple with Sanchez. If he takes care of the ball, he can be fine (2–0 with Eagles with no interceptions). If he doesn’t, it’s not good (3–5 when he throws at least one interception).
WR Justin Hunter, Titans (broken ankle, injured reserve): The team signed former Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks, but the Titans are going to need rookie Dorial Green-Beckham (12 catches on 25 targets) and veteran Harry Douglas (17 catches on 31 targets) to have more production to help QB Marcus Mariota.
Jared Abbrederis, Packers (ribs, several weeks): The offensively challenged Packers were dealt another blow when the improving second-year player was sidelined against the Lions. The good news is they might just get back Ty Montgomery, who is a much better athlete and showed a good rapport with Aaron Rodgers before hurting his ankle in Week 6.
Humanitarian of the Week
Don Carey III, safety, Detroit Lions
Nobody could accuse Don Carey III about neglecting his own backyard. Just about every week, the Lions’ safety is in a Detroit-area school either bringing new textbooks or just engaging with students as part of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Youth Literacy Program he co-founded. The goal is to inspire young minds by engaging children in those four key areas at an early age, and Carey often brings his teammates with him.
Carey launched a youth literacy initiative two years ago that brought him into the classrooms at Dixon Educational Learning Academy, and Clark Preparatory Academy. This year, Carey expanded the program to Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School at Cody, and an early learning center for pre-schoolers.
10 thoughts heading into Week 11
1. If Brock Osweiler plays well for the Broncos against the Bears, that sets up for a very interesting decision going into the game against the Patriots. It would take a lot of guts, but it would not surprise if coach Gary Kubiak and team president John Elway sat Peyton Manning against New England under the guise that they need him completely healthy for the stretch run and one game against the Patriots is not going to matter that much. If you put Kubiak on truth serum, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wanted to most on to Osweiler because it would mean Kubiak could get back to running his scheme full-time, which he obviously believes in strongly.
2. That being said, I don’t think Osweiler will play well against the Bears so the decision will be moot. For one, he’s not that physically talented despite his great size (6'7", 240 pounds). Osweiler doesn’t throw the ball very well, and because he hasn’t played that much, he doesn’t see the field all that well either. On top of that, Osweiler will be playing gainst his former head coach (John Fox) and offensive coordinator (Adam Gase) who know his limitations intimately and will look to exploit them.
3. It will be interesting to see if the Texans stick with Whitney Mercilus at right outside linebacker when Jadeveon Clowney returns to the lineup this week. While Clowney has been very good against the run, Mercilus has been the better pass rusher to this point, and his effectiveness against the Bengals was a big reason why the defense was so much better (along with more snaps from rookie DT Christian Covington). Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel probably thinks he hit on something, so don’t be surprised if Clowney’s reps are limited against the Jets.
4. With the Falcons coming out of a bye week, expect them to put an emphasis on red-zone scoring offense. In starting 6–1, the Falcons scored touchdowns on 16 of 22 trips (an amazing 72.7%). While going 1–2, Atlanta was just four of 11 (36.4%).
5. The Jets will get a big boost at the Texans with the return of safety Calvin Pryor. It’s no coincidence the defense took a step back the past three weeks without him.
6. Rams QB Nick Foles absolutely deserved to be benched. I'm not sure if he wasn't comfortable with offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti’s system, but he was slow with everything, from reading defenses to delivering passes. Backup QB Case Keenum has his limitations, but he’s fun to watch and will at inject some energy into the Rams offense.
7. Jaguars QB Blake Bortles, who is on the verge of becoming a consistently good quarterback if he limits his handful of boneheaded decisions each game, can illustrate the progress he has made when he faces Dick LeBeau and the Titans’ defense in two of the next three games. In just his second start as a rookie last season, Bortles was 22-of-36 for just 191 yards and two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) in a 17–9 loss to LeBeau when he was still coordinating the Steelers’ defense.
8. Tough week for it at Carolina, but Washington and QB Kirk Cousins can show real progress when it notches a road victory. Washington is 4–1 at home but 0–4 on the road. Cousins has completed 75.7% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions (112.8 rating) at home. On the road: 59.8%, four touchdowns, seven interceptions (66.3 rating).
9. How on Earth did Andy Dalton go three quarters without targeting A.J. Green against the Texans? That just can’t happen, even this week with Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson waiting to jump on any errant throw in Green’s direction.
10. When Cardinals QB Carson Palmer said this week that the Monday night showdown against his former team was “not just another game,” the Bengals should be ready for an aerial assault. Palmer didn’t like how things ended in Cincinnati and coach/playcaller Bruce Arians loves Palmer. You bet Arians is going to do everything in his power to let Palmer enjoy his moment.