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Maza's Musings

Unsolicited sports opinion and insight

Patriots weekly reset

It was a loss that could have crippled the Patriots’ playoff hopes. The last-second hook-and-lateral taken to the house for a 69-yard touchdown and a 34-33 Dolphins win over the Patriots sparked reactions like this throughout New England (NSFW):

(I could watch that clip on a loop for all eternity, by the way)

Fortunately for the Patriots, Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts dealt the Houston Texans a loss as well and the Pittsburgh Steelers appear in full meltdown mode after a rough loss to the Oakland Raiders, their third straight defeat. With that, the Patriots maintained their hold on the second seed – in fact, the Patriots’ odds of earning a first-round bye actually increased – though Kansas City’s overtime win against Baltimore left the Patriots’ hopes for home-field advantage throughout hanging by a very thin thread. The odds of grabbing the second seed jumped from 49% to 67%, according to PlayoffStatus.com, while the odds of capturing the No. 1 seed slid from 19% to 3%.

How the team will react to another bad loss on the road is anyone’s guess as they now head on the road against the reeling Steelers. The Patriots have played well there in the past, but most Patriots teams are better on the road than this one and hadn’t just been handed maybe the most humiliating loss of the past two decades.


Making the grade?
Patriots starters and impact players and their Pro Football Focus positional rank.
(Green = trending up; Red = trending down)

Offense
QB – Tom Brady, 5th
WR – Chris Hogan, 106th
WR – Phillip Dorsett, 65th
WR – Josh Gordon, 28th
WR – Julian Edelman 34th
RB – James White, 22nd 
RB – Sony Michel, 27th
FB – James Develin, 4th
TE – Rob Gronkowski, 6th
TE – Dwayne Allen, 58th
LT – Trent Brown, 32nd
LG – Joe Thuney, 8th
C – David Andrews, 9th
RG – Shaq Mason, 2nd
RT – Marcus Cannon, 24th
T – LaAdrian Waddle, 73rd

Defense
DT – Malcom Brown, 103rd
DT – Lawrence Guy, 9th
DT – Adam Butler, 98th
DT – Danny Shelton, 43rd
EDGE – Trey Flowers, 8th
EDGE – Deatrich Wise, 91st
EDGE – Adrian Clayborn, 31st
LB – Kyle Van Noy, 28th
LB – Donta Hightower, 31st
LB – Elandon Roberts, 54th
CB – Stephon Gilmore, 2nd
CB – Jonathan Jones, 64th
CB – Jason McCourty, 12th
S – Devin McCourty, 14th
S – Patrick Chung, 52nd
S – Duron Harmon, 55th


Current paces
Patriots players are currently on pace for the following stats for the season.

Tom Brady
385 for 587 (65.6%), 4,554 yards, 28 TD (4.8%), 10 INT (1.7%), 98.2 passer rating
• Brady is on pace to essentially match 2017’s totals – 385 for 581 (66.3), 4,577 yards, 32 TD, 8 INT. Throw in his two rushing touchdowns and Brady is on pace to account for 30+ touchdowns for the seventh time since 2010. The years he didn’t were 2013 (“Tom’s age and contract situation”) and 2016 (missed four games for Deflategate).

Rob Gronkowski
53 catches, 784 yards, 4 TD
• Rob Gronkowski looked the best he had in a long time and exploited some soft zones on pace to his first 100-yard game since week 1. He also scored a touchdown. Gronk’s 2018 has been mired by injury, but if he were to get right now, the timing couldn’t be better.

James White
94 catches, 830 yards, 7 TD; 98 carries, 421 yards, 5 TD
• White has gone from the main weapon in the Patriots’ arsenal to a game plan and game flow specific target, and that’s not a bad thing. That means balance is returning to the Patriots’ offense and that is when they are most dangerous. White is still within shouting distance of Matt Forte’s record for receptions by a running back (102), and his projected catches, yardage, and touchdowns would still destroy the previous receiving records for Patriots running backs – 77 catches and 684 yards by Tony Collins in 1986, 7 touchdowns by Larry Garron in 1964.

Sony Michel
202 carries, 869 yards, 6 TD; 9 catches, 62 yards
• Michel faltered against a Dolphins defensive front that he dominated in week 4, his second relative dud since torching the New York Jets. He did have a long run come back because James Develin got his hand in the facemask of a defender while freeing him.  Rex Burkhead’s insertion back into the rotation hasn’t seemed to sap many of Michel’s carries, but some consistency from Michel would be nice.

Chris Hogan
30 catches, 492 yards, 2 TD
• Hogan was targeted just once against Miami, but it should have been a touchdown. He was wide open in the end zone and Brady missed him. He remains a situational threat and that’s about it.

Josh Gordon
49 catches, 884 yards, 5 TD
• Gordon isn’t as fast as he once was, but he is a yards-after-catch monster due not only to his size but his ability to catch the ball away from his body and maintain stride. With a quarterback like Brady, that skill set has been on full display. Gordon has 39 catches this year – 31 of which have been first downs or touchdowns. That’s 79.5%.

Philip Dorsett
33 catches, 315 yards, 2 TD
• Dorsett is buried on the Patriots’ depth chart, losing snaps to even Cordarrelle Patterson at this point. He’ll probably be dropped from this list next week.

Julian Edelman
69 catches, 764 yards, 5 TD
• Against Miami, Edelman bounced back from his most inefficient game of the year, proving the flop against Minnesota was a blip on the screen rather than a trend. He remains one of Brady’s top options in the passing game.

Cordarrelle Patterson
21 catches, 276 yards, 4 TD; 47 carries, 199 yards, 1 TD
The Patriots and Josh McDaniels continue to find ways to get Cordarrelle Patterson involved in the offense, exploiting his unique skillset. He’ll never be a good example of a prototypical receiver, but his versatility makes him a headache for opposing defenses. We’ve seen him to basically everything this year and, including returns, he has scored 5 touchdowns, his highest total since his first year in the league with Minnesota.


Tom Brady vs. the world
How Tom Brady’s passer rating matches up against opponents’ season averages
(Green = above opponent’s average; Red = below opponent’s average)

Week 1 vs. Houston: 102.2; Houston’s season: 92.1
Week 2 at Jacksonville: 106.1; Jacksonville’s season: 83.4
Week 3 at Detroit: 65.1; Detroit’s season: 106.6
Week 4 vs. Miami: 94.2; Miami’s season: 92.4
Week 5 vs. Indianapolis: 102.6; Indianapolis’ season: 97.6
Week 6 vs. Kansas City: 109.2; Kansas City’s season: 93.0
Week 7 at Chicago: 108.2; Chicago’s season: 73.4
Week 8 at Buffalo: 85.8; Buffalo’s season: 85.2
Week 9 vs. Green Bay: 99.0; Green Bay’s season: 95.9
Week 10 vs. Tennesee: 70.6; Tennessee’s season: 91.9
Week 12 at New York Jets: 115.4; New York’s season: 86.4
Week 13 vs. Minnesota: 102.5; Minnesota’s season: 86.7
Week 14: at Miami: 112.4; Miami’s season: 92.4


Sizing up the competition

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that is reeling right now. Coming off of their third straight loss, Pittsburgh is perilously close to losing their hold on the NFC North to the Baltimore Ravens. The loss to the Oakland Raiders last week was crushing. Ben Roethlisberger had to leave the game for a time with an injury, the running game without injured James Conner was amazingly bad, and Derek Carr torched the defense for 322 yards with Jared Cook, the corpse of Jordy Nelson, and Seth Roberts.

This is the time when a team either digs deep or starts thinking about digging their toes in the sand on some tropical beach this offseason.

Ben Roethlisberger has faced a fair amount of heat this season both for his play and for his perceived inability to accept his culpability in the team’s struggles while blaming teammates. Whether that’s true or not, Roethlisberger, playing with a rib injury that apparently required some manner of serious pain medication, didn’t allow the Raiders to march 75 yards to the end zone in the game’s waning minutes, nor did he fall on his keister while attempting what would have been the game-tying field goal from 40 yards out.

Roethlisberger and his duo of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster are incredibly potent. In five games against the Patriots, Brown has been electric including a 9 catch, 133-yard performance in 2015 and 7 catches for 106 yards in 2016. In 2017, Brown looked poised for another big game before getting injured. Smith-Schuster has had 100+ yards in three of his last four games and had 6 catches for 114 yards against the Patriots in 2017. The good news for the Patriots is Stephon Gilmore has been playing at an All-Pro level this year and Jason McCourty has also been very good, although he struggled with Kenny Stills for most of the day last week against Miami.

Vance McDonald and Jesse James could offer challenges in coverage for the Patriots. James was one who made the controversial non-catch in last year’s matchup that helped spur a rule change. Though neither are particularly dynamic in this offense, the Patriots have had their struggles against tight ends at times this season. That said, they held Miami’s tight ends without a catch on one target and Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph only had 3 catches for 38 yards two weeks ago.

James Conner has been battling a leg injury and doesn’t seem likely to play, though he hasn’t been ruled out to this point. The Pittsburgh running game had been sputtering a bit even with Conner – he failed to record more than 65 yards after rumbling for 100+ in four straight games – but the Steelers churned out just 40 yards against Oakland’s 31st-ranked run defense without him. Conner had taken 200 of the Steelers’ 257 carries heading into last week’s game and the effort from Jaylen Samuels and old friend Stevan Ridley showed why as they labored for 32 yards on 16 carries. That said, the Patriots just gave up 189 yards and 9 yards per carry to the Dolphins, including 60 yards and 2 touchdowns on two carries to Brandon Bolden.

Which defense shows up for the Steelers? Pittsburgh does not do much to force turnovers and going against a Patriots team that has given up the ball just once in the last six games – Tom Brady has thrown just one interception on his last 227 throws (0.4%) – the trend is likely to remain the same. But what remains to be seen is whether the Steelers’ current funk is real or just a hiccup.

Through 13 games, the Steelers have given up more than 450 yards three times and more than 350 yards six times. They’ve also held opponents to under 300 yards five times. The secondary has gotten torched (322 yards vs. KC, 392 yards vs. Tampa Bay, 355 yards vs. Baltimore, 299 yards vs. Oakland) and has been terrific (150 yards and 163 yards vs. Cleveland, 147 yards vs. Carolina, 64 yards vs. Jacksonville). With the number of options the Patriots have at their disposal in the passing game, this game could be another struggle for Pittsburgh as McDaniels and Brady exploit favorable matchups. Pittsburgh will need to get at Tom Brady in order to protect the secondary and not allow Brady to go through his progressions. While he has been good this season, Brady has been more willing to throw a ball away and live for the next play at times. Pittsburgh’s sack percentage is best in the league. They are led by TJ Watt, but Javon Hargrave, Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, and Stephon Tuitt have all played a role in what has been a very successful unit when it comes to hitting the quarterback. Pittsburgh’s run defense is among the best and the Patriots’ rushing offense has been inconsistent. Run blocking was poor for the Patriots against Miami and didn’t give Sony Michel a ton of room to work with.

Like with Miami, the conversation on how the team has fared in their opponent’s building is worth mentioning. Overall, Tom Brady is 8-2 in the regular season (the Patriots are 11-2 overall against Pittsburgh with Brady at the helm). He’s completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,124 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions for a passer rating of 111.8 against the Steelers in those 10 regular season games. Tom Brady’s Patriots are 4-2 against the Steelers at Heinz Field during the regular season. Brady has 1,704 yards on 67.7% passing with 10 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, good for a 97.8 rating. Including the playoffs, he is 6-2, completing 67.6% percent of his passes for 2,026 yards, 12 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, a 99.5 rating.

(Photo: USA Today)

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Patriots weekly reset

Sorry for the lack of game recaps the past couple of weeks as I have been addressing some personal stuff (all good). In short, the Patriots’ game against Minnesota is about as good as you could expect. It was a solid game all around in all three phases. The Patriots bottled up one of the best wide receiver tandems in the league defensively and offensively exploited major weaknesses in the Vikings’ defense. Tom Brady didn’t play any hero ball, largely because he didn’t have to. The Vikings allowed him to pick them apart underneath and move down the field effectively. It wasn’t spectacular from a statistical standpoint, but it was a comfortable win against a good team.

Now comes the uncomfortable part – traveling to Miami, which has not been great to Tom Brady in his career. With the Dolphins still technically in the hunt for a playoff spot, this is not a game where the Patriots can get caught by another slow start. It would behoove the Patriots to get out in front and make Ryan Tannehill (3-7, 258.6 yards per game, 12 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 80.1 rating vs. New England) beat a defense that has not allowed a 300-yard passer in its past five games.


Making the grade?
Patriots starters and impact players and their Pro Football Focus positional rank.
(Green = trending up; Red = trending down)

Offense
QB – Tom Brady, 6th
WR – Chris Hogan, 102nd
WR – Phillip Dorsett, 65th
WR – Josh Gordon, 30th
WR – Julian Edelman 38th
RB – James White, 21st
RB – Sony Michel, 24th
FB – James Develin, 4th
TE – Rob Gronkowski, 12th
TE – Dwayne Allen, 58th
LT – Trent Brown, 27th
LG – Joe Thuney, 9th
C – David Andrews, 9th
RG – Shaq Mason, 1st
RT – Marcus Cannon, 21st
T – LaAdrian Waddle, 73rd

Defense
DT – Malcom Brown, 90th
DT – Lawrence Guy, 9th
DT – Adam Butler, 107th
DT – Danny Shelton, 41st
EDGE – Trey Flowers, 8th
EDGE – Deatrich Wise, 96th
EDGE – Adrian Clayborn, 30th
LB – Kyle Van Noy, 31st
LB – Donta Hightower, 32nd
LB – Elandon Roberts, 43rd
CB – Stephon Gilmore, 2nd
CB – Jonathan Jones, 60th
CB – Jason McCourty, 7th
S – Devin McCourty, 12th
S – Patrick Chung, 48th
S – Duron Harmon, 52nd


Current paces
Patriots players are currently on pace for the following stats for a 16-game season.

Tom Brady
381 for 579 (65.9%), 4,459 yards, 27 TD (4.7%), 11 INT (1.8%), 96.8 passer rating
• Most of Tom Brady’s stats are in-line with his averages from 2014 to 2017 where you could say he has put together MVP-caliber seasons in three of the four seasons. Over that span, Brady has averaged 65.4% completions, 4,252 yards, 7.7 yards per attempt, and 283.5 yards per game. His touchdowns are down, but the Patriots are still on pace to score one more touchdown in 2018 than in 2017. Brady is still leading the offense in an effective manner, but New England is not looking to him for every score. The Patriots have 15 rushing touchdowns this season after just 16 all year in 2017.

Rob Gronkowski
47 catches, 707 yards, 3 TD
• It’s clear that Gronkowski is not right physically, but when he is on the field, he commands attention, and that was on display against the Minnesota Vikings. Many of the underneath routes and throws to the flat were opened up by extra attention on the tight end from the linebackers and safeties who had to respect his ability to make plays. He also remains stout in the run game. While the stats aren’t there and he’s not moving as he once did, he’s still one of the best tight ends in the game due to his abilities in all facets of the position.

James White
99 catches, 879 yards, 8 TD; 101 carries, 439 yards, 5 TD
• After a lull in production, White was back at it against the Vikings with 118 yards from scrimmage, 92 of those coming on 7 catches. White also has run effectively with the ball this season. While it has been in limited snaps, his ability to move on the ground adds an element to what defenses have to prepare for when he’s on the field. Making defenses account for the run as well as his pass-catching ability is important. White is still within shouting distance of Matt Forte’s record for receptions by a running back (102), and his projected catches, yardage, and touchdowns would still destroy the previous receiving records for Patriots running backs – 77 catches and 684 yards by Tony Collins in 1986, 7 touchdowns by Larry Garron in 1964.

Sony Michel
192 carries, 865 yards, 7 TD; 9 catches, 63 yards
• Michel wasn’t able to do a ton against a tough Vikings front that eats up running backs in the middle, but he didn’t lose much work with the reinsertion of Rex Burkhead into the defensive back rotation. Patriots’ running back usage is very much game flow specific, so he’s not going to be that guy who touches the ball 30 times a game. That said, good things tend to happen when he carries 20+ times.

Chris Hogan
36 catches, 533 yards, 3 TD
• Another game, another pair of catches for Chris Hogan. He’s made the most of those catches, though. Six of his last 8 catches were for 20+ yards. Another one was for 18 yards.

Josh Gordon
47 catches, 829 yards, 5 TD
• Gordon hasn’t been getting as many looks since the 12 target game against Tennessee, but he has still been very effective. The past two weeks, he’s caught all 8 of his targets. What’s more, he appears to be catching on to the little things. He had a big-gainer on a comeback route, something he and Brady really didn’t look together on early in Gordon’s tenure, and his touchdown was on a play in which he found the hole in the zone and sat in it, allowing Brady to deliver the ball as opposed to earlier this season when he kept running in those situations. Statistically, Josh Gordon’s first nine games match Brandin Cooks’. Cooks had 39 catches, 637 yards (16.3 yards per catch), and 3 touchdowns in his first nine games. Gordon has 34 catches, 605 yards (17.8 per catch), and 3 touchdowns in nine games with New England. Remember, Cooks had the offseason, so what Gordon is accomplishing is pretty remarkable.

Philip Dorsett
36 catches, 341 yards, 3 TD
• The Patriots are not on my “Dorsett should be getting more opportunities” train. He has caught 84.4% of the passes thrown his way, second among NFL receivers to Michael Thomas, but he only played 16 snaps and wasn’t targeted against the Vikings. Of course, he wasn’t really needed in that game.

Julian Edelman
63 catches, 713 yards, 4 TD
• Edelman had maybe his most inefficient game of the year against Minnesota, catching just 3 of 8 passes his way for 25 yards, but he still made an impact with a pair of jet sweeps. That kind of play, and executing it well, has been a key for the Patriots, opening up running lanes in the middle on fakes, making linebackers commit to free up the middle of the field on pass plays, and stressing teams on the edge when he does take the handoff. Edelman has 83 rushing yards on 7 carries this year. His career high is 10 carries for 94 yards.


Sizing up the competition

Tom Brady’s weekly passer rating and the opponents’ total passer rating against for the season:
Week 1 vs. Houston: 102.2; Houston’s season: 91.0
Week 2 at Jacksonville: 106.1; Jacksonville’s season: 83.9
Week 3 at Detroit: 65.1; Detroit’s season: 110.8
Week 4 vs. Miami: 94.2; Miami’s season: 90.3
Week 5 vs. Indianapolis: 102.6; Indianapolis’ season: 97.5
Week 6 vs. Kansas City: 109.2; Kansas City’s season: 93.0
Week 7 at Chicago: 108.2; Chicago’s season: 78.5
Week 8 at Buffalo: 85.8; Buffalo’s season: 85.5
Week 9 vs. Green Bay: 99.0; Green Bay’s season: 95.7
Week 10 vs. Tennesee: 70.6; Tennessee’s season: 93.1
Week 12 at New York Jets: 115.4; New York’s season: 90.1
Week 13 vs. Minnesota: 102.5; Minnesota’s season: 89.2

It has been another season of disappointment for the Miami Dolphins, and yet they are still hanging around the Wild Card.

Ryan Tannehill’s return from a shoulder injury has yielded mixed results. He has 5 touchdowns and 1 interception and a 112.7 passer rating in the two games to his credit, but it is clear he is not being leaned on to pace the offense as the pre-injury trend of having him throw approximately 25 times per game has continued. The pass/run ratio for the Dolphins with Tannehill behind center has been stubbornly even – 178 passes to 162 rushes. It seems as if the Dolphins are intentionally trying to keep Tannehill’s opportunities to a minimum. Tannehill’s 25.4 pass attempts per game are among the lowest in the league this year.

The Dolphins offense plods behind the ageless Frank Gore, who is having a solid season but doesn’t have the ability to break a big play and has yet to find the end zone. The more athletically gifted of the Dolphins’ runners is Kenyan Drake and his usage, or lack thereof, is a bit puzzling.

In their first meeting, the Patriots put a stranglehold on the Miami defense. Tannehill attempted 20 passes, completing 11 for 100 yards, and was picked off once. The Dolphins ran just 49 offensive plays, picking up 172 total yards in a 38-7 rout.

The strength of the Dolphins is their defense, although Patriots’ offense played very well with a cast of Cordarrelle Patterson, Chris Hogan, and Phillip Dorsett. Josh Gordon was there as well but wasn’t really a factor as he was still learning the playbook. The day was far from perfect, with Brady throwing two interceptions, and that is one area where he must be careful. Miami has 19 interceptions this season, good for second in the league. Minkah Fitzpatrick has been rather unheralded as a rookie but has played very well, especially in coverage. He had one of Brady’s two interceptions in week 4. Xavien Howard is one of the best one-on-one corners in the league, but it appears he will miss the game with an injury.

Miami has not been able to get at the quarterback much in 2018. They have sacked opposing quarterbacks 20 times, which is 29th in the league, but they have proven they can get at Tom Brady from time to time. Robert Quinn recorded three QB hits against Trent Brown in week 4. On the other side, the Patriots have one fewer sack than the Dolphins on the season but were able to get at Ryan Tannehill. The Patriots recorded a pair of sacks and 5 QB hits in 22 Tannehill dropbacks.

Where the Dolphins have struggled has been against the run, giving up an average of 5 yards per carry. That’s tied for the second-worst mark in the league. Sony Michel had his first big game against that defense, shredding them for 112 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. James White also had 44 yards and a touchdown on 8 carries to go along with his 8 catches for 68 yards and another score.

All that said, the specter of playing in Miami is one that hangs over this week. Tom Brady is 7-9 in his career in Miami and has lost 4 of his last 5 there. More significant to this game, the Patriots have played in Miami in December 6 times with Brady at the helm and he is 1-5 in those games, losing to such notable quarterbacks as AJ Feely, Joey Harrington, Chad Henne, Tannehill, and Jay Cutler. In those December games in Miami, Brady has completed just 59.3% of his passes (131 for 221) for 1,436 yards (239.3 yards per game), 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for a passer rating of 73.7. Yikes.

The Patriots are the better team, but there is enough history in Miami to know that this isn’t a fluke and for whatever reason, this is a difficult place for Tom Brady to play.

(Photo: USA Today)

Patriots weekly reset

The Patriots got back to winning by beating the New York Jets on the road in businesslike, albeit not overly exciting fashion. Much like Buffalo a few weeks earlier, the Patriots didn’t have a ton in the way of highlight-reel plays but produced enough overall to get the job done. 

A game against the Jets was never going to do much to move the needle on how people feel about this team, except if the Patriots had managed to lose it. With a much better opponent coming up this week in the Minnesota Vikings, the Patriots have a true litmus test as to how realistic a meaningful postseason run is.


Making the grade?
Patriots starters and impact players and their Pro Football Focus positional rank.
(Green = trending up; Red = trending down)

Offense
QB – Tom Brady, 6th
WR – Chris Hogan, 105th
WR – Phillip Dorsett, 61st
WR – Josh Gordon, 31st
WR – Julian Edelman 30th
RB – James White, 20th
RB – Sony Michel, 18th
FB – James Develin, 4th
TE – Rob Gronkowski, 6th
TE – Dwayne Allen, 57th
LT – Trent Brown, 35th
LG – Joe Thuney, 9th
C – David Andrews, 8th
RG – Shaq Mason, 2nd
RT – Marcus Cannon, 26th
T – LaAdrian Waddle, 71st

Defense
DT – Malcom Brown, 94th
DT – Lawrence Guy, 9th
DT – Adam Butler, 104th
DT – Danny Shelton, 39th
EDGE – Trey Flowers, 2nd
EDGE – Deatrich Wise, 90th
EDGE – Adrian Clayborn, 27th
LB – Kyle Van Noy, 42nd
LB – Donta Hightower, 33rd
LB – Elandon Roberts, 42nd
CB – Stephon Gilmore, 2nd
CB – Jonathan Jones, 67th
CB – Jason McCourty, 7th
S – Devin McCourty, 11th
S – Patrick Chung, 41st
S – Duron Harmon, 58th


Current paces
Patriots players are currently on pace for the following stats for a 16-game season.

Tom Brady
381 for 585 (65.2%), 4,409 yards, 28 TD (4.7%), 10 INT (1.7%), 96.3 passer rating
• Brady has thrown just 1 interception with an interception percentage of 0.4% over his last six games. As his interception percentage has dipped, so has Brady’s touchdown percentage, however. He has 7 touchdowns over his last 6 games at a 3.1% clip. Brady admitted on WEEI this week that he might be opting to be less aggressive to minimize mistakes and may have to start taking more chances.

Rob Gronkowski
47 catches, 733 yards, 3 TD
• Gronkowski’s impact on the offense was not understated against the New York Jets. In addition to a solid stat line and a terrific touchdown catch, it was clear his presence impacted how New York approached the way they handled other Patriots personnel.

James White
97 catches, 825 yards, 9 TD; 102 carries, 441 yards, 6 TD
• White is no longer on pace to beat Matt Forte’s record for receptions by a running back, but his projected catches, yardage, and touchdowns would still destroy the previous receiving records for Patriots running backs – 77 catches and 684 yards by Tony Collins in 1986, 7 touchdowns by Larry Garron in 1964. It will be interesting to see how the return of healthy versions of Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead impact his usage. Julian Edelman’s return to prominence in the Patriots’ offense has also sapped some of his opportunities. His importance to this team this season cannot be understated, however.

Sony Michel
185 carries, 852 yards, 7 TD; 9 catches, 63 yards
• Sony Michel’s health might be the most important factor in the viability of the Patriots’ offense this season. The Patriots are 4-0, averaging 36.5 points per game when Sony Michel has 100+ scrimmage yards and scores a touchdown. They are 4-3, averaging 18.6 points per game when he does not. Brady also has a 104.9 rating when Michel picks up 100 or more yards. Amazingly, Michel has remained efficient even when the defense knows what’s coming. Of his 187 snaps this season, he has run the ball 127 times (68%) and has been targeted in the passing game just 10 times (5%). Further, he is the first Patriots rookie running back to surpass 100 rushing yards three times in his first eight games.

Chris Hogan
36 catches, 553 yards, 3 TD
• Hogan had 2 catches for 47 yards against the Jets, marking his first catches since week 8 against Buffalo when he had a similar stat line of 2 catches for 49 yards. He’s a situational threat.

Josh Gordon
47 catches, 820 yards,  TD
• After a terribly inefficient game against the Tennessee Titans (4 catches on 12 targets), Gordon caught all 5 of his targets against the Jets. It was his lowest target share since week 5 against the Indianapolis Colts, but that’s probably a good thing, given Brady’s heavy-handedness in trying to get him involved in the offense’s embarrassing effort against the Titans. Gordon has recorded at least 70 yards in four of his last five games and is averaging more than 19 yards per catch over that span. He hasn’t scored a touchdown since week 8, but 22 of his 31 catches (71%) have gone for first downs or touchdowns.

Philip Dorsett
39 catches, 372 yards, 3 TD
• I’m still on the “Dorsett should be getting more opportunities” train. He has caught 84.4% of the passes thrown his way, second among NFL receivers to Michael Thomas. Brady hasn’t thrown an incompletion his way since September 30 against Miami.

Julian Edelman
64 catches, 742 yards, 4 TD
• Edelman is looking more and more like his old self. He didn’t have an overabundance of targets against the Jets but did the most with them catching 4 of 5 passes thrown in his direction for 84 yards and a touchdown. In his last four games, Edelman has averaged 7 catches on 9.3 targets (75.7%) for 90.8 yards. He hasn’t had fewer than 71 yards in any game during that stretch.


Sizing up the competition

Tom Brady’s weekly passer rating and the opponents’ total passer rating against for the season:
Week 1 vs. Houston: 102.2; Houston’s season: 92.7
Week 2 at Jacksonville: 106.1; Jacksonville’s season: 86.6
Week 3 at Detroit: 65.1; Detroit’s season: 115.1
Week 4 vs. Miami: 94.2; Miami’s season: 92.0
Week 5 vs. Indianapolis: 102.6; Indianapolis’ season: 97.9
Week 6 vs. Kansas City: 109.2; Kansas City’s season: 90.6
Week 7 at Chicago: 108.2; Chicago’s season: 78.3
Week 8 at Buffalo: 85.8; Buffalo’s season: 84.2
Week 9 vs. Green Bay: 99.0; Green Bay’s season: 98.2
Week 10 vs. Tennesee: 70.6; Tennessee’s season: 96.4
Week 12 at New York Jets: 115.4; New York’s season: 90.1
Minnesota’s defense has allowed a passer rating of 88.0 this season.

The Minnesota Vikings’ record at 6-4-1 might not suggest an overly daunting matchup, but in reality, this game will be a true test of where the Patriots are from both an offensive and defensive perspective.

Defensively, Minnesota is statistically the best in the league at keeping passing offenses out of the end zone, allowing just 14 passing touchdowns in 11 games. Their 221.1 yards allowed through the air is 5th in the league and the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers are the only teams who have sacked the quarterback more this season. Of their 36 sacks, Danielle Hunter has been responsible for 11.5. A solid group of defensive backs is led by Harrison Smith, who can blitz and cover with the best of them.

That said, the Vikings can be beaten, especially when facing top offenses, which the Patriots still have when everyone is healthy and contributing. The Los Angeles Rams hung 38 on them and the New Orleans Saints tallied 30. Both were losses for the Vikings. Green Bay also scored 29 in their tie, but then put up a dud with 17 last week. Still, the Chicago Bears were able to score 25 points with Chase Daniel at quarterback two weeks ago. Bottom line is if you want to stand a chance of beating the Vikings, you have to muster a rushing attack. The Vikings have allowed more than 100 yards on the ground just four times this year, but each of those games have been losses. The tie with Green Bay? 98 yards for the Packers. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Overall, Minnesota has allowed just 3.7 yards per carry and 6 rushing touchdowns in 11 games, good for 3rd and 4th in the league, respectively. Enter Sony Michel, who when right has been incredibly effective. This will be a real proving ground for him.

The Patriots must make hay on first and second down because the Vikings are absolute terrors on third down, allowing conversions on just 27.6% of opponents’ attempts. The Patriots have struggled on third down recently, as well as in the red zone, another situation in which Minnesota ranks No. 1.

Offensively, Minnesota presents the best tandem of wide receivers the Patriots will face this season. Yes, better than Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Adam Theilen and Stefon Diggs have been an absolutely dynamic tandem with the former eclipsing Randy Moss’ record for 100-yard games in a season by a Minnesota receiver last week. The Patriots have two of Pro Football Focus’ top 10 cornerbacks in Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty, but their lofty grades will be put to the test. Kirk Cousins is a very good quarterback who more often than not has put his receivers in a position to succeed.

The Minnesota running game has been in a lull of late, failing to top 100 yards in four of their last five games. Dalvin Cook is the big name in the backfield, given his draft status, but Latavius Murray has been the more effective of the backs. That said, Murray has been largely ineffective lately, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry over his last three games.

One x-factor may be the tight end. Kyle Rudolph has not been spectacular this year, but the Patriots have made some very pedestrian tight ends look very good. The Patriots are one of the worst against the tight end, allowing 7 touchdowns in 11 games.

(Photo: USA Today)

 

What’s wrong with Brady? Not much, really.

Our worst nightmares have come true.

The New England Patriots lost a bad game to the Tennessee Titans right before the bye week, which means we all will be subjected to gloom and doom from a fanbase that has experienced so much winning that it can’t keep losing in proper perspective and puffed chests from national pundits who have been predicting the Patriots’ demise for the past five years.

The airwaves and the internet have been inundated with questions about Tom Brady’s performance and one underlying question: “What’s wrong with Tom Brady?”

Here’s the short answer: Nothing.

Yes, Brady had maybe the worst game of 2018. He was not an exception in a game in which no one really seemed right on offense, defense, or special teams. Regarding the Patriots’ offensive struggles, you can’t talk about it without giving the Titans props for executing a terrific game plan – a plan that few other teams the Patriots will face down the stretch or could face in the playoffs could pull off, as noted by MassLive.com’s Andrew Callahan

The most recent outcome, the one freshest in our collective consciousness, should not blind us from the fact that Brady is still playing good football and the Patriots are winning more games than they are losing.

First off, let’s start with the assertion that Brady is declining. Most of this is probably based on three stats: Touchdowns, interceptions, and passer rating. Important statistics for sure, but also ones that should be looked at in the proper context. Brady is on pace for 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The touchdown total would be his first season of less than 30 in a 16-game campaign since 2013. The interceptions would be the most since 2013 as well. The passer rating is also his lowest since – you guessed it – 2013.

Most are tempted to compare Brady’s numbers in these categories to illustrate his demise. Lest we forget the state of flux this offense has been in the majority of the year. Phillip Dorsett was the team’s No. 1 receiver for four weeks and Chris Hogan has played more snaps than any other receiver on the team. The Patriots also entered 2018 with four running backs and have lost 3 to injury at some point. Cordarrelle Patterson would not be taking meaningful snaps in the I formation if the Patriots had maintained a healthy backfield. 

Nevertheless, Tom Brady is playing at an elite level with an offensive personnel grouping that has been in flux all season. Pro Football Focus has graded Brady as the No. 6 passer in the league. Perhaps not his MVP-like performances of the past few years, but still among the league’s most proficient.

In the four years (’14-’17) since Brady’s down 2013 when Belichick talked about Brady’s “age and contract situation,” Brady has averaged a 65.4 % completion percentage, 283.5 yards per game and 7.7 yards per attempt. In 2018, Brady has completed 65.2% of his passes, accumulated 274.8 yards per game, and 7.4 yards per attempt. Is Brady’s demise really coming in the form of 0.2 percentage points and 8.7 yards per game? 

Interceptions are up, but he has thrown just one in the past five contests at a rate of 0.7%. He’s thrown just 5 touchdown passes over those games, but the number is overstated when considering the team’s continued offensive success. The Patriots put up 30+ points in three of those five contests. In the 25-6 win over Bills, Brady accounted for 324 of the Patriots’ 387 yards (not including his 8-yard scramble) and did so while not throwing the ball once over the game’s final 10 minutes. The Bills are second in the league in passing yards allowed with 202.4, by the way.

Bottom line, the Patriots are scoring at the same clip they have in recent years. New England is third in the league in rushing touchdowns (Brady has two of those for the first time since 2015 when he had three). The Patriots’ red zone scoring (another false narrative) is 65.7%, a full 3 points higher than last year, and the highest rate since 2012 (67.5%).

Below are the Patriots’ scoring offenses with the number of games scoring 30 or more points in parentheses:
2014: 30 (8)
2015: 29.1 (7)
2016 (12 games): 27.6 (7)
2017: 28.6 (7)
2018 (10 games): 28 (5)

None of this is to say that Brady doesn’t deserve criticism when he struggles. This is more to say that it should all be kept in the proper perspective. Tom Brady once had had passer ratings of 22.5, 56.1, 64.8, and 67.0 in one season. That season was 2003. The Patriots won a Super Bowl and he won the game’s MVP award. He had games with passer ratings of 59.9, 64.6, and 69.7. That season was 2014. The Patriots won the Super Bowl and he was the MVP.

The sky isn’t falling. It’s not even really raining. It’s just a sprinkle.

Patriots weekly reset

After a six-game winning streak made all of the early season woes a distant memory, the Tennessee Titans brought all of those thoughts roaring back to the front of the collective consciousness. The 34-10 loss was one of the worst in the Bill Belichick era and it dropped the Patriots out of position for one of the two first-round byes. They also have maybe their toughest stretch of the season coming up with a Minnesota team that has been up and down, but is also in line for a playoff spot, a Miami squad that may or may not be in the hunt in two weeks, and currently second-seeded Pittsburgh.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is the Patriots are on the bye, which will presumably help them get over some of the nicks and bruises that have accumulated over the past 10 weeks.


Incentives
Checking in on the status of Tom Brady’s $1 million bonuses (for finishing the season in the top 5 of 5 categories).

• Passer rating – 16th (94.7)
Brady was 13th last week at 97.7.

• Completion percentage – 19th (65.2%)
Brady was 11th last week at 67%.

• Yards per attempt – T-16th (7.4)
Brady was 13th last week at 7.6.

Touchdown passes – T-11th (17)
Brady was tied for 8th last week at 17.

Passing yards per game – 13th (274.7)
Brady was 13th last week at 277.1.

For reference, in 2017:
• His passer rating would be 10th in the league
• His completion percentage would be 7th
• His yards per attempt would be tied for 12th
• His projected TD total of 27 (based on current pace) would be 4th
• His yards per game would be tied for 8th.


Making the grade?
Patriots starters and impact players and their Pro Football Focus positional rank.
(Green = trending up; Red = trending down)

Offense

QB – Tom Brady, 6th
WR – Chris Hogan, 103rd
WR – Phillip Dorsett, 57th
WR – Josh Gordon, 33rd
WR – Julian Edelman 27th
RB – James White, 16th
RB – Sony Michel, 46th
FB – James Develin, 4th
TE – Rob Gronkowski, 5th
TE – Dwayne Allen, 57th
LT – Trent Brown, 34th
LG – Joe Thuney, 5th
C – David Andrews, 6th
RG – Shaq Mason, 3rd
RT – Marcus Cannon, 39th
T – LaAdrian Waddle, 70th

Defense
DT – Malcom Brown, 83rd
DT – Lawrence Guy, 10th
DT – Adam Butler, 107th
DT – Danny Shelton, 41st
EDGE – Trey Flowers, 3rd
EDGE – Deatrich Wise, 93rd
EDGE – Adrian Clayborn, 22nd
LB – Kyle Van Noy, 43rd
LB – Donta Hightower, 29th
LB – Elandon Roberts, 45th
CB – Stephon Gilmore, 6th
CB – Jonathan Jones, 57th
CB – Jason McCourty, 9th
S – Devin McCourty, 12th
S – Patrick Chung, 42nd
S – Duron Harmon, 57th


Current paces
Patriots players are currently on pace for the following stats for a 16-game season.
(Julian Edelman is not included due to his small sample size)

Tom Brady
387 for 594 (65.2%), 4,397 yards, 27 TD (4.6%), 11 INT (1.9%), 94.7 passer rating
• After starting the season throwing 6 interceptions in his first five games with a 3.4 interception percentage, Brady has thrown just one with an interception percentage of 0.7% over his last five games. As his interception percentage has dipped, so has Brady’s touchdown percentage, however. He threw for 12 touchdowns with a 6.7% TD% over his first five games but has just 5 over his last 5 games at a 2.6% clip.

Rob Gronkowski
46 catches, 717 yards, 2 TD
• Injuries had taken a toll before he started missing time. Now, having missed three of his last four games, it’s reasonable to question whether he’ll be healthy at all over the last 6 games and how much he can contribute.

James White
106 catches, 899 yards, 10 TD; 107 carries, 368 yards, 6 TD
• A down week knocked down White’s projections a bit, but he is still on pace to top Matt Forte’s single-season record for receptions by a running back of 102. He would also be the fourth running back in history to catch 100 or more passes along with Forte, Larry Centers (1995), and LaDanian Tomlinson (2003).
• The catches, yardage, and touchdowns would obviously all destroy the previous receiving records for Patriots running backs – 77 catches and 684 yards by Tony Collins in 1986, 7 touchdowns by Larry Garron in 1964.

Sony Michel
170 carries, 725 yards, 6 TD; 6 catches, 50 yards
• Michel had a quiet return from injury in a bad game for the offense overall. He remains almost exclusively a running option with little use in the passing game. He has been on the field for 157 snaps this year and has run the ball 106 times.

Chris Hogan
37 catches, 533 yards, 3 TD
• Hogan has been invisible the past few weeks, though he was open a few times against Tennessee and Brady couldn’t find him.

Josh Gordon
43 catches, 790 yards, 5 TD
• Gordon had an inefficient game against the Titans but has at least 81 yards in three of his last four games. In each of those games, he has averaged more than 20 yards per catch. His 18.3 yards per catch average is tied for 5th in the league.
• 19 of Gordon’s 26 catches (73.1%) have gone for first downs or touchdowns.

Philip Dorsett
40 catches, 394 yards, 3 TD
• Dorsett has been a bit player since Gordon came aboard, but should be getting more opportunities. He has caught 83.3% of the passes thrown his way, second among NFL receivers to Michael Thomas. Brady hasn’t thrown an incompletion his way since September 30 against Miami.

Julian Edelman
64 catches, 682 yards, 4 TD
• Edelman was the only Patriot to have a really good day heading into the bye week. He has had 9-catch, 104-yard performances sandwiched around a 6-catch, 71-yard day in his last three weeks. It’s safe to say he’s back.


Sizing up the competition

Tom Brady’s weekly passer rating and the opponents’ total passer rating against for the season:
Week 1 vs. Houston: 102.2; Houston’s season: 92.9
Week 2 at Jacksonville: 106.1; Jacksonville’s season: 89.9
Week 3 at Detroit: 65.1; Detroit’s season: 116.8
Week 4 vs. Miami: 94.2; Miami’s season: 89.6
Week 5 vs. Indianapolis: 102.6; Indianapolis’ season: 98.4
Week 6 vs. Kansas City: 109.2; Kansas City’s season: 87.5
Week 7 at Chicago: 108.2; Chicago’s season: 79.8
Week 8 at Buffalo: 85.8; Buffalo’s season: 86.7
Week 9 vs. Green Bay: 99.0; Green Bay’s season: 92.9
Week 10 vs. Tennesee: 70.6; Tennessee’s season: 89.5

This week’s opponent for the Patriots is themselves. After last week’s debacle, there will be plenty there to keep them busy.

Failures abound in Patriots’ loss to the Titans

There’s no silver lining here. No “yeah, but.” The New England Patriots were thrashed in every phase of the game on Sunday on their way to an embarrassing 34-10 defeat at the hands of the Tennessee Titans.

This one feels like far more of a problem than the previous lopsided losses. Early in the season, it felt like the Patriots were still feeling their way through an offense that was without some key personnel, and defensively was struggling but would find its way eventually. This flat-footed loss came at a time when the Patriots have been playing their best football.

It’s far from the signal of a calamitous end to the season and to Tom Brady’s career as some are fearing. There are concerns, no doubt. Most are temporary or fixable. Others are not, and whether New England can compensate for its shortcomings will decide their fate this season.

A few specific thoughts on this week’s game:

While New England played poorly across the board, to say their incompetence was completely self-induced would be selling Tennessee short, especially their defense. Mike Vrabel’s coaching staff dialed up a game plan that featured a mix of looks in coverage and exotic blitz packages that kept the Patriots, including Tom Brady, guessing all game long. The Patriots’ banged-up offensive line, which had played so well to this point, was absolutely dominated and Brady got hit more than any other time in recent memory. When he did have clean pockets, he was often looking at this in the defensive secondary: Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 10.43.38 AM

The Titans blanketed Patriots’ receivers in coverage. Brady’s aggressiveness percentage in this game was 29.3%, meaning on 3 of every 10 targets, Brady’s intended receiver had a defender within one yard of him. It’s the second-highest total of the week thus far and far exceeded Brady’s season average of 15.9%. Something concerning this season has been Brady against the blitz. In years past, Brady has eaten up defenses who bring extra defenders into the pass rush, but this year, he is last in passer rating against the blitz. Whether this is overall has been an issue of a lack of recognition, receivers failing to beat one-on-one coverage, or just plain poor execution on Brady’s part, I’m not sure, but in this game, it was a little bit of everything.

One way to combat a blitz is with screens and misdirection. Instead, we saw a pretty vanilla game plan from Josh McDaniels. Five of Brady’s 41 passes were behind the line of scrimmage as the play selection asked Brady to stand in there against the pressure and deliver. He didn’t, and no adjustment ever came.

Josh Gordon caught only 4 of 12 targets, and while there were some big plays among those 4 catches, it’s clear Brady and Gordon are still not completely in sync. Gordon did fall down on one comeback route when the turf gave way under him (we saw the same thing happen to Philip Dorsett on a pass that he was able to get back up and catch), but he also let two passes go through his hands early. He needs to make those catches.

I was surprised when I saw the box score and saw that James White had 8 targets. White was largely invisible most of the day, and outside of the first catch he had for a three-yard loss, I can’t remember seeing him at all, really. White also really struggled in pass protection, missing a few assignments and getting absolutely clowned on one of Brady’s sacks. Really, two sacks were on White, at least partially.

The Patriots had serious problems converting on third down, but their execution on early downs directly impacted the probability of success in those third down situations. The average yards to gain for a first down on third down was an embarrassing 7.9. On 9 of their 15 attempts on third down, the Patriots needed to gain 8 or more yards. On 7 of the 15, they had to gain 10 or more.

Defensively, there wasn’t much you could point to other than poor execution. It didn’t feel like the Titans were offering anything all that special. Patrick Chung continues to be a liability in coverage against tight ends, and the Patriots have now yielded the second-most touchdowns to tight ends in the league. Stephon Gilmore had a particularly rough day with Corey Davis. Davis was a guy I liked out of college for his physical gifts, but he hadn’t been able to put it together consistently. It seemed like a matchup that would favor Gilmore, as he’s handled receivers like Devante Adams. But he was torched time and again in single coverage. Jason McCourty played well and didn’t allow a catch, but Tajae Sharpe isn’t exactly what you’d call a threat.

The defensive line didn’t allow Marcus Mariota to beat them much with his legs and he made a couple of really nice throws while moving. He had one long run on a designed run, but the Patriots kept him in the pocket and forced him to throw. What they didn’t do was hit him – they only had 2 QB hits all game – and he was able to make some throws when he had to. Dion Lewis had some productive runs early against the Patriots’ front seven, but ultimately didn’t have a huge impact. Derrick Henry did make the most of his limited carries and essentially iced the game. There weren’t many impactful plays by the defense at all. Kyle Van Noy had the quietest 13 tackle game I’ve ever seen. Elandon Roberts had a couple of tackles for loss and a sack but also shot right past Henry on the touchdown that realistically put the game out of reach for the Patriots. It wasn’t necessarily bad play up front, just mostly uninspiring play and uninspiring play doesn’t win football games.

The bye week will be important from the standpoint of not only a ton of film study and probably some unpleasantness at practice, but also in terms of getting healthy. While I don’t know for sure on all of them, I suspect there are injuries being dealt with by key offensive players including, but not limited to, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Shaq Mason, James White, Sony Michel, Julian Edelman, and Josh Gordon that need mending. Missing the likes of Gronkowski and Mason certainly had some kind of impact on this game. It might be overstated as the Patriots most likely did not include them in the game plan for this week, but nevertheless, having your best players on the field is always the better scenario.

(Photo: Austin Anthony/Associated Press)

Examining Patriots’ offensive personnel

Watching what the Patriots are going on a week-to-week basis with regards to its offensive packages and usages could be a hobby in and unto itself.

How the Patriots have managed to operate with a rotating cast of characters due to suspension, injury, acquisition, etc., has been really interesting to track.

First off, we’ll take a look at what the Patriots’ offense looked like from a personnel grouping standpoint with and without Julian Edelman, who missed the first four games due to a PED suspension, and Josh Gordon, who was acquired in-season. But before we get into that, let’s quickly go over what the terminology means. The personnel groupings are in running back-tight end format, meaning the number is X number of running backs and X number of tight ends. Since there at five linemen and one quarterback, the number of wide receivers is 11 minus the total of the other positions (RB, TE, OL, QB). With that in mind, here’s a rundown of the Patriots’ most common formations:

11 personnel: 1 running back and 1 tight end = 3 receivers
12 personnel: 1 running back and 2 tight ends = 2 receivers
21 personnel: 2 running backs, and 1 tight end = 2 receivers
22 personnel: 2 running backs and 2 tight ends = 1 receiver

So, now let’s see about those first four games.

The Patriots utilized 11 personnel 43% of the time. This might seem like a lot, especially because for the majority of those games, the Patriots only had three true wide receivers – Phillip Dorsett, Chris Hogan, and Cordarrelle Patterson. They also appeared pretty successful out of that set with a passer rating of 107.7. There were some swings – in week 1 against Houston, they only utilized 11 personnel 28% of the time, then followed that up with 58% against Jacksonville, but the following two weeks fell in line with the average.

It’s a staggeringly low rate, as leaguewide, 63% of total offensive plays were run from three-receiver sets over that four-game stretch.

The Patriots used two-receivers or fewer 54% of the time –12 personnel 12%, 21 personnel 31%, 22 personnel 11%. New England went heavy on the single back, two-tight end looks in weeks 3 and 4 and went away from the two-back, two-tight end sets it had been running more frequently the first couple of weeks.

How does that compare to the last five games?

The Patriots are still slightly below the league average but have run 65% of its plays from 11 personnel. That includes 70% of the time against the Colts and 81% of the time last week against the Packers. They also have been far more prolific with the attack. In weeks 1-4, the Patriots averaged 7 yards per attempt out of that set. Since then, they are averaging 8.7 yards per attempt. Brady completed 66% of his passes in 11 personnel the first four weeks and has a 72% completion percentage out of those sets.

The Patriots’ use of sets with two-receivers or fewer took a sharp downward turn. 12 personnel and 22 personnel were almost non-existent at 2% and 3%, respectively. 21 personnel also dropped to 21%.

Some of the shift in the groupings is certainly due to the augmented wide receiver corps, but there are other factors at work here as the Patriots’ offense has evolved into a machine that has scored at least 31 points four of the last five weeks.

Have injuries have played a major role in the personnel groupings? Sometimes, but not always.

Week 5 key inactives: NA
Personnel: 11 – 70%, 12- 3%, 21 – 15%, 22 – 4%
The Patriots essentially broke out their shiny new offense with Julian Edelman playing 70% of the snaps in spite of missing four weeks. Dwayne Allen only played 12 snaps.

Week 6 key inactives: NA
Personnel: 11 – 52%, 12- 4%, 21 – 29%, 22 – 7%
Interestingly, the Patriots’ best game from a scoring perspective didn’t rely on spreading the field. Heavy usage of Sony Michel behind fullback James Develin, who played 42% of the snaps, was a big part of the game plan against a team that has really struggled to stop the run. Josh Gordon was also still essentially being eased into the offense.

Week 7 key inactives: Rob Gronkowski (TE), Jacob Hollister (TE)
Personnel: 11 – 61%, 12- 0%, 21 – 25%, 22 – 0%
This is one where injuries played a role. With Rob Gronkowski and Jacob Hollister both injured, the Patriots literally had no way of running two-tight end looks as Dwayne Allen was the only healthy tight end on the roster. What should be noted is even after Sony Michel left with an injury early in the game, the Patriots remained committed to the run with James White and Kenjon Barner combining for 21 carries. Josh Gordon played 95% of the snaps as he became fully engrained in the offense, which has resulted in more consistent of three-receiver looks.

Week 8 key inactives: Sony Michel (RB), Jacob Hollister
Personnel: 11 – 64%, 12- 1%, 21 – 26%, 22 – 4%
Cordarrelle Patterson the running back was born, allowing the Patriots to maintain their relatively steady use of 21 personnel in spite of the loss of Michel. Develin has played a huge role in New England’s ability to run the ball. The Patriots ran the ball 64% of the time when in two-back sets, even without a true bell cow back.

Week 9 key inactives: Sony Michel (RB), Rob Gronkowski (TE), Jacob Hollister (TE)
Personnel: 11 – 81%, 12- 0%, 21 – 9%, 22 – 4%
The lack of tight end options (again) coupled with Michel’s continued absence severely limited the Patriots’ personnel options, so they played to their strengths. Cordarrelle Patterson only played 13 snaps, but got the handoff on 11 of them and made the most of it with 61 yards and a touchdown. Patterson almost exclusively plays behind Develin when he’s in the backfield (Develin played 17 total snaps), so realistically, nearly all of that 21 personnel came with Patterson was on the field.

How will the personnel play out this weekend against a Tennessee team that has been extremely stingy? Gronkowski remains bangs up, but Michel should make his return. If I had to guess, there will be a lot of three-receiver looks, but New England will also go with two backs in an attempt to get Michel going behind Develin.

(Photo: Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe)

Patriots weekly reset

Now that the whole “battle of the GOATs” or whatever that ridiculous narrative was, the Patriots enter an important stretch where they can build on the momentum with a series of games that will be played at times when fans can actually watch and be functional on Monday morning.

Before their bye week, the Patriots take on a Tennessee Titans team whose season is on the brink. We’ll see if the bye week followed by a win over the Dallas Cowboys in Jerry World has snapped Mike Vrabel’s crew out of its funk in which it lost three straight, including an ugly one-point loss to the Bills. At 4-4, the Titans are on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, and it’s it’s just possible enough that Vrabel might get his team to believe. Whether his band of New England castoffs (kidding) has the fortitude and personnel to make a run is questionable, however.

Also questionable is the health of the Patriots’ offense in general. Their 31 points against Green Bay is particularly impressive given the fact they went into the game without their best tight end, best (maybe only?) “true” running back, and without a top-rated guard. Their availability for this week is truly a question mark. Will all hands be on deck or would Bill Belichick elect to give them the extra rest heading into the bye?


Incentives
Checking in on the status of Tom Brady’s $1 million bonuses (for finishing the season in the top 5 of 5 categories).

• Passer rating – 13th (97.7)
Brady was 14th last week at 97.6.

• Completion percentage – T-11th (67%)
Brady was 11th last week at 67.5%.

• Yards per attempt – 13th (7.6)
Brady was tied for 17th last week at 7.5.

Touchdown passes – T-8th (17)
Brady was tied for 6th last week at 16.

Passing yards per game – 13th (277.1)
Brady was 15th last week at 275.

For reference, in 2017:
• His passer rating would be 7th in the league
• His completion percentage would be 5th
• His yards per attempt would be tied for 9th
• His projected TD total of 32 (based on current pace) would be 4th
• His yards per game would be 5th.


Making the grade?
Patriots starters and impact players and their Pro Football Focus positional rank.
(Green = trending up; Red = trending down)

Offense

QB – Tom Brady, 7th
WR – Chris Hogan, 98th
WR – Phillip Dorsett, 58th
WR – Cordarrelle Patterson, U/R
WR – Josh Gordon, 35th
WR – Julian Edelman 28th
RB – James White, 15th
RB – Sony Michel, 37th
FB – James Develin, 4th
TE – Rob Gronkowski, 6th
TE – Dwayne Allen, 52nd
LT – Trent Brown, 37th
LG – Joe Thuney, 7th
C – David Andrews, 7th
RG – Shaq Mason, 2nd
RT – Marcus Cannon, 42nd
T – LaAdrian Waddle, 69th

Defense
DT – Malcom Brown, 92nd
DT – Lawrence Guy, 9th
DT – Adam Butler, 97th
DT – Danny Shelton, 35th
EDGE – Trey Flowers, 1st
EDGE – Deatrich Wise, 85th
EDGE – Adrian Clayborn, 21st
LB – Kyle Van Noy, 44th
LB – Donta Hightower, 33rd
LB – Elandon Roberts, 38th
CB – Stephon Gilmore, 5th
CB – Jonathan Jones, 52nd
CB – Jason McCourty, 9th
S – Devin McCourty, 8th
S – Patrick Chung, 32nd
S – Duron Harmon, 55th


Current paces
Patriots players are currently on pace for the following stats for a 16-game season.
(Julian Edelman is not included due to his small sample size)

Tom Brady
393 for 587 (67%), 4,434 yards, 30 TD (5.2%), 12 INT (2.1%), 97.7 passer rating
• After starting the season throwing 6 interceptions in his first five games with a 3.4 interception percentage, Brady has thrown just one with an interception percentage of 0.7% over his last four games.
• As his interception percentage has dipped, so has Brady’s touchdown percentage. He threw for 12 touchdowns (6.7%) over his first five games but has just 5 over his last 4 games (3.3%).

Rob Gronkowski
52 catches, 796 yards, 2 TD
• Gronk is getting further away from the $1.1 million incentives he receives for 70+ catches, 1,085 receiving yards, 9+ touchdowns, 80% playing time. He has taken 71.1% of the team’s offensive snaps in spite of missing two games.

James White
108 catches, 944 yards, 11 TD; 107 carries, 418 yards, 7 TD
• 108 catches would smash Matt Forte’s single-season record for receptions by a running back of 102, which was set in 2014. He would also be the fourth running back in history to catch 100 or more passes along with Forte, Larry Centers (1995), and LaDanian Tomlinson (2003).
• White’s 11 receiving touchdowns would be second all-time for running backs to Charlie Taylor’s 1966 season total of 12.
• The catches, yardage, and touchdowns would obviously all destroy the previous receiving records for Patriots running backs – 77 catches and 684 yards by Tony Collins in 1986, 7 touchdowns by Larry Garron in 1964.
• White’s 18 total touchdowns would tie the most in a single season by a Patriots running back, matching LeGarrette Blount (2016). Curtis Martin had 17 in 1996.
• The 1,362 yards from scrimmage would be 10th among Patriots running backs all time.

Sony Michel
169 carries, 750 yards, 7 TD; 7 catches, 55 yards
• Michel’s injury had sapped some of his potential for this season. How he responds to treatment and the bye will go a long way in determining how much of a contributor he can be the rest of the way. If he can return, he will still have one of the most productive rookie campaigns in team history.

Chris Hogan
41 catches, 592 yards, 4 TD
• Hogan is a situational big-play threat. His statistical and on-field output figures to be reflective of his usual.

Josh Gordon
41 catches, 734 yards, 5 TD
• Gordon has a shot to surpass his second-highest single-season yardage output of his career.
• In six games after returning from suspensions for Cleveland, Gordon had 19 catches for 352 yards. In six games with the Patriots since he was traded to New England, he has 22 catches for 396 yards while learning the offense on the fly.
• 16 of Gordon’s 22 catches (72.7%) have gone for first downs or touchdowns

Julian Edelman
55 catches, 572 yards, 4 TD
• Edelman remains an important part of the Patriots’ short passing game, which has been even more critical with the lack of options in the running game.


Sizing up the competition

Tom Brady’s weekly passer rating and the opponents’ total passer rating against for the season:
Week 1 vs. Houston: 102.2; Houston’s season: 95.7
Week 2 at Jacksonville: 106.1; Jacksonville’s season: 81.3
Week 3 at Detroit: 65.1; Detroit’s season: 107.1
Week 4 vs. Miami: 94.2; Miami’s season: 87.4
Week 5 vs. Indianapolis: 102.6; Indianapolis’ season: 92.2
Week 6 vs. Kansas City: 109.2; Kansas City’s season: 88.8
Week 7 at Chicago: 108.2; Chicago’s season: 89.0
Week 8 at Buffalo: 85.8; Buffalo’s season: 93.7
Week 9 vs. Green Bay: 99.0; Green Bay’s season: 96.7
Tennessee’s opponents’ passer rating this season is 92.4

Obviously, the big draw for this game is the number of former Patriots on the other side of the field. Mike Vrabel has had his ups and downs as a first-year coach, which is partially due to some roster limitations and partially due to his inexperience as a head coach. Tennessee has played a number of close games this season with six of their eight contests coming down to one score. However, they haven’t been able to consistently win those games. They’re 3-3. Among their biggest gaffes were the one-point loss to Buffalo and another against the Chargers in which Vrabel decided to go for the 2-point conversion at the end of the game and failed on a terrible play call.

Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry have had essentially an even split in terms of carries and neither have been particularly effective running the football with 3.7 and 3.3 yards per carry, respectively. Lewis remains active in the passing game as well, which could play a bigger factor than his ability to tote the football. Few defenses have seen running backs targeted in the passing game than the Patriots as teams continue to test the athleticism of New England’s linebackers.

The Titans don’t turn the ball over that much, giving the ball away 10 times in 8 games. The Patriots are fourth in the league in takeaways, so something has to give there. Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee passing attack have not been a threat to anyone this year. Dalanie Walker was the team’s best pass catcher and he has been out since week 1, leaving Corey Davis as the top option. Mariota averages 181.4 yards per game and while he is athletic enough to make plays with his legs, he doesn’t appear to have the arm or the pass-catching weaponry at this point to make major hay against a Patriots defense that boasts two top-10 cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

That leaves the defense to win games and the Titans have put together a solid defensive effort that has kept them at least mathematically in the hunt for a playoff spot. Tennessee has the league’s No. 1 scoring defense, allowing just 17.6 points per game. Their passing defense is ranked in the top 10 in yards and touchdowns allowed, in spite of Malcolm Butler struggling mightily this year. He has allowed the most catches and yards of any cornerback in the league after signing a 5 year, $61 million contract in the offseason.

What the Titans’ defense doesn’t do is force many turnovers. Their 9 takeaways are tied for 19th. The Patriots are looking for their third straight game without a turnover.

(Photo: Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)

Defense sends Green Bay packing

For all of the talk about the Brady vs. Rodgers matchup this week, the Patriots’ 31-17 win over the Green Bay Packers was all about the defense.

With the Patriots’ offense all kinds of banged up and Tom Brady not looking his sharpest, their teammates on the other side of the ball picked them up and carried them to a big win, their sixth-straight, to keep a hold on one of the top two spots in the AFC’s playoff picture.

Here are a few thoughts:

It felt like this game was going to come down to which offense made a mistake and which defense could capitalize. It was the Packers’ Aaron Jones who made the mistake, failing to secure the ball as Patriots Lawrence Guy swatted it out of his hand to halt a Packers drive that was gaining momentum in a 17-17 game. It marked the ninth-straight game in which the Patriots forced a turnover. The last time they had such a run? 2016, when they recorded at least one takeaway from week 12 all the way to the Super Bowl. The Patriots are also one turnover away from matching their season total from a year ago.

One of the major keys to this game was the pressure created by the Patriots’ front seven. The Patriots mixed up some looks, like lining up Trey Flowers at defensive tackle to leverage his speed against the Packers’ slower interior blockers. Adrian Clayborn also had his best game as a Patriot, consistently applying pressure while not overpursuing, which had been a bugaboo of his this season against quarterbacks who can move out of the pocket. Clearly more concerned about Aaron Rodgers’ arm than anything else, the Patriots utilized Adam Butler on 50% of the defensive snaps, a sharp increase from his usual usage as a situational inside rusher. The Patriots’ linebackers were extremely disciplined and didn’t allow for easy escape routes when Rodgers rolled away to avoid pressure. Overall, even though there were only two sacks, this was one of the better games this unit has put together up front. And the sacks were opportune fourth-quarter plays.

On the back end, Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty continue to be one of the better cornerback tandems in the league. It’s really amazing to think about McCourty’s journey from a guy who didn’t know if he’d make the roster to someone making a real difference in man-to-man coverage. He did get beat deep on one play when the Patriots sported a zero high safety look, but overall, he was really, really solid. Gilmore’s efforts shouldn’t go unnoticed either. He had a really strong performance against Devante Adams with most of Adams’ damage coming when the Packers were able to move him away from Gilmore (see: Adams’ touchdown). The secondary also changed up their looks a lot, though they seemed to realize quickly Rodgers was going to shred them in their zone coverages.

To the Packers’ credit, they did a really nice job of keeping Tom Brady off balance with different looks. They didn’t blitz nearly as much as they normally do, dropping a lot of guys into coverage. When they did blitz, they were effective but Green Bay seemed to not want to play with fire. The result was a workman’s like effort from Brady, who seemed to just be very content with taking what the defense gave him for most of the game. All told, the numbers aren’t terrific, but the offense managed to put up 31 points without a number of key pieces. Rob Gronkowski, Sony Michel, and Pro Football Reference’s top-rated guard Shaq Mason were all out, James White was clearly hobbled, and Josh Gordon was playing with what appeared to be a dislocated finger. Most importantly, when it mattered, Tom Brady came through. Obviously, Julian Edelman’s pass was a huge play that swung momentum after the fumble recovery, but Brady did his part, going 6 for 6 for 104 yards, including the 55-yard touchdown to Josh Gordon that essentially iced the game.

The Patriots were beneficiaries of a couple of calls on what was a rough night for the officials. Jermaine Whitehead’s slap of David Andrews’ facemask was a penalty, but not ejection-worthy. That put the defense that was already a bit hobbled on the back end and also missing recently traded Ha Ha Clinton-Dix shorthanded. Al Riveron, NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, called it “flagrant striking the head of an opponent,” but geez, that’s weak. The other was a bad roughing the kicker call, which should have been a running into the kicker infraction. That one didn’t matter as much as the Patriots ended up punting again, but still not a great look for the officiating crew.  It could have influenced the game. Fortunately for the guys in stripes, it really didn’t.

Cordarrelle Patterson’s athleticism helped at times, but the Patriots clearly missed the consistency of a running attack Michel brings, especially in the red zone. Getting him right for the stretch run will be essential as it not only opens up options from a playcalling perspective, it can help keep White fresh. White clearly was playing through something and didn’t have his usual burst, a fact that was especially on display on Julian Edelman’s trick play pass. When White is right, that’s a touchdown. And also on the play immediately after when he took it to the outside and got wrangled at the 1-yard line.

Josh Gordon continues to play well. In addition to his ability to catch the football, he’s proven to be great after the catch. He’s not a guy who can be brought down with an arm tackle and with the Patriots’ ability to get guys the ball in space, he should continue to flourish. Really, it could have been a bigger day. He made another acrobatic catch on a play where it was ruled his foot touched out. It might have been in, but it was doubtful from the replay that it would have been overturned if challenged. Bottom line, this is a guy who can physically do things that other Patriots receivers can’t do.

One final point: James Develin is a tank. That is all.

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