It's fairly safe to say we've seen an improved Patriots defense this season over last year, for the most part. Even with injuries playing a role, as they always seem to do, New England has learned how to compensate for personnel losses with complimentary play from back-up players.
It's been the "Next Man Up" lesson in philosophy and it has been working pretty well. Whoever has been in the lineup, especially on the defensive side, has managed to keep opposing teams from big, game-changing plays…keeping backs and receivers in front of them and limiting red zone chances to mostly field goals. Red Zone "D" was particularly strong against the Packers Sunday.
A key factor in the Patriots' improved play on defense has been their ability to limit the really big plays. They've been among the NFL leaders in fewest big plays (20 yards) allowed, at least until this past Sunday.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is good, but he was better than good against the New England secondary – which Darrelle Revis called last week "the most talented secondary" he's ever played with. Rodgers burned the Pats' backfield for 368 passing yards , including six plays of more than 25 yards IN THE FIRST HALF…on the way to a 26-21 win at Lambeau Field.
What happened? Preparation met extraordinary ability. Rodgers is an elite QB, and his ability to seek out 3rd, 4th and even 5th options on pass plays – when the Patriots prepared to take out his primary receivers – is unmatched in the game. Take out Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb? Fine…seek out guys like Davante Adams and tight end Richard Rodgers…which the GB QB did. Often, and with much success.
Sometimes, you just have to hand it to the other guy, and give praise where it's due. The killer, of course, came just before halftime on the 45-yard catch-and-run score by Nelson…with Revis somewhat out of position on an inside cut route and late-arriving help over the top. But Adams (six catches, 121 yards) made the Pats pay with several long balls, Rodgers and Cobb also had gains of 30 yards or more and for one of the few times this season…an improved, even championship-caliber defense looked mortal.
Improved defense? Sure. Still work to do? Absolutely. Lessons are always best-learned through experience, and the Patriots just learned a big one…by facing one of the best.
Forget the call, take the ball –Green Bay won the coin toss, and shockingly bucked the trend of deferring possession to the second half by taking the ball out of Tom Brady's hands. It worked, beautifully. The Pats' "D" came up huge in the Red Zone, but time of possession was one-sided (36:25 to 23:35) in the Packers' favor, and NE could manage only 57 plays from scrimmage. Think the Patriots could have benefitted from an extra 10-20 plays in a tight game? Something to consider in the future, perhaps, when facing an elite QB again. Do Unto Others As They Do Unto You.
The New England Patriots take on the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday, November 30, 2014.
Get Off the Field – **With two of the best teams in the NFL going toe-to-toe, mistakes are often turning points in the game. With neither team creating turnovers, the Packers did the next best thing – by playing keep-away with the football. Converting 10-of-17 3rd down chances was just as good as forcing turnovers, and getting extra shots for the offense…an offense that scored on all five first half possessions. The Patriot defense couldn't make a play, or a stop, like they needed to do. Green Bay didn't have to punt the ball until less than three minutes were left in the 3rd quarter…and it was their only punt of the game. 'Nuff said.
There was no Pound on the Ground – With the 30th ranked defense against the run, the Packers appeared vulnerable against a recent Patriots' strong suit. Add to this mix the recent addition of LeGarrett Blount, and New England appeared primed to take advantage. Except that it never happened. 18 rushing plays for 84 yards is actually a pretty solid number (4.7 yards per carry), considering the number of carries by the Pats' backs. This is directly related to the tempo set by Green Bay at the start, and playing keep-away from Brady and the offense. Take the ball when you can, and impose YOUR will on the other guys.
NFL Takes the Fifth
Say what you want about the St. Louis Rams players who entered the Edward Jones Dome Sunday with their hands raised – ostensibly to salute the protesters in nearby Ferguson, MO – being nitwits. They were. In voicing their concerns over the tragedy surrounding Michael Brown's shooting death, the players also raised the ire of the St. Louis police, who asked the league to discipline those players for what they felt was an incendiary gesture.
The NFL chose to do nothing. "We respect and understand the concerns of all individuals who have expressed views on this tragic situation," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. Smart move.
Could there have been a better way for the players to express their support for the entire Ferguson community? Probably…and the players and coaches did lock arms along the sideline during the national anthem. But allowing all parties to express their feelings and have their say, no matter how juvenile, classless or tasteless they may be, is the only way to go.
Numbers Don't Lie – or do they?
You've heard, of course, the phrase "numbers don't lie?" I tend to believe numbers certainly have a lot to do with telling true tales, but if you limit yourself to only the numbers…you'll never find out the real truth.
A few current examples to point out, where numbers seem absolute:
- Prior to their match-up this past weekend, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers had thrown for a combined 603 career touchdown passes…the most EVER between two players playing against each other (or rather, against each other's' teams) for the first time.
- And here's another "wow" for Brady vs. Rodgers – it was the first time in NFL history two QB's started against each other where each has already made three or more Pro Bowls, and won at least one MVP.
How about a couple of examples, where the truth seems to lie anywhere BUT within the numbers?
- Dallas QB Tony Romo was a robust 6-1 in his career as a Thanksgiving Day starter for the Cowboys, but he was no match for the Philadelphia Eagles in a 33-10 turkey of a game last week. Former Dallas QB Danny White was 6-1 in his career as a Thanksgiving QB for the Cowboys…better than Roger Staubach (4-2) and Troy Aikman (5-5). "Dandy" Don Meredith was 3-0.
- Getting after the quarterback with sacks may be over-rated. Sure, it's one thing to put pressure on the QB so he can't sit in the pocket all day to pick apart a secondary. But why do four of the NFL's top teams in sacks per pass play – Jacksonville (4), Minnesota (3), Tennessee (6) and the NY Jets (9) – find themselves a combined 9-35 on the season through 12 weeks? Hmmm. So where are the real lies, damned lies and statistics? They're everywhere (Atlanta and New Orleans are in the Top 10 in scoring TD's, but both are under .500) and yet they're nowhere (Philadelphia, leading the NFC East, is 26th in turnover ratio). Another number this week from the NFL actually renews faith and trust in the stats…just a bit. Apparently, the Jets are on a pace to allow 39 TD passes thrown against them this season, which would be the 2nd most in the league given up since 1933.
The great Albert Einstein once said, "not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." But then, Einstein didn't know much about the New York Jets, did he?
He Can Bend It Like Beckham
Watching Odell Beckham Jr's unbelievable one-handed catch for the New York Giants against the Cowboys a week ago, over and over again, got me thinking about the truly great catches in NFL history.
It's a short list, really. Here are some top grabs that come to mind:
- Dwight Clark, San Francisco 49ers – January 10, 1982, Clark caught a six-yard TD pass from Joe Montana with 58 seconds remaining in the NFC Championship Game to beat Dallas 28-27, and advance to Super Bowl XVI (which they also won). "The Catch," high in the back of the end zone, is certainly considered a part of NFL lore.
- David Tyree, New York Giants – Sorry, Pats fans…but Tyree's Velcro-enhanced snatch from Eli Manning in Super Bowl XLII was incredible in several ways. One, was the catch itself…a 32-yard gain pressed against his helmet despite the best efforts of Rodney Harrison to knock it away. Two, Tyree's catch ultimately led to the Giants' winning score, and three…his catch has been dubbed the "play of the Decade" in the 2000's. The late, great Steve Sabol of NFL Films also called it "the greatest play the Super Bowl has ever produced." Sorry, again.
- Lynn Swann, Pittsburgh Steelers – He's only a Pro Football Hall-of-Famer. But former Steeler wideout Lynn Swann stretched every available bit of his talent, toe-to-finger-tip, in Super Bowl X against Dallas. Swann caught only four passes the entire game from Terry Bradshaw, but his 53-yard catch against the Cowboys' Mark Washington was masterful…as Washington got his hands on the ball, so did Swann…and as the two players fell to the turf (with Swann practically stepping on Washington), he somehow came up with the ball. Pittsburgh didn't score on the drive, but they got out of a big hole deep in their end of the field…and the Steel Curtain ended up defeating America's Team 21-17. There are other great catches, of course. You can make a case for many, many other superb, acrobatic, meaningful pass receptions by a slew of great receivers to play the game. And you can also throw in any number of athletic plays made by tight ends, running backs and even defensive backs on balls thrown their way by some of the best QB's to play the game. But to be considered truly great, the game should have meaning. Each of the examples above had that, and more.
Beckham's Giants actually LOST their game two weeks ago to Dallas. Acrobatic? Yes. Athletic? Absolutely. Great play? Sure. One of the best ever?
Not even close.
Johnny Football gets a little action, after all
Poor Johnny Manziel. He'll do anything, it seems, to get a little action going.
After an original story in Cleveland reported that Manziel and members of his entourage were engaged in a fight outside of a downtown hotel, Manziel himself said last week there was no entourage, no fight, and he and his roommate simply tried to keep an intoxicated man from putting his hands on him in an elevator.
Speaking to the Cleveland media in his weekly briefing – which is a bit unusual for a backup quarterback – Manziel said things "escalated" when he felt uncomfortable getting on an elevator with the man as he attempted to return to his apartment following dinner. The accused countered by telling police he was assaulted by Manziel and his entourage, at 2:36 am in the lobby of the building. Manziel is not in trouble with police, nor were there any visible signs on him that an altercation took place. Left unsaid, and unanswered by Manziel, was whether or not he actually threw any punches during this engagement.
"There is no entourage with me," Manziel told reporters. "I live with one other person and my mother was upstairs. About as much of an entourage as you can get, being with my mom." Manziel has been sitting behind Browns' starter and former Patriots QB Brian Hoyer for most of the season, as the team fights for a potential playoff spot. Can't imagine this sits too well with Cleveland's management and staff, whether he's playing or not, and he did come on in relief of a struggling Hoyer this past week against Buffalo. Considering the time of night when the scuffle took place, the Browns' investment doesn't appear to be on solid ground.
One thing Johnny Football apparently hasn't learned yet – the action you might be looking for is never any good, especially after midnight, when you're a backup.
*John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and has been the Patriots' stadium voice for 22 years. Currently serving in several media capacities – which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" during the season on Patriots.com Radio for a 14th year – Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball for the past 26 years and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame. *
Follow him on Twitter - @JRbroadcaster