Sunday, September 21, 2014

Patriots' defense comes out on top in street fight with Raiders

Patriots' defenders congratulate nose tackle Vince Wilfork after his late interception sealed a tight win over Oakland.

Penalties have dogged the New England Patriots the first two games of the 2014 NFL season, and it appeared for one fleeting moment that a penalty was going to be their undoing on Sunday afternoon against the Oakland Raiders.

Instead, a holding penalty on Oakland negated what would have been a tying touchdown by the Raiders with less than a minute to play, then fate added insult to injury as Patriots' nose tackle Vince Wilfork intercepted a deflected Derek Carr pass on the ensuing play to seal a hard-fought 16-9 victory over a game Oakland squad in the Patriots' home opener at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

Following a defensive pass interference call on New England cornerback Logan Ryan that placed the football at the Patriots' six yard line with only a minute to play, Raiders' running back Darren McFadden blew through the Patriots' run defense for a touchdown, but the holding penalty on rookie left guard Gabe Jackson nullified the score and marched Oakland back to the 16...

...where Carr's first-and-goal pass to receiver Demarius Moore glanced off of his shoulder pads, Ryan redeeming himself as he and Rob Ninkovich converged on him at the 11, the ball landing right in Wilfork's hands for his third career interception and a potential game-saver to give the Patriots their second consecutive win.

New England head ball coach Bill Belichick praised his defense for holding the Raiders to just nine points, singling out Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones and Logan Ryan as keys to the win, also adding that he wasn't sure that the pass interference penalty on Ryan should have been a penalty at all.

"We'll have to take a look at that DPI, not sure about that one." Belichick mused. "he made some big plays for us.  He always does."

The victory, coupled with the Buffalo Bills' home loss to the San Diego Chargers, finds the Patriots in a first place tie in the AFC East, while Oakland drops to 0-3 and, obviously, last place in the brutal AFC West.

Raiders' coach Dennis Allen, rumored to be on the hot seat after two consecutive losses to open the season and eight straight overall extending back to last season, may have salvaged his job with a fantastic game plan that focused on bottling up the middle of the field and forcing New England to the wings where their lack of speed was exposed in both the running and passing games.

As a result, the Patriots runners were held to 76 yards on 32 carries, as offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels played right into Oakland's game plan by abandoning the inside power running game that was working to the tune of four yards per carry in the first half and going to the stretch - and the results were predictable.

In the second half, the New England running game regressed on the wings, running 15 times but for just 11 yards for a paltry .7 yards per carry as McDaniels tried the corners time and again, and getting his backs stuffed in the process.

Conversely, the Patriots' defense held the Raiders' offense to three field goals, and allowed them into the red zone just twice.  Carr was 21 of 34 for 174 yards, the eight yards per completion telling the story for their game plan on offense, which was to attack the wings of the Patriots' defense to spread the field horizontally, then picking and choosing their time to go downfield - and it nearly pulled the upset.

For the third straight game, the Patriots started slowly on both side of the ball, Oakland taking a 3-0 lead with less than five minutes left in the opening period after a 13-play, dink-and-dunk drive stalled at the New England 30, a lead that they held for nearly a full quarter until Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski on a crossing route from six yards out for what turned out to be the game's only touchdown.

A Stephen Gostkowski field goal as time expired in the first half gave the Patriots a seven point lead going into the locker room, with the hope that comes with receiving the ball first in the second half would turn into points and give them some breathing room...

...but that drive went backwards thanks to a penalty and a Justin Tuck sack of Brady that pinned New England deep, Ryan Allen's 45 yard punt setting up Oakland just inside Patriots' territory and eventually turned into another Sebastian Janikowski field goal that cut the New England lead to four.

Janikowski hit again on the next Oakland drive to make the score 10-9, but Gostkowski got the three points back with his second field goal of the game to cap a 10 play 57 yard drive, that stalled with some curious play calling inside the Raiders' two - running back Shane Vereen slipping on a run off left tackle for no gain and then two passes into the end zone falling incomplete.

Afterwards, Belichick acknowledged the offenses' struggles in the red zone, saying that they "had their opportunities down there and we had a touchdown a couple of chances that we didn't capitalize on" but when asked it was a matter of scheme or execution, he deferred.

"We'll look at the film and try to figure out how we can make it better." he said, but then when the subject of the running game came up again, a dark cloud appeared out of nowhere as Belichick noted his displeasure.

"I thought it was inconsistent" the head ball coach grumbled, "We had some negative runs that resulted in long-yardage situations...I think we can do pretty much everything better offensively."

Gostkowski got the lead back to seven when the next series stalled inside the red zone once again, setting up the heroic drive by Carr and the Raiders that gave Patriots' fans plenty of nail-biting moments before Wilfork's right place - right time interception to end the threat and save the game...

...for it goes without saying that a desperate Allen would have gone for a two-point conversion and the win had the Raiders been able to get past Wilfork's sticky mitts.

"He's done that before, making one-handed grabs" Belichick smiled speaking of Wilfork's interception. "so this one was easy - he got two hands on it."

For certain, the performance is not going to deter the teams' detractors, particularly the ones who have accused Brady of locking in on receiver Julian Edelman, who again received the lion's share of Brady's 37 targets, as 13 of them came his way.  Edelman came down with 10 of them for 84 yards, but Brady did get more of his receivers involved, going to Brandon Lafell eight times and to Gronkowski and Vereen six times a piece.

In all, the 37 year old gunslinger targeted eight pass catchers, but the beat writers were having none of the improvement from the first two weeks, asking Belichick if Brady was frustrated with himself for missing a few throws, or with his receivers, which the Dark Master dismissed with a terse, "You'll have to ask Tom what he was thinking."

What was Tom thinking?  Simply, execution in the red zone.

"Well, I mean, we have first and goal from the one-and-a-half yard line and we settle for a field goal." Brady sighed. "You just can't do that - our red area hasn't been very good.  We've got to try to run it in.  If we can't run it in, then we've got to hit the tight throws and make the tight plays."

The offensive struggles aren't just one person, it is true.  But it starts with the coaching and play calling and ends with the execution, and both the coaches and the players know that each of them need to do a better job, starting next Monday night at the loony bin in Kansas City called Arrowhead Stadium...

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