Sunday, December 20, 2015

Patriots Defense Dominates, Offense Does Enough To Down Titans

When Bill Belichick this week hinted that he was concerned about increasing Brandon Bolden's touches on offense, he apparently meant it.

"He's been a four down player for us" the Dark Master said on Wednesday of Bolden, "He's played the role of the big back for us, he's played the role of a sub back, and he's played well for us in the kicking game. I think it would be hard to increase each role."
Jaball Sheard sacks Tennessee's Zach Mettenberger

Of course, Belichick then went on to job this week's opponents, the Tennessee Titans, by feigning confusion in a manner consistent with someone who was really torn about the decision by moaning "maybe you just increase one and decrease another. I think we're going to have to figure that out."

He figured it out.

Bolden carried the ball just ten times, yielding to the power running of rookie Joey Iosefa and the increasingly impressive stylings of James White in the pattern, while the Patriots defense picked up the slack of an otherwise sluggish offense by scoring a touchdown on a fumble and sacking Tennessee quarterbacks five times as New England topped the game Titans by a count of 33-16.

Iosefa rumbled for 54 yards on 14 carries in his professional football debut as a roster replacement for injured LeGarrette Blount, and White had his third consecutive excellent performance, hauling in seven passes for 71 yards - a total that he had nearly doubled on one big play in the fourth quarter, taking a Tom Brady offering in the left flat, making his man miss, then scampering 70 yards on a play that would have nailed the Titans' collective coffin shut...

...but a questionable offensive pass interference call on Keshawn Martin on the play negated the big gain and denied White the biggest statistical game of his career.

Brandon LaFell led the Patriots with four catches totaling 88 yards and tight end Rob Gronkowski pitched in with five and 54, despite a couple of uncharacteristic drops. Brady had typical Brady-like numbers - 23 of 35 for 267 yards and two touchdowns - as the offense did just enough to win the game.

And while doubling your opponent's scoring output would make one think blowout, and despite the novelty of Iosefa and the coming of age of White, this was an overall sluggish effort that confirmed that this offense will clearly not be able to get over the loss of Julian Edelman, regardless of the tremendous effort put forth by the players.

The defense, on the other hand, had no such issues despite their captain, safety Devin McCourty, being on the shelf with a bum ankle. Sure, Titans' receiver Dorial Green-Beckham used Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan like a tissue to the tune of six catches (on nine targets) for 133 yards, but the rest of Tennessee's offensive weapons were summarily held in check.

Titans' starting quarterback Marcus Mariota took a horrible beating from the New England pass rush, being sacked three times, the last one the result of a Jamie Collins hug blitz that knocked the rookie signal caller from the game in the second quarter - replaced by the seemingly far more capable sophomore Zach Mettenberger, who threw two scores to tight end Delanie Walker, but also interceptions to cornerback Malcolm Butler and linebacker Jamie Collins.

The Patriots' top ten run defense shut down the Titans' running game, allowing just 2.8 yards per carry and forcing first Mariota and then Mettenberger to the short passing game, mostly targeting their running backs and tight ends for quick gainers underneath, with an occasional deep throw to Green-Beckham or Walker.

Mariota was under siege every time he dropped back to pass, and being sacked by Akiem Hicks, strip-sacked and injured by Jones, and then knocked out of the game on Collins' sack, twisting his body so that his leg was pinned beneath him, ending his day...

...while Mettenberger enjoyed a little better protection, he still took two for the team, Jones getting him in the third quarter for 12.5 on the season, which counts for the third highest sack total in franchise history and fellow defensive end Jabaal Sheard notching his seventh on the year.

As seems to be the Patriots' M.O. of late, Brady led the Patriots right down the field on their first possession, capping it off with a short toss to Gronkowski for a 7-0 lead, that number increasing to 14 points jjust seconds into the second quarter, when defensive end Chandler Jones strip-sacked Mariota and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks recovering in the end zone for a two score lead.

A pretty James White flat screen that went for 30 yards made it a three score advantage for New England, but they would not find the end zone again, settling for four Stephen Gostkowski field goals the rest of the way while Mettenberger played well enough to find the end zone twice in the second half, but that said, Tennesseee never seriously threatened at any point of the game.

New England's defense continues to evolve into an elite unit of speedy sack artists and punishing run stuffers, backed up by a pack of young greyhounds in the secondary that common sense tells us shouldn't be as good as they are, while the offense seems to treat the games as a live scrimmage, running high-percentage, low-risk plays out of basic formations as if working on fundamentals...

...which makes sense, because with as many players as they have to integrate into the offense, practice is fine, but not enough. In essence, the seldom used players who now are being counted on to produce are in what can only be called an impromptu breaking in period not unlike what the team as a whole uses preseason games for.

Except these games count, and the "new guys" on the offense seem to be getting better game by game - but make no mistake, the offense will not be a great offense until Edelman returns. They are good without him - getting-by good - and that's been enough to get by Houston and Tennessee in successive weeks, but more importantly, the experience that these players are getting under duress will certainly come in handy come playoff time.

With the win, and coupled with Denver's loss to Pittsburgh, the Patriots have assured themselves of a first round bye, which is essential to a team as banged up as New England actually is - because with time to heal, the offense will reach juggernaut status, and combined with their constantly evolving defense, there's no reason to think the Patriots won't be defending their title in San Francisco in February...

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