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First quarter breakdown: Patriots roller coaster start

Courtesy of AJU_photography on Flickr

It’s difficult to say that a season can be like a roller coaster after only four games, but that’s exactly what the 2012 Patriots have felt like. The team got off to a promising start with a win against the Titans but quickly dipped back down after a game full of twists and unexpected turns against the Cardinals. The downward spiral continued in Week 3 against the Ravens as the Patriots lost on a controversial game-winning field goal in which coach Bill Belichick sprinted onto the field to grab a replacement referee. The roller coaster continued to speed downhill as the Patriots found themselves down 21-7 in the third quarter against the Buffalo Bills. Finally, it quickly shot upward when the Patriots offense finally woke up and put 45 points on the board in the second half to steamroll the Bills 52-28.

After all that, the Patriots sit at 2-2 and tied atop the AFC East with the Bills and the Jets. The Pats could be 4-0, but inconsistency has led them to this roller coaster of a start in the 2012 season. Let’s break down the strengths and weaknesses thus far.

Strengths

1. The Run Game – Over the course of the first four games, the Patriots have managed to run the ball for 576 yards, good for 8th overall in the NFL. Stevan Ridley alone has 339 of those rushing yards and averages 4.6 yards per attempt. Ridley and Brandon Bolden each had 100-yard games last Sunday against the Bills, making them the first two players to accomplish such a feat in 32 years for the Patriots.

2. Tom Brady – Yes, Brady has been inconsistent at times, but overall he is the reason the Patriots could be 4-0. Brady executed a comeback against the Cardinals that should have led to a game-winning field goal, but didn’t. Brady tore up a stingy Ravens defense but to no avail. He’s only thorwn one interception in the four games and continues to be the leader this team needs.

3. The Defense – Through the first two games, the defense looked much improved and kept the Patriots in the game against the Cardinals. It only allowed 284 and 242 total yards of offense in those first two games. Rookies Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Tavon Wilson have all stuck out and have made big plays of their own early on in the season.

Weaknesses

1. The Coaching – Sitting at 2-2, the Patriots have played in four games that probably should have been won. Although it’s the players who don’t execute, Offensive Coordination Josh McDaniels has made some questionable play calls that have caused the Patriots offense to sputter at times. Belichick himself made a questionable move by not trying to advance the Patriots into better field goal range against the Cardinals. This led to a missed Stephen Gostkowski field goal. It’s not to say that he made the wrong call but certainly questionable

2. The Offensive Line (at times) – Although it has played better in recent games, the O-line struggled to protected Brady, most noticeably in Week 2 against the Cardinals. Although it hasn’t been atrocious, Brady is used to a strong offensive line that can allow him to sit back in the pocket and pick apart defenses.

3. The Defense – Yes, the Patriots defense has not only been a strength through the first four games but also a weakness. After a strong start, the Patriots defense allowed 503 and 438 total yards consecutively against the Ravens and Bills. Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington look equally lost at the cornerback positions, and at times, the line has failed to put pressure on the opposing quarterback. That being said, only time will tell whether the Patriots defense is truly a strength or a weakness.

Projections

Looking ahead, the Patriots do not have a very difficult schedule. Of the remaining 12 games, eight should result in a W. The four remaining games that could prove to be a challenge are against the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans, and San  Francisco 49ers. The Patriots are too talented of a football team to play inconsistently the rest of the way. A 10-2 record in the remaining 12 games is not a stretch. This would put the Patriots at 12-4 to finish the season, easily putting them at the top of the AFC East and possibly at the number one or number two seed in the conference.

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Patriots defense falters in loss to Ravens

With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, the young Patriots defense collapsed under the pressure of a big moment. Joe Flacco and the Ravens took over on offense down by nine and with less than eight minutes on the clock. In less than three and a half minutes, Torrey Smith caught his second touchdown of the game to cap off a 92 yard drive down the throat of the New England defense.

Just moments later, the Ravens had the ball back with only two minutes to play and a field goal away from victory. Again, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick turned to his defense for a stop to seal the game. In one minute, Flacco led the Ravens to the New England 7-yard line while targeting tight end Dennis Pitta and  wide receivers Jacoby Jones and Anquan Boldin along the way. An obvious third down pass interference penalty on Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty setup the Ravens for a 27-yard field goal attempt.

Baltimore’s rookie kicker Justin Tucker trotted onto the field hoping to give the Ravens revenge for last year’s AFC Championship loss against the Patriots. At first it appeared the ball went directly over the right crossbar, but the replacement referees raised their hands signaling for a good field goal. The Ravens ran on the field in relief, sending the Patriots to a losing record for the first time since 2003.

With revenge in mind, and as indicated in Ray Lewis’ pre-game speech to his team, the Ravens defeated the Patriots 31-30 in Baltimore late Sunday night. The New England defense looked no better than last years as Ray Rice and the Ravens offense powered for 503 total yards. Rice alone netted 150 ground and receiving yards. Flacco contributed with a whopping 382 pass yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Torrey Smith turned in the performance of the game after hearing of his brother’s death early Sunday morning. He caught two touchdowns and had 127 total receiving yards.

Although the game came down to the last play, momentum shifted constantly throughout the evening. The Patriots got off to a quick 13-0 in the first quarter as the defense looked sharp to start off the game. Safety Steve Gregory intercepted a shaky Joe Flacco that would lead to a 2-yard touchdown run by rookie running back Brandon Bolden.

Momentum favored the Patriots until the Ravens finally achieved a first down on a penalty at the beginning of the second quarter. The drive would lead to a 25-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Smith to put the Ravens on the scoreboard. Momentum shifted as the Ravens would cap another drive off with another Flacco touchdown pass, this time to Pitta.

Tom Brady almost immediately turned the momentum back in the Patriots favor as he orchestrated the two-minute offense brilliantly before halftime. After spreading the ball out to Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Danny Woodhead, Brady’s touchdown pass to Julian Edelman put the Patriots up 20-14 at the half.

The Ravens and the Patriots traded touchdowns to begin the second half before the Patriots took a nine point lead at the start of the fourth quarter. Momentum would shift one more time in favor of the Ravens and ultimately led to the breakdown of the Patriots young defense. When it counted most, the experience and toughness of the Ravens defense put pressure on Brady as they stopped two England drives in the fourth quarter. They put the ball in Flacco’s hands, and he took advantage.

The replacement officials took heat from both Belichick and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh periodically throughout the game and even after the game ended. The officials flagged Harbaugh for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for coming too far onto the field. Belichick on the other hand might be in a little more trouble. He appeared to reach for and make contact with an official as he ran onto the field to dispute the field goal call after the game ended. He will almost certainly be hearing from the league for his actions.

On a high note for the Patriots, Welker caught eight balls for 142 yards. Likewise, Brand Lloyd had a strong performance, catching nine balls for 108 yards.

The real concern for the Patriots, however, is to  the defense. The line failed to rattle Flacco, only sacking him once and rarely putting any pressure on him at all. Cornerbacks McCourty and Kyle Arrington each missed interception opportunities and were beat constantly all game long by Smith, Boldin and Jones. After a strong first two games, the Patriots defense took a major step backwards against the Baltimore Ravens tonight. Yes, they are young, but only time will tell if they are for real or not.

Patriots week one report card nearly a 4.0

Did anyone really expect the Patriots to lose week one to the Titans? Not to say that it wasn’t a solid win overall, but it’s no surprise that it came fairly easy for Tom Brady and company. Second-year running back Stevan Ridley sparked the offensive attack as rookies Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones teamed up on the defensive side of the ball to force a fumble returned for a touchdown. The rest of the Patriots defense held tough as well, holding Chris Johnson to only four yards rushing on 11 carries. It is only week one of the NFL season, but this game does give hope to Patriots fans that the defense may have improved enough to make yet another Super Bowl run.

Quarterback 

A-

Tom Brady played as well as one would expect in a ninth straight season opening win. Sunday marked his 33rd consecutive game with at least one touchdown pass, throwing for two against Tennessee. Although it was only week one, Brady already looked poised for another great season.

Running Backs

A+

Run Ridley, run! Boy did Stevan Ridley run all over the Titans defense in week one. He looked like a five-year veteran as he ran for his first 100-yard rush game. Even when the Titans threatened a comeback, Ridley helped jump-start the Patriots offense in the second half on a key drive where he ran for 35 yards and a touchdown. He gives the Patriots hope that they just might have a run game this season. The only question is, can he duplicate this performance next week against the Cardinals?

Wide Receivers

B-

Patriots wide receivers Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman had only 9 catches and 90 receiving yards combined of Brady’s 236. That being said, the wide receivers were not targeted a lot as the Patriots ran the ball more than they threw it on Sunday. Lloyd did have an opportunity to start the scoring off for the Patriots on their first drive but misjudged a long pass from Brady that led to an incompletion. Lloyd did go on to run great routes proving his pure athleticism and ability to be a deep threat. He led all receivers on the day with 69 receiving yards.

Tight Ends

A

Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez received the majority of Brady’s passes as they continue to be the Patriots biggest offensive threat. Combined they caught 12 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Together they might be the most troublesome matchup that any NFL defense will face this season.

Offensive Line

A-

Considering the many questions surrounding the Patriots offensive line coming into this season, they played extremely well. Brady was only sacked once and hit only three times all game. Nate Solder made the only mistake, allowing Kamerion Wimbley by him to hit Brady hard. Despite the one mistake, the line allowed for Ridley to run wild against the Titans defense as Patriots running backs combined for 162 yards on the ground. Let’s put it this way, if the offensive line plays this well for Brady all season long, opposing defenses should be more than a little nervous.

Defensive Line

A

What more could you ask of a young defensive line against one of the top running backs in the NFL? Pro-bowl back Chris Johnson was frustrated enough to nearly throw his helmet on the sidelines as he was stuffed all day long by a suffocating Patriots run defense. He ran for four yards on 11 carries. Ouch! Rookie Chandler Jones helped come up with the biggest play of the game forcing Jake Locker to fumble the ball close to his own end zone. The only times Locker looked comfortable were the beginning drives of each half.

Linebackers

A

Veteran linebacker Jerod Mayo led the defense with nine tackles and four assists. Rookie Dont’a Hightower was in the right place at the right time in the second quarter. He picked up Jones’ forced fumble on Locker and ran it in for a touchdown that turned out to be the play of the game. It will certainly be interesting to see what Hightower and Jones can combined to do for the rest of their rookie season.

Defensive Backs

C+

The first mediocre grade of the week goes to the Patriots defensive backs. Despite the one interception by rookie Tavon Wilson, the defensive backs did not play all that well. When Locker felt comfortable and had time to throw, the Titans marched down the field at ease at the beginning of the game and the second half. It almost looked like a horrifying flashback of last years defense. Again, it is only one game, but this might be the one area that makes all Patriots fans nervous.

Special Teams

B+

Overall, the Patriots special teams unit had a solid week. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski made two field goals and even contributed a nice tackle on a Titans kick return. The only downside was when Julian Edelman refused to call a fair catch on a punt return. Fortunately for him, the Titans defender got too close and a penalty was called after Edelman could not catch the ball cleanly.

Coaching

A-

As usual, coach Bill Belichick prepared the team for another season opening win. It’s to no surprise the Patriots didn’t have any turnovers and looked almost flawless on both sides of the ball. The defense was prepared to stop Chris Johnson and confuse Locker enough to force him to turn the ball over.

Overall Grade: A

If the Patriots can play this well on the road to start the season, who knows what’s in store for the Arizona Cardinals in Foxboro for week two?

Ridley sparks Patriots’ rout of Titans

New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley ran coolly through the Tennessee Titans’ defense Sunday afternoon. The second-year back posted more total yards on offense than Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Wes Welker combined. He appeared to do so at ease as the Titans’ defense could find no answer for him.

Ridley sparked a key third quarter drive just when the Titans seemed to have a comeback in mind. He had two 15-yard runs on the drive as he continued to allude the Tennessee defense. He capped it off with a one-yard touchdown run. The score put the Patriots up 28-10 at the time, and they did not look back.

As Ridley took off for 125 yards on the ground, the Patriots’ defense stood strong in the red zone. The defense forced two turnovers  against Titans new starting quarterback Jake Locker, one which was a fumble returned for a touchdown by Patriots newcomer and linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Locker injured his left shoulder trying to make a tackle on a Patrick Chung interception at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The call was eventually overturned, but it sidelined the young quarterback out for the rest of the game.

The Patriots had not lost a season opener in eight years. Ridley made sure they would keep that streak alive as the Patriots marched on to victory 34-13 Sunday afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee. The Patriots out-gained the Titans 390-284 in total yards and won the turnover battle as they typically do against their opponents.

The game had somewhat of an unsettling start for the Patriots after the Titans easily marched down the field and took a 3-0 lead on a Rob Bironas field goal. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, the Patriot’ big offseason free agent signing, then misjudged a sure touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots were forced to punt with the defense and star wide receiver already in some question.

With a little hiccup to start the season, the Patriots quickly remembered that they don’t lose season openers.

The new look defense quickly rebounded and refused to let Titans star running back Chris Johnson do anything offensively at all for the rest of the game. The defensive line suffocated the Titans anytime they tried to run the ball, and Johnson was held to a measly four total yards in 11 tries on the ground.

Once the Patriots got the ball back for their second drive, the Tennessee defense quickly crumbled and never again found an answer for the high-powered Patriots offense.

Patriots tight ends Gronkowski and Hernandez continued to prove that they are well worth the contracts they each received during the offseason. They had almost identical games as they each caught six passes and each had one touchdown grab. The two tight ends combined for 119 of Brady’s 236 total passing yards.

The only lick the Titans could put on Brady came in the second quarter after he was sacked by Titans defensive end Kamerion Wimbley. The New England quarterback took a foot to the face causing a bloody nose. He was forced  to wear a band aid for the rest of the game, but that was the last time the Tennessee defense put any real pressure on Brady.

Although they faced an inexperienced quarterback in Locker, the young New England defense already looks much improved from last season. Despite going to the Super Bowl last year, the Patriots’ defense was historically bad. Last year they allowed a dreadful 411 yards per game on defense, making today’s 284 total yards significantly better.

Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones made an immediate impact after sacking and a forcing the fumble that was returned for a touchdown by fellow first round draft pick Hightower. Veteran linebacker Jerod Mayo and cornerback Devin McCourty had nine and five tackles respectively as the Tennessee offense had no response to the New England defense.

The defending AFC Champion Patriots were supposed to win this game against the Titans. However, this game does answer an important question about the Patriots’ defense early on. This New England defense is improved with proof that it has already had a better game than all of last season, at least statistically speaking.

Ridley proved this afternoon that he can carry the bulk of the Patriots’ running game this season even with the loss of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He proved that this high-powered New England offense can be strong on the ground. More importantly for the Arizona Cardinals, he proved that they have one more thing to worry about against the Patriots next weekend.