Dissecting the New England Patriots' Weakest Links
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The New England Patriots are one of the handful of elite teams that gets heavily criticized after a win.
And why not? Regular-season wins aren't hard to come by for the Pats, especially against the perennial mediocrity that is the Buffalo Bills. New England has won 10 or more games in all but one regular season since QB Tom Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001.
What Pats fans are looking for isn't just another "W"—and for that, we may, perhaps justifiably, call them spoiled—but some indication that their team is built for a Super Bowl run.
By some measure, New England gave us such an indication by putting up 37 points and making a key defensive play to win Sunday's game in the end.
But the Pats are far from flawless—they let a game in which they were favored by double digits come down to the wire. Though they brought home a win this time, that hasn't always been the case this season, thanks to letdowns in tight games against the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks.
The Pats are 6-3 and in a comfortable position in the AFC East race. Still, in the words of their future Hall of Fame QB, there is always room for improvement.
Let's take a look at five areas that the Pats need to fine-tune in the second half.
Swing and a miss by the Pats' would-be tacklers.
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But the Pats still demonstrated bad tackling form against the Bills, racking up 25 missed tackles and allowing 159 yards after contact.
QB Joe Flacco hits Pitta in the flat, and two Patriots—CB Devin McCourty and S Steve Gregory—converge on him near the right sideline. Both of them show embarrassing form, as if they're shying away from contact.
Gregory ducks to try and flip Pitta from below the knees—of course, the TE simply jumps over him. Then McCourty, arms locked, simply pushes Pitta, like a preschool bully afraid to get in trouble for actually hitting.
Neither player even bothers to engage Pitta by driving with their lead shoulders in an effort to bring him down. There isn't any attempt to actually slow the ball-carrier or leverage him in any way—there are just a couple of gimmick "olè" moves in an attempt try to stop him with minimal effort.
Of course, the big TE shrugs them both off on the way to a TD.
Tackling (Part Two)
Spiller exposed the Pats' bad tackling form.
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Unfortunately, we saw more signs of shoddy tackling against the Bills in Week 10. Here's another equally embarrassing play on a screen to Spiller.
Spiller catches the screen pass six yards behind the line of scrimmage with five Patriots within range of him (seriously, pause the video at 00:06).
The first miss comes from captain Jerod Mayo, who inexplicably compromises outside containment to try and make a diving tackle.
Then Gregory takes an awful inside-out angle in trying to make a diving arm tackle on Spiller. Incidentally, we've seen a lot of bad angles by Gregory this year, including on this TD in the Pats' first meeting with the Bills in which Gregory gets turned around multiple times in pursuit.
Gregory's dive takes teammate Brandon Spikes out of the play, but it hardly matters because Spikes has apparently attended the School of Ankle-Swipe Tackles with the rest of his teammates.
Now, the Pats have lost outside contain in their desperate and completely unexplainable quest to rush a diving tackle instead of closing in and engaging the ball-carrier in limited space.
With a little juke to the outside, Spiller is off to the races, all the way to New England's 13-yard line. And thus, a slip screen that should have gone for a short gain at most turns into a huge play for the Bills.
The Pats' LBs have struggled in coverage.
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The Patriots' pass defense is a curious animal—one that's ranked 29th in the league in pass yardage.
Why "curious" and not just "plainly awful"? Because the Pats are actually pretty good at taking away their opposition's top receivers.
According to Football Outsiders, they're 11th in the league in DVOA (a statistic that evaluates each play situationally against a league-average baseline) at defending top WRs, and third-best in the NFL at defending No. 2 WRs.
Where they struggle mightily is against opposing teams' other options. They're the worst in the league at covering "other" WRs (i.e. slot receivers and third options) and 26th in defending the pass against both TEs and RBs.
What that seems to indicate is that their coverage along the sidelines has actually been effective. Their weakness seems to come against crossing routes, screens, check-downs and dump-offs into the flat.
That speaks to a problem with the coverage skills of the Pats' linebackers and safeties, which doesn't seem outlandish.
LB Brandon Spikes is as terrible against the pass as he is excellent against the run. Rookie LB Dont'a Hightower, meanwhile, is a big, slow run-stuffer—or at least he's looked slow since returning from a hamstring injury.
Safeties Steve Gregory, Pat Chung and rookie Tavon Wilson have also had coverage issues. Together, they've yielded a 61.5 percent completion rate—which is Drew Brees' completion percentage this season.
Pass Coverage (Part Two)
Kyle Arrington has been the poster child for the Pats' struggles.
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Of course, the Pats CBs shouldn't be fully absolved from the mess that is New England's pass defense.
The worst offender—and the whipping boy of frustrated Pats fans—is Kyle Arrington. According to Dave's Breakdown (again, a great source for info on the Pats secondary, if you haven't seen me mention it before), Arrington has yielded 28 completions on 37 targets for 432 yards and four touchdowns.
For those of you who are wondering, that means that Arrington yields 11.68 yards per attempt when QBs target him.
To provide some context on that stat, Hall of Famer Otto Graham currently holds the NFL record for career yards per attempt with 9.0. So Kyle Arrington basically makes any QB who targets him look like the unmitigated best quarterback ever.
Arrington has been a big reason for the Pats' struggles against slot receivers, yielding a 76-percent completion rate while playing in sub packages (all target stats per Dave's Breakdown).
But other DBs have struggled too, including Sterling Moore (19 receptions on 23 targets for 302 yards) and Ras-I Dowling (eight catches on 10 targets; Dowling is currently on IR).
Hopefully, the acquisition of press-man corner Aqib Talib will help solidify the Pats' coverage.
McDaniels has led the top-ranked offense, but must rethink situational calls.
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The Pats put up 37 points against the Bills, so it's tough to criticize the offense.
But on one particular play, we saw an issue with late-game clock management in a critical situation.
Let's set the scene. The Pats are up by three points with just over three minutes left in the fourth quarter. On a 3rd-and-5 from the Bills' 13-yard line, the Pats run a draw play with RB Stevan Ridley, who gashes the middle of Buffalo's defense for 10 yards and gets all the way down to the Bills' 2-yard line.
But instead of letting the clock run down under 2:30, the Pats called a quick off-tackle run to Ridley again, who got stuffed behind the line for a loss of two. As a result, New England had to call another play before the two-minute warning, a pass that fell incomplete.
By calling that quick run, the Patriots ended up giving the ball back to the Bills, who had two timeouts remaining. If New England had let the clock run down, they could have forced the Bills to use their timeouts and given them the ball back with less than 1:30 left, even if the Pats still failed to score.
Yes, there is a counter-argument in that Brady may have seen something in the defense that led him to call a hurry-up. But I don't see it on film—the Bills had an overload on that side with five defenders against three blockers—and it was far from a sure thing that Ridley would get in.
Given the circumstances, the play was too high-risk. In retrospect, the Pats were lucky that the Bills had to burn their last two timeouts on injuries.
We've discussed the Pats' issues with game management before. Hopefully, they'll improve on this as the season progresses.