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Five Thoughts on the Patriots Sunday Night Showdown Against the Bengals

Tom Brady and the Patriots look to quiet the critics Sunday night. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots return home to host the Cincinnati Bengals at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots and Bengals will meet for a second straight season. Last year, Cincinnati defeated New England 13-6 in week five at Paul Brown Stadium.

Since 2003, the Patriots have a 22-1 record at home during the month of October. They also look to extend their 32-game winning streak against AFC opponents at home during the regular season. Here are a few thoughts on the upcoming game. —

First Impressions: The Bengals are off to a hot start, winning their first three games of the year and coming off a week four bye. Cincinnati has one of the most complete teams in the NFL, balanced and aggressive on both sides of the football.

At first glance, this will be a particularly difficult match-up for New England in the trenches. The Bengals have a solid offensive line that has not allowed a sack so far this season. Defensively their front seven is big and physical, which could pose some problems for a struggling Patriots offensive line.

Brady, Offense has to get in Rhythm Early:¬†The Patriots offensive struggles are known and have been discussed at nauseam over the past few weeks. With all of the criticism, fair or not, New England has started slow every game this season. In fact, the team has started with four-straight three-and-outs. What a shot to the team’s confidence? The first possession of each game and it lasts three plays.

This week, the Pats must get in gear right away, putting a drive together to not only build their own confidence, but also put pressure on the Bengals. The last two weeks, New England opened up the game with three passes. Getting Stevan Ridley some touches on the ground early would allow the offensive lineman to impose their will, slow down the Bengals pass rush and get some rhythm on offense, which they desperately need.

AJ Green vs Darrelle Revis:¬†This will be the best one-on-one match-up to watch throughout the game. Bengals wide receiver Aj Green is one of the league’s best and will be a tough cover for Patriots cornerback, Darrelle Revis.

While Green has had some injury trouble this year, he has gone over the 100-yard receiving mark in each of the two games he’s played. In the Bengals last game against the Tennessee Titans, Green caught six passes for 102 yards. He’s a downfield threat with tremendous leaping ability.

Revis should be assigned to cover Green on every snap. Allowing Revis to play physical, man-coverage would be New England’s best game plan. Obviously the team must be cautious of deep passes, but this match-up is exactly why they paid Revis $12 million in the offseason.

Expect the Bengals to Blitz: Cincinnati is an aggressive team on both sides of the ball. On defense they like to do a number of things, but primarily play a 4-3 base. Defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, usually has his secondary play zone, occasionally sending a defensive back to pressure opposing QBs on the edge. 

The Bengals also like to use their linebackers to rush the passer. Whether it’s Rey Maualuga or Vontaze Burfict, both have shot through the middle of the offensive line in their first three games this season. With the Patriots struggling to protect Tom Brady, expect Cincinnati to bring some pressure early and often.

The Patriots have a lot to Prove: After a 29-point loss and 2-2 start on the season, New England is under a lot of pressure going into this contest. While the Bengals are undefeated and coming off a week of rest, the Patriots look to regroup after their devastating loss on a national stage.

New England has shown over the past decade they respond well after falling to an opponent in the previous week, but will the Bengals be too much to handle? Cincinnati is not a great match-up for a team looking to rebound and gain confidence moving forward. When the Patriots have faced opponents with stout offensive and defensive lines, they have had issues. How the Patriots fight and compete Sunday will tell us a lot about what to expect the rest of the year.

Prediction: Bengals 24, Patriots 20

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Clearing the Air: Belichick Releases Statement on Dobson

On Friday afternoon, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick released a statement on wide receiver Aaron Dobson.

“In my year and a half with Aaron Dobson,¬†he has always been respectful to me and to the rest of the coaching staff. He has never once been argumentative or confrontational. The suggestion and reporting that his playing time was in any way the result of a ‚Äėloud disagreement‚Äô with a coach is completely false.”¬† Release from the team’s website.¬†

The Boston Globe reported earlier in the week that Dobson had, “at least one loud disagreement with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.”¬†This is the full story on the Boston Globe’s website.

Quick Take: 

Dobson had foot surgery in March, limiting his participation in Organized Team Activities, training camp and the preseason. He was unavailable in week one, but suited up against the Minnesota Vikings in week 2, catching one pass for 13 yards in the 30-7 victory.

Week three versus the Oakland Raiders and week four against the Kansas City Chiefs, the second-year receiver was inactive. With no listing on the injury report, the decision to have Dobson inactive was head-scratching.

When the Globe’s story first broke, it made some sense, but still brought about some serious questions. Was it really necessary to sit him out for two games? What was the argument about? When will he be available again?

However, Belichick’s statement refuting that report, brings new questions into the fold. If the initial report is false, then why was he not in the game plan? Wouldn’t it be beneficial to his development to be on the field? The offense has certainly struggled and Dobson seems like he could help.

Whatever the situation might be, this story could quickly become a distraction. If Dobson is not performing in practice, I would argue the players on the field have not performed well enough on offense throughout the first four weeks to keep him off the field. If Dobson is healthy, which he said Friday, “I think I’m good”, then he should be on the field Sunday.

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Game Rewind: Leftover Takeaways from the Patriots Loss Monday Night

With only three receptions for 16 yards this season, Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola has been almost invisible. (USA TODAY Images)

In 2001 the New England Patriots suffered a 20-point loss to the Miami Dolphins, dropping them to a 1-3 record. Head coach Bill Belichick decided the following day to bury the football, in an attempt to motivate the team moving forward. Of course, we know how the rest of that season played out — the team hoisting their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.

Perhaps Belichick should employ the same tactics this week, after a crushing 41-14 defeat on Monday Night Football against the Kansas City Chiefs.

There’s no magic fix, though. Plain and simple, a lot of changes need to occur if this team wants to have success this season. After reviewing the game, here are some leftover takeaways from Monday night’s performance. —

Pats Must Settle on Starting Five: The offensive line has been an issue for the first quarter of the season. We’ve seen pressure from all angles, with the Patriots consistently rotating lineman up front. This isn’t high school football, it’s not going to work in the NFL. Continuity is important and it is imperative New England settles on a starting unit.

While there weren’t a lot of bright spots Monday, rookie center Bryan Stork stepped in and did a solid job. The team has praised his communication and he looks comfortable with the starting role. Cameron Fleming, the rookie lineman who started at right guard on Monday, struggled a bit in his first game at right guard. That being said, the team was trying him at a new position and it will be curious to see if he gets another shot in week five.

Left tackle Nate Solder has seemingly regressed and it’s hurting the team in a big way. Protecting Tom Brady’s blindside is priority one and without that protection the offense is doomed to fail. In the third quarter, Chiefs edge rusher, Tamba Hali, shot off the line, slapped Solder’s hands down and stripped Brady, causing a turnover. Hali versus Solder was my “matchup to watch” going into the game and Kansas City had success.

If the line can get to a more consistent level, it will alleviate a lot of other issues on this team. That, however, is easier said than done.

Ridley, Not Vereen, Needs to Get Bulk of Carries: Stevan Ridley has been in the Belichick doghouse before, but not sure why he hasn’t been featured more this season. With the offense looking to find a rhythm and identity, you would think New England would want to run the ball. For the second week in a row, though, they opened their first series with three straight passes, resulting in a three-and-out.

Ridley only had five carries Monday night, gaining 28 yards on the ground. While Vereen has shown to make some plays in the passing game, he’s been running too tentative and not exploding through running lanes. On several occasions in week four, Vereen was caught running side-to-side and not up the field. Time to make a change and feed Ridley. If they don’t trust him to secure the football, he shouldn’t be on the team.

Where is Wright?: When the Patriots traded Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, they acquired second-year tight end Tim Wright. While he had 54 catches as a rookie, he’s only been targeted five times, hauling in four receptions in four games. New England had only three true receivers active Monday — Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell — so the opportunity was there. Yet, he wasn’t involved throughout the contest.

Add this to the list of head-scratching moves by the coaching staff. It appears a two tight end formation, featuring Rob Gronkowski and Wright, would be beneficial.

McDaniels Deserves Criticism: The play calling has been frustrating throughout the season, but Monday’s offensive performance deserves serious questioning. The team sits receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, but then uses a spread offense against Kansas City. Why? As aforementioned, the team had three receivers — no, not including special team captain Matthew Slater — but to utilize the personnel this way is mind-boggling.

Third down has also been a huge problem. New England converted 2-of-9 Monday and are currently 27th in the NFL with a 36% success rate. It’s hard to score points and have success when the offense cannot sustain drives. Obviously, being more efficient on first and second down is key, but converting third downs was a big reason the team lost.

Run Defense Gashed: The Patriots has been relatively stout throughout the first three weeks, but were dominated Monday night. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich struggled to set the edge, with the front seven on defense consistently out of position, falling for the Chiefs’ misdirection plays.

Kansas City tailbacks Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis were eating up yards on every carry, getting up field for big gains all night. The Chiefs racked up 207 yards on the ground, averaging 5.4 yards-per-carry. The defense had problems getting off blocks and bringing down the opposing ball carries at first contact. 

Tackling An Issue (Again): It’s always amazing to see pro football players struggle with tackling, something taught to¬†Pee Wee teams across the country. But it’s been a problem this year, especially in Arrowhead. Players were over-pursuing, slipping all over the field — something I thought the equipment managers would adjust at halftime; i.e longer spikes — but when first contact occurred, Chiefs players shook free for extra yards.

Nothing is more frustrating than seeing players in position to make a play, but coming up on the losing end time-and-time again. That was the case Monday, and if this defense is going to improve they need to focus on this fundamental immediately.

Revis Needs to Play Press: The Patriots aggressively pursued cornerback Darrelle Revis in the offseason, a move that many thought would transform the unit to one of the league’s best. But on Monday, we saw more of what we’ve seen far too often this year, Revis playing off coverage and not on the line of scrimmage,

Going back to my time at training camp, I praised Revis’ ability to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, taking them out of the play with excellent hand technique. He’s not being used in the most effective way, which has made him look mediocre for back-to-back weeks.

Defense Can’t React, Must Attack:¬†Belichick has used his read-and-react, two-gap style of defense for the majority of his time as a head coach. While there are benefits to that scheme, it could be time for a change. As the defense is currently constructed, this personnel seems more built for an aggressive, gap-shooting defense. No more reacting, it’s time to be proactive.

Put the cornerbacks on the line to jam opposing receivers, bring some extra pressure with linebackers and force opposing teams to make quick decisions under pressure. If you get beat, you get beat. There’s no downside really, because right now they’re getting toasted anyways.

Slater’s Really, Really Good: Covering punts isn’t exactly the end-all-be-all, but Slater was exceptional again Monday night. In fact, he was one of the only Patriots players to have a strong game. He fires off the line, sprints down the sideline and tackles the return man before they can gain any positive yardage. He’s so fun to watch and an absolute weapon on special teams. He showed why he’s a Pro Bowl talent Monday.

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven!

Reaction: Patriots Dominated on National Stage by Chiefs, Sent Home Looking for Answers

Tom Brady finished the game on the sidelines after a disappointing blowout loss Monday night. (USA TODAY Images)

Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, it did.

The New England Patriots were defeated  by the Kansas City Chiefs 41-14 on Monday Night Football. The team was dominated in every phase of the game, in one of the ugliest team performances in recent memory. The 27-point loss was the second worse in the Bill Belichick era.

Safety Devin McCourty said post game, “This was probably the most embarrassing game I’ve ever been apart of.”

Hard to disagree, Devin. The Patriots were outplayed, outcoached and looked lost at Arrowhead Stadium Monday night. The Chiefs had a great offensive game plan, mixing up the run and pass to keep the New England defense off-balance. It didn’t seem to matter what Kansas City did, it worked.

Going into the game, it was expected the Patriots would try to make the Chiefs offense one-dimensional and take away the running game. New England was unable to contain the Kansas City tailbacks, as Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis gashed the defense throughout the contest. The Chiefs racked up 207 yards on the ground, averaging 5.4 yards-per-carry. Kansas City’s misdirection run plays had the Pats over-pursuing and tackling was yet again an issue for New England.

The Patriots offense was abysmal Monday, unable to gain any traction and could not get into a rhythm. Tom Brady had a forgettable performance, finishing 14-of-23, for 159 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. No. 12 wasn’t the only problem — or necessarily the biggest — the offensive line cracked multiple times, disrupting New England’s offense on several occasions.

The Patriots entered the game with only three true wide receivers active — Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola — Matthew Slater also considered a fourth option, though mainly a special teams player. With second-year receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins inactive, others were called upon and did not rise to the challenge.

New England’s pass-catching options have failed to create separation and win one-on-one match-ups throughout the season. That was again the case Monday night, with Brady and the offense coming up short on nearly every opportunity.

One of the few bright spots on offense, however, was wide receiver Brandon LaFell. While the Patriots couldn’t get much going through the air, LaFell finished the night with his best performance since joining the team this offseason. He hauled in six receptions for 119 yards and a touchdown. The offense needs to get more players involved besides Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, perhaps LaFell can be more involved moving forward.

Is the problem playcalling on offense? Execution? Communication? Could be a combination of the three. In any case, a serious shake-up has to occur if this team wants to have success this season.

When you look at the Patriots right now, they seem too tentative on both sides of the ball. Offensively they are struggling to find any consistency or develop an identity. Defensively, they are not playing up to their talent level. A more aggressive style seems to suit the current personnel. The unit played with no energy or tenacity on Monday.

Are the Patriots as bad as they looked Monday? Simply put, no. The game went Kansas City’s way and they deserve credit for their performance. There’s a lot of problems in New England right now, though. How they respond moving forward will tell us a lot about what kind of character this team has on the roster.

It doesn’t get any¬†easier next week¬†for New England. The team returns home to host the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday Night Football. Much more on this game and next week’s contest coming soon.

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven!

Patriots QB Tom Brady hopes to get the offense on track in a hostile environment Monday night. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots go on the road this week to face the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football. This is the Patriots third road game in four weeks, coming off a 16-9 victory against the Oakland Raiders.

The last time these two teams played was Nov. 21, 2011, when the Patriots defeated the visiting Chiefs 34-3 on (coincidentally) Monday Night Football. New England has not traveled to Kansas City since the 2005 season.

The Chiefs are coming off a dominating 34-15 performance against the Miami Dolphins. Kansas City is off to a 1-2 start this season and have lost the last four straight home games dating back to last year. Patriots QB Tom Brady is 4-1 all-time against the Chiefs, 1-1 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

Pregame Thoughts¬†—¬†

First Impressions: The Chiefs have some talent, but look incomplete at some areas on the roster. When head coach Andy Reid took over the team at the beginning of last year, they started 9-0, but have been a combined 3-7 to this point during the regular season.

Star tailback Jamaal Charles’ health situation, is obviously a big factor to monitor, but there’s no question the Chiefs are a run-oriented offense. Defensively, they are suspect in the middle of their defense, especially after losing linebacker Derrick Johnson to injury earlier this season. They do have an outstanding pass rush, though, which is a big concern since New England has struggled along the offensive line.

Chiefs Pass Rush Trio:¬†Kansas City has a solid defense, which is highlighted by three terrific players in the front seven. Pass rush duo Tamba Hali and Justin Houston on the edge, with penetrating lineman Dontari Poe in the middle. All three could have an impact Monday night and will have to be accounted for throughout the contest. Given New England’s offensive line troubles, this will be a huge challenge. All three players had a sack last week in the team’s win against Miami.

Communication will also be key for the Patriots. Arrowhead stadium is one of the most hostile environments in the NFL, the loudest documented with Seattle a close second. One of the hot-button topics throughout the week for New England was who will start at center?

Dan Connolly has struggled and Ryan Wendell has been removed from the injury report. Would the team consider rookie Bryan Stork? A tough spot for his first career start, but players and coaches have praised the Florida State product for his communication since his arrival. The offensive line will be under a microscope throughout the game.

Defending the Run a Priority:¬†Jamaal Charles may be hobbled with an ankle injury, but that didn’t slow down the Chiefs rushing attack in week three. Knile Davis stepped in for 132 yards on 32 attempts and a touchdown. Kansas City had 174 yards on the ground as a team.

Whether it’s Charles, Davis or another Chiefs’ taliback, New England has to focus on taking that element away and making them one-dimensional. The Patriots currently rank 11th in the league in run defense, with opponents averaging 104 yards on the ground through three games.New England has not let up a run bigger than 15 yards and allowed only one running touchdown.

Captain Jerod Mayo and the front seven will have their work cut out for them in this contest and fellow linebacker Jamie Collins’ availability could be huge facing so much speed in Kansas City’s backfield.

Third Down Battles: On both sides of the ball, the Chiefs play well on third-down. In fact, both units are currently ranked 7th; 48% offense and 36% defense. Obviously the Patriots will have to covert on third-down to find success offensively and also get off the field defensively in order to win this game.

Opposite Ends of Turnover Spectrum: Turnovers are huge in a football game and both teams this week are on opposite ends of the spectrum to start the season. The Patriots are first (tied with the Cincinnati Bengals) at plus-six. On the flip side, the Chiefs are dead last at minus-five. Kansas City has yet to force a turnover this season, which is surprising considering they were second in the NFL a season ago.

Players To Watch:

Patriots Center –¬†Sounds weird, but a big focus of this contest will be New England’s offensive line. How will they handle the loud environment in Kansas City and the Chiefs strong front seven. Who starts at center? Will there be a change made along the offensive line? Can they effectively communicate with Brady and the other lineman? We’ll see.

Tom Brady¬†–¬† There’s been a lot of criticism on the Patriots offense and Brady. Fair or not, there’s no doubt Brady has heard fans and analysts all week. What better time to silence the critics than on Monday Night Football? He is 216 passing yards shy of eclipsing 50,000 for his career and has thrown the third most touchdowns in MNF history (42). Look for the Patriots offense to adjust and Brady to have a big game this week.

Chandler Jones¬†–¬†After losing Brandon Albert in free agency, Kansas City moved 2013 no.1 overall pick Eric Fisher to the left side during the offseason. Chandler Jones has played pretty well and Fisher has struggled so far this season. Jones needs to win this match-up and pressure Chiefs QB Alex Smith.

Key Matchup:¬†Tamba Hali vs Nate Solder —

This will be one of the most exciting and pivotal match-ups of the game. Hali brings an incredible amount of power and tenacity in his game. Patriots left tackle, Nate Solder, has struggled so far this season. Hali has 29 career forced fumbles and the Chiefs have had four sacks in two of their three games this year.

Prediction: Patriots 23, Chiefs, 16

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Five Takeaways from the Patriots Victory Over the Raiders

Tom Brady and the Patriots offense must make big adjustments moving forward. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots defeated the visiting Oakland Raiders 16-9 Sunday, lifting the team to a 2-1 record on the year.

Despite the victory, getting New England above the .500 mark for the first time this season, Sunday was not the Patriots’ best performance. There are a lot of issues right now for the Patriots, starting with the offense.

Expectations are high, so naturally Sunday’s performance was uninspiring to say the least. There’s a lot to digest after this game, but let’s start with these five thoughts on the contest. —

Offensive Line Woes a Major Concern:¬†It’s not time to panic (yet), but there are some serious deficiencies along the offensive line. The unit struggles to run block, protect in the passing game and their inconsistent play is hurting the offense’s momentum.

During training camp and into the preseason, the Patriots were shuffling lineman on a regular basis. That trend has continued somewhat into the season, with some personnel changes happening in each of the first three games. With the shuffling and trade of Logan Mankins, it’s hard not to question the coaching staff. You have to wonder if they have confidence in their best five players and¬†if these problems can be resolved.

Nate Solder is not playing like a first-round,¬†franchise¬†left tackle. Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey are missing blocks and allowing too much pressure up the middle. Dan Connolly has made some mistakes at center and perhaps would be better suited to play guard. Whatever the solution is, something needs to change. Tom Brady has taken way too many hits and it’s hard not to be concerned about his health if this continues. He was sacked twice and hit six times Sunday.

Passing Game Out of Sync:¬†The Patriots passing game is limited right now, to say the least. It’s Julian Edelman, with a dash of Rob Gronkowski, and nothing else. With no inside knowledge of the specific reads in passing plays, it’s hard to pinpoint the blame of Josh McDaniels or Tom Brady. Maybe both.

Danny Amendola has not caught a pass since the fourth quarter of week one’s loss to the Miami Dolphins. Brandon LaFell has caught only four passes of the fourteen targets his direction through three weeks. Tim Wright has four catches this year, only targeted once Sunday. Aaron Dobson was a “healthy scratch” (since he wasn’t on the injury report) and Kenbrell Thompkins wasn’t involved either.

Plain and simple, they need a shakeup. The weapons aren’t stellar, but more than capable of being a productive unit. After all, the team has not scored a touchdown in the second half through three games. Unacceptable with no.12 at the helm.¬†It’s ok to target your best weapons, Edelman and Gronkowski, but you need other players to get involved.

Dont’a Hightower Continues to Impress: Who has been the best defensive player for the Patriots this season? Not Jerod Mayo or Darrelle Revis, but Dont’a Hightower. The third-year linebacker has been terrific through three weeks, playing with confidence and tenacity. Run or pass, Hightower has made an impact and clearly playing closer to the line of scrimmage is more in his comfort zone.

The 6’3, 270 linebacker had seven tackles, one for a loss, a QB hit and a pass breakup 30-yards down the field defending Raiders tailback, Darren McFadden, in Sunday’s contest. Through three games he’s had two sacks, five Qb hits and 14 pressures. His play has stood out on film in each game and his continued development is a great sign moving forward.

Patriots Must Stick with Ground Attack: One of the most disappointing results from Sunday’s game, was the lack of success on the ground against Oakland’s defense. Going into week three, the Raiders were the worst run defense in the NFL, allowing an average of 200 yards in the first two games.

New England attempted 29 rushes, but came up with only 83 yards on the day. Stevan Ridley, who had 101 yards in week two, had 19 carries for only 54 yards and 11 of those runs were for two or fewer yards. Not only did the Pats’ offensive line fail to get push up front, New England’s tailbacks were unable to make much happen in the process.

Despite the mediocre performance, the team cannot abandon the ground attack all together. In fact, they should lean upon the run game to start opening up more plays down the field and utilize play-action passes. For instance, it was surprising to see the team open up week three with all passes on the first series. A balanced offense would alleviate some of the pressure on the offensive line and help get the unit into a rhythm.

Special Teams Play Rebounds: The third, and often forgotten phase of the game, special teams, can often have a big impact on games. The Patriots had relatively poor performances to start the season, particularly to open the year against the Dolphins in Miami, but rebounded big Sunday.

Team captain, Matthew Slater, put on an absolute clinic in Sunday’s contest. If you have the ability to re-watch games or plays, watch Slater covering punts. Despite double-teams, he was able to make two huge plays.

Stephen Gostkowski was perfect on the day, making all three attempts from relatively close range. Punter Ryan Allen, placed two of his five punts inside the 20 and had a booming 58-yard kick that flipped field position.

The one critique, that has been a big issue for several years, is the lack of a threat in the kick return game. Slater’s 26-yard attempt was the lone-highlight, but the team does not have anyone who excels in that area of the game. On the bright side, the Patriots were not penalized on special teams in week three, which had not been the case in each of the first two contests.

Overall, it’s always nice to get a win in the NFL, but the correct adjustments need to be made moving forward. Back to the film room — and the drawing board — before the team travels into a hostile environment, at Kansas City to play the Chiefs on Monday Night Football, in week four. More on that game shortly.

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven!

Pregame Thoughts and Analysis: Patriots Host Raiders in Home Opener

The Patriots may lean on Stevan Ridley and the ground attack in week three. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots host the Oakland Raiders in their home opener at Gillette Stadium Sunday. This is the first meeting in New England since the 2005 season, although the last contest was Oct. 2, 2011 in Oakland. The Raiders lost to the Houston Texans 30-14 last week, while the Patriots rolled 30-7 over the Minnesota Vikings.

The Raiders look to get their first victory of the 2014 season, while the Patriots attempt to get over the .500 mark. This will be Oakland Head Coach Dennis Allen’s first game facing New England in his tenure, Bill Belichick is 4-1 against the Raiders since he’s been with the Patriots.

Pregame Thoughts¬†—¬†

First Impressions: The Raiders are off to a slow start, and while there have been some positives, Oakland has serious deficiencies on both sides of the ball. They have struggled to run and defend the ground attack, putting a lot of pressure of rookie QB Derek Carr. Despite adding a lot of veteran talent, Oakland has allowed 24.5 points-per-game.

Run Game Could Be Factor: The run game will be key for both teams. The Patriots will look to stay balanced offensively and should find some success. Oakland has allowed the most rushing yards to opponents this season, averaging 200 yards on the ground each contest.

The Raiders have the 31st ranked rushing attack in the NFL, averaging only 63 yards-per-game. Taking the running attack away from Oakland and forcing them to be one-dimensional could prove to be a huge advantage for New England. It was a similar situation last week against the Vikings and the Patriots had four interceptions on the day.

Defending Derek Carr:¬†While Carr has played respectable through his first two career starts, he has struggled to push the ball down the field, illustrated by his 5.6 yards per attempt. As aforementioned, the Raiders have struggled to run the ball efficiently. Putting cornerback, Darrelle Revis, against Oakland’s apparent top receiver, James Jones, and taking away their rushing attack, could fluster the rookie. If the Patriots jump out to an early lead, do the Raiders have the fire power to overcome the deficit?

Third Down Success: Looking at the box score after a game, third down success can often translate to wins. The Patriots need to capitalize on both sides of the ball this week. The Raiders have converted just 23.8% of third downs offensively (31st in NFL). On the flip side, Oakland’s defense ranks 29th on third downs, allowing opposing teams to convert 51.9% of the time.

Players To Watch:

Stevan Ridley¬†–¬†While Tom Brady gets the passing attack in sync, the Patriots may try to take advantage of a weak Raiders run defense. They want to stay balanced and getting Ridley on track early might be the remedy to their offensive woes. He was effective in week two (25 carries for 101 yards) would expect a similar workload Sunday.

Aaron Dobson¬†–¬†¬†There’s been a lot of talk about Brady relying too heavily on Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. With Dobson back in the mix, he could be a much-needed boost for a lackluster passing game. If Dobson can win his one-on-one opportunities, New England might have more success through the air.

Dont’a Hightower –¬†With opposing offenses focusing on Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, Hightower has put together back-to-back impressive performances this year. Playing much closer to the line of scrimmage has proved to be beneficial and look for him to have an impact on the edge.

Key Matchup:¬†Tyvon Branch vs Rob Gronkowski —

Both teams are vastly different from their last contest in 2011, but Oakland safety Tyvon Branch matched-up against Rob Gronkowski throughout the day. Gronk was held to just one catch for 15 yards. Branch is a physical, athletic player and could be once again called with the tall task of covering one of the NFL’s best weapons.

Prediction: Patriots 41, Raiders, 17

After a week one loss, the Patriots responded with a solid win on the road against the Vikings. While New England’s offense has been hot-and-cold through two weeks, they won’t face much resistance in this contest. Expect the Pats’ defense to have another big day, putting the offense in position to rack up points throughout the day.

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Monday Hangover: Dolphins Dominate in the Trenches, Leave Patriots Looking for Answers

The Patriots leave Miami searching for answers after losing to the Dolphins 33-20 in week one. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots opened the 2014 season on the road to face the Miami Dolphins. Sunday’s contest¬†was a hot-and-cold performance, resulting in a 33-20 Dolphins victory.¬†The Patriots find themselves in unfamiliar territory, last place in the AFC East and the only team in the division to not get a victory in week one.

Expectations are high¬†in New England, so naturally Sunday’s performance was uninspiring to say the least. There’s a lot to digest after this game, but let’s start with these five thoughts on the contest. —

Patriots Crumbled in Second Half: New England had a rough start to the game, but settled down to a produce a solid first half. The Patriots led 20-10 through the first 30 minutes of play, then the bottom fell out. The offense could not get on the same page, the defense struggled to contain and the Dolphins ran away with the early division showdown.

There are several areas of concern, but the coaching staffs inability to adjust and put the players in the best position to succeed stood out. Of course, the team needed to execute better too. Just an all-around bad performance by the team.

Dolphins Dominate Line of Scrimmage: Miami took care of business in the trenches Sunday, having their way on both sides of the ball. The rebuilt Dolphins offensive line took advantage of a light 3-4 New England front, allowing running back, Knowshon Moreno, to gash the Patriots defense for 134 yards. The lack of gap integrity and poor tackling was frustrating, especially after the return of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, the core of the Pats defense.

Chandler Jones was quiet, stone-walled by Pro Bowl left tackle, Brandon Albert. While Bill Belichick might want to play a 3-4 defense, a 4-3 front looks like the better fit for the current personnel. An adjustment of Wilfork paired with Sealver Siliga in the middle, with Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the ends could be worth a try. Playing Jones as a 3-4 defensive end, does not maximize his athleticism on the edge.

The Dolphins defensive line outmatched New England’s offensive front Sunday as well. Cameron Wake and the Miami pass rush sacked Tom Brady four times. The Patriots rotated at center and right guard throughout the game, which could be a reflection of the coaching staff not confident in their best unit moving forward.

Brady, Passing Attack Out of Sync:¬†The Patriots offense was a mess for the majority of Sunday’s contest. Brady did not look like himself, delivering one of his worst games in recent memory. Blame it on the offensive line, his injured calf, the bugaboo of playing in Miami, whatever; it wasn’t good enough.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, though. Rob Gronkowski 11 targets, 4 receptions; Kenbrell Thompkins 10 targets, 5 receptions; Brandon Lafell 6 targets, 0 receptions; Amendola had 3 catches for 16 yards, simply not good enough all around. Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman were stellar in the first half, but were not as involved in the second half; one of the many coaching criticisms from Sunday.

Special Teams Meltdown: An often forgotten element of football games is special teams, but it reared it’s ugly head Sunday. After a three-and-out to start the game, long-snapper Danny Aiken’s snap skipped to punter Ryan Allen allowing the Dolphins to block and recover. Allen struggled in other attempts, too. Kickoff return men, Matthew Slater and Patrick Chung, could not make anything happen, something that has been lacking for way too long.

Overshadowed Performances: While the overall result was poor, there were several players that had strong performances Sunday. Linebacker Jamie Collins flew around the field, forced a fumble and delivered some big hits. Edelman had six catches for 95 yards, building off his strong summer. Shane Vereen had 71 total yards and got into the endzone, his versatility gives the offense an extra dimension.

Overall, time to regroup and make the correct adjustments moving forward. Back to the film room — and the drawing board — before week two at the Minnesota Vikings.

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Pregame Thoughts and Analysis: Patriots Take on Dolphins in Season Opener

Patriots tailback Shane Vereen could be a big factor in Sunday’s game. (USA TODAY Images)

After a long offseason, the NFL is back in action.

The New England Patriots travel to Miami to open the season against the division rival Dolphins. Last season, the teams split the two-game series with the Dolphins losing at New England 27-17 before winning at Miami 24-20. 

The Patriots start the 2014 season with three of their first four games on the road. New England has struggled in Miami, illustrated by Tom Brady’s 7-6 record. The Dolphins look to take the AFC East reins and make the playoffs for the first time since 2008, while the Patriots are determined to put together another championship run. It starts this Sunday.

Pregame Thoughts¬†—¬†

Miami Heat:¬†As I mentioned before, the Patriots have struggled in Miami. In fact, they have been average when they travel into Sunlife Stadium. But could facing the Dolphins to start the year be a positive? I believe so. They have been practicing in primarily warm weather over the past few weeks and have had several weeks to prepare. If this contest was in the middle of the season, it would make sense if they had more issues. It won’t be easy, but starting the year in Miami could be a blessing in disguise.

Can the Patriots Offense Get on Track Early: At the beginning of the year, offenses are usually less efficent and high-powered than midseason. The Patriots have Rob Gronkowski as well as Aaron Dobson¬†returning from injury, newly acquired Tim Wright and a solid group of receivers to spread out defenses. Brady’s ability to get in a rhythm and find the open target will be key. Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen stand out as players to be relied upon early while the others get on track.

Dolphins Bring Balanced Attack: The Dolphins have a rebuilt offensive line, which they desperately needed to keep third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill upright. Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno will shoulder the load on the ground, while Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Charles Clay and Jarvis Landry stretch the field. New offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will bring a balanced attack and has some weapons to be effective.

Battle in the Trenches Key for Both Teams: The Dolphins want to knock Brady around Sunday. It’s their best chance to win. The Patriots have done a lot of shuffling along the offensive line and they moved on from long-time assistant Dante Scarnecchia. There’s a lot of uncertainty and Miami will be turning up the heat featuring pass rush terror, Cameron Wake.

On the other side, the Patriots could be aggressive versus a rebuilt Miami line. No quarterback was sacked more than Ryan Tannehill last season and he has shown to make mistakes under pressure. After Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, though, who will step up for New England? Expect some linebacker blitzes and a lot of personnel changes. First-round selection Dominique Easley could offer some interior pressure if he’s ready to go.

Players To Watch:

Rob Gronkowski – Gronk announced he will play earlier in the week. How much action will he see? That will be up to Bill Belichick. In his first three games back last year, he was on the field for 60.4% of the snaps on offense. He won’t be in midseason form at the start, but he’ll have an impact. Last season the team averaged 11 points-per-game more when he was on the field.

Shane Vereen – With Gronkowski working his way back, I expect Vereen to see a lot of action. His skill set is unique and he’s a tough matchup for defenses. Whether it’s in the backfield, next to Brady in shotgun or split out wide, he’ll be utilized and leaned upon in this contest.

Chandler Jones – The Patriots defense is poised for a strong 2014 season. The key pass rusher will be Jones and he’ll be needed in this game. Tannehill is prone to mistakes, so getting in his face early-and-often would give a huge edge to New England. The Dolphins allowed 58 sacks in 2013.

Key Matchup: 

Charles Clay vs the Patriots Defense – New England has struggled with opposing tight ends in recent years. Clay is a utility weapon that presents a ton of issues. He had a strong 2013 season, hauling in 69 passes for 759 yards and six touchdowns.

Will Jamie Collins be called to matchup? Darrelle Revis? A safety?  Who knows. Last season Belichick double covered Clay at times in their second meeting, clearly game planning to take him out of the Dolphins offense; he finished with only one catch for six yards. It might take that type of effort again in this contest.

Prediction: Patriots 23, Dolphins, 17

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven!

Patriots 53-Man Roster Projection 2.0

Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick has some tough decisions to make as the 2014 season rapidly approaches. (USA TODAY Images)

With training camp and preseason complete, the Patriots roster is taking shape. While there is more clarity at some positions, the roster is by no means a finished product.

After the first round of cuts, the team must trim their roster yet again. There’s 53 spots, along with an additional¬†10 for the practice squad.¬†New England has some tough decisions to make across the board.

While I expect some changes to be made even after Saturday’s 4 p.m. EST deadline, here is my final 53-man projection. —

Quarterback: 3

Tom Brady
Ryan Mallett
Jimmy Garoppolo

Brady is the face of the franchise, so the question has been who will be the backup? Garoppolo has impressed and shown growth, but Mallett remains on the team as well.

Running Back: 3

Steven Ridley
Shane Vereen
James White

Vereen and White are¬†locks to make the roster. Some have speculated Ridley could be on the outside looking in, but I believe he’s safe. Brandon Bolden and Jonas Gray might not carry enough weight to earn a spot on the team’s roster. Roy Finch could be an intriguing guy to keep around on the practice squad.

Full Back: 1

James Develin 

Last season, Develin carved out a solid role within the offense. He brings toughness in short-yardage situations and performs on special teams. The Pats experimented moving him around, even lining up at tight end. Could we see an expanded role this year?

Wide Receiver: 5

Julian Edelman
Aaron Dobson
Brandon LaFell
Danny Amendola
Kenbrell Thompkins

As of now, five wide receivers seem like they have a legitimate shot at making the roster.¬†Josh Boyce has underwhelmed and I don’t believe he’s earned a spot to this point unless the team values his special teams ability enough. Brian Tyms, suspended for the first four games of the season, could be around the team in some way when he’s available.

Tight End (3)

Rob Gronkowski
Michael Hoomanawanui
Tim Wright

The surprise trade for former Tampa Bay Buccaneers player, Tim Wright, added some depth as a pass catching tight end. Essentially, it’s been Gronkowski or bust for the tight end position. It still seems possible he returns week one, but it’s not a guarantee. “Hooman”¬†has missed time with an injury, but he seems like a better player than converted tackle, Steve Maneri.

Tackle: 4

Nate Solder
Sebastian Vollmer

Marcus Cannon
Cameron Fleming

While I see Solder and Vollmer as the set starters, both Cannon and Fleming have the versatility the Pats covet in lineman.

Guard: 3

Dan Connolly
Josh Kline
Jon Halapio 

The number of three guards is somewhat misleading because of the versatility on the Patriots roster. This position has little clarity after Logan Mankins was dealt earlier this week. It’s almost impossible to predict who will be starting at left guard, center and right guard week 1 in Miami. Despite playing a tremendous amount of snaps during the preseason, Jordan Devey was somewhat underwhelming.

Center: 2

Ryan Wendell
Bryan Stork

Wendell¬†had a very good season two years ago, but came up small in 2013. Stork missed a good amount of time during training camp, which hurt his ability to compete for the starting role. I see both making the team, but if Wendell isn’t the starter at center he’ll be cut.

Defensive Ends: 4

Chandler Jones
Rob Ninkovich

Michael Buchanan
Zach Moore

After Jones and Ninkovich, there’s a noticeable drop off. The depth is very concerning at the defensive end position. Buchanan offers intriguing upside, but the injury sustained in Thursday’s preseason finale will need to be monitored closely. Moore might need some time to develop, but had a good preseason and shown versatility. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team look for some veteran help when the dust settles from Saturday’s league-wide cutdown deadline.

Defensive Tackles: 5

Vince Wilfork
Dominique Easley
Chris Jones
Sealver Siligia 
Joe Vellano

The cut of Tommy Kelly was a surprise, but it also speaks to the confidence in the young players on the roster. Wilfork appears ready to go and poised for a big bounce-back year. How quickly Easley, Jones and Siliga can return from their injuries will be key, but all have a spot. Vellano impressed over the past few weeks, edging out  Jerel Worthy.

Linebackers: 6

Jerod Mayo
Dont’a Hightower
Jamie Collins
Steve Beauharnais
Darius Fleming
James Morris

Mayo, Hightower and Collins are locks. After that, the depth is a little shaky. Beauharnais looks to make an impact after a quiet rookie year. The release of veteran James Anderson opens the door for Darius Fleming, who has a similar skill-set. Bill Belichick has spoken highly of James Morris, he could be a nice developmental player if he can stay healthy.

Cornerbacks: 5

Darrelle Revis
Alfonzo Dennard
Kyle Arrington
Logan Ryan

Malcolm Butler

The surprise big name throughout preseason was undrafted rookie, Malcolm Butler. All five listed cornerbacks should find a spot on the team’s 53-man roster, giving New England a deep group. Brandon Browner, suspended for the first four games of the season, should have a role when he returns in week five.

Safeties: 5

Devin McCourty
Duron Harmon
Patrick Chung
Nate Ebner
Tavon Wilson

Similar to the interior offensive line, there has been little clarity at the safety position. We know McCourty will be one of the starters. Harmon, Chung, Ebner and Wilson — along with many of the team’s cornerbacks — have spent time rotating at safety over the past few weeks. Chung could have a valued role as an in-the-box safety. Ebner and Wilson make the team for their ability on special teams.

Special Teams: 4

Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Punter: Ryan Allen
Long Snapper: Danny Aiken
Specialist: Matthew Slater

No surprises here, all four players are locks. Aiken beat out rookie Tyler Ott for the long snapping duties and Slater, a special team standout and team captain, also earns a spot on the roster.

Breakdown —¬†Offense: 24 ¬† Defense: 25 ¬†Special Teams: 4

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven!

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