August 19, 2010
Patriots Work Offensive Balancing Act To Perfection
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
ATLANTA -- Six passes. Then six rushes. Touchdown. Unlike what you might have thought you saw in South Africa last month, this really was beautiful football.
Playing most of the first half, the first Patriot units clearly dominated the same crew from the Atlanta Falcons, a team which the Patriots practiced with all week long like they did last week at home against New Orleans. A sultry week in the suburb of Flowery Branch featuring hot and humid practices once again produced a good looking product in the end. Bill Belichick may want to make this a weekly habit if the games go as well as they do if you get to practice against the team you are playing.
The Patriot offense mixed it up really well in the first half, with Wes Welker making a richly satisfying appearance probably the most memorable moment of the evening. Welker had two catches for 20 yards and got blasted on another throw, but he came out of the game unscathed and seemingly ready for game action when the season begins next month. On defense, some nice coverage from rookie Devin McCourty and an interception by Jonathan Willhite helped to propel the Patriots to a 14-3 lead at intermission. In the end, the Patriots prevailed 28-10 after the scrubs played the second half.
Tom Brady looked in midseason form all game long, after hurting his finger last week and looking okay at times and off kilter at others. Brady was 10 of 12 passing for 85 yards and a touchdown, but his direction of the offense in general was really fun to watch and analyze, even though it was against a defense which has a bad reputation for not being able to get off the field on third down.
The first Patriot offensive series will be talked about all throughout the rest of August. It began with a holding penalty on Stephen Neal, then the next six plays were passes. Welker caught his two for 20 yards, then got blasted by Chris Owens on a quick hitch in the left flat on the next play. Sammy Morris caught a screen pass in the right flat for three yards, then Kevin Faulk took a toss in the right flat and broke away for eleven yards and a first down.
56 yards away from the end zone, the Patriots went to the ground game and ripped off six straight runs. Fred Taylor ran five of them, peeling off runs of three, eight, four and four yards before Morris gained ten yards while lined up at fullback. On first and ten at the Falcon 28, Taylor took a handoff and headed off left tackle. Thanks to Alge Crumpler's seal block and a missed tackle by Sean Weatherspoon, Taylor ran to the house and the Patriots led, 7-3.
Following a three and out on their next drive, the Patriots once again went the distance. The Patriots were able to withstand a sack and two runs for losses by Taylor, and even a missed field goal attempt by the normally perfect Stephen Gostkowski thanks to a Falcon defense which gave up long gains to Randy Moss and rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez.
The Falcons had the Patriots stopped at the Falcon 24, and Gostkowski lined up to try a 41-yard field goal. He pushed the kick wide right, but Chevis Jackson was called for roughing the kicker. All Jackson did was lightly nudge Gostkowski's plant leg and the Patriot kicker might have been nominated for an Oscar with the flopdown. But the Patriots got the ball back, and three plays later Brady found Hernandez from four yards out for the score despite good coverage from Weatherspoon on the play.
Defensively the Patriots gave up some short gains underneath, but nothing too dramatic or impactive. Former BC quarterback Matt Ryan did lead the Falcons on a field goal drive on their opening possession, finding Tony Gonzalez, Justin Peelle and Michael Turner in zone seams for nice gains. But the Falcons got no closer than the Patriot 28, and Matt Bryant was able to boot a 46-yard field goal to give Atlanta an early 3-0 lead.
What stopped this drive was good coverage from the Patriot secondary and a nice pass rush. Marques Murrell forced a Ryan overthrow with a blitz on first down from the Patriot 34, then on third down Ryan was flushed out of the pocket and had to throw the ball away. McCourty helped stall the second drive, making a great play on Roddy White to force a three-and-out.
Tight ends had a great night for the Patriots. Both Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski hauled in touchdown passes on the evening, Gronkowski's coming in the fourth quarter as he corralled a 24-yard scoring toss from Brian Hoyer. Hernandez and Gronkowski each led the Patriots with four catches each, a sign that perhaps the winds of change are blowing through the Patriot offense.
And winds may be blowing in the offensive backfield as well. Both rushing touchdowns were from 20 yards out or longer. Taylor and Morris combined for 106 yards rushing between them, with Morris averaging 8.5 yards per carry. If Taylor and Morris can both stay healthy, they certainly will take a lot of pressure off of Laurence Maroney, who did not play Thursday night. Both running backs found nice big holes to run through, though the Falcon defense might not be a true indication of this offensive line's run blocking ability.
The Patriots return home next week to take on the St. Louis Rams, who went 1-15 last year and got top draft pick Sam Bradford for their ineptitude. The third preseason game is usually the dress rehearsal for the regular season, so it will be interesting to see what Belichick decides to work on in that game. They will be going up against a Rams team that on paper is far weaker than either the Falcons or the Saints. Regulars play longer in the third preseason week, but still don't like showing off too much of what they plan to do in the regular season.
So what will Belichick do? He might want to continue to work on the running game. He may want to keep working on blitz packages and see what they really have in Murrell. He may want to get his rookie tight ends more throws to see how they handle being held while catching the ball, among other things. He may want to keep working McCourty out at cornerback more than putting him in kickoff return duty.
What Belichick may have wanted was a little stiffer competition than St. Louis. They have nowhere to go but up under second year head coach Steve Spagnuolo. But the Patriots handled all levels of the Falcon depth chart with relative ease this week. The Patriots may not be ready to run the table in 2007, but after two preseason games, so far, so good.
Hmmm. Six passes and then six runs. Surely there's some stat geek out there who has no life other than to answer questions like "Has that ever happened before?"
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