Welcome to another edition of Opposition Research, where I’ll be taking a look at the next Packers opponent, the New England Patriots (11-2). The Patriots have only lost once to an NFC team at Gillette Stadium – a long time ago, in October 2002, to the Packers. So, the Pats aren't invincible. At the start of the season, there might have been even money on the Packers to win this game. But, given Green Bay’s injuries, and the recent play of each team, the Packers will need a minor miracle to pull off the upset in Foxboro.
Coming into this game, the Patriots… followed up their 45-3 domination of Rex Ryan and the New York Jets by going into Soldier Field and tattooing the Bears defense to the tune of 36 points. That’s right, the Patriots offense has dropped 81 points on two of the toughest defenses in the league, and yet, per WR Deion Branch, they’re only operating at 85% efficiency. Allow me (and everyone else) to pick my jaw up off the floor.
As he did so well for the Packers, the Boston Globe’s Greg Bedard broke down three key plays from the Bears game.
The Patriots take the field these days looking like they know what's going to happen, instead of hoping for a happy outcome. They won't say it, of course, but they're smelling it now. Sunday's win clinched a playoff berth for New England, but the Pats know there's much more to come, and bigger wins on the way.
Actually, that’s mostly just the media. Many fans of the team understand that -- especially after that 18-1 season -- the important games come in the postseason, and that the remaining games are for tweaking what’s still not quite right:
Cunningham has a much better motor and first step than Banta-Cain. Seriously. Cunningham is way more dangerous.
Guyton showed why he's not a real consideration for OLB. He lacks the strength to shed blockers- which is also another reason he struggles in run defense.
Just like Coach Hoodie, Patriots fans care about the details. They want perfection, dagnabbit!
Something to chew on… at every opportunity, Packers HC Mike McCarthy will say that confidence is the most important characteristic for a successful team. He wants his team to be confident, it’s no secret. Contrast that with Belichick, who is legendary for his focus on the negatives rather than the “pawsitives.” Greg Bedard wrote about this in January:
Belichick has game tape cut specifically to accentuate the positives of an upcoming opponent and the weaknesses of the New England Patriots - even in the midst of their 18-0 run in 2007.
"Bill convinced us every week we were David and the opponent was Goliath," said New Orleans Saints fullback Heath Evans, who played for the Patriots from 2005-'08. "He'd show us our errors every week and he'd harp on the small errors of our game and tell us it was holding us back. He'd say, 'Yeah we're 11-0, but we should be 8-3 right now and this is why. We have to get over these sins that we're having right now or these faults that we’re making; this is what’s going to cost us.'
"He was just being kind of like a trial lawyer and he was proving a case to the jury. We were the jury, and we were taking it hook, line and sinker."
Which coaching method is better? If you measure it by rings, Belichick wins 3-0. Players take cuts just to play for Belichick. Would humility and a little critical feedback give the Packers the mental toughness to get over their close game hump? Is positive reinforcement always good? It’s something to think about.
When looking at the Packers on film… Every week, Bill Belichick talks up his opponent like they’re already Super Bowl champs. The Packers are no exception. This week, the proverbial “Man of Steel” is corner Charles Woodson, who – in Belichick’s mind, anyway – can do no wrong:
Outstanding. Outstanding. He does everything well… When he plays inside in the slot position, or even in the perimeter, he plays very well. I’d say Woodson, [Antoine] Winfield, there are a handful of guys that really stand out in that area [and Woodson] would be in that group. [He’s] an excellent tackler. You rarely see him miss. So, I think he’s as good and complete player in that position that you will find in the league.
(I bet Belichick didn't show his team much film of Woodson getting torched by Calvin Johnson for 44 yards last week and missing three other tackles…or of Woodson forgetting to cover Vernon Davis in the slot the week before…or of Woodson needing a holding penalty to keep Roddy White from catching a sure-fire touchdown...you get the picture.)
What We’re Up Against: A damn good football team.
Gregg Easterbrook wrote one of the best analyses of why New England is succeeding – namely, that Belichick has learned how to play bad weather football. He’s had the Patriots outdoors all week (for the entire practice, not just part), and he planned a brilliant game against the Jets (in driving wind) and Bears (in snow and wind). That kind of adaptability is crucial at this point in the season, when playoff berths are at stake (Sunday's forecast calls for snow). New England’s already secured a spot, but Robert Kraft (New England’s owner) wants a home game.
What impresses me most about QB Tom Brady is his on-the-field leadership. He holds onto a lead and milks the clock with expert precision. I love to watch him fake a pass after handing off the ball --- he goes through the whole throwing motion! And, when he means to throw, it’s usually more than a cursory handoff – he frequently hides the ball in a way that’s almost theatrical. He’s not mobile – at all – but he keeps plays alive with his feet. He runs those gimmicky, flea-flicker type plays better than anyone else. Not that he needs to, naturally – it's not like the trick plays are trying to compensate for a porous offensive line or a subpar receiving corps. (In truth, the Patriots have one of the game’s best offensive lines, especially now that G Logan Mankins is back in the fold and back in gameshape.)
In his post-game interview after the Jets game, Brady summed up the team’s attitude:
We really take after our coach (Bill Belichick), and he says ‘When you win, say little. When you lose, say less.’
That kind of no-nonsense demeanor filters down to the rest of the team, especially with the departures of loudmouth LB Adalius Thomas (in April) and WR Randy Moss (in October). In the article linked to above, Easterbrook highlights why Belichick prefers undrafted guys (5 started last week) to the top-flight draftees:
A week ago, undrafted Danny Woodhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Wes Welker significantly outperformed the Jets' offense, which starts eight first-round draft choices…. High-drafted megabucks players tend to devote a lot of time and energy to complaining, while the undrafted give you what they've got. The kind of players who give you what they've got benefit more from coaching. Note that Belichick's teams almost never have busted plays, blown coverages or wrong routes. Undrafted or unwanted players learn the playbook and watch film. High-drafted glory-boy types think they can just show up and wing it.
There are always exceptions to the rule (has anyone seen Howard Green since the game against the Jets?), but this maxim holds true for the Packers as well --- one need only look at Sam Shields and Tramon Williams to see how a player can develop with the want-to (however it comes). And, what’s more, after watching the Patriots during last two weeks, the thought occurred to me:
If the Packers win this game, it’ll be because Charlie Peprah and Sam Shields played the best games of their professional lives.
Against the Jets, safety Eric Smith – filling in for ex-Badger Jim Leonard – had a miserable night, giving up huge plays and getting flagged for interference at key moments. When the Patriots went with an empty backfield – whether with 3 WR 2 TE or 4 WR 1 TE – they abused the nickel corner mercilessly. More times than I can count, Brady got a short pass out to Welker or Woodhead, who would immediately make a guy (linebacker, safety, whatever) miss and turn upfield. How do you beat the Bears cover-2 scheme? You throw to a TE up the seam, or you throw short (high-percentage) passes and let your playmakers make plays.
This arsenal of playmakers is what makes New England so dangerous.
WR Wes Welker averaged over 11 yards per reception against three of the toughest pass defenses in the game – Pittsburgh, Chicago, and (until they played New England) the Jets. He has neither the speed of second-year WR/KR Brandon Tate nor the deep-threat ability of sure-handed WR Deion Branch, but he’s Brady’s version of Donald Driver --- he fights for the tough yards, and then some. His 115 yd outing against Chicago made it clear that he’s regained full confidence in his surgically-repaired knee (and that Brady has regained full confidence in him).
I wondered what Belichick was thinking when he let TE Ben Watson leave in free agency last year. Naturally, Coach Hoodie knew better --- the rookie duo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski give the Patriots an absolute embarrassment of riches at tight end. Hernandez is built more like a receiver, and his 7.2 YAC average is near the top at his position. Despite a costly fumble against Cleveland, Gronk has developed into a fine run-blocker and a physical receiver, especially near the goal line.
In the run game, the “law firm” of BenJarvis Green-Ellis gets most of the carries, and averages around 4.2ypc. He’s nowhere near the receiver that longtime (injured) Patriot Kevin Faulk is, but that’s ok --- that’s what Danny Woodhead is for. Woodhead's ability to change speed quickly and bounce away from tackles is going to be a challenge for Packers defenders who haven't tackled cleanly for several weeks. A 10.3 YAC average doesn’t hurt, either.
It’s not easy to defeat the Patriots (the Bears tried to get Martz to impersonate Belichick…to no avail). The way the Browns beat the Patriots was with a power running game that pounded the will out of the Patriots defense and kept Tom Brady stewing on the sideline. Unfortunately for Green Bay, they don’t have a Peyton Hillis. So, if the Packers want to beat a team that’s averaging more than 31 points a game (and is more than twice as ‘effective’ as the #2 team, per FO), the defense will have to try and contain Brady for as long as they can and hope the offense finds the end zone early and often --- whether Rodgers plays or not.
In much the same way as the 2009 Packers defense did while learning Dom Capers’ scheme, the Patriots defense has overcome many of their deficiencies by becoming ballhawks. The Patriots have 20 interceptions already this year, with rookie CB Devin McCourty accounting for six picks (and 14 passes defended). He’s nursing sore ribs, but should play.
If the Packers do want to run the ball on the Patriots, they may get a small reprieve, with run-stuffing linebacker Brandon Spikes suspended for four games. There’s no drop-off to Gary Guyton in the pass game, but it leaves the immovable NT Vince Wilfork as the biggest obstacle to rushing yardage. In much the same way the Packers have searched for a bookend to Matthews, the Patriots continue to hunt for a pass rush --- after 9.5 sacks last year, LB Tully Banta-Cain has only four. DT Mike Wright, the team’s sack leader with 6, sat out Sunday’s game against Chicago with a concussion, and may sit again. Tackle machine ILB Jerod Mayowas 2008’s DROY, and makes the calls for Belichick’s defense. The Patriots aren’t a huge blitzing team, but the packages they bring are often unscouted, and players like S Patrick Chung have a nose for the ball.
Bedard thinks it would be a "shame" if the Patriots don't get to face Rodgers:
It would rob them of their first and only chance to play against a top-flight quarterback with all of his weapons before the playoffs. The closest they came was against the Chargers, but Philip Rivers didn’t have left tackle Marcus McNeill or wide receiver Vincent Jackson because of contract disputes.
Whoever the Packers quarterback is, if he’s given time to work, there may be passing lanes open. The Patriots pass defense ranks in the bottom third of the league (FO puts them #25 overall, #24 v. top receivers and tight ends). And yet, despite being riddled with first- and second-year players, the secondary has improved markedly over the past several weeks…and it’s all about the attention to detail. It’s meeting with NFL officials on Monday after the Bears game to go over game film. It’s putting in additional hours in the weight room to stay conditioned. It’s a number of little things that young players don’t always consider important, yet Patriots players seem to be embracing. It’s the culture of Bill Belichick, who’s never satisfied with what you did last week or last quarter.
New England is the 4th least-penalized team in the league, having committed only 11 penalties in the last four games. When the team is flagged, it's usually a DB -- CB Devin McCourty and S Brandon Meriweather have drawn a combined eight flags for 122 yards.
Injuries have nagged at New England, but they’re mosquito bites compared to the holes in Green Bay. After trying to recover from a nagging hip injury, CB Jonathan Wilhite was placed on IR this week. The Patriots injury list will seem long (I'm not sure there's been a game where Brady hasn't been listed for something), but it's mostly for show -- Belichick hates giving opponents any kind of edge.
In his scouting report, Bob McGinn sees a chink in the Patriots defensive armor on third downs, where they allow opponents to convert a league-high 48.2% of the time. Pete Dougherty also sees weaknesses on defense, but doesn’t raise false hopes about a Packers upset.
- The Patriots seriously considered drafting Clay Matthews in 2009. This pre-draft interview with his father and high school coach about CM3’s possible future in New England is illuminating.
- A boy in Tennessee cries blood, all the time. He wonders whether it’s because of a tumor or some other medical condition. Patriots blog Pats Pulpit has a better answer.
- The pictures of Patriots players at a holiday party thrown for area kids are great. See Vince Wilfork's (@wilfork75) whole twitter feed for pictures of “Wrap a Pat,” where kids literally wrap players as presents. Good stuff.
- Robert Kraft gives a great interview, and thinks his team has great chemistry:
They just look like kids out there having a good time. There’s a karma and a chemistry with this team – it’s pretty special. And you can feel it when you walk in the locker room, both before the game and after the game. I think what’s evolved over the last seven, eight games is there’s a sense of confidence and these guys, the locker room is a very positive atmosphere and it’s a nuance that’s hard to understand if you don’t see it all the time.
I said last week that, if they couldn’t beat Detroit, they didn’t deserve to make the playoffs. They didn’t, and, quite frankly, they don’t. But that doesn’t mean the season’s over, although it may be soon. Back in May, I wrote that the Patriots may be the most dangerous team on the schedule:
It takes more than luck to beat New England on neutral ground. When playing in wintry Foxborough with playoff berths at stake, it will take the Packers’ very best shot.
I wrote that, thinking that the Packers would have Rodgers, Grant, Finley, Barnett, Jenkins, etc., all playing, and playing at a high level. I thought that the Packers’ very best shot would look something like... having the offense from the second half of the Cardinals playoff game, combined with the defense of the 17-7 Cowboys game. Maybe that team could beat the Patriots, I thought.
The Packers can’t suit up that team. Even if Rodgers plays --- which I’m not sure he should --- he’s down serious weaponry, behind a line with an ailing blind side. Against an offense as prolific as the Patriots, I’m not sure how the Packers can match it, no matter what kind of defense the Patriots play.
We’ll be talking to Greg Bedard (now head NFL writer for the Boston Globe) Thursday night on CheeseheadRadio (9pm EST), and I plan on asking him, “If the Packers do beat the Patriots, how will this team do it?” I hope he’ll be able to tell me what kind of match-ups might be enough in favor of Green Bay to either offset Brady’s offense or out-score it. Maybe he’ll know the weakness that Brady has managed to hide from every coordinator but Dom Capers. Maybe he’ll report that, after practicing outside all week, the Patriots players all developed miserable colds.
Yes, the Patriots could conceivably come out and lay an egg. I don’t think it’ll happen. I think we’ll get the same flavor of Patriots that hung 120 points on the Steelers, Jets, and Bears, combined.
Can the Packers score on the Patriots? Yes, absolutely. Will they be able to score enough?
If they do, it’ll be a statement win for the franchise and would open a lot of eyes after that craptastic outing against Detroit.
I’m sorry to say that I’m not going to bet on it.
** Btw, there is so much more that I wish I could have added. To read more about NE, keep tabs on the twitter list I created of Patriots beat writers, players, and bloggers.
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