Opposition Research: New England Patriots (W15)

If the Packers want to keep their fading playoff hopes alive, they'll have to steal a win from the Patriots, a team that's playing better than anyone else in the league.

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 fans at home are…wondering whether it’s too early to buy tickets to the Super Bowl. Seriously. This team is playing that well.  Don Banks sees that outcome as a nearly foregone conclusion:

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.

Parting Shots:

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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Comments (12)

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Cuphound's picture

December 16, 2010 at 09:07 pm

> Is positive reinforcement always good?
> It’s something to think about.

Lombardi didn't do it that way.

The "everyone gets a trophy" philosophy makes no sense in public education. It creates timid students who are unwilling to take risks, push the envelope and, of course, internalize discipline. How much less sense does it make in football, where there is and forever will be only one trophy?

And the trophy's name is the, ahem, LOMBARDI Trophy.

How does Mike McCarthy stay immersed in all the symbols of our team's history and yet not soak in any of it? The man's stubbornness is the stuff of Greek tragedy. This is where I'm hoping that reversal will give me some of that catharsis we were talking about from before that last Vikings game. The man's inability to adapt is where we can see real hubris. Favre is a buffoon. McCarthy is our real tragic hero.

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AJP's picture

December 16, 2010 at 07:06 pm

Pretty good write-up. A couple points:

- Mankins is an OG, not a C. He never played C, but played OT in college
- Saying Gronkowski had a "string of costly fumbles" seems harsh. He had 1, in the Cleveland game.
- I don't think they try to get as many low-drafted guys on purpose, they just want players. In 2007, they had a bunch of 1st round picks on the team. Like most teams, they want good players no matter where they get them.
- "Injuries have nagged at New England, but they’re mosquito bites compared to the holes in Green Bay." - While not hit as hard as GB, NE has had quite a bit. Leigh Bodden, Ty Warren, Kevin Faulk, Nick Kaczur and Stephen Neal are all starters who ended up on IR. They lost a real good kicker in Stephen Goskowski. They have been able to survive because of Brady and their depth.
- I think Green Bay's offense actually matches up pretty well with the Pats D, especially if Rodgers plays. The NE secondary has played better, but they still are weak rushing the passer. They have done a good job limiting big plays, but give up a ton of yardage. The key is finishing drives and getting 7 instead of 3, because the NE offense is red hot.

Should be a good, high-scoring, game.

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Packerwest's picture

December 17, 2010 at 03:17 am

Nobody thought at the time the Pack could go out to New York and beat the Jets who were the best team in the NFL at that time. Packers have a chance if the defense can play as well as they did against Jets,offense scores some points with no turnovers and (gasp!)special teams play well.Perfect storm but possible!A couple of Patriot turnovers would help also but Brady not likely to oblige....

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PackersThad's picture

December 16, 2010 at 06:27 pm

Holly, great work as always! I was looking for a Derek Anderson link, but I guess we cannot overuse it!

Call me crazy, but I really think the Packers can take this game!

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BrianD's picture

December 16, 2010 at 06:06 pm

Belichick may have to get used to dealing with highly drafted players. Here's New England's 2011 draft:

Round 1:
Oakland's Pick
New England

Round 2:
New England

Round 3:
New England

Round 4:
New England

Round 5:
New England

Round 6:
New Orleans

That's one hell of an upcoming draft! They'll be stacked for years to come.

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Ruppert's picture

December 16, 2010 at 03:27 pm

Sorry, Holly, but I kinda stopped reading about 2/3 of the way through. I get the picture.

Great work as usual, though.

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Holly's picture

December 16, 2010 at 03:33 pm

Understandable, Ruppert, no apologies necessary. :)

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AJP's picture

December 17, 2010 at 01:56 pm

I am a little surprised so many are discounting GB's chances. I think a lot of it has to do with Brady playing out of this world, but this may be a tight game even if Rodgers doesn't play. GB needs to keep the Packers from jumping out to an early lead like they have done lately, because playing with the lead helps NE cover for their weaknesses on defense.

GB can match up pretty well with NE, mainly due to a strong secondary. I think NE will be able to expose their LB in coverage (especially with the injuries they have suffered and the Pats loving their young TE's), but the Pack are a team that can match up with a good passing game in the secondary. Even with Matthews playing banged up, Green Bay is very good defending the pass. I am interested to see how the Pats offense does against them, given how hot Brady is right now.

Defensively, the Pats secondary is playing better, but they are thin on the DL other than Wilfork. Gerard Warren, Ron Brace, Mike Wright and Myron Pryor (the first two being the starting DE on early downs and the latter two being the best inside pass rushers on the team) all have missed practice and are iffy for the game. Newcomers like Eric Moore and Louis Leonard look like they will be playing roles this week along with rookies Brandon Deadrick and Kyle Love. It is a critical situation that people are not talking about, and you might see the Packers run the ball this week.

If the Packers can keep Brady and the offense from jumping out to an early lead, this will be a tight game because the NE defense will have to respect the pass. It will force the Pats to play their base 3-4 more, which has done a poor job defending play-action. GB should run against their nickel and pass against their base 3-4.

The Pats will probably play a lot of nickel (with three S, one acting in a LB-like role) on early downs, inviting the Packers to run. If they grab a lead they can stay with this, but if the Packers can run and remain balanced offensively they can expose weaknesses in the Pats defense. If you go back to the first Jets game, the game turned when the Jets went 3 wide and ran the ball well against the pats nickel. It forced the Pats to bring in bigger people up front and exposed them to the pass. This is where the Pats weak pass-rush really hurts them on D.

It will be an interesting game. NE has given up a lot of yards and points at times on defense. By taking big leads they have helped their defense, but those weaknesses are still there. Brady is red hot right now, playing at ridiculous level. If GB can slow him down and keep them from jumping up early, it will be a tight game.

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dgtalm's picture

December 16, 2010 at 02:14 pm

Wow that is one scary report! But we all knew what the Pats are and it would have been a tough win with a complete team. But as always, you do not know until the game is over.

My Christmas wish GB 27 Pats 21.

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Josh's picture

December 18, 2010 at 02:34 pm

How is Dawg leaving messages from the future?

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DAWG's picture

December 18, 2010 at 02:06 pm

Holly, great read as usual.

NE, (dam I hate these guys) now thats how you run an NFL franchise.
The part about these guys acting like kids playing a game,just having fun. Chemistry and good coaching is what it's all about !
Coach B, a trial lawyer, taking his case to the jury ! WOW--great read !

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burberry's picture

December 30, 2010 at 07:19 am

Very good article, well written and very thought out. I am looking forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

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