Erik was gracious enough to agree to do a Q&A with Billsmafia.com as we march towards this Sunday’s outing against the New England Patriots.
What is the sentiment about the New England offense particularly without Bill O’Brien. Has there been any questioning of the play calling at the end of the Ravens game? (Submitted by @BLOJW)
It hasn’t just been the end of the Ravens game. There have been some questions about the play calling, both on offense and defense, for the past two weeks. There are a couple of things I have noticed. They are running the ball in some passing situations (third downs, etc.) and are trying to get “cute” with the play calling at times (weirdly designed running plays, reverses etc.) As you mention, the end of the Ravens game is a prime example, where they actually should have been running the ball to milk the clock at the end, but came out in an empty set with Brady lined up in the shotgun. Nursing a late lead, there’s no reason for that. I suppose if it had worked, though, we’d be calling him a genius, so to that end, while the play calling has been questionable, the offense just hasn’t been executing like we’re used to seeing in New England.
The Patriots defense was ranked 31 in yards allowed in 2011. Through three games in 2012, they’re ranked 14. What’s changed?
I never subscribed to the belief that the team’s 31st-ranking in total yards was a great indicator of their defensive performance. Let’s not forget this is a bend-don’t-break defense, and they ranked 15th in scoring, which is far from elite but very good. This has been an average defense over the years that has come under fire because of the numbers in the box score, but has been able to get the job done in the end. Last week against the Ravens, though, things came a bit unglued when they faced their first true test in a well-rounded Ravens offense that is loaded with skill position talent. Some of their struggles are on the play calling; we have seen the Patriots defensive backs lining up in off-man coverage about five yards away from the line of scrimmage; it’s like they’re trying to do a little of both man and zone, but it leaves their defensive backs in no man’s land.
Still, this defense has performed very well against less dominant offenses this year, and could bounce back against the Bills, especially if their running game is ineffective with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller still nursing injuries.
How has the temporary loss of Aaron Hernandez affected Rob Gronkowski’s game, and also the offense as a whole?
It didn’t seem to bother the Patriots much against the Ravens; they dominated an elite defense through three quarters, with Brady going honey badger on the Ravens defense with two long touchdown drives. But there’s no question that Hernandez’s absence has had an impact on the offense.
We all expected Gronkowski to fall back to Earth a bit, but through two weeks, it looked like he might match last year’s output. Against the Ravens, though, they really keyed in on Gronkowski and held him to just two receptions for 21 yards. It’s clear that Hernandez’s absence has allowed defenses to key in on Gronkowski over the middle, and he’s now seeing double coverage from a combination of linebackers and safeties more often than before. That’s why we’ve seen Brady going to Brandon Lloyd so frequently—yes, Lloyd is a weapon, but the relationship between he and Brady has been a byproduct of both Hernandez’s absence and Gronkowski being eliminated by the defensive game plan.
There were stories that Wes Welker was being phased out of the offense, but once Hernandez went down, those stories pretty much died because Welker’s role increased. His skill set and strengths are similar to Hernandez’s, and there’s no receiver on the team that has better rapport with Brady than Welker.
This is the first time since week 2 of 2003 that the Patriots have had a losing record. Were these two 2012 losses flukes, or are the Patriots finally coming back down to earth?
The loss to the Cardinals was more about the Patriots offense failing to execute and making costly mistakes, with the defense turning in a solid performance. Against the Ravens, the offense was red-hot all night until late in the fourth quarter, but it was the defense that came up short in big moments and all night—not to mention the Ravens getting a great deal of help from poor officiating.
After four weeks is when we usually have a much better idea of where teams stand, but through three weeks, it’s hard to draw any big-picture conclusions about the Patriots because they’ve been so up-and-down and because of how the Ravens game ended. Ultimately, though, the only big-picture conclusion I can draw right now is that the Patriots as a team have failed to turn in the key plays in crunch time on offense and defense. That is not the mark of a Bill Belichick-coached team like the ones we have come to know over the past decade.
Will Wes Welker be a Patriot in 2013?
No way. The Patriots were getting ready to phase him out of the offense before Aaron Hernandez went down with an injury. Julian Edelman has been impressive when he has played, and is a better run-blocker than Welker has ever been. As reliable as Welker has been for the Patriots over the years, he has begun dropping passes with greater frequency, and has at least one drop in each of the past four games dating back to Super Bowl XLVI. The only way he is a Patriot in 2013 is with an extremely team-friendly deal, and he wasn’t ready to take one after last year, so why would he this year?
Prediction for the game?
This will be a hard-fought game, but I just don’t see a way the Patriots lose three games in a row. The Bills have dominated the Chiefs and the Browns—neither among the league’s elite—in games where the Bills offense delivered early touchdowns while the opposing offenses suffered one miscue after another. There are still major question marks about this Bills defense. This will be a high-scoring game, and my final prediction is a 34-30 Patriots win, where the Bills will have a chance to win on the final drive.
Thanks again for taking the time, Erik. Hope you’re wrong on that prediction though!