The Other Side: Bedard on Brady’s turnaround, Patriots’ run game, team weaknesses
From Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay — In this week’s edition of The Other Side, we check in with your old pal here at the Journal Sentinel, Greg Bedard, who now covers the NFL for Sports Illustrated and The MMQB after also covering the New England Patriots for The Boston Globe.
Bedard breaks down how the Patriots turned their season around and how Tom Brady remains dangerous as ever at 37, the soft spots on the roster and gives his prediction for Sunday:
Q: Talking to Troy Brown earlier this week, he said he thinks Tom Brady took that Kansas City loss personal. Do you think he did?
Bedard: Well, it was certainly embarrassing, that’s for sure. And it was the worst game that I’ve seen him play in some time – it looked like he checked out in the second half as the frustration of leading such an ineffective unit got to him. It was one thing to trade Logan Mankins, but not to have a viable plan on top of it? He had a right to be frustrated. Some of the people they had playing on the line (Jordan Devey, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming) had no business being out there. I think after that game, everyone got their act in order. I think the coaches finally realized they had to dumb everything down and get the ball out of Brady’s hands quicker because they just couldn’t block it. I also think stories like this one from Chris Mortensen were leaked by the Patriots on purpose to tell Brady that it was time to get his head in the game. What it was, it worked, because the Patriots have been on fire since.
Q: How is Brady still so effective at 37 years old? Did he change any parts of his game?
Bedard: To me, he’s the exact same player that I started covering in the middle of the 2010 season. He keeps himself in terrific shape (his arm is still very good to all parts of the field), so I think that’s the biggest thing. Brady still moves well within the pocket – you’ve seen none of his legs go, which is usually the first sign a quarterback is on the decline. There’s been some chatter about him keeping plays alive a little bit more. To me, it’s been a little bit overblown. He’s always done that, as long he goes into a game with that mentality. At times that mentality hasn’t been there, especially early this season when he was facing pressure on 30-40 percent of his dropbacks. An early big hit still does spook him, however.
Q: Who in the heck will be playing running back this week for New England? What has allowed anyone to plug into that role and be effective of late?
Bedard: I expect you’ll see both Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount get the two-down work in this game, and Shane Vereen will get snaps in his hybrid role. After a slow start, the line is finally doing what it always does: open nice holes for any running back to go through. Gotta look out for the trap and wham blocks. Patriots love those and will pound them over and over again if you’re not careful. Also, Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears is one of the best. His guys rarely pick the wrong hole, or miss a block picking up the blitz.
Q: The Packers’ RB coach Sam Gash called this the best linebacker group Green Bay has faced to date. How did they pick up the pieces when Jerod Mayo went down?
Bedard: Well, they only play with two and safety Patrick Chung. I think it helped tremendously that Donta Hightower got experience last season filling in for Mayo when he was also lost for the season. Hightower has been nothing short of spectacular since Mayo was sidelined. Hightower has been as good as Mayo against the run, and is much better rushing the passer. Jamie Collins is a tremendous and rangy athlete who takes up a lot of room in the middle of the field. He’s very good at going forward (blitzing) and backwards (coverage). His weakness is reading and reacting to the run game. The coaches have done a nice job accentuating his strengths but limiting his weaknesses. But Collins hasn’t really been tested on the ground during this win streak because of the big early leads. If I’m the Packers, I’m trying to run the ball in this game.
Q: Where is the weakness on this roster? Where do you see Aaron Rodgers attacking?
Bedard: Well, as far as the Patriots’ offense goes, the line is still a bit shaky at times so it’s paramount they get pressure against the weaker players: LT Nate Solder, LG Dan Connolly and RG Ryan Wendell. If you can pressure Brady on 30 percent of his snaps, the win percentage goes up big time. The Patriots don’t have a vertical threat, so you be a little more aggressive defending the short area of the field against the quick passes Brady lives by. If I’m Dom Capers, I’m doing whatever I can to stop Gronkowski and Edelman. I think at one point that over 90 percent of Gronk’s catches went for either a first down or touchdown. That’s insane. Make Brady beat you with the other guys.
On defense, the Patriots have shown they can be run on, and they haven’t faced a concerted effort to do that in some time. Have to get CB Brandon Browner to move side to side. His strength is going up and back. He can be beat on big plays when he’s not grabbing you (which is just about every play). Patrick Chung has played much better this season but he’s a guy I would target. When Duron Harmon comes on as the second deep safety, I would run routes that put him in a bind. He doesn’t have much experience and when he’s in, he’s usually deep which allows Devin McCourty to dive on crossing routes.
Patriots’ special teams are awesome. No weaknesses there, so old friend Shawn Slocum better be on his game.
Q: And finally, who wins this game and why?
Bedard: Really great matchup against two teams that are very similar. The Patriots have been on a roll and, as opposed to the Packers, they’ve decimated some really good teams. I have a hard time seeing the Patriots losing a game this big, unless Eddie Lacy has a huge day. Patriots 34, Packers 27.