Raiders @ Patriots Preview from Fester's Place
I am ready for some meaningful football. (My fiancee is now rolling her eyes over the last two words in that sentence... but still). Tonight sees the Oakland Raiders visit the New England Patriots at Foxboro for the kick-off game of the Pats' quest for three straight. I see this as a reasonable objective for the Patriots, but it will, as always be a difficult journey.
I see the Patriots as a well managed team that attempts to use its versatility as its core competence. As I have written before, the Patriots seek to take away the opposition's first choice option. The fundamental gamble here is that the Patriots are betting that their second, third or fourth preferred style of play is vastly superior to whatever the opponent's second preferred style of play. This was seen most notably in the 2002 Super Bowl against the Rams where the Patriots were able to disrupt Marshall Faulk for the entire game, and thus putting the offense solely on Kurt Warner's shoulders. The Greatest Show on Turf managed 17 points.
This year, I think that the Patriots are significantly deeper and more versatile on offense. With the return of Ben Watson, I will be shocked if the Patriots do not line up with two tight ends for at least forty percent of their first downs. Dan Graham and Ben Watson present some intriguing passing game match-up problems for any team that does not have multiple rover linebackers/strong safeties (6-2+, 225lbs+, 4.5 or better speed) and if a team has a light fast defense in, the tight ends can stay in and assist the power running game. This is one of the many less than pleasent choices the Patriots force teams to make. This is a key illustration of what Bill Bellicheck has been attempting to build over the past five years --- situations where the best solution is still an unsatisfactory solution for the opposition.
I am slightly worried about the wide receivers over the course of the season as Deion Branch, he of the amazing quicks, and fragile body, has yet to play a 16 game season. Troy Brown is old, as is Tim Dwight, while Andre Davis is new right now. Bethel Johnson has amazing speed, but is still inconsistent and injury prone. The only receiver I am not worried about is David Givens. However within this set of receivers, there is a wide diversity of skills and attributes that would allow the Patriots to quickly shift their offensive focus from short crossing routes in a West Coast Flavor to a vertical game. I would think tonight that the Patriots would want to take advantage of the comparative slowness of Oakland's big linebacker corps and run plenty of crossing routes and seam patterns with receivers and tight ends isolated against a linebacker who is bigger than some defensive ends.
Now onto defense, this has been the forte of the Patriots' ability to mirror and deny an opponent's strength over the past four years. I am liking the defensive line quite a bit. I was surprised that the Patriots cut Rodney Bailey in favor of keeping undrafted rookie Mike Wright, but even still, the Pats in their base 3-4 have significant talent in their starters and impressive depth. Richardy Seymour and Vince Wilfork each demand two blockers on running plays, and Ty Warren will dominate against most right tackles when he is one on one. Oakland will be forced to keep their running backs or tight ends in to help block more often than they would prefer.
The strength of the defensive line is the strength of the unit as a whole. If the three linemen and the typical pass rushing linebacker can force Oakland to keep seven blockers in, the task for the secondary just got a whole lot easier. I am not sure who the starting cornerbacks will be tonight, as the Patriots currently have four corners who have started for Super Bowl winners on the roster. I would imagine that the Patriots will attempt to play some aggressive man with zone support against Randy Moss and keep Chad Scott in as the physical bump and run corner for at least third down plays. I also anticipate the Patriots keeping Eugene Wilson in deep centerfield for most of the game, as I think that the Patriots would be willing to see Moss have a T-O type game if they can shut down everyone else on the field. They just need to avoid the multiple big plays that are Moss's bread and butter, even if that means giving up more 10-15 yard gains.
I am not sure what the Patriot linebackers will be doing this year. The outside linebackers are experienced, fast, smart and solid. Roosevelt Colvin should finally be completely healed from his hip injury suffered two years ago while Willie McGuinest just gets craftier and better as his health is still with him. I doubt that Willie McGuinest will be healthy for the entire season, but Tully Banta Cain, in limited playing time, has shown some significant pass rush ability over the past year. Mike Vrabel is just a playmaker who is never out of position.
The loss of the top three playing time inside linebackers from last year is a large loss which creates a significant question mark. I am glad that Vrabel is shifting to the inside, as he is smart, and it will keep the Pats' three best linebackers on the field more often. The question mark is who plays next to him --- Monty Biesel or Chad Brown. I think this will be a platoon position with Brown in on run downs and Biesel in on pass downs.
I have a difficult time seeing how the Raider's defense can keep the Patriots from scoring, and so far, the Patriots have taken down better quarterbacks who play vertical passing games with comparative ease (Hi there Kurt, hi there Peyton.) I forsee a lot of pressure, and a lot of sacks against Collins unless the Raiders invent an effective screen game. Therefore, I am calling it 27-17 Patriots winning.