Monday, September 28, 2009

Room for Improvement

by Mike Reiss

At times, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's frustrations boiled over during Sunday's game against the Falcons.

He had an animated sideline discussion with veteran receiver Joey Galloway as the two continue to struggle to get on the same page. Then there was the time he waited for receiver Sam Aiken after a laser of a pass sailed through the end zone, both hands in front of him as he seemed to be asking why Aiken didn't finish his route.

Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense were much improved over last week, but the team still left points out on the field.
It was a bit Marino-esque and a sign that the Patriots' offense -- even after a bounce-back 26-10 win -- remains a work in progress. Red zone problems persist (one touchdown in five trips Sunday), and Brady sets the bar high.

That summed up the emotions of offensive players in the Patriots' locker room afterward.

They were happy to win, putting together a crisper effort than last week's against the Jets. At the same time, they felt they left too many plays on the field.

"We can't keep kicking field goals, I know that," Brady said after the offense rolled up 445 yards but scored only two touchdowns. "We've got to be better than that."

On this day, against the sloppy Falcons, it was good enough.

Restoring balance to the offense -- 42 passes, 39 rushes -- was a key. The Patriots played some power football (168 rushing yards) while mixing in some successful roll-the-dice decisions on fourth down in the third quarter. They won the time of possession battle 39:49 to 20:11, and had five drives with 10 plays or more.

Brady, still searching for his trademark accuracy, finished 25-of-42 for 277 yards and one touchdown. He was fiery throughout.

"I was just really into it and trying to keep everyone focused," he said of his on-field emotions. "It's a great win for us and we'll take it, but still understand that there are a lot of things we need to do better."

Players took notice of Brady's on-field emotions. "That's why he's great," said running back Fred Taylor. "He's Tom Brady and he hasn't won all those championships for nothing. As a player, you get in line, you listen. He's the leader, he calls the shots, you do what he says. That makes the offense go."

While the red zone problems are most troubling, Brady acknowledged that there were bright spots. One of them was how much time he had on each of his 42 pass attempts.

After absorbing a blitzing beatdown last week against the Jets, Brady was hit just twice Sunday by the more conservative Falcons. The Falcons rushed the standard four defenders on 31 of the 42 pass attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, which left Brady time to survey his options.

The blockers in front of him played a large role in neutralizing top pass-rusher John Abraham. Unlike the Jets, the Falcons aren't as talented in the secondary, which appeared to limit their willingness to blitz.

"It's always a lot better when they only bring four, because then it comes to technique and winning that one-on-one matchup," said Patriots left guard Logan Mankins. "They rely on their front four to get pressure and they have some good pass-rushers with a lot of athletic ability. We were able to pick them up."

The Patriots also played a much different style than last week, ditching their no-huddle, up-tempo approach in favor of more of a slow-it-down approach.

Against the Jets, they ran every play but one out of their three-receiver set. Against the Falcons, they utilized it only about 36 percent of the time, instead relying on more multiple tight end packages and a lead-blocking fullback.

"That's what Coach [Bill] Belichick is famous for, his ability to make adjustments and diagnose how to attack a team," tight end Chris Baker said.

Not to be overlooked were the Patriots' bold fourth-down calls in the third quarter, converting a fourth-and-1 on their own 24, and later a fourth-and-3 from the Falcons' 37. Sammy Morris plowed ahead for a 2-yard gain for the first conversion, and Brady found Randy Moss down the right sideline for a beautiful 21-yard connection on the second.

Those came on a 16-play drive, and were critical in the win.

But Brady, who in the fourth quarter became the 27th player in NFL history to reach 200 touchdown passes, wants more. Especially in the red zone.

The Patriots have scored one touchdown in eight trips over the past two games. Overall, they have four touchdowns in 13 red zone trips this season.

"It's obvious," Brady said, "that we still have work to do."'s Mike Reiss covers the New England Patriots in his blog.

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