Sunday, October 2, 2011

Defense Holds Firm in Oakland

It’s been a rollercoaster four weeks for Vince Wilfork. Personnel changes, scheme shifts, injuries and inexperience have left the Patriots’ usually solid defense ranked thirty-second out of thirty-two in the league. The secondary has been regularly shredded, the pass rush appears nonexistent, but fear not—it looks like Wilfork is willing to make the big plays on his own.

For the second week in a row, Wilfork, a defensive tackle not known for his hands, came up with an interception at a pivotal moment in the game. Last week, four New England turnovers meant that Wilfork’s pick wasn’t enough. This week, his fourth-quarter grab on the Patriots own 30-yard line killed off a threatening Oakland drive that could have pulled them back into the game.

“I was just happy to be in the right place at the right time,” Wilfork said of the pick after the game. “The most important thing is we got the W—it wouldn’t have meant nothing if we didn’t get the W.”

The Patriots defense rebounded from an abysmal performance last week, shutting down a potent Raiders attack in Oakland. The Raiders entered the game leading the league in rushing, an aspect of the game that the Patriots have struggled with. But the Pats held Oakland to a mere 160 yards on the ground, restricting NFL-leading running back Darren McFadden to 75 yards on 14 attempts.

The secondary continued to struggle, even against a sub-par passing attack led by Jason Campbell. Campbell threw for 344 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots, while also throwing two picks. The lack of a rush was noticeable, affording Campbell tons of time to stand in the pocket and make decisions. This led to big plays, with five Raiders receivers catching passes for more than 10 yards and Darren McFadden busting open a 41-yard rush.

Linebacker Jerod Mayo went down injured halfway through the second quarter, leaving the game and not returning. He was replaced by Gary Guyton, a capable backup, but the loss of Mayo could have been devastating—particularly as the Raiders trailed only by four points at that time.

But the Raiders couldn’t capitalize, as free safety Patrick Chung came up with another vital turnover, intercepting Campbell’s attempted pass in the end zone. Chung was returning from injury, and his pick allowed the Patriots to march down the field and get a Gostkowski field goal before the half, entering the interval up 17-10.

Tom Brady responded from last week’s shocking four-interception performance with a much cleaner game against Oakland. Brady threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns. The two touchdowns moved Brady past Joe Montana with 274 career touchdown passes.

“I didn’t know that happened,” Brady said humbly after the win. “I’ll never be in Joe’s category. We throw the ball a lot more than they did back then. It’s much more of a passing league than it’s ever been.”

New England’s passing attack looked sharp, with Wes Welker leading the team again. Welker finished the game with nine catches for 158 yards and a touchdown. Six other receivers got in on the act, including Chad Ochocinco, who caught two passes for 26 yards.

But the Patriots’ rushing game was where the battle was won this week, outrushing the number one rushing attack in the league 198 yards to 160. Rookie Stevan Ridley continued his push into the starting lineup with an impressive 97 yards and a touchdown. Ridley did it all on 10 carries, which meant he averaged a stellar 9.7 yards per carry, that statistic boosted by a clinical 33-yard touchdown run.

“I was proud of the way we ran the play and played well in the red zone,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “It was a tough win, but a good win.”

The Patriots were clinical in the red zone, finishing with 75% efficiency. This was a considerable margin over the Raiders’ 40%. The Raiders still controlled the clock better, eating up 33 minutes to the Patriots’ 26.

Former Patriots defensive tackle Richard Seymour was spotlighted by many in the matchup against his old team, but Seymour was largely quiet. His most notable moment came after the whistle, when he was called for unnecessary roughness after throwing Brady to the ground seconds after the officials had blown the play dead for a delay of game.

When Seymour wore the uniform, defensive solidity was at the core of the New England Patriots’ identity. In Oakland, the Patriots may have taken the first step back in that direction.

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