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Hog Heaven Opponent Scouting: the New England Patriots

I sat down with Ricky Keeler of Foxboro Blog this week to discuss the state of the Redskins prior to the Patriots game.  The answers to the questions and general negativity on the state of the Redskins are my opinions, and do not reflect Anthony’s thoughts, nor are they they official position of the Redskins Hog Heaven blog.  They are merely bluntly honest opinions reflecting my feelings on the Redskins.

I also analyzed a couple of Patriots games for this article and came to a couple of conclusions.  First, there are similarities as to the limitations of the available depth on both the Patriots and the Redskins.  In terms of who has the best performing stars, this game will not be particularly close.  When I look at the Patriots, I made a couple of observations about their defense being a much better unit than people realize.  They have zero depth in the secondary, but plenty of it in the front seven.  Huh, that kind of sounds like the Redskins.

If the Patriots are a fundamentally different team than last year, it is because of limitations on their offense.  Tom Brady is actually having a much better statistical season than he did last year when he won the most valuable player award.  The biggest difference is that Brady is making more aggressive throws downfield, and that has accelerated the regression on his interception total.  This is the sixth season in his career where Brady has performed like an elite NFL quarterback, which brings two obvious observations: 1) that Brady was actually pretty pedistrian in his career prior to 2007, and 2) that hardly any quarterbacks in NFL history have had six seasons at the level of which Tom Brady has now spent a majority of his 12 year career as an NFL starter.

The Patriots are far less able to replace Brady in the offense now than they were back in 2008 when they had to let Matt Cassel play 15 games, this despite the fact I think that Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett are as good a pair of backup QBs as any team has had in a long time.  Everything the Patriots do at the line of scrimmage runs through Brady.  And though the Patriots offense has been fairly uneven quarter to quarter and game to game, this is still one of the three best offenses in pro football that the Redskins will face this week.

The Redskins will not find themselves at a specific matchup disadvantage in this game.  In my preparation for this article, I also went back and looked at the Green Bay game from last year to see how exactly the Redskins defense held Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a single offensive touchdown.  In short, the Aaron Rodgers that the Redskins played in that game was a very different (and non-elite) player from the one that won the super bowl later that season and the one that is going to win the MVP this year.  Jim Haslett confused Aaron Rodgers, made him make a number of a bad throws without immediate pressure on him, and won the down and distance battle.  He then used the same gameplan against Peyton Manning the next week and got torched.  Tom Brady plays in a very similar offense that will try to formation you to death so that you can’t confuse him if he is confusing your defensive checks and rules.

I don’t think the Redskins can possibly confuse Tom Brady for 60 minutes, but if they can give him 25 minutes of mental gymnastics, that’s their best chance to be playing a fundamentally different game than the ones the Patriots are expecting.  If they can go into the half allowing only 6 points to the Patriots, they have a good chance to keep them to 21 points or fewer, and I think at that level, the Redskins can discuss possibly winning the game.  But the defense has to be exceptional for the first 25 to 30 minutes of the game.  They may have to score themselves or set up an offensive score with a big turnover.

Defensively, this scouting report is less about who the Redskins will be facing, and it is more about who will playing for the Redskins.  The biggest reason to be pessimistic about this game is that the Redskins lose their two best offensive players, and perhaps the only two offensive players who panned out for the Redskins in a five year span of drafts, trades, and acquisitons between 2006-2010.  Fred Davis and Trent Williams will be sidelined for the rest of the season with a pair of suspensions.  And for a team that struggled considerably to replace the contributions of Kory Lichtensteiger, lacking adequate depth to handle the loss of their left guard, losing a top flight left tackle and one of the three best (by rec. yards) receiving TEs in football is really a knockout blow to an offense that wasn’t good to begin with.  If you were wondering what was different about a Redskins offense that had been scoring TDs in recent weeks, the biggest differences were the play of Trent Williams and Fred Davis, and then the emergence of Roy Helu at RB.

Well, Helu is about to find out just how difficult the NFL can be when a defensive coaching staff can “red dot” you as one of the primary threats on the opposing offense.  With Davis out, Helu is the only player on the Redskins roster who is a threat to make a play in space.  That more than anything is an indictment of the Mike Shanahan era, and it is probably time to get Brandon Banks involved in the offense not because he has any future as an NFL receiver, but because converted linebacker Darrel Young is now the only player besides Helu who can make someone miss in space.  Banks can at least do that, and should have a package in this game where he gets the football on screens and swings.  There is no reason to use him in a pro route tree.

It’s 2nd year TE Logan Paulsen whose play may decide the fate of the Redskins offense in this game.  We already know the Redskins will be dependent on their defense in the first half to even be in this game with the Patriots at halftime.  But if Washington wants to pull off the upset, there is nothing in the history of the Kyle Shanahan offense that suggests he can sustain a passing game without a large contribution from his tight end.  I think Logan Paulsen is capable, but the big thing here is that there is no learning curve that the Redskins can tolerate from him.  He has a four game audition as a starter, and must excel if he wants to be anything more than a third TE on this team next year.  If Paulsen gets lumped into post game analysis with fellow 2010 NFL draft class TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, then there’s a chance the Redskins may have shocked the world.  Paulsen has a legitimate chance to go for 100 yards receiving in his first career start.  He may need to.

It’s also time for the Redskins to get Niles Paul involved in what they are doing offensively.  Paul has been out injured for much of the season to date, but he’s a plus blocker on the edge and he has upside as a developing receiver.  The Redskins should plan to get Niles Paul the football.

There are plenty of unhearlded Redskins who have a great opportunity to make names for themsevles on a national stage this week against top competition.  But I can say that typically, teams that need to replace two of their best players in a single week usually fail to do so.  I think this one week, Kyle Shanahan should get a pass on his offense if a bunch of players let him down and he fails to put up more than 10-13 points against an inconsistent defensive team.  He’s in a really tough situation here.  But I think things could get ugly for Mike Shanahan if the Redskins get blown out at home a week after having a dreadful fourth quarter against the New York Jets.  

Shanahan must be expected to play the Patriots close if we are to judge the Redskins as “on the right track.”  For all the talk about the players who the Redskins will not have, lets be honest: Trent Williams was a staple pick of the Shanahan era, and teams didn’t have him on their board that year even though the Redskins picked him fourth overall with Oklahoma State LT Russel Okung on the board.  Rex Grossman is a staple concept of the Mike Shanahan era, and he will play quarterback.  Will Montgomery made the Redskins roster last year when it did not appear he was one of the best options, he will start at Center.  Chris Chester, Jammal Brown, and Jabar Gaffney are all staple acquistions of the Redskins over the last two years.  Santana Moss is healthy as Rex Grossman’s safety blanket.

It’s one thing if guys like Paulsen in their first start don’t perform up to par.  But the Redskins offense is made primarily through the vision of Mike Shanahan.  And so while I’m willing to write Kyle Shanahan a pass if it struggles this week because he’s missing key pieces specific to this week’s gameplan, the guy who built the roster gets significantly less of a pass.  The depth of the Redskins offense needs to win against the Patriots defense if we should take the rebuilding process seriously heading forward.  And if the Redskins are blown out at home, it’s clear that they are not on the right track.  The Redskins must show up, play well, and surprise some people with their desire and toughness.  The outcome of the game is irrelevant.  How they play means everything.