Hernandez loss stagnates Patriots' offense

Posted Sept. 17, 2012 @ 10:21 a.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

Two years ago, the Patriots’ offense sputtered in the playoffs against the Jets after Aaron Hernandez was lost to injury, leaving Darrelle Revis to blanket Wes Welker and rendering the Patriots’ offense hopeless. The smooth-striding, athletic big man is a key matchup piece in Josh McDaniels’ offense, serving as the main vertical threat to open up the underneath passing game and force defenses to play honest and respect the deep strike.

After Hernandez’s ankle was rolled by teammate Julian Edelman midway through the first quarter, the Patriots’ offense grew conservative, relying more on RB Stevan Ridley, a physical, grinding back. It was something the Pats were able to do heavily in the season opener after taking a lead against Tennessee. However, it allowed a Cardinals team that was expected to lose by two TDs to match up much better defensively.

Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett controlled the line of scrimmage, giving Patriots ORG Donald Thomas fits, and an inspired group of young linebackers led by ultra-instinctive, speedy LB Daryl Washington, aggressively made their presence felt behind the line of scrimmage. Where the Cardinals’ underrated defense benefited most was in the secondary, as CBs Patrick Peterson, William Gay and rookie Jamell Fleming were not faced with the same explosive threat and were able to handle matching up with Rob Gronkowski, Welker and Brandon Lloyd.

For Ken Whisenhunt to go on the road and knock off the Patriots with a backup quarterback is a testament to the strength of Arizona’s defense and a credit to Whisenhunt’s coaching ability. He consistently has shown he can squeeze blood out of a rock and has done a phenomenal job of getting the Cardinals off to a 2-0 start that no one expected.

• Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is a rising star in the industry who cemented his status by working for Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay. He added a rank to his sleeve in the first two weeks of the season by holding Arizona and Dallas to a combined 92 rushing yards. But as good as Bradley and the Seahawks’ fast-flowing, one-gap defense is, that paltry rushing yards total speaks more for the sorry state of the interior of the offensive lines in Dallas and Arizona, neither of which is capable of creating a surge, than it does Seattle’s defensive prowess. “Whoever (in Dallas) made the decisions to bring in Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings made huge errors," an NFL evaluator said. "(The Cowboys) took a step back."

• After an 0-2 start a year ago, Kansas City Chiefs GM Scott Pioli had his mind made up his mind about Todd Haley and was already doing preparation on his next head coach. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was an easy, comfortable decision, given his familiarity and strong working relationship with Pioli, but executives around the league who have worked with both see the Chiefs’ struggles only continuing with what evaluators describe as an “average roster” and a head coach who already had shown in Cleveland he is not cut out for the head-coaching chair. “Look at all the first-round picks they have busted on,” one GM said after the Chiefs' 35-17 loss to the Bills Sunday. “Tyson Jackson has been a bust for where they had to take him. Same with Eric Berry. Has Jonathan Baldwin done anything yet? I’m not sure Dontari Poe will ever figure it out. Romeo is a good man and I wish Scott well, but I think this team is going in the tank. I hear everyone talking about how talented the roster is, but I don’t think there’s enough talent to work with to turn it around this year.”

• Through two weeks, Steve Spagnuolo’s Saints defense has been one of the greatest disappointments in the league, as the unit allowed far too many tackles to be broken, left wide receivers uncovered and running lanes clean. Drew Brees went on the defensive after the game, saying the Saints have the “right coaches and schemes to overcome it”, but not all executives are sure the Saints have the right personnel. The defensive line has become old and LBs Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne were not re-signed by the Falcons or Seahawks for a reason. Lofton is a liability against the pass and Hawthorne can’t run, cover or drop and is playing out of position on the weak side. Brees is right in one respect — the problems run much deeper than scheme. It’s not easy to defend the pass with a marginal pass defense.

• The image of QB Alex Smith directing the 49ers’ offense in the fourth quarter with blood trickling down his nose brought back memories of a young Jim Harbaugh. Finally, in his second year under the same coaching staff, Smith has begun to make big strides as a quarterback, making better decisions, pushing the ball down the field and repeatedly converting clutch third downs. However, he still has room for improvement and could do a better job of triggering in the pocket — he took three sacks because he held the ball too long. As talented as the Niners’ defense is, they too played too much on their heels in react mode instead of attacking, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would benefit by finding more creative ways to dial up pressure.

• It has taken Bills RB C.J. Spiller a few years to get started, but under the creative play-calling of Chan Gailey, Spiller has finally begun to look like the Chris Johnson-type impact player that lured owner Ralph Wilson to request GM Buddy Nix to draft him. Spiller's stop-and-go acceleration is among the best in the league, alongside Johnson and Reggie Bush, who also produced one of his finest performances on Sunday against a struggling Raiders’ defense. For the Bills, the extended absence of Fred Jackson could be an unusual blessing in disguise if Spiller proves he can withstand the rigors of an increased workload.