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Patriots Face Three Key Personnel Losses On Defense

The New England Patriots’ offseason has been dominated by Deflategate, and most of the discussion about their on-field fortunes is tied to how many games Tom Brady will miss. That’s understandable, since they aren’t starting any better than 1-3 if Brady really misses four games. What’s even more pertinent over the long haul though, is how the Patriots are going to absorb key personnel losses on defense.

Darrelle Revis took his Super Bowl ring and went back to the Jets. How important was Revis for the Patriots? He gave the team a true lockdown corner and was 1-for-1 in Super Bowl trophies per season in Foxboro. Brandon Browner on the other corner is also gone, as is stalwart nose tackle Vince Wolfork.

New England played defense last season as well as they have since the Tedy Bruschi/Ty Law teams of the early ‘00s. Not coincidentally, last season was their first Super Bowl trophy since that period. Tom Brady’s greatness is undeniable, but that’s just enough to put the Patriots in the hunt. Whether they win it all depends on the caliber of the defense and this year there’s a big question mark by this unit.

That brings the conversation to the man who saved the Super Bowl last year. Malcolm Butler gets the luxury of beginning his career as a starter with his place in Boston sports lore already secure, off his interception of Russell Wilson in the closing seconds last February in Glendale.

Butler got as close to trial by fire as the preseason can offer. New England has played Green Bay and New Orleans thus far, and Butler has held in pretty well. I’ve watched the defense play in these games for as long as Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees were in, and Butler’s made some nice plays and just as important, the other quarterbacks seemed to be attacking the side he *wasn’t* on.

It’s not reasonable to expect Butler to be Revis, but the odds look good that Bill Belichick will have a reliable piece to work with his in secondary. Filling the other two spots is going to be a bigger challenge.

Logan Ryan was projected to start at the other corner. He hasn’t played well thus far, and Belichick is toying with moving an excellent free safety in Devin McCourty back to corner. That moves Duron Harmon into the lineup at safety, where he hasn’t played well. It’s looking like there will be a hole in the Patriot secondary, at least early on.

The burly Wolfork was a great run-stopper and over the years, New England has excelled in red-zone defense. One reason is that when a team can’t run up the middle, they’re going to have a tough time scoring in close. Even in years when the Patriot defense was generally terrible, notably 2011, red-zone execution turned their bottom line respectable.

It’s these personnel losses, along with the natural difficulty of repeating as champions that make me skeptical of New England doing any more than repeating as AFC East champs and probably getting out of the first-round (through either a bye or a playoff win).

The team, even if Brady plays all 16 games, has to get these defensive issues fixed. It’s not to say they can’t—it’s a long season and the head coach is a mastermind—but there’s serious work ahead for the Patriots.

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The Giants-Dodgers Rivalry Ready To Add Another Chapter

The Giants-Dodgers rivalry has always been the West Coast version of Red Sox-Yankees, two ancient foes with an abiding dislike for each other that have several great pennant race moments in their history. This year it’s even more so.

The Yankees are being more restrained with their money while the Dodgers freely flex their financial muscle. The Red Sox are a last-place team for the third time in four years while the Giants are the game’s gold standard when it comes to clutch performance.

Now the Giants and Dodgers come down the stretch in what looks to be baseball’s best division race in the final month-plus. Los Angeles holds a 1 ½ game lead. The wild-card is a longshot, with the Chicago Cubs seven games up on San Francisco. It looks like winner-take-all in the NL West.

To set the stage for the closing month, TheSportsNotebook is going to preview these teams with the same sort of comparison/contrast that this site uses for a postseason series preview. Let’s lay out how each team looks in the four areas that win or lose baseball games—hitting for power, getting men on base, starting pitching and the bullpen. Then close it out with a look at how Las Vegas views each team.

GETTING MEN ON BASE: Both teams have several players who excel at consistently keeping the basepaths full. For the Dodgers, it’s catcher Yasmani Grandal, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, leftfielder Andre Ethier and third baseman Justin Turner, all of whom have OBPs over .360.

Other contributors include second baseman Howie Kendrick—currently injured, but expected back in September. Rookie centerfielder Joc Pederson’s year-long numbers are good, but he’s slowed considerably since an electric first half of the season and has begun to lose playing time to Enrique Hernandez. Either way, manager Don Mattingly has someone who can get the job done.

The middle infield is what’s intriguing, as the Dodgers have re-united the veterans of the excellent Philadelphia Phillies teams from 2007-11, with Jimmy Rollins and the newly acquired Chase Utley, who will stand in for Kendrick at second base. Neither player is doing anything this year, but accomplished veterans in September fighting for perhaps one last October moment aren’t to be dismissed.

San Francisco’s lineup has a similar profile. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Nori Aoki and Gregor Blanco all have OBPs ranging from .351 to .377. Second baseman Joe Panik sits at .374, one of the toughest outs in the game, although he’s injured right now.

The Giants, like the Dodgers, except their second baseman back in the first part of September. San Francisco is also missing Hunter Pence, whose .327 OBP isn’t great, but is above the league average.

Kelby Tomlinson has been plugged into Panik’s spot and in a very short sample size, has a .341 OBP. And third baseman Matt Duffy has been the precise opposite of the Dodgers’ Peterson—a rookie who has come on in the second half rather than the first half. Duffy sits with a .345 OBP.

San Francisco’s biggest strength, when compared to Los Angeles, is that there are no obvious weak points in this lineup. The only current starter with an OBP under .300 is newly acquired Marlon Byrd, and he’ll take a seat when Pence comes back, hopefully early September.

HITTING FOR POWER: Here again, there’s consistency up and down the lineup for both teams. The Dodgers have seven starters (if you assume Kendrick rather than Utley at second base) whose slugging percentage exceeds the league average and in every case except Kendrick, it’s substantially above that line. The Giants have six starters (assuming Pence and Panik in the lineup) who do, with Blanco right on the line. When you consider that both teams play in pitcher’s parks, it’s obvious that these are teams really built on power, in spite of their pitching reputations that we’ll get to in a moment.

The impact power hitters—defined by slugging percentage rather than home runs—for the Dodgers would Gonzalez, Grandal, Turner, Ethier and Pederson. But the post-All Star break struggles of the latter have been mentioned. Pederson hasn’t been the same player since he entertained the nation at the Home Run Derby, making the finals and nearly derailing hometown favorite Todd Frazier in Cincinnati.

You might be surprised to learn that San Francisco’s best slugging percentage is owned by shortstop Brandon Crawford, who’s quietly transformed from a pure defensive SS to perhaps the game’s best all-around player at the position. That grand slam he hit in last year’s wild-card game at Pittsburgh was apparently his coming out party as a power guy. Crawford is joined by Buster Posey, Duffy and Pence, whom this team really needs back in the lineup.

STARTING PITCHING: The biggest names in baseball are right here in this rivalry. Continue reading “The Giants-Dodgers Rivalry Ready To Add Another Chapter” »

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Frank Beamer Faces A Must-Win Season At Virginia Tech

In 1987 Frank Beamer took over a Virginia Tech football program that had been to precisely six bowl games in a history that dates back to 1902, and none of those bowls were marquee invites. Virginia Tech was off the national radar, a lonely independent in the South, overshadowed by other independents like Miami, Florida State, Penn State and of course Notre Dame.

Beamer put the football team in Blacksburg on the map. They’ve gone to a bowl game every  year since 1993 and eight of those have been invites to a major. Beamer played for the national title in 1999 and led Florida State after three quarters, before it got away and he’s played in the Sugar Bowl as recently as 2011. But a run of three mediocre seasons, two of them 6-6 and other at 7-5, has put the head coach on the hot seat.

There’s a new administration in place at Virginia Tech and no one knows for certain what they’ll want to do. Normally I would find this outrageous and put Beamer in the “he’ll retire when he’s damn good and ready” category, in light of what he’s done for this program. But recent years have changed my thinking and undoubtedly emboldened more impatient administrators in light of what’s happened to other legends.

Florida State pushed Bobby Bowden out the door and ended up with a national championship under Jimbo Fischer. Penn State didn’t push Joe Paterno out the door and ended up with a scandal.

While I find the smearing of Paterno for the crimes of someone else to be rooted in ignorance, I’d also say this—leaving an 85-year-old head coach in charge of a collegiate program invites problems, and a great book by John Bacon, Fourth And Long, covers Penn State’s 2012 season (the year after Paterno) and says that the real cover-up taking place in Penn State was hiding just how disengaged an oft-fatigued Paterno was from everything.

That’s relevant in this case because Beamer is now 68-years-old and I would agree with the proposition that Virginia Tech can’t let him stay too long and sometimes in this circumstance, an AD or president has to play the bad guy. But before we jump the gun, let’s first ask if it’s necessary and what Virginia Tech needs to do this season to keep a future Hall of Fame coach in his job.

Las Vegas sets the Over/Under on Hokie wins this season to be an even 8. The odds for winning the conference championship place them fourth overall and second in the Coastal Division behind Georgia Tech (Florida State and Clemson are the top-heavy co-favorites). So let’s set a reasonable standard of 8-4 and a second-place divisional finish as the baseline season that Virginia Tech needs. Continue reading “Frank Beamer Faces A Must-Win Season At Virginia Tech” »

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The Seven Contenders For The Big Ten’s Rose Bowl Spot

If you assume Ohio State is going to make the College Football Playoff—and for the time being that’s a prudent assumption—that means there’s going to be a Rose Bowl berth available for a Big Ten team. I count no fewer than seven viable contenders, three from the East and four from the West that can harbor legitimate hopes of winning the race to Pasadena as a runner-up…

Michigan State: They’re the favorite, with defensive end Shilique Calhoun being a legit contender for Defensive Player of the Year and senior quarterback Connor Cook having improved every year he’s been a starter in East Lansing.

Sparty returns 13 starters in all, but they have one big loss on the coaching staff—defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi went to Pitt. This may need to be a different kind of Michigan State team, one that relies less on their defense to win games.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions have a ferocious defensive front, where tackle Anthony Zettel will be one of the best interior D-lineman in the country and Austin Johnson isn’t far behind. The other side of the line of scrimmage is where the problems lie.

An inexperienced offensive line was absolutely terrible last year. They’ll have the benefit of experience this year, along with some incoming transfer help. If PSU’s pass protection can even rise to mediocre, the Lions are going to put points on the board, with prolific Christian Hackenberg behind center.

Michigan: Jim Harbaugh has re-energized the program and he’s got 16 returning starters to work with. That figure doesn’t include sophomore strong safety Jabril Peppers, one of the nation’s top recruits that got injured early last season. It would be a stretch to say the Wolverines are loaded, but Harbaugh isn’t inheriting a bare cupboard and we know that it doesn’t take long for him to work his turnaround magic.

Shane Morris is prepared to step in at quarterback. This is a question mark, but it’s fair to say that Morris isn’t as a big a question mark is Alex Smith was at the NFL level when Harbaugh went to the 49ers and the coach made that work out pretty well.

Wisconsin: Continue reading “The Seven Contenders For The Big Ten’s Rose Bowl Spot” »

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The Toronto Blue Jays Are A Complete Team

The Toronto Blue Jays are all the rage in the month of August. They made the biggest splash at the trade deadline, acquiring both Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop and David Price to go at the top of the rotation. They’ve been the hottest team in baseball, having won 15 of 19 and all but erased a seven-game deficit in the AL East.

Las Vegas believes, having made the Jays the (-150) favorites to win their division and placing them at 6-1 to win the World Series, even with St. Louis and just narrowly behind 9-2 favorite Kansas City. I dove deeper into the Blue Jay numbers thinking I might find some cracks beneath the glittering façade. Instead, it’s impossible not to be impressed with just how complete this team is.

The power is what jumps out at you in the lineup and it’s the real thing, with Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarcion combining for 70 home runs and Toronto being tied for second in the American League for HRs. But it’s overall depth of the offense in areas that are more sustainable, especially against good teams that are truly impressive.

Toronto isn’t just a team of mashers. They’re even better at hitting the ball in the gap, and they lead the league in doubles. They’re patient at the plate and are second in walks. And they put it in play consistently, ranking second in batting average. Down the stretch and in October it’s tough to just overpower good pitching with the long ball, but the Blue Jays have the ability to attack every which way.

The pitching is seventh in the AL in ERA, though the vast bulk of those numbers were compiled without Price. In the meantime, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle have been as consistent as they’ve ever been in a Toronto uniform, each with ERAs in the 3s and logging steady innings. Marco Estrada is becoming a force in the 4-spot, winning 10 games with a 3.20 ERA. Now you add Price to that mix as a legitimate ace and you’ve got a rotation that has everything necessary to win in October.

Without big names in the bullpen it would be easy to think this is a weak spot. But the Jays’ relief corps is coming on along with the rest of the team. Roberto Osuna has grabbed the bull by the horns to claim the closer’s role, with 13 straight save conversions and a 2.01 ERA. There is real length to the pen, good enough to rival Kansas City. Manager John Gibbons has six other arms that range from the steady to the spectacular, like Mark Lowe with his buck-56 ERA.

There’s good intangibles on this team, with Russell Martin behind the plate. For a guy who’s a pretty good hitter and positively influences a team wherever he goes, it’s hard to believe that contending teams—the Dodgers, Yankees and Pirates—have all let him get away over the past several years.

Toronto smartly used a couple of outfield spots for defense-first players, in Kevin Pillar and another trade deadline acquisition in Ben Revere. When you have this much firepower, you can give up some offense in places where most teams require more production.

And, as if all this weren’t enough, the Blue Jays have more help on the way—second baseman Devon Travis was having a great year, with a .361 on-base percentage and .498 slugging percentage before suffering a shoulder injury. He’ll be back in September.

So is Toronto the new favorite? First things first—they have to survive this AL East race, where they currently trail the Yankees by one game overall, but two in the loss column. The Blue Jays, as currently comprised, are better than the Yanks, but with the season hitting the home stretch and Toronto still likely to hit a bit of a cool-down phase after their hot streak, New York may be able to outlast them. Baltimore is also in the rearview mirror, just four games out.

So let’s assume the Blue Jays take a brief step back just in the natural flow of baseball and maybe end up three games out at some point between now and Labor Day. That same natural flow would suggest that this team then hits the gas again and it’s about whether they can survive what promises to be a dynamic September in the AL East.

What we can say for certain is this—if there were 162 games ahead of us, Toronto would be a heavy favorite. And if they find their way into the Division Series, either by an AL East title or winning a wild-card game (they have a 3 ½ game cushion to at least get in that one-game battle), then this team has no discernible weaknesses.

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