Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"Boring" Patriots Stomp Rams With Workman Like Offense, Stout Defense

In all seriousness, the Los Angeles Rams were doomed from the second they stepped onto the field turf at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

On the very first Patriots' series, head ball coach Bill Belichick used all three of his running backs on a drive meant to destroy their morale and to put to sleep any notion that their defense was going to stop the New England offensive machine, forcing the Rams to bring their safeties up to help in run support which affected their seventh-ranked pass defense.

Passing backs Dion Lewis and James White lined up in the pony formation on the first play of the game - an alignment that we should see plenty of going forward - with Lewis taking a handoff and skittering to the left for four yards, then burly power back LeGarrette Blount took the next handoff for nine yards up the middle, then White replicated the production off left guard on the next play...

...and while the Patriots would have been content to rip off running plays for eight yards per carry and demoralize the Rams' run defense even further, they had to settle for a Blount 43-yard stomp to paydirt and an early 7-0 lead.

Settling, because the Patriots are all about methodically taking the opposition's will away, and really aren't given to the big play - for in reality, all the big play does is put your defense back out on the field without their proper rest, and they are not in that business.

The New England Patriots have to be the most boring team in the National Football League.

But that's not a bad thing, is it?

They don't have an explosive wide receiver that can break a game wide open - in fact their idea of a downfield passing game is finding a soft spot in the zone between the second level and the secondary. Their favorite passing play is a bubble screen, and they are thrilled when their power back cuts against the grain for four yards. They nickel and dime their way down the field, chewing up clock and before you know it, they've scored in the high twenties without you even realizing it.

They have a quarterback that runs his offense like he's a dispatcher at a public works facility.  They have a head coach who looks like you'd sooner see him in line at the Gut Truck outside a tire factory than you would on an NFL sideline. Their offensive coordinator is the young, hyper-active prodigy that needs to be reeled in and properly supervised while their defensive coordinator spouts off engineering jargon like most people casually chat.

None of them, from the owner to the 53rd man on the roster are people you would call the life of the party, except, of course, tight end Rob Gronkowski - but Gronk is no longer on the active roster, courtesy of a slipped disc in this back which has landed him on the injured reserved list though Blount has had his moments, primarily celebrating with the End Zone Militia after a touchdown

The New England Patriots, as a team, approach each week as a business proposition.  They practice and ply their craft each day, always looking to get better individually, but always buying into their now-famous axiom, "Do Your Job", motivated and compelled to achieve that most celebrated company motto.

Blount's thunder roll touchdown was a direct result of establishing a running game from the start.  When the Rams' saw that Blount was in the game, they naturally had to at least respect the possibility of the run, but more than that, the short passing game combined with early success in the run drew the defense close to the line of scrimmage...

...and when Blount approached the line, the bottleneck caused by so many defenders in the box enabled right tackle Marcus Cannon, fullback James Develin and tight end Martellus Bennett to seal off the edge against all eight defenders, leaving only the secondary to deal not only with with Blount's deceptive speed, but also his 6' 0", 250 pound frame, which replays show they wanted no part of.

To the credit of the Los Angeles coaching staff, they found a way to adjust to what New England was doing on offense and in the second half looked like a top-ten defense, but with only an anemic offense to hand the ball over to and facing a seventeen-point halftime deficit, the game was essentially over.

One didn't need a crystal ball to know what was about to happen to the Rams on offense. In the four games since their merciful bye week, the Rams' offense has scored a total of 19 points in the second half, and that includes a garbage time, last second touchdown against the Carolina Panthers four weeks ago.

Their running game, a strength last season, has been all but invisible this season and their passing game hasn't reached 200 passing yards in their last three games - and all of those trends would continue on a chilly Sunday afternoon in Foxborough.

As they always do, the Patriots' defense concentrated on stopping the Rams running game, hoping to make running back Todd Gurley's presence inconsequential, while trying to put more pressure on rookie quarterback Jared Goff than they've been able to since their own bye week - and the result was utter domination of the hapless Los Angeles offense.

New England held the Rams to a season low in rushing (36 yards), time of possession (22:03) and first downs (7) while limiting their passing game to their second-lowest output of the season by one yard (126 yards), picking off two Goff passes - both tipped balls, one by defensive end Jaball Sheard - and holding them to just 1 of 13 on third down conversions.

Their lone touchdown was, you guessed it, a garbage time, last-second toss from Goff to wide receiver Kenny Britt, but that couldn't mask the fact that the Patriots' defense forced eight punts - six of them of the three-and-out variety - and didn't allow the Rams to reach 100 yards in total offense until after the two minute warning in the final frame after holding them to just 26 total first half yards.

So, the Patriots' offense didn't have to do anything special, and they didn't.  It was just another day at the office.

Quarterback Tom Brady led a conservative, button-downed "attack", throwing 46 passes - completing 33 - for 269 yards, posting a yards per attempt a full three yards worse than his season average of 8.6. Some of that was a natural consequence of  calling an absurd amount of screen passes that the Rams were prepared for, but rare was the occasion that Brady put the ball up for more than a half a dozen yards.

The week before against the New York Jets, Brady was hobbled with a knee injury that made it so he had a tough time pushing off of his right leg, physics dictating that he would overthrow his receivers  with a high trajectory release. He barely got away with it against the Jets, but the Rams' secondary would probably have made him pay for those errant throws, so perhaps Brady's knee is still an issue and the game plan - including the arcane number of screen plays - was a result of that.

Whatever the case, wide receivers Julian Edelman and rookie Malcolm Mitchell accounted for more than half of those passing totals despite being caught up in the screen-fest themselves, but it was Chris Hogan who scored the Patriots only passing touchdown, a fourteen-yard, back shoulder beauty that turned out to be the game winner, putting New England up 14-0 early in the second quarter.

The rest of the game was a coming out party for struggling place kicker Stephen Gostkowski - who found his missing mojo, nailing four field goals right down the middle - and a tutorial on directional kicking by punter Ryan Allen and in punt coverage, as the Patriots' special teams help Rams' lightning quick returner Pharoh Cooper to four yards on three returns.

Patriots' fans who pine for an explosive deep threat or for someone to replace Blount are going to have to get used to seeing what we saw on Sunday for the rest of the season - a workman like, ball control effort on offense that averages 27 points per game, and a bend-but-don't-break defense that surrenders just 17 points per game, which thus far has resulted in a 10-2 record and having the team on the cusp on yet another AFC East division title.

If that's not good enough, a lighter bandwagon isn't going to hurt the company's bottom line...

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Opinion: Roger Goodell Has (Almost) Broken Football

Editor's note: The following is an opinion about the National Football League.  It is NOT a political piece, no matter how much you wish it to be.

Months ago, when the mud-slinging that became downright malicious in the Presidential campaign, eventual winner Donald Trump claimed that if he were elected, he would fire NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Well, he didn't exactly claim he would fire Goodell.  He more or less nodded and nervously grinned, cutting short an impromptu autograph session after a January rally in Massachusetts, when some douchebag lawyer from Maine asked him if he would promise to fire the NFL commissioner if elected President.

And why not? After all, the commissioner did oppress Trump's good buddies Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and nobody messes with The Donald's friends.  Besides, it was a hollow gesture in the first place, because there's no way in hell a naive Billionaire real estate developer with the verbiage of a sailor and the hands and attitude of Caligula would ever be able to leverage his way into the White House, right?

Of course, not even the President of the United States has the authority to unseat the commissioner of a sports league, regardless of whether his philosophies and doctrine border on delusions of grandeur.

The National Football League is experiencing a downward trend in popularity, as evidenced by plunging television ratings, the league pointing to competition for viewership with a compelling World Series and a soap opera-esque Presidential campaign between two nasty-tempered candidates, a phenomenon that captured the attention of the entire nation.

The euphoria of the Chicago Cubs actually winning a World Series championship is starting to subside and the election is over - and the NFL is hoping that the viewership will spring back to their 2015 levels.

Maybe they will and maybe they wont.  If they do, it will shield the fact that Goodell's policies and the cornucopia of  rule changes approved by various committees run by owners of the 32 individual franchises have done to professional football what the "kinder and gentler" policies of the various Presidential administrations have done to the United States.

The "Wussification" of the National Football League is ruining the sport.

"Thirty years from now, I don't think it (the NFL) will be in existence" bemoaned former Baltimore Ravens' safety Bernard Pollard, who during his playing days was known as one of the most fearsome hitters in the game. "It's just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going - where the NFL rule makers want to lighten up, throwing flags and everything else - there's going to come a point when fans are going to get fed up with it."

Since Goodell took office a decade ago, the league had experienced unprecidented growth, maintaining it's status as the most popular sport in north America, and perhaps evolving into a world-wide power as the league has set it's sights on globalization - and many of his policies were aimed at improving the excitement factor of the game...

...approving rule changes that favored high-flying passing offenses by restricting how defensive players were allowed to compete against pass catchers who, increasingly, are becoming bigger and faster and more explosive - and even though defenders complained about it bitterly, scoring was up as was the resultant viewership.

But it wasn't enough.  Starting in 2014, the league mandated that game officials strictly enforce pass interference, illegal contact and defensive holding penalties - the result being an exponential increase in defensive penalties that slowed the game to a crawl and forced defenders to play inside a five-yard box from the line of scrimmage and leaving the rest of the field wide open for the receivers.

Apparently, he instructed the referees to be a little more liberal in their offensive holding calls as well, as the numbers this season show that holding penalties in 2016 have already surpassed those from any other season in NFL history, and offensive pass interference calls are on pace to top last year's high water mark of 53 by week eleven.

Goodell also seems intent on eliminating a good portion of special teams play, first by mandating that officials throw flags on an inordinant percentage of kick and punt returns, to the point where a penalty is expected on any return, then by "solving" this unsavory part of the game by initially moving kickoffs to the 35 yard line from the 30 in 2011...

...and then when that didn't produce enough touchbacks - that is, the returner taking a knee in the end zone to end the play - this past offseason he ratified a plan that he had shelved in 2011 as a leverage move, moving touchbacks from the 20 yard line up to the twenty-five, giving teams plenty of motivation to take a knee since starting on the twenty-five was a couple of yards better than the average NFL return produced.

But, let's take a break here for a second and question whether rule changes and the arcane number of penalty flags are even enough to devalue the product to the point where one in every ten football fan now opts for other activity on Sunday afternoons?  And Sunday nights? And Monday nights? And Thursday nights?

Time was, it was an honor to be selected to play on Monday Night Football, and when you were selected, it was because you earned the selection by building and maintaining success and/or an exciting collection of players that entertained audiences, and both actually worked hand in hand.

Take the Patriots for example.  There have been periods of time - protracted blocks of time, in fact - when the Patriots put a horrible product on the field.  They weren't nicknamed "The Patsies" for nothing, but in reality they were the very personification of inconsistency.

In that light, the Patriots of the early 1970's were so bad that it took three seasons for Monday Night Football to come calling, and even then it was because of some sort of weird rotation between a pool of teams that sucked, perpetually, as evidenced by the fact that it took three more seasons before they again appeared under the bright lights.

But when Chuck Fairbanks began digging the Patriots out of the AFC East cellar, the Patriots found themselves on Monday Night Football for seven straight seasons, as they experienced six consecutive winning seasons, had colorful characters on the team and set records on offense - including the most rushing yards in a season, a record that still stands today nearly four decades later.

They hit the skids again in the early 1980's, then elevated their game to another protracted streak of winning seasons, and went to their first Super Bowl, then bottomed out in the early 90's before rising to another Super Bowl and experienced another streak of good fortune in the mid-to-late decade - each of these peaks and valleys were reflected in the Monday Night schedule, including a six-year hiatus between 1989 and 1995.

That's where the Patriots' brand ceases to be a good example of the in's and out's of primetime television, as they were on the doorstep of an unprecedented run of success that continues to this day, a run that has seen them in at least one Monday night game each season since the turn of the century - but in 2006, just after Goodell took office, effectively came an end to the novelty that made primetime football - well - a novelty.

In 2006, the fledgling NFL Network and NBC began primetime broadcasts of their own - Thursday Night Football and Sunday Night Football, respectively - while the Monday Night brand that had become both a staple and icon of American television ended it's run on commercial network ABC, with parent company ESPN taking over the broadcast.

There's a philosophy among sports purists that expansion waters down the overall talent level among all of the teams and cheapens the product, and the expansion of football primetime broadcasts has thinned the overall talent level and has cheapened the product.

Now, instead of being "honored" by the league by being granted an appearance on Monday Night Football, the league has adopted a policy of "spreading the wealth" with the creation of the Sunday and Thursday night brands, leaving schedule makers to fill in 34 slots created by the inclusion of the brands - and with the league consisting of 32 teams, the novelty of playing on nationally televised primetime games wore off quickly as every team, both good and bad, got a turn.

Most of the criticism has been leveraged towards the Thursday night brand, which came about as nothing more than a power play for Goodell to gain leverage with cable providers - and many have speculated that the Thursday night scheduling is also a bargaining chip to be used to entice NFL owners to approve Goodell's dream of an 18-game schedule.

As a move to "encourage" cable providers to carry the NFL Network as part of their standard digital lineup instead of pay-per-view packages, they anticipated that furor over the fans inability to see their teams play on Thursday night would force the cable providers to start carrying the NFL Network or face mass exodus from their subscribers.

Of course, the providers relented, but what we were left with was an inferior product, due to timing issues and general malaise that accompanies too much of anything.

But Thursday night was different. Teams still considered playing on Monday night an honor, or at least a vehicle to drive their own agendas, and Sunday nights became an even bigger draw, as anticipation among fans built all day on Sundays to settle down and finish their football viewing with mostly excellent matchups, based on what NBC called "flex scheduling", which allowed the network to replace poor matchups - based on records or waning fan interest - with more highly watchable games.

This was something that the league couldn't pull off on a Monday or Thursday night because the logisitics involved in flexing games out and in would prove to be near impossible, what with ticket purchases, travel and rest time for the athletes barriers to success, while NBC had the ability to draw from a pool of games scheduled for earlier in the day, with the only stipulation that the network required to inform the league and the participants 12 days in advance.

So with Monday nights already engrained in television lore and Sunday nights promising the most exciting matchups of the week, Thursday nights became a vortex that no player wanted to participate in, no coach wanted to prepare their team for and, eventually, no fan with a casual interest in the participants wanted to watch.

What it boils down to is that the current television contracts give football fans too much of a good thing, and fans have started to take football for granted.

Is there a way to fix all of these things?  Of course there are measures to take that would bring back viewership, but there has already been a lot of damage to the NFL brand, and no matter what Goodell does now, will be taken with a grain of salt, because he has shown no inclination to take suggestions and his behavioral pattern suggests nothing but self-edification.

The TV contracts run through 2022 and the combined networks (Including FOX, which shows only Sunday regional broadcasts) are under contract to pay the league a whopping $40 Billion for the rights to broadcast games, so Goodell is under no obligation to change anything - and he is actually constrained by the contracts to maintain the status quo.

But he does have plenty to say about the scheduling and about rule changes.

As far as the Thursday night brand, the scheduling can be constructed to coincide with each team's bye week, and actually make fans, players and coaches look forward to the mid-week contests.

If the league would schedule teams coming off of their bye weeks to play on Thursday night, it would give each team 10 full days to rest and prepare, then it would give those same teams 10 days after the contest to rest and prepare for the rest of their schedule.

The benefits would be enormous for all involved.  For fans of the teams involved, there would only be 10 days between seeing their team play as opposed to 14 under the current format.  Players would actually have more time to rest and heal and work on their individual technique, and coaches wouldn't have to scramble to put together impromptu, mostly vanilla game plans that are anything but exciting.

Casual fans would be treated to a better product, the league's safety protocol would be adhered to much more completely, and the players and coaches would be completely on board.

In the past couple of days there has been talk of the league looking to end the Thursday night brand, and that would be fine, were it not for the leverage that cable companies and the networks now own over the league, so for the next five seasons, Thursday Night Football will more than likely continue to air like some sort of preternatural participation trophy...

...appeasing Goodell's long-dead vision of parity in the league which, as a result, causes exactly the opposite effect.  Like it or not, the overwhelming number of primetime games that dilutes the talent pool are here to stay, and unless the league takes ownership of the Thursday Night brand and fills the slots with marquee matchups, the ratings will continue to decline.


Monday, November 28, 2016

Patriots Ground Jets Playing Clutch, Complementary Football

James White was a hero, then a goat, and then let off the hook.

So went the day for the New England Patriots.

It was enough that the Patriots were at MetLife Stadium and playing an arch-nemesis New York Jets that always plays New England tough, but to add a hobbled quarterback Tom Brady to the equation meant that the rest of the team had to pick up the slack - and they did.  Barely.

Facing a fourth and four at the Jets' 37 with just under three minutes to play and playing from behind a one-point deficit, Brady floated a short pass to White on a quick out - White took the pass on his inside shoulder, spun to square his shoulders upfield, and absorbing a hit from Jets' linebacker Darron Lee, White stretched as far as his 5' 10" body would go, picking up the vital first down.

From the spot where the play started, to settle for a field goal in that situation would mean entrusting shaky place kicker Stephen Gostkowski to nail a 54 yard field goal, but neither miss-or-make circumstance was plausible.
Long, silencing the crowd, ended the game with his strip sack

If Gostkowski missed, the Patriots would have been down by two points and the Jets would have taken over the ball at their own 44 and the Patriots with only two time outs to work with - but had he made it, the Patriots would have taken a one-point lead, but left Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets' offense nearly three minutes to drive for a game-winning field goal.

So it was all on White's shoulders to gain the first down.

"He made a great play because the ball was thrown short of the sticks" Brady said of White, "and if we don't make that play, it's hard to win the game - it was a game-winning play, a championship-type play that James made. He did enough to shake off the tackle and get the first down."

A deep pass to wide open receiver Chris Hogan on the ensuing play took the ball down to the Jets' eight yard line, and then Brady hit rookie Malcolm Mitchell for a touchdown pass at the left pylon to give the Patriots a five-point lead - then White took a motion handoff from Brady and crossed the same pylon for a two-point conversion to give the Patriots a seven-point lead...

...the only problem being, while White's body crossed the goal line before going out of bounds, the ball never did, so the Patriots were left clinging to that five-point margin and kicking the ball back to Fitzgerald and the Jets' offense with just under two minutes left.

But defensive end Chris Long stripped the ball out of Fitzgerald's hand two plays later and the ball was recovered by fellow defensive end Trey Flowers which meant that White and, indeed, the entire Patriots team, were let off the hook, leaving MetLife with a victory in a 22-17 street fight.

The Patriots, were expected to set scoring records this season - what with the virtual plethora of extraordinary talent at Brady's disposal - but after running roughshod over their opponents to take a 7-1 record into their week-nine bye, New England has stumbled out of their off week, looking sluggish for long stretches of each of their three contests, losing a heartbreaker to Seattle before posting a 30-17 win over San Francisco last week and winning by five points over New York.

The only thing that has been consistent in any of the three has been the Patriots' clutch play when it counted the most.

Brady looked every bit the hobbled old warrior on Sunday afternoon, his already limited mobility reduced to sloth-like trudging, but after throwing away the ball on five attempts simply because the Jets were sending extra rushers to force Brady's hand, and after overthrowing wide open receivers at least as many times, the quarterback that many consider the greatest to ever play the game summoned up his clutch nature on the last two possessions of the game.

Considered a game-time decision, Brady's right knee was so sore and swollen during the week that he didn't attend practices, and it was clear that the knee was still bothering him, and accounted for the seemingly endless collection of overthrows - when the quarterback can't push off well with his right knee, it affects not just the follow through, but also the release point of the ball, which will be slightly higher...

...but as the game reached it's pinnacle, Brady was able to adjust his mechanics to compensate for his bum knee, throwing strikes on the last two critical possessions, and at the same time earning him his 200th career victory, tying him with Peyton Manning for most all-time - and Brady can break that record with a win against the Los Angeles Rams next week in Foxborough.

Brady - who threw the ball a ridiculous fifty times, completing thirty for 286 yards and two scores - went four-of-six on an eight-play, fifty three yard drive that produced a field goal to get the Patriots within one point, then after the New England defense forced a punt after a short Jets' possession, Brady went five-of-nine on the game winner to take his team to a 9-2 record.

Rookie Wide Receiver Malcolm Mitchell hauled in both of Brady's scoring tosses, snatching a dart at the back of the end zone to cap a seven-play, fifty yard drive after the Patriots' defense forced a Jets' fumble at midfield in the second quarter to tie the game at ten, then the gamer to bring his touchdown total to three in the past two games as his playing time has increased due to injuries in the pass catching ranks...

...while power back LeGarrette Blount ran the ball eleven times for 67 yards and is closing in on 900 yards for the season with five games to play, scatback Dion Lewis adding 24 yards on six carries, including a nifty 15-yard job deep in Jets' territory that featured his trademark cut-on-a-dime elusiveness.

While the Patriots' offense again looked sluggish for much of the game, for the third straight week the defense has seemed lost in a fog until one takes a look at the stat sheet.

Giving up 17 points, which is one fewer than their season average, the New England defense held New York to 5 of 11 on third down conversions, forced four punts, caused two turnovers and allowed the Jets to venture into the red zone just one time - giving up plenty of yardage between the twenties, but hardly anything in scoring position.

The bend-but-don't-break philosophy that the Patriots defense has employed causes frightful tremors among their faithful, but the fact that it works for them is a huge consolation.

On the season, New England has surrendered 197 points on defense, good for third in the NFL, while giving up a whopping 3900 yards, which places them 13th in the league - the spread between these two stats probably have Patriots' fans reaching for bottles of Xanax, but it does indicate how very clutch the defense is when the game is on the line.

And no defender in recent history has been more clutch than cornerback Malcolm Butler, though he took his lumps against the Jets' gigantic wide outs, giving up six catches on as many targets for 106 yards and both of Ryan Fitzgerald's scoring throws - but the difference between what happened to Butler on Sunday and just plain getting toasted was verbalized by Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick after the game.

"Look, we're going to play against good receivers and good quarterbacks every week. That's what the National Football League is." said Belichick on his Monday morning conference call from Gillette Stadium, adding, "Malcolm competed hard, which he always does, and tackled and was competitive on a lot of those plays and was close. They made some plays and he made some."

They made some plays, and he made some.  The Jets made some plays and the Patriots made some.  Imagine that.  The Jets made plays all over the field, made plays that totaled 333 total yards on 56 plays, but only 18 of those yards and four of those plays came inside the red zone - otherwise, Fitzgerald hooked up with receiver Quincy Enunwa on a 22 yard miracle touchdown in the back right corner of the end zone that Butler couldn't have covered any better...

...and one Nick Foles field goal.  The rest of the Jets' ten possessions were a testament to the competitiveness that Belichick keeps speaking of, with the aforementioned punts and forced fumbles, and also an Alan Branch blocked field goal on a 54-yard Foles attempt.

That is the very definition of complementary football.  Can things be better? Rhetorically speaking, absolutely.  The offense could run the ball a little more to give the defense a bit more rest, and the defense could pressure more to perhaps give the offense a little better starting field position.

Other than that, your Patriots are fine, and are on to Los Angeles.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Patriots' Offense Rounding Into Form Despite Bumps In The Road

Right tackle Cannon has not allowed a quarterback hit or sack in the last four games
 Bill Belichick has long said that what his teams look like around Thanksgiving is as good as they are going to get.  This Thanksgiving, however, his New England Patriots are experiencing things differently than in any season past.

On defense, they have jettisoned their most physically gifted player, Jamie Collins, presumably for not adhering to the Patriot Way, and have spent the last two games scrambling to find their groove without their pro bowl linebacker, while on offense, the team has been slowly stabilizing as they get players back into the fold after missing significant time with one issue or another.

The blue liners have the Big Nickel alignment to fall back on, but things are not that simple for an offense that was predicted to be a literal juggernaut.  Given those lofty projections and with six games left in the season, the Patriots sit at sixth in the league in both total offense and scoring - disappointing, but there are reasons.

And it isn't as if the Patriots haven't been efficient on offense, but there have been issues with continuity, as several members of the squad have either missed good chunks of time this season, or are currently shelved - or both. Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed the first three games of the season and is currently on the shelf and expected to miss his second consecutive game with a chest injury...

...while quarterback Tom Brady missed the first four games in Roger Goodell's dog house and electric passing back Dion Lewis came off the PUP list just two weeks ago and saw limited snaps in his first action of the season in last Sunday's win at San Francisco.  Essentially, Brady's internal clock is pretty much set to the second week of the season, if we count his fist four games as a sort of preternatural preseason.

Same with Gronkowski, and Lewis has just started his preseason - but the Patriots have proven that, unlike last season, this offense is capable of carrying them to the win column.

The best and most telling sign of this comes with the incredible balance that has become a calling card.  Last season and, indeed, for the past decade, balance on offense to the Patriots meant running the ball just enough to keep the threat of the run in the brains of the opposing pass rushers.

But this season, as the offense leaned on the running game to help the team compile a 3-1 record before Brady returned, they also received a real-life tutorial on the fundamental importance of the protracted usage of the running game. Indeed, the Patriots sport the sixth-ranked rushing game in the NFL, with power back LeGarrette Blount working on a career season where he is projected to end up with nearly 1300 yards and nineteen touchdowns.

Those yardage totals haven't been seen around Foxborough in a decade, and the number of touchdowns has never been approached, but the most amazing thing about it is that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has learned that his running game is - to quote coach Herman Boone - just like Novocaine: give it time, it always works.

To Patriots' fans, there aren't too many things more beautiful than watching their 250 pound running back cut through a hole and get loose on the second level,  but is equaled in beauty by Gronkowski smothering the ball with his huge hands while sprinting up the seam, Lewis displaying his video game-quality elusiveness, James White's subtle electricity, Martellus Bennett's hand fighting at the line of scrimmage, and etc., etc.

But something is amiss in Foxborough.  Gronkowski is most certainly out this Sunday when the Patriots travel to New Jersey to take on the hated Jets, while fellow tight end Bennett and Brady were listed as questionable on the Thanksgiving injury report and did not participate in practice - which is particularly troublesome for Brady, as he's dealing with a bum knee and hasn't practiced for the past two days...

...and while Brady has such a grasp of the offense that he was able to step right in and start dominating after serving his four-game suspension to start the season, missing a couple of practices isn't a good sign. Fortunately, there's a somewhat seasoned Jimmy Garoppolo waiting in the wings in case Brady can't go against the Jets.

It's a unique situation that far sighted head ball coach Bill Belichick can use to his advantage. Garoppolo has already shown that he has a keen grasp of the offense and that he has all of the tools required of an NFL signal caller, throwing for 500 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions while leading New England to two early-season wins - and if Garoppolo does indeed end up playing on Sunday, it just adds another length of game footage to an already decent film study to either entice quarterback needy teams in the offseason, or to give Patriots' fans solace in Brady's golden years.

So, worst case, Garoppolo at quarterback, a full complement of wide receivers and a backfield full of sick moves and "Blount" force are in store for the Jets, as the passing back combo of White and Lewis and the deep seam element provided by Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell can somewhat offset the loss of the two tight ends against the mediocre Jets' secondary.

Somewhat, because Patriots quarterbacks have targeted their tight ends with a full 40-percent of their pass attempts this season, and their passing backs - primarily White - another thirty percent.  So it remains to be seen if the wide receivers can have an immediate and forceful impact on an offense that has obviously gone heavy.

Of course, everything on offense is dependent on two critical factors - Brady getting the ball out of his hands and to the receivers as they make their breaks, and the offensive line - a unit that looks as if they have rounded into form and are playing their best ball at the right moment - giving him that time.

Led by - dare we say it? - right tackle Marcus Cannon, who hasn't surrendered a quarterback hit or sack in the past four games, the Patriots offensive line has very quietly become a cohesive unit that is getting better as the season progresses. In fact, if one were to look at the line in a purely statistical nature, the Patriots rank in the top 10 for the least quarterback hits surrendered (49, ranked 10th in the NFL) and sacks (20, ranked 9th).

Given those numbers, it isn't surprising that New England is ranked sixth in the league in passing, rushing, scoring and total offense, and has helped to introduce balance back into the Patriots' game plan.

Cannon and center David Andrews are both getting whispers of Pro Bowl notice, while left guard Joe Thuney has an inside track to making the league's All- Rookie team. Gigantic Cam Fleming has become a staple swing tackle and lines up as an eligible tight end on a good portion of snaps (When you ear the referee say "Number 71 is reporting as eligible, that's Fleming) and usually lines up on the weak side covering the outside shoulder of left tackle Nate Solder.

Which is purposeful as the veteran Solder has been the weakest link on the line in 2016 and has been the culprit in several negative plays for the Patriots' offense in the past two games, including a holding penalty that negated a lovely 35 yard Blount rumble for a touchdown against the 49ers.

With so much talent on the Patriots' offense, finding a left tackle in the draft or free agency this offseason is probably going to be priority-one, but that is a subject for another time.

As it stands, the Patriots certainly have enough on both sides of the ball to take the Jets, whom they play twice in the final six games - even if Brady and Bennett join Gronkowski on the skids - but with the suddenly resurgent Miami Dolphins just two games back and representing the season finale for New England, the AFC East has the tightest race it's seen in almost a decade...

...so every play counts, and every player is vital - and with a bevy of opportunists playing split wide, in the slot and in the backfield, there is no reason why the Patriots shouldn't come away with their eighth consecutive division title, and a decent shot at a first round bye.


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Patriots' Defense In Flux? Return To Big Nickel Proving Fortuitous

Quick, can you name the team that has a defense that during NFL action on Sunday allowed less than 300 yards in total offense, collected five sacks, forced five fumbles, held their opponent to five of fourteen in third down conversions and forced eight punts, including five three-and-outs?

Surely, you say, not the New England Patriots?

Any team facing the San Francisco 49ers would be expected to limit their anemic passing game, while struggling against their top five running game, and every team has.  One would expect that any team facing the 49ers would beat them handily, and nine of the ten teams they've faced in 2016 have  done just that.

The New England Patriots defense held the status quo in their 30-17 victory over San Francisco at Levi's Stadium on a soggy Sunday afternoon in the bay area, but also holding the 49er's to their second lowest scoring output of the season, only a last-ditch, desperation, garbage time touchdown keeping the 'Niners from establishing a new low water mark for offensive ineptitude.

But that is expected of the Patriots, to the point where their fans sometimes forget that the guys on the other side of the ball are professional football players as well, and are going to make plays.

That said and true, the rhetorical question that emerges in regard to the Patriots' defense is a three-part query: First, why do they look so confused at times and, secondly, was trading off linebacker Jamie Collins the talisman for the aforementioned look of confusion?

The third question is perhaps the the most poignant of all, that being, have our expectations as fans clouded our vision?

All of us bought into the preseason banter that the Patriots sported a top ten defense to compliment a juggernaut offense, and there was really no one that could beat them except themselves, which they did against the Seattle Seahawks last week by the offense turning the ball over twice to the at-the-time sixth-ranked Seahawks' passing game...

...and by shying away from the Big Nickel defensive alignment, a move that many decried as being a harbinger of things to come, when in reality the sloppiness can be attributed to different looks in an attempt to ascertain where the linebacker coverage skill sets lie in a real-world setting in order to make up for the loss of Collins.

They figured to have an easier time of it on Sunday - and they did - but as is often the case against teams with mobile quarterbacks and well developed passing backs, the Patriots struggled at times, because when a mobile quarterback escapes the pocket, more often than not he's looking for his hot read, which is almost always a back or a tight end.

The key to keep this from happening is for the defensive ends and outside linebackers to set the hard edge and funnel everything back to wards the center of the field, where bigger bodies await - but if the quarterback does escape and gets to the edge, the corners, safeties and linebackers have already been in coverage for four-to-five seconds, an eternity in pass coverage.

That's where the Big Nickel (three safety) alignment comes in so importantly,  as it gives the team a better chance to both set the edge and to get on top of backs and tight end in the pattern - the keys, of course, being that strong safety Patrick Chung reduces down to become, essentially, a weak side linebacker.  Chung, despite being undersized in the box at 5' 11" and 215 pounds, is one of the premier tacklers in the league and can set a hard edge by being faster to the spot than the offensive linemen.

That skill was on full display against San Francisco, and didn't escape the attention of head ball coach Bill Belichick.

"When you are coming out of space like that, you can't let the quarterback get outside when they are as athletic as Kaepernick or Tyrod Taylor." Belichick said after the game, adding, "It's a tough open field tackle, Chung is one of our best tacklers, he's got to be one of the best tacklers in the league whether he's in line or in space or whoever he's tackling."

Collins "free-lanced" his way out of New England by abandoning the edge and allowing too many plays to get outside of him, and the film on Jabaal Sheard the past few games suggests the same tendency, which is most likely why he didn't make the trip to San Francisco - so the Patriots made due at Levi's Stadium with greybeards Rob Ninkovich and Chris Long responsible for the edges...

...and the results were mixed as 49ers' quarterback Colin Kaepernick still managed to pick up his hot read on a few occasions - though not nearly the debacle New England suffered at the hands of the Seahawks - and Kaepernick managed to pick up a couple of first downs by scrambling up the middle.

So it's safe to say that the Patriots' defense is a work in progress, but when hasn't it been?

"When you get into the season we know things change - personnel, scheme, whatever the case may be." Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia offered up on Tuesday. "That's where we go in and try to adjust. You don't get too high, you don't get too low and you try to stay consistent."

Not much has been made of the timing of the Collins move - other than fans loudly wondering why the Patriots would trade away a premiere defensive talent in the middle of what was supposed to be a Super Bowl run - but coming off of the bye and facing two non-conference opponents in a row gives us a clue.

The non-conference record is far down the list on tie-breakers to determine conference seeding, so a loss isn't as devastating as an in-conference or in-division loss would be, so never would there have been a better time to get some game film on pieces like Shea McClellin, Barkevious Mingo or newcomer Kyle Van Noy than having two consecutive games against the NFC West - and both games against mobile quarterbacks who are dangerous in space.

None of the aforementioned players have had a large presence on the defense thus far - though all have seen significant time on special teams - but we have seen them with more of a role on the second level the past two games, and that should continue on a part-time basis.

Part-time, because there is not a team in the league that can run the Big Nickel like the Patriots can, and with the post-Thanksgiving stretch filled with danger - three divisional games and contests against the always tough Ravens and Broncos - fans should expect to see the New England defense back to their normal bend-but-don't-break philosophy.

Next up: The New York Jets, who have had a tough time scoring points and have one of the worst passing games in the NFL, but who rely heavily on their short passing game to - you guessed it - their running backs.  The Jets have had less than a 50% success rate at getting the ball to their downfield receivers, one of the worst rates in the NFL, so the onus will be on the Big Nickel to shorten the field and keep the backs in check.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Turnovers, Curious Play Calling Doom Patriots To Beating Themselves

Ball security is paramount to any football team's success, and on Sunday night in Foxborough, the entire country got a live tutorial on how negative an impact poor ball security can have.

For a moment, try to forget the Patriots' seemingly horrid pass defense and the curious play calling on both sides of the ball, and think about what transpired when wide receiver Julian Edelman put the ball on the ground with the game on the line against the Seattle Seahawks at Gillette Stadium.

In a see-saw affair that had seen six lead changes between two Super Bowl quality squads, the Seahawks were nursing a 25-24 lead on the strength of a Steven Hauschka 23 yard field goal with just over eight-and-a-half minutes remaining in a classic track meet that had produced just two punts for each team, both teams moving the ball seemingly at will...
C.J. Prosise burns Patriots' Elandon Roberts to set up a Seattle score

...and with excellent field position courtesy of butter-fingered rookie return man Cyrus Jones, who showed excellent burst to get the ball almost to Seattle's forty yard line before coughing it up - and the Patriots had seemed to have dodged a major bullet when alert safety Nate Ebner recovered the ball and the Patriots were in business just 5 yards out of field goal range.

Two plays later, Edelman laid an egg, giving the Seahawks the ball at midfield, and with neither defense being able to stop the opposing offense, no one in the stadium or watching at home were surprised when Wilson led the Seahawks right down the field for a touchdown and a seven point lead - nor were they surprised when Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady let his team right back down the field and poised inside the two yard line with a first and goal.

For reasons that may never be known, power back LeGarrette Blount, who had already found paydirt three times in the game, was given only one shot at the end zone from that spot, as a Brady sneak failed before he fumbled an exchange with center David Andrews, then overthrew tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was in full-grapple with Seahawk safety Cam Chancellor and fighting through a hole in his lung...

...so when the smoke cleared, Seattle walked off the field with a 31-24 win, a score that could have been reversed had New England not turned the ball over at the most critical of times.

The Seahawks scored on seven of their nine possessions, racking up an obscene 420 total yards but the Patriots' defense, true to form, allowed only the three Baldwin touchdowns in six red zone trips, forcing Seattle to have to settle for three Hauschka field goals after stalling inside the ten - while the Patriots scored on just four of their nine possessions, the result of not only being stonewalled on the goal line on the final drive, but also because of Edelman's gaffe and a what-the-hell-were-you-aiming-for Brady interception in the first half.

In short, the Patriots succeeded in beating themselves.

And that's been the thing all along, right?  That the only team capable of beating the Patriots are the Patriots themselves?

The Seahawks came into the game ranked in the bottom third of the league in total offense, leaning on their defense to propel them to a 5-2-1 record, but it had only been for the past three weeks that Wilson had been anywhere close to healthy, and the Patriots' win was the second week in a row that Seattle's offense had put up 31 points.

"This is what we've been talking about, trying to take this turn" Seattle ball coach Pete Carroll said after the game when asked about the uptick in offensive productivity. "We had been waiting to just get healthy, and maybe we waited a couple of weeks too long, but we had been waiting on Russ (Wilson) to get right, and we kicked it in last week.

"You saw the change," Carroll continued "all the offensive coaches seized the opportunity to go ahead and go."

And the weapons that Wilson has at his disposal are NFL-tested on the biggest stage the sport has to offer, all except at running back, where rookie C.J. Prosise has grasped the reigns and is making a strong case to keep the job permanently as he is proving to be an every down back.  His running between the tackles will never be confused with what the now-retired Marshawn Lynch offered...

...but his receiving ability out of the backfield is far more prolific than BeastMode, which goes to figure for a guy who runs a sub 4.4 in the forty and was a wide receiver at Notre Dame until injuries in their backfield dictated that Prosise fill in, for lack of a better choice - and with covering backs in the pattern out of the backfield a perpetual albatross for New England to begin with, Prosise was going to be problematic.

So why leave a guy that fast and that experienced in the pattern to a linebacker ill-suited to cover him with any chance of success? A better question might be, where the hell is the Big Nickel alignment that is structured just for the scenario that the Seahawks present?

And an even better question is, what is the use of having all the pieces for the Big Nickle defense, if you are not going to use it?

For the uninitiated, the Big Nickel defense employs five defensive backs, but unlike a standard nickel which calls for a third cornerback to replace a linebacker in obvious passing situations, the Big Nickel employs a third safety to replace the linebacker.  It may not sound like such a huge deal as both are defensive backs, but the difference between the two in the Patriots' scheme are like night and day.

In the Patriots' defensive scheme, weakside linebackers are devalued in favor of strong safeties in an effort to present a more difficult matchup for the opposing offense due to increased athleticism at the position to handle running backs, both curling out into the pattern and in the running game, where the strong safety will fill the gap much like a downhill-style linebacker would.

That leaves two safeties to fill in where needed, most often with free safety Devin McCourty reducing down to cover the double slot or to double on the outside, and hybrid Free/Strong centerfielder Duron Harmon patrolling the back end sideline-to-sideline - but Harmon played only a third of the snaps, and when he was in the game, he shadowed tight end Jimmy Graham, who was targeted only with linebacker coverage, mostly against Hightower

So on Sunday night against the surging Seattle Seahawks, with the Big Nickel conspicuously absent, Prosise caught seven out of seven targets for 87 yards against mostly linebacker coverage, including a 38 yard bomb that set up a Seattle score, an absolute nightmare scenario for the Patriots' defense.

Six of Prosise's seven catches converted third downs for Seattle - as a matter of fact, Prosise was on the receiving end of every single third down conversion for the Seahawks, with all but two with coverage provided by either Dont'a Hightower or Elandon Roberts, neither of whom with the wheels to stick with the sleek rookie.

Many will point to the cornerbacks, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Justin Coleman, as the goats in this scenario - and lord knows they could have played better, and have played better - but what they gave up in critical errors would not have been possible without Prosise converting third downs - and that is true in every single instance when Seattle scored.

One also has to wonder why New England didn't do the same thing on offense with passing back James White, who is even more prolific than Prosise, and with a developing NFL pedigree - but that is to be addressed at another time, along with the shakeup at defensive end.

But even with all of that happening and combined with an anemic pass rush, it came down to putting the ball on the ground in a critical moment that made the difference in a win or loss.

"Plus two in a game like this..." Carroll said with a smile, reflecting on Brady's first pick of the season and Edelman's egg, "it's fitting that a plus-two game would get you the win."

Fitting indeed.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Balance Is Now Status Quo For Patriots' Offense

When you go up against the New England Patriots offense, it's next to impossible to take away all of their weapons.

I mean, the best tight end duo in the league, an electric wide receiver corps and a powerful and versatile running game - all led by the greatest quarterback to ever play the game - your 11 players are not going to be enough to take away their entire 11.

If you try to take away their twin tight ends, the receivers and backs will kill you underneath.  If you take away the receivers, the tight ends are good enough to beat you short and deep and the backs will take you up the middle - and if you take away the running game, Brady will throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns, and then power back LeGarrette Blount will put you away down the stretch anyway...

...and every once in while the Patriots will present you with unintentional opportunities via putting the ball on the ground, and if you can get to Brady enough to pressure him and maybe get a sack or two, you're going to have a chance.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had that chance late on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

Missing starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers still managed to move the ball effectively against New England's defense, but only between the twenties, as one of the best red zone offenses in the league couldn't find the end zone against one of the league's worst red zone defenses, settling for field goals the difference in the Patriots' 27-16 win in Pittsburgh.

"To be honest with you, we moved the ball up and down the field" said quarterback Landry Jones after the game, describing New England's defensive philosophy perfectly."we kicked field goals instead of scoring touchdowns."

Actually, the Steelers did find the end zone twice, and almost a third time, but a holding penalty wiped out one score in the second quarter that would have tied the game and Cornerback Malcolm Butler ended an earlier scoring threat, limiting Pittsburgh to just one touchdown in three red zone trips.

The Steelers' defense seemed to be collectively preoccupied with taking Gronkowski and Bennett out of the equation, sacrificing the short routes to Edelman, who caught nine balls for 60 yards, and leaving the box light for Blount, who flat abused the Steelers' run defense for 127 yards on just 24 carries - but the Patriots found a way to get the tight ends involved in the passing game in the second half, and the points started to pile up.

In actuality, however, perhaps Patriots head ball coach Bill Belichick was using the tight ends as decoys in order to get Edelman - who has had a slow start to the season - involved in the offense.

At first, it appeared that New England was going to balance the Steelers to death, as Brady sent both Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett on seam routes to clear out the underneath zones, leaving plenty of room for receiver Julian Edelman to cleanly separate, and for Blount to pick up ground in chunks, and good for an early fourteen point lead.

But dropped passes on third and short on consecutive series and untimely penalties stalled three consecutive possessions for New England, feeding a Pittsburgh offense with decent field position to start drives, that they were able to translate into scoring opportunities - but as has been the case since the start of the season, the Patriots' defense weathered the storm nearly every time.

A Chris Hogan fumble gave Pittsburgh the ball in Patriots' territory, but a Butler interception in the end zone denied the Steelers points, and a missed chipshot field goal by Chris Boswell denied them on another possession, all when mixed in with crucial stops on three other drives limited Pittsburgh's offense to 16 points, right on the Patriots' average points allowed for the season.

After the Patriots got past their bout of sloppy execution that plagued them through the second quarter and much of the third, they simply did what the offense is capable of and put the game away with touchdowns on consecutive drives.

And what the offense is capable of, is balance.

Thus far in 2016, the Patriots have run 433 plays on offense - 216 have been passing plays while 217 have been in the running game.  Of course that is not all a planned rotation of one pass, one run, another pass, another run - rather, it is one phase of the offense feeding off of the other and, in some cases, one setting up the other.

On the Patriots' four scoring drives, they ran 34 plays, 18 runs and 16 passes - and on the three possessions that were sandwiched between the scoring drives, the disparity between pass and run was 11 passes to three running plays.  The snaps evened out as the Patriots ran the ball to eat clock the final two possessions of the game, but the numbers don't lie - balance is the key to success.

This game against the Steelers was actually a status quo performance for New England in that they allow their opponents to hang around for a while, but eventually pulling away for the win. That has been the case for every contest except for the blowout of the Browns, where it almost seems like Belichick uses the first half to conduct mad-scientist experiments, then abandons the study in the third quarter, when his offense has scored at will.

Of course, nobody could be that arrogant, right?  But what other reason could there be for the erratic execution that has dogged them in the middle parts of games?

For his part, Steelers' linebacker Jarvis Jones was of the opinion that the Patriots were trying to do just that, trying to lull the Pittsburgh defense into a false sense of security by not targeting Gronkowski in the first half, using him and fellow tight end Martellus Bennett as lead men in the running game.

"They didn't throw the ball a lot to him in the first half" Jones said of Gronkowski, "Then they came out in the second half and they had two huge plays that set them up for touchdowns."

In fact, Steelers head ball coach Mike Tomlin admitted that on those plays he was getting desperate because his team had done everything in their power to pull even but were still trailing, so he took "calculated risks in an effort to win", but that the risks backfired badly.

In both instances - the 36-yard seam job for the touchdown and the 37-yard crosser that set up Blount's second touchdown of the game - the "calculated risks" were simply leaving Gronkowski single covered in order to get after Brady with extra rushers, which is the unforgivable sin when playing the Patriots.

Two plays in two short possessions, and the Patriots turned a tight one-point game into an eleven-point advantage and doomed Pittsburgh to their third loss of the season.

If there was a consistent force in this contest for the Patriots offense, it was Blount, who set the tone for New England early in the contest with 53 yards in 13 carries in the first half, but, perhaps more importantly, helped the offense settle back into their collective groove by putting them on his back and moving the pile.

"They had some good pressure early in the third quarter and got us in some long-yardage situation with holding penalties and having the quarterback force the ball out quickly." Belichick explained after the game, adding, "His (Blount's) runs were able to settle us down."

Blount scored twice in the game to bring his season total to eight, taking one up the middle for three yards which, combined with passing back James White's subtle 19-yard scamper with a screen from Brady, gave New England their quick 14-point cushion - and then again with a nifty five-yard job off tackle that provided the final edge.

And the defense made it hold up.

In yielding sixteen points to the Steelers, the Patriots' defense continued its five-game bend-but-don't-break, point-pinching ways in which they have given up an average of 331 yards per contest, but just an average of twelve points, defying conventional wisdom and raising the blood pressure of fans all over the region.

They have yet to surrender a 300 yard passing performance since allowing nearly four-hundred mostly garbage time yards to the Dolphins in week two as they have concentrated on limiting the big play against some larger-than-life big play athletes, and doing so while sacrificing individual stats in the name of the team.

Part of that is bleeding a little in the run defense up the middle in an effort to keep backs and mobile quarterbacks between the tackles and not let them gain the edge.  Part of that is rushing the quarterback with the bare minimum of players to concentrate more on coverage and in setting the edge, but also picking and choosing spots to blitz or send extra rushers.

Overall, the Patriots defense has yielded 107 points in seven games, an elite clip of just 15.3 points per game, but where the bulk of their success has been is in the second half, where in their past five games they have given up only 25 points, and only 12 in the fourth quarter - which corresponds with the Patriots' offense locating their aforementioned mojo...

...scoring 65 points in the second half of those games, usually pulling away late in the third quarter and complementing their stifling defense, which has been a hallmark of Bill Belichick defenses in New England for nearly two decades.

So Sunday's win against the Steelers was really the status quo for this Patriots' squad, which are still just scratching the surface of their enormous potential.  A lot of that has to do with the fact that quarterback Tom Brady is just now starting to get back in the groove after missing the first four games of the season - and while he has been excellent, he'll be the first to tell you that he and his teammates have a long way to go to be the team they want to be.

That is, World Champions.