Monday, November 13, 2017

Patriots Rounding Into Form; Special Teams Literally Special In Punking Of Broncos In Denver

The Denver Broncos should have known from the very start that they were in for a long night.

Well, from almost the very start - because, you see, the Broncos' defense started the game exactly as their fans (and, sadly, New England Patriots' fans as well) have come to expect and count on, forcing the visiting Patriots into a three-and-out on their first possession and into a punting situation just a minute-and-a-half into their nationally televised showdown in Denver.
Dion Lewis evades tacklers on his way to a kick return for touchdown

But from the point that the football left the foot of Patriots' punter Ryan Allen, the Broncos fortunes plummeted into the toilet, finding yet another creative way to victimize themselves and their fans, sinking further into the abyss of football despair by dropping their fifth straight game, a 41-16 thrashing at the hands of their arch-nemesis.

When Allen's punt reached it's nadir and spiraled down 46 yards later, Broncos' return man Isaiah McKenzie let it slip between his hands and to the turf, Patriots' gunner Jonathan Jones taking him out of the play and trailer Jacob Hollister falling cleanly on the ball to give the ball right back to Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady on the Denver 24 yard line...

...Brady finding running back Rex Burkhead twice in the pattern, the second throw covering the final 14 yards to paydirt and an early lead the Patriots would never relinquish.

New England head ball coach Bill Belichick employs an inordinate number of players on his roster who play primarily on special teams, Jones and Hollister among them, and who make the wholly ignored phase of the game a vital bridge between the offense and defense - often choosing to go against conventional wisdom in order to gain an advantage over every team he faces.

On Sunday night, that advantage came in the form of a dagger.

Leading by seven after the gift from his special teams - and after the Patriots defense did what they always do, giving up almost every inch there is between the twenties then shutting down the Broncos' offense to force them to settle for a field goal - Denver kicker Brandon McManus sent the subsequent kickoff three yards deep into the Patriots end zone...

...fifteen seconds and 103 yards later, Dion Lewis was celebrating with his teammates in the Broncos' end zone after skirting the home team's sideline and dodging weak efforts to shove him out of bounds, the second of three impact special teams plays giving the Patriots a 14-3 lead.

The third special teams standout effort came via a blocked punt four minutes into the second quarter, courtesy of running back Rex Burkhead who exploded between two Broncos blockers like he was shot out of a canon and easily got to Denver punter Riley Dixon, who fell on the ball at the Denver thirty, preventing a gaggle of Patriot rushers from picking up the ball and running it into the end zone.

As it was, the Patriots turned that gaffe into a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, essentially putting the game out of reach.

But the Patriots were far from finished putting points on the board, as tight end Dwayne Allen hauled in a tough grab for his first catch and first touchdown in New England, followed by Lewis displaying his super-human strength in dragging two Broncos into the end zone from seven yards out, culminating with fellow running back James White getting in on the fun, catching a quick out from Brady that left his mirror frozen on the turf.

Denver's offense pretty much had their way with New England's defense between the twenties in the first half, but drives of 58, 64 and 63 yards stalled short of paydirt, forcing the Broncos to settle for three McManus field goals - but quarterback Brock Osweiler led the Broncos down the field on their first possession of the second half, hitting receiver Demaryius Thomas from seven yards out to give Denver a brief spark of hope...

...though that lasted all of three-and-a-half minutes as Brady responded with a big play drive, hitting both Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski with 25 yard heaters to get New England into Denver's red area, then handed the ball to Lewis three straight times to end any hope Denver had of climbing back into the game.

Brady was an ever-efficient 25 of 34 for 266 yards and three scores as his offensive line - despite missing regular right tackle Marcus Cannon - kept him upright nearly the entire game, allowing just one sack on a safety blitz that White matador'd on. In fact, the Broncos' vaunted pass rush got close just a handful of times, under pressure just six times all evening...

...and Brady, as he usually does, made the Broncos pay for generating extra pressure, completing all six throws for 89 yards and the touchdown to Allen for a perfect rating of 158.3.

Despite having just three outside-the-numbers receivers healthy, Brady targeted Cooks, Phillip Dorsett and Danny Amendola on exactly half of his throws, completing 12 of those 17 passes for 126 yards and completing 13 of 17 to his backs and tight ends for 140 yards and all three scores. Cooks led all Patriots pass catchers with six catches on 11 targets, most of them with Denver corner Chris Harris hanging all over him.

Gronkowski led the tight ends with four, first down-producing grabs while the newly-reacquired Martellus Bennett snagged three passes in playing just five snaps. Burkhead and White split the six targets that went to the backs.

Osweiler was 18 of 33 for 221 yards with the touchdown to Thomas and an interception by Patriots' safety Patrick Chung, who had his best game of the season, allowing three catches on four targets for just 14 yards. Most of the damage that Denver did on offense came via Osweiler targeting  receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who caught six of eleven targets for a game-high 137 yards, all but 23 of those yards coming against Patriots' corner Malcolm Butler, who Sanders screwed into the ground repeatedly while running some nifty patterns.

Thomas' touchdown catch and a defensive holding call were the only sore spots on the resume of cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who returned to action after a three week hiatus on the shelf to essentially lock down the 6' 3", 230 pounder to just 44 yards on five catches.

Denver's ground game proved potent, particularly with C.J. Anderson toting the rock for 5.4 yards per shot, but the Broncos were forced to abandon their running game as they fell behind by three scores and went to the air.

Overall, it was a solid effort from a Patriots' team that is starting to round into form and looking every bit the contender they were expected to be after a rocky start to the season, having now won five straight and in a deadlock with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the best record in the conference.

The Patriots will remain in Colorado for the bulk of this week before heading south of the border to take on the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City this coming Sunday.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Corruption? Collusion? Bennett Saga Has All The Makings Of A Made-For-TV Court Drama

In the film A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise portrayed a Navy Lawyer who is defending two Marines against Murder charges, a fellow Marine dying from the effects of lactic acidosis brought upon him by their actions in delivering was is known in the military as a "Code Red", the act of a Marine's shipmates employing disciplinary measures to correct ill behavior.

They tied up a Private Santiago, stuffed a rag in his mouth and sealed it with duct tape, claiming that they were given an order to deliver this brand of military training by shaving his head - but the aforementioned acidosis caused his lungs to bleed from lack of oxygen and he died within minutes.

When Cruise interrogated the physician in charge of the hospital on the base where the event occurred, Dr. Stone - played by Christopher Guess of This is Spinal Tap fame - claimed that the defendants treated the rag with a toxin, not a serious heart condition, that caused the acidosis to accelerate, leading to the Private's death, claiming that Santiago was given a clean bill of health...

...to which Cruise replied, "And that's why it had to be poison, right, Commander? Because Lord knows that if you put a man with a serious coronary condition back on duty with a clean bill of health and that man died from a heart-related incident, you'd have a lot to answer for, wouldn't you, doctor?"

The film was centered upon the corruption of a Marine Colonel who eventually incriminated himself on the stand - but stuff like that never happens in real life right? Particularly in something as insignificant as a football injury?

The weirdness surrounding the Martellus Bennett saga this past week has enough layers to make a drama lasagna, but it depends on what side of the table you sit on as to whether it is savory, or if it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

If on the Green Bay Packers' side, you sit slack-jawed in wonder at the speed in which Bennett went from a struggling and ill-fitting free agent signing to a locker room cancer that needed to be expressed and removed, while on the side of the New England Patriots, you're sitting pretty with a ready-made solution to the lack of viable depth at the tight end position.

At issue is a shoulder injury to the garrulous and candid tight end, the effusion of which caused a contentious rift between him and the Green Bay Packers, ultimately leading the team severing ties with Bennett, which in turn spurred many bad feelings, culminating in hand-wringing impromptu press conferences by Packers' coach Mike McCarthy and twitter bombs filled with color metaphors from Bennett himself.

The Packers released Bennett on Wednesday, claiming that he failed to report an injury to the team - a claim that Bennett vigorously denies, and makes clear on his multi-tweet twitter rant that effectively trashes the Packers' organization as being nothing more than tight-fisted misers who went for a public cash-grab in the wake of Bennett pondering retirement from the game after this season.

While that's really between Bennett and the Packers, the Patriots are bound to become entangled in the drama off the field as NFL.com's Ian Rappaport cites sources that the injury in question is actually the same injury that he suffered in the Patriots' week twelve contest last season against the New York Jets, and was listed on the team's injury report as part of a laundry list of maladies that Bennett eventually played through.

The Packers claim, through their failure to disclose designation, that Bennett's injury was a pre-existing condition and that the mercurial tight end failed to disclose it to team doctors during his physical, which he obviously passed and then signed his three-year, $21 million deal.

Unless Green Bay's management has some information that could solidly refute Rappaport's tome, this entire debacle makes the Packers' organization look like bumbling fools.

First, since Bennett's shoulder injury with the Patriots was well documented through weekly reports to the league, one would think that the Packers' team physicians would have taken extra care to scrutinize the joint - but they gave Bennett a clean bill of health which logically would place the onus on the Packers.

One has to think that there is more to this story than Bennett calling the Packers' organization a bunch of liars and the Packers acting like like jilted lovers - there has to be right?

However, on the surface, that's exactly what it is, and neither side of the argument escapes without a significant hit to their position, and it's hard to distinguish which one looks worse. As for Bennett, he appears as a grass-isn't-always-greener fence-hopper, shutting it down when Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered what may be a season-ending fractured clavicle...

...while the Packers appear to be involved in some sort of preternatural damage control scheme, trying to save face for a bad free agency fit by blaming everything on the player when there is clear evidence that Bennett's injury, while indeed preexisting -  was well-documented.

While that documentation appears to be an albatross around the necks of the Packers' organization, there is still the matter of Bennett quitting on his team when the going got tough - a blueprint that was fresh off the presses from 2014 when running back LeGarrette Blount walked out on the Pittsburgh Steelers and eventually ended up back in Foxborough.

Blount took some heat for the way he walked out on his teammates and Bennett has already raised the ire of Rodgers and several other Packers for his portrayal of the team physician as a corrupt, blamestorming quack that is a pulling a "Commander Stone", the doctor claiming that Bennett didn't reveal his existing injury during his initial physical before signing on.

So no one in this filthy drama is innocent, and while the Packers seek to recoup their signing bonus from Bennett, of which he has been payed $2.1 million of a guaranteed $6.3 million, Bennett is reportedly set to suit up for the Patriots as they face the Broncos in Denver on Sunday night.

To many, the fact that Bennett is back in New England where he won a title last season with the Patriots seems like a case of dark malfeasance on the part of the Patriots' organization, perhaps even collusion, as this is the second such incident in three years. But unlike what happened with Blount, whom the Patriots waited on the clear waivers before approaching him with an offer, New England submitted a claim to the league office on Bennett, and was awarded the player when no other team stepped forward.

Obviously, this has nothing to do with the Patriots, other than they are set to reap the windfall of having Bennett back in the lineup.

This controversy is far from over, and probably will not be settled by anything less than an official investigation and a formal arbiter - and probably not until the offseason. But in this case, if you will pardon the pun, this is exactly what the doctor ordered for New England's offense.

Patriots' Lack Of Outside-The-Numbers Receivers A Concern Against Broncos' "No Fly Zone"

The New England Patriots are at a distinct disadvantage going into their matchup with the Broncos in Denver on Sunday night, and until this past Thursday afternoon, it was something that they could do little about.

The Denver Broncos, as usual, sport one of the best defensive units in the National Football League, ranking fourth in the league in pass defense and are fifth against the run - and when one adds in the fact that the Patriots have traditional had a difficult time generating offense in the Mile High City, all of the signs point to a stagnation of what is a potential juggernaut.

Adding to the Patriots' woes is the fact that they have only two wide receivers that are fully healthy and just three that are going to suit up for the game, a circumstance that plays right into the strength of the Broncos' defense: their secondary.

Known as the "No-Fly Zone", Denver's secondary has given Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady a rough go in the recent past, holding the greatest of all time to 177 passing yards in their last encounter, a hard-fought 16-3 Patriots victory last season - and that was with Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell in the lineup, three cats that won't be in uniform on Sunday night.

What they do have, however, may be enough to keep the Broncos' secondary busy, but in a different way.

That is mainly because one pass catcher who did miss that last contest and that will be dressed and ready for this year's battle is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who can change the complexion of a game single-handedly - and when combined with recently reacquired tight end Martellus Bennett, they give the Patriots a way to put stress on Denver's safeties and linebackers in manner that they weren't able to last season.

Bennett actually played in that game in Denver, but like everyone else not named Edelman, he struggled to get open, catching just two balls for 35 yards - though his real impact came in the running game, as his powerful pulling and blocking helped running back Dion Lewis pick up 5.3 yards per carry as the sole difference maker on the stat sheet.

That win actually seems like a precursor to what is going on with the Patriots' offense in the last four games of this season, red zone struggles leading to leaving points on the field, New England settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns - but things should be a little different this time around, especially if Bennett, who made the trip to Denver with the team and is a game-time decision, suits up and plays.

How effective he would be remains to be seen, but there should be a sense of optimism with Patriots' fans in regard to his readiness to play, as he is coming off three-weeks of R&R and has likely retained the Patriots' offensive playbook with intimate clarity - but if he doesn't play, New England is up against it against the Broncos' pass defense, as they will likely load up the pass rush and come after Brady with gusto.

And why not? The only healthy receivers on the depth chart are speedy vertical targets in Brandin Cooks and the seldom targeted Phillip Dorsett, and slot man Danny Amendola is going to try and play through a bum knee. Gronkowski is the only tight end worth note, and the lack of outside-the-numbers targets for New England could help the Broncos keep him penned up with linebacker-safety double teams...

...while the potent Denver pass rush could be compounded by rogue blitzers that could negate any potential contribution from the Patriots' backs, forcing them to remain in the pocket to help protect Brady.

Either way, there is no easy solution to what the Broncos are on defense, which is built in such a way that they can stop the run (second in the NFL by allowing just 3.4 yards per carry) and force the ball to the air, and with New England being so short outside of the numbers, that could make for a long evening - and don't be fooled by the fact that they are ranked 25th in the league in scoring defense, as their ranking has fallen precipitously by their injury-driven collapse in the past two games.

They gave up 29 points to a potent Chiefs offense two weeks ago and the Eagles offensive juggernaut hung a fifty-burger on them last week, but those teams are far healthier on offense than the Patriots are now, plus New England's well-known struggles in the red zone may very well come into play. The only solution is for New England to grind it out with the run, move the chains and take well-timed shots downfield.

The Patriots' defense and special teams play a major role in this scenario, as the way to beat any team in the National Football League is to make it as difficult as possible for the opposing offense to reach paydirt.

In the last four games, punter Ryan Allen, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and the New England coverage teams have managed to flip field position on their opponents with regularity, ranking second in the NFL in opponent's starting position, which forces the opposing offense to have to go further to get into scoring position - which is a good thing, since the defense has been giving up nearly forty yards per drive.

Of course, the Broncos' offense has been a middle-of-the-pack entity all season, but have taken a nose dive in the past four games - all four of them recorded as losses - failing to break the 200 passing yards plateau and being held short of seventy yards rushing in three of those games, and averaging a minute 13 points per game...

...which is almost exactly what the Patriots' defense has given up in that time span (12.5), though Denver can take solace in the fact that New England remains last in the league in total yardage surrendered, and that Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has been holding his secondary together with duct tape and prayers.

They are dead last in total defense, in passing yards yielded and in yards per carry in the running game - which is mitigated to a large degree by the fact that New England stiffens the deeper the opponent gets into their territory, ranking fifth in the league in red zone defense - a stat line that justifies their bend-but-don't-break philosophy.

So what does all of this mean?

Absolutely nothing, as when these two teams get together it always seems to turn into a barn-burner, an instant classic with plenty of defense and usually the team that has the football last tends to win the game - but if the Patriots can somehow find a way to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense, as tall task either way, they could cruise to an easy win...

...but if not, they could struggle mightily and turn a simple sweep and clear of a downward-trending Broncos team into a street fight that comes down to the last possession.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

New England Patriots Midseason Forum - Part 4: Tight End Stable Gets Major Boost By Re-Signing The "Black Unicorn"

"I could run all day. I'm kind of like a black unicorn out there. It's amazing to watch. You go out there and see a big black guy running down the field, it's usually me." - Martellus Bennett

One would think that some team - any team - would have claimed tight end Martellus Bennett off waivers from the Green Bay Packers just to keep his former employer, the New England Patriots, from doing so.

But no one did except those crafty Patriots, who pulled a LeGarrett Blount-style mid-season dumpster dive to pick up a legitimate tried and true weapon that won't take much time getting up to speed since Bennett is only nine months removed from being an integral part of a Patriots' offense that won a World Championship in February.

The self-proclaimed "Black Unicorn" played in all sixteen regular season games for New England in 2016, toughing out shoulder, knee and ankle injuries to put together the third-best statistical season of his career, his 55 catches for 701 yards and seven touchdowns eclipsed only by his first two years in Chicago, where he earned Pro Bowl honors in 2014.

In addition, Bennett was a force in the post-season, catching five balls in the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh, then five more in the Super Bowl against the Atlanta Falcons, as well as drawing a pass interference call in the end zone against the Falcons' De'Vondre Campbell to set up James White's two yard touchdown run that sealed the title.

He was dismissed by the Packers for failing to advise the team of a shoulder injury, and while that is the official story, it could be speculated that Bennett wore out his welcome with his infamous rants, especially recent ones in which he told the press that he was considering retirement at the end of the season.

Whatever the case, Bennett's return to Foxborough couldn't have come at more fortuitous juncture, as the Patriots have more pass catchers on the shelf than they do on the field.

In addition to losing top receiver Julian Edelman for the season, both Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola are battling injuries, with Hogan expected to be on the shelf for a couple of weeks - that leaves just Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett - two players that weren't on the roster last season - as the only healthy options among wide receivers for quarterback Tom Brady to target.

The good news is that Bennett joins All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski and a backfield full of versatile playmakers to form what has become the most unique collection of weapons in the league.

The best part to the waiver claim is that the Patriots now control the final two years left on his Packers' contract, with the only stipulation being a $2 million roster bonus due at the start of the 2018 league year, which is essentially a team option. The only guarantees on his contract were a series of prorated signing bonus payments totaling $6.3 million, $4.2 million of which the Packers had to eat as a dead money hit.

The irony here is, of course, that the Patriots had reportedly offered Bennett a contract extension upon acquiring him from the Bears last season, similar to the one that the Patriots absorb in picking up the Packers' contract, his cap hit for 2018 - one that includes the aforementioned roster bonus - is $6.45 million and then $6.5 million in 2019.

Those are affordable numbers, as is the remainder of his 2017 salary of just $724k, not only for the insurance that the durable Bennett provides at the position, but also for the serious 1-2 punch that New England can unleash upon their foes in tandem with Gronkowski.

How serious? Well, when you consider that in the five games that the two played together last season in which Gronkowski wasn't under any snap count restrictions, they combined for 47 catches for 786 yards and six touchdowns - that averages out to nine receptions for 157 yards and one score per game...

...and if you spread that over a full season, you get a completely ridiculous stat line of 150 receptions for 2,512 yards and 19 touchdowns.

It's not tangible to expect that kind of production from the two tight end set - even though the Gronkowski-Hernandez tandem gave the team a similar stat line in 2012 - but Bennett's range and blocking prowess is a part of the total package that goes unnoticed by the casual fan and adds to the intrigue.

Both Gronkowski and Bennett - as well as free-agent pickup Dwayne Allen - are devastating blockers in the running game and are able on the edge in pass protection, adding a layer of versatility that is rare in professional football, and along with their well-documented skill in the pattern makes them almost a requirement as the Patriots will certainly turn to more 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) looks...

...an alignment that will now require defenses to dedicate safeties and linebackers to coverage which, in theory, will lighten the box against the running game and force single high safety formations that will strap the coverage on the vertical game.

Bennett's presence will certainly cut into Allen's snap count (not to mention send rookie Jacob Hollister to the practice squad), but will also allow him to operate in the background, which may jump start his production in the passing game and also make Jumbo sets (two backs and three tight ends) so versatile that it would be nearly impossible to stop in short yardage and in the red zone, as defenses would have to keep the box light in the event Gronkowski and/or Bennett peel off the edge and into the pattern.

Make no mistake, if Bennett is motivated and reasonably healthy, the Patriots' waiver claim on him could be the piece to the puzzle that gets the offensive juggernaut rolling.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

New England Patriots Midseason Forum - Part 3: Lewis Goes From "Bridge" To "Destination" For Patriots' Running Game

Finally, Dion Lewis is being used for what he is.

To be fair, no team that he has been with on the professional level has been able to take full advantage of his natural skill set, which falls in line with what is known in football as a "lead" back, a running back that can run into a vortex of very large humans twenty-plus times per game to make the opposition respect the running game.

That's what the diminutive Lewis did in college at the University of Pittsburgh, where he broke the freshman rushing record held by a guy named Tony Dorsett in 2009 and was named Big East Freshman of the Year and second-team All-American, plus was referred to by the Sporting News as the "most complete runner" in college football...

...then after a sophomore year in which his rushing yardage decreased but he still managed to keep his average per carry up in the stratosphere, Lewis declared himself for the NFL Draft, thinking that his work at Pitt would lead to an explosive NFL career.

But the Philadelphia Eagles buried him on their deep bench after selecting him in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, rushing just 36 times and catching three balls in two years, which goes to figure since the Eagles top two runners were All Pro LeSean McCoy and dynamic quarterback Michael Vick - but despite the low number of touches for Lewis, Cleveland General Manager Mike Lombardi knew enough of Lewis to trade for him before the 2013 season.

"He was the best back on the team" Lombardi said of Lewis during the Browns' training camp, "We brought him in to be our lead back." But before Lewis could officially take the reigns from eventual-bust Trent Richardson, he broke his fibula in a preseason game.

Lewis was out of football when Lombardi left and the Browns cut him in the 2014 preseason and after a brief stint on the Indianapolis Colts practice squad, reappearing on the football radar when Lombardi landed in New England as an advisor to head ball coach Bill Belichick, Lombardi suggesting to Belichick that he needed Lewis to complete his backfield.

Lewis and his agent, RJ Rickert, pondered futures contact offers from both the Patriots and Giants at the end of the 2014 season, eventually choosing New England because as Rickart put it, "The Patriots find a role for guys. They define a clear role."

His role, as it turned out was to provide a bridge between bruising power back LeGarrette Blount and rookie runner James White - because his skill set provided the best of both in one compact package.

When Blount was in the game, chances were very good that the Patriots would be running the ball, and with White in the game, the chances were excellent that New England was going to throw the ball - Lewis provided both power running between the tackles and ankle shredding linebackers in the passing game.

With Lewis in the game, the Patriots' offense was more dynamic and forced the opposition to defend the entire field, having to respect his running pedigree as well as his skill and elusiveness in the open field in the passing game - but a torn ACL against the Washington Redskins ruined his season midway through it, and a setback in his recovery doomed his 2016 campaign, though he did end up contributing when all was said and done.

But his injury opened the door for White to display his wares, and all White did with that opportunity was to become one of the best passing backs in the league as it stands today, and come within a whisker on quarterback Tom Brady's unshorn face of becoming the Super Bowl 51 Most Valuable Player.

Blount is gone - which is unfortunate, as Lewis is healthy once again and could provide the same bridge as he did in 2015 - replaced by former Buffalo Bills' runner Mike Gillislee, who has faded into the background in trying to replace what Blount did with the team, so Lewis has taken over the lead back role, a role he was born to fill.

Used sparingly to start the season as it was rumored that Belichick wanted to limit his exposure and ease him into the lineup slowly, Lewis has seen his ground touches increase incrementally the past four games, and is poised to take over twenty-plus carries per game.

Lewis has responded by posting a 4.9 yards per carry average in that time frame on 46 carries, and is averaging 4.7 yards per carry on the season - but hasn't been called on in the passing game as much, though his prowess in the open flat still forces teams to defend the field horizontally. The passing game touches have instead gone to White, who leads the team in receptions.

But despite his heroics in the Super Bowl and obvious skill in running the ball, White has been excluded from the ground game, where he still has posted an impressive 4.7 yards per carry in the second quarter of the season, mostly on trap draws with Brady in the shotgun.

Taking some of his snaps for the past couple of games has been Rex Burkhead, who returned from injury just before the rematch with the Atlanta Falcons and has run for 4.6 yards per carry and has caught eight balls for 80 yards in the two contests since.

All combined, these three backs have run for 479 yards in just 107 carries in the past four games for 4.5 yards per carry average, and even though Gillislee has seen his role reduced to the team's part-time four-minute back, he has run for nearly four-yards per carry in the same time frame - so the stable of running backs is producing and their individual roles are starting to come into focus...

...yet the pass-to-run ratio for the offense is heavily in favor of the passing game - 61% to 39% - and there seems to be no rhyme nor reason for such a disparity, it just is.

Which is neither here nor there, as that particular statistic is deceiving since New England's running backs account for half of the overall touches on offense and it has been a long-standing tactic of Belichick's to use the short passing game as an extension of the running game. But it's tough to get past the fact that Brady is taking a beating when he drops back to pass, because the lack of touches in the actual ground game isn't lending itself to the play action...

...and since these backs are all required for blitz pickup when needed, a defense with a good pass rush can eliminate the running backs' effectiveness in the passing game by forcing them to stay in the pocket to protect Brady.

That is how the Chiefs, Texans and Panthers managed to limit the backs' ability and availability in the passing game, by flooding the backfield with excellent pass rushers coupled with well-timed blitzes - and the only way to take that advantage back is by making their opponent respect the run which forces them into a heavy box and initializes the play action.

Brady is the master at the play action, and when the running game is going well, the play action causes a split-second pause in the pass rush, which allows the offensive linemen to anchor themselves against the bull rush and to set their edge against the speed rush, which in turn gives Brady that extra split second to survey the field to find a receiver that he otherwise wouldn't have had time to see.

It's a domino effect for sure, and one that breaks down if a team - any team - cannot or does not use their running game to it's full advantage, since everything in football begins and ends with the running game.

The Patriots are on a four-game winning streak - and while winning is all that matters and New England has won in previous seasons with a large void between their passing and ground games, in the here and now these Patriots are doing it with smoke and mirrors, but the magic act is exposed the closer they get to the end zone as the field shrinks and the opposing defenders can use boundaries to hem in the New England pass catchers.

Not only that, but also since the field shrinks the closer an offense gets to the end zone, defenders can get creative and exotic in their fronts to limit the running game as well. That said and true, it is in the red area where the Patriots need the aforementioned effect that the running game provides. This is not to say that New England doesn't run the ball in the red zone, just that if they want it to work so close to the end zone, they need to incorporate it more while driving down the field.





Sunday, November 5, 2017

New England Patriots Midseason Forum - Part 2: Passing Game Revisiting 2015, But Has The Tools To Overcome Issues

When is the last time you saw a running back leading the New England Patriots offense in receptions?

The answer to that is 1977, when fullback Sam Cunningham caught 42 balls out of the backfield on a 9-5 team that missed the playoffs, barely eclipsing wide receiver Darryl Stingley for the team lead - and it makes sense, given that the play calling was run heavy by design, as it was a year before the NFL made rule changes that benefited the passing game to the point that it changed the face of the league.

Cunningham also eclipsed the thousand-yard plateau on the ground. But the thing is, back then running backs were expected to be heavily involved in the passing game, as it was far easier for a back to run a delayed pattern out of the backfield than it was for wide receivers and even tight ends to fight their way through cornerbacks and linebackers who could lay heavy contact on them without much notice from the referees.

Now, one could argue that it is far easier for receivers to break off the line and into their patterns, as corners, linebackers and safeties draw flags from the officials if they look at the receiver in the wrong tone past five yards down the field - not to mention that we see offensive pass interference calls at an alarming rate, congruent to those called on defenders.

For example, it seems that a game doesn't become official until tight end Rob Gronkowski is called for pass interference, and pick plays that used to be called rub routes before the wimpification of the National Football League often result in big plays being nullified.

In 1977, it was a fist fight between a receiver and a cornerback to gain separation, while today it's a dance contest and God help you if you touch a player on the opposing team more than five yards down the field - so there is significant risk in targeting receivers down the field...

...but it seems particularly risky for Patriots' receivers because when they lost Julian Edelman to a knee injury, they lost a throwback type player who wasn't afraid to mix it up and gained separation by being tougher than the defender.

That is one of the reasons for the recent trend in the league to bring draft and develop bigger receivers who can be more physical with cornerbacks, but even then when a ball falls incomplete, more often than not we will see a receiver do a fancy pirouette with his arms extended and palms facing towards the sky, barking at the officials because the defender make contact with him, no matter how significant the contact is.

The truth is the rules in the NFL, well-meaning as they are in trying to protect players from head injury while attempting to make the game faster and more exciting for the fans, have actually made the game slower and, honestly, more frustrating to watch - and it has gotten to the point that we will look to the bottom of our TV screens to make sure a yellow box with the word "flag" hasn't appeared to impact the play.

But while the rules have turned each passing play into an episode of Dancing With The Stars, many teams have mitigated that effect by turning to their running backs to compensate.

The Patriots have a deeper problem than a perceived lack of toughness, however.

Edelman is considered one of the toughest covers in the league, and his absence only serves to confirm that, as the Patriots' offense has struggled more and more as the season wears on and opposing defensive coordinators are seeing more and more film on what the Patriots have left in their outside arsenal.

Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola define toughness in their playing style, yet they lack the quick twitch / explosiveness combination to immediately separate in their routes the way Edelman does. Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett have speed to burn, and play their best ball outside the numbers where their speed can compensate for their lack of physicality...

...while tight end Rob Gronkowski suffers from constant double teams and sometimes labors to get open while being mugged downfield - all of this assuming Brady has enough time to go through his progressions.

So what they have is not as important as what they don't have, which is Edelman's ability to gain immediate separation in his routes and provide quarterback Tom Brady the option to target Edelman on the "bang-bang" play that enabled Brady to get rid of the ball more quickly than anyone else in the league - and even more crucial than that is that the defense can concentrate more on the intermediate zone and make Brady hold the ball longer.

The same phenomenon occurred midway through 2015 when Edelman was lost for seven weeks with a broken bone in his foot. In those games, which covered the final seven of the regular season, the passing yards dipped by 90 yards per game and Brady took a nasty beating, but what really sent the offense into a tailspin from which they never recovered, was the loss of LeGarrette Blount with four games left to play.

Without the running game to have to defend, New England's opponents were able to concentrate solely on defending the passing game, which produced less than 200 yards per game. The Patriots were resilient enough to salvage two wins in that span, but with no running game in the playoffs, their defense carried them to the AFC Championship game and nearly to the Super Bowl.

The thing that prevented them from going to the Super Bowl? A lack of trust in the offense that caused curious play calling, going for it on fourth down deep in Denver Broncos' territory instead of kicking field goals late in the game, as Belichick admitted afterwards that he was trying to take the pressure off of his offense by going all four downs, not trusting that they had the gumption or the time to get down in the red area again to score any more points.

But in those games, Belichick and Brady didn't have a Cooks or a Hogan or a Lewis, nor a running game - all they had was a hobbled Amendola and an equally limited Gronkowski along with a recently activated Edelman and some street-signings, and ended up losing by two points.

It was during this stretch that Brady started targeting White, who has since turned into a major weapon in the passing game, last season breaking Kevin Faulk's team record for receptions and turned in a performance for the ages in the Super Bowl...

...a trend that has continued to flourish in 2017 as White is on pace for unprecedented numbers as the safety valve that Brady is missing in Edelman, with his target and reception numbers nearing what Edelman's have been, while the rest of the group are all languishing in mediocrity compared to their past production.

This is not to say that the effort is not there, just that the way the receiving corps is constructed limits their effectiveness, particularly in the red zone, when their skill sets married with coordinator Josh McDaniels' curious non-usage of what has to be one of the best running back situations in the league has led to meager point outputs in the last four games.

So the Patriots are more or less revisiting the 2015 season on offense, but with better personnel to work through losing Edelman with, and a great set of running backs that could take a lot of the heat off of Brady and the receivers if Belichick and McDaniels would just use them in the running game, which has been limited to just 39% of the offensive snaps this season.

Sadly, they haven't learned that lesson from two years ago, but Belichick is taking field goals when he has the chance to do so, and in doing so has been able to scratch out four consecutive wins - ugly wins, but victories nevertheless.

They have the tools and the talent to overcome their lack of quick-twitch ability in the pattern, and have four running backs who are versatile enough to take over some of Edelman's function, particularly White and Lewis, though a healthy Rex Burkhead may be they key to getting this passing game back on track, as he helps form an imposing trio of passing backs that could well start forcing defense to defend the entire field.

That would open up the intermediate zones enough to help Cooks, Amendola and Dorsett more of a factor down the field and also open up the seam for Gronkowski...

Friday, November 3, 2017

New England Patriots' Midseason Forum - Part 1: With Brady, Quarterback Situation Is Still Best In NFL

Tom Brady says that he can play until he's 45 years old, and the New England Patriots are apparently onboard with his belief.

After all, defacto general manager Bill Belichick has discarded both of Brady's understudies, for a brief period this week leaving the team without a backup quarterback, trading second-year signal caller Jacoby Brissett to Indianapolis for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett before the start of the season and then exchanging walk-year phenom Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco, recouping New England's second-round investment in him with the 49ers' 2018 selection.

In the world of high-stakes poker, that's called going all-in, and it remains to be seen if Belichick shoving all of his chips to the middle of the table was a good bet or a margin call.

Belichick mitigated the margin somewhat by bringing back former-Brady backup Brian Hoyer - he of serviceable starter fame, who took more than his share of lumps on bad 49ers, Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns teams since leaving Foxborough after being released by the team in final cuts before the 2012 season.

The gamble, of course, is that if Brady suffers an injury, the Patriots would be without the best quarterback in the the National Football League - even so at forty years old. The potential payoff is a trip to Minneapolis in early February for a chance at a big silver trophy.

The reality of it is, however, that even if Garoppolo or Brissett were still around, they were no Tom Brady. In fact, it wouldn't matter who was backing up the seventeen-year veteran, without Brady, the Patriots are screwed.

Or are they?

This particular situation brings up the chance to ponder the age-old "chicken or egg" question as to whether Brady makes New England's potent offense click or if it is the system that caters to Brady's skill set - and it also brings up the even more mystifying question why does it seem that the Patriots' offense can be so flat at times, yet when it comes to winning time, they are able to flip a switch and suddenly turn into a juggernaut?

There is a small sample of evidence that the system caters to the skill set of their signal callers, as last season Garoppolo looked almost Brady-esque in lighting up the Cardinals and then the Dolphins while subbing-in for Brady, and Brissett looked like a world-beater in filling in for both while Brady was suspended and Garoppolo was injured...

...not to mention that a decade ago, Matt Cassell filled in for an injured Brady and led the Patriots to eleven wins in 2008, winning four straight to end the season, but falling short of the division title on a tie-breaker.

But that question may be a few years from being posed and answered, as Brady is showing no discernible signs of decline.

Brady leads the National Football League in passing yards, attempts, completions, is second in the league in passer rating and touchdowns thrown and is in the top ten in just about every other statistic that one could conjure - and is probably in a dead heat with Kansas City's Alex Smith for the league's MVP award at midseason.

From a purely statistical perspective, Brady is having one of the finest seasons of his career. Current trends suggest that Brady would set career marks for passes completed, yards per attempt, yards gained per completion and will have thrown for the second most yards of his career, behind only his 2011 effort.

This despite throwing for his lowest projected touchdown percentage since '13, and is projected to be sacked the most times ever, topping even the 41 he suffered in his first year on the job.

The amazing thing - besides doing all of this at an age when most quarterbacks are pruning their gardens instead of throwing footballs - is that he is accomplishing these numbers without a true go-to receiver for the first time in a decade, as his favorite target, Julian Edelman is nursing a bum knee back to health and is lost for the season.

So what does Brady do? He spreads the ball around, pro rata.

All four of his in-line receivers - Brandon Cooks (33 catches), Chris Hogan (33), Rob Gronkowski (34) and Danny Amendola (31) - have seen the ball come their way a fairly equal number of times as Brady has been spreading the ball around when in the past the targets were heavily in favor of Edelman and, before him, Wes Welker...

...while passing back James White has more or less taken over the safety valve duties normally attributed to Edelman, leading the team in receptions (43) and in catch percentage (81.1%), putting him on pace for very Edelman-like numbers.

In addition, he doesn't have the benefit of a solid running game, which is more by flow and play calling, apparently, than it is by design - as the pass to run ratio for the season runs at 61% to 39%, which exposes Brady to more punishment than he would be in a truly balanced attack, and takes the play action - of which he is a master - out of the equation.

And that will have to be addressed if the Patriots are to improve upon their first half performance which sees them in their normal state, perched atop the AFC East with a 6-2 record - a record that on it's face doesn't tell of the trials and tribulations that team as a whole have had to endure, a record that when looked at from a deeper perspective shows a team that has the required intestinal fortitude to make yet another title run.

How long he will be able to sustain these numbers in light of the punishment he is taking and the fact that opponents are not respecting New England's ground game remains to be seen, but from what we've seen thus far in 2017, Brady is still the Top Cat among NFL quarterbacks.

"We probably had, in my opinion, the best quarterback situation in the league for the last - let's call it two-and-a-half years" Belichick was quoted as saying the day after dealing Garoppolo to San Francisco, speaking of having Jimmy Clipboard around - but now that he's gone, the Dark Master can still say the same thing...

...only he'll have to amend the time frame to include the last seventeen-and-a-half years, because when you have Tom Brady taking snaps for you, you still have the best quarterback situation in the league.