Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"Flexbone" Gives Old-School Fans Hope For Continuation Of Power Running Game

"For certain, the entire Patriots' offense has a different look and feel to it this season, and is steaming towards a huge departure from the finesse, take-what-the-defense-gives-you routine that has gotten them to five consecutive AFC Title games and won them one Super Bowl to what appears to be a return to the physicality of the millennial teams that won by punching folks in the mouth and not worrying too much about repercussions.

And that's what football is about, after all, right?  That's why these guys are decked out in all kinds of padding, helmets, cups, etc., because football is a physical sport - three yards and a cloud of dust. Despite some "innovators" trying to make it about over the top speed, it still comes down to being able to take what you want, a violent game of ground acquisition in which to be successful, an offense must be balanced in their attack." - Foxborough Free Press, August 21, 2016

Whether by design, surprise or pure perverted curiosity, the New England Patriots are about to pass the quarter pole of the 2016 National Football League season leading all of professional football in rushing yards and their "Bell Cow" power back, LeGarrette Blount leading the league in individual rushing.

LeGarrette Blount leads the league in rushing - as unlikely a six word sentence as you may ever see - the man whom his fans call "Blount Force Trauma" is currently on pace for 400 carries and 1,600 yards, leading his Patriots to what translates to 2,400 team rushing yards on the year on an absurd 580 carries.

What we are witnessing however is not the rebirth of the 1978 team that still holds the record for the most rushing yards in a season - a ridiculous 3,165 yards on 671 carries - but at this moment in time, the 55-45 ratio between run and pass feels very much like the run heavy teams of the late 1970's, led by tough young mobile quarterbacks who were fully integrated into the running game.

Of course, we are not likely to see a renaissance back to the days of Sam Cunningham, Craig James and Steve Grogan for two very important reasons. First, there were five different backs that played a central role in setting that unbreakable record, and this years' version has just Blount and whoever is covering for quarterback Tom Brady while he's serving a suspension...

...and secondly, well, we're talking about Tom Brady here.

Third-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo started the first two games of Brady's four-game suspension and rookie Jacoby Brissett started the third game while Garoppolo nursed a bad wing, but whoever starts the last game of the suspension will be more of a running threat than Brady ever was or ever will be.  Brady's game is flinging the ball around all over the place, targeting like 43 different receivers.

Just that fact alone makes the prospects of seeing this wave of unadulterated power running and negative balance in the passing game implausible, but most offensive linemen run faster than Brady's sloth-like 5.28 - which was his forty-time in the combine sixteen years and one torn ACL ago, and he hasn't gotten any faster with age - so about all Brady is worth in that capacity is his patented nose dive on 3rd and short situations.

But that's all the team has ever needed from Brady, and he has rings and trophies that speak to his success in those undertakings - but that doesn't mean that the team should discontinue or even discount what the team has been able to accomplish on the ground to start this season, and especially since the opposing defense knows what's coming, but can't stop it - at least not for sixty minutes.

Many find fault with Blount, with most of those folks having the opinion that he is an all-or-nothing type of back, meaning either he gets stuffed for no gain or he breaks off something proper - and it's true, to an extent - but the issue through the years since Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon prowled the backfield is that there has been no patience with the running game, or at least very little, and that affects how effective the running game can be...

...as the running game, if used properly, is the one entity with a football game that seems to get stronger as the game wears on, and New England appears to be able to translate that into an insurmountable advantage - fitting right in with the Patriots' version of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy that calls for the offense to "Pass to score, run to win".

Until Stevan Ridley came along a full five seasons after Dillon flamed out, there really wasn't a back that anyone felt comfortable giving the ball to more than a dozen times a game, but by that time Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick was enamoured with a little thing called the Two Tight End Offense or, as it turns out to be, the Flexbone formation.

Traditionally, the Flexbone is a variation of the old college Wishbone - only instead of having a fullback flanked by two running backs in the backfield, the Patriots' version replaces those halfbacks with tight ends and flanks each tackle with them, and the fullback becomes the power back or, given the Patriots' skill with third-down backs, a passing back...

Ordinarily, this would be more of a running formation, but with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett being the Patriots' tight ends, the Patriots are able to line up in the formation and the defense will have no clue what's coming between a run and a pass, or which direction the play is going, because Gronkowski and Bennett are of the elite blocking variety and, coupled with their pass catching prowess, they comprise the most lethal set of tight ends in the business.

All that means is that the Patriots can have either seven offensive linemen in the running game, or up to five legitimate pass catching options in the passing game - give or take depending on picking up blitzers and such - and all without switching personnel, meaning that New England could go uptempo if need be to trap the opposing defense in mismatches.

This scenario is the sum of Belichick's two tight end dream mixed with a physical offensive line that found it's groove early and is building towards being a very good unit, pass protecting with technique and run blocking with a nastiness not see in Foxborough since Logan Mankins' heyday.

All the Patriots have to do is stick to a reasonable balance when Brady comes back, and they will have not only the most efficient offense in the league, but also one that is nearly impossible to stop.

Not being under any delusion that the volume of running plays currently in effect will continue - as 36 carries per game is a pace too invasive on the passing game with Brady under center - the way this offense has been built, anything less than 25 running plays a game would be a shame, and a waste of the talent on every level of the offense.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Allen, Special Teams Lead Patriots' Punking Of Texans

 If Ryan Allen isn't named the special teams player of the week, then there is no justice in the National Football League.

Oh, wait...

Regardless of how one feels about the brand of justice dished out by the league office, it's difficult to envision any punter having a better game than Ryan did against the hapless Houston Texans on Thursday night, his effort helping the seriously short-handed New England Patriots hammer the favored Texans by a tally of 27-0.

Brandon Bolden celebrates his forced fumble
It was weird game, which is to be expected when the Patriots were starting a rookie third-stringer at quarterback with his backup being an ex-college quarterback turned receiver who has thrown exactly one pass in the NFL, and also considering that the New England defense was coming off of a horrific second half against the Dolphins just four days earlier...

...so it goes to figure that head ball coach Bill Belichick would devise a game plan to grind time off of the clock on offense and task his defense to take away Houston's top offensive threats -  both things made exponentially easier by Allen's clutch performance.

The left-footer was called on seven times on Thursday night and averaged a stout 47.6 yards per kick, but the sheer quantity of punts - the seven was one more than he had for the season, combined, coming into the game - took a back seat to the quality of the kicks.

Each of his kicks pinned the Texans inside their 20 yard line, and all but one inside their 15, forcing Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler to start drives deep in his own territory, needing thirty-to-forty yards just to get into Patriots' territory which, thanks to a stifling defensive effort, the Texans didn't accomplish until there was a buck-thirty left in the third quarter.

In fact, so determined was the effort from the punt unit and the Patriots' defense, who forced one turnover themselves, that the deepest the Texans penetrated into New England territory was the Patriots' 35 yard line.

In contrast, the Patriots' offense enjoyed excellent field position all evening.

Five times rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett started drives inside Houston territory, finding paydirt on three of those occasions - but Brissett also led two drives resulting in field goals that started deep in Patriots' territory and, most importantly, ate up over eleven combined minutes of game clock in the process, including a 13 play, 71 yard drive to start the second half that sucked any life the Texans thought they had right out of them, chewing up nearly seven minutes.

That drive produced the second of kicker Stephen Gostkowski's field goals, giving New England a thirteen point edge - the Texans fumbled away the ensuing kickoff,  and six plays later running back LeGarrette Blount found the end zone from a yard out and the rout - the unimaginable rout - was on.

Blount put the game away just minutes later with a 41 yard sprint to the end zone, the only drama remaining after that was whether or not the New England defense could preserve the shutout - which they did as Ryan pinned the Texans down deep in their half of the field twice more, the defense also holding Houston on two consecutive fourth down conversion attempts.

Brissett was efficient, going 11 of 19 for 103 yards through the air, but the biggest damage the rookie did was on the ground, rushing six times for 48 yards (not including kneel downs), including a razor sharp 27 yard scamper off of the boot option for a touchdown, completely undressing Texan's safety Andre Hal with an inside feign at the five yard line, then diving into the end zone to give the Patriots a 10-0 lead that they would carry into the room at halftime...

...Blount scoring twice in the second half as he wore down the Houston defense with a 24 carry, 105 yard effort in spite of the Texans knowing what was coming.  In fairness the Houston defenders were stout against the running game early in the contest, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels stuck with his game plan to run right at the Texans, and it eventually paid off as Blount found more and more room to run as the game wore on.

The running game actually produced more yardage than the passing game did for McDaniels' charges, as the Patriots involved their receivers on the ground with Julian Edelman and tight end Martellus Bennett each getting carries in addition to their minimal contributions through the air - in fact, the Patriots' 185 yards on the ground on 39 carries was the most for a Patriots' team since the 2014 season, when former-Patriot Jonas Gray and then Blount went off on Indianapolis in consecutive meetings.

The effort also marked the third straight game with at least 100 rushing yards, a string that hasn't happened in four seasons which, combined with the first shutout for the Patriots' defense in five seasons, made this game a rare treat for Patriot fans, a treat that probably would not have been possible without the clutch performance by Allen.

But that wasn't all for the special teams, who also forced two fumbles on kickoff returns that the limited Patriots' offense translated into fourteen points, more than enough to hold off a clearly overmatched and outcoached Texans' team who fell from the ranks of the undefeated with the loss and now has ten full nightmare-filled days to think about how they were man-handled once again by the Patriots...

...and New England has the same time frame to come up with a game plan to take on the Buffalo Bills, who are a cumulative train wreck on defense - so whether the quarterback is going to be Brissett or Jimmy Garoppolo, who was inactive on Thursday night due to a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder, it's beginning to look a lot like the Patriots are going to ride out Tom Brady's four-game suspension undefeated.

And that, just like everything else about this New England squad, would be surprising - even if it shouldn't be...


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Balance Gives Brissett, Patriots' Offense Reason For Optimism

The New England Patriots have many things going against them as they prepare to entertain the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium on Thursday evening.

After all, they are dealing with injuries to many key contributors, including All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski, scat back Dion Lewis, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Rob Ninkovich, causing them to go into games already on the second tier of depth along the offensive line, at middle linebacker and at passing back.
Brissett, McDaniels and Belichick should be able to game plan effecitively

But the major point of concern is at the most important position on offense, where the team is now working on their third layer at quarterback, preparing to start a rookie at the position for the first time since Drew Bledsoe arrived on the scene 23 years ago, against a Texans' defense that hasn't allowed a touchdown in six consecutive quarters and have sacked opposing quarterbacks nine times in two games...

 ...ranked third in the NFL against the pass and third overall in total defense, limiting opposing offenses to an average drive time of less than two minutes.

That is stout in every sense of the word, but the one way to negate that pass rushing advantage for the Texans, and also to give rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett time to find his multitude of pass catching options in the pattern is to achieve balance on offense - which thus far has been just as easily done as said in the first two weeks of the NFL Season.

Unfortunately for the Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs, they didn't stick with their running games against Houston enough to create that balance and both ended up losing close games despite overwhelming success against the Texans' run defense.

By contrast, the Patriots have the seventh-best rushing game in the league, averaging 134 yards per game and have the fourth-ranked rusher in the league in LeGarrette Blount.  Some will argue that New England and Blount achieved those rankings by running the ball more than most other teams - they are tops in the league with 69 running plays - but when compared to having 69 passing attempts, it is safe to say that New England's offense has been successful because it has achieved balance.

That's right, that seven letter word that was barely mentioned in and around Foxborough last season is front and center this year, pretty much by default as the Patriots' coaching staff seeks to put temporary starting quarterbacks in the best position to succeed - surrounding them with a Murderer's Row of skill position players...

...but the players that benefit most from the balance between the running and passing games are the offensive linemen, who performed so well in the season opener at Arizona and then again last Sunday against the Dolphins that they have been the unsung heroes of the first two weeks of the season.

That would have been hard to imagine given the fact that center David Andrews was the only true regimented starter from last season who suited up for New England in their opener, keeping then-starter Jimmy Garoppolo upright for the most part and giving the running game a fighting chance, especially on the edges where they should look again on Thursday night.

Against the Cardinals top five ranked run defense, the Patriots ran predominantly right behind tight end Martellus Bennett and right tackle Marcus Cannon and averaging four yards per carry, and also took their chances going left for five yards per carry, while the tag team of Calais Campbell, Josh Mauro and Frostee Rucker clogged the middle against Patriots' rookie guards Joe Thuney and Ted Karras...

...the former being replaced by the injured Shaq Mason at right guard when Karras struggled to anchor against Campbell. Mason, broken hand and all, and Karras rotated in and out against the Dolphins - but just as against the Cardinals, the interior linemen could not generate much push in the running game up the gut.

That shouldn't be an issue against Houston, as their Achilles heel is their run defense, which has allowed five yards per carry - third-worst in the league - and when running up the middle and around left end, the numbers are far more dismal for the Texans, as they have given up a whopping eight yards per carry up the gut, by far the worst number in the NFL.

Where the Patriots don't want to run is to the strong side, where the beastly J.J. Watt has his hand in the dirt and pocket-wrecker Whitney Mercilus lined up behind him, both stout against the run and absolutely murder on offensive linemen when rushing the passer - rather, the Patriots should test former teammate Vince Wilfork over center and on the weak side where defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Will-linebacker John Simon are superior pass rushers, but have difficulty setting the edge.

On the interior of the second level where one would normally find middle linebacker Brian Cushing is depth reserve Max Bullough, who at 6' 3" and 245 pounds is light for the position, meaning that he can't take on the guard or center on the second level to free up second-year Joker Benardrick McKinney to stuff the run, nor can the two switch positions because McKinney isn't nearly the athlete that Cushing or Bullough are, and the results would be pretty much the same as they are now, maybe even worse...

...because the Patriots have the ability to drive linebackers out of the running lanes with pulling tackles and tight ends hitting the gaps before the linebackers have the time to react. For the Patriots to accomplish this they will have to run out of 22 or 12 personnel packages with Martellus Bennett and/or Rob Gronkowski pulling to the weak side to free up left tackle Cam Fleming to go after Bullough.

But what is going to help Brissett and the Patriots' offense the most is the aforementioned balance.

Brissett has become a three-step drop, rythym thrower, whose reliance on the short passing game could prove to be a fatal flaw in the offensive philosophy, as the short game allows the safeties to cheat towards the line of scrimmage, stepping into the passing lanes or plugging the running gaps that Bullough and McKinney can't get to.

To combat this, the balance achieved allows for the play action that will freeze linebackers and safeties alike, and will aid the offensive linemen in setting their anchor in pass protection - but it will also take Gronkowski or Bennett up the seam to eliminate the safety and some intermediate routes on the part of Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan, requiring Brissett to change up on his dropbacks and, hopefully, getting the pass rushers to commit to poor angles.

The one thing that the Patriots don't want to do is to get Brissett in a roving pocket on the boot action, particularly to the right where both Watt and Mercilus are capable of disrupting the moving pocket, and which closes off half of the field, making coverages easier for the Texans' secondary.  The only thing that should be going outside the pocket is the pitch play to Blount.

Against the Dolphins, Blount took pitches from the quarterbacks while left tackle Nate Solder pulls to the outside to lead interference, allowing Blount to get up to full speed before hitting the line of scrimmage, the result being a lot of extra yardage and many frightened defensive backs who are rightfully wary of taking on a 250 pound running back at full speed.

Along those same lines, don't be surprised to see Brissett in the shotgun with either Blount, James White or D.J. Foster flanking him, and from where Brissett can either hand the ball off on a delayed draw, swing the ball out to one of them on the wheel route or in the flat on the jailbreak screen, or just keep them in to pick up the inevitable blitz coming from the second level.

In that formation, it gives Blount seven yards to get up to speed to hit the hole with force, and allows the vision and elusiveness of White and Foster to manifest, and even gives Brissett an opportunity to change the play out of a safe, limited set of options.

Because balance is everything.  Balance makes the defense have to defend the entire field.  Balance causes hesitation in the pass rush.  Balance opens up space at the top of routes for receivers to gain separation and balance helps the offense dictate to the defense rather than just having to take what the defense gives them.

There is enough weapons and plenty enough skill along an improving offensive line for head ball coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to devise a game plan to put Brissett in a position to succeed - but after that, it's all up to Brissett to make the most out of his opportunity.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Blount, Bennett Carry Patriots To Smashmouth Win Over Dolphins; Garoppolo "Day-To-Day"


It's not often that an injury to your backup quarterback takes all the wind out of a stadium, but when New England Patriots' Jimmy Garoppolo went down in the second quarter of their matchup with the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, you could have heard a pin drop.

Or maybe it was the sound of the Dolphins clawing their way back into a game that seemed completely out of reach before Garoppolo went down, or perhaps the sound of the Patriots' offensive machine gearing down to accommodate rookie signal caller Jacoby Brissett's inexperience, or maybe even the eerie echo of divisional games gone rogue...

...but whatever it was that wafted into Patriots' fans ears on an humid, overcast day at Gillette Stadium, it will prove to be nothing compared to the doom and gloom that will overtake social media and the Boston-area press after a 31-24 Patriots victory over the Dolphins that was much harder than it had to be.

The Dolphins had no answer for Garoppolo, who looked ready to break out in a very proper manner until linebacker Kiki Alonso drove the third year signal caller into the ground, his full 240 pounds compressing Garoppolo's shoulder, causing a sprained AC joint that eliminated the rising star from the game with five minutes to play in the first half.

Initial reports had the Eastern Illinois product suffering from a broken collarbone, which more than likely would have ended his season with regular starter Tom Brady returning from suspension in three weeks, but the final diagnosis turned out to be a strained AC joint in his right (throwing) shoulder, from which an athlete can heal in anywhere from seven to ten days...

...with Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick stating that Garoppolo's status is "Day to Day", so best case scenarios have Brissett under center for Thursday night's contest against the Houston Texans,with a decent chance of Garoppolo returning for what should be his final start against the Buffalo Bills ten days later.

The Patriots seemed to teeter on the brink of collapse after the Garoppolo injury, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but on offense, Brissett had two weapons that stepped up and most likely saved the Patriots from blowing a 24 point lead and losing their first game of the season, both of them doing their best work when New England needed them the most.

Running back LeGarrette Blount and Tight end Martellus Bennett came up huge, extending second half drives with clutch performances for the ages - Blount running for 129 yards against a very good Dolphins front seven and Bennett reaching triple digits in yardage for just the third time in his career, and even that almost wasn't enough.

Regardless, football purists among Patriots' nation had to have been thrilled with what turned out to be the very essence of the Erhardt-Perkins concept-based offensive scheme, the mantra of which begs for the offense to "Pass to score, the run to win." - and as it turns out, the Patriots followed the philosophy to the letter.

Before he went down, Garoppolo had three touchdown passes and had led the Patriots out to a quick 24-0 lead, and then Blount ran through and over the Dolphins' defense to kill just enough clock to win the game - in between, the Dolphins' offense provided the rest of the league with a blueprint as to how to attack the Patriots' defense, and only Blount's third quarter touchdown run prevented a complete New England collapse.

The "blueprint", of course, is the tactic of clogging the intermediate and underneath zones with humanity while occasionally targeting deep in an effort to wear down the cornerbacks - something that New England does with their offense as well, and it worked like a charm for the Dolphins, though it took going into the room at halftime and adjusting the schematic a bit...

...an adjustment that saw Miami outscore New England 24-7 over the remainder of the game and, one could reasonably state, could have been more were it not for the heroics of Blount and Bennett on the offensive side of the ball.

Of Blount's 129 yards, 96 of those came in the second half as the Patriots ran the ball with a determination not seen in these parts in a decade or more, and of Bennett's 114 receiving yards, 68 of those came on passes from Brissett, who seemed comfortable with the idea of turning to hand the ball to Blount or finding Bennett's sure hands in the pattern.

It goes without saying that if Brissett is indeed the starting quarterback against Houston on Thursday night, the gameplan should include heavy elements of each factor, possibly even going 22 or even 23 personnel packages built to run the ball and consume the game clock, but Belichick hasn't even ruled out Garoppolo playing against the Texans - and he has a little bit of recent history to draw on.

Last January, Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger also sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder but, surprisingly, came back to start the next game, the violence filled 18-16 win over Cincinnati in the wild card round of the 2015 playoffs, throwing for nearly 400 yards.

No wonder Belichick is calling Garoppolo's condition Day-to-Day.

"Injuries to the AC joint are so varied" said orthopaedic surgeon Walt Lowe at the time of Roethlisberger's injury, "but there are a lot of things that are safe to make players comfortable and able to compete. I've seen players come back quickly from such injuries"

Lowe went on to list the available treatment options to prepare a quarterback to play with the injury, including steroid injections and platelet-rich-plasma injections.

"If it's just a sprain, it can take several weeks to feel better" Lowe continued, "but in a high-level athlete it's not unheard of to put some medication inside the joint to get someone a little more pain relief to play sooner."

Realistically, getting Brissett ready to take starting snaps on Thursday night seems to be the prudent direction, and if the Patriots achieve the same sort of balance that they have in their first two games of the season - both close wins - it is entirely possible that New England can continue their season opening winning streak.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Bennett, Backs Clutch in Patriots' Victory Over Cardinals

LeGarrette Blount (29) scores from eight yards out in New England's 23-21 win over Arizona on Sunday night.
 Chandler Jones didn't see the truck that ran him over - but LeGarrette Blount did.

Five minutes into the second half and with the New England Patriots nursing a three point lead over the host Arizona Cardinals, the Patriots had a first and goal from the Cardinals' eight yard line - quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo barked out signals from the shotgun, flanked by Blount who was the lone back in an eleven personnel (one back, one tight end) package, suggesting to the defense a passing play.

Jones crossed the face of the offensive line from left to right, arriving at the outside shoulder of left tackle Cameron Fleming just as the ball was snapped, hoping for an advantageous lane to rush the quarterback's blind side, but Garoppolo froze Jones in his cleats with a quick look to his left, then turned to Blount and stuffed the ball in the big man's gut - and that's the last thing Jones saw.

Fleming exploded out towards the second level as if shot out of a cannon, taking out linebacker Deone Buchannon and leaving Jones uncovered to meet Blount in the massive hole created by Fleming and left guard Joe Thuney - but just as Jones reacted to Blount taking the handoff, he was nailed by tight end Martellus Bennett, who executed a textbook wham block that left Jones counting blades of grass...

...Blount rumbled through a hole big enough for three power backs to fit through, Cardinals' safety Tyrann Mathieu making first contact at the four, defensive tackle Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson converging on Blount a split-second later, sandwiching the 250 pound load at the three - middle linebacker Kevin Minter flying in from the strong side, safety Tyvon Branch from the weak side, cornerback Patrick Peterson hitting the pile straight up.

The pile up, featuring three-quarters of a ton of testosterone-fueled humanity collapsed as Blount surged across the goal line, Thuney and right guard Ted Karras plowing into the scrum from the backside, disbursing red-shirted defenders as if they were pins hit by a couple of bowling balls.

Blount's eight yard power drive that gave the Patriots a 10-point lead was a spectacular display of just what the bruising six-year veteran brings to the table, but it wasn't even the most impressive play on his part, that being a 13-yard run on 3rd and 11 that extended the Patriots' game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.

In between, Blount had a tough time against a stout Cardinals' front seven, but the performance is a reminder of why it is important to stick with a running game, regardless of positive or negative impact early in games.

Blount ran for 70 yards on 22 tough carries, for an average of 3.2 yards per carry, which isn't going to make fantasy owners very happy, but feeds right into the old adage that has governed smashmouth football from the genesis of the sport: Three yards and a cloud of dust.

That is the original hallmark of what a running game should contribute to a balanced attack and a tenet of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick is relentlessly faithful to, a philosophy that dictates that a team must "Pass to score, then run to win."

Garoppolo, Blount and the rest of the Patriots followed that tenet to the letter in a powerful 23-21 win over the Cardinals on Sunday night in Arizona, a performance that left little doubt that the Patriots are still the team to beat in the National Football League, even if it did take a missed field goal by Arizona kicker Chandler Catanzaro from 47 yards out to seal the victory.

Garoppolo was steady, relaxed and in complete control of the offense, changing plays at the line of scrimmage when confronted with blitz looks and, even more important, when he recognized mismatches that he knew he could take advantage of, going 24 of 33 for 264 yards and an easy touchdown pass to wide receiver Chis Hogan as he changed the play when he saw Hogan single covered by rookie Brandon Williams...

...staying alive in the pocket with nimble feet and consistently finding his underneath receivers by freezing the Cardinals' safeties with look-offs and play action, then threading the football into tight windows that left the Arizona defensive backs slamming their fists into the University of Phoenix Stadium turf in frustration.

Overall, the Patriots' offense was well balanced, with the run accounting for 31 plays and an overall average of 3.4 yards per carry - not elite by any stretch of the imagination, but there's no getting around the fact that the Patriots' sticking to the running game opened up play action possibilities for Garoppolo, which benefited not only the quarterback and his receivers, but also helped the offensive line anchor against the Cardinals' pass rush, which is normally quick and violent.

Instead, the balanced play calling kept the Arizona pass rush back on their heels until the fourth quarter, when Cardinals' coach Bruce Ariens started sending multiple blitzers to try and get to Garoppolo, who remained steadfast in his resolve to keep the offense moving forward, using his backs to stem the tide of the blitzers.

James White continues to be the unsung hero of the offense, displaying solid hands, his trademark subtle elusiveness and the ability to pick up stunts and blitzers in pass protection - a perfect example was when he gave up his body by plugging a gap against a stunt on the pass play to Malcolm Mitchell that set up Blount's oxen-cart run for the touchdown.

Though the performance on offense was far from perfect, it was close enough to beat a powerful team on the road, despite missing key contributors that caused the Patriots to be nine-and-one-half point underdogs, despite handing the ball to the Cardinals on fumbles by Garoppolo and Blount, and despite the fact that the New England offensive line was missing three starters...

...in essence, winning in spite of themselves - beating a team that the Arizona media claimed should blow out the short-handed Patriots, and that failure to do so should give the management pause and evaluate how good their team really is.

And they can question the quality of their club all they want, but the simple fact of the mater is that New England did to them what they have been doing to everyone else for the past decade-and-a-half, and there's no shame in being beaten by the Patriots, undermanned or not - but don't expect Ariens to dwell on what the media thinks he should do, as he knows exactly where things went wrong.

"We need to get the defense off the field on 3rd down" Ariens said, dejectedly, adding "They were ten of sixteen on third down conversions.  I thought that was the whole game right there."

Indeed, third downs brought out the best in Garoppolo and the Patriots, as White picked up four of them, Blount's staggering 13 yard run another and Garoppolo was a solid gold seven of nine on third down, including his two longest completions of the evening and his lone score.

In other words, the New England offense was clutch in the most dire of situations, and they were clutch missing quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and those three starting offensive linemen - and that's bad news for all of the Patriots' opponents, as the Arizona Cardinals will tell you from personal experience.

"They outplayed us." Ariens said, "and will will learn from it, grow from it, and continue on."

Perhaps all the way to Houston in February - and if so, one would think they'd like another crack at the Patriots...

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Patriots Have Plenty To Beat Cardinals Despite Doomsayers Claims

Lost in the doom and gloom over the New England Patriots missing key pieces to their offense is the fact that they still have a pretty damn good football team.

Patriots' head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick spent his entire offseason building depth behind his stars to ensure that what happened in 2015 - the decimation of his offense due to a cruel string of injuries - would not happen this season. And not just depth for the sake of depth, but quality depth.

The quality of the depth for the New England Patriots would be potential starters - if not actual starters - on virtually any other team in the league, and in most cases, they were.  On offense, for instance, Belichick brought in former second-round draft pick in Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett, then added former Eagles fourth-rounder Clay Harbor, all the while having a Rob Gronkowski clone in the person of A. J. Derby waiting in the wings...

...nabbing former Buffalo Bills' pass catcher Chris Hogan in free agency and using the draft to upgrade his offensive line in third-rounder Joe Thuney, who is being compared favorably to former Patriots' tough guy Logan Mankins in toughness and potential - and bringing in passing back D.J. Foster to back up and/or play along side James White in the backfield.

On defense, the depth is exponentially more stout.

By either trade or deft free agency movement, Belichick brought in former first round draft pics in defensive end Chris Long, weakside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, strong side linebacker Shea McClellin and added former second round cornerback Eric Rowe earlier this week, all while sitting on a couple of pretty decent draft picks in corner Cyrus Jones and tackle Vincent Valentine.

What does all of this mean in regard to tonight's contest in Arizona?  It means that the Patriots, regardless of who's in the lineup and who isn't, are built to take what they want by force, leaving behind the evil and wrong "Take what the defense gives us" philosophy and adopting a mindset that relies instead on just calling the formations and plays and daring the opposition to stop them.

That said, just run the damn ball.

Those familiar with my stylings are aware of this mantra and relentless hashtag on social media, as it has long been my opinion that New England Patriots' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels doesn't use his running backs to their full potential - instead opting for the short and intermediate passing game at a point in games when another mantra, taken from the time-honored Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy, should apply.

"Pass to score, run to win" is the tenet of the philosophy, meaning to use the passing game to build a lead, then give the ball to your backs to grind down the clock - it's as fundamental as football gets, and against the Arizona Cardinals, it couldn't be any more appropriate.

You see, the Cardinals like to blitz.  They like to blitz a lot, and because of their philosophy that speed kills, they are stocked right up the middle with perhaps the smallest and fastest linebacking corps in the NFL - and it works for them, to the point that they finished 2015 ranked fifth in total defense, holding opposing rushing games a meager 3.9 yards per carry.

But in football, small and fast will never beat big and nasty - at least not the whole game.

Small and fast may look good in the first quarter, and oftentimes into the half, but speed is a fickle thing.  Speed wanes deep in games when quarterbacks and receivers relentlessly test corners and safeties to the outside and down the seam. The effect on the human body - even those who are elite athletes - can be measured solely with the eyeball, the look in their eyes, hands on hips, winded...

Speed is abated when linebackers are physically manhandled by nasty-tempered guards, and even more so when they have to hold their ground against and effective running game - add to that a passing game that employs multiple tight ends and a couple of shifty passing backs, and the effect is even more pronounced - and all while continuously hammering them with a power running game.

You have heard television commentators and scouts describe power backs having an ability to get stronger as games wear one, but that is misleading - backs appear to have more left in the tank deep into games because they are the ones dishing out punishment to the linebackers, who have no choice to absorb the shock that saps even more of their wind.

That said, when New England faces the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night in Glendale, the best thing that they can do for the team as a whole is to run the damn ball - and keep running it regardless of initial success - not to mask any perceived deficiencies in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's game, nor just to play it safe...

...because for the Patriots to win this game, they are going to have to take what they want by force - but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can not abandon the running game in the second half, as he did in almost every game last season, opting instead to use the short passing game to chew clock, which is not what one would consider traditionally sound thinking.

Because this is the truth and there is no getting around it - the Patriots must establish a running game if they are to secure the desired outcome.

The offensive line is structured this week to run the ball, which is particularly true considering the news that Shaq Mason will return to action at right guard with a club of some sort on his broken hand - regardless of fashion statements, Mason joins an interior line consisting of center David Andrews and rookie Joe Thuney, flanked with Cameron Fleming and Marcus Cannon at the tackles...

...drive blockers all, though Thuney, Mason and, surprisingly, Cannon have looked very good in pass protection in the preseason.  Fleming is usually the sixth offensive lineman and almost always checks into the game as eligible, and if he struggles to hold back Arizona's Calais Campbell or even Chandler Jones, swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle is the superior pass protector of the two.

But to know exactly how the power running game benefits the Patriots' offense and, indeed, any offense in general, all one has to do is look back at the final quarter of last season and the post season to see what happens when the Patriots have no running game at all...

And those were lessons well learned, at least Belichick's moves in the offseason seem to speak to that end, what with bringing in two talented tight ends, a productive possession receiver and a hybrid passing back that is, essentially, a wide receiver to spell mainstays Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, both of whom spend time on the shelf with injury.

He didn't bring in another power back, however, so he'll be riding the syrup-on-waffles running style of the 6' 0", 250 pound LeGarrette Blount, complemented by special teams ace Brandon Bolden, who is good for five or six carries a game.  White is pretty much untested in the running game, but Foster was a running back in college before switching to receiver in his senior season, and he's provided some spark on the ground in the preseason.

The benefit of grinding out yards in this manner against the Cardinals factors into almost every facet of the game.

First and foremost, it forces the Cardinals to defend the entire field. Too often last season, the opposing defense was able to cheat towards their pass rush when the Patriots would abandon their running game, the extra burst a pass rusher gained by not having to worry about the run puts the offensive linemen back on their heels.

Conversely, when the Patriots' primary receivers were missing, especially Gronkowski, defenses could run with one high safety and concentrate on the intermediate zones, again the extra defensive back on the field meant that the pass rush could pin their ears back and go, knowing that the secondary had their back in tracking the running backs.

You'd have to be crazy on acid to not see how these things would aid Jimmy Garoppolo, as a successful running game would give him and the linemen the benefit of the play action, causing the pass rushers not only to delay their rush for a split second, but also taking any inherent explosiveness from the rush, and giving the linemen an instant to anchor and brace and to deliver the first punch.

The defense stands to gain as well, as the more first downs that are made by the methodical offense, the more time they have to get their proper rest, to be as fresh as possible to defend against Carson Palmer and his elite crew in the desert.

So, it's as simple as this for the Patriots tonight: Run the damn ball and keep running it right at Arizona all night and force them to respect the running game, or the Cardinals' defense will make things very tough on Jimmy Football and company - but if anyone out there feels that the Patriots are going to lose this game just because Brady, Gronk and Solder are missing, that's just not true...

...or at least, those circumstances aren't the sole deciding factors anyway.  Of course, the Patriots are a better team with those guys in the lineup, but there is still plenty enough talent and will power on the field for New England to win, yea, even dominate - but make no mistake, they have to be methodical and be conscious of time management.

And, yes, run the damn ball.


Thursday, September 8, 2016

2016 Divisional Predictions - Patriots, Panthers Concensus Picks

As told to Gern Blanston

The Patriots' Prognosticators are a bunch of homers...

Well, kind of, considering that only two of the four actually line in New England - but the fact remains that all four - Randy, Sara, Scott and Mike - chose their beloved Patriots to win the AFC East for the eighth consecutive season, despite incessant claims from the fans of the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins that 2016 is going to THEIR year to supplant the hated Patriots as kings of the east.

But in an effort to drag these folks out of their closely cropped comfort zone that most die hard Patriots' fans envelop themselves in, we tasked them to think outside the box.

The Patriots' Prognosticators is a social media group on Facebook, the aforementioned administrators of the group putting together their predictions for all divisions in the National Football League at the start of each season, and again before each week's games commence - which is key because all of them would agree that they are football fans, not just Patriots' fans.

Sara lives in Chicago Bears' country while Scott reports from Ravens' territory, adding to the already eclectic mix of Maine transplant Mike, who hails from Utah and was forced to endure Denver Broncos broadcasts growing up, and Randy, who is from the Foxborough area and now resides in the weird little state of New Hampshire.

The group itself promotes fandom on several different levels and from many different cultures and promotes to it's members that to know the sport of football is to eschew what the paid hacks have to say, and to investigate this great sport for themselves.  Football is going increasingly international and The Patriots' Prognosticators are one of only a handful of Facebook groups that cater to the language and knowledge barriers.

Not that there isn't a button to translate entire pages of text, but that's not what this is about.

Football is a language all it's own.  It knows no boundaries, it's not even territorial except on the field of play - the terminology it conveys is based on it's action, and the often-times funky rules all come with hand signals and yellow flags - in fact, compared to most sports, football has an excessive number of rules and it's commissioner is a narcissistic blowhard that would suspend his own mother if she served him cold vichyssoise...

...but vichyssoise is meant to be served cold, and football was meant to be played in cold weather, lest it would be a summer sport, no?  Domed stadiums are a uniquely American ideal, so thank goodness that the Prognosticators - heretofore referred to as "Progs" - are fans of a team that plays in the elements and enjoy a homefield advantage in the dead of winter, as Foxborough can be a terribly cold place to have a game of anything.

In fact, Patriots' fans everywhere can rejoice on this front, as their opening night contest against the Arizona Cardinals is the only game on their docket scheduled to be played in a domed stadium, and even then, the roof is retractable, and a day in the nineties could give way to an evening in the seventies, a perfect occasion to open the roof in Glendale.

And, yes.  This incessant rambling.  But it can't be helped because football season is finally here - a time when every team is tied for their division lead and all teams have hope, misguided and desperate as that hope may be...

AFC East: New England Patriots (Consensus)

Confidence abounds with all members, with Sara predicting a 13-3 season and Scott brashly stating that, "Brady could be suspended for all 16 games and the Patriots would still win the division." - and Scott certainly has the 2008 season to fall back on as far as a Patriots' team producing a winning record, but the fact remains that Brady will be back in week five.

The saving grace in this scenario is that the NFL schedule makers did the Patriots a huge solid by scheduling three of their first four games at home, and all of those games against teams that they should be able to beat, Brady or no.  In these games, both Sara and Scott share the same mindset in spotting Brady a 3-1 record, while Randy and Mike are being a bit more cautious...

...knowing that the Texans are a wildcard in that their offense is largely an unknown at this point, though they dominated in the preseason, and that division games are never a given, so games against Buffalo and Miami are no gimme's, as their 2-2 outlook suggests.

Analysis: There's not an easy game in the batch.  The Cardinals are the preemptive favorites to win the NFC title that they practically handed to Carolina last January, as Arizona is prone to a stinker every now and then, and tend to collapse in big games, while the Texans are a relatively unknown quantity on offense, but all indications are that they are high-octane and capable of scoring in bunches.

Nothing need be said about facing a division rival, as the Bills and Dolphins will bring everything they have, as a win against New England in this circumstance is solid gold in tie-breaking circles, and since both games are at Foxborough, a win also makes the odds of a season sweep go up incrementally when the Patriots have to travel to their digs later in the season.

These four games to start the season could have far-reaching impact in the division race.

AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers (Majority)

The Pittsburgh Steelers have the majority vote from the Progs, but the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens have procured votes as well.

The Steelers are perennial favorites in this division, and it would surprise no one if they actually did clinch the division, while Cincinnati has laid claim to a title or two in the past half dozen seasons, as has Baltimore.  It seems that the only thing the Progs can agree upon is the already universal decree that anything the Cleveland Browns touch turns to mud.

The reasoning behind the picks are varied.  For instance, Scott chose the Bengals to win the division because of what he claims is their consistency, but also goes on to admit that this could be the most competitive division in all of football, while Randy chose a close race between The Steelers and the Ravens, with Pittsburgh nosing out the birds - Sara went with Pittsburgh as well, while Mike selected the Ravens, though it made him whimper like a lost puppy to do so...

Analysis: The NFC North is always a Persian bazaar - lots of loud and obnoxious barkers that draw the crowds in with promises of a quality product, but it's always a crap shoot as to whether they deliver or not.

The lone entity from last season who could absolutely upset the apple carts in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are the Baltimore Ravens. I selected the Ravens to win the division based on their performance last season, which saw them lose eleven games, but only three of those by more than five points...

...this despite the fact that their offense was in shambles from the very start with debilitating injuries. including losing quarterback Joe Flacco to an ACL for almost half of the season.  Things got so bad that they actually brought in and started former Patriot Ryan Mallett.

AFC South: Indianapolis (Majority)

Surprisingly, the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars got no love from anyone, while the hot and cold Indianapolis Colts and their weird participation trophy mentality took the majority decision.

The only dissenting vote coming from Mike, who likes the Houston Texans to take this, the flakiest of all divisions - based on the fact that he hates the Colts with all of his being, and also that they managed a winning record and a playoff berth despite starting four different quarterbacks, including the aforementioned Mallett and his New England sidekick Brian Hoyer. Throw the insufferable Brandon Weeden into that mix and you have a recipe for mediocrity...

...yet they ended up winning the division, albeit with a mediocre record. The reason? A stout defense that ranked third in the league and limited six of their opponents to single-digits in scoring.  The one unknown for them is how new quarterback Brock Osweiller performs once the games start to count - so based on the unknown alone, the Colts win by default.

Analysis: Don't be surprised to see the Tennessee Titans make some noise.  They have a devastating running game that could be all about chewing clock and keeping scores low.  With the right adjustments on defense, they could nose their way into the picture.  That said, this division could go sideways at any moment.

Jacksonville is right on the cusp of something proper and could very well sneak into wildcard consideration.  The point being that every team in this division did things to improve themselves immensely in the offseason, all except for Indianapolis who returns, essentially, the same team that embarrassed themselves in 2015.

AFC West: Oakland Raiders (Majority)

With a killer defense and a vastly improving offense, the Oakland Raiders are the trendy pick to win the AFC West in 2016 - but two of our Progs aren't buying it.

Sara is sticking with the world champion Denver Broncos (Ouch, that freaking hurts to write) regardless of their dicey quarterback situation - any quarterback competition that involves Mark Sanchez has one strike against it already - but he's been sliced out of the picture, losing out to rookie and a second-year unknown.

Randy and Scott are all about the Silver and Black.

Mike is being a fence sitter and calling on the Kansas City Chiefs to grasp the golden ring due to them being the most consistent of the four teams in the division

Analysis: there are seasons when division titles are won by teams who just stay the course and are the most consistent, and in the AFC West, it looks like this kind of season.  Denver lost both of their starting quarterbacks from 2015, as Peyton Manning retired on active duty and his heir apparent gave Gary Kubiak the finger for benching him late in the season when he was clearly the top option at the position...

...but they weren't very good on offense with either guy down the stretch - none of their playmakers made enough plays to overcome the mediocrity and so Denver simply rode their defense to a world title.  Oakland is improved and may be the one team that could match them physically, while San Diego is busy making their offseason plans already.

That leaves Kansas City, who didn't do much of anything in the offseason, choosing to stay the company line with a team that nearly edged out the Broncos for the division. 

NFC East: New York Giants (Majority)

The only one of the division races that we had to bring in a private arbitrator to settle the issue.

According to Article 46 of the Patriots' Prognosticators Collective Bitching Agreement, an independent arbitrator is to be called upon in the event of a deadlock, so the Progs called in former member Jack Lavoie, who is also a native New Englander - and it just so happens that he despises the Giants just as much as the rest of them...

...which is neither here nor there, as Jack is proper and fair and wouldn't think of diluting the reputation of the page by letting his heart get in the way of his good sense.

That said, the freaking Giants, Jack?

"I don't like any of the teams." Jack said upon being contacted to break a tie between the Giants and Dallas Cowboys. "but if I had break the tie I would go with the New York Football Giants. Defense should be better (but not great) and having a new coach often gives a team a bump in year one."

He continued rambling until we muted the messaging, but not before he mentioned that he thought it would come down to a tie breaker for the division title, with both New York and Dallas at 9-7.

Analysis: Watching the teams in this division play has to be frustrating for their fans, as it seems each week the individual squads do everything that they can to throw away their chances of winning a division title, and when one finally does win it, their exit from the postseason is exacerbated by foolishness.

Except for the Giants, for reasons we can't get into here, as it seems that they sandbag their way through the regular season, then pour it on in the postseason.  For this very reason, Jack may be right when he selected the Giants to win the division - combined with the fact that the Eagles haven't been relevant since Dick Vermiel and the Redskins won the division last season purely by default, his choice is perhaps the wisest...

...though if rookie sensation - in the preseason, anyway - Dak Prescott turns out to be the real deal and does a "Brady" to Tony Romo's "Bledsoe", the Cowboys have more than enough on the offensive side of the ball to take the shirts and caps.


NFC North: Green Bay Packers (Majority)

Mike flat refuses to vote for the Packers, while the rest of the crew are all on board with the Cheeseheads.

"All you have to do is look at the Patriots from last season to form a baseline on the Packers" he said "The Patriots lost five core offensive skill position players in the space of six weeks, and still came within two points of going to the Super Bowl, the Packers lost Jordy Nelson and folded like a cheap tent."

Indeed, but now Nelson is back and Mike's pick of the Minnesota Vikings seems tenuous at best with the loss of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the season, but he feels that their running game and defense can carry the team to a title, particularly if they find a veteran quarterback that can manage  games for them - and there were reports that Vikings management would be willing to spend whatever it takes to get a competent starter in house, be it by trade or luck...

...and sure enough, they shelled out first round draft capital to Philadelphia for the fragile and moody Sam Bradford.  Hey, it could have been Mark Sanchez...

Analysis: The Packers have been the steadiest of all the teams in the division over the past several seasons, pretty much because the other three teams can't seem to get out of their own way - but make no mistake, the Vikings are for real.

They may have lost their starting quarterback, but there may not be another team in the league set up to absorb the loss of their signal caller than Minnesota, what with their top five running attack coupled with their top five defense, the recipe is there for Minnesota to engage in low-scoring, grind-it-out football, typical of the North.

The Packers have the same setup, except that their defense was atrocious last season and they really did nothing to remedy that.  That said, it's a two-team race in this division, and it could come down to whether Bradford ever becomes the quarterback everyone thought he was coming out of college.



NFC South: Carolina Panthers (Consensus)

The Panthers are the choice, purely by default in the league's most boring division.

Yes, boring.  Filled with perennial losers, there always seems to be a team that rises up and runs away with the south, and for the past three seasons, that team has been the Panthers - and to understand just how bad the rest of the teams have been in that time span, only the 2013 New Orleans Saints have finished above .500...

...so boring in fact, that I'm done talking about this division.  We're onto the NFC West.

 Analysis: The NFC South has had just Two world champions in the history of all the division's franchises.  Time was, the Falcons and Saints served in the NFC West, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was member of the AFC West as an expansion team and joined the old NFC Central the following season.

So what? Yeah, so what.  All except the Panthers have been perennial losers, with the Falcons never being quite good enough, the Bucs setting records for mediocrity since their inception and the fans of the Saints wearing paper bags on their heads with the word "Aints" emblazoned across the front - curiously, however, each has been to a Super Bowl, but none in the past seven seasons.

The Panthers had their shot against a wounded Broncos team last February, but the Panther offense limped off into the hills to die a nationally televised death, getting stomped by the feisty Denver defense.  It remains to be seen what effect that game will have on quarterback Cam Newton and, truth be told, he looked horrible in the preseason.

Good thing for the Panthers that they play in the worst division in professional football...

NFC West: Arizona Cardinals (Majority)

Sara continues to be the odd-man out out west.  Even though she's a chick.

Previously, we've seen her stick with the defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos in the AFC, and now she sticks to her antics by selecting the Seattle Seahawks as her projected NFC West division champions.

Lord knows she has history to fall back on and the fellas don't, so she brings a measure of common sense to testosterone alley, claiming that those flying rats will take a division that promises to be entertaining, if nothing else, as the Rams have returned to their (secondary) roots in Los Angeles and the 49ers have Chip Kelly and a quarterback who is a better loose cannon than an actual quarterback...

...and then, there are the two teams that each have a legitimate chance to take the division.  The Cardinals or Seahawks have taken the division title ten out of the last dozen seasons, with the Seahawks holding an edge in that department 7-3.

In fairness, all of the Progs had a difficult time with this one, and all of them had both of the teams making the playoffs, either as division champions or as a wildcard.  It really should be that close.

Analysis: The Cardinals are now the odds-on favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, but that's going to take some doing, as first they have to get past the violent Seahawks just to win the division, then hope and pray that Carson Palmer shows up for the playoffs, as he has a tendency to disappear in the biggest of moments.

The Seahwaks, on the other hand, are battle-hardened and are finally healthy after a dismal season on the injury front last season that saw them lose their top two offensive weapons for the majority of the season.  It's no wonder that the Progs all had a tough time with this division.