Saturday, September 23, 2017

Patriots Must Dictate Terms To Houston's Rugged Defense

The Houston Texans' defense is an aggressive bunch...

...what with perhaps the most talented front seven in the game, a group of speedy sack artists and run-plugging brutes combined with an up-and-coming secondary, there is no reason to doubt that they will give the New England Patriots' offense all they can handle this coming Sunday, so it will be how the Patriots counter that aggressiveness that will be the difference between victory and defeat.

The last time these teams met when the games meant something, the Patriots beat Houston in Foxborough on a chilly January evening in the divisional round of the 2016 playoffs - but it wasn't easy, and many believe that if the Texans would have had any semblance of an efficient offense at all, it would have been Houston advancing to the AFC title game.

But all they could muster was a touchdown and a handful of field goals, never able to take advantage of the Patriots offense practically handing the Texans' defense the ball in a much-closer-than-the-score-indicates 34-16 win that ended the Texans' season and finished quarterback Brock Osweiler in Houston.

The Texans' defense, despite being down several impact players, gave up only 27 of those points, as New England got a nifty 69-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Dion Lewis and took advantage of three Osweiler interceptions - forever to be known as the "Rutgers Trifecta", as former college teammates Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon picked off three Osweiler offerings...

...turning them into two field goals and a short touchdown drive to turn what was tight game into a Patriots win going away, as New England produced just two sustained drives on the evening - one extended by a long pass interference penalty - mostly due to the Texans' aggression on defense that pulled Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady off his mark several times and harassed him all night long.

All of that, mind you, without All World defensive end JJ Watt as the Texans employed a deception-heavy scheme that had the offensive line and Brady with their heads on a swivel, wondering where the pass rush was going to come from time after time.

But this time, Watt is healthy and ready to lead the most talented squad of pass rushing greyhounds in the league against a Patriots' offense whose receiving corps has been ravaged by injury and whose offensive line has featured a pair of matadors on the edges, forcing Brady to climb the pocket to be able to step into throws - sometimes letting them go off his back foot as the pocket collapses around him.

Not all is lost for the Patriots, though, as the backfield has performed as expected and the interior offensive line has held fast.

Injuries have piled up for New England, however, as pass catchers Chris Hogan, Philip Dorsett and Rob Gronkowski, right tackle Marcus Cannon and runner Rex Burkhead all suffered lower-body injuries last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints - but while Cannon and Burkhead appear to be destined for the shelf this Sunday, Hogan, Dorsett and most importantly Gronkowski all figure to participate in some capacity.

New England should also be welcoming back receiver Danny Amendola, who should provide a boost to Brady's arsenal, provided Brady stays on his feet long enough to get the ball to him.

Houston defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel moves his front seven around in a sort of chaotic jumble, at times bringing defensive ends and linebackers straight up the middle in three or four man rush packages while dropping them into coverage on others.  There is no way to predict where the rush is coming from, but there is a way to mitigate their impact.

It's called using your running backs.

In James White and Dion Lewis, the Patriots have dual mismatch threats that, if used in tandem, should be able to dictate to the Texans how they approach their pass rushing scheme.  Both are excellent receivers and fine runners, but it is their skill in picking up rogue linebackers on the blitz that up their value to New England, particularly against the heavy pressure that Houston can bring.

Both give up half a foot in height and seventy pounds in weight, on average, to the Texans' pass rushers, but are equal to them in size of heart, willingly putting their bodies between Brady and those human flying projectiles to achieve the greater good - which against Houston means giving Brady an extra half-second to go through his progression...

...which is going to be important given that right tackle Cannon is most likely a no-go and the powerful yet far-from-limber Cam Fleming is his understudy - which is bad in and of itself, but it becomes a waking nightmare when facing Watt on the edge.

Things don't get much better on the other side with Nate Solder's lateral agility in question after revolving door performances in the first two contests, leaving the interior of the Patriots line as the strength of the unit - center David Andrews and guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney forming a tupperware-like seal up the middle that has allowed just two pressures and one sack, combined.

They have not faced pass-rushing talent like Houston's this season, but the memory of being abused by them in the playoffs last January is probably still thick in their minds.

Of course, while the offense starts with the offensive line, they are just one piece of the whole puzzle that last January saw the Patriots lean heavily on now-injured and unavailable wide receiver Julian Edelman, who accounted for 13 of the 22 Brady targets to receivers, and half of the team's receiving yards.

But New England shouldn't be looking to repeat that performance from eight months ago, as without timely penalties on the Texans' defense and ineptitude displayed by their offense, that would have been a losing effort.  The Patriots played the "Take what they give us" game then, and the same mindset in this game could have disastrous results.

The key with the Texans' defense is to force the issue to get them out of their game, to dictate to them what formations they can run, what personnel can play and to wear them down to take advantage of them late in the game.

The most fundamental of these tasks is to use their aggressiveness against them in establishing a running game while maintaining their ability to spread the field horizontally - and the best way to do that, particularly in light of the injury issues among the pass catchers, is to use dual backs in White and Lewis, moving them around in a pre-snap cadence to identify who's rushing and who's covering and to adjust accordingly.

Of course, the best way to get that moving is through the no-huddle offense - not a two-minute, hurry up, but with a four-minute clock-killing approach that keeps the defense in their stances for a protracted amount of time while Brady scans the field to identify mismatches.

The purpose of this approach is two-fold. With that much time at the line of scrimmage - and all the while Brady barking out cadence - the Texans are likely to tip their hand in coverages, especially if they are worn down by the Patriots' no-huddle tactics, which includes the energy-sapping ploy of holding the pass rushers in their stances.

After the effects of this course of action take hold, Brady can start mixing up both the cadence and the timing to gain even more advantage.

Look, all of this is basic, fundamental football. The Patriots' offense is predicated on misdirection along the offensive line to give the appearance that the play call is a run when in fact it is a pass and vice-versa.  New England uses their guards - in particular right guard Mason - as a pulling lead blocker in the running game, but also will pull him to draw the defense to the strong side, catching them light on the weak side...

...where a back or one of Brady's speedy little pass catchers will be waiting in the flat or up the sidelines on a wheel route, or even going over the top if the safeties bite hard and crash down to provide run support.

A defense really takes their chances on the play action against New England, as the Patriots do this as well as anyone, and with the ability of their backs to run between the tackles, pick up the blitz and catch the ball out of the backfield, they are the most versatile players on the turf and will be keyed on by defenses to sniff out plays. But just because the Patriots would be in a two-back set doesn't mean that their playbook is limited, because both White and Lewis are capable of lining up anywhere in the formation.

Which means, of course, that in a concerted effort with Hogan, Gronkowski, Amendola, Cooks and perhaps Dorsett, the Patriots can still spread the Texans' thin both horizontally and vertically.

It's called dictating to the defense, not just taking what the defense gives you.  It's the Patriot way.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Gap Integrity, Edge-Setting Key For Patriots Defense Against Texans

The Houston Texans are an enigma.

On defense, they possess perhaps one of the best front sevens in the National Football League, yet they can't stop the run when opposing offenses spread them out. They sport a secondary that is so injured that they are being held together with duct tape and prayers, yet they are a top five pass defense unit.

Offensively, their passing game is just plain offensive, ranking dead last in the league and averaging 104 yards per game, being barely outgained by their running game, which would also be in the toilet were it not for a nifty, long touchdown run by their quarterback last week against the Bengals.

So on paper, the New England Patriots' defense should be able to put the beatdown on the Texans in Foxborough this coming Sunday.
Wise (91) and Flowers should be able to get to Watson this Sunday

Hell, they should be able to punch them in the mouth, take their lunch money and stick bubble gum in their hair for good measure - but only if the Patriots play their game, dictating to the Texans' offense instead of falling for the inevitable trickery and unconventional approach that coach Bill O'Brien will try to cook up in order to go blow-for-blow with the powerful Patriots' offense.

Because despite their abysmal play in 2017, the Texans are built to compete against the likes of New England, and the things that they can still do well on both sides of the ball feed directly into what the Patriots struggle with both offensively and defensively.

For example, the Patriots traditionally struggle defending against mobile quarterbacks (Hello, Alex Smith) and give up a frustratingly significant number of first downs to such - and the Texans' just happen to employ a fellow by the name of Deshaun Watson, a rookie who feels pressure in the pocket whether it's there or not, and will tuck the ball and run like a like a pooch that just stole a hot dog at a bar-b-que.

His success ratio after being flushed out of the pocket is hit or miss, but he showed how elusive he can be against Cincinnati last Sunday, weaving through their secondary for a 49 yard touchdown scramble - but he's also been sacked seven times in six quarters of play.  In fact, Texans' quarterbacks have been sacked 13 times in two games, and given the fact that three of their starting offensive linemen have been out of the lineup, that's not too surprising.

New England's top two pass rushers, former Arkansas teammates Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise, have to be salivating at the prospect of facing such a depleted line, especially given that against the Bengals, the Texans played predominantly with a six-offensive lineman set, sacrificing their tight end play (They were down to a fourth-string tight end anyway) for an extra blocker to try and keep Cincinnati's monstrous pass rush off of Watson, but to no avail as the rookie took several mean shots and is listed as questionable on the Texan's injury report.

But when Watson did find time in the pocket, he was single-minded in targeting DeAndre Hopkins on over half of his throws and used running back Lamar Miller as his safety valve.  Houston was hoping to get wide receiver Will Fuller, who has been inactive due to a broken collarbone, back this week - and he has returned to practice but has already been ruled out for Sunday's game...

...which means that Watson's targets will consist of Hopkins, Miller, tight end Ryan Griffin and wide receivers Bruce Ellington and Braxton Miller - not exactly a Murder's Row of downfield threats, though Griffin returning from the concussion protocol could spell trouble for New England's Patrick Chung, who appears to have lost a step in coverage.

While it shouldn't be a difficult task to generate pressure on Watson, the edge rushers will have to be alert to the Texans' tackles powder-puffing them, allowing them to rush upfield around the pocket, leaving the flat open for both the screen and for Watson to scamper off into.  Like they would against any mobile quarterback, the Patriots will try to keep him in the middle of the field...

...where the Patriots defense could counter by mixing things up a little in their coverages, perhaps playing in their Big Nickel alignment but with cornerback Malcolm Butler playing in the stead of Chung as an impromptu "strong safety".

Butler has benefitted in the past by teams picking on a weaker set of corners opposite him, but now that the team employs bigger corners in Stephon Gilmore and the up-and-coming Eric Rowe, Butler is being exposed by teams that have the edge in mismatches, particularly underneath where he is not always able to fight through pick plays.

Butler brings the wood against the run, is great at sniffing out screens and has elite closing burst, plus he matches up well in size with running backs and has the speed advantage over tight ends - he seems to be more in his element when he sees the play unfold in front of him, and with Jonathan Jones making a case to take over in the slot, it's going to take some finagling to get Butler involved, perhaps at the expense of Chung.

One ploy we could see from the Texans is coach Bill O'Brien taking a page from the Kansas City Chiefs' bag-o-tricks, implementing a series of shuffle passes to get the ball to receivers crossing the face of Watson, which the Chiefs were moderately successful doing.  The Texans don't have the overall talent like Kansas City does, but they will have Allen back this week and Braxton Miller could be a candidate for a little trickery...

...Ellington as well, though those are some mighty big trees for the 5' 9" speedster to have to navigate through, especially coming off of injury.  Ellington is pure smooth hell on the bubble and counter screens, however, which feeds right into the game plan that the Texans will have to employ to have any chance of generating enough points to make a game out of it.

The Texans switched from veteran quarterback and stationary target Tom Savage midway through their season opening loss to Jacksonville and inserted the mobile rookie in hopes of being able to generate offense, but it has been a work in progress, with the progress being marked with baby steps.

Given the injury situation in Houston and the likelihood that New England comes into the game relatively healthy on defense, holding the Texans down like both Jacksonville and Cincinnati did could be a big morale booster for a defensive unit that has it's doubters.

Much of that doubt comes from the communications issues the secondary had against the Chiefs that resulted in three chunk plays that turned a tight game into a laugher that Kansas City took advantage of - and even though that same secondary gave up 350 yards to Drew Brees and the Saints last Sunday, the majority of those yards came in the second half with New England leading comfortably.

So, in a nut shell, Houston must attack the Patriots' defense by establishing a running game, which would bring Chung (or whoever is playing the Big Nickel) up into the box, then targeting Miller and rookie back D'Onta Foreman in the short passing game to both spread the field horizontally and keep the heat off of Watson - then they can use the play action to pick and choose their shots downfield.

Part of the game plan should include some of the aforementioned shuffle passes, though with an emphasis on the running game being a given, having seldom-used veteran run stuffer David Harris in the middle of the defense may mitigate that type of play with his instincts and experience.

The key is for the Patriots to stay in their gaps up front, don't fall for the powder-puff approach from the tackles and keep Watson inside the hashmarks.

It goes without saying that this will be a game where the Texans' defense will have to hold the Patriots well below their 31.5 points per game average to have any chance of winning, and we'll cover that in the next piece...


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Patriots Discover That The More Things Change, The More They (Must) Stay The Same

"We always try to play well early. Whether we're home or away, we always try to get off to a fast start. We did things well early in the game, so we were able to get that going." - Bill Belichick

There is no better example of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy in play than what we saw from the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon in New Orleans.

The Erhardt-Perkins offense sparked the mantra "Pass to score, run to win" to accommodate the changing world of professional football in the mid-to-late 1970's, when the league started changing things up to spark an uptick in the popularity of the sport.

For example, in 1972 through the 1977 NFL seasons, the NFL instituted rules that were supposed to make the game more exciting by playing with the location of the hash marks more towards the middle of the field so that since the rules already stated that the ball was to be placed between the hash marks, it theoretically would open up the outsides so receivers could have more room to separate from the ball placement...

...but what ended up happening is that it instead helped defensive coordinators disguise coverages more efficiently and opened up the middle of the field for the running game, so it took a strong running game to force the defense to commit to stopping the run before the passing game could work effectively.

The Patriots were one of the best at taking advantage of the rule changes, as they had an elite running game led by the likes of Sam Cunningham, Andy Johnson and Don Calhoun, the Patriots owned the middle of the field - because not only were those backs great runners, but they also represented three of the top four receiving threats on the team.

But things started to change in 1978 when the league implemented the Illegal Contact rules that freed up receivers and made trying to disguise coverages an exercise in futility.  The impact was immediate as receivers Stanley Morgan (25.1 yards per reception), Harold Jackson (20.1) and tight end Russ Francis (13.9) proved so dangerous outside the hash marks that they had to be double-covered, opening up the Patriots' punishing ground game to set an NFL rushing record that still stands today.

They passed the ball to score early, usually on long chunk plays, then ran the ball to move the chains and kill the clock.  It worked so well that quarterback Steve Grogan went from throwing for 1900 yards in 1976 to 2800 yards in 1978, finding enough room underneath to contribute over 500 yards on the ground as well.

Now, Tom Brady is never going to contribute 500 yards rushing in a season - he has gained just 950 yards in seventeen seasons - but he still runs the offense as if Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins were calling the shots.

In both 2017 contests thus far, Brady has come out flinging the ball all over the place, but the approaches have been different.

Against the Chiefs, head ball coach Bill Belichick seemed to want to test Kansas City's run defense, as they finished last season among the bottom four teams in the league in that department and did little in the offseason to repair it - but after some initial success with James White carrying the load, he found out the hard way that if the Chiefs were expecting a run, they played it well.

Twice on fourth and less than one yard to go, power back Mike Gillislee was stoned for no gain, and White was held short of the line to gain on a third and short - and it just so happened that those plays turned out to be pivotal points that gave advantage to their opposition - but against New Orleans, the Patriots attained proper balance by sticking to the tenets of their offensive philosophy, and it gained them the typical results.

Those aforementioned tenets produced a 30-13 halftime lead for the Patriots, who scored on five of their six first half possession while racking up 300 of their 447 passing yards, then switched gears in the second half to eat clock, picking up 59 of their 119 rushing yards as all four of their second half drives ate up at least 3:35 off the game clock.

Pass to score, run to win.

It has been effective enough to make the Patriots the top offense in the National Football League after two weeks, averaging 342 yards per game through the air and 462 total yards per game, and have them sitting at sixth in scoring despite putting up just 16 second half points - a typical disparity of the Erhardt-Perkins scheme where the offense is looking more to move the chains and chew up clock than anything else.

The defense? They rank next to last in both passing yards and total yards yielded, and 29th in points surrendered.

None of these numbers mean very much after just two weeks of play, as evidenced by Oakland, Denver, Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams being the top four scoring offenses after being middle-of-the-road entities in 2016 and Carolina and Buffalo being atop the football world on defense despite being two of the worst units in the league last season...

...but it does mean that the Patriots have played one game where they didn't play complementary football - that would be against the Chiefs when in the second half and up by six points, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels forgot his scheme and tried going vertical against a team built to defend such a thing.

The results were predictable, as the Patriots "vertical" offense produced just two drives out of eight that were over two minutes in length, putting their defense back on the field against an offense with ridiculous speed and a powerful running game.

That was corrected against the Saints as the Patriots went back to their bread-and-butter short passing game while spreading the field horizontally, moving the chains methodically and chewing up both yardage and clock on drives of 8, 9, 9 and 7 plays for nearly eighteen minutes - which produced the also-predictable results of a victory pulling away from their opponents in the second half.  In response, the New England defense had to be on the field for just five second half possessions totaling 12:40 of game clock.

So, the Patriots got back on track against the Saints after whatever that was that they were experimenting with against the Chiefs - and if they continue to play their game, they should be able to settle into the kind of football that has made them successful for going on two-decades now...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Patriots Return To Bread-And-Butter Offense, Pound Saints

That was more like it.

Coming off of a season-opening loss in which the New England Patriots scored enough points to win, but had issues sustaining drives, they had no such trouble against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, dominating the time of possession in a not-as-close-as-the-score-would-indicate 36-20 win at the Super Dome.

In the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on opening night, the Patriots managed drives totaling over three minutes on just two of the fourteen possessions, punting six times and turning the ball over on downs twice while splitting the time of possession with the Chiefs - but against the Saints, seven of New England's ten possessions topped the three-minute mark, and they punted just three times...
Chris Hogan wide open

...one of those a "mercy rule" punt from the Saints twenty-five yard line late in the fourth quarter as the Patriots held the ball ten minutes longer than New Orleans with a balanced attack that featured their tight ends and running backs to compensate for their lack of healthy wide receivers.

How much of a disparity was there in touches between the wide receivers and the rest of the "skill" position players? of the 70 plays run by the Patriots' offense, only 16 went to wide receivers as the heavy lifters carried the load for New England, accounting for almost 80% of the workload.

Of course, the Patriots came into Sunday's game with just three healthy wide receivers, which was perhaps a blessing in disguise as it forced offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to go to his bread-and-butter offense, moving the chains with the short passing game with Mike Gillislee power runs sprinkled in to keep the Saints' defense honest.

The result was an attack that shredded the Saints for 555 total yards and produced four touchdowns and three Stephen Gostkowski field goals.

The efficiency of the New England offense proved a boon to the Patriots' defense, who faced no short fields and were able to get proper rest between Saints possessions, something that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick would call complementary football.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees got his typical 300-plus yards, but did so by going an ordinary 27 of 45 and only one touchdown pass when the game was still in question, throwing a second scoring toss in garbage time with the Patriots in prevent mode - most of his big plays coming at the expense of Patriots' safety Patrick Chung, whom Brees picked on mercilessly...

...getting big plays from wide receiver Brandon Coleman, tight end Colby Fleener and running back Alvin Kamara with the veteran strong safety in coverage as defensive coordinator Matt Patricia mixed up underneath coverages and alternating slot responsibilities between Chung and emerging cornerback Jonathan Jones.

The efficiency of the Patriots' offense also affected the Saints running game, putting New Orleans in an early hole and limiting the touches for backs Melvin Ingram and Adrian Peterson, which is fortunate as they averaged nearly five yards a pop in their sixteen combined carries against a Patriots' defense that was clearly playing to stop the Saints passing game.

Brady scoring tosses of 19 yards to running back Rex Burkhead and 53 yards to tight end Rob Gronkowski and 13 yards to wide receiver Chris Hogan staked New England to a 20-3 lead after one quarter, then a short Gillislee run and a Gostkowski field goal gave the Patriots a 30-13 going into the room at the half...

..and even though the Patriots' offense scored only twice more on field goals in the second half, they never varied from their aforementioned bread-and-butter approach, content to move the chains and limit Brees' time on the field.

And that is a huge departure from the previous week, when they scrapped their offensive philosophy in favor of testing the Chiefs vertically, resulting in short fields and many points for the Kansas City offense.

Was the Patriots' offensive approach really a return to that short passing game, move the chains approach that has been so successful for them for going on two decades now, or was it merely from lacking the weapons to spread the field vertically?  Whatever it was, it should have sent a message to the powers that be on the New England sideline.

The message? Never forget and never stray from what has produced eleven conference championship appearances, seven Super Bowls and five Lombardi Trophies in seventeen years.

Friday, September 8, 2017

UnPatriots-Like Patriots Hammered In Opener

Who were those guys?

For brief spurts in the first half of the New England Patriots' season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots looked like the champions of old, but for most of the rest of the game, they resembled a rag-tag bunch of kids on the playground, picked by a captain who thought they were bigger, faster and smarter than the other kids.
A dejected Brady leaves the field

Then they proceeded to do what kids do, chucking the football around seemingly indiscriminately, throwing the ball deep like fantasy stars when the better call would have been to throw underneath, drawing up plays in the dirt with all of the pass catchers yelling, "I'm open deep, throw it to me!"

These were not the New England Patriots.

The New England Patriots play move-the-chains, ball control offense and sturdy, limit-the-big-play defense.  The New England Patriots are disciplined in their blocking assignments and in playing their gaps.  The New England Patriots show up and play their best in the biggest of moments.

But these New England Patriots chose the "Fantasy Star" route on offense, were overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage when they needed just inches to gain and fell into a mundane rotation of play calling, all the while the defense fell for Kansas City's offense lulling them into a false sense of security, then striking at just the right moment.

In other words, the Kansas City Chiefs played their game and stuck to it while the Patriots played right into their hands - and in the end, the defending world champions left the field with bubble gum stuck in their hair and their lunch money taken.

And that includes the coaching staff, as the game plan on both sides of the ball was decidedly unpatriotic, as they seemed to want to try and surprise the Chiefs with trickery and general tomfoolery instead of playing the game of football the way it was meant to be played, and the 42-27 final score was their punishment from the football Gods.

Many will look at quarterback Tom Brady's 16 of 36 stat line and automatically think that the game has passed him by.  They will look at the 3.5 average yards gained per rush and think that head ball coach and general manager Bill Belichick made a mistake in bringing in all of these redundant talents in the backfield.  They will look at the secondary and the defense as a whole and wonder why Belichick brought in free agents instead of paying the players he already had.

But the real problem had nothing to do with any of that.

Sure, Brady looked like recently-traded Jacoby Brissett at times, throwing too deep for his receivers to get to and the running game at times looked like a reincarnation of the 2015 squad that couldn't gain a yard to save their lives in the playoffs, and the defense collectively resembled a punch-drunk boxer that was seeing three opponents and lunging at one of the apparitions...

...but this game was dictated by the poor play calling on the part of the Patriots' coaching staff, who apparently thought that they could just take the field and have Brady heave the ball down the field and let Randy Moss just float underneath the ball and they would score 48 points.

Of Brady's 20 incompletions on the evening, thirteen were deep balls - and of those, just one, a 57 yard strike to Brandon Cooks, was a completion. The rest were badly overthrown.  In contrast, on balls thrown by Brady in the conventional Patriots' design, he was 15 of 23 for 210 yards.  With the offense properly balanced, the running game accounted for a stat line of 23 carries for 119 yards, but when they really needed just inches, they were 7 for five yards.

Before the season started, the fans' expectations of the team had to be tempered as visions of Randy Moss danced in their heads - but even those who had those tempered expectations had to be disappointed with the way the weapons on offense were used.

The biggest and most disappointing example was how the backs were used in the passing game. Normally a staple of any Patriots' offense, the four backs combined accounted for just four receptions on eight targets, with just two of the four backs ever becoming involved.  Mike Gillislee, the closest thing the Patriots have to a lead back in their "By-committee" approach wasn't targeted in the passing game at all, nor was human joy stick Dion Lewis, who barely saw the field on offense.

This was the fundamental flaw in New England's offensive game plan.  This is a team that gets the ball to their backs and receivers in space in the short passing game, allowing them to make yardage after the catch - and it has been a staple of the success of the team for going on two decades, but when the Chiefs dropped eight into the coverage, the Patriots abandoned that plan and went over the top, with disastrous results.

As a result, all the Chiefs' defense really had to do was to play a standard nickel defense and let the Patriots' game plan play to their favor.

On defense, the Patriots played a curious style in which they had four safeties on the field for much of the evening, seemingly overly-concerned about Chiefs' tight end Travis Kelse, whom they shut down for the most part, but in exchange Kansas City took advantage of the alignment to sucker the New England defense into playing a box-heavy game, then pinned them inside and went all Brady-to-Moss on the Patriots.

Despite the relatively poor play from the Patriots, the still led 17-14 six minutes into the third quarter when Chiefs' quarterback Alex Smith hit a wide open Tyreek Hill in stride for a 75 yard score to give Kansas City their first lead, but the Patriots responded with ten straight points to retake the lead 27-21 in one of the brief glimpses of Patriot' football on the night...

...but then in one felled swoop, the Chiefs doubled their point total on the night on a New England defense that completely collapsed down the stretch.

Kansas City took the lead for good on a 75 yard bomb to rookie running back Kareem Hunt, taking advantage of the box-heavy Patriots who were suddenly without their "Jack" linebacker Dont'a Hightower who was rolled up on from behind and sprained his MCL, leaving him a spectator to the horror unfolding before his eyes.

Both long touchdown pass plays resulted from fundamental breakdowns in pass coverage, and then when New England compensated to limit the big pass play, the Chiefs rubbed their faces in the dirt with two consecutive speed runs around the the left corner, Hunt taking one 58 yards to the New England 21 yard line, where fellow running back Charcandrick West finished them off with the same play for an easy score.

To make matters even worse, after the Chiefs had taken an eight-point lead and knowing that Brady had no choice but to go deep where he had been inaccurate all night, they unleashed their heretofore docile pass rush and beat Brady to a pulp, ending any hopes of a miraculous comeback.

All of this said and true, the Patriots lost this game by trying to be something that they are not.  New England is not a vertical entity on offense no matter how much speed they possess on the outside, and they are not a team with enough depth on defense to allow the opposition to pin them inside the box and rely on a fourth safety instead of an edge-setting linebacker.

It's only one game - a game against an opponent that they regularly struggle against.  But the game calling suggested that the Patriots are trying to find themselves, which shouldn't be that hard to do - they just have to be what they've always been in the Belichick era, with a move-the-chains, ball control offense and a conservative, bend-but-don't-break defense.

On Thursday night they were neither against a good opponent, and they got their butts handed to them.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Opening Night: Patriots Hold Numerous Advantages Over Depth-Thin Chiefs

On initial inspection, the Kansas City Chiefs' defense is a train wreck.

After all, their defensive line lost one of the better nose tackles in the league and their best pass rushing five-tech is coming off of offseason surgery on his pecs - but unfortunately for the New England Patriots, the positives that the Chiefs do possess on defense could play into matching up with the defending world champions - with some luck on the injury front.
Harmon (30) and McCourty (32) will have hands full against Chiefs

Their two starting defensive ends, Chris Jones and Allen Bailey were recently activated after undergoing offseason knee and pec surgery, respectively, and their starting nose tackle, Bennie Logan, is a slight downgrade from a dominating force in Dontari Poe, who defected to Atlanta.

Their linebacking corps feature an aging Derrick Johnson, who has torn the Achilles tendon in both legs since 2014, and some ambiguity surrounding Tamba Hali, who has been replaced as a weak side starter by fifth-year rusher Dee Ford, and Justin Houston, who claims to be healthy after two years of dealing with bum knees.

But where the Chiefs potentially match up well with New England is in their secondary, where they have the personnel to run an effective nickel, using either a third corner in a conventional sub-package, or even a "Big Nickel", that will utilize a third safety.

The problem for them, however, is what will be the problem for every team on New England's schedule this season.

The Patriots can play the game any way you want.  They can force the issue and aggressively pound you into submission with their move-the-chains methodology or they can sit back and take whatever the defense gives them.  But New England biggest advantage on offense is that they can spread the field both vertically and horizontally at the same time, which will leave the middle of the field a virtual playground for quarterback Tom Brady to rule over like a bully.

There has never been a pass-catching depth chart in the history of the National Football League that comes close to what the Patriots are about to unleash - and so stacked are they in that department that teams will never be able to cover all of the weapons.

It all starts with Rob Gronkowski, who is both the Patriots primary weapon and ultimate decoy in the passing game, and perhaps the best blocking tight end in the game in the running game - he rarely comes out of the lineup and must be accounted for on each snap.

As mentioned, on paper the Chiefs are well-stocked in their secondary to account for the Patriots' pass catchers, but they have taken several hits on the injury front and may not actually have the personnel to pull off a coverage-heavy approach.

It is common knowledge that cornerback Steven Nelson has been placed on IR, leaving the second corner spot to Cowboys' retread Terrence Mitchell, which in turn leaves the slot to Phillip Gaines, who has dealt with chronic knee issues since entering the league - and to make matters worse, free safety Ron Parker is dealing with an ankle injury which has been limiting his participation in practice.

This has to be an issue for them coming into a game against the stacked Patriots.  Their linebacker depth doesn't exactly scream "coverage", with only Houston and Ford really capable of any sort of pass defense in the pattern - and if the Patriots spread them out thin running 12 personnel packages (one tight end, two running backs, two receivers), there will be no second level to back up in run support.

So the only way the Chiefs' defense is going to be able to mitigate New England's passing attack it to do exactly as Houston said earlier this week: Get to Brady.

That means sending extra rushers after Brady at the expense of doubling up Gronkowski, Hogan, Cooks, etc., but it's the only chance they have - and the Patriots can counter with the aforementioned 12 personnel, or even a 22 personnel package to pick up the extra blitzers and to move the chains with the short, timing-based passing game...

...and once the Chiefs get tired of giving up first down after first down and being on the field for 14 plays at a time, Brady can wait for his opportunity to hit one of his speedy wide outs for a big play - because, make no mistake, this feeds right into the Patriots' persona on offense.  They are a move-the-chains entity despite all of the speed and talent at their disposal.

The reason why is because methodically moving the chains is the most fundamental tactic in football.
 
The Patriots follow the mantra of the Erhardt-Perkins offense to the letter, in that they "Pass to score, then run to win.", meaning that the offense reaches it's optimum performance level when they are playing with the lead, though don't try to sell that to the Atlanta Falcons or their fans.  The proof of this is in the results.  Of the 19 games the Patriots played last season, they took the early lead in 14 of those contests...

...and did so the old fashioned way of methodically moving down the field with long, time consuming drives that sapped the energy out of the opposing defense.

The big question is, can the Patriots run the ball well enough to keep the Chiefs honest?  They should be able to, given that Kansas City's defense ranked 26th in run defense last season, and did nothing to improve the number.

On the opposite side of the ball, the Chiefs have an explosive offense, but unless rookie running back Kareem Hunt can move the chains for them in short yardage, the explosiveness of the offense can be assuaged simply by New England corralling the Chiefs' top two weapons in All Pro tight end Travis Kelse and All-everything wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

Both players have elite get-off and separation skills, so the Patriots will most likely bracket them more often than not with Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon playing double-high safeties, leaving the coverages to strong safety Pat Chung on Kelse and either Malcom Butler or Stephon Gilmore tight on Hill..

...though it would not be a stretch to see Gilmore or fellow corner Eric Rowe take on Kelse, as they are both tall and play the ball well in the air.  If Rowe is not on Kelse, he most likely would be assigned to cover the 6' 3" wide receiver Chris Conley.

In the running game, the Chiefs run primarily to the right, where they have as solid a set of strong-side blockers as anyone else in the league in guard Laurent Duverney-Tardiff and Mitchell Schwartz, anchored by up-and-coming center Mitch Morse.  The same can not be said about the left side, as undrafted free agent Brian Witzmann mans the left guard spot while colossal first-round bust Eric Fisher handles the blind side as left tackle.

That said, look for New England to load up on the blind side in the pass rush while shading to the strong side with a linebacker to guard against the run.  The one thing that New England defenders have to be acutely aware of is in over-pursuit in the pass rush, as the Chiefs like to let the opposition rush upfield, then dump the ball into the flat to one of their backs and to Hill, who lines up in the backfield on occasion.

All told, this looks like a winnable game for New England, if they move the chains and control the clock on offense to limit the possessions for the Chiefs.

Prediction: New England 42, Kansas City 24


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Patriots' Prognosticators: Progs Predict Patriots 2017 Season Outcome

The New England Patriots want for nothing.

There isn't much more they could add to their franchise at this point that would make much discernible difference in the grand scheme of things, not if you consider the fact that they've been to six consecutive conference title games, have won two of the last three Super Bowls in as dramatic a fashion as one could conjure in a daydream, and currently have the league's most robust roster, stem to stern.

So much so that a seventh consecutive conference title game appearance appears to be a matter of course, and anything less than a third Super Bowl title in four years would be considered a huge disappointment.

This is not gloating, this is a fact.

Yet, the Patriots don't merely want to beat the teams they play, they want to annihilate them. Just winning is not going to be enough to satiate the hunger that grips this team like blood in the water does a hammerhead shark, not after what this team has been through in the past two seasons - which needn't be revisited as any football fan knows of the dark malfeasance laid upon the Patriots' alter.

Not even Bob Kraft would address it aloud after accepting the franchise's fifth Lombardi Trophy from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, though his remarks during his acceptance speech were rife with the vernacular of the newly avenged - his tempered soliloquy speaking, unequivocally, to the fact that even though he was holding the fingerprint-smudged trophy, it was only part of the payback.

Yet to come is the wrath on the thirty-one other NFL franchise owners who pleaded with Goodell to impose the strictest possible punishment on the Patriots, and then backing it up in federal court, not taking into account the unfettered and unprecedented power that a court-ruling would afford the commissioner's office in meting out discipline...

...something that one of the commissioner's favorite sons, the Dallas Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones, have discovered recently in the Ezekiel Elliott domestic violence case, which appears headed to federal appellate court, where Goodell already has an enormous amount of precedence on his side since the courts have already ruled in his favor in the case against Tom Brady.

But whatever happens in that case is irrelevant.  The Patriots are not going to take solace in any punishment dispensed as a vicarious act by the commissioner's office, as it didn't come at the hands of the the coaches, players and management residing in Foxborough.

That is why, starting with the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night, the New England Patriots will run roughshod over every single opponent they face this season.

It is intensely personal, though the opposing coaches and players should not take the beatings personally.  The management of these teams, however, should take it as well-deserved medicine for their contribution to commissioner Goodell's actions against the Patriots - and once the beatings are over, the combatants can shake hands and bury the hatchet, so to speak.

But they shouldn't cry and shouldn't be ashamed of their punking and there shouldn't be any hard feelings, for it is something that was destined.

The Prog's picks...

Mike's Prediction:

Patriots 2017 Record 19-0
Beat Tennessee Titans in AFC Title Game
Beat New York Giants in Super Bowl 34-14

Randy's Prediction:

Patriots 2017 Record: 15-4
Losses at Dolphins, Raiders, Broncos
Beat Raiders in AFC Championship Game
Lose to Green Bay 31-27 in Super Bowl 52

Sara's Prediction:

Patriots 2017 Record: 17-2
Losses at Denver and Pittsburgh
Beat Steelers in AFC Championship Game
Beat Packers in Super Bowl 34-31

Scott's Prediction:

Patriots' 2017 Record: 19-0
Beat Steelers in AFC Championship Game
Beat Cowboys in Super Bowl 38-27

Michelle's Prediction:

Patriots 2017 Record: 17-2
Losses at Raiders and Steelers
Beat Raiders in AFC Championship Game
Beat Falcons in Super Bowl 34-31

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