Friday, February 24, 2017

Relaoding The Musket, Part 4 - Super Bowl A Quantification Of Patriots' Philosophies On Both Sides Of Ball

"If the enemy sees an advantage to be gained and makes no effort to secure it, the soldiers are exhausted" - Sun Tzu in The Art of War

When the Atlanta Falcons' Robert Alford intercepted New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady and returned the pick for six, many in the audience felt that the Falcons had sealed the deal and had the Patriots right where they wanted them.

Turns out, the Patriots had the Falcons right where they wanted them.

You see, despite the fact that New England tends to lean towards being pass-heavy in their approach on offense, their ultimate goal - besides outscoring the other team - is to control the clock with time-consuming and turf-eating drives, coming away with points or flipping field position out of each one, whatever it takes to either limit the number of possessions by their foe, or to make them have to go as far as possible to score.

That philosophy runs counter to everything that the pass-happy National Football League strives for, but has now added up to six consecutive appearances in the AFC Title Game and two world championships in the last three seasons - and Lord only knows if it could have been three straight titles had the Patriots not been so heavily injured going into 2015's conference championship.

This is not to say that the Patriots aren't aided by the constantly evolving rule changes that feed into the NFL's want of making the game more aesthetically pleasing to even the most casual of fan, it's just that head ball coach Bill Belichick's insistence on his players being being both fundamentally sound in their approach to the game and in superior condition to their foe sets them apart.

This goes beyond the Dark Master's criteria for selecting personnel for his team that requires a passion for the game - not just the passion that most players give lip service to in the media, but real give-it-all-you-have-in-practice passion - coupled with intelligence and versatility, all of which add up to value...

...which is why you will see Belichick cut a player loose in their prime, because when a player loses his passion, it doesn't matter how intelligent or how athletically gifted he is, his value to the collective decreases - and the Patriots' history under Belichickian rule is riddled with the bones of players who lost their value to the team.

Most of that passion directly impacts the desire to prepare for games both in the classroom and on the practice field, and incites the requisite mental toughness that combines with superior conditioning and preparation in the fourth quarter of football games, where contests are won or lost.

Like in Houston a couple of weeks ago, where Sun Tzu's passage above, in his epic work called the Art of War, came to fruition.

At halftime of the Super Bowl, the Falcons had a seemingly commanding 21-3 lead, a lead perpetuated and increased exponentially by the big play, because that's who the Falcons are - the top scoring offense in the league, led by the newly minted NFL Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year.

The problem, however, is that while the Falcons have a very effective offense, as a team they are far from efficient.  No doubt, their offense is full of explosive intensity and are capable of reaching the end zone from any position on the field and relies on downfield momentum to get them there, but that tends to cause a phenomenon known as gassing their defense, especially when facing a team, like New England, that has an offense that is as efficient as any in the league.

How efficient? The Patriots ranked third in the NFL in plays per game, calling nearly seventy per contest - a number that climbed to eighty in the post-season, an astronomical number considering that the league average falls short by twenty plays per game.  That keeps their defense on the sideline for long stretches at a time...

...and when coupled with the fact that Belichick likes to keep a rotation going with the front seven to limit the number of snaps that his heavyweights play, it keeps them fresh for the fourth quarter.  Add to that the aforementioned conditioning that Belichick puts them through, and the sum equates to a fresh, strong defense that regularly overwhelms their counterparts.

The Falcons? Not so much.

Atlanta is in the bottom five in the NFL in that category, number 27 out of thirty-two teams in plays called per game.  Not surprisingly, this corresponds to their defense wearing down in the second half as evidenced by the fact that they gave up the third-most second half points in the NFL, and the most points in the league in the fourth quarter.

So is it any surprise that the Patriots, despite being down by eighteen at the half and by twenty-five with half of the third quarter gone, were supremely confident that the game wasn't lost?

Although it goes without saying that the Patriots would rather have not had to dig out of that abysmal hole, they had to take solace in the fact that they had moved the ball well on offense, but turned the ball over in scoring position twice - the second time, Alford ran the interception back for what appeared to the naked eye as a backbreaking touchdown, but which in reality became the genesis of a series of events that doomed the Falcons.

Alford's interception came on the 15th snap of a sloth-like 52 yard drive that had eaten up six-and-a-half minutes of game clock, and after the TV timeout, the Falcons' defense was right back out on the field, absorbing 10 more snaps and surrendering a meaningless-looking field goal to take a 21-3 lead into the locker room.

But during that last possession, the Falcons' coaches desperately tried substituting with Brady running the no-huddle attack, finally calling a time out to give their guys a blow and slowing down the Patriots' momentum.  They were intimately aware of their own shortcomings

But it was too late.  Their guys were spent.

The Atlanta offense looked like they hadn't broken a sweat, and had been sitting on the sidelines for what was nearly an hour thanks to the two long New England drives and the traditional extended halftime period before hanging another seven on the Patriots to build the lead to twenty-five - until Brady took control of the game...

...leading the Patriots on four consecutive scoring drives to tie the game, grinding down the Atlanta defense with forty plays that ate up sixteen-and-a-half minutes of game clock and erased the Falcons' lead.

Conversely, the Patriots' defense, fresh from their policy of rotating their heavies and Brady's protracted wizardry. forced three punts and a fumble in the final 17 minutes of regulation, having only to stay on the field for a total of 16 plays as they worked along with the offense to take the Lombardi Trophy away from Atlanta.

The Falcons score quickly.  It's what they do, but the consequences are something that they dealt with all season long, and it came back to bite them in their collective hind parts in the Super Bowl. The Patriots, on the other hand, grind you into the ground with their methodical approach that is devoid of glitz and glitter and heavy on substance.

That substance is generated by their philosophical approach to the game.  On defense, that means to take away the opponent's top threat to New England's base, and not necessarily their "best" player - but the best way to do that sometimes isn't determined until the game starts and the coaching staff has a look at how their plan is impacting the opposing offense.

Against the Falcons, the plan was to take away their running game and to stay on top of explosive wide out Julio Jones - and they did neither in the first half, as Jones was instrumental in Atlanta's two scoring drives, catching three balls for 60 yards while the Falcons' running backs went wild on the edges, going for 80 yards on just 10 carries...

...but the Patriots adjusted in the second half, allowing only the 27-yard acrobatic sideline catch to Jones that momentarily looked like the death knell for New England, while completely shutting down Atlanta's running game, giving up just 14 yards on nine carries, lead back Devonta Freeman being stuffed for no gain or losses five different times.

The combination of the two explains why the Falcons felt compelled to pass instead of run during that crucial stretch late in the game, a stretch that led to a series of events that took the Falcons out of scoring position that could have iced the game for them.

The reason, just like every other game for New England, was because of their philosophies dictate that they take what they can get while the other team is fresh and the playing field is level - then grind them down, make slight adjustments to force them into situations where they are at a disadvantage, and feed off of their one-dimensional alternative.

The Patriots don't have many superstars, they just have incredible depth at just about every position, which allows them more latitude in play calling as the game rolls along, forcing the opposition to play into their hands.  So in reloading the musket, one can be assured that Belichick will load up on role players to promote depth, and play into their strengths.

It's called leverage, and with Belichick being an unrepentant leverage junkie, it only makes sense that his philosophies have been so successful in the past and in the present, and will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Reloading The Musket, Part 3 - Tight End Position In Flux Pending Gronk, Bennett Assessment

Rob Gronkowski is a singular talent.

A bit jaded on the injury front, perhaps, and some would say his off-field behavior borders on puerile - but when the guy is on the football field, he is a weapon capable of previously unimaginable ruin. He has speed to not only challenge the seam, but also to take a defender deep down the sideline - a speed that belies his gargantuan size and lumbering style.

Gronkowski could legitimately play right tackle in a pinch, such is his road grading skill that features the athleticism and grit to pull into the middle of the line and trade shots with run-plugging linebackers - but the most aesthetically pleasing part of Gronkowski's game is watching him punish defenses with the ball in his hands, after the catch.

He's a big target, both to quarterback Tom Brady and, unfortunately, defenses alike.

Gronkowski has played in eighty-eight of a possible 112 games since coming into the league, his two dozen games missed attributed to a broken forearm that lingered through parts of two seasons and a torn ACL that sapped half of another, plus another couple of games here and there to manage his health.

Gronkowski plays an all-or-nothing style of football, combining his aforementioned freakish ability with a bully's mentality and a nose for the end zone - accounting for almost 6,100 yards and 68 touchdowns in his seven-year career (yes, it's been that long), a pace that will make him the greatest tight end in the history of the national football league, statistically speaking, midway through his eleventh season so far as touchdowns are concerned...

...but it will take ten more seasons to match record holder Tony Gonzalez in receptions and yardage - which seems out of reach when considering Gronkowski's injury history, which now includes time missed for a slipped disk in his back.

The back issue isn't a new thing, however.  Gronkowski missed his entire 2009 season - his Junior year at the University of Arizona - after having surgery for a slipped disk.  He declared for the NFL rather than redshirt and while a first-round talent in the eyes of many, coming off a season lost to a potentially debilitating  injury saw him fall right into New England's lap in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft.

So, it isn't as if the Patriots were not aware of his injury history when they drafted him, nor when they signed him to the then-most lucrative contract ever for a tight end before the 2012 season which pays him $9 million annually, on average, and the team took steps to protect themselves long-term in case Gronkowski's body broke down beyond repair.

So any talk or speculation of the Patriots trying to rid themselves of Gronkowski is a fool's errand, considering that he counts only $6.75 million against the cap in 2017, a bargain basement number when compared to his production when he's on the field - and is, in fact, just the fifth-highest number in the league among tight ends.

But what makes Gronkowski taboo so far as trading him is concerned is that $6 million of that figure is guaranteed, and to trade him would invoke a dead money hit for the entire guaranteed number - which is a huge hit to the salary cap for a player that is no longer on the roster.  In the end, Gronkowski will be a Patriot come September, so don't believe all of the ignorant rumors being bandied about.

That said, and Gronkowski aside, for a team that values their tight ends as much or more than any other in the league, the New England Patriots sure have a lot of question marks headed into the offseason.

The main question revolves around Martellus Bennett, who qualifies as a both journeyman and a nomad. A journeyman, because he plies his trade as a reliable pass catcher and blocker, but also a nomad because the Patriots are his fourth team in nine years, and his third team in the last five seasons.

Bennett jokingly said after the Super Bowl that "Teams overpay for Super Bowl Champions", then tweeted later in the evening that he was in jest - but chasing money is something that the man who calls himself the "Black Unicorn" has a history of, which is why not everyone is buying his amendment.

After four seasons of playing behind Jason Whitten in Dallas, Bennett signed a one-year "Prove it" type of contract with the New York Giants since his numbers in Dallas were limited due to lack of targets, and he excelled in New York as the tight end on the roster, then cashed in with Chicago on a four year, $20 million contract with the Bears that made him the 16th highest paid tight end in the league.

But after his second season in Chicago, when his 90 catch season landed him in the Pro Bowl - ironically as Gronkowski's replacement since he was committed to the Super Bowl - Bennett held out of camp in 2015 looking for more money, ended up on the wrong side of Jon Fox's and Adam Gase's dog house and ended up being traded to the Patriots after the season.

That brings up an interesting little tidbit that may or may not turn out to be relevant, as the Miami Dolphins have publicly stated - unsolicited, mind you - that Bennett was not a candidate for the tight end-needy Dolphins, and that is believed to be in regard to Gase being the head coach.  How much of that, if any, will resonate with other teams looking for a tight end when his former offensive coordinator with the Bears refuses to have anything to do with him?

Bennett is outspoken, for certain, and has openly trashed the Bears organization, saying that "We just had a bunch of bitches on the roster.  That's why we didn't win games, and coaches liked the bitches." - and this after Gase offered the highest praise of Bennett, calling him "almost as good as most left tackles" in the NFL for his pass protection skill.

The median wage for starting tight ends in the National Football League is $7.3 million per season, and Bennett has already rejected a multi-year offer from the Patriots that would have paid him seven million annually, and could probably sweeten that a little bit to take him into the top six salaries in the league at around eight million - but they are not going to go above and beyond Gronkowski's nine million annually, nor should they.

The wildcard for Bennett, however, is that Seattle is pondering letting go of under-performing Jimmy Graham and his best-in-the-league salary - a move that, if true, could cut in two different directions.  First, with Graham on the market it could cut into Bennett's value on the open market as well as restricting his options - but on the other hand, releasing Graham would make the Seahawks a prime landing spot for the Black Unicorn, uniting him with his older brother, Seahawk defensive end, Michael.

New England could put all speculation to rest by assigning their franchise tag to Bennett and pay him a little over $9 million, guaranteed, for the 2017 season - a move that may not set well with Gronkowski, who has hinted that he wouldn't say no to a pay raise.

Madness, all of it, but it doesn't end there.

The Patriots signed former Cardinals' tight end Rob Housler to a futures contract after the Super Bowl - but Housler bring nothing in the blocking scheme and is essentially a really tall wide receiver - and the Patriots already have Matt Lengel on the roster, but he is more of an in-line blocker and offers very little in the passing game - and the New England can't afford to be one-dimensional with their weapons in that manner...

...but with Bennett being The Catch in a very weak free agent market, he could be right that a team would over pay him, so then the Patriots would have to turn to the draft to snag anything worth putting on the field opposite Gronkowski in 2017.

The top of the class promotes Alabama's O.J. Howard as number one on the big board, but he is more of a Housler type, with great hands and decent speed, but offers nothing in pass pro or run blocking.  Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram is a second day possibility as his size, speed and playing style would remind Patriots' fans of their long lost thug Aaron Hernandez, who was on his way to superstardom before going on a murderous rampage.

Miami's David Njoku is already considered a first round pass catching talent, and blocks well enough to be taken early as a project of an all-around tight end, and probably has the most potential in the tight end class.  But the best prospect for the Patriots is probably Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges, a fast, athletic pass catcher who, like most tight ends coming out of college these days, is more of an overgrown wide receiver, but at 6' 7" and 245 pounds, he has some toughness in the blocking scheme.

There are other college prospects that offer mid-round athleticism, like Ohio State's Jake Butt, Arkansas' Jeremy Sprinkle (who is a mid-round sleeper), and Ashland College behemoth Adam Shaheen at 6' 6" and a massive 277 pounds is a freakish red zone target and good run blocker, and Florida International's Jonnu Smith is a "move" tight end prospect with electric moves and wide receiver speed, plus is an outstanding blocker.

Obviously, there are more prospects, but the Patriots need to assess Gronkowski's availability and Bennett's psyche before considering their next move at the position.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Reloading The Musket, Part 2 - White, Lewis Part of Patriots' 2017 Plans, But Is Blount?

Before the season started, James White was an afterthought in most fans' minds.

And why not?  After all, it was Dion Lewis who had the sick moves in the open field and the power to run up the middle in the ground game, and the media was speculating whether the Wisconsin product would even make the roster - which is preposterous, but the effect Lewis had on the fan base and media alike rendered White nearly invisible.

But even once it was determined that Lewis would start the season on the PUP list, White still got little love from either, and every running back that had been cut by another team in trimming down to fifty-three was rumored to be on his way to Foxborough, since Lewis wasn't available and power back LeGarrette Blount also had his share of detractors.

Why, there was even talk that former Tennessee Titan runner Bishop Sankey would be promoted from New England's practice squad and lay waste to the efforts of White and Blount.

That all seems so long ago, and such a silly waste of time.

Blount, of course, went on a power surge that saw him finish with career highs in both carries and yardage gained, also leading the entire National Football League in rushing touchdowns with 18 - while White caught 60 balls, good for number two on the team behind perennial ball hog Julian Edelman.

Lewis came off the PUP in week eleven, but in seven games played didn't display the athleticism and video game style moves that made him such a sensation before ripping his knee apart midway through last season - so he was used mainly on the ground where he could tough out yardage and left the passing back duties to White.

That Lewis didn't return to form as a human joystick shouldn't have surprised anyone, as he wasn't even a year removed form reconstructive surgery on his knee - nor should it have been a surprise that White didn't just fill in, he took the job from Lewis, and in the Super Bowl, he proved what a valuable weapon he is.

There is no telling what was going through the minds of the Falcons' coaching staff while preparing for the big game, as they game planned to take away the short, easy throws to the Patriots' wide receivers and concentrated on shutting down Blount and Lewis - all the while saying, if someone else beats us, so be it.

White beat them, in the most compelling Super Bowl ever played.

All of New England's backs have dealt with a lack of respect throughout their professional careers.  Blount's problems have been the most publicized - as well as self-induced, punching out a Boise State player after a game when he was at Oregon - going undrafted because of the issue and going through the Titans training camp before ending up with Tampa Bay for his rookie season...

...replaced in Tampa by the Muscle Hamster and benched for pouting, the Bucs shipped him up to Foxborough in 2013 where he immediately became a fan favorite in running for nearly 800 yards on a clip of five yards per carry.

Lewis broke all kinds of records in college at the University of Pittsburgh before declaring early for the NFL draft, then sat behind his former-Panther teammate LeSean McCoy after being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles primarily as a kick returner, traded to the Cleveland Browns after two seasons toiling on the pine...

...breaking his leg in the first preseason game and spent two years waiting for another opportunity - his athleticism sparking the memory of former Eagles and Browns GM Mike Lombardi, who suggested to Belichick that he might be a good fit in his backfield.

But with Blount being a run-only power back and Lewis reduced to work between the tackles because of his bum knee, the Patriots' offense became one-dimensional when they were in the game - or at least limited in their options with the personnel in the backfield as neither added much of a threat to the passing game.

Up until the Super Bowl, the way White had been used in the New England offense rendered them one-dimensional as well.

The Patriots did, however, get him at least one carry in every game but three this season in hopes of keeping the idea of White as a runner in the back of their opponent's minds - but in playoff games against Houston and Pittsburgh, White was barely part of the game plan in either facet, rushing just once for no gain and catching four passes for a meager 27 yards, combined, in both wins...

...then unleashing him in the Super Bowl, coming in a close second to quarterback Tom Brady for MVP honors, gaining 26 yards on six carries and absolutely shredding the Atlanta Falcons in the passing game, catching 14 balls for 110 yards (Both records for a running back), and being accountable for 20 of the Patriots 34 points with three touchdowns and a sweet, direct-snap two-point conversion.

However, it is his game winning, two-yard toss sweep in overtime in which he had to cut hard left and power his way through three Falcons defenders is what should have Patriots' fans excited for this upcoming season.

That was a power move, one that White had rarely shown as a pro, mostly by omission from the game plan as New England has been very vanilla with him - inserting him into games mostly on obvious passing situations, where he has shown not only that he can catch the ball out of the backfield as well as anyone in the league, but also that he may be one of the best in the NFL at picking up blitzers in pass protection.

Both White and Lewis are under contract for 2017, and Blount is on speed dial - plus the team again has signed former Stanford power back Tyler Gaffney to a futures contract - and these circumstances alone would probably be good enough to duplicate the ground attack from 2016, particularly since Lewis is likely to return to full health with a full offseason to aid in his recovery from the knee injury.

But do the Patriots just want to stand pat, so to speak, or will they look to improve their ground game through free agency or the draft?

As far as free agents are concerned, Blount is actually the fourth highest rated running back set to hit the open market, and the options behind him are not that inspirational - with the possible exception of the Colts' Robert Turbin or the Cowboys' Darren McFadden.  The down side to both is that New England's Brandon Bolden is rated above both, and Bolden is seldom used in the Patriots' running attack and is instead a core-four special teams ace.

In fact, the only free agent backs the Patriots have had any positive level of production from in the Belichick era has been Antowain Smith in 2001 and Danny Woodhead in 2010, with Woodhead being the second in long line of Patriots' backs who were elite threats in the passing game.

The draft?  Well, history tells us that New England will draft at least one back, as they did in 2011 (Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen) and in 2014 with James White.  So as Vereen was brought in to continue the tradition that began with Kevin Faulk at the start of the Patriots' dynasty of elite pass catchers out of the backfield, and then was perpetuated by the Woodhead signing, Belichick will probably be looking for an all-purpose back from the college ranks.

Along those same lines, on name keeps popping up as the Patriots look to the draft.

Stanford's Christian McCaffrey had the distinction of being the only FBS player to lead his team in both rushing and receiving in 2015, and broke Barry Sanders' NCAA record for all purpose yardage in 2015 with nearly 4000 yards.  An explosive runner, McCaffrey gets his pedigree from his father, former Broncos' receiver and Patriots' nemesis Ed McCaffrey.

Listed as a late first round prospect, if the Patriots' really want the kid, they have the ammunition to move up or down the board to get him - the same goes for LSU's Leonard Fournette, who is a physical finisher like Blount, but with another level of athleticism.  Florida's Dalvin Cook would be too expensive, draft capital-wise and is a Ridley type who has a ton of moves but lets the ball hit the ground too much for Belichick's taste.

Oklanhoma's Joe Mixon may be the best pure all around runner in the class, but comes with a criminal history that may sour his standing among the powers that be in Foxborough.  Boise State's Jeremy McNichols is more along the lines of White, but with a little more bulk to be a more effective inside runner, and may be attractive as a third round prospect.

A true wildcard in the running back mix is Pittsburgh's James Conner.  Blessed with tremendous size (6' 2", 250) and other-worldly speed (4.65) for a bruising bell cow, Conner was laid low in 2015 with a cancer diagnosis - but showed the heart of a champion, claiming that he "chooses not to fear cancer" and continued to participate in Panther's practices while undergoing chemotherapy.

Fully clear of the malady, Conner returned to the Pitt lineup last season, and has declared himself eleigible for the draft, foregoing his senior year - following in the footsteps of former Panthers McCoy and Lewis to do so.

The options are plentiful for a team that figures to be playing with house money in the draft, having enough capital to move up and down the board as they see fit - and if a talent like McCaffrey. McNichols or Conner come up in a position in which Belichick feels they hold tremendous value, he would most likely pull the trigger on one of them, if not two.

With Blount turning 30 and Lewis having a track record of being injury-prone, it's probably time for New England to look for a bell cow, and to get younger at the position - so look for at least one back coming into the fold in Foxborough via the draft, but don't hold your breath for any free agents to be targeted.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Reloading The Musket, Part 1 - Brady To Return, But Who Backs Him Up?

Tom Brady 'Indiana Joneses' people.

That unique but not so preposterous analogy of how the New England Patriots' quarterback led their epic comeback in Super Bowl 51 was offered by defensive end Chris Long shortly after his Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons in overtime of what will be remembered as the greatest game in the history of the big game - and perhaps the greatest football game of all time.

"He tears people's hearts out." Long offered not long after sheepishly trying to embrace a celebration that he had never witnessed as a football player, "Remember the scene in Indiana Jones where the guy rips the other dude's heart out?  That's what I think when I see Tommy.  He Indiana Joneses people."

You can search far and wide, and never find a more fitting description of Brady.

Despite articles pondering the future of Brady and the fact that his Super Model wife asked him to retire, Brady will be back with the Patriots next season and, presumably, beyond.  This undoubtedly casts a mean shadow on the rest of the teams in the National Football League, but also opens potential opportunity to those teams whose fortunes at the quarterback position have them thinking signal caller in the upcoming draft.

Brady's performance in the Super Bowl and, indeed, the entire 2016 campaign has proven that his skills haven't eroded like those of many of his peers (term loosely offered) who have reached their football golden years - and all you have to do is to watch his laser-like throws in the second half of the Super Bowl to see that for yourself...

...but also click over onto the NFL Network and listen to the Sound Effects broadcasts of the championship game and hear players and announcers use words like "filthy" and "sick" to describe his remarkable placement of balls to his receivers, all of which leave them in position to gain yards after the catch.

Ah, we could go on and on about Brady, but you already know.  So with Brady sticking around for a couple of more seasons, what does that mean for the other two quarterbacks on the New England depth chart?

This is how sick the Patriots' college scouting department is: In 2014 they laid out second round draft capital on Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, trumping the Houston Texans, who wanted him at the top of the third round, by four spots.  Houston went on to draft Pittsburgh's Tom Savage, who has been buried behind some very mediocre starting signal callers, including two former Patriots.

Then last season, they went out and drafted North Carolina State's Jacoby Brissett, spending third round draft capital on a player that had been mentored by a guy named Bill Parcells and raved about by his former college offensive coordinator Charlie Weis - both of who said the Patriots are a perfect fit for him.

And they should know, right?

Belichick was the defensive coordinator under Parcells with the New York Giants, Patriots and New York Jets and Weis served as offensive coordinator under Belichick at New England before moving coaching in the college ranks, so they both have a pretty decent idea of the Dark Master's style and system.

But why?  The Patriots already had Garoppolo on board and Brady had already declared that he was going to play well into his forties - so here's the thing, and there's no getting around it: Belichick drafted Brissett because he knew there was going to be a bidding war on Garoppolo between other teams, he just didn't know how intense it would actually be...

...but when Jimmy Clipboard toughed out a season-opening win in Arizona, then lit up the Dolphins  before getting plowed into the ground unnecessarily by Kiki Alonzo and injuring his shoulder, the asking price for the third-year product went up exponentially, especially considering that Brissett played well in relief of Garoppolo.

So now, it's simply a matter of Belichick being patient and letting the trio of interested teams try to outmaneuver each other with compensation packages.

There are currently six teams who are in legitimate need of a starting quarterback, and the three most desperate - The Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears - just happen to hold the top three positions in the draft, while teams who have quarterbacks, just not very good ones - the New York Jets, Houston Texans and Denver Broncos - will probably not even get a call back from Belichick if they want to get in on the bidding.

The reason is simple: Those three team are all frequently-played rivals of New England, and there's no way Belichick sends a quarterback of Garoppolo's talent to any of them.  A case could be made to steer clear of Cleveland as well, since they are an AFC team, but the Browns have the most bargaining chips (the top pick in the first and second rounds plus the number twelve overall) and could easily outbid everyone else.

The Jets are a hated division rival, so the only thing Belichick would send them is a whoopie cushion (postage due) and the Broncos have been a thorn in his side for a long time.  The wildcard is the Texans, who overpaid for Brock Osweiller last offseason - and while they are still on the books with him for a hefty cap hit in 2017, Garoppolo would come cheap and offset the money they are paying for Osweiller.

The smart money has Garoppolo going to the 49ers, as new head coach Kyle Shanahan has publicly commented that Prince Ali would be his man, if he could get him, and Belichick would probably deal with him for his second rounder (34th overall) and a myriad of mid-round picks.

Regardless, Jimmy Garoppolo will most likely not be with the Patriots come training camp, which means it will be Brady and the talented youngster Brissett, which is still the best quarterback situation in the league - bar none.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Patriots Mug Falcons In Overtime To Take Fifth Title

The New England Patriots found themselves in quite a situation on Sunday evening.

Down by 25 points to an upstart Atlanta Falcons team that was hell-bent on bringing their fans a first-ever professional football championship, the Patriots fell back on their default settings of superior conditioning and meticulous fundamentals to try and make a game of a Super Bowl that for the first 40 minutes had them teetering on the brink of being blown out of Houston's NRG Stadium.

New England head ball coach Bill Belichick always emphasizes what he calls, "situational football.", the ability to adapt to any circumstance that may arise in the ebbs and flows of a football game, and his teams practice them relentlessly, be it in practice preparing for a game, or when given an opportunity to do so in an actual game.

So when presented with the opportunity to apply what they had learned throughout countless hours of preparation, his Patriots put on a clinic in what playing situational football looks like in practical application - and even then, it took a record-setting performance by the Patriots' offense and a handful of mistakes by the Falcons to set up a singular ending to perhaps the best Super Bowl in the history of the game.

Quarterback Tom Brady completed 42 of 62 passes for 466 yards - all Super Bowl records - and running back James White shed his one-dimensional passing back label, rushing for nearly five yards per carry and scoring twice on the ground - including the game winner in overtime -  as the Patriots scored 31 unanswered points to win their fifth Lombardi Trophy, defeating Atlanta by a score of 34-28.

The situation, of course, was caused by a combination of a talented Falcons' team taking full advantage of the Patriots handing them the football.

White was used sparingly in the running game during the season as power back LeGarrette Blount carried the load, but accumulated sixty receptions - good for second on the team behind wide receiver Julian Edelman - while showing a subtle elusiveness that earned him the nickname "Sweet Feet" while playing college ball at Wisconsin.

How elusive? Consider that of his 110 yards gained on 14 receptions against Atlanta, 74 of those yards came after the catch, Brady putting the ball on him in the short flat or on the underneath crosser and allowing him to break ankles and tackles - and with the game on the line in the fourth quarter and in overtime, and especially in the red zone, Belichick and Brady trusted White with the fate of the team.

In fact, more than half of his touches came in crunch time - catching six passes for 36 yards and taking the handoff from Brady six times for 23 yards, gaining the line for six first downs, two touchdowns and a crucial two-point conversion on a direct snap, as the third-year player looked every bit the prospect we was coming out of college...

...where he not only ran for over 4,000 yards and caught 73 passes for almost 700 yards, but also fumbled the ball just once in over 700 career touches - and that has carried over into the pros, where he hasn't put the ball on the ground in 250 career touches.

That's 950 times that White has handled the football in his career, and he has fumbled just once - and if there was one thing that the Patriots needed as part of their epic comeback, it was to hold onto the football and not give the Falcons anymore free gifts.  White gave them that.

After all, Blount had fumbled to kill a promising drive in the first quarter with no score on the board for either team, and Brady threw a pick-six two possessions later that made the score 21-0 for Atlanta, so ball security was paramount if the Patriots were going to get back into the game - a score that could have just as easily been tied or even reversed, were it not for the turnovers.

Because it wasn't like the Patriots weren't moving the ball on offense in the first half, they just keep shooting themselves in the foot.

In the first half, which ended up with New England trailing by 18, the Patriots ran 42 plays, gained 215 yards in total offense and doubled up Atlanta's time of possession, 20 minutes to ten - while in the second half, New England ran off 43 plays for 274 yards and held the ball for 17 minutes to 13 for Atlanta, the only difference being that they didn't turn the ball over and finished their drives.

"The Falcons didn't do anything differently on defense in the second half, we just executed a little bit better." Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said after the game, "They were playing a little more man-to-man in the first half. We adjusted as the game went on."

The man-to-man was designed to slow down what the Falcons perceived to be the strength of the Patriots' passing game, wide receiver Julian Edelman, deep threat Chris Hogan and primary back Dion Lewis - and it worked, initially - but the sheer number of plays run by a Patriots' offense that manufactured a Super Bowl record 37 first downs took it's toll on the entire Atlanta defense and forced them to resort to more zone coverages...

...but while Edelman and Hogan continued to struggle with separation throughout the game, White, receiver Danny Amendola and rookie wideout Malcolm Mitchell went off with nine, eight and five catches in the second half, respectively, accounting for 16 first downs, two receiving touchdowns and a receiving two-point conversion between them.

"That's the thing about this team, we've always got." Lewis said when asked about White's contribution, "It is always somebody different."

The same could be said for the Patriots' defense, which turned in an effort worthy of a world championship, holding quarterback Matt Ryan to his lowest passing yardage total of the season (240) and the Falcons' high powered offense to their second lowest total offensive production (344) - sacking Ryan five times and shutting them out for the final 23 minutes of regulation.

Because, that's what Matt Patricia's group does, right?

For the season, the Patriots' defense surrendered an average of  8 points in the second half of games, and just under eight points per game in the first half - but the caveat is that this squad gives up next to nothing in the first quarter, averages a touchdown in the second quarter, just about a touchdown per game in the third quarter and next to nothing in the final frame.

And that's pretty much exactly the way things went down in Super Bowl 51.

Of the Falcons' ten offensive possessions, six ended in punts and one on a strip sack of Ryan by Patriots' middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower.  Of course the other three ended in quick-strike scores totaling 218 yards - their longest drive of the game was eight plays in 4:14 -  the other seven accounted for 104 yards, and only 48 of those in the second half.

Of course, if one were to calculate the Patriots' chances of winning after giving up only 21 points to the highest scoring offense in the league, you'd have to like New England's chances - and if one were to suggest that the Patriots' defense were to hold the Atlanta offense to just 240 passing yards, you'd be giddy enough to preorder championship gear.

But when you factor in that the Falcons scored 14 points off of Patriots' turnovers, it skews that thinking - in fact, without those turnovers, given the fact that New England's offense consistently moved the ball well all game, the Patriots likely don't need overtime and the heroics of so many players - and the game would have been a blowout in the other direction.

In the end, the universe unfolded as it was supposed to, with the superior team coming out on top in perhaps the most epic Super Bowl ever.

Next - Part 2: Patriots' pass defense shuts down Falcon's running game

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Super Bowl 51 - Line Rotation, Physical Secondary Winning Recipe For Patriots' Defense

Chris Long says he would have played this year for five bucks.

Of course, that's against the collective bargaining agreement that dictates Long's minimum salary for the 2016 NFL season for a player of his advanced tenure - he is in his ninth season - would have been just shy of a million clams, but his words resonate, especially with New England Patriots' fans.

After being unceremoniously dumped by the Rams in mid-February, Long immediately made it known that he would only sign with a Super Bowl contender to weed out the suckers, then visited Atlanta, Detroit and Washington before seeing Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick about a job a month after his release, ultimately signing with New England the next day.

His dream came true, as the Patriots have indeed made it to the big game - and now, it's his turn to make the sort of big-game impact that the Patriots envisioned for him when signing him to a one-year $2.4 million contract.

What kind of big-game impact? Simply, to set the edge.  If the Patriots can accomplish that on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, it will have been worth every penny paid to Long, not to mention the entire top-ranked defense New England brings into Houston's NRG Stadium for Super Bowl 51.
Ryan is the Patriots' most physical corner

The Atlanta Falcons running backs feed off the edges, averaging well over five yards per carry overall, and owning a particularly stout six yards per carry running to the right behind tackle Ryan Schraeder, often in conjunction with Alex Mack, who is perhaps the best pulling center in the league, anchored in the scheme by road grading right guard Chris Chester.

How important is the ground game to the Falcons?  In four games this season when their opponent has held them to under 100 yards rushing, the Falcons are 0-4.  In games in which they have achieved 100 yards rushing or more, they are 11-1.  Obviously, stopping the run is paramount to the Patriots' defensive success.

But where the Patriots must exploit with their pass rush is over that right guard position, where Chester has struggled all season, allowing nearly a third of Atlanta's sack total on the season.  The Patriots must be relentless in attacking Chester, as he tends to get high with his pad level as the game progresses and he tires and can be walked back into the passer.

Mack is more athletic than stout, and tends to do his best work moving forward and also laterally, pulling into the gap between guard and tackle and taking on the linebacker on the second level - but when dropping into his stance as a pass protector, he can be moved back into the pocket as well.

In fact, the Falcons allowed Ryan to be sacked at least twice in a game in all but one contest in the regular season, and ranks in the bottom-third of the league in sack percentage. The caveat is that there was only one team that they did not give up a sack to, and that was the Packers two weeks ago in the NFC Championship game - though solace can be taken by New England fans that the Packers generate next to no pressure up the gut...

...which is exactly where the Falcons' offensive line is most vulnerable, and also where the Patriots have the depth to take advantage of the chink in their armor - and the Patriots will likely be in their Big Nickel alignment for the majority of the game, which gives them the advantage in two different ways.

First, because the alignment calls for a third safety to take the place of a linebacker - usually from the weak side - it gives New England the ability to run with eight defenders in the box and still maintain coverages as Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are adept at taking on players coming out of the slot and out of the backfield and are loads in run support.

Secondly, it gives them the ability to disguise coverages and rush packages, meaning that the Falcons will have to account for the entire defense.  It is typical to see as many as ten defenders within a couple of yards of the line of scrimmage, and Belichick has shown that he is not shy in sending a corner or a safety on a corner blitz or dropping a defensive end into coverage.

Point being, the opposing offense typically has no idea who will be dropping into coverage and who is rushing the passer - and, more importantly, where the pass rush will engage the protection.

This is where things get tricky for Atlanta.  They will be facing a defense that has not only the best blitzing linebacker in the NFL in Dont'a Hightower, but also a group of very large and very quick defensive ends who easily reduce down to rush from the three-tech (outside shoulder of the guard) or even the one-tech (inside shoulder) to split the gaps and force the Falcons to keep one of their dangerous backs in to pass block.

But to accomplish this against Atlanta, they will have to do it with a mixture of three and four-man rush packages that sprinkles in blitzes in select spots.

With a standard four-man front, wide bodies Alan Branch (6' 6", 350 pounds), Malcom Brown (6' 2", 320) and rookie Vincent Valentine (6' 2", 320) rotation form a formidable two-man rotation that has been terrific against the run - and while the trio have recorded but a handful of sacks this season from the defensive tackle positions, that really isn't what they are out there for against the pass.

What they are out there for is to collapse the pocket into the quarterback's face, forcing the opponent to double team one or both, leaving an entrance for Hightower to race through or for their defensive ends to exploit on an inside stunt...

...especially with second-year emerging star Trey Flowers, who at 6' 2" and 270 pounds is nearly a spitting image of Hightower, but with unmatched strength and leverage at the point of attack.  Flowers leads the Patriots in sacks and pressures. Fellow defensive ends Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, and Long join Flowers in yet another situational rotation on the edges, that pays huge benefits late in games.

The rotation has many benefits, with being fresh for crunch time the main profit, all the while maintaining integrity on the edges, which is important given the running styles of both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the Falcons' one-two punch in both the ground game and through the air.

Freeman is a complete back who is equally dangerous in the pattern as he is on the ground, while Coleman is a live wire with speed to burn.  Freeman is a patient runner who waits for his blocking to form a gap, while Coleman has a tendency to run up the backs of his blockers - but both are better on the edges and will likely look to gain the corner on the Patriots rather than deal with Branch and Brown.

Coleman has a little Dion Lewis to his game, a speedster with elusiveness in space and a seriously filthy jump cut that helped him become one of the best backs in the league in gaining yards after the catch - but as explosive as he is, he is not one that is going to break a lot of tackles, so a zone containment by a linebacker like Kyle Van Noy would probably do the trick.

What the coverages on the backs have to avoid is playing a trailing technique across the middle of the second level, because both backs have the ability to separate quickly after the catch, leading to big chunks of yardage...

...which is what Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan will be looking for not only when he throws to his backs, which he does on average about six times per game, but also when he goes downfield to his trio of outstanding receivers.  Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel account for exactly half of Matty Ice's targets this past season, a number that continues to trend in the playoffs.

Jones has it all: size (6' 3", 220 pounds), speed (4.39), will go over the middle and isn't afraid to block downfield - but there are two things that the Patriots' secondary may be able to take advantage of. Jones tends to wilt in the face of physical play off the line, becoming frustrated if the corner is able to manhandle him which, with his size and explosiveness off the line, doesn't happen frequently.

But Jones is also dealing with two sprained ligaments in his right big toe as well as a mid-foot issue believed to be a sprained ligament as well, and while it didn't look to be an issue in the NFC Championship game - indeed, he wasn't even listed on the final injury report on Friday - it remains to be seen how he reacts to being punked at the line.

Which is going to happen.

The Patriots may have the most physical collection of defensive backs in the NFL, and also the most sure-tackling group as well, which allows them some latitude in the number of covers that they can employ on the field at any one time.

How much latitude?  That's up to Belichick, but it's certainly within the realm of possibility that New England flips the traditional script and goes with a back seven - or even eight - throwing in some coverages that have elements of cover 2, some that have elements of cover four, some that have elements of both.

That's the beauty of the brand of Big Nickel that the Patriots profess, as they can employ both at the same time.  The cover two, which is essentially the bend-but-don't-break defense that the Patriots generally play, requires two deep safeties each responsible for half of the field over the top while the corners underneath engage their mirrors with man coverage...

...while the cover four, essentially a prevent-style of defense, calls for two safeties and two corners each taking a quarter of the deep zone to prevent long gainers through the air - but when combined, it splits the field in half.  On the strong side (Where the tight end lines up, usually on the right side of the formation) the team will employ a cover four look, meaning that on that half of the field there will be four defenders covering a quarter of that half of the field.

On the weak side, a single safety plays over the top of a corner, who will release his receiver to the safety while trailing the play. New England is in unique position to play this hybrid "Cover six", because they have two quality free safeties who can handle the deep zones and allowing the strong safety to cover the sideline zone with enough forward momentum to break for the flat in the event of a run or screen play.

That leaves two corners in the underneath zones where, like the aforementioned strong safety, they can break on the run or screen simply by releasing their man responsibilities to the safeties.  In this scenario, the Patriots would rush three and rely on their standard two-linebacker look to remain stout against the run and to knock the snot out of shallow crossers.

The beauty of this hybrid look is that it allows for the corners to play up on the line so that they can get physical with Atlanta's large receivers.

That said, who covers whom?

That depends on who you ask, but don't bother asking Bill Belichick or anyone else in the organization because, rightly so, that is an institutional secret.  But a look at the Patriots' defensive backs can give us some ideas.

Logan Ryan grades out as the Patriots most physical corner, and covers bigger receivers well - as he proved in covering Sanu when the big possession receiver was in Cincinnati, and in shutting down Eric Decker with the Broncos.  Ryan's issue involves speed, which he lacks, so he would do well in dealing with Sanu again.

Malcolm Butler has some speed and has shown exceptional grit in covering bigger receivers as well - his mugging job on Seattle's Jermaine Kearse in the Super Bowl two years ago a prime example, and will no doubt draw Jones at select times during the game, but the intriguing player in this scenario is in-season pick up Eric Rowe.

A free safety his entire football career, Rowe switched to cornerback in his senior season at Utah to help out a thin corner corps, so he's been playing the position for three years, which means that he obviously had some growing pains to deal with, but in a hybrid look, Rowe has the same size-speed ratio - 6' 1", 2210 pounds, 4.45 in the 40 - as under-rated centerfielder Duron Harmon.

That essentially gives New England four quality safeties - Rowe, Harmon, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty - in which to run their hybrid-big nickel look, and it's not beyond the realm of imagination that the Patriots combining zone and man elements that allow for the corners to be physical at the line, knowing that they have their backs covered by an excellent group of safeties.

There are no guarantees, of course, but in theory, it works.

The Falcons have virtually no production out of their tight ends, though the two they play are certainly capable in the passing game and should not be ignored, so there wouldn't be a huge chance of one of them splitting the safeties up the seam - which is a tangible danger of combining coverage schemes.  But in the end, Atlanta has to follow the same rules as every other team in the NFL, which means that they have only five players eligible to make plays with the ball...

...and when combined with all of the talent and experience on the top-rated Patriots' defense - and especially with head ball coach Bill Belichick exuding never-before-seen confidence in his pressers and general attitude, Patriots' fans have every reason to feel a fifth victory parade coming on...

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Super Bowl LI - Patriots' Receivers, Akin To Misfits, Bask In Belichick's Offensive System

Keyshawn Johnson was right.

Sort of.

The loquacious, quite well-traveled former NFL wide receiver said on Friday that none of the receivers on the New England Patriots roster wouldn't find themselves on any other team's depth chart, simply because they are a product of the Patriots' system, which accentuates their limited individual skill sets.
Players no one else wanted: Hogan and Brady represent lethal hook up

Where the former Jets, Bucs, 'boys and Panthers' pass catcher has a point is where recent history suggests that receivers whom have been part of the New England culture since head ball coach Bill Belichick arrived on the scene at the turn of the century, just haven't been impactful - neither before they arrive on campus, nor after the leave.

Where Johnson is off the mark is when he says they are a product of the system - because they aren't a product of the system, they are the system.

You see, where most coaches and personnel men select players whom they can integrate into their offensive scheme, Belichick builds his scheme around his receivers combined skill set.  This allows Belichick much more latitude in game planning, expanding the concepts in his playbook and allowing a seemingly endless combination of personnel packages.

It's the theory of not trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, rather, to bore out the round hole to allow the square peg to fit.

And while Johnson is mostly correct in his assertion that Patriots' wide receivers wouldn't be contributing factors in most other passing games around the league, it is also true that Belichick is consistently above the curve when it comes to innovation - his concept-driven offensive philosophy requiring above average intelligence and intestinal fortitude, and if you have those things, he will put you in the position to succeed.

But Belichick is under no obligation to ensure that any player who leaves his team is ready to take on any other scheme - and, as we've seen and as Johnson points out, many are not.

Belichick's offense is predicated on the old New England standard introduced by offensive coordinators Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins during their time together on Chuck Faurbanks' staff during the early and middle parts of the 1970s, and include the same plays that would conjure memories if one had played high school ball...

...only that the defense has no way of determining what they plays are because they are run from what coaches refer to as "concepts", which means that these simple and fundamental plays are formed in a group, depending on the personnel on the field, that gives the quarterback a myriad of options to take advantage of whatever formation the defense has committed to on any given play.

The concepts are easy for the players to learn, as they form a mental picture of routes, blocking assignments and running gaps from a single word.

Everyone who watches football hears a quarterback barking out numerical and linguistic instructions to the other ten offensive players on the field, and for most teams, the quarterback is simply calling an audible - changing the play at the line of scrimmage - or setting different blocking instructions for his linemen, but when one hears Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady's cadence, he is actually calling the play at the line of scrimmage.

The Patriots are able to do this because of their personnel, as every player on the field at any given time has the skill set that enables Brady to shift them into any position in the formation, knowing that each player is capable of running the route assigned to the position - in effect, each player has an interchangeable skill set that has been incorporated into the offensive system during the previous offseason and implemented during training camp.

If there is a drawback to the system, we saw it during the 2013 and 2015 seasons when the Patriots lost so many players to injury that the system broke down when replacement players were signed out of desperation, limiting the offense to simply running plays instead of utilizing their conceptual scheme.

In both seasons, the team lost enough pass catching threats that it altered the play calling to more of a bare bones playbook, reducing them to one-dimensional entities that better defenses in the NFL were able to take advantage of, losing in the AFC title game to Denver in both seasons because they simply couldn't impose their will on the Broncos' top-rated defense.

To combat this, Belichick turned his attention to depth signings this past offseason, not willing to chance losing another season because his offense couldn't operate at max-efficiency.

For example, instead of keeping his fingers crossed that All World tight end Rob Gronkowski could make it through an entire season unscathed, he send a late-round draft pick to Chicago to acquire Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett - and while this move solicited visions of a revisitation to the days of Gronkowski and now-incarcerated thug Aaron Hernadez terrifying opposing defenses with a two-tight end attack, it was instead a depth move that worked out famously when Gronkowski went down midway through the season.

Similar moves have been made in the past few seasons, with names such as Chris Hogan and Dion Lewis brought in to ensure that injury wouldn't limit their conceptual system - a system that have seen them in six consecutive AFC Championship games in as many seasons, and are now vying for their second World title in three tries during the same time span.

The good news for the Patriots is that, with the exception of Gronkowski, the Patriots are whole on offense with no limitation to their concepts.  The bad news for their opponents, the NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons, is that no team in the past two-plus seasons have been able to contain the Patriots' offense with a full complement of weapons effectively enough to give their own offense a chance to outscore them.

The Falcons, in fact, are very similar defensively to what the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded in their title tilt showdown with New England, in that they are mediocre against the run, surrendering an eye-popping 4.5 yards per rush, while their secondary ranks in the bottom five - a number that is a bit deceiving in that Atlanta's offense tends to jump out to huge early leads, forcing the opposing offenses to be one-dimensional to play catch-up.

The result, of course, is that Atlanta's pass rushers pin their ears back and come after the opposing quarterback and their secondary goes into a dime look where they can shut down ordinary receivers playing in ordinary passing attacks.

Of course, the Patriots have anything but an ordinary attack and are led by the greatest quarterback to ever take a snap, playing in a system designed to take advantage of the considerable individual skill sets of their players - and with New England's offense playing with a full complement of weapons, feeding off of the top scoring defense in the National Football League, the chances for  Falcon's victory seem dim...

...and all of this from a collection of receivers that wouldn't be able to make another team's roster.

So says Keyshawn Johnson, anyway.