Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Old-School Hightower Taking The Art Of Blitzing To Higher Levels

There is no better player on the blitz than Dont'a Hightower.

No, really.  It doesn't show up in the way of sacks, though he logged one-and-a-half of those on Sunday afternoon against the Cincinnati Bengals, but sacks are only a part of the total picture when it comes to blitzing the quarterback.

For instance, Hightower blitzed ten times on Sunday and registered five bonafide quarterback pressures to go along with his sacks, not to mention that one of those sacks translated to two points when he trapped Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton in his own end zone.

"He kinda delayed and came on a blitz and made a good play" Dalton said of Hightower after the game, "I tried to get out of it, but I couldn't"

What Dalton is referring to is called a "Hug Blitz", where a defensive player - usually the weakside linebacker or strong safety - keys on the running back in a passing situation, picking him up in coverage if he curls out into the pattern, but if the back doesn't separate and stays into block, the linebacker will wait for the back to commit to one side of the line or another, then sprint through the gap voided by the back.

Now-retired Patriots' linebacker Jerod Mayo made a living on the hug blitz, but Hightower is taking the art to a higher level.

"The best thing about a good hug blitz is if the linebacker can anticipate it." head ball coach Bill Belichick offered on Monday from his office at Gillette Stadium, "It's hard for the offensive line on those kinds of plays because sometimes they lose the coverage guy (linebacker), especially if he doesn't come right away. Sometimes they lose him in all the traffic."

The delay that Belichick is speaking of is purposeful.  The linebacker can anticipate that the back isn't going to go out in the pattern, but that doesn't mean there's an immediate gap to charge through - the pass rushers along the defensive line know what's happening and facilitate the process by taking on double teams, which often provides a gap for a blitzer to go through, but it takes a measure of patience to wait for exactly the right time that the gap opens to get successful pressure on the quarterback.

And it's not as if Hightower just suddenly started being an excellent pass rusher, as it was his calling card as a triple threat in college at Alabama. "Inside linebacker, nickel backer, defensive end and odd rusher," Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban cited Hightower's strengths in his 3-4 defense, while many scouting reports went on to list his pro fit for any position on the second level in a standard 3-4 or a "Mike" linebacker in a 4-3.

It's no secret that the Patriots have had a difficult time keeping their linebackers healthy, and have been wanting for quality depth in the worst way for a decade or more, but when things have gone south so far as injuries to the corps, Belichick simply goes to his 4-2-5 Big Nickle alignment that features just Hightower and the freakish Jamie Collins as the sole 'backers, with a strong safety reducing down into the box as an impromptu weaksider.

That's right, just two linebackers - that's the level of trust both have earned in Belichick's eyes, and both have responded with a grip of the positions that have earned them the praise and admiration of scouts and other people in-the-know.

For instance, just before the start of training camp, when the respected website Pro Football Focus named Collins the best linebacker in the American Football Conference, second in the league, while Hightower ranked 10th - but when drilling down the stat sheet and focusing on pressuring the quarterback on the blitz, Hightower has no peer, according to the respected website Pro Football Focus.

In their end of the 2015 season superlatives article, they named Hightower as the best blitzing linebacker in the game, and have followed that up by lauding him as the best overall linebacker in the league for the past two weeks, his 50% rate of pressuring the quarterback in that time span, an insane level of success.

"There is no better player on the blitz than Patriots' linebacker Dont'a Hightower" the piece states, continuing, "He has an ability to hide his approach behind linemen before exploding into the gap and bursting through it before the blockers can react and slow his approach."

Of course, not every game is going to present the possibility for such a high quantity of blitzes, particularly against a strong running team like the Patriots will be facing in Pittsburgh this Sunday, but there are circumstances that can change that in a hurry, such as the Patriots' offense jumping out to a quick two-score lead, bringing the passing game more into play as the game progresses...

...and given that the back that will most often be in the Steelers' backfield is going to be Le'veon Bell, the scene is set for a head-to-head matchup between players at the top of their game, mano-a-mano.

"Oh my God" Belichick blurted out when Bell's name was brought up by a reporter on Thursday. "A tremendous player...Bell's as good as any we'll play."

Heavy stuff, coming from the terminally dour Belichick, but there are two things that need to be added to the context: first, Belichick has always been a player's coach - he respects the men that play the game both for and against him.  Secondly, Bell has been a wrecking ball since returning from suspension three weeks ago, going for a whopping 5.5 yards per carry and catching 20 balls for 177 yards.

Bell is a multiple tool threat, and you can bet your last nickle that Belichick's defensive game plan will be concentrated on stopping Bell, DeAngelo Williams and the Pittsburgh running attack and forcing the game onto the shoulders of backup quarterback Landry Jones, but even still, the tendency of backups throwing to their backs and tight ends is in play, so it's going to take a concerted effort to keep Bell reasonably contained...

...particularly if Collins, who is nursing a bum hip, is unable to go because injury to Jonathan Freeny and Shea McClellin has left New England desperately short of linebackers, leaving only rookie Elandon Roberts and defensive end Hybrid Rob Ninkovich, who has had a very quiet start to his suspension-delayed season, and is due for a breakout game.

Roberts is purely an interior guy who plays downhill violently while Ninkovich is one of the best pure edge-setters in the game from the strong side - that leaves Hightower as the weakside backer with the primary responsibility for Bell along the line of scrimmage - as one would expect that, given the depth issues on the second level, the Big Nickle would come more into play where a safety like Pat Chung could take up some coverages, leaving the linebackers to deal with tight ends and the running game.

Regardless of how it plays out, whether Hightower continues to build to what he and all Patriots fans is a crescendo at just the proper time, which is, of course, the Super Bowl.  He's never been selected to the Pro Bowl, never been selected for either 2nd or 1st team All Pro - but has just been named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his dominance over the Bengals, and that's a start.

Because the guy has been recognized by scouts and others in the know as a throwback to a time that the large, determined, blood-and-guts, run-stuffing linebackers prowled the second level, and is on the cusp of super stardom, ready to level that barrier like he does running backs in the gap and quarterbacks in the pocket.

"He can blitz, he can rush, he can cover, he can play the run," Belichick said, almost gushing after the Cincinnati win about his defensive captain. "And he's smart, too. He;s pretty versatile. He can handle a lot of different assignments and not only just knowing what to do, but instinctively he handles those well. He's got good feel, good techniques and leverage."

Defensive end Chris Long, himself no stranger to putting pressure on quarterbacks, summed up Hightower best, however, saying "He's a real football player, and that's the best compliment that I can give someone"

Actually, it's the best compliment anyone can give him - because he's a hell of a football player.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Patriots' Dismantling Of Bengals An Omen Of Things To Come

Coming into Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots' All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski had only six catches for 120 yards on the season. 

He eclipsed both numbers.

Gronkowski caught seven balls for 162 yards and a touchdown, owning the seam and frustrating the Bengals defense into submission, while quarterback Tom Brady registered a nearly perfect performance as the Patriots pulled away from Cincinnati in the second half enroute to a 35-17 victory in Brady's homecoming game at Gillette Stadium.

But the talisman for the second half, come-from-behind juggernaut came courtesy of the New England defense.

Midway through the third quarter and looking sluggish in allowing the Cincinnati Bengals a 14-10 advantage, The Patriots' defense had the Bengals backed up at their own eight yard line when terminally underappreciated middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower broke through the Bengals pass protection and gave Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton the football equivalent of a high school swirly...

...spinning Dalton to the turf in the end zone with pure brute strength and registering his second safety in as many weeks to get the Patriots within two points.

Brady and Gronkowski took over the game from there.

New England scored on four consecutive possessions after Hightower's defensive spark, Brady throwing two of his three touchdown passes and leading a 24-3 onslaught that buried the Bengals, turning a tight game into a laugher, the Bengals defenders becoming so frustrated at the turn of events that they took to their typical antics of pushing and shoving and trying to goad the Patriots into retaliation...

...which did happen, but by the time the game regressed into a schoolyard shoving match, the outcome had all but been decided.

Brady was nearly flawless, going 29 of 35 for 376 yards, his only misses in the second half being throwaways toward wide receiver Julian Edelman while escaping pressure in the right flat and a purposeful overthrow of Gronkowski on a fade route in the left corner of the end zone - otherwise, Brady's arm was lethal to a besieged Cincinnati secondary that had no answer for Gronkowski, who had a career day in yardage.

Gronkowski caught five of his seven balls in that second half surge, while fellow monstrous tight end Martellus Bennett gathered in all five of his targets in the same time frame. In fact, the Patriots passing game went through the tight ends and running back for the second week in a row, with passing back James White picking up 47 yards on eight carries and power back LeGarrette Blount chipping in with tow receptions for 20 yards.

Overall, a full seventy percent of Brady's throws went towards either a tight end or a back, and three-quarters of his completions as the Patriots went solely 12 personnel for half of the game. On most other teams, numbers like that would be unheard of, but it's been standard brand in Foxborough since opening night - and the disparity in contribution between wide receivers and the backs and tight ends is only going to get wider.

Because while Bennett and White have been contributors since day one, Gronkowski has had a role in the passing game in just the last two contests and setting a personal pace that will see him right around 80 receptions and a ridiculous 1700 yards for the season despite missing the first two games of the season and being limited to a blocking role in two others.

Bennett, who seems to be just fine playing Robin to Gronkowski's Batman, is on pace for 70 catches and nearly 1000 yards, and White, who has earned a role in the offense while "filling in" for passing back Dion Lewis, is on pace for 65 receptions and almost 700 yards - between just those three players, the trio is on pace to deliver 215 catches and 3400 yards...

...while all of the wide receivers combined are on pace to account for "just" 160 catches and 2075 yards, which is a gap of 70% to 30% in favor of the backs and tight ends, and that doesn't even take into consideration that Lewis is due back this week and will add significantly to that total - and even if he and White split carries instead of the offense going 22 personnel, the gap remains.

Does this mean that the Patriots are devaluing the wide receiver position in favor of heavier sets?

If so, it wouldn't really be that much of a surprise, given that Edelman is the only one of the receivers that could be considered prolific from past experience, but even he may take a seat in favor of the taller and faster Chris Hogan, who owns a premium of 21.2 yards per reception as Brady's designated deep threat, and who is clearly ahead of Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell on the depth chart.

This is not to say that the receivers aren't an integral part of the offensive skill set, just that they have been passed in overall dynamicism and, perhaps more importantly, in versatility. That being said and true, a look at the past two contests with Brady back from suspension reveals a trend emerging.

The Patriots have been in 12 personnel - for the uninitiated, that's one running back and two tight ends - a little more than half of the offensive snaps, meaning that there has been room for only two receivers in the set on more than half of the snaps, and when Lewis returns, there is every possibility that head ball coach Bill Belichick and his number one, Josh McDaniels, will integrate the 22 personnel package...

...having Lewis and White in together on some packages and either Lewis or White together with Blount in others, and an increase of two tight end packages.  This will force defenses to defend differently than they normally would, with both Gronkowski and Bennett receiving the majority of the attention from the secondary, while Lewis and White will have linebackers focused on them.

All the while, keep in mind, having to defend against the run, as Blount and Lewis are effective runners and White has shown some spark as well.

The Patriots are just now scratching the surface of what their offense can be, and it's frightening - not just in how they will be able to move up and down the field at will, but how they can control the clock and limit possessions for their opposition.

The main beneficiaries of this will be the defense, which is second in the NFL in points allowed at 15.2, and which has allowed just one three hundred yard passing performance in six games, that to Miami who mounted a serious comeback in week 2 with New England in a two-deep zone shell to prevent the big play - essentially a "prevent" defense.

Otherwise, New England's pass defense is yielding just 228 yards per game through the air, which would make them a top 10 unit, despite the criticism from media and fans that they give up too many yards down the field and can't get off the field on third down - and Sunday's win over Cincinnati is an encapsulation of their success.

Against the Bengals, the Patriots defense allowed only five third down conversions in twelve attempts, allowed just 7.2 yards per pass attempt and 3.8 yards per rush, collected two sacks, had an epic goal line stand and scored a safety for the second game in a row.

It's complementary football at it's finest, and the Patriots are about to get stronger and more dangerous on offense.

Somehow, it doesn't seem fair - but if the actions of the National Football League in the "DeflateGate" matter against Tom Brady and the Patriots tell us anything, it's that fair is in the eye of the beholder, and that Patriots' fans see this as turnabout being fair play.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

White Desreves To Continue Role Once Lewis Returns

He is called "Sweet Feet", and not because Rex Ryan is a fan...

...which he probably is, anyway, but that's beside the point.  James White is a legitimate weapon in the New England Patriots' offense who is finally getting the recognition that he deserves from the fans and the media.

And, why not?  After all the third-year running back out of Wisconsin is second on the team behind power back LeGarrette Blount in carries, averaging 4.3 yards per touch, and is third on the team in receptions behind only Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett and is on pace to top 50 catches and 500 yards for the season.

Which is perhaps a conservative estimate given that he enjoyed his best day of the season last Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, rushing 5 times for 26 yards and hauling in four passes for 63 yards in Tom Brady's first game of the season, the two picking right up where they left off last season when White filled in for an injured Dion Lewis, catching 40 balls for over 400 yards in what was, essentially, a nine-game performance.

But there are two things that could hold back White from reaching those levels - first being any injury that could sap several games from his season and the other is the return of Lewis from the PUP list.

The explosive Lewis is eligible to return from the PUP after this Sunday's game against Cincinnati, reportedly fully recovered from the ACL tear that sapped the second half of his 2015 season in which he was on pace for 100 carries and 450 yards in the running game and in the passing game, 80 catches for almost 900 yards.

Obviously, Lewis is a special talent.  Nicknamed "Little Dirty" by Edelman and "Human Joystick" by the National media, the Pitt product is a surprisingly effective inside runner and as entertaining as they come in space, displaying a video game-like elusiveness that frustrates tacklers and amazes fans.

White hasn't been particularly effective between the tackles in his first two seasons, but has obviously dedicated himself to improvement, as his 4.6 yards per carry this season will attest.  White doesn't have the stop-start ability that Lewis possesses, but has a rare straight-line elusiveness that relies on deceptive speed combined with a barely noticeable toe drag along the sidelines which causes tacklers to lunge and miss.

Together, they have it all, and combined with the virtual cornucopia of talent in the Patriots' offense, both are poised for career seasons.

The Patriots' offense is the football version of the holy trinity.  In addition to the combined threat of White and Lewis, there is the wide receiver trifecta of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan - who, by the way, appears to be Brady's favorite deep threat - and, of course, the best tight end combination in the league in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett.

The problem - and a very good problem for head ball coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels - is how to best utilize all of these wonderful fireworks optimally, so as to bury opposing defenses, or at least take away their will to fight.

I mean, come on.

Even the most ardent Patriots' hater has a tough time finding fault and/or weaknesses in the New England offense, and even the tools in the national press are reluctantly acknowledging that this may be the most explosive offense the Patriots have had in almost a decade, perhaps ever.

Even more explosive than the 2007 offense that ran the score up on the entire league and logged the only perfect sixteen-game season in NFL history - because the 2016 edition, while not as fast as the Randy Moss led group, is certainly more sudden, deep and powerful, and when one adds in the best quarterback ever to play the game, there should be zero argument...

...especially considering the metaphoric chip on his shoulder that, mixed with his legendary focus and preparation, should have defensive coordinators throughout the league both perplexed as to how to stop him, and shaking fear that they won't be able to.

For sure, the Patriots' offense has returned to a period in time when Brady's favorite receiver is the open one, but the difference between now and any other period in Brady's tenure is that he has his many favorites to choose from, as there is so much talent in the pattern that the opposing defense can't account for them all.

The fear, as always, is injury, particularly among the tight ends as defenders have decided that the only way to stop Gronkowski and Bennett is to take them out at the knees, a tactic which has every Patriots' fan holding their breath every time either one lumbers down the field with the ball in their gigantic hands.

But for now, the Patriots are looking forward to getting back the final piece to their championship puzzle - the human joystick nicknamed "Little Dirty" for his absolutely filthy suddenness that makes him difficult to see, let alone tackle, and the only way to stop is by misfortune and injury...

...but hopefully Belichick and McDaniels don't forget that they have a kid nicknamed "Sweet Feet", whose elusiveness is more subtle, but his contribution just as impactful as Lewis...

Monday, October 10, 2016

Stat Check: Patriots Defense A Bend-But-Don't-Break Entity

Bend but don't break - Nobody likes it. It causes blood pressure to rise, protracted waiting periods between beer/bathroom breaks and has been linked to panic attacks and periods of uncontrollable episodes of yelling at inanimate objects, television sets in particular.

No wonder New England Patriots' fans are particularly stressed out. But the fact is that this style of defense works for Bill Belichick's charges, and advanced statistics bears this out.

First off, the Patriots are twelfth in the National Football League in total defense, yielding 345 panic-inducing yards per game, but are fourth in the league in scoring defense, giving up a miserly 14.8 points per game.  The disparity in these basic statistics is the very definition of bend but don't break.

But why? What is the reasoning behind the maddening philosophy?

Well, it's not as if Belichick and his defensive protege Matt Patricia get a percentage of anxiety medication sales in the New England region, nor a cut of the sale of blood pressure meds or flat screen TV's - but what they do get is the joy of watching the opposition fall right into their trap of unwittingly controlling the clock and limiting possessions on both sides. In other words, they are using the aggressiveness of their competitors against them.

Patriots' opponents throw the ball more against them than all but 6 other teams in the league and complete a greater percentage than 7 other teams at 64%, and for a middle-of-the-road 87.7% passer rating - but New England's defense ranks in the top 10 in the NFL in yards per pass attempt (6.6) and yards per completion (10.2), all of which feeds into the notion that the opposing quarterback is getting rid of the football quickly...

...accounting for both New England's low sack total (two per game) and their opponent's propensity for moving the sticks through the air, causing a queasy feeling among the Foxborough faithful - but when the Patriots can get the other guys to third down, the odds morph dramatically in New England's favor.

The opposition converts only four of ten third downs into first downs, forcing 25 punts in 53 possessions, and when one considers that seven other possessions ended in turnovers on downs and eight more with either a fumble or interception, that means that the Patriots' defense has given up only 13 scores - nine touchdowns and four field goals.

But how is this possible?  Don't the Patriots seem to give up long gainers every time we turn around?

Truthfully, there have been some long gainers, a total of 30 pass plays against them going for 10 yards or more, which accounts for only 15% of all opposition passing attempts, hence the 6.6 yards per attempt.  By contrast, however, the run defense has surrendered just six carries of 10 yards or more by opposing running backs, a microscopic 5% of all carries.

You see, the primary goal of the Patriots' defense is to limit the running game and force their foes to the air, where many more bad things can happen.

It gets so dismal for teams trying to run the ball against New England that they average only 23 rushing attempts (10th in the NFL), 89 yards per game (9th), 26 first downs (7th) and accounting for less than a quarter of total yards (5th).

Not surprisingly, The Patriots' defense leads the entire NFL in the normally obscure yards per points surrendered (23), second in red zone scoring attempts per game (2) and points per play (0.23).  What this all adds up to is a defense that gives up plenty of yards between the 20's, but doesn't let teams venture into the red zone many times at all, which is fortunate as the Patriots rank dead last in red zone scoring defense at 80%.

So, Patriots' fans, don't fret.  If your defense doesn't allow their foes into the red zone, the chances are excellent that they won't give up many points, if any at all. If they do, well, as Belichick says, they always have something to work on...

Brady Returns, Patriots Pick Apart Browns 33-13

It's called "rusty gold"...

Fans of the History Channel's top-rated salvage program American Pickers know that hosts Mike Wolfe and Frank Frtiz travel the country - hell, they even went to Italy once to look at vespas - in search of antique items to sell in their retail shops in Iowa and Tennessee, the introduction to their show advising all of their TV audience that they are in search of what they call rusty gold...

...telling American history one piece at a time - but on Sunday, all it would have taken to find a most valuable piece would have been to be at First Energy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio to watch a relic named Tom Brady play quarterback for the New England Patriots.

Now, Brady isn't exactly ancient at thirty-nine years old in context with the average life expectancy of a human being - but in the world of professional football, he is approaching antique status. So when Brady was relegated to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's larger-the-life dog house for the first four games of the season, the expectation was that he would be rusty, even being the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.

But on Sunday, Mike and Frank would have passed him over in favor of old cigar signs, oil cans and dilapidated muscle cars, because if Brady has any rust, if certainly didn't show on the surface.

Brady returned from his four-game exile tan, rested and ready, doing a little American Picking himself as he picked apart the hapless Cleveland Browns for 406 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots walked into the Browns' house and took whatever they wanted enroute to an easy 33-13 victory.

Brady's most effective sidekicks on Sunday were tight ends Rob Gronkowski, who caught five balls for 109 yards, and Martellus Bennett, who caught six passes for 67 yards and three touchdowns, while passing back James White demonstrated that he may just be the player he was in college, leading the team in rushing average with 26 yards on five carries and catching six balls for 63 yards.

In the process, the Patriots showed that they do indeed have the players to be the juggernaut that head ball coach Bill Belichick had envisioned when putting this team together, and that for all of the chatter about temporary starter Jimmy Garoppolo being the second coming, he is nowhere near as polished as Brady.

So much for Rusty gold, but don't tell Brady that.

"I think there was plenty of rust out there." Brady confessed, though it really wasn't conspicuous, "I could do better in a lot of areas."

Perhaps the most impressive thing about how the Patriots' offense operated with Brady under center is that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels maintained the balance that the team enjoyed with Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett filling in, calling thirty-five running plays in contrast to 41 passing attempts, even though lead back LeGarrette Blount had no room to run, picking up only 37 yards on 18 carries...

...just enough to keep the Browns' pass rush from pinning their ears back and coming after Brady, as the threat of the run made the play action a staple of the passing game, helping an offensive line protect Brady despite the fact that right tackle Cam Fleming was making his first start of the season and the interior of the line had been shuffled around before game time.

The deep ball was also in play for New England, as newcomer Chris Hogan caught two Brady bombs to set up touchdowns as part of his four catch, 114 yard performance, hauling in perfect tosses that went for 43 and 63 yards, while Gronkowski and Bennett each had huge catch and run long balls, both having plays going for 37 yards each, while White had a tightrope walking 34 yard gain.

Gronkowski noted that the attention given to him by the Browns in the form of double teams left the other pass catchers in single coverage, something that Brady exploited relentlessly.

"The two defenders come to me and leave Marty in the red zone one-on-one, so it gives other people opportunities to capitalize on them." Gronkowski said after the game, adding, "He had three touchdowns, I think that's the first time in his career that he's had three."

As for Bennett and his barrel-full-of-monkeys attitude, he continues to integrate himself into an offense that is becoming the aforementioned juggernaut, and is doing so despite coming up lame after suffering an ankle injury early in the game.

"You lay down for a second and feel sorry for yourself, but then you remember all of the people counting on you and then you just kind of find a way to suck it up and go out there and play for those guys." Bennett said with his trademark ear-to-ear grin. "I didn't want to let my teammates down."

Offensively, the Browns had decent balance as well, but it didn't work out in their favor.

The game plan coming in for New England's defense was obviously to stop Cleveland's top-shelf running game and force the Brown's gaggle of backup-quality quarterbacks beat them through the air - and it worked to perfection as New England held the Browns' to just 27 rushing yards on 22 carries, an average of 1.2 yards per carry, with the NFL's second-leading rusher Isaiah Crowell's longest gain a modest six yards.

Cleveland's passing attack was more efficient with the Patriots' focus being on Crowell, as three quarterbacks combined for twenty completions on 35 attempts, the big plays going to tight end Gary Barnidge, while Andrew Hawkins and Connor Hamlett hauled in scores.

In addition to being an integral part of stopping Crowell, Patriots' nose tackle Malcom Brown consistently beat center John Greco - a converted tackle - getting under the 6' 5" Greco's pads and getting the face of the Browns' signal callers, collecting two sacks while Big Nickle safety Pat Chung and nickle linebacker Elandon Roberts shut down the second level in both the running and passing games.

As a unit, the defense kept wide receiver Terrell Pryor in check as he caught five balls for 48 yards until he was forced to fill in at quarterback after starter Cody Kessler and his backup Charlie Whitehurst were knocked out of the game on hits by middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Jaball Sheard, respectively.

And while the Patriots' defense did give up some decent gains by the Browns in the passing game - mostly due to their concentration on the running game - they still managed to hold Cleveland to a putrid 5 of 13 on third down and lowered their points yielded per game to a miserly fourteen, good for fourth in the NFL.

Sunday also marked the return of defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who was similarly suspended by the league for the first four games, but given the experience and incredible depth at the end of the line, the Patriots were able to rotate the 32 year old Ninkovich for just one-third of the total defensive snaps.

Perhaps it's time for the guys from American Pickers to visit New England once again, the region being one of their favorites due to the amazing stuff they find in the thousands of old barns - and maybe making a stop in Foxborough, Massachusetts, where Brady and his rusty gold arm will be on display at Gillette Stadium next Sunday...

...taking on the Cincinnati Bengals, and Brady making history, one throw at a time...

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Banged Up Patriots Still Have Enough To Handle Browns

Tom Brady has located his clothing and has reported to work.

There are various theories as to how his New England Patriots' offense will look with him under center instead of sunbathing in his birthday suit in Italy but, potentially, chances are it will look suspiciously like the final two months of last season.

That shouldn't exude much confidence from Patriots' fans, but the similarities are undeniable.

Consider: Brady's top two pass targets are banged up, as Rob Gronkowski is dealing with a lingering hamstring issue while fellow tight end Martellus Bennett, while not listed on any injury report, landed
Bennett (88) and Blount are both banged up, but should play
hard on his left shoulder in Sunday's dismal loss to the Buffalo Bills - and while neither is expected to miss a chance to test the Cleveland Browns' middle-of-the-pack pass coverage, it remains that neither are likely at a hundred percent...

...and neither, apparently, is top wide receiver Julian Edelman who appeared on the Patriots injury report for both Thursday and Friday as limited in practice with a sore foot.

 All three will play at Cleveland on Sunday, but don't expect the Browns to do anything but test all three of them.

It's called the kick-them-when-they're-down philosophy, and if the Browns don't get right up in the trio's collective face, they are missing their golden opportunity to pull the upset over the mighty Patriots.

You see, the Browns on defense are merely middle of the pack against the pass and are absolutely atrocious in the red zone, giving up ten touchdowns through the air in four games, including two to Washington tight end Jordan Reed and another to running back Chris Thompson in a 31-20 loss to the Redskins last week. That bodes ill for Cleveland's chances of corralling a healthy set of tight ends in space, and is even worse for keeping tabs on able running backs releasing into the pattern.

That means that even if the Browns and their marginally talented secondary get any help at all from their linebacking corps and are able to slow down the ailing trio, there is still the matter of a Danny Amendola and a Chris Hogan and a James White, any if which is capable of burning the defense to the point that they'll need dental records to identify the charred remains.

But the issue that has the smart money reeling is that there may or may not be enough of a running game to counter the Browns' coverages and pass rush, given the volatile status of power back LeGarrette Blount and his suddenly-chronic bum hip.

Rewind to last season, when Blount went down in week 14 against the Houston Texans with a hip injury that landed him on the injured reserved list and left Brandon Bolden and James White as the backfield - the running game fell from 85 yards per game to sixty, then went straight into the toilet in the playoffs, averaging 41 yards per game, and a good chunk of that coming from Brady running for his life.

Add to that, the offensive line, which was missing left tackle Nate Solder and was starting three rookies on the interior, were overwhelmed under this scenario, as with no running game to counterbalance the offense, teams just sent their pass rushers in waves, overwhelming the line and beating Brady like he stole something - this season missing right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and staring two of the three interior protectors with a rookie at left guard.

It does resemble the injury situation on the stretch run last season, but what do you you think Bill Belichick would have given to have had Bennett or Hogan on the roster to counter all of those injuries? It likely would have made all the difference and we may have been referring to New England as the defending champs - that's how resilient Belichick's charges are.

As we've consistently written, Belichick entered  this offseason fresh off of that bad experience and set his goal to never put his team in that kind of a position again.

His offseason was all about acquiring depth, and he was mostly successful - but the one thing that absolutely killed his offense last season was losing his power back with no tangible backup plan, and if Blount is unable to go, then the onus falls to James White, as Bolden is nursing a knee and will most likely be inactive.

White hasn't proven to be an effective between-the-tackles runner, though he is pure smooth hell in the pattern and is a willing and excellent pass blocker. That said, he probably doesn't have the Browns' interior defenders shaking in their cleats, and if he's the lone back, Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson will send everything he has after Brady while beating up on his receivers, jamming them at the line.

The Broncos did the same thing in the AFC Championship Game but, fortunately, the Browns are not the Broncos, and the resilient Patriots will pick up their fourth win of the season, and if they don't win by at least a couple of touchdowns, fans and media will minimalize it by calling Brady "rusty", when in reality it is far more than that.

The Patriots' defense, a unit that gave up only 18 points per game in the final two months of last season and carried the team to within two points of going to the Super Bowl when the offense sputtered, have picked up right where they left off - performing even better, statistically, at 15 points per game - and with the Cleveland offense in perpetual tatters and performing their annual early-season collapse, the Patriots appear to have more than enough to take home a win on Sunday afternoon...

...though it is unlikely that the Tom Brady "Middle Finger Tour", as it is being billed, will start off by annihilating Cleveland, as Brady will be playing his first real game action since he was pummeled in the aforementioned AFC Title tilt last January and probably will be a tad rusty, especially considering that he wasn't allowed contact with the team for the past month.

A win is a win, even if it's close against a really bad team - and while the worst-case scenario will still be good enough against Cleveland, it probably won't be good enough as New England enters the meat of their schedule, with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Buffalo on their schedule before their bye, with the latter two away from Gillette.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Bills Catch Patriots Short-Handed, Literally; Record Rare Shutout

The New England Patriots are flat out of quarterbacks.

At least, they were on Sunday afternoon, when the obviously damaged rookie signal caller Jacoby Brissett gave it the old college try what with a makeshift tape job around his injured thumb that fooled no one and an offensive game plan that rivaled Ben & Jerry's ice cream for vanilla content - but a college try wasn't going to work against a professional football team...

...even against the Buffalo Bills, who hadn't had a win against the Patriots that was significant in the AFC East standings in five years and hadn't shut them out in a baker's dozen, and certainly not with a series of play calls in the first half that made one think that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had Herman Boone in his headset, running the veer and assuring boy wonder that it was just like
Quarterback Jacoby Brissett coughs up one of five Patriots' fumbles
novocaine, give it time and it always works.

The defensive game plan was a little tougher to figure out.

One would think that with Buffalo's deep threat Sammy Watkins on the shelf, that the Patriots would have concentrated with stopping the run and keeping quarterback Tyrod Taylor in the pocket, not allowing him to the wings where he does much of his best work - and it's not as if Taylor set the world on fire against New England, but he really didn't need to.

Buffalo artfully mixed the run and the pass to their advantage as New England appeared to play full coverage down the field to eliminate speed merchant Marquis Goodwin from the equation - presumably to force Buffalo to have to grind out yardage and use up time off the clock - and while that goes against every tenet of defensive football, the impact of the plan would have been successful had the Patriots gotten anything out of the offense at all... confirmed not only by the meager point that Buffalo managed, they won 16-0, but also by the fact that they managed only nine possessions - and after the initial surge to start the game in which they built a thirteen point lead on a touchdown and two field goals on their first three drives, the Patriots' held the Bills to just three more points while forcing four punts.

It makes a certain sort of sense, an overmatched team playing a bend-but-don't-break style of defense, giving up yardage at a clip of four yards per play and making critical stops on third down, the relying on your special teams to flip field position to give your offense a chance to put enough points on the board to counter. 

If it works, you're a genius and if it doesn't - well - you get what we saw on Sunday afternoon.

Ideally, the defense did what they had to do even though it didn't play to their strengths, but the special teams - especially the kick return teams - were atrocious and the offense was so imbalanced that the Bills were ready for everything New England tried to do, and even when the Patriots got something positive going, penalties murdered their momentum.

The limitations to the forced game plan eschewed balance, though the final numbers - 27 passing plays compared to 22 running plays - are deceiving.  The Patriots totaled just 17 offensive plays in the first half, with 14 of those handoffs.  The numbers reversed in the second half as Brissett, bad thumb and all, threw the ball 24 times and handed off just eight times.

The disparity between the number of plays run by each team, 71-47 in favor of Buffalo, wasn't as glaring considering that the Patriots were more efficient with their plays - gaining nearly a yard-and-a-half more per play than Buffalo - and also considering that the Patriots had a whopping 139 yards erased by penalty...

...ninety of that on the first offensive play of the game on what was deemed to be offensive pass interference on receiver Chris Hogan, calling back a beautiful catch and run in the flat by Julian Edelman, and apparently deflating the Patriots' offense at the same moment.

How badly deflated? well, considering that the Patriots had just one first down at halftime and converted just once on third down the entire game in twelve tries, it is safe to assume that New England blew their first half wad on that first play from scrimmage. 

The only thing that New England's offense seemed to have going for it was their play calling on the first play of possessions, gaining a first down seven different times, four of those coming via Brissett finding tight end Martellus Bennett, who had something of a career day, his 109 receiving yards representing just his fourth 100 yard receiving day and his 58 yard catch and run in the second quarter the longest of his career.

The only other thing that was working was the running game, Patriots' power back LeGarrette Blount rumbling for 54 yards on 13 carries until McDaniels all but abandoned the ground attack in the second half after featuring it almost exclusively in the first half - obviously, the balance was there for New England overall, but it turned out to be a tale of two halfs with no balance in the play calling otherwise.

For all of the grumbling, the defense played decently, giving up 16 points and an acceptable 248 passing yards despite being on the field for just shy of 40 minutes.

Still, the scapegoat for the defense in this scenario was cornerback Logan Ryan, who drew underneath coverages on tight ends and running backs and, on a few less-than-memorable occasions, on the Bills' speedy wideouts, but the fact of the matter is that Ryan, Justin Coleman and even Malcolm Butler gave up key receptions that extended Buffalo drives.

On third down, the Bills were able to convert seven times out of 15 attempts, with Ryan and Butler giving up one a piece and Coleman two, but where the Bills were really successful was on second down, where they were able to pick up half of their twenty-four on the game, many of them on second and long plays.

The fact that Ryan was playing what was essentially the role of a strong safety spoke to the weird game plan, as the three safety Big Nickle look that has been successful against the likes of Arizona, Miami and Houston was abandoned in favor of a standard nickle, with Ryan and Justin Coleman being abused by the quick Buffalo receivers...

...and combined with Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long assigned to funnel everything towards the middle of the field, the Bills were able to run off left tackle - where Sheard or Long would have been otherwise - for a significant portion of their rushing yardage.

The good news for the defense is that they adjusted well after spotting Buffalo their thirteen point lead. In that onslaught to start the game, Buffalo picked up 244 of their 378 total yards for the game, allowing just 83 passing yards in the second half to go along with 51 rushing yards, a terrific effort despite being n the field for so long in the first half.

It goes without saying that having a healthy quarterback would have made a huge difference for New England's offense - either a healthy Brissett or Jimmy Garoppolo would have been enough to at least match what Buffalo could muster - but now the Patriots have back their regular starting signal caller as Tom Brady's suspension is over and he's set to take over, tanned, rested and ready.