Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Outside Linebacker Should Be Priority For Patriots Regardless of Talent Set To Return From Injury

The Philadelphia Eagles exposed the New England Patriots' greatest defensive weakness in Super Bowl 52, and it really didn't take a genius to figure out how to do it.

The Eagles' offensive game plan was to attack the flats with their backs to take advantage of the Patriots' season-long issue of missing rangy linebackers to set the edge and cover the flats. On the night, the Eagles ran the ball to the edges eighteen times for 100 yards and the ball was thrown into the flat an astounding 21 times for 221 of Philadelphia's 374 passing yards and two of their five scores.
Leighton Vander Esch

And once the Eagles had the Patriots frustrated to the point that they brought their safeties a little closer to the line to stop that bleeding, they went over the top and gained chunk yards against single coverages.

Indeed, the Patriots were just plain bad defending the flats all season, ranked 27th in the National Football League, according to our friends at Football Outsiders, which can be taken a number of different ways - but most prominently, this can be attributed to inexperience among the depth linebackers, but one has to wonder if it would have been so had the Patriots not had so many injuries on the second level.

In a prefect world, New England had an intriguing lineup in the linebacking corps, featuring two-time Super Bowl hero Dont'a Hightower on the weak side and fellow first-round draft pick Shea McClellin on the strong side - athletic bookends for rangy and tough middle linebacker Kyle Van Noy who has the requisite instincts, feel for angles, speed and size to cover backs in the flat, but, hey, the guy can't be everywhere all at once...

...and while we know that Hightower will return after taking most of 2017 of with a torn pectoral muscle (shades of Jerod Mayo, anyone), the same cannot be said with much confidence about McClellin, who missed the entire year with post-concussion syndrome, which could signal the end of his short career.

Another player that missed the entire season was defensive end / strong side linebacker hybrid Derek Rivers, who should return full strength but still offers some ambiguity in regard to his fit in the defense as he didn't play a down for the Patriots after being their top draft pick in last April's draft, but his measurables (6' 4", 250 pounds) suggest a fit at the 3+1 "Joker" position that former-Patriot Jamie Collins nearly had down to a science.

So, realistically, Van Noy and decent potential is all New England has on the second level. If they all stay healthy and play up to their enormous potential, the Patriots are set except for accounting for natural attrition - but either way, picking up a linebacker or two in the offseason is going to be paramount to Belichick being able to field a decent defense.

The other levels are in good shape for the moment, other than maybe wanting to look into a corner to pair with Stephon Gilmore, so linebacker is the biggest need on the defense, and probably the biggest need on the entire team.

And there is no better place to start than to draft a young firepisser to jump start defense.

Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch could be to the Patriots' defense what Collins was, only even more athletic and instinctive.

At 6' 4" and 240 pounds, Vander Esch is a strong side dream: easy lateral movements to cut down running lanes for runners cutting back against the grain, elite range, knows how to use blocker's leverage to disengage on the edge and is perhaps the best coverage linebacker to come out of college since Ryan Shazier, only longer with the ability to make a play on any ball he can get a finger on.

He may be available towards the end of the first round due to having only one season of full-time starting experience and then declaring for the draft as a Junior, but his stock will climb when he owns the Combine in Indianapolis and it might take some wheeling and dealing to trade up a few spots - and Belichick should because Vander Esch is everything he values in a linebacker.

That said, the drop off after Vander Esch is pretty significant, but the players are excellent prospects in their own right.

South Carolina State's Darius Leonard is a rangy, if smallish (6' 2", 213), weak side linebacker who plays more like a strong safety than a linebacker. Is excellent in coverage and in pursuit with blazing closing speed, which gives him the ability to process and mirror running backs, then plug the gap before the back can reach it.

Leonard is best suited for an interior spot, however, as he doesn't possess the play strength desired to hold the edge, though he has shown the ability in flashes. Edge setting ability is the specialty of Georgia's Lorenzo Carter, as his 6' 6" frame and plus-lateral quickness makes him an ideal butterfly net on either edge, as well as a decent prospect in the pass rushing department.

Both Leonard and Carter should be available for New England in the second round, but barring being able to snag Vander Esch and the end of the first round, the best value linebacker in the entire draft may be Rutgers' Kemoko Turay.

The most explosive edge defender in the draft, Turay has a Chandler Jones-like spider build and perhaps the best pass rushing outside linebacker in the class. Sometimes it seems that Turay can unravel his long arms and reach the sidelines from the tackle box, which makes him a devastating back-side gap filler. The knock on him is his durability, as injury robbed him of most of his sophomore and Junior seasons - a knock that sees him fall into the third round.

Also in the third round Belichick should be able to find Auburn's Jeff Holland, a marshmallow looking fellow that is a pass rushing demon slated for success in the pros as a situational rusher, Ohio State's Jerome Baker who plays the run like a marshmallow but is hell on wheels in coverage on the weak side with tremendous speed, and Indiana's Tegray Scales is a pure middle linebacker who doesn't have great size, but plays with elite instincts, including on hug blitzes where he has registered 13 sacks in two seasons.

Baker will likely be a reach if Belichick were to tab him for the third round, but he won't be around in the sixth round, which is where his next selection is scheduled - but given the slim pickings in free agency, Patriots' fans should expect to see one of Belichick's four draft picks go toward an impact linebacker...

...because when four of the top-12 rated outside linebackers in free agency are players cut by New England in past couple of years, the prospects for finding an impact player for the second level are not that good.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Patriots On Cusp Of Rebuilding, Or Will Belichick Somehow Reload With Slim Cap?

Ah, that devil salary cap.

Have the New England Patriots reached a point that they are entering a rebuilding mode?

Not quite yet, as you are about to read, but with many contracts ready to expire in the next couple of years, there is an urgency to find depth that will be able to ascend to starting positions as natural turnover occurs among aging players.

One such instance involves quarterback Tom Brady, whose insistence on playing well into his 40's destroyed what seemed to be the perfect succession plan at the position, as the Patriots were forced to unload backup Jimmy Garoppolo at the trade deadline - and while Brady did indeed play some of the best ball of his career in 2017, he also has shown some wear and a propensity for starting games slowly, needing a build up to return to form.
Will the Patriots have the cap room to bring back Amendola?

This is not to say that Brady is finished, as even a 41-something gunslinger at 80% of his former self is still better than anything else the National Football League can offer up, but having to resort to dealing off an obviously talented heir to the Patriots' quarterback position puts the team in a spot that they had covered, but now must spend time, effort and draft capital to realize once again.

Another position with some ambiguity to it is at tight end, where Rob Gronkowski claims that he's considering retirement, reportedly to go into acting or signing a contract to join the WWE as a professional wrestler - or both.

Even the thought of doing so sends chills down the spine of the most ardent fan, as Gronkowski opting out of his contract would leave the Patriots with an impossible hole to fill at the position as well as leaving their salary cap crippled with a $4 million dead money hit.

Speaking of the salary cap, the current numbers reflect that New England has $13,712,155 in cap space which rolls over into 2018 and should be accompanied by an $8 million increase at the start of the league year in mid-March, which means that they are not necessarily in dire straights so far as cap space is concerned, but they will still have to be creative to field a roster that will be competitive.

The problem is that the Patriots have slowly become top heavy in their cap, with the top six contracts on the roster - consisting of Brady, Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, Gronkowski, Dont'a Hightower and Brandin Cooks - accounting for over 41% of the total cap space available, and if that is extended out to the top ten contracts, it absorbs nearly 55% of the cap, meaning that in accordance with the rule of 51, only 45% of the available money goes to the other 41 players on the roster.

This is a huge departure from years past when Belichick was able to build rosters with more balance to them, giving him the ability to attract the mid-level free agents that populated championship team after championship team.

It isn't that way any longer, so now Belichick will be forced to depart with some of his veteran players at other positions, not just to be able to afford to bring in free agents, but to keep his own proven players who are set to enter free agency in March - players that include the likes of left tackle Nate Solder, wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back Dion Lewis.

Fortunately, Belichick has some contracts on the board that can come off in favor of cap space if need be:

Martellus Bennett: $6,187,500 cap number, no dead money penalty. Bennett's 2018 contract becomes guaranteed if New England picks up his $2 million option before the start of the league year, and when gauged with talk of his retirement to pursue other projects, that makes his release a no-brainer - unless, that is, Gronkowski is serious about his own retirement, then Bennett becomes more valuable to the team than his cap number indicates.

Dwayne Allen: $5,000,000 cap number, no dead money penalty. Allen was invisible as a receiving threat in 2017, as his value to the team came as an inline blocker - which is a skill set that is plentiful on the team already, as swing tackles Can Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle have proven to be adept additions to the line in cases where six linemen are needed.

Alan Branch: $4,550,000 cap number, $1 million dead money penalty. Branch's production declined precipitously in 2018 as he entered camp out of shape and drew the ire of Belichick on more than one occasion. His time missed due to disciplinary procedure left New England without an experienced run-stopper on the line, but the Patriots do have options in the form of Vincent Valentine and Adam Butler, the former of which progressed to starter quality during the 2017 season.

Shea McClellin: $3,183,334 cap number, $833,334 dead money penalty. The former first round draft pick of the Bears lent some impact in 2016, but spent all of 2017 on the IR with a concussion and the resultant post-concussion syndrome. With a serious history of concussions and missing a full season with a serious one, the Patriots may find themselves in a spot to move on from a young, promising linebacker.

David Harris: $2,750,000 cap number, $675,000 dead money penalty. Unless they want Harris as a sideline cheerleader and a locker room presence, he's most likely gone. He played sparingly as one of the most curious usages of free agent talent in quite a few years.

Mike Gillislee: $2,181,250 cap number, no dead money penalty. This one is tough to figure out, as Gillislee did very well in Buffalo as a complimentary piece to Shady McCoy, but didn't show the burst and yards after contact, nor the receiving skill, that Belichick requires of his backs. That said, his fate probably rests on what Belichick decides to do with pending free agents Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead.

Phillip Dorsett: $1,544,373 cap Number, no dead money penalty. Dorsett was seldom used in the Patriots' part-time vertical scheme despite possessing deadly speed. He is an expendable contract with the likes of Cooks already on the roster and Julian Edelman slated to make his return.

Kenny Britt: $1,453,225 cap number, no dead money penalty. See above, Britt was brought in as insurance against Chris Hogan's protracted absence due to injury.

Jordan Richards: $1,180,947 cap number, $239,827 dead money penalty. If Belichick holds true to form, Richards' performance in the Super Bowl will be his last straw. He plays like a sluggish linebacker and has no feel or intuition for where the ball is going as a safety. Belichick got rid of Kyle Arrington under similar circumstances.

Assuming that the offseason sees these contracts come off the board, the Patriots would stand to gain just over $25 million in cap relief, which when married to their current cap rollover and the projected cap increase from the league of $8 million, the Patriots would have a grand total of nearly $47 million to work with in free agency.

Unfortunately, they have some contract situations that figure to chisel away at that number.

Most pressing would be the status of Solder, who has been protecting Brady's blindside for seven years, but with a sometimes erratic style that sees him stoning some of the best defensive ends in the game one week then getting jobbed by ordinary ends the next. Injuries and health issues have plagued him his entire career, which is probably why the Patriots spent third round draft capital on Troy's Antonio Garcia last season, but saw Garcia spend his entire rookie campaign on the non-football injury list with an unknown ailment.

Whether or not Garcia can return to full strength after losing a reported 40 pounds during his fight with whatever bug he contracted may be the deciding factor as to whether New England offers Solder a free agent contract - but with experienced left tackles being at a premium in the league, the Patriots are going to have a fight on their hands to retain him at a number that won't break the bank, as he should be able to rake in $12 million a year on the open market.

Lewis is another pressing contract. He reportedly wants $6 million per season over three years with at least $10 million guaranteed, but as has been written, Lewis' injury history reads like a Mary Shelley novel and he has but one full injury-free year on his resume. If other teams take that into consideration and offers him one-year "prove it" deals, it may play into New England's hands as they would most likely be willing to pony up a James White-style deal for $4 to $5 million a year with a guarantee for performance only.

Lastly, Danny Amendola has earned a spot on this roster, but at age 32 and with a history of both injury and discounted contract moves, the Patriot would likely only offer him a two-year deal worth around what is listed above for Lewis.

There are other circumstances to consider, mostly revolving around a talented 2015 rookie class coming up for extension beyond 2018, but those will be handled individually as this series continues.

But given the scenarios above with Solder, Lewis and Amendola being given respective contracts, that would lower the cap space that Belichck has to work with to around $30 million, with forethought to draft picks, which will eat up around $4 million this year, and priority to the aforementioned 2015 rookie class coming up for contracts, don't expect Belichick to dole out a lot of money in open free agency.

After all, he doesn't really have to, as his core of players came within a few bad play calls of winning a sixth Lombardi Trophy a few weeks ago - so it would be good business to take care of his own, make sure he has an impact draft and use free agency as a last resort.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

With Free Agency And Draft Prospects Meager, Re-signing Lewis Essential To Keep Patriots' Offense Diverse

A sage friend recently pointed out to me that the Patriots have never won a Super Bowl without a big power running back - and he's right.

The beginning of the Patriots' dynasty saw general manager Bill Belichick employ 6' 2", 235 pound Antowain Smith as his lead back for his first two title winners and the the 6' 1", 230 pound Corey Dillon to complete the run of three championships in four years - and more recently, 6' 0", 250 pound LeGarrette Blount did the heavy lifting as New England took home two more trophies in the span of three seasons.

In between, the Patriots lost two Super Bowls to the New York Giants utilizing first the 5' 11", 210 pound Laurence Maroney and then undrafted free agent, 5' 10", 215 pound BenJarvis Green-Ellis, then just recently lost their fifth Super Bowl with 5' 8", 195 pound Dion Lewis toting the rock.

But that doesn't mean that New England should let let Lewis walk away in free agency - quite to the contrary, in fact.

Lewis is a triple threat on offense, and not just in the context of doing enough to make defenses account for him - rather - in the context of doing everything so well that the defenses have to game plan for him. It's a discernible difference that draws a line between being a serviceable by-committee back, which is what New England features in their high-flying offenses, and a true feed-bag lead back.

But Lewis' body of work is a relatively short sampling size and his injury history reads like a Mary Shelley novel, but when he is on the field he makes the Patriots a better team, so Belichick is going to have to weigh the good against the bad and try to explain things the way that they are to Lewis, who will probably find a couple of running back-needy teams willing to pay him exponentially more that the Patriots can or will.

In thirty games with New England, Lewis has averaged 4.8 yards per carry across 293 attempts, which adds up to 1,413 yards on the ground, most of the production coming last season when Lewis was healthy for all 16 games, the only time in his career that has been true, with Belichick easing him into action by playing him sparingly in the first four games of the season...

...then unleashing him on the league in week five. Including the playoffs Lewis had a premium stat line of 1,031 yards on just 213 carries, an average of 4.85 yards per carry - finishing the season tenth in yards, 17th in attempts and 5th in average.

But he finished the season ranked first in yards gained after contact (3.17), forced missed tackles (49) and in Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (271), as listed by our friends at Football Outsiders. DYAR is a simple statistic that speaks volumes as to a back's value to his team's offense by measuring how much total yardage would be missing from said offense if that back had to replaced due to injury or illness.

It's sort of like what the NFL MVP award is supposed to be about (but seldom is).

Lewis didn't just earn top dog on that list, he blew the other competitors right off the spreadsheet and earned Pro Football Focus' top elusive rating despite not logging any significant playing time until a quarter of the way through the season. All of these things factored in, the Patriots are better off paying a known quantity that already knows the system than letting him walk and initiating an unknown quantity.

Many will say that Belichick doesn't value running backs, but nothing could be farther from the truth. As a whole, Belichick values running backs far more than what would be typical around the league - but the more versatile the back is, the more Belichick values him.

Hell, look at the extension he gave James White last offseason - four years at $4 million per, plus signing and roster bonuses. That might not seem like much, but it's proper compensation for a good passing back who works primarily as a change-of-pace option. He gave Rex Burkhead $3.15 million on a "show me" deal and is still locked into Mike Gillislee for another season at slightly less than that, though he is probably finished in New England.

Burkhead could very well be an every down back, but he's also slated for free agency which leaves White and Gillislee as the backs on the roster at present, which doesn't bode well for the group in 2018 unless Lewis and/or Burkhead are re-signed.

The story that unsubstantiated rumors lathered all over the Boston media tell us, Lewis is seeking a three year deal at $18 million, with at least $10 million of that guaranteed - so with the Patriots' salary cap floating right near $14 million for 2018, chopping six million off of that would severely handicap them for signing any free agents at all, as approximately $4 million will also be eaten up by incoming draft picks.

There are several roads the Patriots can take to clear cap space if they need to - and it appears that they probably should - but that is for another time and another blog entry. What matters in the here and now is that if the Patriots allow Lewis to get away, it could end up costing them far more than just money.

Lewis is Rotoworld's second-ranked running back on the free agent market - behind only Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell - and could command a lot more than he's asking for, meaning that his rumored asking price is probably what he would consider a hometown discount for the Patriots, which would put him in Marshawn Lynch territory so far as average salary goes...

...which is slightly more than what impending Broncos' free agent C.J. Anderson makes on his current deal with Denver, who is looking to move on in an effort to free up some cap space.

Anderson is perhaps the best free agent fit for New England should Lewis move on, but the savings in salary is negligible and when you combine that with both the investment the Patriots have already made in Lewis and his intimate knowledge of the New England system, it just doesn't make sense to let the 27-year-old walk.

However, if he does leave, the Patriots do have options in the draft, but that too is a step down in that there is no way to know how quickly a rookie coming out of college will perform on the professional stage, and certainly he won't be counted on to produce numbers ever close to what Lewis has in his time in Foxborough.

The "can't miss" list of running backs that would satisfy my friend's desire for a bigger bell cow running back through the draft doesn't exist, as all of the top backs are more compact in build and are more elusive than powerful - even the top back in the draft, Penn State's Saquon Barkley, though Barkley is a rare talent but will never fall to the Patriots, who select at 31.

The drop off in talent between Barkley and the rest of the pack is fairly significant, but LSU's Derrius Guice is a frantic, duck-footed runner in the mold of Marshawn Lynch whose calling card is gaining yards after contact, but doesn't check the box on receiving out of the backfield and his blitz pickup isn't his strongest asset.

Pass protection isn't an issue for Georgia's Sony Michel, but has banana peels for hands and isn't reliable in the pattern. More Patriots-like prospects exist in the second day realm, featuring Auburn's Kerryon Johnson and San Diego State's Rashaad Penny.

Johnson checks all the boxes as far as skill set - including blitz pickup and soft hands in the pattern - but is a little lean at 6' 0" and 215 pounds and the experts are concerned that his linear frame and upright running style will impact his durability - while Penny would give New England everything that Johnson would, but with a more compact and burly frame and an explosion out of first contact to keep plays alive.

Penny should be available with New England's first pick in the second round, but perhaps not their original pick towards the end of the round - but that's where they would likely find bigger backs like Oregon's Royce Freeman, who might represent the best value in the draft so far as running back are concerned.

At 6' 0" and 234 pounds, Freeman is a hybrid of what New England likes from their backs. He is a powerful inside runner with good awareness of cutback lanes from playing behind a zone blocking scheme and was often too much for a safety or outside linebacker to bring down on the outside - he's decent in pass pro and is adept at the screen game and is a polished route runner to the flat.

Freeman is projected to be a third selection, though a good showing at the combine could put him on maps earlier in the second round. If there is a decent prospect in the later rounds or even in undrafted free agency, it comes in the form of the 6' 1", 230 pound running mate of Giuce's at LSU, Darrel Williams, who is a short-yardage and third down specialist who could give the Patriots options, particularly in the red zone.

So with the options in free agency and the draft not as overwhelming as one would hope, it makes sense to retain Lewis by whatever means necessary. Burkhead may be an option to take over Lewis' workload, but thus far in his Patriots' career has proven fragile. Clearly there are obstacles to overcome if the Patriots wish to have a productive running game...

...but the offense depends on the backs to handle the ball up to seventy percent of the time in any given game plan, they can't just leave things to chance - they must solidify the backfield or risk making the offense one-dimensional - which is never a good thing.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Random Thoughts Of A Patriots' Insomniac

3:37 am - Lewiston, Maine

Kickoff cannot come fast enough...

Usually, the Patriots are targets for absurd accusations and especially at winning time, but there is something downright arcane and outlandish about the Super Bowl 52 edition of trashy, tabloidal buffalo bagels...

...but after a sleepless night full of TVLand, intoxicating combustibles and online searches for anything not football, I gave up tossing and turning in bed and repaired to my dining room table, which is littered with football fodder - charts and graphs and more useless stats disguising as something called "advanced metrics" than any sane person wants or needs.
Gisele and Tom relaxing after a game

What the hell? For the past six months I have been accumulating this impressive pile of numbers for the sole purpose of tossing it all in the shit can on Monday morning, because after the Patriots finish the season against the Philadelphia Eagles in Sunday's Super Bowl, the only thing that matters is who is holding that Trophy.

But as always, the accusations will persist, following the team into next season just like the various controversies of the past, including those dubbed with the moronic and overused Nixonian-era suffix, those of SpyGate and DeflateGate, and dozens of other odd occurrences attributed more to mystique than to fact.

Have the people in charge of thinking up names for controversies ever considered that the original use of that particular suffix actually derived from the name of the hotel where Richard Nixon's henchmen had operatives break into the Democratic National Party's offices, and wasn't even considered an appropriate suffix at that time.

Since, it has infested journalists that need a catch phrase or clever key word in a hurry when breaking a story, and fall back on the tried and true, though it makes zero sense.

I just find that interesting that the general public will accept something as stupid as attaching "gate" to the end of something to describe a deed of perceived dark malfeasance, while refusing to acknowledge that the New England Patriots' dominance over the National Football League over the past two decades is anything short of just plain greatness...

...and is instead somehow tied to video taping in the wrong location and confusion among supposedly smart people regarding the ideal gas law, and then mixing up the incompetence of the parties in a botched investigation that failed to indict Tom Brady of deflating footballs to levels lower than allowed by rule, yet tied up courts for two years before Brady served a suspension not based on anything in the investigation - rather - to prove to the NFLPA that the commissioner is within his providence to suspend as he pleases.

As a result, most folks would rather select the story that fits their narrative that feeds to the hatred of the Patriots and their dynasty - and will do so again and again until the Patriots fall back to the pack.

The latest media-inspired controversy involving the Patriots is so dark and silly that it makes them look like a modern-day Addam's Family with Brady is the chronically-passionate Gomez who takes selfies with his supermodel wife, Morticia, after each game and is apparently an over-affectionate father to boot - and as if that isn't enough, he doubles as "Thing", the large hand that comes out of a black box and can perform all manner of parlor tricks, even with a few stitches in him...

...complete with Bill Belichick as Uncle Fester, pacing about with a creepy smile and jabbering distractedly about the red area, the Art of War and maybe catching a Timberwolves game, while Bob Kraft has remained largely in the background like Lerch, the somewhat crusty butler who always seems to appear at just the right time to lend a touch of snobbery to the works.

That's not even getting into the incident with the foolish Alex Reimer, who went after Brady's daughter, verbally castigating her for being a kid. Brady was livid over that one, but took care of it the following Monday morning by letting Reimer's employers, WEEI Radio, know that his further participation in their weekly Q&A will be taken under strict scrutiny, and may impact the new contract signed between the Patriots and the station.

No matter, because Brady doesn't care. Brady is used to the accusations of being a cheater and brushes them off like so many crumbs, but he acted swiftly and decisively in dealing with the radio personality taking a dig at his kid, and has been laser focused on doing the same to the Eagles ever since.

As fans, we take exception to people dissing our team and put far more capital on it that the Patriots do, but instead of being offended by it, perhaps we should embrace it as fodder and realize that the hateful words of others only serve to validate the thought in our minds and emotion in our hearts that our team has toiled relentlessly for close to two decades to satiate our thirst for perfection.

And perfection in this instance doesn't mean winning every game, holding the other team scoreless or hanging 45 points on them in contrast - perfection in this case means returning to Massachusetts with a sixth Lombardi Trophy. By that standard, the Patriots will have had six perfect seasons out of eighteen coached by Belichick and seventeen quarterbacked by Brady.

To be sure, 15 division titles - including the last nine straight - and eight conference championships out of twelve tries is the most impressive streak in the history of football, but the six world titles in eight Super Bowl appearances is what these guys play the game for - and anything less is considered a disappointment in Foxborough.

So we stew in anticipation of number six, many Patriots' fans reporting that they feel the excitement that Christmas Eve brings, which does indeed bring the height of emotion out of many people - and retailers estimate that fans will spend $15.3 Billion in preparation for Super Bowl 52, which pales in comparison to actual Christmas spending.

But one thing that must be remembered is that not everyone is a football fan, almost everyone is a fan of Christmas.

That said, Football fans are a special kind of crazy. They are adrenaline junkies who thrive off of the anxiety that accompanies the build up to a regular football Sunday during the season, then amps up incrementally for as long as their team remains in the playoffs - and if they are fortunate enough to see their team make the Super Bowl, the anxiety level reaches a crescendo on Super Bowl Saturday...

...becoming manic in their expression of glee and with some being unable to sleep - but with the anticipation comes a caveat that tempers the occasion somewhat, and adds another level of anxiety to the mix, and that is, unlike on Christmas morning, not everyone gets a present and many are left despondent.

That is why Patriots' fans should be grateful for whatever they do get on Super Bowl Sunday, because more than any other team in the history of the National Football League, the Patriots give their fans the gift of fretful angst, the anxiety that comes with the anticipation of something big and wonderful and increasingly historic.

All the while, the fans of other teams do not get to experience this vortex of emotion and will become agitated and angry at their omission from the festivities. They will call the Patriots' cheaters and claim that the referees are on their side, trolling New England fans at every opportunity in online social media sites, and when that happens it is important for Patriots' fans to remember one thing:

Their anger and defensiveness validates the Patriots' greatness.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Patriots' Big Nickel Built To Withstand Eagles' Run-Pass Option

The option offense is alive and well in Philadelphia.

The Big Nickel defense is alive and well in New England.

When the two clash this Sunday in Super Bowl 52, one of two things are going to happen. If Philadelphia can manipulate the New England defense into falling for their run-pass option, the Eagles will dictate and win the time of possession battle and, most likely, their fist world championship - but if New England can properly defend the trendy offense known as the "RPO", they can win their sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Harrison could play a major role against the RPO

Fortunately for the Patriots, their Big Nickel alignment provides for the proper personnel to minimize the effect of the option.

The run-pass option is to the Eagles like the play action is to the Patriots, only the run-pass option is designed to help methodically pick up first down after first down, and it is Philadelphia's bread and butter formation on offense, which they use on about forty percent of their snaps.

It is different from the boot option that Kansas City, Houston and Carolina hammered them with in the first quarter of the season. Both require the quarterback to make a quick decision as to whether to hand the ball off to a running back, but the boot option's only other option is for the quarterback to keep the ball, while the run-pass option adds the passing game element to further tax a defense.

In the boot option, more commonly referred to as the "read option", the quarterback reads whether a defensive end is going to break down the line of scrimmage to help stop the running back or if he is holding his ground to cut off an escape route for the quarterback. If the end breaks down the line, the quarterback will keep the ball and run off-tackle and if the end holds fast, the running back gets the ball.

Simple, right? Well the run-pass option is a bit more complicated in that the quarterback has to read the coverage on the slot receivers after the ball is snapped, put the ball in the running back's gut and if the coverage breaks on the slot's pattern, the quarterback then reads the defensive end and has the option of handing the ball off or keeping the ball and running up the middle...

...while if the coverage reduces down to help in run support, the quarterback will pull the ball from the back's gut and fire the ball to the slot receiver. In this formation, the Eagles gain close to five yards per play whether the ball goes in the air or to a back, and this is apparent in the fact that they possess the third-ranked rush offense in the league.

There are inherent risks in running the run-pass option, however, the most obvious is the quarterback being baited by the slot cover, who acts like he's reducing down for run support while the free safety breaks on the ball in coverage and has a decent chance of knocking the ball down or intercepting.

That's a lot of information to process in the space of a second-and-a-half, so the key to stopping the run-pass option is to disguise coverages to confuse the quarterback into making the wrong decision.

That's where the Big Nickel comes into play.

For the uninitiated, the Big Nickel is a defensive alignment that utilizes five defensive backs just as a standard nickel defense does, but instead of a cornerback replacing a linebacker as would happen in the standard version, an extra safety comes on instead, enabling two of the safeties to reduce down to help in run support and to man the double slot.

The Patriots are blessed with three starting-quality safeties that make the Big Nickel possible. Patrick Chung is a grizzled veteran who takes on tight ends and lends himself in run support in the box, Devin McCourty is a speedy ex-corner with exceptional cover skills to man the double slot and Duron Harmon may be the best single-high safety - or centerfielder - in the game.

So with Harmon playing over the top, the other two safeties can take on assignments closer to the line of scrimmage with confidence, while the cornerbacks man the wings outside of the numbers. As you can see from the graphic, Harmon (cf) plays the deep third of the field, while Chung (ss) reduces down and covers the tight end leaving McCourty (fs) to bracket the slot reciever with the strong side linebacker (slb).

The quarterback is now forced to make three reads. He needs to know if McCourty is running double with the cornerback on the outside wide receiver, and whether the strong side linebacker is playing the run or sticking on the receiver. The quarterback must also be aware of the weak side linebacker (wlb) coming off the edge and whether he is crashing down the line of scrimmage or coming after the quarterback.

The weak side has been manned lately by Pittsburgh Steelers' castoff James Harrison, but he has also shown his mettle in coverage on the strong side, particularly against the run pass option, so it wouldn't be surprising to see the nearly 40-year-old veteran play the majority of the defensive snaps against Philadelphia.

The Big Nickel raises the level of difficulty in successfully running the run-pass option to the point that the quarterback has to be so precise in his read that any false move or wrong decision could end in disaster, especially if he reads the free safety wrong and he undercuts the route, which would be a sure pick-six.

Of course, the Eagles could add the vertical element and use the run-pass option as a play action of sorts, hoping to freeze the free safety and leaving his top wide receiver with just one corner to beat - but that's where the centerfielder comes into play.

The Patriots could even opt for a "Giant Dime" coverage, meaning that the weak side linebacker comes out in favor of a cornerback, giving the Patriots three safeties and three corners - but no matter if it is a nickel or dime, the role of the defensive ends to get their hands in the air to distort the quarterback's view and to possibly knock down the ball at the line of scrimmage...

...while the nose tackle takes on the interior double team, allowing the middle linebacker to flow to the ball in the event that the quarterback chooses to hand the ball off. But the key to the entire alignment against the run-pass option play is for the guys up front to stay in their gaps and not allow any of the offensive linemen to gain the second level to interfere with the middle linebacker.

If that happens, a running play up the middle could go quite a distance, so it is imperative that the front line behemoths maintain gap discipline.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Patriots' Offense Should Own The Middle Of The Field Against Philly's Defense

On this week's edition of Inside the NFL, analysts Ray Lewis and Brandon Marshall took great pains to emphatically declare that the New England Patriots are led by the most cerebral coach to ever roam an NFL sideline.

"New England is the most prepared team, ever!" said an animated Marshall after breaking down Danny Amendola's first touchdown in New England's thrilling victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, going on to give a surprisingly insightful soliloquy on the importance of film study, then throwing down, "Bring your PhD if you want to beat the Patriots."
Lewis holds the keys to Patriots' success

Heavy stuff and a little surreal given that Marshall had never been that complementary of anyone in his heyday - nor had Lewis, for that matter - and especially not toward Patriots' head ball coach and defacto grocery shopper Bill Belichick, who is someone that one either loves or loathes, as there is no in between, but always with a silent measure of respect and, sometimes, awe.

Known as a defensive genius upon his arrival in Foxborough at the turn of the century, Belichick has broadened his scope to master the Erhardt-Perkins offense in his own image, using a unique concept base that features 120 different route combinations for each personnel grouping - a seemingly over-complex system that is actually as efficient as any in the game for two reasons.

First, Belichick employs only skill position players who are both intelligent and versatile enough to line up anywhere in any formation, and effectively run any route from any position. What this does is give quarterback Tom Brady the ability to move his receivers around to take advantage of any mismatches identified in his pre-snap reads simply by barking out one key word.

The pre-snap process is designed to make it as difficult as possible for a defense to adjust to motion and positioning and is why one sees the Patriots' offense become stronger as the game goes on, because they run plays off of what they have gained from raw intelligence throughout the game, which is what makes them so deadly efficient towards the end of games.

It also explains the tendency for the opposition to complain that it seems like the Patriots know the signals and plays, because they put into practical application what they learn from play to play, not just game to game.

Most coaches script the first 15 - 20 offensive plays based on what they see in film study in order to build what they hope is a scoring drive on their first couple of possessions to gain a lead to work from - and Belichick is among them, but he already knows what is going to work against particular coverages, so he models his opening script as a way to expose defensive alignments in certain situations...

...jotting down the results of the plays with his mini golf pencil and scorecard to record defenses' collective reaction in order to bait them down the road -and the video with Marshall and Lewis is a perfect example of this phenomena, identifying routes that set up defenders based on the aforementioned intelligence in the form of film study and practical application.

How else does one explain how it is that the Patriots are rarely out of a game,and that no matter how invincible their opponent has looked for the first three quarters of a ball game, they end up looking ordinary-to-mediocre during that final frame? The same could be asked about why the Patriots' defense is more stout towards the end of games as well.

But do you really have to have a PhD to match up with New England?

The task is daunting indeed, but the Patriots have had their share of teams and concepts that they struggle against - and those are the teams that deal with New England's running backs in the passing game.

The strength of the Patriots is the versatility and skill of their running backs, and a full two-thirds of the offensive plays find the ball in the hands of Dion Lewis, James White or Rex Burkhead - and if you add in All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski to the mix, that makes it three of every four plays goes to one of those players.

And if you can take these players away by concentrating on them in the pass pattern, you make things very difficult for Brady and company.

The Eagles feature one of the top defenses in the National Football League, tops against the run but middle of the pack against the pass, but advanced metrics tell us how the Patriots should be able to attack them.

According to the good folks at Football Outsiders, the Eagles are ranked in the top ten in the league in defending receivers outside the numbers - seventh overall in defending the top vertical targets and tops in the league in defending intermediate possession receivers. But the news is not all good for Philadelphia, as they are merely average against all other pass catchers...

...22nd in covering slot receivers, 10th in corralling backs in the pattern and a scary (for them) 17th in dealing with tight ends - and when one considers that they are a top seven defense in covering the flats and out patterns, but a woeful 19th in covering receivers inside the numbers, we see a distinct advantage for the Patriots.

Why? Well as many-a-broadcaster have opined, the Patriots run their offense inside the numbers, which sets up a few opportunities a game to go deep outside.

In that vein, the Patriots will likely run with their 11 personnel package (1 back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers) primarily to send speed merchant Brandin Cooks deep against Ronald Darby and possession man Chris Hogan to the intermediate zone against Jalen Mills - and it is entirely possible that the Eagles keep a single high safety to even the odds...

...which leaves eight men in the box to deal with Danny Amendola coming out of the slot against Patrick Robinson and one of three excellent and speedy linebackers to cut off the flat to New England's backs, most likely Nigel Bradham, who allowed on 0.68 yards per coverage snap this season, second best mark in the NFL.

To counter the Philadelphia pass coverage, the Patriots will naturally try to generate a running game, but that's been a tough row to plow this season, with the Eagles making contact with the opposing running back in the backfield at a pace of four in every ten rush attempts, but New England possesses a back with the highest rate of broken tackles and highest average yards after contact in Lewis - but what makes Lewis even more remarkable is that he records positive yardage on over four out of ten times that he is hit behind the line of scrimmage.

That makes the Eagles' number one rush defense a little less imposing and gives Patriots' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels very good reason to stick with a running game, which will be essential against Philadelphia, because it will force their superb defensive line to hesitate just a fraction of a second on the play action fake - because what makes the task of producing a quick twitch offense needed to beat coverages, is to slow down Philadelphia's pass rush, which is the best the Patriots will have faced all season, generating pressure on an absurd 41% of opponents' passing plays.

So the offense all boils down to the offensive line. Lewis has the running covered and his backfield mates and receivers have what should be an upper hand against the Eagles' secondary, that is if the line gives Brady time to find them in the pattern.

The line is solid, and work well together, but it's going to take a combination of the running game, the resultant usage of the play action and Brady's quick release to put the pass rush back on their heels.

This is a win for the Patriots, as long as they play their game and don't allow the Eagles' defense to dictate to them. The uptempo offense is going to be key in slowing down the Philadelphia pass rush, who generate their pressure with just four linemen, rarely blitzing, which is something that Brady always takes advantage of.

So long as McDaniels sticks to the running game long enough to bring the play action into play - regardless of initial success or failure - the Patriots should enjoy the advantage.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Patriots' Defense A Collection Of Mean Counter-Punchers

The New England Patriots posterized the Jacksonville Jaguars twice on Sunday afternoon in the AFC Championship - and both occurred in the waning moments of the tight contest.

First, Danny Amendola summoned his inner Gregory Hines for a proper tap dance in the back of the end zone that gave the Patriots their first lead of the game, and then cornerback Stephon Gilmore did his best Bobby Orr impersonation to knock away a desperation fourth-and-fifteen rocket from Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles destined for rookie wideout Dede Westbrook to preserve Amendola's heroics.

In that very instant, every Patriots' fan on the planet realized why general manager Bill Belichick went out and grabbed Gilmore in free agency. But it should have been apparent way before that.

After a tough start to his season, Gilmore has been the shutdown corner that Belichick envisioned and finished the season as one of Pro Football Focus's hottest corners (ranked 14th among 124 corners in the NFL - not bad for how poorly he played the first month of the season), and quarterbacks have been wary of targeting him of late, and for good reason: He's given up three catches on nine targets for 43 yards in the playoffs, physically breaking up four of the incompletions...

...the best being his aforementioned flying squirrel imitation on Westbrook to swat away a pretty deep ball from Bortles - who played well all game, except when he fell apart along with the rest of the Jaguars about halfway through the fourth quarter of the Patriots' come-from-behind 24-20 win.

Of course, the Jaguars didn't just fall apart all by themselves - they had a little help from the Patriots, who insist on doing things on their own terms. The philosophy has always been to take the other team's best shot, then when they have worn themselves down, the Patriots counter-punch with such ferocity and precision that it's awe-inspiring to witness, but not everyone understands it.

However, former Patriots' linebacker Willie McGinnest - no stranger to the way head ball coach Bill Belichick builds his teams - does, and he shared his insight with folks before the game on Sunday.

When asked for his prediction on NFL Network's NFL Gameday,  McGinnest said that he picked the Jaguars to win the first half of the game and that he picked the Patriots to win the second half of the game, and to pull out the victory - and when his prediction came true, the other on air personalities on the program fetched him a king's crown, a silk cape and a scepter for his brilliance and accuracy in his prognostication...

...but he was speaking simply from his experiences as a three-time Super Bowl champion under Belichick - and also from how the Patriots' defense has trended this season.

Outside of their horrendous start to the season - sitting at .500 after four games and with the worst statistical defense in the league - finished the season ranked fifth in scoring defense at 18.3 points per game overall, and a mind-blowing 14 points per game when omitting those first four games - but it's how those points are disbursed throughout the game that tells the story that McGinnest capitalized on.

Including both playoff games, the Patriots have surrendered ten points per game in the first half of games, but just four per game in the second half. - tops in the league by a large margin in that time span - while their offense scores the majority of their points in the second and fourth quarters, which comes out to 18 of their 28 points per game.

Point being, when your offense scores twice as many points as your defense allows the bad guys, you're going to win a lot of games - that's just the nature of sports.

But lodged in between the numbers game comes the volatile nature of the defensive back. Other than the quarterback position, there is not another spot on the depth chart that is more in focus on a snap-to-snap basis as is the cornerback position - because it is always up front and apparent when a corner is having a bad day.

When Gilmore came to the Patriots, it was well-known that he does his best work when mirroring a receiver one-on-one, but it was also expected that the corner could competently play the zone game when need be - however, Gilmore struggled with lingo and boundaries and was a literal boy among men in the New England secondary, with fellow stoppers Malcolm Butler and Jonathan Jones picking up the slack.

It got so bad that Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had to abandon their signature big nickel alignment in order to keep a safety over the top and a centerfielder in order to reduce the chance of the chunk play, which had a trickle down effect on the entire defense. In those first four games, the Patriots gave up more passing yards (324 per game), more rushing yards (133 per game) and more points (32 per game) than any other team in the league.

...but since have trimmed the aforementioned fourteen points per game off the total, as well as nearly 30 full rushing yards and nearly one hundred passing yards because of one anomaly in Belichick's makeup that separates him from every other coach in the NFL.

Belichick formulated a vanilla gameplan in week five when the Patriots visited Tampa Bay on a Thursday night, then took the ten days between that game and a visit to New York to play the Jets to structure the defensive philosophy to fit the personnel that he had rather than to try and fit a square peg in a round hole by riding out the Gilmore communication experiment, and the numbers speak for themselves.

But it wasn't just Gilmore, by any means. Injury ravaged the linebacking corps, which turned Belichick's original plan to run exclusively with a three-man line to a three plus-one line, using a rotating collection of rookies and never-have-beens to populate the front seven in what can only be termed as a live audition to find an efficient lineup on a fundamental level.

The result is something out of a cheesy football movie where a group of rag tag nobodies form into a cohesive unit just in time to win a championship, starring the likes of Deatrich Wise, Eric Lee, Marquis Flowers and Adam Butler combining with veteran stalwarts Trey Flowers, Lawrence Guy and Alan Branch - the whole thing led by Kyle Van Noy.

That's not the way it was supposed to be, but when the Patriots signed outside linebacker James Harrison just before their season finale, he completed what has turned into a real nuisance for opposing offenses.

How much of a nuisance depends on several factors, but in the case of their next opponent - the Philadelphia Eagles, who have the top-rated offensive line in all of professional football - they have to be intrigued by what they see on film when the Patriots notched eight sacks against the second-rated line, employed by the Tennessee Titans...

...especially since the Eagles' grade comes primarily from their run blocking dominance that yielded 4.5 yards per carry, but allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked 35 times - a boon for the Patriots' defense because in addition to the stats mentioned earlier, this rag tag group of nobodies, many of whom couldn't crack rosters elsewhere, now sport 53 sacks on the season.

Lately, a good majority of them have been the "coverage" variety of sacks, where the quarterback can't find a target, gets skittish in the pocket and bolts right into the waiting arms of a Patriots' defender - and for at least part of that you can thank Stephon Gilmore, who has turned a season that started off as a nightmare into a dream scenario, just one game to go to earn a championship.

All because he belongs to a group of defenders that Belichick collected and assimilated into a cohesive unit, allowing their skill sets to be the guide instead of trying to fit eleven square pegs into as many round holes.