Monday, December 30, 2013

New England Patriots on Paper: The Mighty Morphin' Power Runners

The New England Patriots are a game plan specific team, devising an attack custom fit to take advantage of their superiority in one area while masking or even eliminating deficiencies in others - and it's worked out pretty well so far.

The lone variable that makes or breaks the game plan is the human element, the tendency we humans have for becoming impatient in favor of instant gratification - and the Patriots have fallen victim to this phenomenon a couple of times this season. But on Sunday evening on the football field at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots didn't fall for the temptations.

No, they just had quarterback Tom Brady taking snaps from under center, executing a textbook pirouette, sticking the football in the gut of LeGarrette Blount.  Next series, same execution, but a different gut - this time Stevan Ridley.

The Patriots run the four-minute offense as well, if not better, than any team in the National Football League - so it's inconceivable that they have turned a blind eye to the thing at times this season, but it's not too late to recognize how much more versatile and unpredictable it makes the New England offensive assault when Brady is under center.

Time was, Brady was more unpredictable in the shotgun with his receivers all over God's green earth in the formation, taking all of the defensive backs out to the wings and leaving the box thin and exposed for the trap draw - but that was before Brady started running out of tight ends and wide receivers and before offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels finally recognized LeGarrette Blount as a legitimate power back.

It's been around this whole time, the power running game that spurs the four minute offense, and with almost an entire season as a sample size, both the eyeball test and the numbers overwhelmingly suggest that the Patriots as a whole are a better team when running the ball down the opposing defense's collective throat.

And it's pretty consistent, too - doesn't matter who's playing on the other side, doesn't matter where they rank in stopping the run, 4.2 yards per carry is where it always seems to add up to, the only variable being the afore mentioned human element on the sidelines that controls how many times Brady turns and hands the ball to Blount or Ridley.

And because of the injuries, because of the turnover, because they really have no choice, the Patriots have evolved into a power running team, and don't be surprised if they ride the legs of Blount and Ridley all the way to the title - because if there's one thing the Patriots have proven this season, it's that they can morph into just about anything they need to be in order to win.

Just call them the Mighty Morphin' Power Runners.

"I’ve always been a physical guy, I’ve always been one of the bigger guys,” Blount said recently of his syrup-on-waffles running style that's impossible to stop once it gets flowing “I’m not going to let somebody just smack me. I’m not going to shy away from contact, and a lot of times I usually break the tackle.”

Coach Bill Belichick echoed Blount's comments after Sunday's season-ending win, though uncharacteristically throwing a little extra mustard on his comments.

"I think a lot of it just gets down to fundamentals: body lean, and just good fundamentals of running including ball protection, body lean, trying to keep the tacklers from getting to your legs and keeping those moving, playing with a low center of gravity and good forward body lean and ball security."

Continuing, Belichick set an ominous tone for their playoff opponents, all of whom will have to deal with the Patriots' power running game in potentially bad weather:

"He’s a hard guy to tackle in good conditions but when everything is wet – when he’s wet, when the tacklers are all wet and they can’t grab onto anything – tackling can be very challenging those conditions. Not so much because of the footing, although that’s part of it, but the actual tackling sometimes is like trying to tackle, hold onto something that’s all greased up. It’s just hard to get a grip on it.

In contrast, Ridley is pure electric hell in the hole and relies on his initial burst for his momentum.  With his upright running style Ridley is not going to run many folks over and he's going to take some wicked shots, and though he could eliminate the wear and tear on his body by initiating the contact and trying to bowl tacklers over, he still manages over four yards per carry.

Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen, too.

Brady under center isn't necessarily a new thing, but the larger volume of snaps he's taking at the line of scrimmage as opposed to shotgun snaps has become the status quo since All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski went down for the season in week 14 against the Cleveland Browns...

...and also since McDaniels figured out that it's easier to replace what Gronkowski brought to the field with a 250 pound battering ram than flinging passes to his stable of munchkins who, because the running game wasn't the focus, were getting absolutely mugged by defensive backs.

In the first game that Gronkowski missed against the Miami Dolphins, Brady threw the ball 55 times, completing 34 and taking a brutal beating in the process.  In the two games since - against the Ravens and Bills - Brady has thrown 50 passes total, completing 28 for less than 300 yards.

By comparison, he has turned and handed the ball to his capable power backs 77 times for a whopping 414 yards and four touchdowns and two decisive wins to close out the season - the workhorse, of course, has been Blount who with his ridiculous performance on Sunday left him just one yard shy of Ridley's total rushing yards on the season.

That's right, between the two the Patriots have nearly 1600 yards and 14 touchdowns in the set behind Brady, and God only knows what that total might have been had the team not abandoned the run at times during the season, and only he knows how much better their record would have been.

But that doesn't matter - what does matter is that this team has finally found it's identity, and it's going to be damned tough for anyone to come into Foxborough and stop New England's running game, and the extra safety in the box that teams are going to have to employ to keep the damage to a minimum is only going to give the munchkins a little more room to operate in the pass pattern...

...and not just in Foxborough, for if the Patriots end up going to Denver to play in the AFC Championship game - well - football is football, and the running game is the most fundamental of concepts.  The team that does it best controls the clock, controls field position, controls everything.

And there's not a better power running team in the playoffs than what the Patriots bring.  That is what they have morphed into, and when the passing game is used to compliment the running game instead of the other way around, that is a recipe for championship football.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ryan, Harmon presence signal a return title years mindset

Some defensive backs have it, some don't.

In the New England Patriots recent past, many haven't despite overwhelming success and resultant superior draft status, which has been documented ad nauseum in an attempt to discredit coach Bill Belichick by the Ron Borges' and Albert Breers of the world - and they are right to a certain extent.

In the past, Belichick had been looking for starters, players that could come in an contribute to a secondary that has been in shambles since the Championship days - and it's tough to hit on cover backs when you're picking so late in the process, as the NFL's parity-making draft design has had the perpetual AFC East division champs choosing in the latter part of the first round...

...long after the sure-fire prospects had gone to the talent-starved teams picking through the early part of the draft.

Perhaps Belichick's thinking was flawed during these drafts that brought in names like Ellis Hobbs in 2005, Brandon Merriweather in 2007, Terrence Wheatley the year after that, Patrick Chung after that and Ras-I Dowling in 2011 - even though all came with headlines and accolades out of college but either couldn't or wouldn't fulfill their potential in a starting capacity.

But despite the Dowling disappointment in 2011, the team's fortunes started turning around the year before when Belichick selected cornerback Devin McCourty out of Rutgers - who was a pretty decent corner, but an outstanding free safety, as Patriots' fans have discovered lately - and then taking a big chance on a cop-punching cornerback out of Nebraska named Alfonzo Dennard in 2012...

...but it was a seemingly curious decision by Belichick the day after Halloween last season that has allowed him to focus on what he does best - picking up versatile depth, developing them and slowly integrating them into his system as situations permit.

Aqib Talib came to New England in a trade with Tampa Bay with a reputation preceding him as a hot head with an affinity for firearms - which is a bad combination - but also with measurable talent as a shutdown corner who apparently just needed some direction and a chance to play for a winner.

And when Talib fulfilled his enormous talent, his presence allowed the members of Patriots' secondary to evolve into their natural positions - McCourty to free safety, Kyle Arrington to slot corner and Dennard emerging as the number two corner opposite Talib, and also allowed Belichick to enter a training camp for the first time in a decade with his secondary intact with solid starters...

...which meant that he could hit free agency and the 2013 draft with pure depth on his mind - and with not having to desperately fill holes in his secondary with top draft picks or washed up free agents, the hooded one killed it in the offseason, and set up the secondary for success going forward.
Harmon has two interceptions on the season

In the space of eight selections in the third round of the draft, Belichick brought in Rutgers' teammates Cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon, developed them behind the starters - playing sparingly and only in situation for which they had shown aptitude in practice, so when Talib went down with a hip injury, Dennard became limited due to a bum knee and safety Steve Gregory broke a thumb, the rookies were ready to assume their positions.

But they have done more than just fill in - Ryan and Harmon are legitimate rising stars in a secondary suddenly jam-packed with talent.

The numbers aren't eye-popping, but what the two rookies bring are intangibles that can't be measured on any sort of ledger, though between them they have seven interceptions and have allowed less than a 50% completion rate.  They have proven to be instinctive, durable and solid tacklers.

Harmon is the fastest of the two and has played both free and strong safety for Belichick, proving to be an excellent centerfielder as well as capable of bringing the wood both in coverage over the top of the corner and in run support, displaying toughness and versatility, maybe not the fearsome hitter that Rodney Harrison was, but with an all-around skill set similar to a Lawyer Milloy...

...while Ryan may be the Patriots most instinctive cover corner since Ty Law patrolled the secondary in the title years.
Ryan has five interceptions and ten passes defended

In fact, Belichick talked about Ryan's game some during his weekly conference call on Monday, calling his awareness of where he's at on the field and his natural instinctiveness - the intangibles that make him a special player.

"...it's not only ball skills but I'd say an awareness or an instinctiveness, if you will, in terms of when to look for the ball, having an awareness of the ball being thrown and near his location and anticipating routes and being able to react to those routes sometimes a little bit before the ball is thrown" Belichick said of Ryan, soothing the savage breast of the detractors of some pass defenders that don't turn to locate the ball.

"...maybe if he's reading the quarterback a little bit before the receiver can get into his breaks." Belichick continued, "He's had a number of plays like that, both in games and throughout the year in practices where you see his awareness and his instinctiveness, his understanding of the passing game and kind of getting that little one half step, split-second jump on the play."

Belichick acknowledged that Ryan has good hands and a ball hawk's mentality, but that those things are just part of the equation when defining the rookie with six starts under his belt.

"I think it's that awareness and instinctiveness that's obviously so hard to teach but it's something that he just naturally does. I'm sure he was trained well at Rutgers, as was Duron, as was Devin, but he has that instinctiveness and awareness."

How important are those things to the oftentimes enigmatic coach?  To answer that question one only has to ask themselves an even better question:  When is the last time Belichick launched into such a soliloquy over a rookie?

Right.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ninkovich gleans motivation from fans' "Hand Signals"

There are far more losers in this world than winners.

Football is, in itself, a metaphor that imitates real life and it provides more examples than anyone wants to hear, but at the end of the day, it's a player's job.  They go to work, do their job, go home and take out the garbage.

But the result of their week of preparation happens to be presented in front of an audience that tops 70,000 people in the arena and millions more on television - and the men that do it better and harder than the other guys end up being the winners.

The losers?  Well they generally support the guys on the other team - many are friends and have a healthy respect for each other, unlike many of the national journalists and, even more, the teams' fans can become so bitter that it controls their emotions and renders them incapable of appreciating greatness...

...like Sunday afternoon outside of M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland, where a throng of Ravens' fans stood and saluted the New England Patriots in the only way in which they were capable, their raised middle fingers and snarling of colorful metaphors an expression of their fear and anxiety that their team was about to get their asses handed to them.

And the ass whoopin's followed shortly after that.

Patriots' linebacker Rob Ninkovich expressed this experience to Mark Daniels of the Boston Herald after the Patriots' 41-7 public flogging of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday evening - a beatdown so brutal and utterly humiliating that by the time the game ended there were less people left in the stands than there were in the throng of ill-wishers that greeted the patriots' team bus with "The Bird", as it were.

“You know what? Coming in here, on the bus ride over here, I felt great. I knew we were going to beat these guys" Ninkovich recanted, "and getting some hand gestures, coming in from the fans, that’s always a good motivating thing."

A sentiment echoed by tweets from Christopher Price of WEEI.com:

and again


No one should really be surprised, neither by Ninkovich's confidence nor by he and his teammates gleaning motivation by their rude greeting.

It happens everywhere, even at Gillette Stadium - particularly when someone like Peyton Manning, Wes Welker or any player in the upper echelon of the fame and fortune that professional football brings come to visit - and it's uncool no matter the venue because it shows what losers the fans that do it really are...

...Because, as we've learned, losers are fans that can't appreciate greatness in any form - or at least refuse to acknowledge it.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Logan Ryan, stout Patriots' defense lead rout of rival Ravens

When the New England Patriots took the field at M&T Bank Field in Baltimore, Maryland late on Sunday afternoon, they knew that they were already the AFC East Division Champions.

When they walked off the field three hours later, they were the scariest team in professional football.

New England rode a dominant effort on the part of their much maligned and even more injured defense to a serious punking of the Baltimore Ravens, a beating so sound that the guys calling the game for CBS implored the Ravens to kneel on the ball rather than letting the Patriots' defense tee off on them...
Rookie Logan Ryan had the best day of his young career on Sunday

...because by that time, it was just plain dangerous to the Ravens to possess the football.

Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan led a defensive attack that forced four turnovers and sacked Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco four times, and the combination of LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley paced a Patriots ground game that ran the ball directly down the proud Ravens' defense's collective throat as the Patriots steamrolled Baltimore 41-7.

Ryan picked off two Flacco passes leading directly to 10 points, and the defense outscored the Ravens all by themselves, turning a fumble into a Chandler Jones recovery in the end zone for one score and topping things off with a Tavon Wilson interception - yes, that Tavon Wilson - that he took back the other way for a 74 yard touchdown.

In between, New England gave the Ravens and rest of the National Football League a peek at what the post-Gronk Patriots' offense would look like going forward, particularly when offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sticks to his running game and rides it to a balanced attack.

Quarterback Tom Brady went 14 of 26 for a modest 172 yards and one score - stats that aren't that efficient and nowhere near the numbers that he's had to put up in bringing his team back from huge second half deficits in recent weeks, but they didn't have to be.

Blount shredded the Ravens' run defense for 76 yards on just 16 carries, spelled by Ridley who rewarded Bill Belichick's confidence in his ball security with an additional 54 yards, including two first downs on the dagger drive, punishing tacklers and dragging them past the sticks - Blount finishing off the drive on a seven yard rumble up the middle that epitomized the entire game - for both clubs.

As has been the case all season, the Patriots scored their points in bunches, scoring on three consecutive six-play drives, Blount carrying the ball in from the one yard line after a ticky-tack pass interference call on the Ravens, then capitalizing on the first of Ryan's interceptions with running back Shane Vereen taking a quick out from Brady four yards to paydirt...

...a 45 yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal giving New England a 17-0 lead just into the second quarter, rookie punter Ryan Allen pinning Baltimore's offense deep in their own territory when the Patriots didn't score, winning the field position battle and helping to maintain the 17 point bulge at the half.

Baltimore took the second half kickoff and finally was able to gain some traction on offense, but also showing a great amount of desperation for so early in the contest by challenging the Patriots' depleted secondary on a 4th and 3 from the New England 39 yard line, but Flacco's pass to Jacoby Jones was played perfectly by Ryan, who swatted it away and forced a turnover on downs.

The Ravens' defense forced a three and out and got the ball back for Flacco in short order, only to have Ryan pick him off with an athletic play over the middle while covering tight end Dennis Pitta, setting up Gostkowski for a 24 yard field goal attempt and a 20-0 lead headed into the fourth quarter.

On the ensuing Baltimore possession, Flacco finally found some room to get the ball to his wide receivers, hitting Torey Smith with a short pass that he turned into a 42 yard gain to the New England 13 - three plays later with a 4th and 1 from the Patriots' four, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga clogged the middle of the line...

...allowing defensive end Rob Ninkovich and safety Duron Harmon to stop Ravens' running back Ray Rice short of the sticks, causing another turnover on downs.

The Ravens finally did score with nine and a half minutes left in the game, a one yard Flacco keeper set up by a 25 yard Steve Gregory pass interference penalty to close the score to 20-7, but after a three and out by the suddenly stagnant Patriots' offense and yet another 4th down stop by their stout defense at midfield, McDaniels sent out his punishing ground attack and stepped on the Ravens' throats.

Ridley carried three consecutive times to get the ball to the Baltimore 36, then Blount twice for another first down - Ridley twice more, gaining a first down by dragging defenders in an impressive display of power, then Blount took the ball in for a score to put the game out of reach.

By that time, Ravens' coach John Harbaugh had replaced a gimpy Flacco with Tyrod Taylor, who inflated the Ravens rush numbers by 40 yards on three scrambles before becoming the New England defense's big play launching pad, not expecting a quick snap from his center that ended up with Chandler Jones with the ball in the end zone, and not expecting Tavon Wilson to pick him off and skirt the sidelines for the final score.

In a statement game that the Patriots absolutely had to have - a road win that kept them on track for a healing first round bye in the playoffs - New England showed everyone who doubted them, including just about any "expert" that offered an opinion that the team that appeared dead just last week in Miami very much had a heartbeat...

...a dull, quick sound made by a watch wrapped in cotton, as the great poet and Baltimore resident Edgar Allen Poe described in his masterpiece of horror the Tell-Tale Heart:

Almighty God! --no, no! They heard! --they suspected! --they knew! --they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now --again! --hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

Villains! the Ravens shrieked, it is the beating of the Patriots' hideous heart!

A most horrifying sound, indeed - and not just for the vanquished Ravens, but for any team who might face New England in January.


Bills down Dolphins; Patriots clinch AFC East

The New England Patriots have clinched the AFC East division title.

New England came into Sunday's games needing just a win over the Baltimore Ravens or a loss by the Miami Dolphins to clinch their fifth consecutive division title and 10th in 11 tries - and the Dolphins have obliged by dropping an ugly 19-0 decision in Buffalo against the Bills.

The Playoff picture is far from settled, however, as the Patriots now concentrate on seeding. The only thing that winning the division title guarantees is a home playoff game in the Wild Card round - the ultimate goal in playoff positioning is to gain a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

And though that scenario likely died for New England on the turf at Sun Life Stadium in Miami last Sunday, they still have the opportunity to secure the second seed in the American Football Conference with a win over Baltimore late Sunday afternoon and a win over the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium next Sunday.

The picture is still very muddled to that end, with the Patriots yet to kickoff in Baltimore, but will be much more clear this evening.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Quoth the experts, "Nevermore"

"Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore" - Edgar Allen Poe 

In the classic Edgar Allen Poe poem The Raven, the main character grieves for Lenore, a symbol that could mean just about anyone or anything, though this is never made clear - just a lost love interest that the author supposes the big black bird has come to mock him for.

At first amused by the Bird, he begins speaking to it, asking if his interest had been accepted into heaven, and would he ever be reunited with them, to which the Raven replies "Nevermore".
"Touchdown Tommy" getting it done against the Browns

According to scholars, Poe chose a raven as the antagonist of the story because he wanted a non-reasoning creature capable of speech to play opposite the grieving man, delivering a thoughtless, emotionless response to his queries, causing him to become infuriated with the beast and ultimately driving him mad.

The New England Patriots visit Baltimore this Sunday, the workplace and deathplace of Poe - curiously and ironically born in Boston - his Poem the namesake of their professional football team, the defending World Champion Ravens - who started this season in a serious skid, but have rebounded and take a four-game winning streak into their contest with the rival Patriots, their beat writers and the expert prognosticators becoming the visitor's antagonist...

...perhaps the same "non-reasoning" creatures capable of speech, who implore Patriots' fans to abandon all hope of their team claiming victory over the devil birds - for their season is the trope for which the madman laments, gone the way of Lenore.

The experts and writers are jumping off the Patriots' bandwagon like rats fleeing a sinking ship, several close wins and the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski evolving into last week's close loss to the Miami Dolphins the impetus for the mass exodus - the team's good fortune falling into disrepair, seemingly too wounded to compete with the suddenly tyrannous and oppressive Ravens.

And why not?  Predicting the Ravens to win is a no-brainer, gun-shy prognosticators taking the easy road by picking the red-hot champions at home against a team that lost their biggest play-maker and have an injury list half the length of the entire roster.

The entire roster of ESPN writers and experts have the Ravens coming out on top, some by a wide margin - as are all of SI.com's staff of writers. In fact, Tom Mantzouranis of the Audibles Blog on SI.com adds his narrative to the pig pile burying the Patriots:

"The Patriots are living on the edge. Sure, they’re 10-4, but they’re not far from being 6-8. Their record and reputation have masked the fact that they’re not, really, all that great of a team - and it’s needed Touchdown Tom to bail them out against some pretty bad teams." - Mantzouranis 

Well...yeah. What's your point?

But they aren't bad, either, and "Touchdown Tom" has also bailed them out against some pretty good teams, too - without Gronkowski.  Just as easily as they could have been 6-8, a play here and a play there and they're the worst 14-0 team in the history of organized sports.

The Patriots are a box of chocolates, a coin flip, and they are also equal opportunity in that they give each opponent the same chance to put them away when they have them down - and only four out of 14 have.  And in each of those four losses the Patriots were on the doorstep at the end.

You want to bet against the Patriots, then roll the dice and take your chances.

They've lost four of seven on the road, Roll the dice.  They have the 31st ranked rush defense in the league, and the 24th ranked unit overall.  Go ahead, roll 'em.  Their injury report looks like an anatomical map and both sides of their line of scrimmage are shells of what they started the season with.

Go right on ahead and roll them bones.

There's really no point to any of this, other than a little thing called the Vegas Line - THE experts when it comes to setting winners, and they have the point spread at 2 1/2 points in the favor of Baltimore, and with it being generally accepted that home field advantage in any NFL game is worth three points, the bettors don't have much faith in the Ravens to have them favored for less than a Justin Tucker long-range field goal.

Ah, the drama - the bad words and bad blood.  New England hasn't clinched a playoff berth as yet, and the Ravens probably won't if they don't beat the Patriots.  It always seems to mean something when these two hook up - and NBC inexplicably flexed out of this game for it's prime time extravaganza.

Seems like there's a lot of folks jumping off the Patriots wagon, and it's always a risky proposition - because the Patriots are more Poe's Raven than the Ravens are themselves, driving the experts mad because they just won't go away.

Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.' - Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven, 1845

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Philanthropist Belichick announces charitable foundation

"Look, I’m sure I would have been fine coaching lacrosse, It wasn’t something I planned this way. But I got an opportunity in the NFL, it led to another one, and before I knew it, it was a full-blown career." - Bill Belichick

Although New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick' path to coaching started directly out of college in the form of being a  $25.00 per week assistant for Ted Marchibroda in Baltimore, the future Hall of Fame football coach has never abandoned his love for lacrosse, a sport that he played at Wesleyan University, captaining the team in his senior year...

...so it makes complete sense that the man who possesses the sharpest tactical mind in professional football, lives by the axiom "Due Diligence" in leaving nothing to chance, with the humbleness to acknowledge his own limitations and work through them would be the genesis of a charitable organization that would promote both sports.

"The Bill Belichick Foundation aims to provide coaching, mentorship and financial support to individuals, communities and organizations. Focusing on football and lacrosse, its mission is to bring the values of the Belichick family -- a love of sports, coaching and team building -- to the athletic leaders of tomorrow."

Belichick obviously recognizes that the best way for him to promote the two sports that he loves is to make them reachable to those individuals who would otherwise be alienated, to ensure that the intricacies of the sports are properly taught and to edify the team-first attitude that promotes success not just for the individual, but also for those around them.

Belichick already funds a scholarship at Annapolis High School, and this scholarship now will fold into the new foundation, a spokeswoman for the initiative said, and Belichick's longtime girlfriend Linda Holliday will be the Executive Director of the organization and his children will serve as the board of directors.

Two of Belichick's children are coaches - Amanda Belichick, Women's Lacrosse Interim Head Coach at Wesleyan University and Steve Belichick, coaching assistant for the New England Patriots. A third child, Brian Belichick, attends Trinity College and plays lacrosse.

The spokeswoman did not delve into ground floor funding for the project, but did announce that Belichick is sponsoring a raffle, the winner of which will receive off luxury suite tickets to watch the Patriots play the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 29. Holliday will host the suite and the winner will have a chance to meet Belichick.

The winner will also receive $500 for travel outside Massachusetts and an overnight stay at a hotel near the stadium and there are already plans in place to hold a similar fundraiser next spring.

Some may be surprised that the gruff and secretive coach would be the deeply-involved philanthropist type, but the tough personnel decisions and alleged transgressions over the years have painted a public picture of a cold and ruthless man - but when he undertakes a task always strives to make it the best that's ever been.

Bill Belichick showed up in Foxborough, Massachusetts one day around the turn of the century, the object of New England Patriots' owner Bob Kraft's fancy - and it's inconceivable where the franchise would be today if he hadn't.

The friend that Kraft had turned away when considering coaching candidates to replace the volatile Bill Parcells, he did so because he needed a clean break from anything Parcells - and Parcells' fingerprints were all over Belichick.  Kraft told him the main reason that he hired Pete Carrol and didn't hire him in 1996 was because Belichick needed to work on the way he handled people...

...which may have been true, but Kraft admits that he so loathed Parcells that it clouded his judgement regarding the morose Belichick, and when Carrol's team regressed for three straight years after their Super Bowl appearance in Parcells' last season with the team, enough time had passed to soothe the bitterness of those years and discovered that he had made a mistake.

His Patriots didn't need a control freak like Parcells, nor did they need the laid-back coolness of Carrol - they needed a coach, and never mind the people skills.

Fourteen years later, Belichick is taking that decision to the next level.  There are kids and organizations that need a coach and a mentor and the resources that they couldn't afford otherwise, and given Belichick's passion in everything that he does, his foundation should be able to do for them what he has done for the Patriots...

...and since there are none better in the league, their futures just became a lot brighter.

With Belichick and Harbaugh, mutual respect makes for a great rivalry

"One thing about the Patriots is you just never know what you’re going to get." - John Harbaugh

Life is like a box of chocolates, eh John?

When you respect your opponent, that's half of the battle right there - so to hear Harbaugh talk about the Patriots, it's refreshing because he doesn't try to blow sunshine up your ass and doesn't single out players as the keys to the matchups, but also a little unnerving because you know that his respect means that he's prepared...

...perhaps a bit more unsettling when he pays you the greatest compliment a coach can pay his opponent, which Harbaugh did during a conference call with the Boston media on Wednesday:

"...they’re like a division opponent. They know us, we know them. I think they understand how we’d like to play the game, and I hope that we can continue to learn how they like to play the game and try to be prepared as you can be."

It's no secret that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and the Baltimore Ravens coach are friends and glean knowledge off of each other - and when Belichick talks about the Ravens and John Harbaugh, the answers seem a bit more genuine, comments a bit more candid - not so much the cookie-cutter responses that we normally get from the sullen and oftentimes surly hooded one.

"They've played well in crunch time. When they've had to make the plays, they've made them. As usual, coach Harbaugh is doing a real good job with his football team in all three phases of the game – offensively, defensively and special teams. They look like the championship team that we all know they are." - Belichick

Belichick went on to add how well coached the team is, constantly alluding to how clutch the players have been and giving props to a class organization from top to bottom - of course, Belichick has some history with the organization as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, being fired by then-owner, the late Art Modell just as he was moving the team to Baltimore to become the Ravens...

...while Harbaugh kept the hug-fest going by commenting on how tough it is to keep winning consistently through losing players to attrition, injury and, sadly, felony - and he should know, as his Ravens have had to endure losing many players this offseason.

But despite his friendship with Belichick and his obvious connection with his brother, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, he says the best advice he ever got in football was from his father, whose words would fit right into the Forrest Gump lexicon.

"Get the lead, keep the lead."

Right up there with any philosopher's creed or wizard's incantations - and fundamentally sound to boot.

The Patriots and Ravens are rivals for a reason, part of it to do with how often they've squared off against each other recently  - but it's really about fundamental respect and how much the teams are like-minded.

Should be a war on Sunday.

http://www.nepatriotslife.com/2013/12/with-belichick-and-harbaugh-mutual.html

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Dolphins' hero Thomas wins AFC Defensive Player of the Week

January 22, 2012.

A day that thrust the name of former Oakland Raiders practice squad safety Sterling Moore into the lexicon and lore of Patriots' championship play, setting into motion a string of events that helped the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl and left the Baltimore Ravens lamenting their poor luck.

Moore had been pressed into service by coach Bill Belichick into his secondary that had suffered through a plague of injuries, and on a second down with 27 seconds left in an epic AFC Championship Game on a frozen Gillette Stadium field and the Ravens in the Patriots red zone, the undrafted rookie free agent safety cemented his place in New England Patriots' history...

...swiping at a ball thrown by Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco and caught by veteran wide receiver Lee Evans along the right sidelines in the end zone - knocking the ball from Evans' hands before he had complete control of it to force third down - then reaching around Ravens' tight end Dennis Pitta to knock down Flacco's third down offering to force a Billy Cundiff field goal attempt to tie the game.

Of course, Cundiff hooked the 23 yard attempt and the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl in improbable fashion - though in the title game, New York Giants' quarterback Eli Manning victimized Moore on a perfect downfield strike along the sidelines to set up the Giants' winning score...

Fast forward to last Sunday.

Michael Thomas, an undrafted free agent safety out of Stanford, signed by his former college coach onto the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad in 2012, where the Miami Dolphins - desperate for defensive back depth - offered him a spot on their 53 man roster just five days prior to their matchup with the New England Patriots.

Thomas quickly made his way to south Florida and spent the next few days on the scout team, taking no reps in practice and finding himself as the bottom-of-the-barrel option for Joe Philbin's defense - finding himself on the field on the Patriots' final drive of the game due to injuries all over the secondary.

“I went out there knowing Tom Brady was coming after me as the new kid on the block.”

And why not?  Just as Joe Flacco had gone after Sterling Moore in the AFC Championship game, Brady went after Thomas - who had never played a regular season snap in the NFL - and the outcome for Brady and the Patriots was eerily similar.

With 27 seconds remaining and the Patriots with the ball inside the Dolphins red zone, quarterback Tom Brady lofted a perfect pass into the hands of wide receiver Danny Amendola, but Thomas got his hand up and swiped the ball out of Amendola's hands before he could secure it, preventing a sure touchdown...

...then on the final attempt of the game by Brady, Thomas stepped in front of receiver Austin Collie and intercepting the ball, ending the Patriots' comeback bid from a 24-20 deficit.

The Dolphins didn't advance to the Super Bowl on the play, but they did inch closer to a wild card playoff spot - and Thomas, who hadn't even found a place to live and was staying on the Dolphins' dime at a hotel, was awarded the AFC Defensive Player of the Week award for his inspiring play.

“It has been crazy, and to be honest, it hasn’t really sunk in yet,” said Thomas of the series of plays that made a hugely positive first impression with his teammates and the Miami fan base - and who was busy moving into a furnished apartment on Monday while reveling in his accomplishment, blissfully unaware that he was being considered for the award...

...driving around in a rental car, with the football that he intercepted in the trunk.

“I have a bed and the ball." he said at the time, "That’s all I need.”

 http://www.nepatriotslife.com/2013/12/dolphins-hero-thomas-wins-afc-defensive_18.html

McDaniels answers "Red Zone" critics, but reveals chink in armor as well?

Was that a bus that just drove past Gillette Stadium and, if so, was that Tom Brady underneath it?

In the shit storm of negativity following the New England Patriots' dismal loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was pelted by questions during his weekly conference call with reporters on Tuesday regarding his play calling and how it was connected to the teams' red zone woes - and his replies were oddly accusatory of his future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Blount is one of four powerful backs for Patriots

And while McDaniels attempted to be Belichickian in his responses, his attempt at dodging the question revealed some transparency in his thinking, and also perhaps revealed a disturbing soft spot in his own philosophy.

"The Miami Question", as McDaniels put it, is a question as to whether the Patriots would have been better off sprinkling in some more running plays into the offense, given the success on limited attempts by his running backs - but we've seen this before.

The Patriots called just nine running plays in the second half of Sunday's loss, with McDaniels explaining that the Dolphins dictated what New England should call on offense by showing Brady different reads that supposedly caused him to check out of running plays close to the goal line - Reminiscent of the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5:

"Even having a first and goal from the Bengals’ one yard line late in the game, McDaniels called a first down run and, not gaining any ground, gave up and attempted a fade to eligible tackle Nate Solder of all people, and a jump ball for a 5′ 10″ Julian Edelman before settling for a field goal – essentially telling every football player, fan and expert that he doesn’t trust his offensive line and backs to get one yard for a game altering touchdown…" - Foxborough Free Press, October 7, 2013

After that game, McDaniels acknowledged that he could have been better at achieving balance in his play calling - but now he's explaining that a 14-year-veteran with two league MVP awards, who has guided the club to seven AFC Championship games, five Super Bowls and who has won three World Championships checked out of running plays near the goal line in order to get smacked in the teeth by unrelenting Dolphins' pressure?

"A lot of times we have multiple options in the huddle, and sometimes you end up with the perfect blend and perfect balance when you do that, and sometimes the defense, when you're trying to get certain things against a specific look, sometimes you can get a little skewed."

McDaniels said, acknowledging that the Miami defense was dictating the play calling and taking away New England's power game, then throwing his quarterback under the bus with a read-between-the-lines  back-handed compliment:

"We certainly don't want to take the freedom away from our quarterback to get us into a good play and we don't want to become just a call-it-on-the-sideline team when we have a quarterback that's capable of doing a lot of good things with our offense at the line of scrimmage."

Is this what's been happening all season?  Is this why the Patriots have been struggling in the first half of games - because they are being dictated to by the defensive play calling instead of taking the bull by the horns and taking by force what they are fully capable of?

The simple fact of the matter is that the Patriots have a power running game that is being used inconsistently, and the offense - in fact, the entire team - is suffering the consequences when balance is not achieved - and it's not like the Patriots haven't used the running game to it's full advantage at times this season, and always to the compliment of McDaniels and the backs...

...which makes the inconsistencies and the excuses all the more maddening.

With the talent on this roster and the wizardry of coach Bill Belichick and, yes, the offensive mind of Josh McDaniels, these Patriots should be running folks over on offense, not meekly taking what the defense supposedly gives to them - otherwise, what's the point of even taking the field?

In a game of violent ground acquisition, only the strong survive and the meek get stomped like grapes - there is no room for excuses, no tolerance for tactical errors and the team that adheres to the fundamentals reign supreme.

"No one is innocent, and on the field it starts with the offensive line and works it’s way back – but before any of that occurred, there was the play calling." - Foxborough Free Press, October 7, 2013

Carpe Diem: Seize the day - eat or be eaten.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Without Mayo, Patriots' run defense lacks zest

Sealver Siliga is something else, huh?

While the 6' 2", 325 pound brick wall has helped the New England Patriots' run defense in all facets of the focus, his true impact has come as a simple addition by subtraction - because, truth be told, the rushing figures aren't really that better at all and, contrary to popular belief, they weren't that bad to begin with.

What he does is relegate tackles Joe Vellano and, to a lesser extent, Isaac Sopoaga to the depth players that they are, which makes them more effective in the limited roles that they excel in.
Could someone like Ebner account for the weak side?

But with negativity and accountability being human nature - meaning finding someone to blame - ever since the defense lost nose tackle Vince Wilfork, tackle Tommy Kelly and weak-side linebacker Jerod Mayo to season-ending injuries in consecutive weeks, blame has been placed on the run defense for allowing the opposition to stay in games with the Patriots...

...and it has to a certain extent, but mostly when teams use unconventional methods of achieving that success, like a scrambling quarterback or an end around to a speedy wide out - but that is just a small area of focus as lack of execution on all levels of the team have caused the Patriots to have to scratch out games at the last second - or not at all.

Siliga fortifies a middle that has been giving up an average of 4.0 yards per carry and 3.6 yards to the right - numbers actually right on par with the run defense before Wilfork and Kelly were lost for the season - but he has virtually nothing to do with the whopping 6.8 yards per carry that teams have been gouging the Patriots' defense for to the left, or exactly where tackling machine Jerod Mayo roamed before losing his season to a torn pectoral muscle.

It seems that, try as they might, there is just no replacing what Mayo brought to the table, pardon the pun.  Not to mention that the defensive captain and play caller was also New England's best coverage linebacker, an area hit even harder by his loss.

But instead of lamenting on the numbers, the Patriots' coaching staff have been attempting to fill his void, with very minimal success - even playing more of a 3-4 look at times to get more coverage and less gap responsibility on the second level, but that hasn't had the desired effect either.

What makes Mayo unique to this defense is his pursuit angles and vision, as well as solid tackling technique and fluid hips in pass coverage underneath - and to replicate those attributes with just one player, or even a combination of schemes, has proven fruitless.

As has been a point of conjecture all season long, the team has attempted to replace his production with various schemes and personnel, working decently from the 4-3 and 3-4 bases, but getting gashed when the opposition forces them into a nickle look, which, because of Mayo's skill and athleticism wasn't as big an issue due to his sideline to sideline ability...

...which had allowed the defense to run with him and Dont'a Hightower as the linebackers in the 4-2-5, but which is exposed without him - so, that said, what is the answer?  An even better question might be, is there an answer?

Going back into the offseason, coach Bill Belichick brought free agent Adrian Wilson into the fold for just such a possibility.  Wilson had the bulk and size of a linebacker and the underneath coverage ability of a strong safety, but he ended up on the team's season-ending injured reserve, and there's just no one else on the team that sports that combination of size, speed and instinct.

So the Patriots are forced into a rotation at weakside linebacker that features Hightower, reserve Dane Fletcher and rookie Jamie Collins - but Hightower and Fletcher are thumpers who are better on the inside in limited space while Collins belongs on the strong side where his length and overall size matches favorably with tight ends - in other words, they are all being asked to play out of their natural position.

Mayo was often assigned to the running back, who would usually be quicker than a tight end coming out into the flat and coming off left tackle in the running game, working in conjunction with the defensive end to force a running play inside where someone like Siliga, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes and the rest of the bigger bodies can clog the rushing lanes.

Perhaps the answer lies in the rotation in the nickle, where a bigger bodied safety such as Duron Harmon or even second year special teamer Tavon Wilson could act as a Big Nickle safety and be able to set the edge, and the kid nicknamed "War Hammer", Nate Ebner, has already filled in admirably as the "Giant Back" in the dime, making him the fastest of the run defenders on the field at 4.48.

But an even better possibility may be in activating developmental rookie linebacker Steve Beauharnais to the game-day roster instead of allowing him to flounder in the system.

A healthy scratch for nearly the entire season, the 6' 1", 240 pound Beauharnais isn't the fastest guy on the planet, and he stands a bit short for the position, but the Rutgers product has the athleticism to set the edge in the running game and fills the hole with violent intent - projected as more of a strong side entity, his determined edge play and ability to stick with running backs in the pattern may be worth taking a chance on...

...but he is lost in the numbers game with injuries at other positions, so like it or not, what the Patriots already have on the active roster is what we're likely to see from here on out.

Overall, the Patriots are asking many different players to plug the hole that Mayo left behind, and it's not working as it should despite heroic effort, particularly on the part of Hightower - so a new approach should be in the offing, and the Big Nickle - be it with a safety or with Beauharnais - is worth a look...

...because with teams running all over the weak side at a clip of nearly seven yards per carry, an adjustment has to be made to the scheme or the run defense will be exploited right out of the tournament, where stopping the run is paramount.

Opinion: McDaniels distrust in a "Gronk"less offense the real red zone villian

"I'd say generally speaking, you're better off throwing closer to the goal line than farther away from it, to a point. Once you get inside the five yard line, then I'm not sure that that's true." - Bill Belichick

Not exactly a ringing endorsement from head coach Bill Belichick for the play calling in the red zone - and while he didn't come straight out and hang his offensive coordinator out to dry, he didn't go out of his way to advocate for him either.
A picture says a thousand words...

Those words from Belichick came after his New England Patriots failed to score twice inside the Miami five yard line, a perplexing trend that threatens to derail the Patriots' offense just when it was starting to find it's traction in time for the post-season - many in the media lamenting tight end Rob Gronkowski's season-ending injury last week against Cleveland as the beginning of the end of New England championship chances...

...telling a tale that suggests that Gronkowski makes the Patriots red zone offense efficient and effective all by his lonesome.

But while it is true that Gronkowski's presence certainly helped - how could it not? - the real effect of his injury is on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' confidence level, his play calling vastly and negatively affected - and it reared it's ugly head once again after a seven game sabbatical to doom the Patriots' one and only shot at claiming the top seed in the conference with a disturbing loss to the Dolphins.

The New England Patriots' red zone execution issues are self-inflicted - and the man at the trigger, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, has it pointed right at the Patriots' collective foot.

No?  How else can one look at the play calling in the red area and not feel that there were eleven potential  game-winning points left on the turf at Sun Life Stadium in sweltering Miami, Florida on Sunday simply due to McDaniels abandoning his running game just when it made the most sense to make use of it?

LeGarrette Blount is a beast, dragging folks for needed yardage as observed several times in the past two weeks.  James Develin simply won't go down, Shane Vereen has shown his worth between the tackles and Stevan Ridley might be the most explosive back through the hole in the NFL - and they can't be trusted to pick up four yards in three tries?

The Patriots' offensive line may have some issues, but run blocking is not one of them. In fact, the Patriots running game was tearing off needed yardage just about every time quarterback Tom Brady needed them to do it, to the tune of 4.4 yards per carry - and all McDaniels has to remember is that his backs are not fast enough to try running wide, rather, these bruising backs want and need the ball inside the tackles....

**********

The Patriots' opening drive was a thing of beauty, right until it was scoring time, then McDaniels froze.

Blount had carried five times for 25 yards on the drive, including picking up a tough 3rd and 1 from the Miami 12.  On the next play, Belichick's words held true as Brady found receiver Julian Edelman for six yards to the Dolphins four yard line...
Blount gets 8 yards on this 2nd & 10 call from the 10

...two incompletions later and Stephen Gostkowski was on the field to give New England a three point lead that could have been seven had McDaniels used his big backs to try to pick up the four yards.

On New England's first touchdown drive Belichick's words rang true yet again, Brady finding Michael Hoomananui with a back shoulder throw that "Hooman" one-handed for the sweet six point grab on a third and eight that would have been another field goal had he not - scoring from outside the 10 yard line.

The first possession of the third quarter, Blount carried three consecutive times, Brady then lofting a 30 yard strike to rookie Josh Boyce to get the Patriots in field goal range, but three straight incompletions doomed the promising drive to a failed 48 yard field goal attempt...

...this, coupled with McDaniels' curious decision to not give Brady a few shots down the field with 32 seconds and two time outs in his pocket at the end of the first half meant that instead of New England piggy-backing potential scores at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second, the Patriots came out with nothing on either.

Instead of giving Brady his shots - knowing that an "eternity", as defined by the NFL, is Tom Brady having the football with :32 left and two time outs remaining in the half - McDaniels had Brady hand the ball off twice to kill the clock - even calling a time out between the two runs - both accounting for Vereen's lone rushes on the day for 13 yards.

Just after the Dolphins had completed their comeback and taken a seven point lead on the first play of the fourth quarter, Brady and the offense again embarked on a long drive that ended in a field goal, Blount again getting a big gainer on second down to set up a 3rd and 2 from the Miami five yard line, but an incompletion forced a 4th and 2, ending another promising drive.
Edelman scores from the 24 yard line

The next drive the Patriots took the lead back with a touchdown drive, Edelman taking a short pass on an in-cut and weaving his way into the end zone, the impressive effort saving McDaniels from having to struggle with play calling in the red zone - problem is, the Patriots had to give the ball back to the Dolphins, having just a three point lead to protect and 4:14 left on the clock...

...putting the onus on the Patriots' defense to stop the Dolphins' clicking passing attack before they got into field goal range, which was made infinitely more difficult when Gostkowski shanked the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, giving Miami the ball at their 40 and just 25 yards to pick up to get into field goal range.

Because of McDaniels' distrust in his red zone offense and his subsequent skeptical play calling, the Patriots are doomed to score from outside of the 10 yard line without Gronkowski in the lineup, and the defense will continue to be put in bad spots if the offense can't run an efficient four-minute offense.

Consider that before Gronkowski returned to the lineup seven games into the season, the Patriots scored touchdowns on just five of their ten trips inside their opponents 10 yard line, four times through the air and just once on the ground - but in the seven games that he played, the Patriots were an astounding 17 of 19 in such situations, scoring on 10 runs and seven passes and settling for field goals just twice.

Sunday in Miami?  Zero for two.

Losing Gronkowski hurts, about that there is no doubt at all, but it's not as if the Patriots' don't have other legitimate weapons.  And in a game that was tight and with plenty of time to move the ball, having a ratio of 55 passing attempts to 22 runs is an abomination, particularly given the success the backs were having - and road-grading guard Logan Mankins said as much in eloquent and cryptic fashion following the game.

"I felt like we were always moving the ball until a certain point where then we wouldn't make any plays or we'd make a mistake that would kill the drive. So it was just one of those days where you get going and then either they'd stop you or you stopped yourself. I kind of felt like we were stopping ourselves today." - Mankins

McDaniels needs to trust that his players can get it done in the red zone like they get it done between the 20's - and until he does, this offense will not score enough points to win anything, let alone a title.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Patriots' magic runs out, fall short in Miami 24-20

All season long the New England Patriots defense had been victimized by athletic tight ends who shredded the linebackers and safeties for big yardage, first downs and touchdowns.

On Sunday afternoon in South Florida, the Miami Dolphins tight ends did no such thing.

Big play tight end Charles Clay was hounded by the Patriots' coverage all game, and backup tight end Michael Egnew was blanketed almost as closely - but when the pair absolutely, positively had to make a play, they did, and although the plays that they were able to make didn't result in points, they extended drives at critical times...
Michael Hoomanawanui pulls in a fist half touchdown pass

...and the rest was left up to quarterback Ryan Tannehill putting perfect throws on his pass catchers coupled with creative play calling by the Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman - who made the tough decisions when his counterpart on the Patriots wouldn't - and their defense getting big plays out of an unheralded second year safety on the Patriots' final drive to survive New England 24-20.

Survived, because without Safety Michael Thomas stripping the football away from Patriots' receiver Danny Amendola in the end zone with 27 seconds left to play, and then undercutting receiver Austin Collie and intercepting quarterback Tom Brady with seven seconds left, the good work put forth by Tannehill, Sherman, Clay and Egnew would have all gone for naught.

But despite all of the second half heroics from the Dolphins, this game was turned in their favor in the final forty seconds of the first half.

The Patriots had taken a 10-0 lead on a highlight reel one-handed touchdown grab by tight end Michael Hoomanwanui with 1:46 left in the second quarter, the ensuing kickoff giving Tannehill the ball at his own 18 yard line, going primarily to receiver Rishard Matthews to get the Dolphins to the New England 39 in less than a minute - when Patriots' slot corner Kyle Arrington was hobbled by a muscle cramp and had to come out of the game...

...Tannehill going directly at his replacement, journeyman Marquice Cole, who actually had decent coverage on the play, but Tannehill threaded the needle to speedster Mike Wallace, who shook Cole's tackle, juked safety Steve Gregory and went 39 yards to cut New England's lead to 10-7.

New England got the ball back at their own 20 with 32 seconds left in the half and two timeouts remaining, but Patriots' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seemed curiously satisfied to run out the clock and take a tenuous three point lead into the locker room - and to let the Dolphins take all of the momentum into theirs.

After a third quarter that saw Patriots' Mr. Automatic Stephen Gostkowski hook a 48 yard field goal attempt just left, and Miami kicker Caleb Sturgis tie the game at ten by nailing a 32 yarder, the Dolphins took the lead on a Tannehill pass to running back Daniel Thomas on the first play of the fourth, aided by a pass interference call on linebacker Dane Fletcher, who stumbled and took down Egnew on a third and four from the New England seven yard line.

Brady and the Patriots responded, but had to settle for a Gostkowski field goal after a 3rd and goal blitz by the Dolphins forced an incompletion at the two yard line - but the Patriots' defense got the ball right back for Brady, who hit Julian Edelman on an in cut and the tough-as-nails receiver managed to weave his way through traffic for a 24 yard touchdown and a 20-17 New England lead with just over four minutes remaining in the contest.

Gostkowski gave the Dolphins excellent field position on the ensuing kickoff by kicking the football out of bounds, automatically placing the ball at the Miami 40 - but an incomplete pass and a sack of Tannehill by Sealver Siliga had the Dolphins on a third and long, an 11 yard pass to Brian Hartline setting up a 4th and 5 from the Miami 45...

Tannehill, knowing that if he didn't pick up the first down he probably wouldn't see the ball again, took the snap, pivoted to his right and fired a screen to Clay, who had been held without a catch to that point - and Clay manged to weave his way through Patriots' defenders for six yards to keep the drive alive.

Five plays later, Tannehill found running back Marcus Thigpen in the left flat trailed by linebacker Dont'a Hightower, and Thigpen outraced Hightower to the end zone from 14 yards out and the Dolphins had a four point lead with just 1:15 left in the game.

Brady marched the Patriots right down the field, throwing a 12 yard strike to Edelman to get the Patriots to the Dolphins' 19 yard line, and an offsides call on Miami's Cameron Wake got the ball to the 14 - but with 27 seconds left, Danny Amendola couldn't hang onto a perfect pass from Brady just inside the goal line, Thomas knocking the ball loose as Amendola attempted to bring it back into his body...

...a second down pass in the direction of Edelman fell short in the left flat and a strike to Hoomanwanui fell incomplete with no pass interference call despite contact, the fourth down pass toward Collie intercepted by Thomas to preserve the Dolphins' win.

Following the game a clearly distraught Amendola lamented not being able to come down with the winning score, but Thomas, who wasn't even a Dolphin until 5 days earlier after being signed off of the San Francisco 49ers practice squad, made a terrific play on the ball that allowed Miami to continue their playoff push and closed the door on the Patriots' hopes for the top seed in the conference, and maybe even a first round bye.

Damaging loss for the Patriots, who played a solid game, but this time couldn't come up with the clutch plays when they needed them most, while Tannehill, Thomas and the Dolphins made enough to pull out the win - barely.

New England Patriots on Paper: Ridley needs to run hard - and quickly

Stevan Ridley's tough year can be saved by putting the past behind him and running hard
The psychology of football is an often overlooked aspect of the game, but absolutely impactful.

How many times have we seen it?  A running back fumbles the ball a couple of times and all of a sudden his focus becomes on increased ball security instead of aggressively running the ball? A receiver drops a ball or two and his hands turn to stone because he's concentrating too hard on catching the ball? Someone coming back from injury concentrating on protecting the injured body part?

Confidence wanes when something goes wrong, self-preservation takes over and technique goes out the window - and when technique goes, so does execution - and the results can be disastrous.  It doesn't even have to be something that has a significant impact on the game as a whole - something as seemingly insignificant as a linebacker biting on the play action can cause doubt to creep into their brain...

...which causes a split-second of hesitation - and a split-second can be an eternity in the light speed world of professional football - so without a doubt, New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick includes intestinal fortitude and mental toughness in his criteria when choosing which players are brought in through the draft and free agency.

It's not perfect, Belichick's criterion, but it's better than just about everyone else's - and therefore, he sets the standard.

The old British axiom that "sometimes it's better to slap a hand than to hold it" is part of his working acumen - and it works well, particularly because he knows when to hold and hand - ie, keep feeding a player reps until they work through an issue - and also when to slap a hand, which means sitting someone on the bench to let them stew in their foul indiscretions and error repeating.

We've witnessed both in abundance this season from the immutable coach, and it is a major reason why his Patriots are currently perched on the top of the American Football Conference totem pole with the opportunity to make the road to the Super Bowl run right through Gillette Stadium...

...but also why his team has had to mount serious second half comebacks in half of their wins their season - their slow starts a matter more of a feeling out process and building up the players' confidence than anything to do with injuries or lack of effort - and more, Belichick having his plan and sticking with through thick and thin - putting his players in position to succeed by setting up the opposition through patience, then burying them with a strong counter-punch.

It has worked like a charm, with the rookie receivers, the offensive line and even Brady, who has melted down a couple of times in frustration - but the exception has been in the backfield, where the Patriots' lead back coming into the season has responded to being in the dog house by regressing into some sort of psychological funk...

...which he has to break out of if the Patriots are to realize their potential on offense and become all that Belichick has built them to be.

As aggressive and explosive a back as there is in the game today, Stevan Ridley has drawn the ire of Belichick on three separate occasions this season, benched in the opening contest of the season for putting the ball on the ground, benched again for doing the same thing in Cincinnati a few weeks later, then stripped of the ball in the Steelers game just before the bye.

Belichick has tried both slapping his hand and holding it - the strip in the Steelers game being acknowledged by Belichick as more of a great play by the Steelers than an issue on Ridley's part - but when he lost a fumble on the first drive of the game against Denver and it was returned for a touchdown, Belichick put him directly on the bench for the remainder of that game.

So egregious was the fumble against Denver that Belichick left him completely off of the game day roster against the Houston Texans the following week - but when he was activated in last Sunday's miraculous comeback against the Browns, he looked awkward and uncomfortable, and very timid in hitting the hole - not a good sign coming out of Belichick's doghouse.

So, pending Ridley's confidence issues, the running game is highlighted by Tampa Bay castoff LeGarrette Blount, who has found his niche in the backfield, his syrup-on-waffles running style leaking through the initial resistance and breaking off sweet jaunts through the second level, and complimented by Shane Vereen's hard running between the tackles - though Vereen's real contribution is in the passing game.

And that's it.  That said, this unit needs more going forward if they expect to get a fast start this Sunday to beat the Miami Dolphins, nevermind contending for a title.

Two of the three rookie receivers have already been ruled out of Sunday's game against the Dolphins, and with exceptional tight end Rob Gronkowski gone for the season, there is some big-time pressure on the remaining pass catching munchkins to create separation for themselves down the field - and much of that can be created by success in the running game, setting up the play action.

Wide Receiver Julian Edelman keeps making the plays that free agent acquisition Danny Amendola was supposed to be making - as it appears that Amendola's snaps are being managed to promote his overall health - while Vereen and rookie speedster Josh Boyce became intregal keys in the win over the Browns, and wiley veteran Austin Collie an under-the-radar possession threat.

The key, of course, is Vereen acting as a speedy and intrepid liason between the backfield and the pattern - but the success of the running game makes this entire thing click - the play action giving pause to the interior pass rush of the opposition, giving the pass protection that extra split second to square their shoulders and anchor themselves, in turn giving the receivers the same time frame to make their cuts and show their numbers to Brady.

Can the Patriots still win without Ridley?  The answer is a definitive "yes", but the third year LSU product has evolved into a popular man on the field, a known fumble risk that every defensive player will be focused on with the goal of stripping the ball out of his grasp - perhaps opening the game up for the pass while the would-be tacklers are drooling over the opportunity to cause a turnover...

...but even that won't work if Ridley doesn't break through the crust of his indecision and show the burst that made him a legitimate top 10 running back entering the season, before the psychological impact of putting the ball on the ground took control of his game.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Most Valuable Player? Brady has closed gap on Manning

Brady for Most Valuable Player?  Just like the Patriots, never count him out
In the National Football League, things have settled in.

Excitement has given way to trepidation, what once was invincible is now vulnerable and what once was mediocre is - well - still mediocre, but with renewed hope.

The only consistent entity is the New England Patriots, but no one seems to know how.

The team with the second most cap dollars sitting on the shelf in the form of season ending injuries and, by subtraction, the most rookies seeing playing time in the league, the Patriots suddenly find themselves in control of the American Football Conference by virtue of the once seemingly invincible coming back to earth.

But it is not time for celebration, rather, it is time for focus and execution - or the Patriots will end up scrambling for playoff position like everyone else.

There are three games left in the season for New England, and while all are games in which the Patriots have the capability of winning, they are also games which could easily be lost - which is exactly how their 2013 season has been defined thus far - their 10-3 record, with a dropped ball here and a misplayed onside kick there could just as easily be 3-10...or 13-0 for that matter.

Five different Patriot starters are on the season-ending Injured Reserved list and seven others have missed games as recently as last Sunday's improbably victory over the Cleveland Browns.  Their running game is footnote, the offensive line resembles a turnstile and their receiving corps is a walking triage unit...

...the interior defensive line features rookies and no-name free agents, while the back end is hit or miss, depending on how athletic the opposition's tight end is.

So, how the hell are they doing it?

The offense begins and ends with quarterback Tom Brady, who has played his way into the league MVP discussion with a second half of the season in which he has been as clutch as clutch can be.  The three consecutive come-from-behind wins are what is getting all of the headlines, but in the second half of this season, Brady is putting up better numbers than anyone else in the NFL - including Peyton Manning.

In fact, taking into account that when considering the MVP the statistical edge always seems to be with the winner, Brady's numbers blow Manning's out of the building in the second half of the season.

Manning had a clear edge in every statistic and intangible that can be conjured to determine a Most Valuable Player in the first half of the season, and still carries an edge going into the final three regular season games - two for Manning, as his Broncos were stunned by San Diego on Thursday night dropping them to 11-3 after starting the season 6-0.

Submitted got your approval: Starting in week 9 - and not counting Thursday night's loss - Peyton Manning is a decent 129 of 206 for a completion percentage of 63%, accounting for 1,603 yards (321 yards per game) with 15 touchdowns and three picks - not bad, right?

More realistic than the astronomical 71% completion percentage, 30 touchdowns and 388 yards per game that he posted in the first half, and certainly ions above Brady's 55%, nine touchdowns and 199 yards per game while he struggled breaking in rookie receivers.

But since the midway point of the season, Brady's numbers have rivaled Manning's first half totals, completing 147 of 216 attempts - a 68% clip - throwing for 372 yards per game, 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions with three games to go.

Many will argue that Brady getting back Rob Gronkowski in week seven can account for some of that positive increase, but it also must be remembered that Brady was without three of his primary weapons in the first half of the season - Gronkowski, third down back Shane Vereen until week 11 and Danny Amendola who suffered a groin injury and missed several games and was limited in all of the others - while Manning was fortunate enough to have all of his weapons...

...and Manning still has all of those weapons - sans slot receiver Wes Welker - and his numbers are still regressing as matter of the playing field becoming leveled as teams have come to understand how the Broncos have been operating on offense.

Even with Gronkowski now gone, Brady still has his other weapons plus a capable running game, and with games remaining with the floundering Baltimore Ravens sandwiched between division rivals Miami (7-6) this Sunday and Buffalo (4-9), the best record in the Conference - along with a first round playoff bye and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs - is his for the taking.

It won't be easy, it seldom is with Baltimore and never is in division games, but Brady and the Patriots know that if they stumble along the way, the Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts and Denver will be right behind them and more than happy to take that top seed away from them.

Yes, there are other candidates for the MVP besides Manning and Brady, and even though Manning is still the odds-on favorite to take the hardware home, names like Seattle's Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Calvin Johnson and Cam Newton are mentioned in the same sentence - and where the Most Valuable Player award is supposed to go to the guy who is most responsible for the success of a candidate's team, any would be deserving.

But this race is between Manning and Brady, and if the Patriots hold on and secure the top seed in the conference for the third time in four years, there can be only one choice - and that's the player who has led five fourth quarter comebacks, and has done so despite all of the injuries, turnover and attrition...

...which is also the reason why coach Bill Belichick should win Coach of the Year honors - but the only shot either one has at the awards is by winning out and taking the top AFC seed.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Life without Gronkowski: The song remains the same

An ominous cloud hangs over the six weird little states that comprise the region of the United States known as New England.

Not because of anything to do with that evil bitch Mother Nature - rather, a nefarious, distorting gloom that has enveloped the region in deference - a curious abdication of hope that has actually been occurring each Sunday since the beginning of September and has seen the region's professional football team finish their contests before sparse crowds.

with paper and pencil, Belichick is the quintessential on-the-fly tactician
Not that the New England Patriots have been playing bad football - on the contrary, they stand at 10-3 and on the cusp on yet another AFC East division title - they just have not been playing sixty minutes of good football, often falling behind and relying on quarterback Tom Brady to lead them back to victory.

Nobody likes change, particularly New Englanders, where tradition is everything and attempts to change anything is met with rude discontent and often physical redress - so when quarterback Tom Brady started the 2013 season with an essentially brand new set of receivers to throw to, the masses were uneasy.

And why not?  Brady is approaching middle age and, consequently, retirement - and his trusted pass catchers from the recent past were all either in different area codes, on the skids or in the poke - and only one would be coming back.

Rob Gronkowski was recovering from arm and back surgery and represented the hope that Patriots' fans clung to as they watched Brady struggle to find common ground with his new receivers - a chemistry and synchronization with them that takes far more time than what he and the fan base were willing to accept, but had no choice but to assent to coach Bill Belichick's master plan.

Brady melted down on National TV one gloomy night in September - something that needed to happen, like every story needs a point of contention for the hero to overcome - hitting rock bottom, as it were, coming out of that narrow victory with a new sense of purpose and the knowledge that the team had to do whatever it could to survive until the new kids became one with Brady and the All Pro Gronkowski returned to tie the whole thing together.

And survive they did - in fact, doing more than just surviving as they compiled a 5-1 record before Gronkowski was cleared to play, their lone blemish an ugly 13-6 loss to Cincinnati in which Brady was leading the team down the field in a monsoonal deluge in an attempt to even the score before running out of time.

Gronkowski returned, but not much changed on a philosophical level because as Patriots' fans know all to well, tragedy can befall a team at the drop of a hat, and their most lethal weapon had proven to be brittle over the course of his young career...

...and now that he is broken again and lost for the rest of the season, Patriots fans needn't live shrouded under the gloom of that ominous cloud of despair, because while Gronkowski's loss is mourned. the fact that Belichick stuck with his new pass catchers and never strayed his determined course means that the Patriots, while wounded, have a very viable plan B to fall back on.

And that Plan B is nothing more than sticking with the original blue print that Belichick built for his team in the offseason and in training camp - and he can do so because he never swayed from his scheme and convictions.

Only now, free agent acquisition Danny Amedola seems to have healed from his groin issue that plagued him during the first half of the season, and H-Back Shane Vereen has returned from the broken wrist that sidelined him for 10 weeks - Julian Edelman has remained healthy and is one of the top receivers in the league while the trio of rookies have been productive and are the verge of breaking out into something proper.

So while Gronkowski's impact can not be overstated, his loss is something that the Patriots can overcome due to the consistency of the Philosophy and scheme - for which Belichick's dogged determination can be attributed.

The Patriots went 5-1 without Gronkowski, Amendola and Vereen, relying on rookie receivers and well-timed sparks from the running game with Brady running the show and counting on a defense missing several key pieces to slow down opposing offenses just enough to give their own offense a chance to pull out the victory...

...and they went 5-2 with the same ideology while they had Gronkowski in the lineup, and they will continue to win in the same manner now that Gronkowski is on the shelf yet again.

It is dangerous to discount the talent on this New England offense, and even more so to doubt Bill Belichick's ability to prepare that talent for battle, as he is without question the quintessential game-plan specific and on-the-fly tactician in the game today - perhaps ever, and anyone who thinks that he and Brady can't put this team on their shoulders and make a deep run towards a championship hasn't been paying attention all these years.

Because when it comes to the New England Patriots, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

 http://www.nepatriotslife.com/2013/12/life-without-gronkowski-song-remains.html