Sunday, December 28, 2014

Covering Tight Ends, Pressuring the Passer Areas of Focus for Patriots' Defense

Browner was not fined for this hit on Green, perhaps lending credence to his physical and proper play

Getting flagged for a personal foul against San Diego may have been the best thing that's happen to Brandon Browner this season - and what's good for Browner is certainly good for the New England Patriots.

Called for helmet-to-helmet contact with Chargers' tight end Ladarius Green, Browner was incensed and animated in his protest that his devastating hit that left Green prone on the turf with a concussion was a clean hit.  The penalty negated a Devin McCourty interception return for a touchdown and initially brought heavy rain down on the physical corner for the vicious hit in the flat...

...but replays clearly demonstrated that Browner tackled Green with perfect form, never employing his helmet as a weapon and not driving Green to the ground.  The league, which normally looks at all personal fouls during their review of the week that was, refused to levy a fine against Browner, which is customary for helmet-to-helmet contact.

Why is this such a big deal?  Well, because of the league's emphasis on player safety and physical contact beyond the five yard buffer from the line of scrimmage, Browner has been the subject of the officiating crew's angst and New England's Bad Boy poster child.

It goes to figure that with Browner's physical style that he would be flagged more than usual - and, in fact, he leads the team in penalties by a substantial margin - but that one hit that the league refused to fine him for and the replays that show textbook form on the hit may just force the officials to think twice about automatically reaching into their back pocket for their flags.
Ayers is key to covering backs and rushing the quarterback

That should give Browner some level of autonomy and little more leniency from the officials in that they know that he wasn't purposely targeting Green's head and, indeed, provided the aforementioned textbook example of how to absolutely annihilate an opponent legally.

The benefit to the Patriots' defense is obvious, but it's not as if Browner was ever going to change his playing style - and he shouldn't, because despite the high number of penalties incurred by the 6' 4", 220 pound behemoth of a cornerback, his physical presence causes fear and loathing amongst the opposing pass catchers, and that is a wonderful advantage to have.

Browner has been an integral part of an influx of players that have elevated the New England defense to that of an imposing and physical top ten unit statistically, but still with the evil and wrong bend-but-don't-break philosophy that takes years off of Patriots' fans lives - the only socially redeeming factor being that it works.

Browner and company have not allowed a touchdown in the second half of a game since the Indianapolis Colts accomplished the feat seven weeks ago, and have allowed just 12 second half points in the five games played since - surrendering only 78 points total in that span, an average of 15 points per game..

...which is fortunate, since the Patriots' offense has been struggling out of the gate, leaving the defense in some tough spots in the process and facing halftime deficits in three of their last four games.

But while the offense does find it's stride in the second half with balanced play calling, the Patriots' defense has been carrying the team nevertheless - but that doesn't bring much comfort to the feel of the game, as the bend-but-don't-break deal causes much anxiety among the fan base.

There is hope for the future, however, and it starts with covering the opposition's tight end.

While shutdown corner Darrelle Revis practically eliminates one side of the field and Browner brings his physical presence with a safety over the top on the other, opposing teams are using this unit's aggressiveness against them by sending their wide receivers either deep or to the intermediate zone, clearing out traffic to target their tight ends and running backs...

...and while a combination of linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas have neutralized the running backs for the most part, the opposing tight ends have been running wild and, in most cases, are extending drives.

Since the Indianapolis game, opposing tight ends have caught 38 balls from their respective quarterbacks for 467 yards and two touchdowns, as linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower have been unable to keep up with the athletic hybrids, and the safeties are having similar issues.

This is where Browner could chime in.

Last season in Seattle, Browner was benched late in the season after being burned repeatedly on the outside, but coach Pete Carroll still managed to find a niche for the Oregon State product as a double nickle, meaning that Browner would line up as a nickle slot corner and take the tight ends coming off the line, and the results amounted to a complete shutdown of the underneath passing game.

This season, the Patriots are having success with Browner on the outside, his length making up for lack of foot speed, but with a safety over the top, the feeling is that to stop the opposing safety-valve tight end play, New England could take the approach that Carroll took last season.

But Patriots' fans will have to wait to see if that materializes or not, as Browner has been deactivated for Sunday's "controlled scrimmage" with the Bills.

The game means nothing to either team, as Bufrfalo has been eliminated from playoff contention and the Patriots have wrapped up everything but a Super Bowl berth, which means that the teams will probably treat this game like a third preseason game - which in New England's case means working on a few areas of focus and then pulling starters.

But it goes without saying that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and head ball coach Bill Belichick will be looking to solve the tight end dilemma, which in turn may help give the other area of concern - the team's inability to get enough pressure on the opposing quarterback - a shot in the arm.

Overall, the Patriots have plenty of talent on defense to carry the team to the Super Bowl, but solving the areas of need in an already stout defense may just ensure it.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Fundamentals, Sustaining Drives Should Be Stressed for Imbalanced Patriots' Offense

"The second most fundamental principle in offensive football is to force the opposing defense to defend the entire field, which came into play with the advent of the forward pass.  Many believe that it takes a speedy wide receiver who can take the top off of the defense to force this issue, but the one true way that one can achieve this goal is through balance...

...another axiom of football that is misunderstood, in that balance in football doesn't necessarily mean equal parts running and passing - rather, it means to run the ball as many times as it takes for the defense to respect your commitment to the run."
Foxborough Free Press, December 21, 2014

The New England Patriots' offense is dangerously imbalanced.

On the surface, and using the the definition of balance in the above excerpt, it would appear that the Patriots have plenty of balance, averaging 26 rushing plays per game compared to 41 pass plays, a nearly 40/60 ratio which is optimum balance in terms of the NFL - but when one considers how those running plays are distributed throughout a game, the disparity becomes obvious and apparent.
It is quite likely that Patriots' fans will see this scene many time on Sunday

It's been no secret that the Patriots have stumbled on offense coming out of the gates in the past month, and not just at the beginning of the games, but also coming out of the locker room - normally a strength of this offense - going from idle to full speed at the start of each half takes at least two possessions to get anything going at all, and many times it seems to rely on being kick-started by a big play from the defense or special teams.

In the four-game span encompassing the past month, New England has scored 102 points - a drop of what amounts to a touchdown from the 33 points per game they had scored in the previous 11 contests.  But to make matters even worse, of the ten touchdowns produced by the team in that span, one came on a blocked field goal return and five other others were the direct result of a short field provided by the defense or special teams...

...and another one came on a 69 yard pass and catch play between quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Julian Edelman, meaning only three touchdowns have been produced by the offense on drives longer than 35 yards - not the kind of statistic that feeds into much positive mojo regarding the offense.

But there is a solution, and it's called running the football.
White should be on the active roster vs Buffalo

As noted several times in this blog, establishing the running game makes everything else related to the offense incrementally easier.  If the defense is forced to respect the running game, that affords the offensive linemen some flexibility in that the big defensive tackles' momentum-building initial step is tempered somewhat by the split second uncertainty as to rush the quarterback or maintain gap responsibility against the run...

...reinforced to a great degree by the quality of play action ability of the quarterback, who in this case is Tom Brady, who has made knees buckle in the front seven with the precision of his play fake.  This has a double-down type of benefit for the the offense as a whole, as the linemen can use the aforementioned split-second of uncertainty to anchor themselves for the pass rush, or to catch the defensive line on their heels and create leverage in the running game.

More than that, is the fact that with greater protection for Brady and the probability that the defense will have to stack the box to guard against the run, that will leave at least one of his outstanding pass catchers open down the field.  That even loops back to the running backs, who may find big holes with the trap draw if the defensive linemen can't or don't maintain their gap integrity.

In other words, establishing the running game is the single most important means for an offensive to impose their will on a defense, the result of which is the offense dictating the pace of the game and taking what they want by force rather than just taking what the defense gives to them.

Admittedly, the entire premise of the Erhardt-Perkins offense lies in its motto, "Pass to score, run to win", and taken literally, that is exactly what head ball coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels appear to be honoring, as the Patriots have a tendency to be aggressive with the passing game to open the game and have had much success closing down games in the four minute offense.

But far too often, the running game is all but forgotten in the equation, and balance - not to mention points and time of possession - are sacrificed in the name of airing it out, particularly in the first half, resulting in halftime deficits in three of the four contests.

As mentioned, New England runs the ball an average of 26 times per game, but has averaged less than 10 carries per game in the first half of the last four.  Things even out a bit in the second half where the gap narrows to a ratio of 16 running plays to 19 passing attempts, which is where the 40/60 split occurs when all is said and done - but a far less stressful experience would occur with a little more attention paid to the ground game.

Consider that on all scoring drives by the Patriots' offense, the running game is heavily involved, with 46 carries for 242 yards, an average yards per carry of 5.2 yards per carry - and when the four-minute offense is employed to kill the clock, the results are nearly identical - but at all other times when haphazardly throwing in a couple of token running plays in the middle of an aerial assault in a feeble attempt to catch the opposing defense off guard, the results are not so productive.

All of these things added up suggest that more than anything else, the play calling must be sharper heading into the post-season, because when given the opportunity to achieve balance - particularly in the four minute offense - the players have proven that they are able to consistently execute and sustain drives.

That said, how do the Patriots coaching staff and players approach this coming Sunday's season finale against the Buffalo Bills in a manner which will promote the notion of balance and execution in light of the fact that this game should be viewed as a live-action scrimmage, and that many of the starters on offense are either going to be held out, or will be limited in their exposure to the violent Bills' defense?

Tough call, considering that running back Jonas Gray has already been ruled out with a bum ankle and that fellow power back Legarrette Blount may not see any action either, nursing a sore shoulder - and also that left guard Dan Connolly will probably sit due to a bad knee and swing tackle Cameron Fleming is slowed by a gimpy ankle, all of which somewhat throws dirt on the notion of getting staff and players on the same page...

...but in reality, this issue is more on the coaching staff than anything the players could accomplish in what amounts to a three-hour troubleshooting session.

The players have proven that they can execute just about any series of play calls handed to them, so it is up to the coaching staff to ensure that they put the players in the best possible position to succeed, which is to achieve balance.  In order to level the playing field for the offense against a dominant defense that they will assuredly come across in the playoffs, the Patriots must establish the running game in order to make the defense defend the entire field - and it doesn't have to be as productive as the 5.2 yards per carry.

Three yards and a cloud of dust is what the running game is predicated on, which in lay terms means to run the ball just enough to force the defense to respect the ground game, and a token draw play here and there isn't going to make the nut.

To force a defense to respect your running game, a team has to run right into the teeth of the defensive line - putting the onus on your offensive line to win the one-on-one battles and for the running backs to hit the hole hard, not dawdle and skirt the line hoping that a hole will open up.  In that respect, the play calling has everything to do with the success of the running game.

The Buffalo Bills have the fourth ranked defense in the NFL, but there is a gap between levels as their pass defense is ranked in the top three units in the league, but their rush defense is merely a middle-of-the-pack entity that surrenders ground yardage at an alarming pace, so one would surmise that the prudent thing for New England to do on offense is to shove the ball down the Bills' collective throats, but as recent history has shown us, the Patriots don't always apply popular theory.

Again, go back to the last four games for an example: Going into the loss at Green Bay and the wins at San Diego and against Miami (not necessarily in the win at the Jets), the stats told us that the Patriots should run the ball against three very suspect run defenses, yet McDaniels opened all three games by having quarterback Tom Brady flinging the football all over creation - in effect feeding right into the strengths of those units...

...then in the second half, they suddenly seemed to flip a switch, gain balance with the run and then blow the game open with a truly awesome display of offensive firepower.

As a result, the Patriots as a team have scored just 10 first quarter points in their last four games, which is bad but made even worse by the fact that seven of those points came from a blocked field goal return for a touchdown - that's three points scored by the offense in the first quarter of the last four games, and have scored a combined three points coming out of the locker room for the second half in three of those contests, the blowout of San Diego notwithstanding.

In contrast, the second and fourth quarters have been good to the Patriots, as their 38 and 27 respective points totals easily best the output from the opposing offense, as New England fields a stingy defense that rivals any in the league when it comes to giving up points.

But that comes later.  The point of the moment is that to come out of the game with Buffalo with any semblance of momentum that will be sustainable during the two weeks that the Patriots have between the Sunday and the divisional round of the playoffs, it's going to have to be by the offensive line winning their battles and opening holes for establishing their ground game...

...and they are going to have to do that with no true power backs toting the rock, considering the injury status of Blount and Gray, and also with Belichick wanting to limit injury potential to passing back Shane Vereen - which means that Patriots' fans could be getting a feature length view of their future at the position, as rookie runner James White will most likely get the call.

As will backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, either at halftime or shortly after - because, after all, it's not the execution of the players that needs to be worked on, it's the play calling by the staff to put those players in position to succeed.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series, with part 3 ruminating on the defense and what they should be working on during their game against Buffalo...

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Five Patriots who will not play in the 2014 Pro Bowl

Venerable old gunslinger Tom Brady was named to his 10th Pro Bowl on Tuesday
Time was, the National Football league's annual All Star game, the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl, was played the week after the Super Bowl.  In Hawaii.

Recently, however, the game has been used as a "loser's only" exhibition to fill up the week-long void between Conference Championship weekend and the Super Bowl hype week, featuring players from the respective conferences squaring off against each other in what amounts to a three-hour long pillow fight - but at least it was in Hawaii...

...but not this season.  The Pro Bowl is no longer the best players from each conference playing for conference pride, rather, the players that have been deemed the best of the best by a vote from the fans, media and head coaches from each NFL team are now tossed into one big gaggle of humanity and "drafted" by selected historical figures to form two teams.
Gronkowski makes his 3rd team...

This school yard mentality coupled with the timing of the spectacle has rendered the contest the least viewed All Star game on the planet, which diminishes the accomplishments of the selected players to the point that, while still an honor to be recognized by the football community, the game itself is a side show that many players excuse themselves from.

Logistically, the game is limited to the players from the thirty teams who are not playing in the Super Bowl, as there is no way in hell that the coaches from the two best teams in football are going to send their best players to possibly be beaten and injured in a game that means absolutely nothing, a week before the biggest game of their lives.

Especially when the game isn't even in Hawaii, where the players could at least validate participating in the exhibition game as an excuse to take their families on a tropical vacation.

But hopefully, none of this even matters to the New England Patriots.

The 2014 Pro Bowl and all of it's weird intricacies and odd structure is scheduled to be played at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona this year, exactly one week before the Super Bowl is scheduled, and there is a very good chance that the five players selected to participate from the Patriots will instead be back in Foxborough preparing for yet another shot at the world championship:
...former pitcher Gostkoski earns his third as well...

Tom Brady - Not like he would play in the game anyway, regardless of venue, as he has played in just three of the exhibitions in nine opportunities - mostly because of the aforementioned limitation on players who will instead be playing in the Super Bowl, but skipped last year's game with an "injury".  This is Brady's 10th selection in 14 seasons as a starter under center - not bad for a guy that was washed up a few months ago...

Stephen Gostkowski - With only two kickers being selected, it is curious to find that both of them have solid ties to the Patriots.  Indianapolis Colts' kicker Adam Vinatieri, who won two Super Bowls on last second kicks for the Patriots is the other selection.  Apparently, Bill Belichick can draft good players...
Human missile Slater is so good his selection is a given

Matthew Slater - One of the true good guys in the league and a hell of a special teams player.  Slater gains his fourth Pro Bowl selection on the merits of special teams play alone, meaning that he is the best in the business as what he does, just as his father, former Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman Jackie Slater, was for many seasons.  Slater is one apple that didn't fall far from the tree.

Darrelle Revis - Did Revis even play this season?  Just as it is with offensive linemen, the only time you hear a cornerback's name during the course of a game is if he screws up.  Revis didn't screw up very often and, in fact, made opposing receivers disappear at the same time.  If Revis isn't the best cover corner in the league, he's damned close...
Illusionist Revis earns his sixth selection

Rob Gronkowski - Gronk probably would have made the team on entertainment value alone, as his off field antics would have dominated tabloid headlines for the entire week leading up to the game, much more so that one would hear or see leading up to the Super Bowl.  Gronkowski is the best tight end in the business, and it's not even close...

So, an old Gunslinger, a former baseball pitcher turned kicker, a human missile, an illusionist and the reincarnation of Max McGee have been honored with selection to the Pro Bowl from New England - great storylines all.  Too bad for the football world that none of them will be playing in it, since they will be preparing for the Super Bowl a week later...

...so snubs be damned.  A case could be made for at least a dozen other Patriots to make the team, but it matters only if they had an incentive base in their contract that rewarded them for being selected, but it goes without saying that each and every one of them would much rather have that world championship ring on their finger.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Patriots looking at custom-made training opportunity against Bills on Sunday

Brady has had to get the ball out quickly, as lack of a running game and the injury to Dan Connolly has taken their toll

Though the NFL season is entering its final weekend, the atmosphere around Foxborough, Massachusetts most definitely has an almost preseason feel to it, for which you just blame the New England Patriots for being so darned good.

The Patriots secured the top seed in the American Football Conference by virtue of their 17-16 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday coupled with the Denver Broncos loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night, seemingly rendering this coming Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills meaningless - when in actuality, it is a rare and priceless gift horse that head ball coach Bill Belichick is going to look right in the mouth, and shove a bridle into it.
The Patriots' defense has had plenty to celebrate this season

This coming Sunday, the ultimate leverage junkie Belichick will be living the dream, turning what would have been a fight to the finish with the dangerous Bills (had Denver not lost on Monday night) into a full-blown controlled scrimmage in which he will be able to put his team in the best position to try and work out the few bugs in their execution with the advantageous outlook that his football team to have nothing to lose by losing. 

It's preseason all the way, except the rookies are no longer rookies and the blended family that is an NFL roster has had time to acclimate and play off of each other, that wobbly-legged, headlight-in-the-eyes look that the team had in their eyes during August now a sharp, intense glare at the ultimate prize...

...which, of course, head ball coach Bill Belichick will tell you is nothing more than a victory over the Buffalo Bills in this Sunday's season finale at Gillette Stadium.

"I don't think it really has a big effect on what we've been doing" Belichick said in response to the notion that the AFC regular season champions might rest it's starters against the Bills. "Just keep getting ready for Buffalo.  That's what our challenge is."

Of course, all that was is Belichick giving the finger to the media for again daring to ask a question that they know they'll never get a straight answer to - but you'd have to be crazy on acid to think that the Dark Master is devising a game plan based on a win-at-all-costs scenario when he has the perfect opportunity to run a full objective-specific, task-oriented three hour seminar on fundamental football at game speed to prepare his charges for a playoff run.

This doesn't mean that the Patriots are not going to try to win the game, or that they don't care, rather, it means that they care very much about winning - but winning the way they are supposed to be winning, with a balanced offense and a stout defense that can dictate the pace of a game and crush the will of their opponent.

Keeping all of that in perspective, Sunday afternoon's contest will have much the same feel as a third preseason game, traditionally considered a "Dress Rehearsal" for the regular season, only this one will be a dress rehearsal for a Super Bowl run - and if quarterback Tom Brady has his way about it, it will be a full game for the starters.

"After the last few weeks of football, I'd love to go out there and see if our offense can put together the best 60 minutes of football that we've put together in a long time." Brady said, alluding to the fact that the offense has been less than stellar in the past month, then, "I don't care about resting.  I want to go out there and try to kick some butt. That's what I want to do."

It's a tough sell to the average fan and the other 31 teams in the National Football League that the Patriots are having issues on offense, given their record and the fact that they are top scoring team in the league, but the fact remains that New England hasn't exactly exploded out of the gates in their last four games, scoring just 10 points in the first quarters combined, but rolling for 38 in the second frames...

...while the third quarters have been just as dismal as the first (the 24 point anomaly at San Diego aside), while the fourth quarter has seen some scoring, but mostly the Patriots have been reliant on their four-minute offense to kill the clock and a shut-down defense.

And the latter is important to remember, because it's been over a decade since the Patriots have had a defense that can take over a game the way this defense does in the second half of games, and considering that since the team struggled to a 2-2 start - a time frame in which they gave up 33 and 41 points respectively in losses to the Dolphins and Chiefs - this New England defense has held every other opponent since to 26 points or less, and five of the last six have failed to make it out of the teens.

Even so, the defense does have some issues to attend to, primarily getting to the opposing passer with the rush and covering tight ends down the field, while the offense needs to incorporate the power running game into it's arsenal earlier in the game to take some of the burden off the offensive line and to keep Brady upright.

But these are superficial issues that have a way of working themselves out once players have time to get their bodies right with some proper rest, which they will get plenty of since clinching the top seed in the conference means two weeks off until the Patriots take the field again in the Divisional Playoff round...

...a long enough layoff as it is without feeding into it by resting starters against Buffalo.

No, the Patriots won't rest players, but will instead work on the fundamentals of football - blocking, tackling and running - while playing within a choreographed game plan designed to maximize opportunity to work on problem areas, and all with the devil-may-care attitude that comes from knowing that they don't lose anything by losing this game.

This is part one of a three part series, with part two covering what the offense should be looking to improve upon while part three will ruminate of the defense...

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Patriots defense continues savage run, bails out offense in 17-16 win over Jets


Chandler Jones and Chris Jones both congratulate Vince Wilfork after he deflected a Nick Folk (2) field goal attempt
The New England Patriots' offense has some problems.  Fortunately for them, their defense causes even more problems for the opposing offense.

For the sixth consecutive game, the Patriots' defense held their opponents without a touchdown in the second half, while New England's fashionably late offense again scored enough after the break to give help them to their tenth victory in their last 11 games, their 17-16 win over New York at MetLife Stadium on Sunday afternoon clinching a first round bye for the Patriots.

One has to look all the way back to New England's 42-20 win over the Indianapolis Colts to find the last time an opposing offense has scored a second half touchdown on the stingy Patriots' defense.  In fact, since that game, the Patriots defense has allowed only 12 second half points in five games.

Ponder that for a moment, then consider that those four field goals were the combined production from 26 drives, a ridiculously miserly scoring rate of 15% - which has been crucial since the Patriots have gone into halftime trailing their opponents in three of their last five games, and have scored more than ten points in the second half themselves just once.

Obviously, the defense has been bailing out the offense lately, which shouldn't be the case when one considers the talent that New England offers on offense - but there is both a reason and solution.

Tom Brady was under siege all afternoon
The reason? No commitment to the running game.  The solution? Commit to the run.

The oldest principle in football is the running game.  Before the advent of the forward pass, before the rules that limited the number of players on each side to eleven and before even the ball became the oblong great Grandfather of today's pigskin, the running game is how teams moved up and down the field.

The second most fundamental principle in offensive football is to force the opposing defense to defend the entire field, which came into play with the advent of the forward pass.  Many believe that it takes a speedy wide receiver who can take the top off of the defense to force this issue, but the one true way that one can achieve this goal is through balance...

...another axiom of football that is misunderstood, in that balance in football doesn't necessarily mean equal parts running and passing - rather, it means to run the ball as many times as it takes for the defense to respect your commitment to the run.

That's it.  If you commit to the running game and stay with it regardless of success, it creates harmony for the offense and has a polarizing effect on the defense: Running the ball limits the personnel that they can dedicate to their pass defense, and the front seven are far more susceptible to the play action pass - with the linebackers freezing for a split-second before assuming their coverage responsibilities and the pass rushers forced to maintain their gap integrity for that same split-second before commencing their assault on the quarterback.

What this does is creates easier separation for the backs and tight ends curling out into the pattern and also affords the offensive linemen the opportunity to get in their stance and become anchored against the onslaught.
The Jets' defense held Rob Gronkowski in check...

If there is no balance, you get - well - you get what we saw today and, indeed, the past five weeks.  And heading into the post-season, that isn't going to make the nut.

For sure, The Jets were having their way with the Patriots on both sides of the ball in the first half but led by just three points at halftime, building that lead to six midway through the third quarter on a Nick Folk chipshot field goal - and it began to look like Brady and the offense would never stop spinning their wheels and gain some traction downfield...

...after all, their six possessions in the first half and their one coming out of the locker room at halftime yeilded little, as their only score, an athletic back-shoulder grab by Rob Gronkowski, came after Danny Amendola set up the offense at the New York 36 yard line with a fantastic punt return to open the second quarter. Of the others, three were of the three-and-out variety, one was a kneel down at the end of the half and the other two simply stalled short of paydirt.

But then, suddenly, the Patriots started to move the ball.  A combination of the no-huddle and four-minute offensive philosophies melded in unison, generating an eight play, 81 yard drive that produced a field goal to get the Patriots to within three, then an eight-play, 38 yard drive to take their first lead of the game ensued, capped by a Jonas Gray one-yard run.

What was the difference?  On the field goal drive, running back Shane Vereen carried the ball six times for 38 yards, then on the touchdown drive, Brady himself took to the ground, rushing twice for 12 yards, each time moving the chains.  Then after another Folk field goal trimmed New England's lead to just one point, Brandon Bolden toted the rock four times for 29 yards as the Patriots ran out the final 5:16 to secure their 12th victory of the season.

In those three drives, New England committed to the run, gaining 81 of their 85 rushing yards on the day, and a sterling 5.75 yards per pop - so it's not as if the Patriots couldn't run on the Jets.

The defense made big play after big play to bail out the sputtering Patriots' offense, a trend that continues from week-to-week, far protracted from the so-called tough part of their schedule and into the stretch run, and although the offense was without their top receiver and starting running back for the game, that has little bearing on the fact that it's been happening for weeks.

A Jamie Collins interception caused by defensive end Chandler Jones' hit on Jets' quarterback Geno Smith as he released the ball halted one promising-looking Jets' drive, and a timely hug blitz by middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower resulting in a sack forced a long field goal attempt by Folk that was deflected by Vince Wilfork, were perhaps game-altering plays, and the Patriots do not win this game were it not for them.

But in the end, it was a division win that assured the Patriots one of the top two seeds in the AFC, and the first round bye that comes with it - a win over Buffalo at home next Sunday to close out the season would certify that the road to the Super Bowl goes right through Gillette Stadium in the dead of winter, a very intimidating venue, particularly in gloomy weather...

...just the sort of weather that makes Foxborough a tough place for any team to visit - but to take advantage of the home field and all of the nasty things that it holds for the opposition, the Patriots must achieve balance and must commit to the run, or it all stands for naught.




Saturday, December 20, 2014

Injuries open door for three Patriots who are looking for their niche

Gray has a huge opportunity to solidify his role on the Patriots' offense
The New England Patriots injury report released on Saturday had their number one receiver, top running back and starting slot corner all downgraded to "Out" for their game at New York against the Jets on Sunday afternoon - an obstacle that would be too much for most teams to overcome, but not the Patriots.

No, Bill Belichick's insistence that the 53rd man on his roster is just as important as the top man on the totem pole has paid off consistently for fifteen years now, so there's no reason to think it's going to fail him now.

After all, who can ever forget the smoke and mirror show he put on during the team's Super Bowl run in 2011, when an unknown safety by the name of Sterling Moore became the hero the AFC Championship game, and then last season when the next-man-up philosophy made up for the losses of several key members of the defense and made it all the way to the title game...
The Patriots would like to see a few celebrations like this on Sunday

...and while it is true that New England failed to bring home the coveted hardware, it is still reasonable to assume that no other staff could have pulled off that schtick long enough to even be in a position to play for the trophy.

The news out of Gillette Stadium on Saturday evening has been grim, with first cornerback Kyle Arrington being ruled inactive with a bum hammy, followed in rapid succession by news of wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back LeGarrette Blount being dealt the same fate, Edelman with a concussion and Blount with a shoulder.

But all that means to the Patriots is that they dip into their tremendously talented and battle-tested depth.

This is why Bill Belichick has to be considered not only the best coach in the National Football league, but also the best General Manager.  While everyone else is going after the big names in the offseason, Belichick is content to fill his roster with young veterans that fit his philosophy on both sides of the ball. 

His signings are not always popular with the media and fan base, but what those folks are about to witness tomorrow at MetLife Stadium is what separates the Dark Master from everyone else - and certainly the news is nothing to alter a game plan over, as their replacements are starting-quality talents in their own right.  Danny Amendola will most likely assume Edelman's snaps, while Jonas Gray spells Blount and Logan Ryan fills in for Arrington.

This is not to discount what the three injured players bring to the field, it's simply a validation of the breadth of depth chart.  And not just that, either, because all three injuries have handed all three backups the opportunity to seize their role with this team.

Amendola hasn't seen as many targets as Edelman, but it should be remembered that he was signed last season to be the slot presence that the team lost when Wes Welker bolted for the Broncos - but the off-season surgery that he incurred on the nasty groin injury that sapped the life out of his 2013 season has affected his explosion out of his cuts downfield, and he hasn't been getting open consistently enough for Brady to look his way as more than a third or fourth option...

...but Belichick has had him returning kickoffs and punts in an attempt to help him regain either his explosion or his confidence, or both, and it's starting to look like he's regaining both as a result - and it's not as if he's going to be alone in this endeavor, not with the likes of Rob Gronkowski dragging linebackers and defensive backs down the seam.

Gronkowski is a unique matchup in and of himself, and when one adds in LaFell, tight end hybrid Tim Wright, young speedster Brian Tyms and passing back Shane Vereen (himself an accomplished slot receiver), New England can still field enough weapons on the outside to take on a porous New York secondary that is ranked in the bottom three of pass defenses in the league.

New York's strength lies in it's defensive line, a top five run-plugging corps that allows just 3.5 yards per carry - which isn't an impenetrable number by any means.  Gray is actually the Patriots' leading rusher this season, even though he spent a significant amount of time in Belichick's doghouse, and saw his first extended action last Sunday when he showed patience, power and speed against the San Diego Chargers...

...a style that works well against an aggressive Jets' line that are successful by taking away the cutback lanes that are favored by a zone blocking scheme.  Gray is a no-nonsense, north and south load with excellent burst through the hole and surprising speed for a man his size and coupled with his "Gronkian" ability to drag would-be tacklers for chunks of extra yardage. He was dominating in the second half against the Chargers and he has all the tools to be an excellent NFL running back.

It's not stretching the truth very much (if at all) to proclaim that Gray has a huge opportunity to solidify his standing with Belichick by running hard and being productive as the workhorse against that excellent front seven - not to mention the boost a running game would give to the offensive line.

The best case scenario would be to have both Gray and Blount healthy and working as tandem steamrollers, and since the former is an established veteran, the latter can only benefit from increased reps. 

Backing up Gray should be seldom used bruiser Brandon Bolden, who runs like injured top back Stevan Ridley, but is a special teams' ace and used mainly in that capacity.  The Blount injury could also open the door for rookie runner James White to see the active roster, though the Wisconsin product is more a third down passing option than a threat up the gut, though he has that mentality.

On the other side of the ball, Ryan is a capable slot corner, as he seems to play his best ball in a phone booth where he is able to get his hands on the receiver and use his strength to disrupt the pattern.  In fact, Ryan drew the assignment on Jets' receiver Eric Decker last season when Decker played for Denver, shutting down the veteran pass catcher in the regular season meeting and picking off Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning while mugging Decker underneath.

Ryan had a fantastic rookie year, but has been inconsistent in his sophomore campaign - and much of that could be attributed to him getting lost in the shuffle that took place when Belichick went out and got cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. 

Revis is so good that he consistently shuts down the other guy's main weapon, so what would have been dime sub-packages without Revis' involvement are now nickles, and with Arrington entrenched as the nickle corner, snaps have been hard to come by for Ryan - but on Sunday he may well be staring down the player he shut down last season, and could boost his confidence and get him untracked for the playoffs.

Sadly for New York, Decker and receiver Percy Harvin is about as dangerous as they get down the field, their offense predicated on running the football and relying on their defense to keep the game close enough to pull one out in the final minutes, so maybe the Patriots play mostly base defenses and Ryan wouldn't see the field as much as he'd hope, so he will be motivated to make count whatever he gets.

The Jets always play the Patriots tough.  These are always physical games with a nasty bent to them, and with this possibly being Rex Ryan's final meeting with Belichick as the coach of the Jets, it goes to figure that this game means a lot to both him and his players...

...which is neither here nor there, except that emotions rarely carry for a for a full 60 minutes - usually for just half that many, if the Patriots' past three games have taught us anything - and sooner or later the Patriots will likely pull away and blow out the home team, but for that to occur, Amendola, Gray and Ryan will have had to play a big role, and all three are capable of doing just that.

After all, Belichick's philosophical approach practically assures it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Patriots can clinch division on Sunday, but seeding is far from decided

The New England Patriots have just concluded what was widely perceived to be the toughest part of their schedule.  However, the toughest part of their schedule may, in fact, be ahead of them.

Sure, in going 4-1 against the likes of the Broncos. Colts, Lions, Packers and Chargers the Patriots endured and even prospered against some of the best offenses that the league has to offer - and not too shabby a list of defenses either - but the real test for the current top seed in the AFC comes in the final three weeks of the regular season against the other three teams in their division.
Rivalries like the one with Buffalo are always dangerous propositions

The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are hovering just above the .500 mark for the season with identical 7-6 records and the Jets' season was doomed before it even started, but if history teaches us anything, it is that division rivals always tend to play above and beyond their capabilities when playing each other...

...and when you add in to that the fact that the Patriots have been steamrolling each of them for going on a decade and a half now, things like hate and revenge are motivating factors.

That said, the next three weeks presents itself like the proverbial Murderer's Row: The Dolphins in Foxborough this Sunday, then off to New York to play the Jets the following week, then the Patriots wrap up the regular season hosting the Buffalo Bills three days after Christmas.

Win all three, and New England is assured of the number one seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but if they lose even one all bets are off as the Denver Broncos are right on the Patriots' heels with a similar record, the only thing separating them being a week nine shellacking of the Broncos by New England and the resultant tie-breaking, head-to-head advantage that comes with it.

The math is very simple for the Patriots.  Win out and take the top seed in the conference, a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  Losing even one game gives birth to a literal myriad of playoff possibilities:

Divisional Scenarios:

Miami 7-6:  By losing at home to the Baltimore Ravens, the Dolphins blew their opportunity to make the AFC East interesting, but falling to 7-6 and a full three games behind New England, the only way that Miami can win the division now is by beating New England next Sunday in Foxborough as part of winning out, while the Patriots drop their last three games.

The chances of that happening are very slim.  Instead, the Patriots have a scenario where they can clinch the division with a win over the visiting Dolphins next week.

Despite the win, the Ravens are still on the outside looking in behind Pittsburgh, who holds a tie breaker over Baltimore based on a better division record.

Buffalo 7-6:  The Bills losing to the Broncos last Sunday does not eliminate them from contention for a division title, but it does severely damage any hopes that they have of making the playoffs.

The Chiefs blowing a lead at Arizona gives Buffalo a glimmer of hope in the wildcard standings though Kansas City holds a head-to-head tie breaker between the two, which is essentially a one game lead with just three games remaining, plus Buffalo would have to overcome Pittsburgh and Baltimore and San Diego to even sniff the wildcard.

Their best bet of making the post season is to win the division, the chances of which are slim to none.

Conference Scenarios:

Denver Broncos (10-3): The Broncos don't have a cake walk of a schedule, and to lose at least once more is a possibility, though if Denver brings it's "A" game, they are tough to beat.  The Patriots certainly helped them out by beating their closest division rival last Sunday night in San Diego, meaning that the Broncos can clinch the AFC West with a win at San Diego this coming Sunday.  After that, their chances to clinch come at Cincinnati and then finishing at home against the resurgent Raiders.

Should Denver win out or even compile a better record than New England in the next three weeks, they will hold the number one seed.

Indianapolis Colts (9-4): A blowout victim to New England in week 11, the Colts have virtually no chance of overcoming the Patriots, who have a game up in the loss column and hold that head-to-head tie breaker, meaning, simply, that the Colts would have to win out against Houston, at Dallas and at Tennessee while the Patriots lose 2 of their final 3 in order for Indianapolis to gain one of the top 2 seeds. particularly since the Broncos have the same head-to-head advantage by virtue of their narrow week 1 win over the Colts.

On the upside, the Colts can clinch the AFC South division with a win over the Houston Texans at home this Sunday.

Cincinnati Bengals (8-4-1): The Bengals will be lucky to come out of the regular season with anything more than a purple heart.

They lead the tough AFC North by a slim 1/2 game over the Pittsburgh Steelers, who stomped them last Sunday by a score of 42-21, and whom they play on the final Sunday of the season.  Also lurking just a half game back is the Baltimore Ravens, but Cincinnati holds the head-to-head tie breaker over them, meaning their lead over the Ravens is more like a game and a half.

The Bengals have a tough closing schedule of having to go to Cleveland this Sunday, then hosting the Broncos the following Sunday before going to Pittsburgh for the season finale.  they will be lucky to win the division, and any loss may doom their playoff chances.

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5): Again, it would take the Patriots losing all three of their remaining games and the Steelers winning out for any sort of disruptive scenario to emerge concerning the two teams, but the possibility exists nevertheless.

With games remaining on the road at Atlanta and two home games remaining against Kansas City and Cincinnati, the possibility exists for the Steelers to sweep their final three games, but all one has to do its to look at the fact that Pittsburgh has lost to the Jets and Saints in the last four weeks to know that the possibility is a slim one, though a victory over the Bengals could set them up for a division title.

Longshots: The Ravens and Chargers, both 8-5, are longshots to make the playoffs, but both have the capability to play the spoiler as both have games remaining against playoff contenders - but neither have a realistic shot at unseating either New England or Denver from the top two seeds.

Neither do the Texans, Chiefs or Browns who are all 7-6 and are mathematically eliminated from gaining a top 2 seed in the AFC - but like their 8-5 counterparts, all have games remaining against playoff contenders and could figure in the spoiler role and could possibly make the playoffs if the right opportunities play themselves out.

It's a goofy cliche, but absolutely true: The New England Patriots are in control of their own destiny. If they win out against their division rivals, they also win every advantage there is of getting to the Super Bowl in Arizona - but lose just once, and their fate is controlled by someone else, and that's not the best way to fly.










Sunday, December 7, 2014

Collins, Patriots' defense dominate Chargers

Rob Ninkovich (50) and the New England defense treated Phillip Rivers very badly on Sunday night in San Diego

For the second straight week, the New England Patriots' offense seemed to be stuck between second and third gears.  Lucky for them that their defense showed up.

Big time.

Linebacker Jamie Collins, wearing the green dot and calling the plays for the Patriots' defense in the stead of the injured Dont'a Hightower, played like a man possessed in recording nine total tackles, eight of them solo efforts and picked up two key sacks in leading New England to a physical 23-14 victory over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday night.

But Collins was just the most visible member of a defense that allowed the high powered Chargers' offense just seven points on the night - their other points coming via a fumble return for touchdown - and thoroughly dominated an offense in just about every way that they can be.

Considering that quarterback Phillip Rivers, he of the strong arm and the dazzling long ball, didn't get the chance to go downfield very often as either the Chargers' coaching staff or Rivers himself avoided throwing anywhere near invisible cornerback Darrelle Revis, which meant that his top weapon, wide receiver Kennan Allen, was lost to the San Diego offense...
Collins chases down Rivers in the second half.

...and second and third options Malcolm Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates couldn't work free fast enough against the rest of the New England secondary - the result being a 20 for 33 night for Rivers for a pedestrian 189 yards.

San Diego's running game didn't fare any better, the stout Patriots' front seven holding them to 53 hard-fought yards and a 3.1 yards per carry average, so it comes as no surprise that the Chargers earned a total of ten first downs in the game, going an abysmal 4 of 13 on third down conversions.

How dominating was the Patriots' defense? The Chargers had 11 total possessions in the game and was forced to punt to end eight of them, the other three resulting in their only touchdown, a blocked punt in which they lost their punter to what looked like a separated shoulder, and an Akeem Ayers interception.

In pitching a shutout in the second half, the Patriots defense continued an incredible run in which they have given up only 30 second half points in their past five games - but the really sick part is that they have allowed just three field goals - nine points - to those same opponents in the fourth quarter.

None of them pushovers, with contests against Denver and Peyton Manning, Indianapolis and Andrew Luck, Detroit and Matthew Stafford, Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers and Sunday night against the Chargers, the Patriots went 4-1 against them and have now won eight of their last nine and hold the tie breaker over the Broncos for the best record and top seed in the American Football Conference.

The Patriots can clinch their sixth straight AFC East division title at home next Sunday when they host the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.

But all is not rainbows and unicorns in Foxborough, as the Patriots' offense has sputtered badly in the past two games.  Against the Chargers, quarterback Tom Brady and his offensive line struggled against the relentless San Diego pass rush, as after initial success running the ball, New England went pass heavy and all but gave up on the running game when they fell behind early...

...which has a tendency to invite the opposing defense to send their pass rush in waves - and while the Chargers sacked Brady just once, he was constantly menaced - hit on eight other drop backs, had two passes deflected and threw a bad red zone interception that halted a sure scoring drive to end the first half.

For certain, his back shoulder throws - his bread and butter - were off as he seemed to have trouble finding touch on his offerings, firing bullets at times and floaters at others (such as his interception) and never really found his range, but timely grabs by Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski bailed out the offense, which took it's first lead of the game at the 10 minute mark of the final quarter.

Obviously, the offense is going to have to find it's rhythm again as the season heads into it's final three weeks and January brings the playoffs - and particularly when New England plays all three of their division rivals to close things out, teams that would love nothing more than ruining the Patriots' designs on grasping the top seed in the conference.

But with a beastly defense that has yet to be fully healthy stonewalling the opposition in dominating fashion, New England is always going to be in any game they play - and once the offense finds it's legs again, ie, their running game, the Patriots just may be unstoppable.

Hell, that defense is so good, they might even be unstoppable anyway.



Dumpster diving Belichick proving that one man's trash is another man's treasure

Akeem Ayers was projected to be a first round draft pick.

At 6' 3" and 255 pounds, Ayers hit on everything that you could want out of a strong-side linebacker: rangy with excellent ball skills, possessing an arsenal of pass rush moves and a finishing burst that caused many experts to label him a can't miss, immediate impact player coming out of UCLA.
Akeem Ayers celebrates a sack of Denver's Peyton Manning

But then his 40 yard dash time at the 2011 scouting combine disappointed. Running a 4.83, every team in the NFL became wary of timed speed, not quite willing to spend 1st day draft capital on a guy that had prototypical linebacker size, but with three-tech speed.  Instead, Ayers watched fellow linebackers Von Miller and Aldon Smith taken with Top-10 selections, while he slipped into the second day.

Shocked to see him still on the board, the Tennessee Titans snagged Ayers with the seventh pick of the second round and immediately inserted him as the strong side linebacker in their 4-3 defensive scheme, where he did indeed provide instant impact, recording 76 tackles and two sacks in his rookie campaign...

,,,following that up with a stellar sophomore season in which he eclipsed the one hundred tackle plateau, logged six sacks and chipped in with eight passes defended.  Clearly Ayers was a steal in the second round and was well on his way to stardom in defensive coordinator Jerry Gray's scheme.

Then 2013 happened.

Injuries to both knees - both with damaged patella tendons, ironically a similar injury to what has Patriots' captain Jerod Mayo on the shelf - sapped much of Ayers' lateral agility and aggressiveness and subsequently tapped into his snap count, his total tackles dropping to half of the previous year's level and he recorded only one sack.

The knee injuries were bad enough to require surgery on both after the season, impacting his full availability for OTA's and the Titans' 2014 minicamp - important in that Gray was now gone, fired with head coach Mike Munchak, and replaced by Ray Horton.

A combination of Ayers' recovery from clean-up on both knees and missing out on acclimating to Horton's 3-4 defensive philosophy rendered him inactive for five of the Titans' first seven games, even though he was physically able to perform when the season started, something that both Ayers and Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick alluded to as perhaps being the reason for a falling out with the Titans' new coaching staff - though in a typically back-handed way.

"I was part of some coaching changes." Ayers told the Boston media upon his arrival in Foxborough when inquired about his perceived falling from graces in Tennessee. "Things like that can happen. It's in the past and I'm happy to be here."

If you ask Titans' coach Ken Whisenhunt, he had nothing positive to say about Ayers in the weeks leading up to the trade with New England, and the price the Patriots had to pay in order to obtain Ayers - a sixth-round draft pick - made Whisenhunt's point.

I'm expecting consistency" said the well-traveled Whisenhunt, who also sent a seventh-round pick to New England to dump Ayers. "The only way that he is going to get back on the field is if he does that. It's really up to him."

It's difficult to say whether Ayers would be in Foxborough right now were it not for the season-ending injury to weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo and a significant hip injury to defensive end Chandler Jones, but one thing is for certain: The Akeem Ayers who is now a Patriot looks like the Akeem Ayers who was a force in 2012.

Although Ayers played strong side linebacker in Tennessee through his first three years, his versatility - Surprise! - has instantly made him a vital cog in the Patriots' defense, playing primarily on passing downs at first but graduating to playing the majority of snaps both as a stand-up weakside defender and also with his hand in the dirt in the stead of Jones at defensive end.

The results are encouraging, with three sacks in six games played with an edge-setting mentality that has helped the Patriots' run defense improve dramatically, to the point that there are many openly questioning if the run defense isn't actually better with Ayers on the weakside - and while the fourth-year UCLA product has indeed been a God-send, the true test of his worth should begin on Sunday night when the Patriots take on the Chargers in San Diego.

Jones is expected to make his return from the hip injury, and combined with the status of middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower being a game-time decision due to a shoulder injury may thrust Ayers into an even more significant role, as he has the versatility to line up on the inside, though he gives up about 30 pounds to the massive Hightower.

At his best, Ayers takes tremendous pursuit angles and you will often see him skirting the line of scrimmage and making a play on the ball carrier.  In theses situations he is perfect against teams that employ read option elements and zone blocking schemes, as the weakside linebacker's responsibility is to read the play from the backside, choose a target (either the quarterback or the running back) and to take that target down for little or no gain...

...while against a team like the Chargers who throw a lot and have an ambulatory (but nowhere near as mobile a signal caller as someone like Aaron Rodgers) quarterback like Phillip Rivers with a rocket launcher for an arm, Ayers' aforementioned versatility provides many different options for Patriots' defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

Despite Rivers' accurate and lethal deep ball - no one throws a prettier deep spiral - the Chargers have had to be content with the short to intermediate passing game, with just as many crossing routes underneath as screens into the flat, which puts an emphasis on linebacker coverage on backs and tight ends, and if Jones' return allows Ayers to play a true weakside base position, we will find out all we need to know about what the Patriots truly have in him.

Belichick has made a career of claiming players that other teams have given up on and plugging them in to his system with success, which means that he is the ultimate NFL version of a dumpster diver, dining on scraps that the other coaches found less palatable - so if Belichick has once again turned one man's trash into his treasure, he will have inserted a former second round draft pick into a defense that is already loaded with first and second day talent...

...boasting five first rounders and four second rounders among their starting eleven, with only big-time playmakers Rob Ninkovich (5th round) and Brandon Browner (undrafted) drafted outside of that elite zone, both of them successful Belichick reclamation projects in their own right.

That's a pretty hefty number of high-round draft picks on one defense and with those personnel split pretty evenly between original Belichick picks (Jones, Vince Wilfork, Hightower, Jamie Collins, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung) and his reclamation projects (Ninkovich, Alan Branch, Browner, Revis and Ayers - though Revis is hardly a project) proves his worth as a talent evaluator both on the collegiate and pro level.

There are more projects on the depth chart, Sealver Siliga and Jonathan Casillas come to mind as players who have proven reliable in spot duty, along with a myriad of raw talent littered across the chart and on the practice squad - enough to field a talented squad for seasons to come...

...but also one that is ready to contend for a title now, and the way that players like Ayers are contributing, a title just may be theirs in February.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Patriots let Packers off the hook, abandon four-minute offense in loss at Green Bay

Blount's clean jersey in the waning moments tells Patriots' fans all they need to know about the loss to Green Bay

When a CBS cameraman focused on the Patriots sideline early in the third quarter during their loss at Green Bay, some commented that Patriots' Strength and Conditioning Coach Harold Nash had a leash on quarterback Tom Brady.

Naturally, it was just a resistance band, a terrific way to stay warm and loose in cold weather, and Nash was the one providing the resistance.

"When I'm out there in the game, I don't get a chance to run around like the receivers who are running around the whole game" Brady said earlier this week. "So I just like to stay really loose, as loose as I can in inclement weather.  So that's what it was for."
Brady warming up before the game with resistance band

Many others thought that should have been Bill Belichick on one end, providing resistance to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.  Or maybe just have him on a short leash.

In a game that had power running attack written all over a potential game plan, the Patriots instead aired it out right into the teeth of the strength of the Packers' defense - their secondary - eschewing the run until the final period, turning what should have been a New England road victory into a frustrating 26-21 loss.

"Certainly, when we did run it, we ran it effectively." Brady offered. "And when we threw it, we threw it somewhat effectively.  I could have been better in certain situations, which would have allowed us to run the ball better."

"It all goes hand-in-hand."

Brady's remarks came on the heels of a contest that saw the Patriots run the ball just eight times in the first half (not including Brady's kneel down at the end of the half) and nine times in the second half, averaging 5.14 and 5.33 yards respectively, yet the success of those running plays couldn't convince McDaniels that his best option was to hand the ball to his power backs and run the four-minute offense.

Nor did the fact that the Packers were ranked 30th in run defense, nor did the fact that he has a terrific stable of running backs that can play it any way you want, and a quarterback who is pure gold selling the play action.

But since there was such a disparity between the run and the pass - 35 passing plays compared to 17 on the ground - there was no reason for the Packers' defense to respect a running game that was all but non-existent, and they obliged by playing in the nickle and turning loose their pass rushers, nailing Brady six different times - and while they only sacked him once, that one time was in the most critical time of the game: In the red zone with less than four minutes to play.

Still, miraculously, the Patriots were in position to take the lead on their final drive until the sack of Brady by Mike Daniels forced them into a 4th and 19 from the 29, where Stephen Gostkowski shanked a field goal attempt.  On that drive, the Patriots' got where they needed to be on the strength of Legarrette Blount's hard running, which opened up the play action for Brady - yet when they reached the red zone, the running game disappeared.  Again.

The entire point of the four minute offense, which the Packers ran to perfection while the Patriots only toyed with it, is to run time off the clock while moving the ball methodically down the field.  It isn't fancy and not aesthetically pleasing in any way other than the fact that it works.

So forget that New England produced over half of their rushing yards on the final two drives of the game, one of which ended in a touchdown to slice into the Packers' lead.  Forget that up until the point that the Patriots drove into the Packers' red zone with three and a half minutes to play, the Green Bay pass rush was abusing the Patriots offensive line and beating Brady like he stole something, because New England had a first and 10 from the Green Bay 20 with a chance to take the lead.

The goal at that point should have been to run as much time as they could off the clock, running the ball right at the Packers who had not shown that they could consistently stop the run, and passing only if it became necessary, because the ideal situation would have been to score and not leave Green Bay's terrific quarterback Aaron Rodgers any time to mount a game-winning drive...

...but one run, an ill-advised heave into the end zone for a well-covered Rob Gronkowski and the Daniels' sack left them having to try a field goal that did them absolutely no good at all in that situation.

So instead of running the four-minute offense, McDaniels calls two pass plays, one trying to mismatch Gronkowski on rookie safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, who had tight coverage, and the other ending in a sack.  The Packers took over with just under three minutes to play and the Patriots never saw the ball again.

And even if they had scored and taken the lead on the pass to Gronkowski, there would have been far too much time on the clock for the Packers to drive down the field, needing only a field goal to wrap things up.

With football being a team sport, there is plenty of blame to go around for a loss, just as there is praise to go around with a win.  That said, many thought the offensive line was to blame for the loss, but nothing could be further from the truth.  When a team eschews the run like the Patriots did on Sunday, it puts the linemen at a disadvantage.  Without the defense having to respect the run, the pass rush can pin their ears back and come after the quarterback...

...while establishing the running game makes the defense have to respect the play action and gives the linemen that extra split second at the snap of the ball to set and anchor themselves against the rush. That didn't happen and the Patriots took a frustrating loss that woulda, coulda, shoulda been a great triumph.

Because as Brady eluded to, it all goes hand-in-hand.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Patriots' running game, defense give them edge over Packers

The mystique surrounding the Green Bay Packers seems to precede their physical presence.

And why not?  Perhaps one of the most storied franchises in National Football League history, it is the Packers - not the New England Patriots - whose logo arises in the psyche of football fans everywhere when considering that history.

It has been said that if one listens very carefully within the confines of Lambeau Field, you can almost hear Vince Lombardi giving the business to a referee and Bart Starr's gruff cadence - and with the notoriously frigid temperatures that invade Wisconsin from the arctic, the perception is that the Packers are invincible, particularly at home...
The power duo of Gray and Blount are key against Packers' defense

...which is bullshit, of course, but not a bad image to carry into a game, particularly a marquee contest such as when they host the Patriots on Sunday afternoon - but reputation and image gets one only so far.

Similar to the Patriots, the Packers struggled out of the gates to start the 2014 season, beginning the year losing two of their first three games before righting the ship and going on a tear that has seen them win seven of their last eight, making them the second hottest team in the league.

The hottest? Right, those dastardly New England Patriots.

The Patriots have won seven straight heading into Lambeau Field late on Sunday afternoon - running the table in impressive fashion, which includes blowout wins over six different division leaders and all three of Green Bay's NFC North division rivals.  The Patriots offense leads the league in points scored, while the Packers are right on their heels, so there is no doubt that both offensive entities are able to put up points.

But that is where the similarities end.

The focus in this contest will be on the defensive side of the ball, where the Patriots have an emerging beast of a secondary that can take away the opposition's top two targets, forcing the opposing quarterback to go to his third and fourth reads, many times having to scramble from the pocket to give himself enough time to do so.

Having cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and an over-the-top safety presence like Devin McCourty gives head ball coach Bill Belichick flexibility that he hasn't had in the past, and a direct beneficiary of that is that it allows the Patriots' "Cloud" defense both the ability to disguise where their pass rush is coming from, while leaving the box heavy in run support.

How fortuitous is it for the Patriots to have Revis and Browner in coverage?  Through 11 games, New England has allowed only two quarterbacks to throw for over 300 yards, and both of those signal callers - Denver's Peyton Manning and the Colts' Andrew Luck - enjoyed most of that success in garbage time as the Patriots had big leads and backed off in coverage to make sure neither could could beat them deep for a quick score.

As a result, New England has been able to utilize the base Cloud, rotating in a combination of coverage 'backers and the big nickle to also shut down the opposition's ground game.
Akeem Ayers' pass rush, edge-setting vital against Rodgers

New England's defense has given up over 100 rushing yards just four times this season, and the results have been predictable.  In both of their losses, a narrow win over the Jets, and a blowout of a terrible Bears' team, the Patriots surrendered an abysmal 192 rushing yards per game - in their other seven wins, a stout 60 yards per game.

Obviously, stopping the run coincides with New England's overall success.

That said, it should be noted that, after a slow start, Green Bay's Eddie Lacy has been the catalyst for a Packers' ground attack that has averaged 126 yards per game - but even that comes with a caveat in that Green Bay is renowned this season for jumping out to substantial leads in the first half of their ball games on the strength of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' arm, then they turn to the four-minute offense to to run down the clock...

...so the key for New England is to not allow the Packers to jump out to a quick lead through the air by forcing them to become one-dimensional - and the Patriots have the talent on defense to take their pick of which area to shut down at any given time.

But if there is anything that the Patriots' defense hasn't figured out yet is how to cover the bigger, more athletic tight ends and containing the quarterback when the pass rush forces him to leave the pocket.  Against the Packers, the former isn't as much a concern as the latter, as Green Bay's tight ends are used sparingly in the passing attack, but Rodgers has a knack for extending drives with his legs.

But if Revis and Browner effectively shut down the dynamic pass catching tandem of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, tight ends Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers become underneath options, as does Lacy out of the backfield.

This makes the Patriots' linebackers the key to this game.

Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins provide solid interior presence in the 5-2 Cloud, and rue the pass catcher who attempts to slither across the middle - but the mid-season acquisitions of weaksiders Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas have strengthened the corps on the edges, with Ayers playing a stand-up, end-of-the-line role that sees him rushing the passer and setting the edge...

...while Casillas handles running backs swinging out of the backfield most often, but has also been used as a shadow on mobile quarterbacks on occasion, something that will most likely be employed by Belichick on Sunday afternoon.

Green Bay's slot receiver Devante Adams becomes important in this scenario as a third option, but the combination of slot corner Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan have proven to be able defenders in this area as well, and give up very little to a linebacker or safety in run support.

Conversely, the Packers' defense is not even in the same class as what New England brings, though their secondary should not be overlooked.

Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams are a terrific duo of cover corners and are baked up with decent safeties in Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde, with rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the mix as well - but after them, there is little imposing in regard to what the Packers' will be able to match up with what the Patriots bring to the field.

At least one of those safeties and a linebacker will be occupied with Patriots' All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski, leaving holes underneath and in the intermediate areas for receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell to settle into, and with the added presence of emerging tight end Tim Wright and with the always dangerous Shane Vereen curling out of the backfield, they force the opposition to play in sub-packages for most of the game...

...setting up a light box for New England's power running game to take advantage of.

Most of Green Bay's opponents have run right at weakside linebacker Julius Peppers and defensive end Mike Daniels, taking advantage of Peppers' aggressive pass rush and beating him between the left guard and tackle to the tune of a whopping 5.25 yards per carry.  Opponents are also finding room up the middle to maneuver for 4.25 yards per carry.

Trying to go right on Green Bay is little more difficult, as they have surrendered only 3.2 yards per carry to that edge - but fortunately for New England, most of their running plays go left or straight up the gut, which means that the power back tandem of Legarrette Blount and Jonas Gray could have a field day against the Packers' weak front seven.

So this gives the Patriots a choice of how to approach the game offensively.

The age-old standard of establishing the run to set up the play action pass doesn't necessarily apply to New England, as quarterback Tom Brady can sell the play action better than anyone else in the NFL, and on more than one occasion offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has approached an opponent by going up top to help set up the powerful four minute offense.

This is the hallmark of the Erhardt-Perkins offense that the Patriots employ, the mantra being "Pass to score, run to win.", so it goes to figure that Brady will come out slinging, softening up a Packers' defense that will be struggling to stop the running game as it is, forcing them into a sub nickle or dime, then running straight into the teeth of their lighter box.

But all of this means nothing if New England turns the ball over.  The Packers lead the league in turnover differential, causing 23 turnovers - though ball security hasn't really been an issue with the Patriots this season, with only Brady and Edelman putting the ball on the ground - meaning none of the running backs have fumbled at all.

All of this said, the Patriots appear to have a solid chance of winning handily, even on the intimidating frozen tundra of Lambeau Field - just running the ball with authority, stoping the run and hanging onto the football should ensure a convincing New England victory.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Patriots take down another division leader; stomp Lions 34-9

The Patriots went to their four-minute offense on Sunday to close out a big win over the Detroit Lions

Lions and turnovers and penalties, oh my!

The New England Patriots committed 11 penalties on Sunday afternoon, one of them negating a would-be 74 yard punt return for touchdown by Julian Edelman, and quarterback Tom Brady threw a goal line interception that wiped out another New England scoring opportunity - but all those things did was turn a rout into a simple blowout.

Brady more than atoned for his ill-advised gaffe by completing 38 of 53 passing attempts for 349 yards and two touchdowns and newly re-signed Legarrette Blount scored twice up the gut from short range as the Patriots continued their impressive streak of dominance against division leaders, this time stomping the even more mistake prone Detroit Lions 34-9 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Danny Amendola returns a kickoff 81 yards to set the up the Patriots' second score

With the win, New England has now defeated the AFC North leading Cincinnati Bengals to start their current seven-game winning streak, then adding wins over the AFC West leading Denver Broncos and AFC South leading Indianapolis Colts in successive weeks leading into Sunday's showdown with the NFC North co-leading Lions, winning all four by an average of 40-17.

Needless to say, these New England Patriots are on a serious roll - and Brady acknowledged as much in his post-game presser.

"I'll let this one settle in a little bit" Brady said of the win over the Lions. "Then tonight I'm sure I'll get after it.", meaning starting preparation for the Patriots' next opponent, the Green Bay Packers. "They are a great football team.  We seem to have played a lot of them lately.  They are the next ones on the schedule, so it will be a great challenge for us."

Newly re-signed running back Legarrette Blount picked up right where he left off last January for the Patriots, rushing 12 times for 78 yards, most of those coming on bursts of 23 and 33 yards as the Lions had a tough time tackling the 250 pound steamroller.



"He's a big guy, he runs hard," Brady said of Blount. "and once he breaks your defense, he got a little bit of explosion so it was great to see on a couple of those big runs."

The Patriots ran the ball 20 times - which is right on the average that teams try the ground game against the Lions' top-ranked rush defense - and averaged 4.5 yards per carry as a team, second only to what the New York Jets put on them back in Week 4, but this game was all about Brady and his plethora of excellent pass catchers...

...with Edelman putting in his usual yeoman's effort with 11 balls for 89 yards to go along with Brandon LaFell's 9 for 98, while tight ends Rob Gronkowsk and Tim Wright logged five a piece with Wright being on the business end of Brady's two scoring tosses.

In stark contrast to the Patriots' efficient attack, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford suffered through a miserable afternoon, hitting on just 18 of 46 attempts for a pedestrian 264 yards and one interception - but it certainly wasn't all on him as his receivers dropped many balls in crucial situations.

"I think we moved the ball pretty well, and we had opportunities to catch balls in the end zone" Lions' coach Jim Caldwell said in his post-game comments. "We didn't make plays, and when you don't make plays, it obviously looks like you are inept in that regard."

Of course, it wasn't all just not making plays, as the Patriots' defense had something to do with a lot of what went wrong with Caldwell's offense.

Darrelle Revis was sensational once again, covering Detroit's Golden Tate for much of the game - and while Tate caught four balls for 97 yards, Revis knocked away four others.  Brandon Browner took on the persona of Optimus Prime, punking "Megatron", receiver Calvin Johnson, and dogging his every move - and any pass catcher that dared cross the middle got a taste of Jamie Collins...

New England's once porous run defense enjoyed their third straight solid outing, with veteran tackles Vince Wilfork and Buffalo retread Alan Branch clogging the middle, while linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins mopped up just about everything else - and with safety Patrick Chung continuing to impress in his second go-around with the Patriots.

The unit may have given up 91 yards to the Lions, but when taken in proper context, it was far more viable than those numbers suggest.

Lithe runner Joique Bell took 19 of Detroit's 25 total running plays - many of them right into the heart of the New England run defense - and paid the price with 2.5 tough yards per carry resulting in 48 of the Lion's rushing total. Theo Riddick was serviceable as a change up to Bell, carrying twice for 12 yards...

...the rest of their ground production coming via a Golden Tate reverse for 13 yards and three Matthew Stafford desperation scrambles for another 15.  Given the sources of the production, the New England run defense bottled the Lions up pretty tight.

But something that probably doesn't get discussed as much as it should is the positive impact special teams have had on the team all season long, and it again showed up in force on Sunday afternoon, what with Danny Amendola's impromptu 81-yard kick return that set the Patriots up for a touchdown...

...but also the clutch play of punter Ryan Allen, whose veteran play in a potentially disastrous scenario saved New England from having to play catch-up.

With the Patriots offense stymied early by the Lions' defense and looking up at Detriot three point lead, Allen fielded a bad snap from long-snapper Danny Aiken at about his own six-yard-line, taking it on the short hop with just enough time to get the kick away - and what a kick it was.

Going 78 yards in the air, Allen's net of 66 yards got the Patriots out of a deep hole and completely switched field position in their favor - backing the Lions up to their own 20 when their starting point for the ensuing drive should have been 20 yards further upfield.

"Sure was, sure was" Belichick smiled when asked if Allen's punt was a big play in the game. "Big field position play, yup."

When Allen was asked about it, he cited working on fielding purposeful bad snaps in practice and the work of his coverage units as the key to the unit's "Good Operation" - and when one of the beat writers mentioned that the celebration that the unit had on the field after that play had the look of a scoring play, Allen endeared himself to Belichick's dark heart...

"We celebrate good field position.  That's what we celebrate."

In two short sentences, Allen summed up this Patriots' team attitude.  Everything is important, and there is no such thing as a trivial detail - these guys are all business, and thus far into a season full of promise, business is pretty darned good.