Thursday, January 16, 2014

New England Patriots on Paper: Alley Cats

"I don't bother chasing mice around
I slink down the alley looking for a fight
Howling to the moonlight on a hot summer night
Singin' the blues while the lady cats cry,
"Wild stray cat, you're a real gone guy."

Stray Cats - 1981

Indeed, slink down that alley looking for a fight - it's the survival of the fittest, a turf war that decides who becomes the overlord and who is relegated to that of a subservient fool.

Most people don't understand the stray cat mentality, and the people that do are either vicious thugs or defensive backs - both need short memories and razor sharp instincts, and the best of the best defend their turf without passion or prejudice, because neither can afford to have those things weighing on their brains.
Cool cat Talib will fight Thomas all game long

Thugs are one thing, and New England Patriots fans have had to deal with their share of them, but the play of their defensive backs - indeed, the play of entire defense - has all but rendered the Patriots' Summer of Pain a distant memory.

This is a strong secondary, the most talented and deep secondary since - well - ever, and are as healthy as they can be heading into Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos.

Despite the hype to the contrary, the Broncos offense is not a breathtaking high-flying tightrope act that moves the football at will - but just like any other team in the National Football League, they certainly are capable of being such if given the opportunity.

What makes the Broncos' offense so efficient is that they have the personnel to force a defense to defend the entire field, which opens up opportunities to exploit the opposition's weaknesses - but to level the playing field against them isn't just a matter of taking away the running game, or focusing on their top receiving threat or even getting to quarterback Peyton Manning.

No, there's not some ancient secret to slowing down the Denver Broncos' offensive juggernaut - rather, there is an approach that is so simplistic that it seems as if it couldn't possibly work - but the body of work that is the 2013 season tell us otherwise.

And it all starts at the line of scrimmage.

Not necessarily just with the bigs, not just with containment or setting the edges either, but by laying the hammer down at every spot on the line - and utilizing the five-yard cushion or alley in which defensive backs are legally permitted to make contact with a receiver.

And the Patriots just may be in a better position to do just that than they were seven weeks ago when a combination of foul weather and Patriots coverage scheme held Manning to a miserable 150 yards.

Many variables went into those season-low numbers - the gale-force winds for one, winds that Brady had no issues penetrating with his tight spirals but Manning could not with his crazy moth-in-a-porch-light wobblers - but the ones that he did let off the chain were challenged by a physical Patriots' secondary, starting in the alley.

But the Patriots were hurting in the secondary, with Alfonzo Dennard and Steve Gregory on the skids and Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington nursing lower-body injuries and trying to play through them - leaving rookies, cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon to make the starts, and rookie linebacker Jamie Collins filling in underneath with limited experience...

...yet they continuously mugged the Broncos' receivers at the line of scrimmage, disrupting their patterns and, coupled with the high winds were able to shut down Manning.

There are no such issues this week, not if Saturday's performance against the Indianapolis Colts is any indication.  Ryan is now looked upon as a rising star while Harmon's playing time is steadily increasing as a more sure-handed option to spell either Gregory or safety Devin McCourty, and Collins has been unleashed and is making plays all over the field.
Rookie Logan Ryan shut down Decker in their first meeting

Talib and Dennard appear to be as healthy as they are going to get - so it's all hands on deck for the Patriots' pass coverage, no issues being physical at the line, which is good because giving the Broncos receivers free release or allowing them to sit down in a zone is asking for trouble...

...particularly when it comes to tight end Julius Thomas, who did not play in November's instant classic - spelled by reserve Jacob Tamme, who ended up being the most productive receiver on the field - and who, in fact, was one of the main reasons why linebacker Dont'a Hightower was benched in the game, Manning using Tamme's route running to constantly pull Hightower out of position.

But the emergence of Jamie Collins and greater experience for Harmon should negate that advantage for the Broncos, though Manning is sure to test those rookies - but probably will steer clear of Ryan, as he was able to completely shut down wide receiver Eric Decker.

In fact, the entire Broncos passing game was shut down by a combination of the elements and the Patriots' secondary - banged up as they were - and perhaps the biggest reason why was their ability to manhandle Denver's receivers at the line.

One way that Manning will probably look to counter New England's physical secondary is to run bunch formations with Welker flanked on both sides by receivers Demaryius Thomas and Decker, and Julius Thomas lined up on the opposite side, running a comeback route as a safety valve - the tight alignment of the formation producing natural picks to rub out one of the defensive backs.

But the Patriots can take that advantage away from the Broncos by jamming each one of them at the line, in theory and on the field causing the receivers to pick each other - Denver will run out of this formation, which is a staple of their offense, but with the stout presence of Sealver Siliga at the nose and Hightower in the middle of the nickle, New England can take that away too.

The common theme for this defense is for them to be aggressive, disguising their coverages to a certain extent, but not doing anything fancy - hitting Manning's pass catchers in the mouth as they try to release off the line of scrimmage, taking full advantage of the five-yard cushion and taking away his ability to dictate to the defense.

"That was my first time playing him when we played them earlier in the season." cool cat corner Aqib Talib said earlier this week, "I just read my keys and play football, man. I just play regular, man. I didn’t try to do nothing extraordinary because I was playing Peyton Manning. Just read my keys and played regular.”

In the end it comes down to fundamentals, stopping the run and jamming the receivers - taking control of the line of scrimmage and turning that five-yard buffer zone into a back alley where the Patriots' defensive backs will try to turn the Broncos' passing game into a street fight...

...and given the swagger that the Patriots' secondary have gained and earned to this point in the season, these street-smart stray cats may well rule the Broncos' home turf.

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