Saturday, January 18, 2014

New England Patriots on Paper: Improved Patriots defense is Broncos' own fault

"What happens this year will be determined by what happens in the next five weeks. This is where this team and every other team will define itself."

Bill Belichick - November 25, 2013

That certainly is the way things panned out - as always, Bill Belichick constantly reminding everyone each season that he builds his teams to be at their best after Thanksgiving - though no one thought the team's identity would be that of a smashmouth, old-school entity with a circa-1970's feel to it...

...the Patriots' recipe for success nothing more than fundamentally sound execution and brutish trench play that permeates the lineup from the inside out - injuries that would have finished any other team just setting the stage for a long line of unassuming depth to become impromptu heroes.

Linebacker Jamie Collins is the latest to stand up and be counted, though it is to be remembered that he has just one great game under his belt - but what a game it was.

To be sure, the 6' 3", 250 athletic freak had one of the best performances ever by a Patriots' linebacker in last Saturday's divisional round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts - and, indeed, one of the best performances by a linebacker ever in the history of the National Football league if the folks at Pro Football Focus are to be believed.

But was his game an anomaly in that everything just went right for him, or did the Patriots just unleash him at exactly the right time?  A better question may be, have the Patriots finally discovered their true identity, and Collins is merely part of it?

As good as the rookie linebackers' game was against the Colts, it certainly isn't the first time he's shown up positively for the Patriots, demonstrating his potential and how far he had closed the gap on the learning curve in the weeks leading up to the trouncing of the Colts, with his best statistical game of the season prior to that against - you guessed it - the Denver Broncos in late November.

But Collins' recent emergence is just the latest chapter in a 2013 season that got stranger and stranger as the games wore on, until a monstrous entity slowly took shape during the month of December - a team that seemingly became stronger the more players that they lost.

Against the Broncos in week 12, the Patriots played the entire game in the 4-2-5 Nickle - and got absolutely gouged in the running game.  So some may find it curious that the Patriots will probably come with the same approach in the AFC Championship game on Sunday...

...not necessarily daring Denver to run against a soft or light front, but daring them to run against a run defense that is exponentially better than it was seven weeks ago.

And that's the way it's supposed to work, right?  Your team gets better as the season wears on - and the Patriots obviously have on defense, but for this unit to be operating at peak efficiency going into the conference title tilt after losing linebacker Jerod Mayo and nose tackle Vince Wilfork - defensive captains, both - as well as tackle Tommy Kelly, and all for the season, is crazy talk.

Yet here they are with an identity of a suddenly fast, athletic, pressure-based unit that will take away what the opposition does best, then hold their own with everything else - and the entire thing was brought together by the very team that now has to deal with the monster they helped to create on Sunday at Sports Authority Field in Denver on Sunday afternoon.

After the Broncos stomped the Patriots' run defense on November 24th, there didn't seem to be a sense of urgency to do anything different with the run defense, as the Patriots' are a game-plan specific team that had sacrificed ground acqusition in order to take away quarterback Peyton Manning's passing game...

...but on the other sideline, the defensive coaching staff were in full panic as starting defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went down with a dislocated hip during the game, leaving rookie Sylvester Williams as the starter and no real viable depth behind him.

Word got to Patriots' coach Bill Belichick the following day that the Broncos had tangible interest in signing an under-the-radar defensive tackle from New England's practice squad named Sealver Siliga, who had been on Denver's practice squad for two years before they traded him to Seattle and eventually ended up in Foxborough...

...and since practice squad players are considered free agents and are available to be signed by anyone who was willing to keep them on their active roster for at least three games, Belichick had little recourse but to promote Siliga to the active roster to keep Denver from stealing him.

The story from that point has been well documented as Siliga has not only fortified the middle of the Patriots defensive line, but his ability to shed blocks and take on double teams - and not to discount what rookie Chris Jones brings to the field along side of the huge nose tackle - suddenly granted the linebacking corps a little autonomy to become the playmakers that they were supposed to be.

No longer did they have to wildly fire middle linebacker Brandon Spikes into an uncovered gap and hope that he guessed right, because now they had a nose that dictated which gap was to be filled - and with Spikes being a downhill run-stuffer but a liability in pass coverage considered a two-down linebacker, he would come out of the lineup in favor of Collins as the nickle linebacker.

Suddenly, Collins' other-worldy athleticism - which was evident in his special teams play and flashed a bit in his limited defensive snaps through the first ten weeks of the season - came into play more and more.  His average of nine snaps per game through the Carolina loss tripled from the win over Denver on, reaching it's zenith in the win over the Colts last weekend.

So going forward into the AFC Championship, the Patriots figure to give the Broncos the same nickle look, but expecting much better results.

The line is set with Siliga and Chris Jones manning the middle, flanked by Chandler Jones as the primary pass rusher on the blind side with Rob Ninkovich on the strong side, Collins and fellow athletic freak Dont'a Hightower covering the second level, Collins with the responsibility for Broncos' Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas and Hightower keying on the dangerous Knowshon Moreno, who caught 60 passes out of the backfield this season.

It remains to be seen how well Collins stays on Thomas in the pattern, though his work on Coby Fleener of the Colts is encouraging, but one area where Collins will have a decided advantage over Thomas is in the running game, where Thomas' skill set falls far short of blocking a talent such as Collins or Hightower - and could be a possible tip-off to the Patriots in identifying run vs. pass.

The Patriots' secondary is as healthy as they have been all season.  Their four best corners are all solid, as are their three best safeties, so defending the receivers is mostly a matter of matching up and staying dedicated to the scheme - also a departure from the first meeting when strong safety Steve Gregory was out with a broken thumb and starting corner Alfonzo Dennard exited the game early with his bum knee...

...all the while Aqib Talib dealing with a chronic hip malady - but he did an admirable job in press coverage on Denver's Demaryius Thomas in the first meeting, as did rookie Logan Ryan on Eric Decker, as did much-maligned slot corner Kyle Arrington on that Wes Welker guy.

Obviously, Belichick had built a roster that featured enough quality depth to endure the losses that the Patriots ended up suffering, which is a testament to his foresight and superior talent evaluation - and now they have put themselves in the position to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl if they can beat the Broncos on Sunday afternoon.

And when the Broncos lose, they have no one to blame but themselves - for it was their lack of foresight that set lit the fire under this Patriots' defense.

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