Thursday, July 24, 2014

Patriots' Camp Preview - Fantasy Island: A "No Fly Zone" Where Three-And-Out Is A Way Of Life...

Editor's note:  The following originally appeared on

Fun time: Let's pretend for a moment that Bill Belichick didn't go out and sign Darrelle Revis.

For sure, he would have drafted a top college corner and probably made a play for some other crappy free agent wingman, but his base corners would have been Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard - which really isn't the worst thing in the world.

Ryan brings a swagger to the position that can't be coached and Dennard is full of true grit, posting a solid year opposite Aqib Talib despite playing with a torn meniscus and a separated shoulder, both of which required surgery to repair - and the crazy thing is, the meniscus was scoped in-season, and Dennard missed only one week.

Both posted double digits in passes defended and over 40 tackles - as did Kyle Arrington from the slot despite playing nearly the entire season with a partially torn adductor muscle, for which went under the knife this offseason. Add all of this together with Aqib Talib and his glass hip/quad/groin, and the Patriots' corners were a hurting unit the second half of last season.

Yet, they still managed a middle-of-the-pack ranking in both yards and interceptions despite opposing offenses targeting them nearly 600 times, a number that ranked them among the most picked on secondaries in the league. Of course, many factors go into those numbers but the bottom line is that New England's defense as a whole surrendered a respectable 21 points per game, good for a top 10 finish.

Oh, and they helped hold Peyton Manning and Denver's prolific scoring machine to "just" 26 points in the AFC Championship Game, which would have been good enough, had the offense not been just as injured.

A good chunk of those targets and that yardage came from the production underneath, however, as the Patriots' linebackers had no answer for the opposition's tight ends and running backs, Belichick finally sacrificing his pass rush somewhat by making his defensive ends chip those players before commencing getting after the quarterback...

...the obvious trickle down effect being more time for the enemy signal callers - sometimes seeming to have all day to throw the football - yet New England's pass rushers still finished in the top five in the NFL with 47 sacks.

And all of this with a pieced together interior line and missing their top coverage linebacker.

The team is once again intact and healthy, save Dennard's shoulder - which should heal before camp breaks - and, of course, Talib has left for "Greener" pastures and to be with his buddies Wes Welker and John Elway...

And, yes.

With everyone on the defense returning to full health, a combination of Ryan, Dennard and Arrington would have formed a decent, young stable of corners - not elite, though the potential is there for them to be very good - and combined with a solid starting duo at safety, the secondary could have more than held their own.

But the Patriots did sign Darrelle Revis, who is - by the admission of his peers - the best cornerback playing the game today.  They also signed former CFL and Seattle Seahawks press corner Brandon Browner to transform what would have been a very good pass defense to one of the top troupes in the entire National Football League.

Darrelle Revis is the biggest free agent signing in the history of the franchise, but the scenario above should give pause to the folks that think he is a savior to this defense and to those on the opposite end of the spectrum who point out that he is just one season removed from an ACL tear.

But Revis' influence far exceeds merely shutting down one side of the field - and it would probably be safe to say that other than quarterback Tom Brady, only Revis and tight end Rob Gronkowski have a scheme altering consequence both for the team and for their opponents.

A true shutdown corner will make any defense better, but his very presence in the Patriots' secondary substantially influences how the Patriots' opponents attack the defense and adds a dynamic that has a trickle-down effect on the entire unit - and suddenly, New England has become one of the top units in the league.

His effect is not galvanizing, as the Patriots always are one of the more close-knit groups in football, nor is he the lynch pin that holds the unit together, and that's important to remember.  He is merely a prodigality, a very talented and confident extravagance that will have a diffusing effect on the opposing offense and an edifying effect on the Patriots as a whole.

How offenses will choose to attack the Patriots' defense isn't really a choice, rather, it is being restricted to attacking certain areas of the field - a sort of compartmentalization wherein the offense is forced into operating through a window, and how wide open that window is depends on the supporting cast which, as has been already mentioned, is quite good.

In fact, the opportunity for Ryan, Dennard and Arrington to have career-type seasons is a real possibility, so long as they understand that they will have to play their best ball, because the ball will be coming their way, simply because to the opposing quarterback, they are the lesser of two evils.

This shrinks the field of play, which is a ballhawk's dream because the space between players is diminished and makes it easier for a cover corner to break on a ball, has an adverse effect on the receiver's yards after catch average and promotes the presence of the nickle safety to roam no man's land over the middle because the Patriots can run with a single high safety.

But Revis is just one of three quality free agents brought into the defensive fold who have an opportunity for a real impact in the passing game.

Browner was released by the Seahawks mostly due to his at-the-time year-long suspension - which has since been reduced to just four games - but also because he had been beaten out of his starting gig opposite Richard Sherman.  This is not to say that Browner isn't still a fine player, but it became increasingly evident that his better fit was as a slot corner and/or nickle safety.

The three-time Canadian Football League All Star and 2011 NFL Pro Bowl selection has been blessed with great size - which he has been dining on for years - but has only linebacker-ish 4.65 speed, which doesn't allow for him to make up ground on receivers on the vertical if he loses them when looking back for the ball.

His 6' 4", 225 pound frame is as imposing as it gets as a defensive back - his physicality at the line of scrimmage promoting that even more - and it makes him a preferred key in red zone defense, but also for tracking tight ends and slot receivers across the middle.  His instincts and violent intent in run support also mandates that his area of responsibility be closer to the line.

A side effect in Browner taking on the tight ends, running backs or slot receivers, is that it presents a measure of automomy for either the weak side or strong side linebacker, who will be freed up to close on the screen and set a solid edge against the run - or even blitz...

...and the crazy thing is that Browner isn't the only guy that Belichick signed that can bring that skill set as cover 'backer James Anderson, late of the Bears and Panthers, was signed with exactly those properties in mind.

Misused in every defensive scheme he's played in - usually due to injury in the front seven - Anderson has probably found a home in New England where he can finally show off that ridiculous 4.48 speed, disruptive blitz package and physical press cover ability as a nickle linebacker.

In fact, it is these three signings that tell one all they need to know about the identity of the Patriots' pass defense.  Every single corner is at their best in physical press coverage, as are both Anderson and strong side linebacker Jamie Collins.  The starting safeties, Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon are both solid over-the-top defenders, with Harmon an excellent filler in run support...

...and with the defensive ends not having to worry about chipping tight ends and flankers off the line, they can generate positive momentum and get to the quarterback just that much faster - plus it helps the run defense because now New England doesn't have to sacrifice a player from the box into coverage and, in fact, can stack the box without losing anything in coverage.

There is no sense in trying to pin a label on this defense, because it is so loaded with versatile talent that it could naturally morph into just about anything that it needed to be - and in the hands of a defensive genius like Bill Belichick, well, it becomes a weapon.

No?  Well, consider that McCourty, Harmon and Ryan are all former Rutgers University teammates, forming a natural continuity, and all are established ball hawks in their own right - in fact, Ryan earned the nickname "Instant Offense" from his peers last season for his knack of getting to the football, either to knock it away or to just plain  take it away - while Browner, Arrington and Chung are hard hitters that have caused their share of forced fumbles...

...and combined with the top shelf coverage skill displayed by each, naturally including Revis and Dennard, the Patriots' pass defense has the look of a unit that will be able to dictate to the opposition like no other team in franchise history - better even than in the championship years, better even than violent mid-70's defenses.

In fact, the Patriots' defense is so loaded that even the Fantasy Football perverts will climb aboard the bandwagon as New England looks to have the swagger of a potential top three unit.  With the Patriots always promoting team unity above the individual, it appears that Revis Island has suddenly reclaimed enough metaphoric shore line that a new nickname is due...

...something like "Fantasy Island", where a No-fly-zone is always in effect and the term Three-and-out is a way of life.

This is Part six of what will eventually be a nine part series previewing the New England Patriots' upcoming training camp, with parts seven and eight focusing on the defense. Part nine will cover special teams.

Next up, how health in the front 7 will impact the entire defense the running game.. 

In case you missed them, be sure to go back and read the first five pieces:

Part 1: Kraft's Business Sense, Belichick's Comittment Keys to Patriots' Way 
Part 2: Offensive Philosophy Grounded in History 
Part 3: Running Back Competition Wide Open
Part 4: Nasty changes coming along offensive line
Part 5: X,Y or Z? Labels mean little to Patriots' enigmatic pass catchers

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