Friday, August 22, 2014

Offensive line, running game in spotlight for Patriots vs Panthers

The last time we saw the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers on the same field, old rivals Steve Smith and Aqib Talib turned their bitter feud into a street fight and Panthers' linebacker Luke Kuechly mugged Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone as time expired, sending quarterback Tom Brady into a frothing rage.

Ridley (22) and Develin expect to see many snaps on Friday night
That Monday night game became an instant classic that carried on the rich tradition between the inter-conference rivals, a rivalry that continues on Friday night as the Panthers travel to Foxborough to take on New England in the third preseason game for both clubs.

But while Smith and Talib took their punk acts elsewhere, the Patriots' offense and Panthers' defense have remained essentially the same, save the Carolina secondary that lost three of it's four starters and replaced them with aging journeymen, which could negatively impact one of the NFL's best defenses from last season...

...which is neither here nor there as far an an exhibition game is concerned, but the schedule makers didn't do the Patriots any favors as the Panthers played just five nights ago with their starters playing well into the contest, those two facts possibly impacting the playing time for the Carolina defenders.

It isn't a stretch to say that turnovers changed the entire complexion of last season's game, what with a Stevan Ridley fumble deep in Carolina territory destroying a long drive that would have answered a Panthers' touchdown in the first quarter, then a Brady pass that would have been a game winner picked off in the end zone to end the game instead.

In between, the Patriots' offense routed the second-ranked Carolina defense to the tune of 390 total yards, the second most yards given up by the Panthers all season.  But while that ultimately wasn't enough, it should give us an idea of what to expect on Friday night.
Boyce is looking for some consistency to assure himself a roster spot

Before Kuechly's blatant pass interference / hold that prevented Gronkowski from getting to Brady's throw into the end zone that would have won the game - leading to an epic Brady meltdown when the officials decided to pick up their flags because they claimed the pass was uncatchable - the Patriots had scored on four consecutive drives.

Granted, two of those scores were drives that fell short of the end zone due to mistakes by the Patriots and not really anything that the Panthers were doing on defense - a Logan Mankins personal foul ruining one drive and suspect play calling stalling another, both drives leaving points on the field as New England forced themselves to settle for field goals.

Point being, even against one of the league's top defenses, the Patriots offense pretty much had their way, and only their miscues prevented them from blowing out the eventual NFC South Champions on their home turf - and since then the Panthers' secondary has taken hits in free agency this offseason, while New England's offense has been strengthened simply due to better health - facts that should manifest themselves on Friday night.

Of course, last season Brady had to endure breaking in almost all new receivers - and as painful as that was, the diligence shown by he and coach Bill Belichick should pay off in spades this season, as the three rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins each have a year and two camps under their belts...

...free agent signee Danny Amendola has had a full offseason to get used to not having an adductor muscle and Belichick signed Brandon Lafell away from the Panthers to join the dynamic talents of receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski to form the most scheme-specific talented pass catching corps in the league.

But the success of the Patriots' offensive attack both this season and last was - and is - dependent on the power running game that lends a balance to a scheme that is one of the most difficult to defend in the NFL - particularly since running backs Shane Vereen and rookie James White are excellent options for Brady out of the backfield in addition to what they bring with Ridley up the gut.

That said, the key to it all is the play of an offensive line that was atrocious in the first preseason game against the Washington Redskins as Belichick tried out several different lineups, but seemed to gain some continuity against the Philadelphia Eagles last week and Belichick will be looking to solidify the starting five as the first unit for the Patriots should play into the third quarter in this dress rehearsal for the regular season opener.

It appears that veteran Dan Connolly is the favorite to rekindle his role as New England's starting center from two years ago while the battle for Connolly's right guard spot still seems up in the air between second year men Josh Kline and Jordan Devey, but the rest of the line is set with Mankins at left guard, Nate Solder at left tackle and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle...
Who spells Brady in the third quarter?

...though Vollmer is suffering through a foot ailment of some sort and probably won't play on Friday night, perhaps being replaced in the lineup by swing tackle Marcus Cannon, though the possibility exists that rookie drive blocker Cameron Fleming could man the right and leaving Cannon free to go left should Belichick choose to employ Solder as a tackle-eligible tight end to get extra push in the running game.

Which isn't such a bad idea, considering that the Panthers front seven is about as stout as it gets.

Panthers' coach Ron Rivera invested heavily in his interior defensive line last season, drafting Utah's Star Lotulelei and Purdue's Kawann Short, two 320 pound rocks in the middle of Carolina's 4-3 alignment, with ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson form perhaps the best set of pass rushing bookends in the game - and even more so when one considers that the depth at end include rookie terror Kony Ealy and former CFL All Star Alex Hall.

Even more difficult to comprehend is that as good as the line is, the linebackers may be even better.  Gronkowski mugging aside, Kuechly is one of the top middle linebackers in the league while Chase Blackburn and Thomas Davis are exceptional outside linebackers and are backed up by second year man A.J. Klein as the nickle linebacker, though none of these men are liabilities in the passing game and don't need to come off the field...

...which in keeping the state of the Panthers' secondary in mind may be their saving grace.

Gone is corner Captain Munnerlyn and both starting safeties in Michael Mitchell and Quintin Mikell, replaced by grey beards Roman Harper at free safety and Thomas DeCoud at strong while veteran backup Antoine Cason gets elevated to starter at corner across from the lone returner from last season, Melvin White.

White actually serves as an example for Patriots' cornerback Malcolm Butler as he made the team as an undrafted free agent last year and earned the starting gig opposite Munnerlyn six games in.  Rotating in at corner will be Josh Norman and Charles Godfrey while rookie Tre Boston and second year man Robert Lester provide depth at safety.

But as tempting as it will be for Belichick to just let Brady air it out and abuse the Panthers' secondary, it is the running game that needs the most attention, and there is not a better front seven to try and get it on track against than Carolina's.

Thus far in the preseason, none of the backs that are likely to make the regular season roster have shown up with anything significant in either game, although Ridley started to get untracked against the Eagles before putting the ball on the ground and being removed, while rookie Roy Finch and second year load Jonas Gray have flashed enough potential to warrant another look.

That look may not come on Friday night as the Patriots need to assess the play of Vereen and White, neither of whom have had any impact in games, but have flashed skill in practices - though Gray has earned some time in the four minute offense and could be seen in short yardage and end of the half roles.

H-back James Develin will get plenty of snaps, both in the four minute offense and also as a flanker and as an inline tight end, his role expanding to the point that Brady called him the "best fullback in the NFL" - high praise for a former Ivy League defensive end.

As one may guess, Develin will be joining newbie Steve Maneri in handling the tight end duties for the evening - perhaps joined by Solder as previously mentioned - while both Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui slowly make their way back from injury, which by nature will leave the bulk of the receiving duties to the wide receivers and the passing backs.

Aaron Dobson may not play, but that only leaves room for the other receivers to display their wares.  Josh Boyce is hoping to find a little consistency in his game to match what Kenbrell Thompkins, Brandon Lafell, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and rookie Brian Tyms have shown - with Tyms hoping to match up against top level competition as part of some first team personnel packages...

...with White and Vereen trying to find room in the flat to show what their shiftiness in space out of the backfield.

Throwing to them will be Brady, of course, and probably into the third quarter as the third preseason game affords the team their first opportunity to make halftime adjustments for the team to bond further in a game situation - but the real story at quarterback will be which one backup relieves the old gunslinger.

Jimmy Garoppolo was first in against the Eagles and got some good snaps against better competition than he did against the Redskins, building upon that game and gaining some downhill momentum in his quest to overtake Ryan Mallett as Brady's number two. 

Mallett did an admirable job against the Eagles as well so whoever it is coming in for Brady in the third quarter can probably be assumed to be in line for some primary clipboard holding in the regular season.

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