Saturday, August 23, 2014

Patriots' defense stifling, offense on point in blowout of Panthers

The entertainment value of a third preseason game derives it's attractiveness from the fact that, traditionally, the perceived starters from each team get the majority of playing time.  As a result, the quality of the play is usually more aesthetically pleasing compared to the choppy, practice-like feel of the first two.

But unlike in preseasons past, the choppiness of Friday night's "Dress Rehearsal" for the New England Patriots' season opener was provided by the National Football League's renewed emphasis on eliminating defensive backs making contact with a receiver past the five yard chucking zone...
Rob Ninkovich and Darrelle Revis helped shut down the Panthers

...but in between all of the yellow flags, the Patriots throttled the visiting Carolina Panthers so completely in a 30-7 victory at Gillette Stadium that the performance should send a shiver down the spine of every offensive and defensive coordinator on New England's regular season schedule.

Just don't look for coach Bill Belichick to join in on the hype, because to him, his team's domination of the Panthers was nothing more than a scrimmage where more things went right than wrong.

"This isn’t a big strategy type of game or that type of thing." Belichick said after the game. "It’s just about fundamentals and execution. There was some good things. There are a lot of things we need to work on."

Right - so if his team's performance wasn't enough to give pause to his future opponents, the Dark Master's assessment of that performance certainly should - particularly given the fact that his team was operating without a handful of its key players...

...especially on defense, where the coverage in the secondary was as blanketing as the overcast din over Gillette Stadium, but was even more ominous for Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton, who looked more like a gargoyle in the pocket than the usually dynamic and ambulatory budding star who burned New England's crippled defense last season with his strong arm and nimble feet.

But last season - and, in fact, for the past decade - the Patriots defense hadn't possessed such an imposing array of intrepid talent that could be unleashed on an opposing offense at the whim of the defensive genius, either due to injury or gauche aptitude, than what was on display on Friday night.

Ninkovich and Jones accounted for all three Patriots' sacks
The starting cornerback tandem of Darrelle Revis and rookie free agent Malcolm Butler effectively shut down the outside, consistently forcing Newton to his third and fourth reads - eventually either finding short gains underneath the coverage or succumbing to the ferocity of the Patriots' pass rush that relentlessly battered the besieged signal caller.

In fact, so deep and talented is the New England secondary that Revis' presence and Butler's emergence enables Belichick to rotate in a brace of nickle and dime backs that would be starters in most other teams' secondaries - certainly in Carolina, whose defensive backs were exposed by all three Patriots' quarterbacks to the tune of a combined 28 completions on 36 attempts for 323 yards and three touchdowns...

...two of which went to running back Shane Vereen, who together with Brady took advantage of a blown coverage on a perfectly executed wheel route pitch and catch and raced untouched down the right sideline for the Patriots' first touchdown, then just after halftime simply beat the coverage in the flat then laid out to stretch the ball across the goal line to make the score 20-0 and to end Brady's night on a high note.

Vereen's five catches for 57 yards was second on the team to Julian Edelman's eight grabs for 99 yards, but paced the Patriots' running backs who saw full third of the targets in the passing game and produced all three touchdowns.

In comparison, the Panther's passing numbers were just as efficient as their four quarterbacks were a combined 17 of 25 for 227 yards and a touchdown, but only eight of those completions came against New England's starting rotation for a meager 88 yards - but as impressive as the Patriots' secondary was against the pass, their front seven was even more so against the run.
Brady was masterful and Nate Solder (77) held his own in pass protection

For the game, the New England run defense allowed  just 63 yards on 22 carries, but if you take away the yardage gained by Panthers' quarterbacks running for their lives, the Carolina running backs totaled a paltry 37 yards on 16 carries, a minuscule 2.3 yards per carry average, albeit behind a makeshift offensive line featuring four players with a combined 11 NFL starts between them.

To be fair, New England's heretofore stagnant running game didn't fare much better against the imposing front seven of the Panthers, averaging only 2.6 yards on 31 carries and denying the team and their fans the satisfaction of watching the Patriots' four minute offense shove the ball down the Panthers' collective throat.

Stephen Gostkowski got the scoring started in the waning moments of the opening period, hitting on a 47 yard field goal, then Vereen's 40 yard dash to paydirt made it 10-0 just four minutes into the second frame, then after New England's defense thwarted the only real drive the Panthers could muster in the first half, Brady led the offense on a nine play, 49 yard drive in just 1:44 of game time, setting up Gostkowski for an epic 60-yard field goal to close out the half.

After Vereen's full-effort six yard stretch kicked Brady to the curb early in the third quarter, rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo took over and after a 61 yard interception return by linebacker Steve Beauharnais that ended the second Carolina scoring threat, led the Patriots on two protracted scoring drives - a ten play 32 yard drive that culminated in Gostkowski's third field goal of the contest...

...then on a methodical 12-play, 82 yard drive with roster-bubble H-back Taylor McCuller hauling in Garoppolo's 11-yard scoring strike to end the Patriots' scoring on the night - only a last minute touchdown pass from Panther's reserve quarterback Joe Webb to tight end D.C. Jefferson fouling the scoreboard on the visitor's side.
Linebacker Steve Beauharnais returned an interception 61 yards

Both teams were missing key contributors in their linebacking corps and were toying with their offensive lines as the game progressed - so caution should be preached in the running game on both sides, but with all things being equal, the Patriots took the Panthers behind the woodshed for a thorough and resounding thrashing that is hard not to be excited about.

Cautious optimism is the watchword in Patriots' nation, as Belichick's notorious fence-sitting, post-game diatribe noted, the hooded one admitting only that his team "took another step in our preparation" and that they "still have a lot of stuff we need to work on; left a lot of plays out there on the field that we need to clean up."

And with that being the case, the Patriots' served notice to the rest of the NFL that Friday night's blowout victory over the Panthers should be the minimum standard that they should expect of the team from Foxborough.

"I think it’s a game about fundamentals." Belichick pondered in his post-game presser. "It’s about basic football and it’s not anything close to a regular-season game in terms of game planning and situational football and doing strategically the things that you would do."

Pump the brakes all you want, but when Belichick preaches that his team ran the Panthers out of town on fundamentals and vanilla schemes alone, it's bound to incite enthusiasm, particularly when they were missing half of the starting linebacker corps and their most dynamic offensive weapon in tight end Rob Gronkowski...

...all three of whom are expected to be healthy and ready for opening day, a little over two weeks from Friday night.

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