Monday, August 4, 2014

Practices with Redskins offers Patriots' unique challenges

"The players are off tomorrow. We have to give them a day off – that’s their day off – and then we’ll travel Sunday." 

Bill Belichick is the National Football League's Duke of Deadpan, his delivery style right out of the Ben Stein archives - a former speech writer for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Stein managed to make them look and sound even more boring then they actually were...

...which is curious because on his several notable appearances in the visual medium - namely as the persistently annoying history teacher in Ferris Buhler's Day Off and as the folksy uncle persona on his self-named game show, Win Ben Stein's Money - he is comically delightful, and one almost felt bad for him if someone actually won his money.

There are really no similar sentiments forthcoming for Belichick, however, because when he addresses the media, he does so only at the mandate of the league - and he is rarely delightful, nor does his monotone droll evoke any sort of sympathy, because football's not like that.

That said, Bill Belichick has a terrific sense of humor, and his grasp of sarcasm mixed with his disdain for league mandated discovery meetings with the media sometime drip from every word - particularly when speaking in regard to a league rule that handcuffs his preparation time.

We have to give them a day off – that’s their day off...

Regardless, the Patriots are now in Richmond, Virginia preparing for their three day joint practice session with the Washington Redskins in advance of the preseason opener for both on Thursday evening, and with two weeks worth of training camp to draw intelligence from and to postulate opinions from...

...and while certain questions get answered, others spring up - but if you're looking for an itinerary from Belichick, or even a clue of what he might be looking at or hoping to gain from the four day road trip, you're barking up the wrong tree. 

"Obviously we’re not game planning for them or anything." Belichick said on Friday night, "We’ll just go down there, do what we do and they’ll do what they do and we’ll kind of figure it out as we go. We’ve seen our guys go against our guys a lot and now we’ll get to see them go against somebody else."


Part of Belichick's charm is that he wants us to think for ourselves. He is not as cryptic in his player movement as he is in his words, and all it takes is a little studying and things generally start to make sense - and keeping that in mind, here are three things on offense and three things on defense that we will be looking for as the Patriots get their first taste of action:

1. The make up of the secondary - The Redskins feature a lot of speed in their receiving corps and at the tight end position, and it will be interesting to see how the Patriots play them.

DeSean Jackson (4.35 speed in the 40) will be Robert Griffin's deep threat, while Pierre Garcon (4.48) is a physical possession type while greybeard Santana Moss (4.31) handles the slot duties along with free agent pickup Andre Roberts (4.46) - that lineup, if in sync with quarterback Robert Griffin, could pose problems for any secondary.

Sadly, the only matchups that we will get to see along those lines will be in practice because the starters on both sides of the ball will yield to the scrubs after a couple of series, but there is still intrigue as to where free agent cornerback Brandon Browner lines up.

Perfectly suited for a big nickle role, he is at his best up on the line and mugging slot receivers and tight ends, then redirecting their routes to the inside - though he will see time on the outside as well, as Belichick attempts to find the perfect fit opposite Darrelle Revis.

That said, Browner has the very real chance to be the intimidator in the middle of New England's pass defense, as the big nickle - a role traditionally carried out by a safety - can evolve into a corner or linebacker in the Patriots' scheme, especially with Big Bad Browner who can play all three roles.

2. Linebacker depth - Just as in New England's offense, the Redskins under Jay Gruden will have their running backs and tight ends heavily involved in the passing game, and even though lead back Alfred Morris hasn't been used much in that capacity in the past, he'll need to be available as a target for Griffin or he'll lose snaps to third down back Roy Helu or sixth round draft pick Lache Seastrunk.

Anderson should have a chance to show off his speed and cover ability
Seastrunk wasn't involved in Baylor's passing game at all, but he did play in the same backfield as RGIII for a season and will be one to watch out for, particularly on Thursday night when he figures to get many snaps - but no matter who is curling out of the backfield, it will be the first Patriots' fans will see of free agent linebacker James Anderson and his freakish 4.5 speed covering Redskins' running backs...

...while we'll see how second year strong side backer Jamie Collins handles tight end Jordan Reed, a speedy pass catcher in the mold Aaron Hernandez, though we may see cornerback Brandon Browner handling Reed underneath at times.

The top four linebackers - Collins, Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Anderson - are all locks, with battering ram Steve Beauharnais as close to a lock as you can get, and then there's a mad scramble for the sixth, and likely terminally inactive, linebacker spot where Darius Fleming has the early leg up in camp.

Expect to see lots of Beauharnais and Fleming on Thursday night.

3. Ambiguity at defensive end - It's weird that Jake Bequette seems to finally get it now.  He has shown up at camp with a new repertoire of moves and has been a penetrating force, much to the delight of Belichick, and could actually be making a run at keeping his roster spot.

He wont have it easy off the right edge where Washington is tight with Trent Williams and Shawn Lauvao, but if he comes off the left edge he will be facing any number in a mixture of veterans and rookies trying to shore up the strong side.  A strong showing could go a long ways to getting his name in the hat for a roster spot while Michael Buchanan and rookie Zach Moore figure to get long looks as well.

Newcomer Will Smith will see time on the strong side as well and may even see time at linebacker.

4. Right side of the offensive line - One of the more intense battles in camp has been along the right side of the Patriots' offensive line, where a lower-leg injury to rookie center Bryan Stork has thrown a wrench into the competition at both center and guard.

In Stork's stead has been mostly the versatile Dan Connolly, who has played at right guard for the past couple of years after a successful stint at center - so it will be most interesting to see who starts at center on Thursday night between Connolly and incumbent Ryan Wendell.  If it's Connolly, do not be surprised to see Wendell get the axe early in the preseason to give him the time to catch on somewhere else.

Second year guard Josh Kline has stepped up and made a claim for the spot to the right of center, and veteran swing tackle Marcus Cannon has been added to the mix at guard to to form what should be a terrific battle.

Rookie tackle Cameron Fleming should play most of Thursday night's game while starter Sebastian Vollmer stays safe on the sidelines, and with he and Cannon wide bodies of similar build and requisite toughness in the running game it would be interesting to see how wide of a hole they could open up for a back.

5. Tight end depth on display - Obviously, Rob Gronkowski will be very limited in his participation in practice and will be a non-participant in the game, and with Michael Hoomanawanui on the skids, the door for either D. J. Williams or rookie tower Justin Jones to steal the inside track for a roster spot will be wide open.
Gronkowski won't play, giving rookie Jones a big chance

And it should be a good test for them and H-back James Develin as the outside linebackers for Washington - Brian Orakpo and Ryan Karrigan - are very good, as is rookie Trent Murphy.  Williams has never lived up to his potential, but he will never have a better opportunity than he does in the next few weeks, and if Jones runs over linebackers and displays the hands in Washington as he has in Foxborough, he could emerge as the sleeper of this year's rookie class.

6. Changing of the guard at running back? - The Patriots are loaded with talented running backs - in fact, way too many talented running backs and only four roster spots.

For certain, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen lead the way with Brandon Bolden, James White, Jonas Gray and Stephen Houston competing for two spots.  White has had a terrific camp and, according to some in the know, has passed Bolden on the depth chart already - but this has been just in practice where full speed isn't necessarily full speed and where someone on the opposing team isn't try to flatten him.

That said, look for White to get plenty of carries throughout practice and during the game as the Patriots begin their quest to impliment their power running game that was so successful toward the end of last season while Bolden desperately attempts to hold off Gray and Houston for the last roster spot.

No comments:

Post a Comment