Friday, August 15, 2014

Running game in focus for Patriots against Eagles - on both sides of the ball

Ah, Bill Belichick.  Will you ever be understood?

The answer to that is a resounding "probably not", which is sad since he gives us peeks into this psyche almost every time he speaks, though most people are so ingrained in their beliefs in what Patriots' football should be, that they can't see the forest through the trees.

And it's his fault, after all.  It was Bill Belichick that introduced us to the wonders of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and the brutal tight end-centric offense, then yanked them out from underneath us like a vaudeville magician would a tablecloth from beneath a place setting.
Don't expect Gronk on Friday night, but Revis will play

The laws of inertia were overwhelmed by the gravity of each player's circumstance.  Moss was traded after he began to exhibit conduct detrimental to the team.  Welker couldn't keep his mouth shut to save his life and took his sleazy act to Denver.  Aaron Hernandez couldn't resist shooting folks and ended up in La Pinta, and Rob Gronkowski kept breaking like cheap glass...

...each player becoming the fabled external force that disrupted the integrity of the offensive concept - and while it wasn't Belichick who committed these transgressions, it was he who brought them to our attention, brought them to Foxborough and piqued our interest with delusions of grandeur, then left us always wanting more.

So it is not surprising that fans still pine for these players - or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof, and summarily reject the notion that everything that the Patriots need to win a championship is already on the team.

But here's the thing, and there's really no way of getting around it: with those players of yore and the gimmick offenses that they were the center of, the Patriots have gone 6-5 in the playoffs, including 2-3 in five conference championship games and, of course, 0-2 in Super Bowls...

...and when you stop to consider that their regular season record during that time span is an astonishing and almost obscene 78-18, the numbers suggest that the Patriots went with style over substance since their last World Title, looking pretty and scoring almost at will in the regular season - but with a lack of substance against championship caliber teams, all it got them was a dismal 2-5 record in trophy games.

So when you see names like Dustin Keller on the street waiting for a tight end needy team to pick him, well, there's a reason why no one has.  There are more teams than just New England that needs tight end depth, and no one wants to take a chance - same with Jermichael Finley - and the Patriots' title teams carried tight ends that could do it all, but their primary responsibilities were in blocking for the power running game.

Those offenses weren't flashy - in fact they barely made a ripple in the style points - it was all about three yards and a cloud of dust setting up play action, and the offense was so balanced that they were almost impossible to defend, as evidenced by their 34-4 total record in their back-to-back title run in 2003-04, including winning 21 straight, an NFL record spanning regular season and playoffs.

Maneri represents a new tight end philosophy
The 2014 version of the New England Patriots are built upon the same principles as those title teams.  There are few big names and the offense is loaded with veteran professional pass catchers and a powerful corps of running backs - a grinding ball control offense that will be more methodical than flashy, but with the audacity and daring manner that enables a team to drive the field when its winning time on the biggest stage.

Remember those teams?

Tight end corps no longer the focus:

Tight ends?  Well, there's Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui and a constantly growing list of one night stands - and none of them a suitable compliment to the pass catchers already on the roster - because that's not what Belichick is looking for.  What he wants is beef, and that's all Patriots' fans will get on Friday night when New England hosts the Philadelphia Eagles.

Newly signed Steve Maneri and H-back James Develin are the only healthy "Tight ends" that New England will be able to scrape up for the team's second preseason game, and neither are what one might call a "natural" tight end.

Maneri comes to New England for a second stint, but his first as a tight end as he has since converted from an offensive tackle to what has amounted to being purely a blocking tight end for the past four seasons with a plethora of different teams, while Develin is a converted defensive end that has shown enough versatility as a fullback to warrant a look-see as an H-back.

Both are capable pass catchers but are seldom targeted, so expect the Patriots to showcase their power running game against the Eagles as both will be end-of-the-line supplements to New England's zone blocking scheme.

More mixing and matching along the offensive line:

In practices this week, both Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer have taken reps as tackle-eligible tight ends as well, with Marcus Cannon and rookie Cameron Fleming manning the left and right tackle positions, respectively, which pretty much sums up the rest of the offensive line.

There is little doubt that the opening night right tackle will be Vollmer and left guard will be capably manned by tough guy Logan Mankins, but everything else is up for grabs - especially at center and right guard, where we may need a program and a spotter to recognize who is on the field at any given time on Friday night.

Dan Connolly should start at center to give line a semblance of continuity and Josh Kline will probably start at right guard, but with regular left tackle Solder hobbled in Thursday's practice - as well as suffering through a dismal camp - Cannon will likely get the start in his stead.
Connolly should start at center...

Expect to see Jordan Devey in spot duty at guard, as well as Jon Halapio, with the intriguing road grader Fleming taking over for Vollmer when the team grinds out the running game.

How does Tyms look against better competition?

Receiver Brian Tyms burst onto the scene last week in Washington, albeit against second and third string competition, and the natural evolution would be to see him get some snaps with the first team as Belichick attempts to ascertain where the third-year deep threat fits into the concept.

With four legitimate pass catchers over the height of 6' 2" - Gronkowski at 6' 6", Aaron Dobson and Tyms at 6' 3" and Brandon Lafell at 6' 2" - Belichick has built a red zone nightmare in which he can spread out defenses with in an attempt to improve on last year's red zone efficiency, while 6' 1" Kenbrell Thompkins and 6' 0" speedster Josh Boyce join the aforementioned to help improve 3rd down efficiency.
Dobson (L) won't play but Thompkins and Boyce will have big roles

Munchkins Danny Amendola (5' 11") and Julian Edelman (5' 10") are pretty much locked in with just about an concept and are known quantities so don't expect them to play much beyond quarterback Tom Brady's snap count and, of course, don't expect Gronk or Dobson at all.

Don't sleep on rookie free agent Wilson Van Hooser who will see plenty of reps and is an Austin Collie-type possession receiver, and expect that James Develin and the running backs will see some balls coming their way as well.

How much does Brady play, and who replaces him when he comes out?

It will be nice to see Tom Brady running the offense for the first time this preseason, but how long we get to see it depends on the fluidity of the offense.

If the first team struggles to gain traction against the Eagles' defense, perhaps we see Brady and his cohorts play extended reps in trying to iron out whatever bugs that ail them, while smooth sailing may mean an early night for the sure-fire Hall of Fame signal caller.

But who replaces him in the game?  Ryan Mallett has been limited in practice this past week - in fact missing two practices - so it is difficult to determine how much he will play, if at all.  Rookie Jimmy Garoppolo has taken full advantage of his increased reps in practice and is looking to build upon the momentum he set in last week's loss to the Redskins...

...and when the circumstances collide, particularly if Mallett's knee is still an issue, that might mean that "Jimmy Football" will get some quality early snaps under center.

Running the ball and stopping the run.

With most of New England's starters along the offensive and defensive lines either taking the night off or hitting the showers early last Thursday, the Patriots could neither run the the ball on offense, nor stop the run on defense - so look for both to be in focus on Friday night against the Eagles.

Rookie runner White should see more opportunities
With it looking more and more like the Patriots keeping just three running backs on the roster this season to accommodate a larger than usual receiving corps, the top three - veterans Stevan Ridley and Shave Vereen along with rookie James White - look to be locked in with roster spots, so we expect a heavier dose of that trio than we saw against the Redskins.

The Redskins ran for 177 yards against New England's front seven last week, which at first glance is horrific, but it took them 44 carries to get there and most of that coming right up the gut.  The outside linebackers did a good job of setting the edge and funneling plays inside where the big bodies lurk...

...but without their big bodies, the Redskins manhandled the Patriots in the middle to the tune of five yards per carry as New England's tackles couldn't keep the guards off of the inside linebackers, causing Steve Beauharnais and James Anderson to have to shed blocks to get to the ball carrier instead of filling downhill - and the result would have been the same regardless of who was playing on the second level.

The issue being that the backups for starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly have been sidelined for the rest of the preseason with injuries, leaving third stringers to do the dirty work once those two leave the game - so any improvement in the run defense from last week will mean improvement among the reserves, and still should not be indicative of what the product will look like when game start to count.

Where, oh where do the defensive backs line up:

Right now, Darrelle Revis is a myth - like Sasquatch or the elusive chupacabra - as he has been spotted in and around Foxborough and even in uniform last week in Washington, but Patriots' fans have yet to see the creature on the field.

That should change on Friday night, and hopefully at full speed.

The uber-confident owner of his own island has little to prove, but will play at least a series or two before giving way to any number of reserve cornerbacks, any of whom are capable as Belichick has assembled perhaps the best cumulative group in the league.

The big story has been the emergence of Malcolm Butler, who has taken first-team reps opposite Revis in practice and started last week's preseason opener.  Of course, Butler's reps could be the result of Belichick rotating his veteran corners in and out of the safety corps as he attempts to get them acclimated with the role of the big nickle, but he has held his own regardless of whom he is matched against.

That said, who will start opposite Revis in this game is pretty much anyone's guess.  It could be Brandon Browner, though his best position is in the slot or as the big nickle covering tight ends.  It could be Logan Ryan, who struggled in Washington but has had a good week of practice against the Eagles.

Maybe it could even be Butler, who has earned the opportunity - but one thing is for sure: whoever it is should expect many balls coming at them with Revis on the other side.

Shift in defensive philosophy on display:

Jamie Collins showed last season that he can handle tight ends coming out into the pattern, and if this week's practices against the Eagles is any indication, he can also handle the better running backs in the league as well - which is important to remember, as the defense is undergoing a transition from a read-and-react entity to an aggressive, attacking unit.

Collins is a big part of that and is proving to potentially be one of the best cover linebackers ever seen in New England, and can play any position along the second level - either inside or out, though to limit him inside doesn't play to his strengths on the outside, where he can easily handle both the strong and weak sides.

This versatility is what makes it possible for the Patriots to run their big nickle, either in the 3-3-5 or 4-2-5 base - and we are likely to see that versatility on Friday night, particularly if Jerod Mayo isn't in the lineup.  Mayo typically lines up on the weak side and takes care of running backs in the pattern or in the flat, as does James Anderson - who is also not expected to play... expect to hear Collins' name a lot, along with Darius Fleming's who will most likely man the strong side as well as play inside if the team goes to a 3-4 base against the run.

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