Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fundamentals waning, Patriots need to get back to simple football

Rob Gronkowski got up from the turf at Arrowhead Stadium on Monday Night, having just dragged three defenders into the end zone for a typical Gronk-ian effort that makes him one of the most feared and dangerous tight ends in the National Football League...

...and even in a game where his New England Patriots were getting blown out by the Kansas City Chiefs, fans of the team and of the the excitable man-child could gain a small measure of solace in Gronkowski's traditional "Gronk Smash" spike that causes thousands of those little black rubber pellets to spray into the air.

But there would be no spike, just Gronkowski tossing the ball to the side and walking dejectedly toward the sidelines - and in many ways, that was worse than the 41-14 shellacking that the Patriots took at the hands of those Chiefs.
Patriots' players have had the offense taken away from them

It was a brutal thing to witness - that, plus the fact that the pass came from the arm of back up quarterback Jimmy Garopollo, as sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady sat by himself on the Patriots' sideline, unceremoniously benched for the first time in his 15 years as a starting quarterback.

Brady's aura is gone.  The play-by-play announcers for Monday Night Football were stunned, Mike Tirico stammering out objective sentence fragments and Jon Gruden looking to be on the edge of tears, all the while a 60" flatscreen monitor positioned behind them focused on Brady, who had the look of the last kid to be picked for a playground pickup game.

So there was no joy in Kansas City for Patriots' fans - no silver linings to be had, no moral victories and no excuses - but one has to wonder why a player with such a zest for the game of football as Gronkowski has would simply rise to his feet and completely dismiss the ball as if it meant nothing to him.

That is the issue here.  Not so much the lopsided loss, nor the manner in which everything came crashing down on the Patriots, but in the way that the leaders of the team fell into such a funk that not even the terminally happy Gronkowski was immune to it's dour repercussions.

Long after the game had been decided on what could only be described as a "bull goring the matador, and then stomping him into the ground" parable, former Baltimore Ravens' linebacker (and good friend of Brady) Ray Lewis shook his head sadly and looked directly into the camera during the post-game wrap up and called out his old friend for not putting up a fight to stay in the game after being benched...

...Lewis' words ringing true in Brady's post-game press conference, where the dejected field general seemed to be in no mood for disagreement.

"They told me I was coming out" Brady said after the game. "so..."

Then when asked how excited he was to get back out there and start getting ready for next weeks' opponent, Brady gave a dismissive and perhaps even droll "We have no choice."

Yes, Tom, you do have a choice.  You can choose to either sit and look like the spoiled rich kid who didn't get his way, or you can get off your butt and lead this team.

For the past handful of seasons, Brady has been hearing it said over and over that he needs more weapons around him, that he needs a deep threat and by not having them, coach Bill Belichick is wasting Brady's golden years on a bunch of stiffs - but the fact of the matter is that Brady is surrounded by good players - good, fundamentally sound players - players that know that game and hustle and grind...

...players who deserve more from Brady and the coaching staff than what they are getting, which is consistently being put in a position to fail.

The Patriots have lost touch with the most fundamental concepts in all of football, which starts with running the ball - choosing instead to do the opposite, which is dropping Brady back into a pocket that is being overwhelmed by the oppositions' pass rush because they have no reason to play the run, and as a result, the immobile Brady can't get out of his own way, let alone dodge 280 pound defensive ends.

"Certainly running the ball and stopping the run is important to the physical toughness of the team" Brady said in a lucid moment during his post-game presser, seeming to call out the coaching staff for calling all of 16 running plays on the night. "You just lose control of the game and it becomes one-dimensional like it did in the third quarter."

Perhaps that's where the disconnect is, why Brady didn't argue to stay in the game when benched, and why Gronkowski didn't even bother with his aesthetically pleasing "Gronk Smash" after pulling one of his patented cave man run and catch plays for a touchdown - perhaps they know that they have the talent on this team to win, and that the powers-that-be haven't allowed that to happen thus far in the season.

Brady and Gronkowski were just the most visible examples of the "The coaches don't care if we are put in the position to fail, so why should we" syndrome, but if there was ever a time that the New England Patriots needed their franchise quarterback to be that franchise quarterback, that time is now.

No pouting, no submissive blindness, no excuses.  Brady can't just sit back on the notion that the coaching staff and personnel men for the Patriots haven't surrounded him with weapons, he needs to be a leader - not just on the field and in the locker room, but also in the manner in which he deals with the coaching staff...

...because after years of service to the franchise, one would think he has a voice in the meeting rooms and amongst the coaching staff, and if he feels that things need to be done differently, he should speak up and demand that the team start doing things the right way - the Patriot way.

The Patriot way is fundamentally sound football, not the atrocities that we've witnessed since the first kickoff of the season.  The Patriot way is running the football to set up the play action, not the fancy and exotic blocking schemes that has taken away the aggression from the offensive line and made them no more than speed bumps for defensive players on their way to nail Brady.

The Patriots way is physically dominating the line of scrimmage, utilizing drive blocking to wear down the defense and to set up Brady with a relatively clean pocket on play action - and until Brady demands that the offense be given back to the players, fans of the team best be prepared for many more performances like Monday night.

And, worse yet, no enthusiastic Gronk spikes...

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Opinion: Time for Stork to become center of attention

Stork (66) will encounter a few bumps in the road, but his time is now regardless
He's called the pivot, and aside from the obvious grey humor involved with the moniker, he is the most important member of a team's offensive line.

How important is the center to the line of scrimmage?  As important as the point man for a military recon team.  He is as important is the point guard in basketball or the catcher in baseball or the centerman in hockey.  Every play starts with him.

The New England Patriots came into this summers' training camp touting the reigning Rimington Award winner - an honor presented to the best center in college football - as their fourth round draft pick, yet Bryan Stork quickly disappeared into the bowels of Gillette Stadium where the teams' medical staff and trainers nursed him back to health after the 6' 4", 300 pound pivot suffered a leg injury before July had expired.

He spent weeks on the shelf, emerging briefly every now and then, perhaps to let the media know that he was still with the team, and working towards a return to the field - but by the time he did, he had missed nearly all of camp, leaving last season's not-good-enough incumbent Ryan Wendell to assume his accustomed position...

...but when Wendell went down in the the first game of the season with a bum ankle, his literal right hand man - right guard Dan Connolly - took the reigns.

Wendell is certainly serviceable in the short-term, as is Connolly, but when Connolly was forced to slide over to the pivot from right guard, the choice to replace him was journeyman Jordan Devey, who at 6' 7" and 315 pounds is not well enough height/weight proportioned to handle the position, and as a result, opposing defensive tackles have been able to get under his pad level and drive him back into the pocket on passing downs.

Devey is a tackle, but has been used at guard while head ball coach Bill Belichick has been biding his time to get Stork into the line up - and as a result of the personnel needs for the experimental rotation to find a solid mix along the line, both Devey and Marcus Cannon have been miscast as interior blockers.  A move to Stork and to activate Josh Kline to take over at left guard could instantly solve the protection problem.

So the Patriots' offensive line is under intense scrutiny by media and fans, many bemoaning the trade that sent Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay as the culprit in the lines' struggles - but that isn't the collective issue - never was.  The unsettled situation at center is, and has always been.

Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome offered his perspective on the pivot recently, stating, "You need to have someone who can neutralize that nose tackle - If you don't, everything will get screwed up."

"Your running game won't be effective and you'll also have somebody in your quarterback's face on every play."

Any of that sound familiar?

It's a domino effect: The center can't get push in the running game, so the guard on the strong side cheats over to help push the nose tackle out of the gap instead of getting to the second level and boxing out the Mike, who can now rush in cleanly and fill the gap created by the double team...

...and in the passing game the guard has to slide over to help double the rush tackle, leaving the offensive tackle on that side to deal with either the three-tech or the outside linebacker, leaving one of them free with only a running back to impede his progress.

The importance of the center position can not be overstated.  If the defensive linemen are getting to the quarterback quickly or the pocket is collapsing from the inside out, the center has either missed something in his protection cadence or is just physically unable to sustain his blocks, and Brady hasn't been able to step into his throws as a result.

If the running game isn't working or, as we've witnessed many times in the first three games, the running back is forced to bounce outside, it's because the center can't control the nose.  Of course there are sometimes mitigating circumstances, but any breakdown along the line begins at the pivot.

You see, the center has an ideal view of the opposing defenses' alignment from his vantage point, and as a result is usually the one responsible for calling out protection, forming a base call that dictates to all over the subsequent changes made by the quarterback in formation before the snap - and then has to get the ball to the quarterback cleanly and swiftly before getting to his blocking assignment, a process that takes literally a split second.

Your center has to be an athlete, perhaps the best of all of the other linemen - he has to have the feet of a tackle, the hips of a cornerback, the mean streak of a guard and the intelligence of the quarterback, for it is his job to know every play, even where the receivers are going in their patterns so as to know where the passing lanes are likely to be...

...which is probably why Stork has been relegated to minimal snaps in the fourth quarter in the past two games, using them for game reps while he continues to get up to speed - but the only way that he will ever be ready to play, is to just play.

Stork is a rookie, so there's still a learning curve.  Sometimes he's going to look like a rookie, but at other times he's looked like a season veteran - the sample size is so small that a proper prognostication of his potential success is much the same as throwing a dart, but he was a damned good center at Florida State and Belichick used fourth round draft capital to snag him.

The time for experimentation and rotation is gone and neither Wendell nor Connolly are the answer to lead this offensive line - the time is now for the reigning Rimington Trophy winner to be on the ball.  He's big, smart, athletic and has a mean streak a mile wide - and even the bumps in the road that come with on-the-job-training are better than the entire line remaining in flux.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Patriots' defense comes out on top in street fight with Raiders

Patriots' defenders congratulate nose tackle Vince Wilfork after his late interception sealed a tight win over Oakland.

Penalties have dogged the New England Patriots the first two games of the 2014 NFL season, and it appeared for one fleeting moment that a penalty was going to be their undoing on Sunday afternoon against the Oakland Raiders.

Instead, a holding penalty on Oakland negated what would have been a tying touchdown by the Raiders with less than a minute to play, then fate added insult to injury as Patriots' nose tackle Vince Wilfork intercepted a deflected Derek Carr pass on the ensuing play to seal a hard-fought 16-9 victory over a game Oakland squad in the Patriots' home opener at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

Following a defensive pass interference call on New England cornerback Logan Ryan that placed the football at the Patriots' six yard line with only a minute to play, Raiders' running back Darren McFadden blew through the Patriots' run defense for a touchdown, but the holding penalty on rookie left guard Gabe Jackson nullified the score and marched Oakland back to the 16...

...where Carr's first-and-goal pass to receiver Demarius Moore glanced off of his shoulder pads, Ryan redeeming himself as he and Rob Ninkovich converged on him at the 11, the ball landing right in Wilfork's hands for his third career interception and a potential game-saver to give the Patriots their second consecutive win.

New England head ball coach Bill Belichick praised his defense for holding the Raiders to just nine points, singling out Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones and Logan Ryan as keys to the win, also adding that he wasn't sure that the pass interference penalty on Ryan should have been a penalty at all.

"We'll have to take a look at that DPI, not sure about that one." Belichick mused. "he made some big plays for us.  He always does."

The victory, coupled with the Buffalo Bills' home loss to the San Diego Chargers, finds the Patriots in a first place tie in the AFC East, while Oakland drops to 0-3 and, obviously, last place in the brutal AFC West.

Raiders' coach Dennis Allen, rumored to be on the hot seat after two consecutive losses to open the season and eight straight overall extending back to last season, may have salvaged his job with a fantastic game plan that focused on bottling up the middle of the field and forcing New England to the wings where their lack of speed was exposed in both the running and passing games.

As a result, the Patriots runners were held to 76 yards on 32 carries, as offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels played right into Oakland's game plan by abandoning the inside power running game that was working to the tune of four yards per carry in the first half and going to the stretch - and the results were predictable.

In the second half, the New England running game regressed on the wings, running 15 times but for just 11 yards for a paltry .7 yards per carry as McDaniels tried the corners time and again, and getting his backs stuffed in the process.

Conversely, the Patriots' defense held the Raiders' offense to three field goals, and allowed them into the red zone just twice.  Carr was 21 of 34 for 174 yards, the eight yards per completion telling the story for their game plan on offense, which was to attack the wings of the Patriots' defense to spread the field horizontally, then picking and choosing their time to go downfield - and it nearly pulled the upset.

For the third straight game, the Patriots started slowly on both side of the ball, Oakland taking a 3-0 lead with less than five minutes left in the opening period after a 13-play, dink-and-dunk drive stalled at the New England 30, a lead that they held for nearly a full quarter until Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski on a crossing route from six yards out for what turned out to be the game's only touchdown.

A Stephen Gostkowski field goal as time expired in the first half gave the Patriots a seven point lead going into the locker room, with the hope that comes with receiving the ball first in the second half would turn into points and give them some breathing room...

...but that drive went backwards thanks to a penalty and a Justin Tuck sack of Brady that pinned New England deep, Ryan Allen's 45 yard punt setting up Oakland just inside Patriots' territory and eventually turned into another Sebastian Janikowski field goal that cut the New England lead to four.

Janikowski hit again on the next Oakland drive to make the score 10-9, but Gostkowski got the three points back with his second field goal of the game to cap a 10 play 57 yard drive, that stalled with some curious play calling inside the Raiders' two - running back Shane Vereen slipping on a run off left tackle for no gain and then two passes into the end zone falling incomplete.

Afterwards, Belichick acknowledged the offenses' struggles in the red zone, saying that they "had their opportunities down there and we had a touchdown a couple of chances that we didn't capitalize on" but when asked it was a matter of scheme or execution, he deferred.

"We'll look at the film and try to figure out how we can make it better." he said, but then when the subject of the running game came up again, a dark cloud appeared out of nowhere as Belichick noted his displeasure.

"I thought it was inconsistent" the head ball coach grumbled, "We had some negative runs that resulted in long-yardage situations...I think we can do pretty much everything better offensively."

Gostkowski got the lead back to seven when the next series stalled inside the red zone once again, setting up the heroic drive by Carr and the Raiders that gave Patriots' fans plenty of nail-biting moments before Wilfork's right place - right time interception to end the threat and save the game...

...for it goes without saying that a desperate Allen would have gone for a two-point conversion and the win had the Raiders been able to get past Wilfork's sticky mitts.

"He's done that before, making one-handed grabs" Belichick smiled speaking of Wilfork's interception. "so this one was easy - he got two hands on it."

For certain, the performance is not going to deter the teams' detractors, particularly the ones who have accused Brady of locking in on receiver Julian Edelman, who again received the lion's share of Brady's 37 targets, as 13 of them came his way.  Edelman came down with 10 of them for 84 yards, but Brady did get more of his receivers involved, going to Brandon Lafell eight times and to Gronkowski and Vereen six times a piece.

In all, the 37 year old gunslinger targeted eight pass catchers, but the beat writers were having none of the improvement from the first two weeks, asking Belichick if Brady was frustrated with himself for missing a few throws, or with his receivers, which the Dark Master dismissed with a terse, "You'll have to ask Tom what he was thinking."

What was Tom thinking?  Simply, execution in the red zone.

"Well, I mean, we have first and goal from the one-and-a-half yard line and we settle for a field goal." Brady sighed. "You just can't do that - our red area hasn't been very good.  We've got to try to run it in.  If we can't run it in, then we've got to hit the tight throws and make the tight plays."

The offensive struggles aren't just one person, it is true.  But it starts with the coaching and play calling and ends with the execution, and both the coaches and the players know that each of them need to do a better job, starting next Monday night at the loony bin in Kansas City called Arrowhead Stadium...

Patriots defense primed to take advantage of aging Raiders' line, rushing attack

If after two games, the top rusher on your team is the quarterback, it should conjure up two different scenarios - neither of them good.

First, it means that you simply have no running game and, second, it means that your quarterback is running for his life - and it is fair to state that this team is probably going to be at or near the bottom of the NFL statistically on offense, and also probably means that they have a losing record.

The Oakland Raiders are such a team, and the stereotype fits like a glove.  But it's not all bad, and if the New England Patriots aren't careful, their defense could fall victim to a curious malady commonly known as "Sandbagger Syndrome".
Jones and the rest of the Patriots defensive line should have a field day

Despite the presence of veteran runners Darren McFadden and newcomer Maurice Jones-Drew, the Raiders are dead last in rushing through two games running behind a retooled offensive line that thus far have been just plain offensive.

How bad has it been?  Rookie quarterback Derek Carr leads Oakland in rushing with 57 yards, topping McFadden (52 yards) and Jones-Drew (11 yards) - and while Carr's yardage has come on only five carries, it is important to note that 41 of those yards came on a scramble against a surprisingly porous Houston Texans' run defense.

McFadden's 3.3 yards per carry is serviceable if the team can ever get enough of a lead to be able to run the ball effectively, but Jones-Drew's horrible 1.2 yards per carry is made even more abysmal when considering that ten of his 11 yards came on one run, the other lone yard on eight carries indicating that he may have lost his edge when he can't bulldoze his way to a single yard per carry.

But it is stats like these that bring the word "sandbaggers" to life.

The term sandbagger is generally exclusive to golfers who cheat the handicap system by playing worse than they really are in match play in order to raise their advantage in tournament play - and while no one is suggesting that the Raiders would be sandbagging purposely, it could very well be that their rushing numbers simply indicate a really bad offensive scheme that could start to perform better as time goes on.

That said, is Sunday's contest against the Patriots in New England's home opener that time?

Doubtful, but even if the Raiders' offense begins to find some cohesion, a mixture of a Patriots' run defense and a forecast calling for rain could doom any hopes Oakland had to jump start an offense that has relied on their passing game almost exclusively to this point...

...which we know isn't an option given that the Patriots' represent the fourth-ranked passing defense in the league - which is neither here nor there this early in the campaign, but given the strength of the New England secondary and their renewed emphasis on the pass rush, Carr may find it difficult to get anything going at all without a running game to give life to the play action.

So there is some pressure to be felt by the Patriots' front seven, as they certainly don't want to give life to Carr and an offense that is struggling mightily.

Some figure that head ball coach Bill Belichick would authorize some movement along the defensive line to get favorable matchups in the pass rush, such as flip-flopping reigning Defensive Player of the Week Chandler Jones from right to left to take advantage of greybeard Khalif Barnes' regressing skill set and also to make up for the probability that linebacker Jamie Collins will likely be inactive...

...but the smart money has Jones staying put as an end of the line rusher, possibly moving to a five tech on passing downs to matchup with rookie left guard Gabe Jackson - but this matchup also could go in the direction of getting a rookie-on-rookie look between Jackson and defensive tackle Dominique Easley, which could open up a virtual plethora of possibilities on the edge.

In the passing game, New England has the decided advantage, with names like Revis, Arrington and Ryan covering Raiders' receivers James Jones, Rod Streater and Denarius Moore - but one area that the Raiders could have a glimmer of hope is in the size of depth receiver Andre Holmes and move tight end Mychal Rivera.

Holmes is a huge target a 6' 4" and plays the possession receiver on intermediate routes and in the red zone, while Rivera is a threat down the seam at 6' 3" and 245 pounds.  Both had decent seasons in 2013 and have tremendous upside, and with Collins possibly being out in favor of rookie linebacker Deontea Skinner, Rivera could be the most dangerous pass catcher on the field.

Belichick could do well to find a way to protect Skinner, if needed, which may mean more of a three man look on the line - but that is an extreme considering that he could simply switch to a nickle or dime and use a double slot with Arrington and Ryan, leaving Malcolm Butler or Alfonzo Dennard (if active) to deal with the outside stuff.

Regardless, the Raiders don't appear to have much to offer the Patriots in terms of an offensive attack, and unless Oakland's offensive scheme is that of a bunch of sandbaggers who save everything to play well against top competition, it goes to figure that the young New England defense could have their way with the aging Oakland offense.

Oakland the perfect opponent for Patriots' offense to achieve balance

"In truth, there was no no favoritism on the part of Brady, no ignoring other receivers, no lost faith in the receivers' ability to get open nor to catch the football - just a cascading set of priorities, the success of which most assuredly brought a smile to the face of the Dark Master, but also a furrowing scowl to the features of those who saw an opportunity to pile on points against an inferior foe." - Foxborough Free Press, September 18, 2014

You've heard it said that looks can be deceiving? One look at the stat sheet for the Oakland Raiders' defense is a perfect example.

The biggest lie is the notion that their pass defense is the second ranked unit in the NFL - and while it's true that they've allowed a paltry 329 passing yards on the young season, it is equally true that those passing yards came on second lowest passing attempts against in the league.

This disparity can be easily explained.
Brady and the Patriots should display more balance on Sunday

You see, teams don't need to pass against the Raiders, not with their run defense surrendering a whopping 200 yards per game, which is dead last in the NFL.

Yes, the Oakland Raiders have given up more rushing yards than passing yards in both of their contests thus far - a close contest with the New York Jets to open the season, then a woodshed-type whooping at the hands of the Houston Texans last Sunday.

Anyone want to take a stab in the dark and guess what the New England Patriots game plan is going to look like when they host the Raiders this Sunday at Gillette Stadium?

Well despite the disparity in favor of the running game that those two teams have had against Oakland, the Patriots have plenty to work on in the passing game as well, which means that fans of both teams should be prepared to see quarterback Tom Brady and his plethora of receivers expose that second-ranked Raiders pass defense for the middle-of-the-pack unit that they truly are.

This is the type of game where head ball coach Bill Belichick will have a defined list of areas that he feels his team needs to work on, and Oakland provides the perfect opponent and opportunity to practice the time-honored axiom of the Erhardt-Perkins offense, "Pass to score, run to win."

What Erhardt meant by his favorite phrase is that his teams should use the pass to gain an early lead - with running plays sprinkled in to keep the defense honest and to set up the play action - then go run heavy to drain the clock and wear out the opposing defense to close out the game.

In that respect, the Patriots haven't come close to putting that package together, as in week one against the Dolphins the offense abandoned the running game as part of some wrong-minded variation of their offensive concept and Brady ended up getting stomped like a grape by Miami's vicious pass rush - and last week the offense took advantage of a 17-point halftime lead to install their power running game and to get tight end Rob Gronkowski integrated into the scheme.

So while there should be an effort to build upon those things against the Raiders, the task at hand should be to maintain more of a balance for 60 minutes.

Most of the chatter this week has involved the passing game, ranging from Brady locking in exclusively on Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski to Brandon Lafell and Danny Amendola not being able to get open, which makes them "worthless" - and normally this is the part where we say that the the truth is somewhere between the two extremes, but in actuality, there is no truth in any of it.

As has been the case for the last few years, the Patriots receivers and Brady have been using the first quarter of the season to develop the chemistry that the offseason doesn't afford them time for since the new CBA was ratified, forcing teams to abide by a limited spring schedule and a far less grueling training camp than in the past - which according to Belichick means that teams enter the regular season still needing to find their stride, particularly on offense.

This was particularly evident last season when Brady had to rely on just one returning receiver while breaking in three rookies and dealing with a broken Amendola - and this season is no different when considering that every one of the rookies missed significant time with injuries last year, as did Amendola, so chemistry really wasn't given a chance.

So what is Brady supposed to do?  Belchick certainly wasn't going to expose his franchise quarterback to the hazards of operating deep into preseason games to develop chemistry when the coaching staff also needed that time to evaluate the rest of the team - so what we've seen in the first two weeks of the season is an offense still trying to find their legs and to get into football shape...

...which Belichick has said many times requires actually playing football - and it certainly doesn't hurt to have Edelman as a default safety valve.

Teams with veteran receivers and veteran quarterbacks throwing to them typically won't struggle to find a rhythm to the extent that New England has in the past two seasons - which is why you see teams like Denver, Cincinnati, Atlanta and San Diego off to fast starts and teams like Tampa, Houston and the Patriots not so much.

What determines if these teams ever get on track or if they fade into oblivion depends on a number of factors - having a coaching staff with a solid plan and solid athletes at receiver being prerequisite, and being able to employ a certain Hall of Famer at quarterback never hurts.

But what really had New England reeling initially was a lack of cohesion along the offensive line, which not only impacted the passing game, but also the running game, as the loss to the Dolphins in week one looked to be a case of the coaching staff being unprepared to encounter the struggles that they did across the board while trying to install the offense all at once...

...which was particularly evident with the play calling, which was atrocious on both sides of the ball. So to rectify this, Belichick decided to prioritize the needs, choosing to install the power running game last week - which worked so well that it made priority "1a", getting Gronkowski up to speed, all the more possible.

So, one has to wonder if this wasn't the plan all along - to use the first few regular season games as an extension of the preseason in some respects and implementing different components on offense, then putting it all together against a horrible Raiders' team in their home opener?

Perhaps, despite the second half collapse against the Dolphins - and it goes to figure that if this is the case, Belichick's offense should be able to display a healthy balance that can follow Erhardt's philosophy of passing to score and running to win, and bury the Raiders with a firestorm of consistency.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Belichick unveils the dark underbelly of his Patriots - but not everyone likes it

The Patriots used the second half of last Sunday's win to get their power ground game going.

In Bill Belichick's world, the second half of Sunday's win at Minnesota was nothing more than a game-speed scrimmage.

This little nugget seems to be disturbing to many fans of the New England Patriots, as it is difficult for them to fathom why the Dark Master would sacrifice points for any reason at all, let alone in the name of practice...

...but what Belichick and the rest of his Patriots got out of it was a full thirty minutes of game-speed scrimmage - a rarest of treats for a man who refers to all things that he values as "capital" - much the way an investment banker would assign value to a stock - only for Belichick, time and opportunity are assets that he holds in higher regard than money.

For example, during the offseason you will hear Belichick refer to his draft picks as "draft capital", from which he is unwilling to part with unless tendered an offer than he can't refuse - see the 2013 draft, where he quadrupled his "capital" by trading away the 29th pick overall to Minnesota - so when the Dark Master was offered a deal that he couldn't refuse from Chandler Jones last Sunday, he gladly cashed in his stock.
Gronkowski saw five targets in the second half

What he traded was points during a game that had been all but decided - or had already been decided if considering how well his defense was playing - and gained perhaps the most invaluable training tool afforded a head ball coach in the National Football League: Real-time, situational practice.

Of course, he may or may not had been planning it all along - as is what most certainly occurred the previous Sunday in Miami - but the opportunity presented itself in a more convenient form once Jones blocked a field goal attempt late in the second quarter and took it to the house to give the Patriots a 17 point lead going into the locker room.

It really didn't look too good up to that point, as the Vikings were lining up for a 48-yard field goal attempt that would have cut the Patriots' lead to single digits - but then Jones burst through the protection like he was shot out of a cannon and used his condor-like wingspan to easily get to the ball, then took the perfect ball bounce off the turf and before you could say "Defensive Player of the Week", the New England lead was 17.

That ten-point swing allowed Belichick to continue to install his running game and to target tight end Rob Gronkowski almost exclusively in the passing game - working on situational football and fundamentals without the albatross of needing to score points hanging around their collective neck.

And that's what folks are not understanding.

Opportunities like the one that presented itself last Sunday are priceless in the mind of a football coach - and since he was determined to achieve his goals regardless of ease of implementation, it worked out for the best.

As a result, the statistics look a little bit skewed in the favor of the running game, while the few targets from Brady in the passing game were geared toward getting Gronkowski into football shape, much the same as he would have in the preseason, had Gronk been cleared for contact.

Of the 14 times Brady dropped back to pass in the second half, he targeted Gronkowski five times, as compared with three times for Julian Edelman, twice each for Aaron Dobson and Shane Vereen and one a piece for Danny Amendola and Tim Wright - though on two of Edelman's and one of Dobsons's and one of Vereen's, the plays were negated due to penalty.

In all, Brady targeted eight different receivers in the contest - as Michael Hoomanawanui and James Develin also notched receptions in the first half - not a bad ratio for dropping back into the pocket only 27 times, which is made even more remarkable when stopping to consider that Brady didn't even throw a pass until he found Dobson on 13 yard gain with just a little over four minutes left in the first quarter.

Up until that point it had been all Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen as Belichick methodically installed his power running game, hammering the heart of the Vikings' run defense sixteen times that would set up a terrific display of smashmouth, four-minute offense in the second half when the Patriots gained 105 of their 150 total rushing yards...

...coming on just 21 carries as Ridley did much of his damage between the tackles against a worn out Minnesota front seven, while Brady happily got some one-on-one work in with his man-child tight end.

And that's how it works.

Questions arose in the post-game presser and in subsequent interviews regarding the teams' seeming lack of targets for receivers not named Gronkowski and Edelman, and while both Brady and Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels jabbered happily about the win and about how they are far from satisfied and about how there is a need for balance in the offense, the truth is that they are just telling the beat writers what they want to hear.

After all, these guys aren't stupid.  They know full well that no matter what comes out of their mouths, someone's going to twist it around for the sake of sensational headlines in the name of readership and stir up the constituency with a big stick - and while there is truth to what they are saying, the writers never lose sight of the ultimate goal: Page Views.

In truth, there was no no favoritism on the part of Brady, no ignoring other receivers, no lost faith in the receivers' ability to get open nor to catch the football - just a cascading set of priorities, the success of which most assuredly brought a smile to the face of the Dark Master, but also a furrowing scowl to the features of those who saw an opportunity to pile on points against an inferior foe.

That's just the way it is in Patriots Nation, as victory draws out the nit-picking of the Brady and Belichick detractors just as surely as the few losses they suffer each season bring out the doomsayers.

But for fans of the dark underbelly of football - the part of the game unseen by the public, the part of the game that involves the endless sweat and preparation that makes the Patriots the model franchise of the National Football League - last Sunday is about as beautiful as football gets.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Patriots stomp Vikings 30-7, but Brady unimpressed

Stevan Ridley rushed for 101 yards in the Patriots' 30-7 victory over the Vikings in Minneapolis on Sunday
"Three yards and a cloud of dust used to be the standard for success in the National Football League.  It is the most fundamental concept in the game, and has been the backbone of championship teams since the very beginning - and teams that ignore its importance are doomed to defeat." - Foxborough Free Press, September 14, 2014
The Minnesota Vikings were without running back Adrian Peterson on Sunday afternoon.

So now that the caveat has been issued, anything positive that the New England Patriots' defense accomplished on Sunday afternoon against the Vikings' offense is clearly due to the absence of one of the all time great running backs - so thank goodness for the Patriots' offense.

Just don't expect quarterback Tom Brady to buy into that.

“I’m happy we won." Brady groaned after the game. "I wish we could go out there and play like we are capable of. Just the way it is."

The way it is, is that Stevan Ridley ran for 101 yards and Shane Vereen 40 more as the Patriots cleared football's version of baseball's Mendoza Line with plenty to spare, averaging 4.1 yards per carry, and Chandler Jones blocked a field goal attempt and took it to the house as the New England Patriots routed the Minnesota Vikings by a score of 30-7 at TCF Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota on Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps Brady was unhappy that the offense was only 5 of 14 on third down conversions, or maybe it was the inordinate number of penalties, or maybe even the fact that New England left points on the field due to those blunders, or it could be that he steamed that he was only allowed to throw 22 passes compared to having to hand the ball off 37 times - but whatever it is, Brady is looking forward to rectifying it.

“We are going to try and make improvements, so that’s why we get back to work tomorrow and see what we can do better,” Brady snarled. “Similar to after last week, try to make some improvements and hopefully we can go out there and do a better job.”

The Vikings weren't so fortunate on the ground, counting on third-year back Matt Asiata to fill the void left by Peterson's indiscretion, leading a Minnesota running game that produced only 54 yards on 19 rushing attempts, coach Mike Zimmer abandoning the running game by necessity in the second half in favor of, well, that was the problem.

Minnesota quarterback Matt Cassel paid a heavy price for the offense's inability to run the ball, taking six sacks by the relentless Patriots' pass rush, and getting drilled eight more times after releasing the ball - the pressure having much to do with Cassel throwing four interceptions, though the athleticism of the New England defensive backs played a part in it as well.

After the Minnesota Vikings drove the length of the field to score an easy-looking opening touchdown against the New England Patriots, the television play-by-play announcers made it a point to mention that since halftime of the Patriots' loss to Miami on opening weekend, they had been outscored 30-0...

...but it was just a matter of a couple of minutes before the Patriots scored the first of their own thirty unanswered points, safety Devin McCourty's 60 yard interception return setting up Ridley from the one yard line for a 7-7 game midway through the opening frame.

The first of three Stephen Gostkowski field goals gave New England a 10-7 lead at the end of the quarter, then a Darrelle Revis interception led to a filthy Brady lob to Julian Edelman in the left corner of the end zone to give them a 10 point lead just into the quarter, then the teams traded punts before Chandler Jones came away with the play of the game.

Cassel caught fire with just under three minutes remaining in the half, leading the Vikings to what appeared to be a simple 48 yard field goal attempt and a chance to cut the lead to just one score heading into the room, but Jones penetrated through the protection and used his 6' 6" frame and octopus-like span to block the kick, picking up the ball at the Patriots 42 and returning it 58 yards for the dagger.

“It was a huge 10-point play,” Belichick said of Jones' effort. “It’s a huge play. We work on that every week, and it was great to see it happen in the way it did and see that hard work in practice pay off and become reality in the game. That’s what it is all about."

Up 24-7, the Patriots turned to their running game in the second half, settling for two Gostkowski field goals after long, clock eating drives to provide the final margin while the New England defense pinned their ears back and went after Cassel, forcing two more interceptions and sending Minnesota to their first defeat of the young season.

Afterward, coach Bill Belichick was in a rare jovial mood, complimenting his coaching staff and players just seven days removed from their worst performance in years - and just after his team improve to an astonishing 38-1 when one of their backs rushes for 100 yards or more, and 34-5 after a loss the week before.

"We had good opportunities to run the ball and that led to play-action passes,” Belichick said, offering the obvious after his 200th career victory. "Our offensive line, our tight ends, James Develin is part of that, they blocked well. Stevan ran hard."

It wasn't perfect, as Brady will be quick to tell you, particularly after being flagged for 15 penalties for a whopping 163 yards, but it was a marked improvement from the week before, and a victory made sweeter being the first one since their ugly loss in last January's AFC Title game...

...and hopefully one where the Patriots learned that sticking with their running game regardless of the level of initial success, is how to win football games.  They didn't do it in Denver and the didn't in Miami last week, but on a cool late summer afternoon in Minnesota, New England did stick with their ground game, and it opened up the entire playbook.

Just don't expect Tom Brady to be satisfied, because there's only thing that will do that - something tall and shiny that he has to go to Arizona to get, but it's far too early to think about such things.

Despite loss of Peterson, Vikings still have plenty of weapons vs Patriots

If you can run the ball in the National Football League, it opens up your entire playbook on offense.

Running the football is what puts the action in play action, which forces the opponents' pass rush to hesitate, if only for a split second - but many times is the difference between your quarterback being able to step into his throws or ending up flat on his end zone is that split second.
Wilfork has to hope that Easley is ready for extended snaps

The Minnesota Vikings can run the football - or at least they could have, had the team not deactivated All Pro running back Adrian Peterson in response to him being indicted by a Texas Grand Jury on charges of  reckless injury to a child - so their dynamic, as well as Peterson's personal life, has been dramatically altered.

To a man, the Patriots' defenders indicated that they were looking forward to the challenge of trying to keep Peterson in check as a result of pulling their run defense into the garage for an overhaul after it sputtered and died last Sunday in Miami...

...but now their proving grounds on the turf of TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota have become less ominous - which is not to say that the Vikings don't have decent complimentary running backs in third-year load Matt Asiata and rookie Jerick McKinnon, but those guys are not Peterson.

Not even close.

In fact, in Minnesota's entire backfield, the depth chart yields the fact that the remaining backs have less than 100 NFL carries combined, with third year man Matt Asiata leading the way with 49 carries for 185 yards, edging out fullback Jerome Felton, who has 42 career rushes in six full seasons for 136 yards - but has no carries since the 2011 season.

All of that is less than inspiring to say the least, but a 3.5 yards per carry average is at least respectable, and since everything in the Vikings' offense starts with the running game it goes without saying that coach Mike Zimmer is going to turn Asiata and/or McKinnon loose, and nescience be damned...

...which makes one also wonder why the team let Toby Gerhart and his 4.6 yards per carry walk away to Jacksonville for what amounted to chump change.  Of course, they had no inclination that Peterson was would run afoul of the law and leave them with nothing but unproven journeymen and untested rookies, but why risk it?

Indeed, what's done is done - but the Vikings are sold on Asiata, who at 6' 0" and 235 pounds is a big, between the tackles runner that always finishes going forward, which actually still feeds right into what Zimmer likes to do on offense, but probably won't commit the Patriots to many eight man fronts like Peterson does to opposing defenses.

The fact that most teams have to bring a safety down into the box to help stop Peterson is what opens up so much on the outside, as quarterback Matt Cassel leads an offense that plays right into what killed New England last season and, to an extent, last Sunday: the screen pass and short dump-offs.  And with the Patriots probably missing their best coverage linebacker in Jamie Collins with a thigh injury, the playing field is leveled somewhat.

This anomaly will impact the pass rush as well, as both Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will have to be aware of the edges and recognize when the screen is coming - which is easy enough, because the tackles will yield ground to allow the rush to collapse the pocket toward Cassel, who will loft the ball over the pack to the back or receiver with blocker set up in front for the jailbreak.

And when one recalls that wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is an emerging talent in the running game - he was Minnesota's leading rusher last week with 102 yards on just three carries running around the weak side on the trendy "Jet Sweep" - it goes without saying that the Vikings still are dangerous on offense, and if Asiata and McKinnon get into a groove, New England's defense could find themselves back on their heels...

...and with the quality and girth of the Vikings' offensive line leading the way, that certainly isn't beyond the realm of possibility.

Players to watch:

Cordarrelle Patterson - How much Peterson's absence affects Patterson's game will be an interesting component to this game - and not just in those Jet Sweeps.

Patterson is a very real running threat, and is the first receiver in league history to score on running plays of 35 yards or longer in three consecutive games, his 67 yard score against the Rams last Sunday helping to make him the first receiver in Vikings' history to have a 100 yard rushing game.

In the passing game, he has been limited by Minnesota's lack of an elite arm to get him the ball downfield, settling for more underneath stuff and using his blazing speed to turn short tosses into long gainers.  Cassel will take a shot or two down the field, but he is at his best with the intermediate throws - so if the Vikings' offense is going to evolve to the next level, it will fall to Teddy Bridgewater eventually.

Patterson is particularly dangerous on kickoff returns, as he notched touchdowns of 101 and 109 yards last season to go along with a stupid-good 32.5 yards per return.

Jennings, Rudolph and the rest -  The long-time Packer Greg Jennings is a savvy possession receiver who led the Vikings in receptions and yardage last season and is the perfect compliment to Patterson - as are Jarius Wright and Rodney Smith - but tight end Kyle Rudolph may be on of the more important receivers for Minnesota on Sunday, though he is not as dynamic as some of the better tight ends in the league...

...but he is a load as a wing blocker and is certainly someone that Cassel will target underneath against the Patriots, particularly with Collins out - which leads us to...

Patriots' linebackers - As big a loss as Peterson is to Minnesota's offense, Collins is to the Patriots' defense.

It seems that Belichick tinkering with the front seven has caused some flawed technique, and while many are calling for a switch back to a more 4-3 look, the team's roster move of activating rookie linebacker Deontae Skinner while cutting veteran Darius Fleming indicates that the 3-4 may be here to stay.

Skinner is a 3-4 inside linebacker with excellent instincts and violent downhill plugging ability, and even though he moves well laterally, his turtle-ish 4.93 speed limits him in coverage - so look for New England to run some three safety packages in the nickle to team with Jerod Mayo on passing downs while Dont'a Hightower reduces down to rush the passer from the wing.

Dominique Easley - Whether the Patriots go to more of a 4-3 look or stay with the 3-4, the time is now for Easley to become part of this defense.

During camp, the staff indicated that they wanted to take an approach with Easley that mirrored what the did with Collins last season, but given the injury situation and lack of depth along the line, the first round draft pick will probably take on an expanded role.

Easley is more about penetration than than plugging gaps, and his superior explosion and quickness off the ball is essential to a three-technique tackle's job of blowing up plays in the backfield.  Obviously, the rookie is largely untested, but we will have a better idea of his skill set after he faces an excellent Vikings' offensive line.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Patriots' running game, better execution keys to victory in Minnesota

"After the Cincinnati Bengals shut down the New England Patriots' offense by giving quarterback Tom Brady the beating of his life, coach Marvin Lewis got the attention of everyone in the celebratory locker room to give a game ball to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer - but he could have saved it, because the Patriots' play calling made his job pretty easy." - Foxborough Free Press, October 7, 2013

The company name "Xerox" has been a staple of office-based slang for more than five decades, developing into perhaps one of the most iconic and recognizable monikers in American technology as the company that introduced the desktop copy machine to the world has lent its name to the notion that anything that has been or needs to be copied will more likely than not be referred to as being "Xeroxed".
Ridley and the Patriots' running game looks to improve this week

So it isn't a huge surprise that in the "copycat" world of professional football, the term is thrown around as loosely as it is in the workplace.

And why not?  If something works, why not copy it?  Even Albert Einstein, the man who noted that the definition of insanity is for someone to do something the same way over and over again, but expecting a different result would agree.  The variables would be different, but the spirit would be the same...

...so when New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick evokes the "Xerox" slang into his coach-speak lexicon, it really shouldn't be that much of a surprise.

When asked if former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer - now the head ball coach of this Sundays opponent, the Minnesota Vikings - would use the same game plan this week as he did in week five last season to effectively shut down the Patriots' offense, Belichick didn't hesitate.

"Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if they Xeroxed the same game plan."

Of course, there were other factors in play last season, as the Patriots' offense was handicapped with injury and inexperience in their receiving corps, and absolutely crippled by their running backs inability to hold onto the football - which caused Belichick to bench LeGarrette Blount for the balance of the game, leaving only Brandon Bolden to carry the load as Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen were inactive due to injury...

...not to mention that the game was played in the weather, which deteriorated into a monsoonal deluge toward the end of the game, factoring in to help stop the Patriots' last minute, desperation drive for a potential tying score. 

"We couldn't do much: 1-for-13 on third down, six points, whatever it was, they did a good job." Belichick continued during his weekly press conference on Thursday.  "Yeah, we're certainly prepared for that, if they just do the same thing they did last year. It wouldn't shock me at all, until we show we can do something about it. We didn't do much last year."

No, they didn't do much after the Blount fumble halfway through the second quarter, but before the fumble Blount was running over folks behind the push of the right side of the Patriots' offensive line to the tune of  12 carries for 51 yards.

Once he was benched, however, McDaniels called just seven running plays for the final 38 minutes of the game, and once the Bengals recognized that the Patriots had all but abandoned their running game, the ferocious Cincinnati front seven took the Patriots' offensive line behind the woodshed so they could watch in horror as quarterback Tom Brady took the beating of his life...

...a scenario that played out a few more times during the course of last season - see the games at New York, Carolina and Miami and the AFC Championship game at Denver, losses all - and also raised it's ugly head last week in the season opener against the Dolphins.

There is nothing ambiguous in regard to the benefits of running the ball, and it really makes no difference who your opponent is - if you can run the ball, it gives your offense balance and opens up the playbook.  If you can't, or don't, it renders the offense one-dimensional which in turn causes your offensive line to be overwhelmed with numbers in pass protection and puts your quarterback in danger.

The Patriots' offense has one of the best collections of talent in the league, with names like Gronkowski, Edelman and Dobson catching passes from some dude named Brady, but if names like Ridley and Vereen aren't allowed to carry the football to force the defense to defend the entire field, those other names make no difference.

So, it should be obvious what the Patriots need to do on offense to be successful against the stout Minnesota Vikings' front seven: Run the football.

Three yards and a cloud of dust used to be the standard for success in the National Football League.  It is the most fundamental concept in the game, and has been the backbone of championship teams since the very beginning - and teams that ignore its importance are doomed to defeat.

"Without a running game, the Patriots offensive linemen are like targets at a midway shooting gallery, all of the receivers are blanketed and, as a result, quarterback Tom Brady is a sitting duck and being hit on just about every drop back - and all you have to do is look at the vicious beating Brady took in the two games that the Patriots have logged under 100 yards rushing for proof of that..." - Foxborough Free Press, October 12, 2013

Just saying....

Players to watch:

Aaron Dobson - the lone Patriots' deep threat and his acrobatic presence could be a boon to the Patriots' offense.

Dobson made the trip to Minnesota, which is a very good indication that he will be on the 46 man game day roster, with either Danny Amendola or tight end Michael Hoomanawanui candidates to be healthy scratches to make room for the speedster.

Dobson needs to play.  He was a surprise scratch last Sunday after making his preseason debut the week before in New York against the Giants - looking bigger and stronger than he did as a rookie in 2013, and showing little ill-effect from offseason surgery to have a screw inserted in his foot...

...and with Belichick stating that the only way for a player to get into football playing shape is to actually play football, there is no excuse for him to not be out there stretching the field.

Xavier Rhodes - the second-year corner has been limited in practice all week with a groin issue.

Rhodes was a breath of fresh air for the Vikings' secondary last season, and this year teams with former Panthers' corner Captain Munnerlyn to form the best set of corners that the Vikings have had in many years, but the fact that he has been limited by a tweaked groin should mean Brady will target him early to test his dexterity and lateral movement.

Sharif Floyd - The second-year defensive tackle injured his shoulder in the season opener against the Rams.

Floyd teams with former New York Giants nose tackle Linval Joseph to form an imposing interior presence.  Joseph is massive at 6' 4" and 325 pounds and can impact the rushing game by taking on two gaps and allowing Floyd to penetrate and disrupt plays in the backfield - but Floyd spent many anxious moments on the turf last week as the trainers attended to him and he has been limited all week...

...so it remains to be seen how effective he will be against whoever will be playing left guard for the Patriots, particularly if it is Marcus Cannon, who at 6' 5" and 335 pounds should be able to manhandle the Florida product.

Whomever plays center for New England - Bryan Stork's name has emerged in several press conferences this week, but Bill Belichick is playing it cool.

The key to the Patriots' offensive line is at the pivot, as the talent along the line feeds off of the performance at center.  Incumbent Ryan Wendell started at his old spot by default last week as Stork wasn't deemed active, but he hurt his knee which forced right guard Dan Connolly to slide over to center.

There should be some manner of continuity to the line this week, hopefully with Stork at the pivot, and hopefully with some push so that the running game can evolve, which helps everyone.

Josh McDaniels - What is it that McDaniels just doesn't seem to get?

His offense was actually having a better running day than the Dolphins were in the first half last Sunday, and then he suddenly and inexplicably stopped calling running plays in the second half.  It is a recipe for disaster that he has seen for himself throughout his career, yet he continues to abandon the run against stout defensive fronts.

As mentioned earlier, three yards and a cloud of dust used to be the standard for success in the NFL, and as long as you are reasonably close to that number, you keep feeding the ground game to force the defense to respect the run - and every time that he has followed the pattern of abandoning the running game his tenure as offensive coordinator for New England, the team has lost games that they could have won.

The loss in the AFC Championship game is on him, and the loss to Miami is as well - so that's two games in a row that Belichick has allowed his play-calling to destroy hope, and one has to wonder if it's just a matter of time before the hoodie takes over.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Patriots abandon the run, and all hope as well, in loss to Dolphins

"In life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don't foul and don't shirk, but hit the line hard!" - Theodore Roosevelt in The American Boy (1900)

Running the ball and stopping the run - there are no greater fundamental values in the world of football on any level, and the New England Patriots gave a textbook example of what happens when a team fails to do either on Sunday in Miami.
Abandoning the run made Brady a sitting duck in the pocket

Social media is ablaze with with hateful diatribe aimed at head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels not only for their seeming ignorance of the values, but also of their personnel moves prior to their team's unfortunate performance in the season opener - and in reality, the both should shoulder much of the blame.

And while neither of them were out on the field airmailing footballs, missing blocks, committing egregious penalties or allowing Miami running back Knowshon Moreno to bounce off of them as if they were so many pinball bumpers, their play calling on offense was just as much to blame for the shoddy execution, because they didn't put their players in position to be successful.

There is a direct correlation between running the football effectively and the success of the offense.  When a team commits to running the football - regardless of the level of success - it impacts the success of the play action, slows the pass rush, if only for a split-second, and forces the defense to become dedicated to a more standard formation...

...while if you don't commit to the run, it makes the play action ineffective because it allows the pass rush to pin their ears back and come after your quarterback - and there's not a signal caller on the earth that can say that the pocket collapsing on him doesn't affect his release.

Of course, there is a huge difference between not being able to run the ball effectively and simply not running the ball, and the Patriots were guilty of the latter on Sunday afternoon.

New England running backs combined for 89 yards on 20 carries, for four yards per touch - and the math suggests that the run was working well enough to balance out the attack, far batter than the average gain per pass play, which was an absolutely abysmal 3.8 yards, and the fact that Tom Brady dropped back to pass a whopping 60 times means that the pass to run ratio was an astounding 75% to 25%.

That isn't good enough, and the final score is indicative of that.

How badly does this lack of a ground game affect the team as a whole?  Consider that in seven second-half drives, the Patriots called exactly five running plays and gained 36 yards - or they would have, had Rob Gronkowski not been nailed for holding on Stevan Ridley's impressive 20 yard stretch run down the Patriots' sideline - but even still, the four rushing attempts that counted, the net gain was for four yards per attempt.

Conversely, the Dolphins game plan seemed to be to stick with the run regardless of the level of success, and it worked like the proverbial charm.

In the first half while the Patriots were busy racking up 20 points and the defense was holding Miami to just ten, both teams ran the ball 15 times, with the Patriots actually outgaining the Dolphins by a total of 73 to 59.  In the second half, the Dolphins continued to hammer the ball at New England's increasingly weary front seven, and shoved the ball right down their collective throat to the tune of 5.7 yards per carry...

...while McDaniels seemed to want to take his 10 point halftime lead and put the Dolphins away quickly as he could and turned exclusively to the passing game - the result being a pedestrian 55 total second half yards, 37 of which came in the Patriots final drive with the game out of reach.

It was as ugly as football gets, regardless of the level.  The Dolphins pinned their ears back and abused the Patriots offensive line and started getting to Brady midway through the third quarter, displaying a level of domination that forced New England into three separate three-and-outs, two four-play drives that ended with strip sacks on Brady, and a five-play drive that stalled due to the Gronkowski holding penalty.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins ran a total of 45 plays to the Patriots' 22 when the game was still in doubt, the incompetence of the New England game plan and execution causing a time of possession disparity of the same two-to-one ratio, wearing out the New England run defense to the point where Moreno and Lamar Miller were breaking off seven and eight yards runs with regularity.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out why the Patriots lost to the Dolphins last Sunday - Miami stayed with their game plan and scored 23 unanswered points in the second half against an exhausted New England defense who received no favors from McDaniels' offense.

In the end, people can bitch and moan about the offensive line, Brady overthrowing everything and the defense not being able to stop the running game, but while those are valid complaints, it all comes back to McDaniels going for the throat and trying to put the Dolphins away when he had the halftime lead by throwing down the field, when he should have stuck to what was working for him in the first half...

...and that was hitting the hole hard and often - at least more often than four times.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sloppy Patriots punked by Moreno, Dolphins defense 33-20

Knowshon Moreno and the Dolphins' offensive line had their way with New England's defenders

The New England Patriots were certain that their run defense would be better this season than last.

After all, they were close to the bottom of the league in yards per carry and total yardage surrendered in 2013, so it wasn't going to be difficult to show improvement - unfortunately, they just picked up right where they left off.

Knowshon Moreno rushed for 134 yards on just 24 carries to lead a Miami rushing attack that averaged a hefty 5.5 yards per carry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill hooked up on scoring strikes to Mike Wallace and Lamar Miller as the Dolphins scored 23 unanswered points to erase a 10 point halftime deficit, hammering the flat Patriots 33-20 at SunLife Stadium in Miami on Sunday afternoon.

The Patriots' offense could not take advantage of a Miami defense that was missing all three of their starting linebackers throughout most of the game, as head coach Joe Philbin countered his losses on the second level by sending his reserve linebackers on stunts to overwhelm the Patriots' offensive line and open up lanes for his manic pass rushing defensive linemen...
A frustrated Brady could do nothing in the second half

...sacking New England quarterback Tom Brady four times and pummeling him mercilessly from the edges as the Dolphins dominated the Patriots in the trenches on both sides of the ball to hand the defending AFC East Champions their first opening day loss since being blown out by Buffalo to kick off the 2003 season.

Lamar Miller ran for 59 yards on 11 carries to compliment Moreno's effort, while Tannehill caught on fire after halftime to make up for a sluggish first half, eventually completing 18 of 32 passing attempts for 178 yards and the two touchdowns against one interception as the Dolphins achieved balance with the superb play calling of new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.

Brady completed just 29 of 56 attempts for 249 yards and a touchdown, but his accuracy waned against the relentless Miami pass rush, consistently overthrowing his receivers.

Brady missed Thursday's practice this past week due to a reported calf injury, but most of his issues came from the Dolphins' pressure and the fact that the Patriots could not establish their running game despite the advantage they possessed against the supposedly overmatched Dolphins' reserve linebackers.

Shane Vereen carried seven times for 35 yards to lead New England on the ground, but Stevan Ridley's 21 yards on eight carries prompted offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to abandon the running game in favor of Brady's arm, the result being an 89 yard rushing total on a paltry 20 carries...

...and while the 4.4 yard per carry average isn't bad, the fact that receiver Julian Edelman gained 21 of those yards on just two carries on end-around calls inflated the average. 

Things started badly for the Patriots right off the bat, Miami blocking a Ryan Allen punt deep in New England territory that the Dolphins converted into a quick 7-0 lead, Tannehill hitting Miller on a four yard out just over three minutes into the game.

Brady came back to lead four consecutive scoring drives, Vereen capping off a 13 play, 80 yard drive to tie the score, than after a Stephen Gostkowski field goal gave the Patriots the lead at 10-7, Brady hit Gronkowski from six yards out for a 10 point cushion midway through the second quarter before the teams traded field goals to make the halftime score 20-10.

New England would not come close to scoring again.

Tannehill and Wallace took advantage of a Brady fumble, capping a four play, 34 yard drive with an 11 yard scoring toss and catch, that was sandwiched between two Caleb Sturgis field goals to give the Dolphins the lead late in the third quarter - then the Dolphins' pass rush and the running of Moreno helped hold off any hope the Patriots had of a comeback bid...

...including a soul-stealing 12 play, 85 yard drive that ground six minutes off the clock as Miami closed out New England by shoving the ball down their collective throat with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, Morneo scoring from four yards out to give the Dolphins a 30-20 lead.

The Patriots were hurt by committing untimely penalties, including two roughing the passer penalties on outside linebacker Chandler Jones, while tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was called for a critical holding penalty that erased a 22 yard run by Stevan Ridley that would have put the Patriots in position for points midway through the final period.

The loss has to be particularly discouraging for the offensive and defensive lines, given that the offensive line was working against the aforementioned depleated Miami linebacking corps in the running game, and the fact that the defensive line couldn't generate any productive pass rush nor could they stop the run against a Dolphins' offensive line that was breaking in five new starters.

Most assuredly, it is back to the drawing board for the bewildered Patriots as they attempt to shore up sloppy tackling and and poor execution on both sides of the ball - and it's not going to get any easier for them as they travel to Minnesota for a matchup with the Vikings and running back Adrian Peterson next Sunday.

New England Patriots on Paper - Running game has opportunity to get on track against Dolphins

"The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men of history." - Bertrand Russell

Sebastian Vollmer is a large human being.

Just pointing that out, because if the reports of New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick moving his Pro Bowl right tackle to fill the ample shoes of departed left guard Logan Mankins, the shift could very well make the left side of the Patriots' offensive line one of the most physically imposing in the history of physically imposing.
Vollmer is a large, nasty run blocker

Vollmer and his 6' 8", 325 pound frame would line up on the inside shoulder of 6' 8", 325 pound left tackle Nate Solder, and Belichick's even been known to bring in one of his reserve tackles to either flank Solder on the outside as a tackle-eligible tight end, or as a replacement for Solder if he kicks out...

...and whether that's 6' 4", 300 pound Josh Kline or 6' 6", 320 pound Jordan Devey, they combine to form a literal road crew, with the only thing missing being the bored-looking, sunglasses-wielding, orange vest-wearing sign holders who instruct you to Stop or to drive slowly, lest you be crushed by massive road-graders.

And if the reports are true, the move of Vollmer to left guard would chance the entire dynamic of the right side as well.

6' 6", 335 pound Marcus Cannon would take over at tackle, with 6' 4", 310 pound Dan Connolly manning is old right guard haunt - and with the possibility of 6' 4", 310 pound rookie Bryan Stork seeing some snaps at center even if he doesn't start right away, that makes for a smaller, slightly more athletic right side, flanked by the 6' 6", 265 pound All World tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is just as good a run blocker as any of the linemen.

And that's the point.  The running game showed absolutely nothing in the preseason, save some nifty garbage time running by practice squad running back Jonas Gray - and that certainly isn't going to make the nut.

You see, Belichick is a megalomaniac.  He gives off the persona of someone who couldn't give a rat's ass what you think of him, but in reality, he cares a great deal.  He wishes to see the fear in his opponent's faces, as he wields his power over them - to Bill Belichick, to just beat his opponent is not good enough.  No, he wants to dominate them, break their will, and then crush them.

It's what every NFL head coach worth his salt wants, but nobody can do it without a powerful running game - and Belichick wants more.  He wants to run the football right into through heart of the Dolphins' defense like a tank busting through enemy lines and leaving nothing but destruction in its wake.  Megalomaniacs are like that.

But what he and his evolving offensive line are facing Sunday in Miami is a defensive line that is built to rush the quarterback - the starting front four accounting for 29 of the Dolphins' 42 sacks last season - while relying on a linebacking corps that were collectively less than inspiring for run support that, that notion supported by the fact that Miami ranked in the bottom third of the league against the run last season...

...of course, that was last season, but coach Joe Philbin's depth chart remains basically the same - and with injuries already taking a toll on the 2014 version of the defense, Belichick has to be licking his chops in anticipation of his running game shoving the ball down the Dolphins' collective throats.

Of their three starting linebackers, the Dolphins are listing two of them on the injury report, with the weak side spot being crippled by not only starter Philip Wheeler being declared out with a thumb issue, but also his backup Jordan Tripp with a chest injury.  That leaves only third year journeyman Jonathan Freeny on the weak side - and while Philbin would normally be able to counter with depth from other positions, injuries there limit his options.

Starting middle linebacker Koa Misi has been limited in camp with a shoulder ailment as has primary strong side reserve Chris McCain with a bum hip.  Both are listed as probable, but those injuries illustrate how far the Dolphins may have to stretch their depth chart to accommodate injury...

...which also gives us a pretty decent idea of exactly how the Patriots' offense should attack Miami - with plenty of play action to draw the ends into the loop in the pass rush, clearing rushing lanes off guard and off tackle, leaving only the decimated second level to deal with the increased heft of the Patriots' road crew - particularly behind Vollmer and Solder going left where the weak side depth is truly weak.

That should stem the tide of the Dolphins' pass rushers for the split-second, plenty long enough for the Patriots' pass catchers to gain separation on the short to intermediate levels where quarterback Tom Brady can nickle and dime them to death, drawing the coverage up even further and eventually opening up seams down the field.

This is not to say that Miami doesn't have talent in the secondary, because they have plenty - but a power running game that is going to force the Dolphins to bring a safety up into the box to help stop the run combined with the sheer number of personnel packages that Belichick can attack them with suggests that the Dolphins could find themselves overwhelmed.

Of course, all of this is dependent on the New England running game being all that it can be - because if they can't run the ball, Brady becomes a sitting duck in a collapsing pocket.

Players to watch:

Tom Brady - The calf injury that caused Brady to miss practice on Thursday caused a minor stir in New England as Brady thrives on practice, and to miss one is certainly news worthy.

Which leg is injured is unknown, but if it isn't significantly better by game time on Sunday, the ailment could affect his mechanics.  If it's his right calf, it could affect his push-off, which limits the amount of force he can get behind his throws, and if it's his left calf, that could make it difficult for him to step into his throws.

Of course, knowing that Brady is scheduled to play as usual probably means that he was held out of practice for precautionary measures, but it also raises some concern to his already naturally limited mobility - hence another reason to hope for a decent showing from the running game.

James White - The rookie runner has practiced well, but hasn't been able to find his groove in preseason games.

Most of that probably has something to do with trying to acclimate himself to the Patriots' zone blocking scheme which is decidedly different from the drive blocking scheme that he enjoyed much success behind in college.  It is of note that the reported move of Vollmer to the interior of the Patriots' line may mean more of the drive blocking look that could spring the Wisconsin product.

Also, look for Belichick to show the two back looks often during the game to force the Dolphins to account for both White and Shane Vereen curling out of the backfield, tying up the depleted linebacker depth and perhaps forcing a box safety to read and react instead of playing the run downhill.

Louis Delmas - The former Detroit Lions' strong safety has had a notoriously difficult time covering tight ends in the past, so it will be interesting to see how he handles Rob Gronkowski.

In reality, even the best safety will need double help on the best tight end in the league, which means Gronkowski will draw a linebacker up the seam with him, further tasking the run defense on the second level.  Delmas will have to be at the top of his game to handle whatever the Patriots throw at him in this game.

Tim Wright - A tight end that plays like a wide receiver.  Who gets the assignment to cover him?

Perhaps Cortland Finnegan - the instigator who isn't afraid to get up the face of bigger receivers - will get the nod, but more than likely the sheer numbers that the Patriots can throw at the Dolphins secondary will dictate a "by-committee" approach.

Wright changes the dynamic of the Patriots' pass catching corps in that his size and his experience at receiver makes him a dangerous compliment to not only Gronkowski, but to the offense as a whole - and this game should give us an idea of just how much as "win-win" proposition the Mankins-for-Wright trade really was for both teams.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Patriots' Injury Report - Is "Jimmy Clipboard" Ready For Spot Duty?

With the rumor mill working overtime in the 72 hours before the New England Patriots kick off their 2014 season against the Dolphins in Miami Gardens, news that Tom Brady was missing from practice on Thursday but present on the injury report nearly broke the internet.

But with sources suggesting that Brady will be fine after tweaking a calf muscle and is slated to start Sunday's 1:00pm kickoff, many fans are breathing a little easier - though those inhalations are guarded and not quite as deep as they could be, and things will remain that way until they actually see Brady ambulatory and firing bullets to his plethora of receivers.
Garoppolo is ions away from Brady as far as system efficiency

The episode brings up an interesting question, however: Is Jimmy Garoppolo ready to lead this offense?

"Jimmy-G".  "Superman".  "G-Cool", or simply "Jimmy Clipboard", the news on Thursday shocked many fans into denial, leaving the ones who still had control of their facilities to ponder the notion that this team is one Tom Brady injury away from - well - we just don't know.

Certainly, they can't be better than they are with Brady under center, but there are some that feel that any quarterback with half a brain and a decent arm could run Bill Belichick's version of the Erhardt-Perkins offense - which is probably true, but to what level?

Some argue that Tom Brady couldn't be a system quarterback, given that he has been the one constant amongst a constantly evolving roster - but in essence, that is the greatest argument for him being a system quarterback.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that he's just a pawn in Bill Belichick's scheme, it simply means that he runs Belichick's scheme with all due efficiency - and with it being true that Belichick targets only certain players that fit his scheme - those being of the cerebral, versatile variety - Brady was selected as a developmental project with that system in mind.

So, the question looms: is Brady a system quarterback?

No, he is an opportunist who combined his skill set and dedication to his craft with a system that also required top shelf football IQ, and played like he had the balls of an elephant, prompting Belichick to meticulously stock the positions around Brady with compatibly skilled players that are equally dedicated and at least reasonably intelligent.

It has been a process full of hit-and-miss experimentation, the lone constant being Brady - and seeing as it really hasn't mattered whether Belichick hit or missed with his personnel decisions when it came to the success of the offense, it is reasonable to postulate that while Brady is to some extent the product of the system, it is also fair to state that he runs the offensive system better than any other quarterback in the NFL.

That said, the rookie Garoppolo probably could lead the offense to success, but he is years away from approaching Brady's efficiency and intimate fellowship with the system which, of course, is why the offense flourishes regardless of the supporting cast - and also why Belichick spent second-round draft capital on the Eastern Illinois product now, so he could learn from the master.

So for now, let's continue to refer to him as "Jimmy Clipboard" while reveling in Brady's golden years, secure in the knowledge that the greatest quarterback to ever lace up a pair of cleats is still at the top of his game.


Besides Brady's presence, the Patriots injury report reads like yesterday's news:

New England Patriots
Player Position Injury Participation Designation
Buchanan, Michael DE/OLB Ankle Limited Out
Jones, Chris DT Ankle Limited Out
Brady, Tom QB Calf Limited Questionable
Gronkowski, Rob TE Knee Limited Questionable
Siliga, Sealver NT Wrist Limited Questionable
Miami Dolphins
Player Position Injury Participation Designation
Fede, Terrence DE Knee Out Out
Pouncey, Mike C Hip Out Out
Tripp, Jordan LB Chest Out Out
Wheeler, Philip LB Thumb Out Out
Turner, Billy G Foot Limited Doubtful
Aikens, Walt S Hand Limited Probable
McCain, Chris LB Hip Limited Probable
Misi, Koa LB Shoulder Limited Probable
Taylor, Jamar CB Hip Limited Probable

The presence of Siliga as questionable adds an element of intrigue to the list as he was absent for most of the preseason with a soft cast on his hand and wrist, so for him to be potentially available is huge in that there is not another big body to spell Wilfork in the steamy Miami heat with the exception of Joe Vellano, who at 6' 2" and 300 pounds simply isn't big enough - though with the problems that the Dolphins have along the interior of their offensive line, he may be able to hold up as a two-gapper.

The Jones injury could cause some problems, particularly if rookie Dominique Easley isn't effective initially.  It could be possible that the team activates Kelcy Quarles from the practice squad, though if they do they will have to subject him to waivers to retain him on the squad when Jones is ready to compete.

The Dolphins' linebacking corps is in shambles, though Koa being listed as probable is an excellent sign for them as he is the heart and soul of the second level, though one injury to any of the remaining linebackers could spell doom for Miami's run defense.

It certainly places a lot of pressure on the defensive line for the Dolphins, who are all speedy sack artists and who rely on the 'backers to plug the gaps vacated by the penetrating tackles.  This could be a major advantage for New England as they break in an amended offensive line and attempt to get a stagnant running game off the schneid.