Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Patriots' pass catchers emerging with Gronkowski leading the way

Running over folks, Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski proved on Sunday that he is back to his dominant self.

Rob Gronkowski gathered in a Tom Brady bullet at the Chicago Bears' 30 yard line, his forward momentum taking him towards the numbers on the visitors' sideline where Bears' safety Ryan Mundy converged on the New England Patriots' star tight end at the NFL logo on the 25 yard line.

Now, Mundy isn't a smallish man, and in his six years in the league he has reached his prime and has gained a measure of veteran savvy - and at least enough intelligence to know what would happen to him if he tried to take on the mammoth man-child all by his lonesome, so he took the safe route and opted to try and tie up and slow down Gronkowski long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

But what happened instead was a signature moment for the 2014 version of the Patriots - not so much because the play greatly contributed to their blow out victory over the Bears, nor that the win was the fourth straight for the team, nor that three of them were routs, even though all of those things are impressive enough all on their own...
Lafell has found his niche in New England

...but the fact that in one second that will be forever frozen in Patriots' lore, Gronkowski shoved Mundy aside like he was going through a set of swinging doors and rumbled the remaining distance to the goal line.

Gronkowski posterizing Mundy meant far more than a win against an obviously inferior opponent, as it signaled once and for all that the most dominant tight end in the league, "when healthy", is just that once again, which also means that the Patriots' offense is back to being nearly impossible to stop.

What's even more amazing is that the Patriots' offense has evolved into a big play entity with the key contributors being an odd mix of players that individually are decent playmakers, but when combined together form an attack that has got to have defensive coordinators scratching their heads as to how to combat it.

Sure, Julian Edelman is still the fireplug, but instead of being the target over and over again, he is now joined by the 6' 6", 265 pound Gronkowski in the pattern, with 6' 3", 210 pound yards-after-the-catch machine Brandon Lafell and 6' 4", 250 pound converted tight end Tim Wright starting to blossom in their roles - and with such size, strength and speed combined with Brady's new-found accuracy, the Patriots' pass catchers are a surrealistic nightmare of a matchup.

Even the notoriously feisty Brady, who will at times come very close to usurping the company line in times of emotional hyperbole, has nothing but praise for his targets and, in fact, compares the weapons surrounding him favorably to what their next opponent brings to the table.

"I love the guys I'm playing with.  I wouldn't change them for anybody." Brady quipped in a radio interview on Tuesday morning in response to a question about how his receiving corps compares to what Peyton Manning has to work with in Denver. "As a quarterback, you work all offseason with the group of guys and you develop a chemistry and a camaraderie with each other, and it's great when it all pays off.".

What many are failing to realize is that when Manning signed on with the Broncos after his LeBron James style, two-bit street walker act two-and-a-half years ago, he inherited a receiving corps that may have been young, but possessed the advantage of having had played together as a unit the previous season, and provided Manning with a ready-made arsenal that needed only a decent quarterback to make them realize their full potential...
Wright is looking more and more like the answer opposite Gronkowski

...while Brady has had to will the Patriots to victory by simply making due with what injury and attrition left him to work with, and all after having his offense pulled out from beneath him by Wes Welker's bloated opinion of himself and Aaron Hernandez' vicious affinity for firearms.

Those things threatened the Patriots' 2013 season, but Brady made due with a collection of rookies whose collective feel for the pro game was greatly oversold by the team's scouting staff.  Brady bitched and whined, but kept his offense in contention until offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels suddenly realized that he had a decent running game that ultimately powered New England's stretch run...

...a run that ended on a mild afternoon in Denver eight months ago in the AFC Championship game against a Broncos' team that shut down the Patriots' running game and forced Brady to rely on his "weapons", which consisted of Edelman, clearly hobbled receivers Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola and a top tight end option in Michael Hoomanawanui.

So Brady was forced to start over again in 2014, head ball coach Bill Belichick essentially admitting error in scrapping all three of his rookie pass catchers from 2013 in favor of an underachieving possession receiver from Carolina, a second year receiver-turned-tight end from Tampa and a speedy practice squadder from San Francisco who had to serve a four-game suspension to start the season.

All the while, hoping that Gronkowski and Amendola would round into form sometime before Thanksgiving and that Edelman would be able to come close to duplicating his career numbers from last season - and while it was touch and go for the first month of the season, the makeshift squad has started to emerge as one of the better pass catching corps in the league, and they are only going to get better.

As it turns out, Lafell wasn't an underachiever in Carolina, just misused and underused, while Wright's game has started to show some manifestations that suggest that the Patriots' tight end-centric attack isn't as dead as previously thought, as his potential has helped to soothe the sting of Belichick giving Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers to purchase him...

...Edelman is still Edelman, and though Amendola is still a work in progress, he has shown signs of starting to recover from last season's groin tear and is contributing on special teams - but the key is Gronkowski.

"he's a tough matchup" Brady said of Gronkowski to the press after the rout of Chicago, under-selling his impact. "He's big, fast and strong and when he plays like beast mode, he's tough to stop."

Whatever lunacy prompted the Chicago Bears' coaching staff to single cover Gronkowski - a plan so wrought with failure Bears' fans and beat writers are calling for coach Mark Tressman's head - is a lesson that the rest of New England's opponents would be wise to consider.

But not every team has the means to cover a healthy Gronkowski, and if they go into a dime to be able to double or even triple cover him, there is always Lafell, Edelman, Brian Tyms, Wright and Amendola - and the numbers suggest that at least one of them is going to be open...

...not to mention the effect that going against an emerging Patriots' power running game with a lightened box will have, should McDaniels choose to pursue the talent that he has in the backfield to their logical ends.

But is all of this enough to get past a Broncos' team on Sunday that appears to have the best collection of talent in the league?  Brady isn't going to touch that subject with a 10-foot-pole, but he seems to have an idea of what will be required.

"It was great to kind of get everyone in the flow and score a lot of points." Brady said of his offense after the rout of the Bears. "We needed that.  That's what it's going to take."

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Big Nickle could make big difference for Patriots against Bears

The Chicago Bears are an average football team - not really that good, but certainly not that bad, just kind of existing in the back of the NFL refrigerator along with the open box of baking soda, neither of which anyone really notices until either the fridge is empty or something starts to stink.

The fridge isn't empty, as the offense has several recognizable names with tons of big play potential, but there have been times this season that they stunk up the joint, particularly at Soldier Field, where they are a gag reflex-inducing 0-3 and scoring a putrid 17 points per game.

Good thing for them that they're on the road this week.
Moore (90) and Chris Jones are vital to Belichick's run defense

The air must be much more clear away from the windy city, as the Bears are a sterling 3-1 on the road with victories at San Francisco, New York against the Jets and at Atlanta while dropping a heartbreaker in Carolina for their only loss in four tries.

The Bears come into Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium against the New England Patriots in a foul mood after dropping a 27-14 decision against the Miami Dolphins in Chicago last weekend - a loss as ugly as any in recent franchise history when, despite the big names and potential offensive firepower, the Bears could manage only 224 yards of total offense.

That is an abysmal performance, even for a merely average team - a Bears' team that is 18th in scoring and 17th in total yards, a Bears' team that for whatever reason relies so heavily on on running back Matt Forte that names like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey and Martellus Bennett are mere afterthoughts as options for quarterback Jay Cutler.

Forte has 163 touches through seven games - 111 on the ground and 52 through the air - which gives him three times the number of touches as anyone else on the roster - and while those numbers are impressive, the Bears are finding out that singling out one weapon in their arsenal isn't getting them anywhere.

To be fair, the erratic Cutler is spreading the ball around in the passing game, as Bennett has come down with 41 balls, Jeffrey 33 and Marshall 31- but by comparison, the Patriots' "struggling" passing game features three pass catchers that easily top any of those three in both catches and yardage, which has to be cause for concern for the Bears' faithful.

Enter the New England Patriots' defense that comes in tops in the league against the pass, but are decimated by injury in their front seven, which could account for the Patriots coming in at number 24 against the run, yielding an appalling 126 yards per game and an average per carry of 4.4...

...most of that coming on the edges where, even when healthy, the Patriots have seldom shown the ability to set and maintain.  And now with New England losing their best edge-setting linebacker in captain Jerod Mayo for the season and weak-side defensive end Chandler Jones reportedly for a month - and with linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins clearly hobbled as well - Forte and the rest of the Bears' offense have to be licking their chops...

...particularly considering that of the 140 passes completed in seven games against the Patriots, over half end up in the hands of tight ends and running backs, by far the largest percentage against in the league.

Why?  Well, part of it has to do with the presence of Darrelle Revis in the New England secondary, which effectively shuts down one half of the field, but the biggest reason is that the Patriots haven't shown the ability to either track a tight end in coverage, nor set the edge - which means, of course, that the screen game is in full effect for New England's opponents, and will be until they prove they can stop it.

The same is true for the running game.  Many are bemoaning the fact that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick released defensive tackle Tommy Kelly in the preseason, and using that for an excuse for the bottom feeding rushing numbers against the Patriots, but where New England is allowing just 3.7 yards per carry up the middle this season, there is proof that the problem is elsewhere.

See where this is going?

The issue with the Patriots is on the edges, where they are surrendering five yards per carry and where the screen game is accounting for nearly eight yards per completion.  Do the math and it's not hard to figure out that when your opponent is averaging 6.5 yards every play outside of the box that the problems lie on the edges and beyond.

Add to that the difficulties the team is having defending tight ends in the pattern and the Patriots look to be ripe for the picking by a Bears' offense that thrives on the edges and in the underneath passing game.

But happily for Patriots' fans, there is an answer, and it's called the Big Nickle.

The 5-2-4 Big Nickle actually employs the look of a 3-4 defense but with one major difference.  The nickle back, be that a safety or a linebacker, must be a player with excellent coverage skill, but also someone who is a sure tackler and can contribute in the run defense - and it's a position that cornerback Brandon Browner was born to play.

Last season when Browner was playing in Seattle, he was getting burned deep consistently on the outside and eventually lost his starting corner gig, the problem being his lack of deep speed meant that if he didn't get a good jam on the receiver at the line of scrimmage, the receiver would be able to outrun Browner's length down the sideline.

But Browner found his niche in that defense as kind of a double slot corner, matching up primarily against larger slot receivers or tracking tight ends over the middle and up the seam, and he was excellent in that capacity.  Even if the receiver was able to beat his jam, the quarters were so tight that Browner's length came into play and he effectively neutralized his charge.

What that means for the Patriots is that Browner could carry a tight end like Chicago's Martellus Bennett and keep him in check, which would allow Hightower to play the run and Collins to pick up the running back wheeling into the pattern or sliding into the phone booth for the screen while the edge defenders, likely Rob Ninkovich and rookie Zach Moore, set the edge and funnel everything back inside...

...where a rotation featuring defensive tackles Vince Wilfork, Dominque Easley, Chris Jones  and Casey Walker will be waiting to shut the play down.

It remains to be seen if Belichick will use Browner in this manner or if he continues to run with Patrick Chung as his Big Nickle - but either way the goal is to key on Forte and take away his influence, causing the Bears to become one-dimensional through the air, where that top ranked Patriots' pass defense can work it's magic.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Big Nickle key going forward for Patriots' run defense despite anomalous performance

Signal caller Dont'a Hightower and his entire defense had their hands full with Chris Johnson and the Jets on Thursday night

On a crisp mid-October evening in Foxborough, Massachusetts, where a massive cold front had passed over earlier in the afternoon and dumped three inches of rain, conventional wisdom would dictate that any football coach worth his weight in bacon would game plan to run the ball and keep the slippery pig close to its' natural habitat.

So while it would normally seem curious that the team that followed the tried and true fundamental of dealing with inclimate weather ended up on the short end of the stick, when one considers that the team in question is the hard-luck New York Jets, it suddenly makes sense...

...and given the manner in which Rex Ryan's charges had dropped their previous five games in excruciating fashion, it only went to figure that their nationally televised contest against their most hated nemesis would end in heartbreak once again.
Walker brings much-needed nastiness to the Patriots' defense

Chris Ivory rushed for 107 yards, Chris Johnson 67, and quarterback Geno Smith 37 yards on seven scrambles as the Jets went for 218 yards overall on 43 carries and scored on five straight possessions to open the game, but New England defensive tackle Chris Jones blocked a last-second 57 yard field goal attempt to preserve a tough 27-25 victory for the Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night.

But this was no ordinary demoralizing Jets' loss, as it set a new standard for gut-retching defeats in the Rex Ryan era - and not because of the twister-board, back-shoulder touchdown catch by Danny Amendola on 3rd and goal from the 19 yard line to provide the game-winning points for New England, nor because his kicker's last-second 58 yard field goal was blocked...

...no, those things are par for the course when it comes to one of the most star-crossed franchises in professional football - rather, what had Ryan seething and reportedly punching walls in the visitor's locker room is the fact that the Jets had just become the first team in NFL history to enjoy both a two-to-one advantage in time of possession and to rush for over 200 yards while not turning the ball over and still lose the game.

How this is possible is not necessarily rocket science, as most of it can be explained by ineptitude on both sides of the ball by both teams - and the Patriots just happened to be slightly less bumbling.

For the Patriots, their lack of balance on offense contributed to five of their ten possessions in the game going three-and-out, while the loss of their defensive captain and signal caller Jerod Mayo on the other side of the ball just four days earlier contributed to a lack of communication among the linebackers that kept three Jets' scoring drives alive.

The result was a time of possession disparity in favor of New York that fell just shy of a 41-19 minute advantage, and when taken in that context - that the Patriots were able to score 27 points in just 19 minutes while the Jets kept tripping over themselves in putting 25 points on the board in 41 minutes speaks volumes, especially given that the New England offense wasn't necessarily firing on all cylinders.

The Jets were their own worst enemy in the first half when they were forced to settle for field goals on their first four drives of the game, offensive linemen Oday Aboushi and Willie Colon called for drive killing holding penalties on their first two possessions, Smith killing the third drive with his arm...

...and then timely penetration by the newest Patriot Casey Walker to blow up their fourth drive caused the Jets to leave points on the field for four consecutive series before New York finally put together a touchdown drive on their first possession of the second half to take an ever-so-brief lead.

All of those things explain why the score was so tight, as what should have been a resounding Jets' victory that would have offered a sliver of hope to their season turned into a loss that has them on life support - but a little more research is required to understand how New England survived to raise their record to 5-2 despite the defense coughing up a horrifying 218 yards on the ground.

And not by the Jets breaking any long runs, either,  Rather, they were actually tearing off gains of six and seven yards on first down with regularity, their longest run of the night a 16-yard Chris Ivory cave man job - and over two-thirds of that yardage total came on the edges.

Much of the focus on the problems with the run defense has been attributed in the media to the Patriots releasing defensive tackle Tommy Kelly in the preseason, but the issue in this game had little to do with slighted interior pass rush tackles and everything to do with the Patriots' inability to set the edges - and the numbers don't lie.

In 20 carries into the heart of the Patriots' run defense, the Jets gained 77 yards, for an average of 3.85 yards per attempt, which isn't elite by any standard but certainly not numbers that suggest mediocrity - those types of numbers belong to the edge defenders, who gave up a nearly six yards per carry to the left and almost seven yards a carry to the right.

Why?  Team speed that enabled the Jets' runners to gain the edges against a slower and clearly undermanned New England linebacking corps.

To combat that disparity, the Patriots played almost the entire game in the Big Nickle, meaning that they went with three defensive tackles as part of a five man line with Big Vince Wilfork, game hero Chris Jones and spry-looking newcomer Walker clogging the middle, while Chandler Jones and Rob Nikovich brought pressure on Jets' quarterback Geno Smith from the edges.

In this scenario, however, the Jets countered with edge runs off tackle as Jones and Ninkovich were consistently escorted right out of the play up field, leaving huge gaps for Ivory and Johnson to sprint through...

...leaving the only two linebackers in the game, Jaimie Collins and Dont'a Hightower to set the edge - problem was, they were also kept busy defending a base 12-personnel offense for New York, tight ends Jeff Cumberland and rookie Jace Amaro along with wide receiver Eric Decker providing a big picket fence for them to navigate around.

New England was able to pull of the Big Nickle mostly because the Jets are void of any real pass catching talent besides the aforementioned trio, and were able to employ a single high safety and dropping Patrick Chung into the box to try and take some of the load off the linebackers - and while he collected eight tackles, nearly all of them were on the second level and he just isn't quite big enough to handle tight ends.

Of course, the Jets offset the Patriots' plan by running away from the middle and forcing the exhausted New England defenders to chase them all over the field - and the results were predictable.

The Patriots indeed escaped with a tight win that could have just as easily been a loss in the style of the beatdown that the Chiefs handed them in Week 4 had the Jets been able to capitalize on their opportunities.

Be that as it may, the Patriots would do well to stick with the Big Nickle considering their lack of depth in the linebacker corps - only instead of bringing Patrick Chung down into the box to handle the nickle duties, that job should belong to Brandon Browner, whose size and aggressiveness could have voided many longer runs by the Jets by jamming Cumberland or Amaro coming off the line and allowing either Hightower or Collins to set the edge.

A small adjustment, indeed, yet the potential benefit to the defense could be substantial - especially when facing teams that don't consistently shoot themselves in the foot, like the New York Jets....

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Amendola-Jones Redemption

Defensive tackle Chris Jones blocked this last-second potential game-winning field goal attempt.
Chris Jones has come full circle.

Almost a year ago to the day, the then-rookie defensive tackle was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty midway through the overtime period of the New York Jets' wild 30-27 victory over the New England Patriots - Jets' kicker Nick Folk's miss on a 56 yard field goal attempt nullified when Jones was flagged for shoving fellow Patriot Will Svitek into the Jets' offensive formation - a no-no that had just become so.

During the league meetings in Phoenix the previous February, the owners and rule committee had adopted what eventually became known as Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3 (b), which states as a matter of player safety, "Team B (kick defense) can not push teammates on the line of scrimmage into the offensive formation" - and wouldn't you know it?  Jones became the first player ever flagged under that rule.

The 15 yard penalty moved the Jets well into Folk's range, and he nailed a 43 yard field goal to win the game three plays later.

"It just slipped my mind." said a distraught Jones after the fact to a gaggle of beat writers pecking around his locker in the bowels of MetLife Stadium. "It was my mistake and no one else's.  I've got to man-up and fix it next time."

And the "next time" was at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night, and fix it he did.

Jones blocked a potential game-winning 58 yard field goal attempt by Folk as time expired to preserve a whisker-thin 27-25 win that propelled the Patriots to an AFC East leading record of 5-2 and dropped the Jets almost completely out of the picture in the division race at 1-6.

But if it weren't for much-maligned receiver Danny Amendola's 2015 breaking out party, Jones would never have had his opportunity for redemption.
Amendola celebrates after catching a 4th quarter TD pass

Amendola was a difference maker in the Patriots' offense for the first time this season while also making his kick return gig debut, showing some of the explosion that has been missing from his game for over a year now, and returning kicks was just what the doctor ordered to get some forward momentum going.

"For me it was just trying to get involved in the game and just try to do an much as I can to create a spark and get involved in the offense," a typically demur Amendola said after the game. " It was fun."

There is little doubt that the game was fun for Amendola, particularly since it was his instincts and hustle that saved the Patriots' bacon - and suddenly, the whipping boy and for the Patriots' perceived passing game woes and his $4.5 million cap hit were back in the Foxborough folks' good graces.

"He was running full-speed through those holes," Tight end Rob Gronkowski offered after being told that Amendola had been a successful kick returner during his days as a St. Louis Ram, "He was doing a great job, so props to him."

Amendola returned four kicks for an average of just over 26 yards per, showing zero fear in running full throttle into the heart of the New York Jets' coverage unit, and then ran what Jets' coach Rex Ryan called the "Best route in football history" that gave the Patriots their winning points on a 19 yard hook up with Brady on 3rd and goal midway through the final quarter.

But the play of the night came about five minutes later when the Jets - who had just scored a touchdown but misfired on a two-point conversion to leave themselves two points behind New England with just over two minutes to play - attempted an onside kick.

Folk dribbled the ball perfectly toward the Patriots' sideline, where it took a mean bounce into the legs of receiver Brandon Lafell, and a mad scramble ensued.  The now-live ball skittered behind Lafell and with all of the Jets' kick coverage personnel converging on the spot, it appeared imminent that New York would recover the ball...

...that is until Amendola appeared in our TV screens, flying in from seemingly nowhere and jumped on the bounding pigskin, setting up the Patriots' offense in position to need just one first down in superb field position to ice the game.

That didn't happen, for reasons that will be discussed elsewhere, and the Jets got the ball back at their own 12-yard-line with a little over a minute remaining - and there was little doubt, given the manner in which New York had moved the ball all evening, that they would drive down the field to get into field goal position, but Jones was having none of that eerily similar scenario.

"I was just trying to get as deep and as high as I can." Jones said, "I think it was just coming down to will at the end."

Will, yes, and also the laws governing redemption.

"He stepped up and he made up for that last year's field goal" Linebacker Rob Ninkovich observed of Jones after the game. "He went out there, he played well, and he got the block.  It was a good way to end the ball game."

Actually, it was the best way to end that ball game.  Anything less that the efforts of Amendola and Jones, and Patriots' Nation would be lamenting a last-second loss instead of celebrating the rise of two players who finally received their just due.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Mayo, Ridley done for season, Patriots may have solutions in-house

The injury bug can be a harsh and cruel bedfellow to a team with championship aspirations - just ask anyone associated with the New England Patriots.

Injuries are part of the game, and there are precious few vocations in the world that endorses that cliche - but even with the knowledge that a twist that way or a step this could end a players' season is the terrible reality that all players sign on for to play in the National Football League, and the Patriots have had their fair share of misfortune.

Sunday's rousing victory over the Buffalo Bills came at a high price, as the Patriots' training staff had enough injuries to deal with to set up a mobile triage unit, complete with the dreaded meat wagon, essentially a golf cart modified to bear the length and girth of injured 300 pound men and their attending physician...
Gray earned a shot at this opportunity in training camp

...and when the cart comes out, a player, the coaches, the fans and the media has a pretty good idea that the somber ride down the tunnel is the last that they will see of that player on the field for a while - and sometimes they never return.

So when defensive captain and signal caller linebacker Jerod Mayo was loaded onto the wagon and wheeled off, he knew his season was over.  So did his teammates, who gathered around and offered their encouragement to a man that they knew they would sorely miss on the field of battle.

But not all season ending injuries require the slow roll, proven on Sunday when running back Stevan Ridley gimped to the training room with a torn ACL and a torn MCL in his right knee. The team wasted no time in scheduling surgery for the power back, and he is done for the season.

Ridley's knee injury is a more common malady than what Mayo has suffered - reportedly a ruptured Patella Tendon, an injury that more often times than not includes a concomitant ACL tear and one that has a time table from surgery to full recovery in about nine months.

Typically, the affected athlete can start to flex the knee at around the six week mark and begin running at around the six month mark, so it is a long, long protracted process that may last into training camp of 2015 and beyond.

So with the players in question well cared for, albeit in pain and not particularly ambulatory, the focus turns to how the Patriots replace the services of their fallen warriors, and while the team is more prepared for the long-term repercussions of season-ending injuries as they were when the bug ripped a hole in the middle of their defense last season, it's still going to be difficult to make up for their losses.
White will get his shot to contribute with Ridley on the shelf

At least with Ridley, the answer is likely on the roster.

Shane Vereen will probably see more snaps and carries on Thursday night, given the short turnaround and abbreviated preparation time, which also means that rookie James White will be on the 46 man game day roster along with Brandon Bolden to supplement a ground game that will be facing the top-ranked run defense of the New York Jets.

But in the 10-day break that the team has following the tilt with the Jets, it will interesting to see if Belichick tries to bring in a veteran power back via free agency or a trade, or if he calls up 6' 0", 235 pound Jonas Gray from the practice squad.  Gray had a breakout performance in the preseason and was the Patriots' best back in camp, yet he ended up cut and resigned to the squad.

Of course, the perfect replacement would have been LeGarrette Blount, who bolted for Pittsburgh in the offseason with a promise for more playing time, but is now floundering on the Steelers' depth chart to the tune of six carries a game as the backup for work horse Le'Veon Bell, so the next best thing is Gray, who displayed Blount-like plodding in the preseason as well as perhaps a bit more speed.

Replacing Mayo will prove to be more difficult, because the team is not just replacing a weak side linebacker, but also the veteran presence of their defensive captain and signal caller.
Fleming has some cover skill and is excellent at setting the edge

Perhaps the trials that middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower endured last season in taking over for Mayo when he tore a pectoral muscle can now officially be viewed as a blessing in disguise, the experience gained in leading a defense void of veteran leadership tapped for the greater good now that Mayo is gone.

The roster spot vacated by Mayo will surely be filled with another linebacker, as depth has become an issue - and there could be worse options than third-year man Darius Fleming, who has taken a leadership role on the practice squad and showed a ton of grit in playing mostly every snap in the preseason.

Fleming is a weak side defender with cover ability combined with an uncanny ability to play the screen and set the edge.  Steve Beauharnais has just been signed to the Washington Redskins' practice squad, and since players on the squad are considered free agents, Belichick would have every right to poach him away from Washington if need be, but would have to keep him on the active roster for a minimum of three weeks.

Word also has it that the Patriots worked out a number of linebackers on Monday, so there seems to be no lack of options for Belichick to choose from in attempting to fill the weak side linebacker spot for the second consecutive season.

Belichick, Brady persevere, smash misconceptions in rout of Bills

Patriots' receiver Brian Tyms (84) celebrates his deep touchdown grab with Brandon Bolden and Rob Gronkowski

Suddenly, the New England Patriots' offense is a juggernaut.

After splitting their first four games in less-than-impressive fashion, the Patriots' offense appears to have found its legs with a second straight impressive outing, following up last week's blowout of the previously undefeated Cincinnati Bengals with an equally sharp 37-22 win over the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, New York on Sunday afternoon.

Tom Brady was terrific once again, as was his offensive line despite the fact that his starting center was inactive for the contest, and also losing guard Dan Connolly during play - the reshuffling of the line for the sixth consecutive week causing a few bumps in the road but, ultimately, a clean performance against the top defensive line in the NFL.

Enjoying a clean pocket for most of the afternoon, Brady was able to step into his throws, and his accuracy was the telling stat, completing 27 of 37 pass attempts for 361 yards and four - count 'em - four touchdowns, two of them going to emerging big play receiver Brandon Lafell and one each to tight end Tim Wright and wide receiver Brian Tyms...

...but even more impressive than those numbers is that Brady was 15 of 17 for 274 of those yards in the second half, when the Patriots made their move and separated themselves from the game, but overmatched Bills.

To put that second half performance from Brady in proper context - and without factoring in that the completion percentage was a stupid-good 88 percent, his deep ball was on target and the make-shift offensive line was giving him time to step into his throws - there has been just one instance this season where Brady threw for that many yards in an entire game.

But perhaps the most impressive statistic is that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels kept going to his running game despite not being able to realize the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust standard against a Bills' front seven that was hell-bent on stopping the run.

A common misconception among football fans is that a running game has to average a certain amount of yardage to be considered effective, and while it's true that you'd like to see more production out of your running game than the 1.9 yards per carry that the Patriots' averaged on Sunday, it is equally true that just the notion that a team will try to run despite the lack of gaudy numbers still forces that defense to respect the running game.

How much respect does it command?  All one has to do is to see Brady standing tall in the pocket and being able to wind up and step into his throws to realize what an impact the threat of calling a running play has on the offensive line - and the offense in general.

When the Patriots abandon the running game as they did in losses to the Dolphins and Chiefs and a close win over a terrible Raiders team, a pass rush can pin their ears back and come after Brady with little regard for the run, overwhelming the offensive line with sheer superior numbers - but when the team sticks with the run, it causes a split-second of indecision along the front seven...

...which allows the offensive linemen to get into their stance and anchor themselves against the coming rush and also causes the linebackers to read and react to the play action, which helps the tight ends and backs gain separation under the coverage and up the seam.

The extra split second that allows the linemen to anchor and the tight ends to gain separation also allows the wide receivers to work themselves open down the field, which has produced some highlight reel big plays in the past two games.

The value of a running game can not be overstated, but for a team to get full effect from the play action, the pass catchers must gain separation and give the gunslinger a nice radius to target, and as the football world saw on Sunday afternoon, New England's much-maligned receiving corps can do just that, and the results are nothing short of spectacular.

When head ball coach Bill Belichick was busy forming his receiving corps this past preseason, it was clear that he was targeting size within the pass-catching ranks, and if that meant speed as well, the so much the better.

Consider that Belichick The GM, started with hobbled grabbers Aaron Dobson and Rob Gronkowski, while returning the same supporting cast that wasn't good enough last season, but then added size with fellow 6' 3" wideouts Brandon Lafell and unknown Brian Tyms in free agency, then traded Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers for the 6' 4" hybrid tight end Tim Wright...

...giving Brady an arsenal of five pure pass catchers over the height of 6' 3" which, when combined with the mastery that mighty-mite Julian Edelman has over slot corners, makes the Dark Master look nothing like the failed personnel man moniker that many have laid on him.

But none of it works without the threat of a running game.

Granted, losing power back Stevan Ridley to a knee injury could have a huge impact on just how much teams fear that running game going forward.  Surely, the IR is expecting to swallow up Ridley if his knee injury is as bad as it looked, and it is natural to assume that perpetually inactive rookie runner James White could now find himself active on game days.

But there is also another consideration, as steamroller Jonas Gray is waiting in the wings on the practice squad and could very possibly find himself elevated to the active roster - maybe not for Thursday's quick turn-around game against the Jets as Belichick has bigger fish to fry on the other side of the ball in trying to replace injured linebacker Jerod Mayo - but it goes without saying that the Patriots must have a back that can work consistently between the tackles.

Whichever way the team decides to go in the backfield, fans and media alike can be assured that it will be the proper call - Belichick has once again earned that benefit of the doubt.

So now the only thing left to wonder is if the Patriots' last two performances means that they are going to mirror last season's M.O. of starting games slowly and blowing teams out in the second half, or whether they are just scratching the surface of an offense that just two weeks ago the Boston media and many, many fans were shoveling dirt over.

Brady and the Patriots have now risen from that metaphoric grave that their slow start buried them in and have stomped two consecutive opponents - quality opponents - averaging 40 points per game in those two contests while the defense is surrendering 19, which is a winning combination in anyone's book.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Buffalo's Orton, team speed cause for concern for Patriots' defense

Buffalo Bills' coach Doug Marrone benched his young quarterback last week in favor of a well-traveled veteran, and in the process has transformed his offense into potentially one of the most dangerous units in the National Football League.

Right, you are saying, Kyle Orton puts this offense over the top.  Kyle Orton?  The same Kyle Orton who lost his starting gig in Denver to Tim Tebow, of all people?  The same Kyle Orton who was so disenchanted with his backup role with the Cowboys last season that he held out of camp and forced Dallas to waive him?

That Kyle Orton?
Wilfork and the rest of the Patriots' front seven have a big task awaiting

Yes, that Kyle Orton.  The eight-year veteran signal caller is no slouch, but has had the misfortune of being a pawn in other people's agendas since entering the league as a fourth-round draft choice of Chicago in 2005.

When Lovie Smith was coaching the Bears, he loved the fundamentally sound Orton and, after a couple of years playing tag with bears' "franchise" quarterback Rex Grossman, Smith named him the starting quarterback in week three of the 2009 preseason, and the team was finally his.

But general manager Jerry Angelo pulled the rug out from underneath Smith by trading Orton to the Broncos for the diva-esque Jay Cutler..

...Orton taking over as the starter in Denver for now-Patriots' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, but injury and the fact that the Broncos really weren't very good overall - plus the fact that McDaniels was shown the door late in the season opened the door for Tim Tebow to ascend to the throne and was the beginning of the end for Orton.

There's much more to the tale, and none of it filled with rainbows and unicorns, but over the years of being stuck in a revolving door, the one thing that kept Orton in demand was his grasp of the fundamentals and his old-school approach to the game - in other words, a wonderful toy to have holding the clipboard.

That really wasn't what fans in Buffalo wanted to see initially, as the E.J. Manuel experiment is far from completed, but it was exactly what the Buffalo Bills need - nothing flashy, just a guy that has the smashmouth mentality that will serve him and his boss well, especially when those winds starting off Lake Eerie in December and, hopefully for the Bills, in January as well.

Because with Orton at quarterback, the Bills are much more dynamic on offense because of his sound fundamentals and feel for the game.

Where Manuel's skill set more closely resembles that of fellow-struggling second-year quarterback Geno Smith, Manuel's offensive line isn't up to the task of the complicated zone blocking scheme that called for lots of deception and read option looks, but with Orton, everything is pretty much cut-and-dried: Run the ball, chop away at the yard sticks with the underneath passing game...

...run some more, lull the opposition to sleep with screens and crossers and more runs, and then take a big shot down the field.  That's old school, and their offensive line will execute better because of the more simplistic scheme, which means that the New England Patriots defense will have to be at their best to stop the run - because if they can't do that, Orton is plenty savvy enough to pick the secondary apart with play action.

In fact, Orton's style feeds right into what teams do to be successful against the Patriots' plodding front seven, screen passes to spread out the linebackers and to open up short passes over the middle, where the Bills' running backs are deadly - then once established, he has the arm strength to hit the deep ball - and has a virtual plethora of outstanding receivers to throw to, rivaling the best units in the league.

This match up doesn't bode well for the Patriots, particularly since the injury bug is going to keep defensive end Chandler Jones to limited action, while the teams' best screen pass defender, Dont'a Hightower, has been officially ruled inactive for this game with a bum knee - and with the much-anticipated debut of veteran press corner Brandon Browner delayed for yet another week, the Bills could cause chaos with the New England front seven.

That said, how do the Patriots defend what could be a potential juggernaut?

The first rule is to stop the run, which in a fundamentally-based offense such as the Bills run is what keys their entire attack - but caution must also be taken to stop that screen game, which is used as an extension of the running game, and which always seems to cause the New England defense fits.

It's that simple.  The Patriots have the defensive backs to match up well with what Orton has to throw to on the outside, but if Buffalo is successful with their screen game and forces the Patriots into dime coverage to keep up with it, the Bills could enjoy a banner day with many yards and many points gained by their speedy receivers and tough runners.

Keeping Buffalo's offense to third-and-long by being stout on the early downs is essentially the key to this game.  The Patriots' offense should find some room to work with and will score some points, but only if New England's defense can get off the field on third down, and with Orton on the field instead of Manuel, mistakes will be harder to count on...

...so New England will have to force the Bills into errors, but the only way that will happen is to stop Buffalo's running game and screen passes, otherwise, there will be no joy in Foxborough come dinner time.

Stork, Brady injuries shouldn't affect Patriots' game plan

Time was, Tom Brady being listed as questionable with a right shoulder malady on the New England Patriots' injury report was a long-running joke in NFL circles - as was head ball coach Bill Belichick's gamesmanship in relation to the list.

The league office would bitch and moan about Belichick supposedly omitting names from the injury reports, looking at it as if the Dark Master was trying to deceptively gain a competitive advantage - and Belichick's answer to those allegations?  Right.  He started listing every bump and bruise and scrape right down to the last hangnail.
Power back Stevan Ridley will be key to Patriots' offensive success

There is no grey area on this point with Belichick, and in typical American fashion he went from not reporting enough to reporting too much, thumbing his nose at the shield in both cases.

So no one really knows what to make of the news on Friday that Brady suffered an ankle injury in the Patriots' afternoon practice, and is officially listed as questionable.

Brady's name topped a list of hobbled Patriots that had far more defensive players listed than on offense, but if he and rookie center Bryan Stork were to miss this Sunday's contest against the Bills in Buffalo, the Patriots would be forced to face one of the top rated defenses in the NFL with a rookie quarterback and a big hole on the interior of the offensive line.

No need to fear for the quarterback position, however, as Brady is in Buffalo and not wearing any sort of conspicuous support element, but Stork's status has been downgraded to "out" as he wasn't able to clear the cobwebs from a reported concussion suffered in practice late this week - which is terrible news for the Patriots on a number of different levels...

...not the least of which is the notion that the Patriots seemed to have finally found the right combination with Stork at center to unlock the potential of the offensive line, something very important considering what they are protecting.

Granted, Stork is a rookie, and a rookie really shouldn't be expected to have such a dramatic impact as the reigning Rimington Trophy winner has had in his short tenure at the pivot, but for a team desperate for cohesion up front, Stork's small sample size is enough to at least raise a few eyebrows in muted excitement.

What the Patriots lose with Stork being out, besides the opportunity to start building that cohesion along the line, is the ability to take that next step in their growth and build upon the success they enjoyed last week against Cincinnati, and possibly even taking a step back in that progression - what with the fact that either left guard Ryan Wendell or Right guard Dan Connolly will have to slide into the center position.

Neither showed much at the pivot in previous attempts, nor did reserve linemen Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey filling in at the guard positions - so it makes sense that the one guy who really hasn't had an opportunity this season, Josh Kline, should get the call on the left, where he subbed in for Logan Mankins a few times last season to good success.

Devey and Cannon are tackles and were getting blown off the line by shorter, stockier defensive tackles that could get under their pads and drive them back into the pocket, so to avoid Albert Einsteins' theory of insanity at this juncture- wherein someone does the same thing over and over again the same way, but expects different results - playing Kline would be the prudent move...

...as would staying with a drive blocking scheme, as the power running game will have to be featured early and often, regardless of level of success, because without at least the threat of a running game, that excellent Bills' pass rush will be able to overwhelm the Patriots offensive line, and put the already immobile Brady in harms' way.

And it's not as if that's singular to the Patriots, as any team that can't establish a running game against Buffalo will find themselves helping their quarterback to his feet a couple of dozen times, simply due to their strength in numbers - but having to keep a defined pocket to protect a hobbled Brady, who wasn't as graceful as a ballerina to begin with, becomes infinitely more difficult without the running game to base play action off of.

And that's the thing.  Many ills can be cured by running the football effectively, and many deficiencies masked, but when facing the Bills' front seven, taking the focus off of Brady and putting it on the Bills' linebackers and safeties is key.

The Bills have the second-ranked run defense in all of the land, but it's not as if teams haven't had some success against them, particularly running up the middle.  In Buffalo's first two games, the Bears and the Dolphins ran for 4.8 and 4.2 yards per carry, respectively, but couldn't maintain their running games after falling behind Buffalo - and those teams eventually lost those games...

But in week three and four losses, the San Diego Chargers and the Houston Texans both attacked the Bills' secondary by maintaining their running games despite a lack of early success - and while their yards per carry average didn't even measure up to the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust standard, both teams kept running right at the heart of the Bills' defense, which kept their play action rolling.

Same thing with the Lions last weekend, though Detroit was able to run the ball with former Patriot George Winn hauling the rock up the middle for a 4.3 yard per carry average.

The point is, the Bills can be run on, and the key is to just not give up on the run if it doesn't find initial success, and incorporating a tight end and running back-centric passing game to expose Buffalo's middle of the pack pass defense - which feeds directly into what the Patriots must do to be successful - should keep the Bills' speedy sack artists off of Brady.

The Patriots' passing game will feature a new wrinkle as well, as recently reinstated Brian Tyms will be active for Sunday's game, adding both size and speed to a pass catching corps that suddenly may well be the largest in the National Football League.

Tyms joins fellow 6' 3" receivers Aaron Dobson and Brandon Lafell, 6' 4" Tim Wright and 6' 6" Rob Gronkowski to form a unit that, in theory, should be able to cause rampant chaos in any teams' secondary - not to mention open up some room underneath for the backs to get loose and for Julian Edelman to gain some separation.

Balance will be the watchword, and the onus will be on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to generate and follow a game plan that masks the deficiencies along the offensive line, keeps Brady upright and moves the chains methodically to wear down the Bills' front seven.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Brady silences detractors as Patriots stomp Bengals

New England quarterback Tom Brady reacts to his touchdown pass to tight end Tim Wright in the first quarter.

Suddenly, everything makes sense.

Or nothing does, depending on your point of view, but one thing is for sure when it comes to the New England Patriots: count them out at your own risk.

For certain, their blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last Monday night was enough to give pause to the fan base, and also provided enough ammunition for the notoriously negative and sensationalist Boston press to fire their yellow salvos directly at quarterback Tom Brady...

...and at head ball coach Bill Belichick, the offensive line and the entire defense - heck, the blood was in the water and the aggressive Boston media were like hammerhead sharks in the midst of a feeding frenzy, and nothing - not even the hallowed persona of Brady - were beyond their vice-like jaws.

Well, after the Patriots performance on Sunday night, the Patriots have a question for the media: How did that taste?

How did nearly 300 yards and two touchdowns from Brady taste?  How tantilizing were the 46 carries that established the power running game?  And didn't those bulls up front offer up some bodacious grub, complete with all the trimmings?

Brady passed for nearly 300 yards and was sacked just once, while running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen powered through the Cincinnati Bengals' stout front seven for 220 yards on the ground, controlling the clock to the tune of a nearly two-to-one advantage as New England started fast and stomped the bewildered and previously undefeated Bengals by a score of 43-17.

Ridley carried the heavy load for New England on the ground, going a season-high 27 times for 113 yards and a touchdown, while battery mate Shane Vereen stole the ground show with 90 yards on nine flashy carries behind an offensive line that may have stumbled upon the right combination to both drive block for the backs and to keep Brady clean.

How clean?  Brady was sacked just the one time, which was an anomaly given that it was the result of tight end Rob Gronkowski trying to block Cincinnati defensive end Robert Geathers one-on-one, Geathers reaching around Gronkowski and pulling Brady down - but Brady was not even so much as inconvenienced either before or after that.

Brady had clean pockets most of the night, as did Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton - the Patriots' pass rush unable to penetrate the Bengals' excellent offensive line until defensive tackle Chris Jones hit paydirt on a sack of Dalton in the final period.

Dalton was 15 of 24 for 204 yards and two touchdowns, but got little help from the running game as Cincinnati found themselves in an early 14-0 hole, and all but abandoned the ground game in the second half, which is unfortunate for them as running back Giovani Bernard was getting close to five yards a pop...

...but a Ridley run and a Tim Wright 17 yard catch for early scores and two Stephen Gostkowski field goals put the Bengals in full pass mode, Dalton's 24 official pass attempts a bit misleading as five New England defensive penalties bailed him out of incompletions and at least one interception, extending Cincinnati drives.

Dalton did, however, throw a touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu to get the Bengals to within two scores early in the third quarter, but Brady responded with a seam job to Gronkowski to extend the lead back to three possessions, then running back Brandon Bolden delivered the dagger on the ensuing kickoff, forcing a Brandon Tate fumble that cornerback Kyle Arringotn scooped up and returned to the house.

But the best part of the night was when Belichick and Brady took a little orchestrated stab at the media, sending in rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to run the victory formation - the move in reference to the media's collective assertion that there may have been a quarterback controversy brewing as the result of Brady being benched late in the blowout loss to Kansas City.

There was even talk of Brady being dealt to one of as many as ten teams in search of an upgrade, but all of that lunacy was put to rest on Sunday night, at least until the next time that Brady struggles or Belichick makes a personnel move that is baffling - but when offered the opportunity to take a verbal jab at the media during his post-game presser, Belichick wouldn't be suckered in.

"Look, we have a job to do" Belichick siad when asked if the win was especially gratifying in light of all the criticism from the media this past week, "We're not going to sit around listening to what everybody else says.".

And just like that, we're on to Buffalo.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Patriots sacrifice Thompkins for the greater good

Kenbrell Thompkins is gone.

At least temporarily, as the New England Patriots continued their curious string of personnel moves by cutting ties with the second-year wide receiver in favor of beefing up their linebacking corps and special teams by activating Linebacker Ja'Gerad Davis from the practice squad.
Thompkins (85) became a victim of a heavy-set game plan

The Thompkins release is somber icing on the cake of perhaps the most tumultuous week in the last two decades of Patriots' football, and has fans and media alike scratching their heads and sputtering out obscenity-laced sentence fragments on social media sites.

But wait - could there actually be a good reason for the curious personnel move?

One theory is that the Patriots are preparing their roster for a blockbuster trade involving virtually the entire Patriots' receiving corps for the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald - and while desperate Patriots' fans and countless amateur bloggers may feel that the Patriots are the only team in the NFL that is entitled to one-sided deals, the fact of the matter is that Fitzgerald isn't going anywhere.

Why should he?  He's on a first place team in the toughest division in pro football with a contract that compensates him well.  There is no way in the name of Don Coryell that the Cardinals are going to trade their top receiver and break up an emerging offense just to appease fickle Patriots' fans - they are contenders in the NFC, and contenders don't make stupid deals like that...

...which leaves us with the reality of why Thompkins was handed his pink slip: The greater good.

A finger injury to Nate Ebner has rendered punter Ryan Allen's personal protector a bystander for Sunday night's contest with the Cincinnati Bengals, and it's a position that practice squad linebacker Ja'Gerad Davis saw some of in the preseason - and as the personal protector is vital to the success of the special teams, the move for Davis had to be made.

And while that in itself doesn't explain why Thompkins was the one that got the axe to make room for Davis, one look at the Cincinnati Bengals - this Sunday nights' opponent - does, on paper anyway.

The Cincinnati Bengals have become a trendy Super Bowl favorite with late bettors, coming in at 8-1 as many are jumping on their bandwagon.  And why not?  After all, the weakness of their team and supposedly the only reason they haven't won three trophies by now is their quarterback, Andy Dalton, and the now-veteran signal caller is off to a fast start.

Dalton can't win a playoff game to save his life, everyone said at the end of last season, and the Bengals should consider cutting their losses and draft a quarterback high in the draft and hand the keys over as soon as the kid was ready - and they did draft a quarterback, a good one in Alabama's A. J. McCarron, whom they considered a 5th round steal, and were ready to make the switch just as soon as Dalton started to struggle...

...which may or may not be true, but it's a moot point anyway because the Bengals have started fast and are leading the AFC North with a pretty 3-0 record coming off a bye, and are advertised to be a juggernaut, moving the ball at will while Dalton toys with the opposition - going so far as to catch a pass from receiver Mohammed Sanu that he took to the house.

Ah, those tricky, tricky Bengals.

Trick plays aside, the Cincinnati offense is legitimate, particularly their top rated passing game - and although their running attack is merely average, it must be taken into account that running back Giovani Bernard actually leads the team in receptions, meaning that the Bengals use their passing attack as an extension of their running game.

But for all of that razzle-dazzle, Cincinnati is only scoring 26 points per game, while their defense is surrendering a miniscule 11 points per game, which easily adds up to their 3-0 record - but the truth of the matter is that the Bengals' defense is living on borrowed time, and the Patriots are the kind of team that can exploit them.

In their three wins, the Bengals have jumped out to leads, forcing their opposition to take to the air, where their top rated pass defense can have their way with the other teams' quarterback - their only close game being the opener at Baltimore where Cincinnati settled for five field goals to let the Ravens hang close, securing the win with a late long bomb to receiver A. J. Green.

Their other two games?  Both home blowouts where the Bengals gained early leads against both the Falcons and Titans, then unleashed their pass rush that recorded four sacks and contributed mightily to their defensive backs picking off five passes.

In truth, if the Patriots allow the Bengals to get an early lead, the chances of a curtain call from last weeks drubbing at Kansas City is entirely possible - but if the Patriots can keep it close and methodically pick up first downs to chew up the clock, they may very well expose the soft under-belly of the Cincinnati defense...

...and how they do that is directly tied to why Thompkins was released on Saturday night.

The Bengals give up an abysmal 5.1 yards per carry to their opposing offenses, which feeds right into the week-long notion that the Patriots best bet to get a win on Sunday is to initialize their power running game, and to ride it as far as Stevan Ridley and company can take them, hopefully to sustain long, time chewing drives that will limit the opportunities that Dalton and the Cincinnati offense have to score.

That also means that the Patriots' running backs will be intimately involved in the passing game, as two back looks will be commonplace, Shane Vereen and rookie James White curling into the pattern to force the Bengals linebackers to bite on play action, while tight end Rob Gronkowski will take a linebacker and a safety out of the equation.

That sort of game plan is going to call for all five running backs and all three tight ends on the Patriots' roster, leaving a scant three spots - four tops - for wide receivers, and with those types of numbers, Thompkins wasn't going to see the field on Sunday night anyway, as he has been inactive for two of the first four games.

That leaves the excellent Bengals' corners in man coverage, the likes of Aaron Dobson taking one vertical and Brandon Lafell taking one horizontal, leaving lots of room for the backs and Julian Edelman to roam in underneath - which is the keyword for this game.

Everything underneath - nothing fancy, pound the rock, throw short to the backs to open up the outside and up the seam, where the Patriots should rule - take a few shots down the field but only after setting the attitude with the run.

And no matter the level of initial success, don't stop running the ball.  Showing a commitment to the run is the very best way to offset the unsettled nature of the Patriots' offensive line, the play action freezing the defensive linemen for the split second that it takes a lineman to anchor in their stance to better withstand their charging combatants.

If you can't commit to the run - or won't - you get what we all saw in Kansas City just six days ago: an offensive line overwhelmed by a Chiefs pass rush unencumbered by the notion of a Patriots' running game, pinning their ears back and getting off the line and into the linemen before they could properly anchor.

That's a recipe for disaster that the Patriots have been cooking with all season, and it can't continue if there is to be any hope of a trip to Arizona in February.

And while that's not necessarily on Thompkins, someone had to be sacrificed for the greater good - the power running game plan - and the second-year man lost the numbers game, and for a variety of reasons.

Thompkins may very well be resigned to the practice squad if he indeed clears waivers, though that is not a guarantee - but with Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick releasing Thompkins on a Saturday evening, it gives him a better chance of retaining him since no team is going to pick up a player and add them to their active roster mere hours before a game...

...and if Thompkins is signed to another team's practice squad, well, Belichick can just go poach him off that roster, if the University of Cincinnati product is willing to play ball, so to speak.

So all is not lost for fans of Kenbrell Thompkins, and Belichick is still as shrewd a tactician as there is in the game. Now it just remains to be seen how effective his ploy is against that Bengals defense that is living on borrowed time.