Monday, October 13, 2014

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... 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.

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