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.

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