Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Patriots' Mid-season Forum, Part 1 - Pats roll into the bye winners of five straight

New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady shredded the Broncos' defense for 333 yards and four touchdowns
Bill Belichick is quick to tell anyone who questions his methods and personnel moves that he builds his teams to be playing at their best after Thanksgiving - and if Sunday's performance is any indication, his New England Patriots are few weeks ahead of schedule.

Even more scary is the thought that they probably haven't reached their full potential yet.

In a resounding display of will mixed with emerging talent and nearly flawless execution, the Patriots put a letter in the mail to the rest of the National Football League that stated in no uncertain terms that they are every bit the juggernaut that their opponent claimed to be, with quarterback Tom Brady playing the postmaster general and canceling the Denver Broncos like a stamp.

Brady has emerged from the ashes of a 2-2 start to his season like the mythical Phoenix, regenerating himself each week, getting stronger and stronger with each bout of adversity and is suddenly the venerable old gunslinger who still has a few bullets left in the chamber...

...and when he was finished with the Broncos' defense he had fired 53 rounds, finding his target 33 times for 333 yards, standing tall in the pocket, cocking his arm and stepping into some dazzling spirals that cut through the steady tempest blowing through Gillette Stadium just as easily as he did Denver's secondary, finding paydirt four times as his Patriots stomped the Broncos by a score of 43-21.

And after gunning down the Broncos pass defense, if Brady wasn't in the conversation for league Most Valuable Player, he certainly is now.

"Brady, man, on third and long he killed us" Broncos' cornerback Chris Harris said after the game in a somber visitors' locker room. "You can't make any mistakes out there, and he makes you pay when you do."

It wasn't just third and long, and it wasn't just the Broncos, as there were a couple of times that he almost killed his own receivers when he let one of those pigskin projectiles off the chain, stepping into throws in the red zone and firing into the end zone.  Brandon Lafell couldn't quite handle one in the back of the end zone, but Edelman absorbed one for a quick six.

And that has been the difference in the past five weeks, that Brady has had the room in the pocket to step into and follow through on his throws as his offensive line has gelled to the point that that the certain first-ballot Hall of Famer has been able to stand tall, go through his progressions and fire the ball to the open man.

How good has his protection been?  During the dismal four game stretch to start the season Brady was sacked 10 times, hit three times that many and he threw two interceptions as the Patriots went 2-2, but in the five games since the debacle at Kansas City, Brady has been sacked just six times, hit only twice as many times and has thrown one pick, a deflection off Danny Amendola on Sunday night.

The running game is still a work in progress as the road graders are still trying to find the proper push to open up some holes more consistently but, just like Brady on third down, the line makes the hole when they absolutely have to, which is another good sign.

Brady now has 22 touchdown passes on the season and also threw just his third pick, completing nine passes each to both tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman, and also six to Brandon Lafell and five to Shane Vereen - and each found the end zone.

So the Patriots' offense is officially the mythical juggernaut, defying all of the negativity among the fan base and the media - but with all kinds of room to get even better, particularly in the running game - though it should be noted that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels appears to have learned his lesson in regard to abandoning the running game, keeping the play action viable by continuing to call running plays regardless of the level of success.

But what should have all of the six weird little states that comprise the New England region buzzing is Matt Patricia's version of the Nickle Cloud defense that shut down the Bronco's vaunted power running game and made Manning double clutch so often through the game that his shoulder will probably be sore for a couple of days.

The Nickle Cloud features the look of a press nickle with the requisite five defensive backs, but with the other six defensive players in the box featuring a four man front and two linebackers within three yards of the line of scrimmage that gives the appearance of a jailbreak blitz, but when the ball is snapped, only four players are rushing the quarterback while two drop into the middle zone...

...the key being to not to tip off the opposing quarterback as to which of the six are going to be coming and which are going to be dropping into coverage, causing carnage at the point of attack and indecision with the quarterback about who may be lurking underneath to pick off his pass - say, someone like Rob Ninkovich.

On the second play of the second quarter and the Patriots trailing 7-6, Ninkovich was in his standard end of the line defensive end spot, but dropped off the line at the snap of the ball while linebacker Jamie Collins got pressure up the middle in his stead, forcing a quick throw from Manning, who never saw Ninkovich.

Four plays later, Brady found Edelman with an armor-piercing round and the Patriots had a lead they would never relinquish - and when that defense forced the Broncos to punt after a brief possession on the next series, Edelman fielded the kick at the New England 16 yard line, got a big block on the gunner from Danny Amendola, juked to his right where Tim Wright sprung him with a huge seal block on the numbers and 84 yards later the Patriots were up 20-7 and the rout was on.

In fact, the Patriots rattled off 24 consecutive points in the second quarter and took a 20 point lead into the locker room at halftime, and after Manning found tight end Julius Thomas on an 18 yard wobbler to get them within 13 midway through the third period, a Brandon Browner interception of a Wes Welker deflection set up Brady on the Denver ten, where he hit Lafell to seal the game.

The rest of the game was an embarrassment of riches for the Patriots' defense, as while Manning was throwing for a game high 438 yards, more than half of that total came in desperation, the Broncos throwing everything they had at New England's frustrating stoppers for the final quarter-and-a-half - the 260 yards that Manning threw for in what was essentially garbage time coming between the 20's, but the Bronco's would ultimately stall and get no closer to the end zone.

In fact, at one point in the fourth quarter, the Patriots forced a turnover on downs on three consecutive Denver drives, the Broncos going 0-4 on fourth down on the evening - and when added to the fact that Denver went just 3 for 11 on third down conversions, Manning's 20% conversion rate tells one just about all they need to know about the surging Patriots' defense...

...just about, but it would be remiss to ignore the fact that the six-man Cloud was also responsible for stuffing the Broncos' running game, a light box that surrendered only 43 yards on 17 carries to a unit that had been averaging over 120 per game, and that 18 of those came on three carries as the Broncos stayed on the ground to run out the clock and end their misery.

That's 25 yards on 14 carries when the carries really mattered, a stout 1.7 yards against for a New England run defense that had taken its lumps both from the opposing teams and the media in recent weeks - the difference this week being the defensive scheme that dared the Broncos to run the ball against a front six that had received timely reinforcement in the past two weeks.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  For the following nine days, we will be visiting each position grouping from the Patriots 53 man roster, comparing it to the bold statements made in our season previews and taking a look ahead at what very well could be the most difficult remaining schedule in the league as the Patriots trudge forward toward the playoffs.

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