Saturday, November 22, 2014

Patriots need to exert will in run game against top-ranked Lions defense

"Life, as in a football game, the principal is: Hit the line hard; don't foul and don't shirk, but hit the line hard." - Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt was a tough bastard.

The 26th president of the United States was nothing if not the roughrider that history bestowed upon him as the leader of the 1st United States Volunteer Calvary, a group of ragtag soldiers of whom all of his leading officers listed "football player" as their occupation on their application for the elite volunteer corps.
Newly re-signed Blount will probably see plenty of action Sunday

He's what is known as "Old-school tough", and as such, his motto for living life is exactly what that quote implies, and nary a challenge did he back away from - so what would he think of today's football?  After all, it was Roosevelt stepping in and reforming football back in 1905 that has lead to the game that we know today, his proposed rule changes initiating safety protocol and ushering in the passing game...

...a rule change that spared the lives of both running backs and offensive linemen - 19 died that year alone from injuries sustained in scrums in the middle of the field - by implementing the forward pass, a ploy that really didn't catch on until the 1920's, but created positions like wide receiver and tight end and helped spread the field out so that all 22 players on the didn't meet in a big pig pile in the middle of the field.

These changes made the game more exciting, more specialized - and opened up the field for the running game to be more exciting and specialized.  Of course, it's rarely an easy venture, as the rules also made it critical for the opposing defense to employ large, mean individuals to clog as much space as they could to make up for losing personnel to pass defense...

...and the biggest and the best of the best these days reside in Detroit, where the Lions lead the NFC North division of the National Football League, with their top-ranked defense leading the way.

The Detroit Lions lead the National Football League in rushing defense.  The New England Patriots are 13th in rushing offense - a statistical fact that has most media experts and many fans clamoring for the Patriots to spread the field and avoid butting their heads against the Lions' brick wall of a front seven.

But a closer examination of the statistical facts suggest that for New England to concede the running game before even taking a snap feeds right into what has made Detroit successful against the run in the first place.
enduring a rough week, Gray will be counted on vs. Detroit

The Lions have faced just 227 rushing attempts in 11 games, an average of a fraction above 20 carries per game, good for second fewest in the NFL.  But while it's true that the Lions also lead the league in yards per carry against at 3.0, it is equally true that it really all depends on where you attack them.

In the last four games that they have played, the Lions have given up five yards per carry to the Saints, 3,5 to the Falcons, 6.75 to the Dolphins and 4.2 to the Cardinals straight up the gut.  The edges?  Well, that's where teams get into trouble.

In those same games when the opposition have tried off the tackles and around the edges, they have run into trouble amounting to less than three yards per carry.  That said, why would the Patriots want to avoid sending their bruising back straight into the heart of the Lions' front seven?

Lord knows, the Patriots haven't been very consistent on the ground this season - but he also knows that, just as in years past, the New England running game really doesn't get fully untracked until the second half of the season - with 2013 being the latest example.

Last season, the Patriots running game suffered through an up and down start to the year, but turned it on in the second half of the season in averaging nearly 160 yards a start, with a switch from Stevan Ridley as the lead back to big power back Legarrette Blount appearing to be the catalyst - while the Lions faded into oblivion in the second half of their season, their run defense surrendering big chunks to the Eagles, Ravens and Vikings in losing four straight to end the year...

...and before that occurred they lead the league in rush defense.

This is not to say that the Lions are going to collapse this season as they did last, nor does any of this mean that the Patriots are going to go on a tear and average 160 yards a game on the ground - but what it does mean is that it would be a mistake to become one-dimensional against Detroit based on season-long reputation alone.

Particularly now that Blount got himself fired from the Pittsburgh Steelers just in time to re-join the Patriots for their stretch run, and also now that Jonas "Sleepy" Gray has tasted his first real success in the NFL and is poised like a shark that smells blood in the water - and with the dynamic Shane Vereen as a change-up to the bruising styles of the other two, the Patriots may just have the best kennel of young greyhounds in the league.

But, as always, much of the success of the running game has to come from the big uglies up front, and against a run defense like the Lions offer, Sunday afternoon's battle in the trenches has all the makings of an all out war.

Which is what offensive linemen live for, right?

This is their time.  Physically, the offensive line has been as big a reason as any why New England has won six straight and have become the second-ranked scoring offense in the NFL.  Physically, they have had their way with some decent defensive lines in the six-game run, so this isn't about physicality.

No, this is about the psychological impact that generating a running game against Detroit would have on the unit going forward into real football weather - particularly on the interior.

Guards Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly were both supposedly on their way out of town in training camp, but both showed the heart of a warrior in not only surviving camp, but for staking claim on those starting positions by ripping them away from younger, more athletic options - and along with rookie brawler Bryan Stork at the pivot, it as mean and nasty an interior unit as you'll find.

No?  Tell me then, when was the last time you heard the name of Logan Mankins?

But also part of what has made the Patriots successful on the ground is that head ball coach Bill Belichick has sacrificed receiving options on the outside in favor of employing a sixth offensive lineman, a strategy that allows for one of the tackles to pull and push the opposing nose tackle right out of the play from an angle, forcing the linebackers to make the play three or more yards up the field....

...and usually having to contend with one of the guards that have broken free from an interior double team at the same time - the only problem with that this week is that the sixth lineman, rookie tackle Cameron Fleming, is out with a bum ankle and his back up, Marcus Cannon, is questionable with a hip injury.

Jordan Devey has been inactive since the coaching staff's failed experiment at trying him at right guard early in the season, the coaches universally acknowledging that at 6' 6" and 320 pounds, Devey is a tackle, and an athletic one at that - and if the Patriots wish to stick with what's been working for them, that seems to be their option.

Granted, Devey isn't as massive as either Fleming or Cannon, giving up 20 pounds to each, but it's either him or trying 6' 3", 295 pound Josh Kline.  Whatever he decides to do, Belichick also has the fortune of having the best all-around tight end in the NFL in Rob Gronkowski - who is generally considered an excellent blocker - and also 6' 3", 255 pound H-back James Develin, who lives for opening holes.

Also to be considered is that New England has one of the best play action quarterbacks in the game in Tom Brady, and that his laser arm and plethora of able receivers is the perfect compliment to help the running game be successful in an attempt to achieve overall balance.

Belichick is not one to shy away from a challenge, either, but he is smart enough to know when he's in over his head.  Known as the best on-the-fly tacticians of all time, Belichick is known for targeting the opposition's weakness on defense, just as he programs his defense to eliminate the top weapons on his foe's offense - and his timing in taking shots at an opponent's strengths is impeccable.

Of course, a successful game is one that ends with a win no matter how it happens, but why not try to run on the Lions?  If they can't, no loss because no one really has and Belichick knows that he can beat Detroit in other ways - but the impact on the team if he can establish a running game and force that Lions' pass rush to bite on the play action and hesitate for a split-second would mean a resounding victory for New England...

...and an injection of confidence for the offensive line in knowing that if they can run block and impose their collective will on the Lions, that might be all this team needs to find itself in Arizona come February.

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