Sunday, November 30, 2014

Patriots' running game, defense give them edge over Packers

The mystique surrounding the Green Bay Packers seems to precede their physical presence.

And why not?  Perhaps one of the most storied franchises in National Football League history, it is the Packers - not the New England Patriots - whose logo arises in the psyche of football fans everywhere when considering that history.

It has been said that if one listens very carefully within the confines of Lambeau Field, you can almost hear Vince Lombardi giving the business to a referee and Bart Starr's gruff cadence - and with the notoriously frigid temperatures that invade Wisconsin from the arctic, the perception is that the Packers are invincible, particularly at home...
The power duo of Gray and Blount are key against Packers' defense

...which is bullshit, of course, but not a bad image to carry into a game, particularly a marquee contest such as when they host the Patriots on Sunday afternoon - but reputation and image gets one only so far.

Similar to the Patriots, the Packers struggled out of the gates to start the 2014 season, beginning the year losing two of their first three games before righting the ship and going on a tear that has seen them win seven of their last eight, making them the second hottest team in the league.

The hottest? Right, those dastardly New England Patriots.

The Patriots have won seven straight heading into Lambeau Field late on Sunday afternoon - running the table in impressive fashion, which includes blowout wins over six different division leaders and all three of Green Bay's NFC North division rivals.  The Patriots offense leads the league in points scored, while the Packers are right on their heels, so there is no doubt that both offensive entities are able to put up points.

But that is where the similarities end.

The focus in this contest will be on the defensive side of the ball, where the Patriots have an emerging beast of a secondary that can take away the opposition's top two targets, forcing the opposing quarterback to go to his third and fourth reads, many times having to scramble from the pocket to give himself enough time to do so.

Having cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and an over-the-top safety presence like Devin McCourty gives head ball coach Bill Belichick flexibility that he hasn't had in the past, and a direct beneficiary of that is that it allows the Patriots' "Cloud" defense both the ability to disguise where their pass rush is coming from, while leaving the box heavy in run support.

How fortuitous is it for the Patriots to have Revis and Browner in coverage?  Through 11 games, New England has allowed only two quarterbacks to throw for over 300 yards, and both of those signal callers - Denver's Peyton Manning and the Colts' Andrew Luck - enjoyed most of that success in garbage time as the Patriots had big leads and backed off in coverage to make sure neither could could beat them deep for a quick score.

As a result, New England has been able to utilize the base Cloud, rotating in a combination of coverage 'backers and the big nickle to also shut down the opposition's ground game.
Akeem Ayers' pass rush, edge-setting vital against Rodgers

New England's defense has given up over 100 rushing yards just four times this season, and the results have been predictable.  In both of their losses, a narrow win over the Jets, and a blowout of a terrible Bears' team, the Patriots surrendered an abysmal 192 rushing yards per game - in their other seven wins, a stout 60 yards per game.

Obviously, stopping the run coincides with New England's overall success.

That said, it should be noted that, after a slow start, Green Bay's Eddie Lacy has been the catalyst for a Packers' ground attack that has averaged 126 yards per game - but even that comes with a caveat in that Green Bay is renowned this season for jumping out to substantial leads in the first half of their ball games on the strength of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' arm, then they turn to the four-minute offense to to run down the clock... the key for New England is to not allow the Packers to jump out to a quick lead through the air by forcing them to become one-dimensional - and the Patriots have the talent on defense to take their pick of which area to shut down at any given time.

But if there is anything that the Patriots' defense hasn't figured out yet is how to cover the bigger, more athletic tight ends and containing the quarterback when the pass rush forces him to leave the pocket.  Against the Packers, the former isn't as much a concern as the latter, as Green Bay's tight ends are used sparingly in the passing attack, but Rodgers has a knack for extending drives with his legs.

But if Revis and Browner effectively shut down the dynamic pass catching tandem of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, tight ends Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers become underneath options, as does Lacy out of the backfield.

This makes the Patriots' linebackers the key to this game.

Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins provide solid interior presence in the 5-2 Cloud, and rue the pass catcher who attempts to slither across the middle - but the mid-season acquisitions of weaksiders Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas have strengthened the corps on the edges, with Ayers playing a stand-up, end-of-the-line role that sees him rushing the passer and setting the edge...

...while Casillas handles running backs swinging out of the backfield most often, but has also been used as a shadow on mobile quarterbacks on occasion, something that will most likely be employed by Belichick on Sunday afternoon.

Green Bay's slot receiver Devante Adams becomes important in this scenario as a third option, but the combination of slot corner Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan have proven to be able defenders in this area as well, and give up very little to a linebacker or safety in run support.

Conversely, the Packers' defense is not even in the same class as what New England brings, though their secondary should not be overlooked.

Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams are a terrific duo of cover corners and are baked up with decent safeties in Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde, with rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the mix as well - but after them, there is little imposing in regard to what the Packers' will be able to match up with what the Patriots bring to the field.

At least one of those safeties and a linebacker will be occupied with Patriots' All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski, leaving holes underneath and in the intermediate areas for receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell to settle into, and with the added presence of emerging tight end Tim Wright and with the always dangerous Shane Vereen curling out of the backfield, they force the opposition to play in sub-packages for most of the game...

...setting up a light box for New England's power running game to take advantage of.

Most of Green Bay's opponents have run right at weakside linebacker Julius Peppers and defensive end Mike Daniels, taking advantage of Peppers' aggressive pass rush and beating him between the left guard and tackle to the tune of a whopping 5.25 yards per carry.  Opponents are also finding room up the middle to maneuver for 4.25 yards per carry.

Trying to go right on Green Bay is little more difficult, as they have surrendered only 3.2 yards per carry to that edge - but fortunately for New England, most of their running plays go left or straight up the gut, which means that the power back tandem of Legarrette Blount and Jonas Gray could have a field day against the Packers' weak front seven.

So this gives the Patriots a choice of how to approach the game offensively.

The age-old standard of establishing the run to set up the play action pass doesn't necessarily apply to New England, as quarterback Tom Brady can sell the play action better than anyone else in the NFL, and on more than one occasion offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has approached an opponent by going up top to help set up the powerful four minute offense.

This is the hallmark of the Erhardt-Perkins offense that the Patriots employ, the mantra being "Pass to score, run to win.", so it goes to figure that Brady will come out slinging, softening up a Packers' defense that will be struggling to stop the running game as it is, forcing them into a sub nickle or dime, then running straight into the teeth of their lighter box.

But all of this means nothing if New England turns the ball over.  The Packers lead the league in turnover differential, causing 23 turnovers - though ball security hasn't really been an issue with the Patriots this season, with only Brady and Edelman putting the ball on the ground - meaning none of the running backs have fumbled at all.

All of this said, the Patriots appear to have a solid chance of winning handily, even on the intimidating frozen tundra of Lambeau Field - just running the ball with authority, stoping the run and hanging onto the football should ensure a convincing New England victory.

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