Saturday, December 27, 2014

Fundamentals, Sustaining Drives Should Be Stressed for Imbalanced Patriots' Offense

"The second most fundamental principle in offensive football is to force the opposing defense to defend the entire field, which came into play with the advent of the forward pass.  Many believe that it takes a speedy wide receiver who can take the top off of the defense to force this issue, but the one true way that one can achieve this goal is through balance...

...another axiom of football that is misunderstood, in that balance in football doesn't necessarily mean equal parts running and passing - rather, it means to run the ball as many times as it takes for the defense to respect your commitment to the run."
Foxborough Free Press, December 21, 2014

The New England Patriots' offense is dangerously imbalanced.

On the surface, and using the the definition of balance in the above excerpt, it would appear that the Patriots have plenty of balance, averaging 26 rushing plays per game compared to 41 pass plays, a nearly 40/60 ratio which is optimum balance in terms of the NFL - but when one considers how those running plays are distributed throughout a game, the disparity becomes obvious and apparent.
It is quite likely that Patriots' fans will see this scene many time on Sunday

It's been no secret that the Patriots have stumbled on offense coming out of the gates in the past month, and not just at the beginning of the games, but also coming out of the locker room - normally a strength of this offense - going from idle to full speed at the start of each half takes at least two possessions to get anything going at all, and many times it seems to rely on being kick-started by a big play from the defense or special teams.

In the four-game span encompassing the past month, New England has scored 102 points - a drop of what amounts to a touchdown from the 33 points per game they had scored in the previous 11 contests.  But to make matters even worse, of the ten touchdowns produced by the team in that span, one came on a blocked field goal return and five other others were the direct result of a short field provided by the defense or special teams...

...and another one came on a 69 yard pass and catch play between quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Julian Edelman, meaning only three touchdowns have been produced by the offense on drives longer than 35 yards - not the kind of statistic that feeds into much positive mojo regarding the offense.

But there is a solution, and it's called running the football.
White should be on the active roster vs Buffalo

As noted several times in this blog, establishing the running game makes everything else related to the offense incrementally easier.  If the defense is forced to respect the running game, that affords the offensive linemen some flexibility in that the big defensive tackles' momentum-building initial step is tempered somewhat by the split second uncertainty as to rush the quarterback or maintain gap responsibility against the run...

...reinforced to a great degree by the quality of play action ability of the quarterback, who in this case is Tom Brady, who has made knees buckle in the front seven with the precision of his play fake.  This has a double-down type of benefit for the the offense as a whole, as the linemen can use the aforementioned split-second of uncertainty to anchor themselves for the pass rush, or to catch the defensive line on their heels and create leverage in the running game.

More than that, is the fact that with greater protection for Brady and the probability that the defense will have to stack the box to guard against the run, that will leave at least one of his outstanding pass catchers open down the field.  That even loops back to the running backs, who may find big holes with the trap draw if the defensive linemen can't or don't maintain their gap integrity.

In other words, establishing the running game is the single most important means for an offensive to impose their will on a defense, the result of which is the offense dictating the pace of the game and taking what they want by force rather than just taking what the defense gives to them.

Admittedly, the entire premise of the Erhardt-Perkins offense lies in its motto, "Pass to score, run to win", and taken literally, that is exactly what head ball coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels appear to be honoring, as the Patriots have a tendency to be aggressive with the passing game to open the game and have had much success closing down games in the four minute offense.

But far too often, the running game is all but forgotten in the equation, and balance - not to mention points and time of possession - are sacrificed in the name of airing it out, particularly in the first half, resulting in halftime deficits in three of the four contests.

As mentioned, New England runs the ball an average of 26 times per game, but has averaged less than 10 carries per game in the first half of the last four.  Things even out a bit in the second half where the gap narrows to a ratio of 16 running plays to 19 passing attempts, which is where the 40/60 split occurs when all is said and done - but a far less stressful experience would occur with a little more attention paid to the ground game.

Consider that on all scoring drives by the Patriots' offense, the running game is heavily involved, with 46 carries for 242 yards, an average yards per carry of 5.2 yards per carry - and when the four-minute offense is employed to kill the clock, the results are nearly identical - but at all other times when haphazardly throwing in a couple of token running plays in the middle of an aerial assault in a feeble attempt to catch the opposing defense off guard, the results are not so productive.

All of these things added up suggest that more than anything else, the play calling must be sharper heading into the post-season, because when given the opportunity to achieve balance - particularly in the four minute offense - the players have proven that they are able to consistently execute and sustain drives.

That said, how do the Patriots coaching staff and players approach this coming Sunday's season finale against the Buffalo Bills in a manner which will promote the notion of balance and execution in light of the fact that this game should be viewed as a live-action scrimmage, and that many of the starters on offense are either going to be held out, or will be limited in their exposure to the violent Bills' defense?

Tough call, considering that running back Jonas Gray has already been ruled out with a bum ankle and that fellow power back Legarrette Blount may not see any action either, nursing a sore shoulder - and also that left guard Dan Connolly will probably sit due to a bad knee and swing tackle Cameron Fleming is slowed by a gimpy ankle, all of which somewhat throws dirt on the notion of getting staff and players on the same page...

...but in reality, this issue is more on the coaching staff than anything the players could accomplish in what amounts to a three-hour troubleshooting session.

The players have proven that they can execute just about any series of play calls handed to them, so it is up to the coaching staff to ensure that they put the players in the best possible position to succeed, which is to achieve balance.  In order to level the playing field for the offense against a dominant defense that they will assuredly come across in the playoffs, the Patriots must establish the running game in order to make the defense defend the entire field - and it doesn't have to be as productive as the 5.2 yards per carry.

Three yards and a cloud of dust is what the running game is predicated on, which in lay terms means to run the ball just enough to force the defense to respect the ground game, and a token draw play here and there isn't going to make the nut.

To force a defense to respect your running game, a team has to run right into the teeth of the defensive line - putting the onus on your offensive line to win the one-on-one battles and for the running backs to hit the hole hard, not dawdle and skirt the line hoping that a hole will open up.  In that respect, the play calling has everything to do with the success of the running game.

The Buffalo Bills have the fourth ranked defense in the NFL, but there is a gap between levels as their pass defense is ranked in the top three units in the league, but their rush defense is merely a middle-of-the-pack entity that surrenders ground yardage at an alarming pace, so one would surmise that the prudent thing for New England to do on offense is to shove the ball down the Bills' collective throats, but as recent history has shown us, the Patriots don't always apply popular theory.

Again, go back to the last four games for an example: Going into the loss at Green Bay and the wins at San Diego and against Miami (not necessarily in the win at the Jets), the stats told us that the Patriots should run the ball against three very suspect run defenses, yet McDaniels opened all three games by having quarterback Tom Brady flinging the football all over creation - in effect feeding right into the strengths of those units...

...then in the second half, they suddenly seemed to flip a switch, gain balance with the run and then blow the game open with a truly awesome display of offensive firepower.

As a result, the Patriots as a team have scored just 10 first quarter points in their last four games, which is bad but made even worse by the fact that seven of those points came from a blocked field goal return for a touchdown - that's three points scored by the offense in the first quarter of the last four games, and have scored a combined three points coming out of the locker room for the second half in three of those contests, the blowout of San Diego notwithstanding.

In contrast, the second and fourth quarters have been good to the Patriots, as their 38 and 27 respective points totals easily best the output from the opposing offense, as New England fields a stingy defense that rivals any in the league when it comes to giving up points.

But that comes later.  The point of the moment is that to come out of the game with Buffalo with any semblance of momentum that will be sustainable during the two weeks that the Patriots have between the Sunday and the divisional round of the playoffs, it's going to have to be by the offensive line winning their battles and opening holes for establishing their ground game...

...and they are going to have to do that with no true power backs toting the rock, considering the injury status of Blount and Gray, and also with Belichick wanting to limit injury potential to passing back Shane Vereen - which means that Patriots' fans could be getting a feature length view of their future at the position, as rookie runner James White will most likely get the call.

As will backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, either at halftime or shortly after - because, after all, it's not the execution of the players that needs to be worked on, it's the play calling by the staff to put those players in position to succeed.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series, with part 3 ruminating on the defense and what they should be working on during their game against Buffalo...

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