Saturday, December 20, 2014

Injuries open door for three Patriots who are looking for their niche

Gray has a huge opportunity to solidify his role on the Patriots' offense
The New England Patriots injury report released on Saturday had their number one receiver, top running back and starting slot corner all downgraded to "Out" for their game at New York against the Jets on Sunday afternoon - an obstacle that would be too much for most teams to overcome, but not the Patriots.

No, Bill Belichick's insistence that the 53rd man on his roster is just as important as the top man on the totem pole has paid off consistently for fifteen years now, so there's no reason to think it's going to fail him now.

After all, who can ever forget the smoke and mirror show he put on during the team's Super Bowl run in 2011, when an unknown safety by the name of Sterling Moore became the hero the AFC Championship game, and then last season when the next-man-up philosophy made up for the losses of several key members of the defense and made it all the way to the title game...
The Patriots would like to see a few celebrations like this on Sunday

...and while it is true that New England failed to bring home the coveted hardware, it is still reasonable to assume that no other staff could have pulled off that schtick long enough to even be in a position to play for the trophy.

The news out of Gillette Stadium on Saturday evening has been grim, with first cornerback Kyle Arrington being ruled inactive with a bum hammy, followed in rapid succession by news of wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back LeGarrette Blount being dealt the same fate, Edelman with a concussion and Blount with a shoulder.

But all that means to the Patriots is that they dip into their tremendously talented and battle-tested depth.

This is why Bill Belichick has to be considered not only the best coach in the National Football league, but also the best General Manager.  While everyone else is going after the big names in the offseason, Belichick is content to fill his roster with young veterans that fit his philosophy on both sides of the ball. 

His signings are not always popular with the media and fan base, but what those folks are about to witness tomorrow at MetLife Stadium is what separates the Dark Master from everyone else - and certainly the news is nothing to alter a game plan over, as their replacements are starting-quality talents in their own right.  Danny Amendola will most likely assume Edelman's snaps, while Jonas Gray spells Blount and Logan Ryan fills in for Arrington.

This is not to discount what the three injured players bring to the field, it's simply a validation of the breadth of depth chart.  And not just that, either, because all three injuries have handed all three backups the opportunity to seize their role with this team.

Amendola hasn't seen as many targets as Edelman, but it should be remembered that he was signed last season to be the slot presence that the team lost when Wes Welker bolted for the Broncos - but the off-season surgery that he incurred on the nasty groin injury that sapped the life out of his 2013 season has affected his explosion out of his cuts downfield, and he hasn't been getting open consistently enough for Brady to look his way as more than a third or fourth option...

...but Belichick has had him returning kickoffs and punts in an attempt to help him regain either his explosion or his confidence, or both, and it's starting to look like he's regaining both as a result - and it's not as if he's going to be alone in this endeavor, not with the likes of Rob Gronkowski dragging linebackers and defensive backs down the seam.

Gronkowski is a unique matchup in and of himself, and when one adds in LaFell, tight end hybrid Tim Wright, young speedster Brian Tyms and passing back Shane Vereen (himself an accomplished slot receiver), New England can still field enough weapons on the outside to take on a porous New York secondary that is ranked in the bottom three of pass defenses in the league.

New York's strength lies in it's defensive line, a top five run-plugging corps that allows just 3.5 yards per carry - which isn't an impenetrable number by any means.  Gray is actually the Patriots' leading rusher this season, even though he spent a significant amount of time in Belichick's doghouse, and saw his first extended action last Sunday when he showed patience, power and speed against the San Diego Chargers...

...a style that works well against an aggressive Jets' line that are successful by taking away the cutback lanes that are favored by a zone blocking scheme.  Gray is a no-nonsense, north and south load with excellent burst through the hole and surprising speed for a man his size and coupled with his "Gronkian" ability to drag would-be tacklers for chunks of extra yardage. He was dominating in the second half against the Chargers and he has all the tools to be an excellent NFL running back.

It's not stretching the truth very much (if at all) to proclaim that Gray has a huge opportunity to solidify his standing with Belichick by running hard and being productive as the workhorse against that excellent front seven - not to mention the boost a running game would give to the offensive line.

The best case scenario would be to have both Gray and Blount healthy and working as tandem steamrollers, and since the former is an established veteran, the latter can only benefit from increased reps. 

Backing up Gray should be seldom used bruiser Brandon Bolden, who runs like injured top back Stevan Ridley, but is a special teams' ace and used mainly in that capacity.  The Blount injury could also open the door for rookie runner James White to see the active roster, though the Wisconsin product is more a third down passing option than a threat up the gut, though he has that mentality.

On the other side of the ball, Ryan is a capable slot corner, as he seems to play his best ball in a phone booth where he is able to get his hands on the receiver and use his strength to disrupt the pattern.  In fact, Ryan drew the assignment on Jets' receiver Eric Decker last season when Decker played for Denver, shutting down the veteran pass catcher in the regular season meeting and picking off Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning while mugging Decker underneath.

Ryan had a fantastic rookie year, but has been inconsistent in his sophomore campaign - and much of that could be attributed to him getting lost in the shuffle that took place when Belichick went out and got cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. 

Revis is so good that he consistently shuts down the other guy's main weapon, so what would have been dime sub-packages without Revis' involvement are now nickles, and with Arrington entrenched as the nickle corner, snaps have been hard to come by for Ryan - but on Sunday he may well be staring down the player he shut down last season, and could boost his confidence and get him untracked for the playoffs.

Sadly for New York, Decker and receiver Percy Harvin is about as dangerous as they get down the field, their offense predicated on running the football and relying on their defense to keep the game close enough to pull one out in the final minutes, so maybe the Patriots play mostly base defenses and Ryan wouldn't see the field as much as he'd hope, so he will be motivated to make count whatever he gets.

The Jets always play the Patriots tough.  These are always physical games with a nasty bent to them, and with this possibly being Rex Ryan's final meeting with Belichick as the coach of the Jets, it goes to figure that this game means a lot to both him and his players...

...which is neither here nor there, except that emotions rarely carry for a for a full 60 minutes - usually for just half that many, if the Patriots' past three games have taught us anything - and sooner or later the Patriots will likely pull away and blow out the home team, but for that to occur, Amendola, Gray and Ryan will have had to play a big role, and all three are capable of doing just that.

After all, Belichick's philosophical approach practically assures it.

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