Friday, January 30, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 5: Blount Where He Belongs, Ready For Shot At The Title

"Pittsburgh had a golden opportunity to feature the heftiest, most powerful running attack in the NFL with both Bell and Blount, but once the season started and Bell became the "Bell Cow", it was just a matter of time before the lack of playing time for Blount became a problem - and it came to a head on Monday night when Blount received no carries, on top of getting just two the week before." Foxborough Free Press, November 20, 2014
If the Pittsburgh Steelers had not knee-jerked their way to releasing backup running back LeGarrette Blount in late November, there would have been a very good chance that it would have been them - not the Baltimore Ravens - that the New England Patriots would have hosted in the Divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

Not for any reason, though, other than when their lead back Le'Veon Bell went down with a knee injury shortly after Blount's release, they had no other big back to carry the load - and it likely cost them a win over the Ravens in the wildcard round of the playoffs with a trip to New England at stake.  It was a calculated risk by the Steelers and a decision that perhaps they would have liked to have back...
Blount (29) and Gray (35) are big backs key to a Super Bowl victory

...because it was them.  They are the ones that went back on their word to Blount, the word that enticed him to sign with Pittsburgh in the offseason with the vision of he and Bell running roughshod over their opponents, a promise that disintegrated slowly after the first few weeks of the season gave the league a glimpse of what it could be with a two-headed monster in their backfield.

After rushing for 118 yards on just 10 carries against the Carolina Panthers in week 3 - part of a 246 yard rushing day for the Steelers in which Bell rushed for 147 yards on 21 carries - Blount's touches and production dipped dramatically, barely eclipsing that yardage total in the next seven games combined.

The low point, of course, was the Steelers' 27-24 win over the Tennessee Titans on November 17th, when Blount unceremoniously departed for the locker room ahead of his teammates while the game was still going on, then departing the stadium without showering nor talking to the media - and the next day, he was released from his contract with Pittsburgh - and at least one of his teammates on the Steelers bid him good-riddance.

"We're fine." center Maurkice Pouncey said to reporters a few days after the incident, when questioned how the move would affect the team. "We have our starting running back. It's probably a good thing it happened.  If it was a cancer (in the locker room), he ended up leaving on his own. That's a blessing for us, we don't need him."

Pouncey is far from being innocent of transgression, and he was certainly mistaken when he announced that the Steelers didn't need Blount.  As it turned out, they did need him in a big way - and now Pouncey and the rest of his teammates are going to be watching Blount play in the Super Bowl against the defending world champions Seattle Seahawks.

This has been a point of contention for a variety of folks, particularly in the wake of the stupid and wrong "Deflate-gate" mess, and something that was brought up by a rouge reporter on Media Day, who ambushed Blount on how it all went down and insinuating that it seemed pretty convenient that Blount essentially got himself fired from a team that wasn't using him and ended up on a team that was in the midst of a very proper run toward the Super Bowl...

...the very team that he left in free agency during the offseason after racking up nearly a thousand yards for New England last season in tandem with Stevan Ridley - and perhaps motivated by need after Ridley's season ending knee injury early this season, the Patriots took advantage of how things shook out for Blount, and were thrilled to be able to bring back a guy that had been so productive for them in the past, but also a guy that was well-liked by his New England teammates.

Perhaps most importantly, however, was that Blount already knew the system and the language, and was able to step right in like he hadn't left at all.

So in response to the media's ambush, Blount could do nothing but smile, knowing that the subject of acquisitions and contracts were taboo in Patriots' Nation - but his silence fueled the conspiracy driven media into a firestorm of indictment in the name of collusion.

As if the media hadn't pig-piled the Patriots enough in the past dozen days, now they are up in arms about how it all came to be with Blount and the Patriots, asking him whether he knew that he had a job waiting for him in Foxborough were he to get himself "fired" from the Steelers - and perhaps he did know that he would end up back with the Patriots, but there was still a matter of how.

Upon his release, Blount appeared on the league-wide waiver wire wherein any team in the league could have put in a claim on him - but no one did.

Calculated risk by head ball coach Bill Belichick?  Well, it couldn't have been much of a risk, given Blount's checkered (albeit misunderstood) past, rife with confrontation from the college level on up - and when combined with the thought that Blount "abandoned" his teammates when he headed for the locker room that fateful night, it was a pretty good gamble on Belichick's part that most teams would steer clear of him...

...and when they all did - even the running back needy Broncos who knew first-hand what he brought to the field -  Blount suddenly appeared in the Gillette Stadium locker room where he was greeted with hugs and smiles from his former-now-present teammates.

"We were like, 'LeGarrette's back'!" said Patriots' safety Devin McCourty of the morning that Blount surprised everyone in the Patriots' locker room. "He honestly picked up right where he left off.  What happened in Pittsburgh doesn't matter.  What you did on a previous team, that doesn't matter.  It's all about who you are on the Patriots."

Who Blount is on the Patriots is perhaps the queen piece in a chess match between the league's best and most diverse offense against the leagues' best defense - a defense defined by violent intent, speed, intelligence and toughness - but also a defense that lost every game that their opposition ran the ball more than 27 times.

The 6' 1", 250 pound Blount is certainly capable of carrying that kind of work load, and his syrup-on-waffles running style will wear down any defense, if given that type of opportunity - but Blount really doesn't have to do the running all by himself, though that would appear to be the plan.

There is also overnight sensation turned flash-in-the-pan Jonas Gray, whose lone claim to fame was steamrolling the same Indianapolis Colts' defense in November that Blount did not even two weeks ago - which means that with Blount and Gray working in tandem, the Patriots can always have fresh legs in the backfield - and not just fresh legs, but twin battering rams that could relentlessly pound the Seahawks into oblivion, should New England gain a lead.

But no matter how it shakes down, if both men are on their game, they represent a huge challenge for the speedy-but-small Seattle front seven - particularly now that the Patriots have their starting offensive line intact with the return of center Bryan Stork - meaning that the Patriots now have everything that the Steelers could have had, but failed to capitalize on.

About that, LeGarrette Blount still just smiles, happy to be back where he belongs.

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