Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Packers Offense Huge Test For New Look Patriots Defense

The first preseason game of the year is always a guessing game.

The first question anyone asks is, how long will the starters play? Unfortunately, no one but Patriots head ball coach Bill Belichick and his contemporary for the Packers, Mike McCarthy, know for sure.

Last we saw the Packers, they were busy coughing up a big lead in Seattle in the NFC Championship Game and, of course, the last time we saw the Patriots, they did the same thing to Seattle that the Seahawks did to Green Bay, winning the World Championship in dramatic fashion.
Blount probably wont play, but had big holes to run through in November

Offensively, not much has changed for either team since then, but both are improved on defense - even considering that the Patriots lost cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency - by concentrating mainly on the draft.

When the teams met last season, the stats suggest that the Green Bay offense had their way with the New England defense, as they rushed for 130 yards and quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 370 more, but it was really a tale of two halves, which seems to be the way the Patriots operated all of 2014.

For instance, Packers' running back Eddie Lacy ran for 98 yards on 24 carries, but after the first drive of the game when Lacy took three carries for 40 yards, he was held mostly in check after that, picking up 58 yards on 21 carries, a putrid 2.7 yards per carry - while Rodgers picked on the Patriots' secondary to the tune of 14 of 24 for 282 yards and two touchdowns, but just like in the running game, New England shut down the Packers' passing game in the second half as Rodgers managed only 88 yards while being sacked three times.

Rodgers was equally opportunistic in picking on the Patriots secondary, as he targeted Browner early and drew two holding calls on the tall, grabby corner, then went after Logan Ryan with Devante Adamas out of the flank before abusing Kyle Arrington covering Randall Cobb out of the slot - and then went for the coffin nail by targeting Revis with Jordy Nelson as the Packers scored on five straight possessions in the first half and took a 23-14 lead into the locker room.

The Patriots offense was hit and miss most of the game, but performed best when quarterback Tom Brady targeted his tight ends and running backs in the pattern, then turning to running back LeGarrette Blount in the second half as the Patriots found plenty of room to run on the Packers - but uncharacteristic drive-killing penalties doomed New England to only seven more points while the defense held the Packers to just a field goal.
Lacy was contained after the first series of the game in November

Overall, the Packers' run defense was abysmal all season long, as only four teams failed to gain over 100 yards on the ground against them, including the Patriots, who still ran for nearly five yards a pop against them - and when they ran into teams with superior running games, the results were predictable.

That run defense is exactly the same as it was, the same defense that gave up 145 yards to Dallas in a close win in the Divisional round of the playoffs, then 194 in the loss to the Seahawks the following week to end their season.

The main players in the backfield for Patriots in the game against the Packers last season are back this year, as Blount, Brandon Bolden and Jonas Gray enjoyed finding some big holes against their 3-4 front, mostly by following rookie tackle Cam Fleming and veteran Nate Solder to the left, directly at weak side linebacker Julius Peppers and 310 pound five-tech end Mike Daniels...

...wisely running to the opposite side from the strong side duo of linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive end Leroy Guion, who also doubled down as nose tackle for injured B. J. Raji.

Curiously, Brady had very limited success against a decent set of corners in Sam Shields and Tramon Williams, an area in which the Packers upgraded in the draft by selecting Miami (Ohio) cornerback Quinten Rollins and Arizona State hybrid Damarious Randall with their first two selections, two players who the Patriots can expect to see plenty of on Thursday night...

...while safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett figure to see at least a little action before giving way to Randall (who is also a free safety in the mold of New England's Devin McCourty) and a kennel of bubble blowers in what represents weak depth on the back side.

On the other side, it is unlikely that New England's rebuilt secondary will see much of Rodgers, if at all, but the Packers nevertheless have world class route runners who challenged and beat the Patriots' experienced secondary last season, so there probably isn't a better group for the cornerbacks to compete against to show where they are at this early in the preseason.
Cobb and Nelson represent a huge challenge for Patriots' secondary

Adams, Cobb and Nelson are just the tip of the iceberg as far as pass catchers are concerned for Green Bay, as depth names such as Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis are quality back ups and tight ends Richard Rogers and Andrew Quarless are both capable downfield receivers that will stress the superb New England safety corps. Lacy is also an effective receiver out of the backfield.

What to watch for:

Patriots corners face tough test 

As mentioned, the Patriots reworked secondary is untested, so you can probably expect to see the entire depth chart in different lineups as the Patriots' coaching staff attempts to find the best combinations in different situations - and there may not be a better scheme to stress them and put them on the defensive as Green Bay's.

Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler appears to have the left cornerback job nailed down, and will likely see the Packers' top threat, but after him there are literally dozens of combinations that have to be worked out. Ryan and newcomer Tarell Brown are likely battling for the right side, while Robert McClain, Bradley Fletcher and Ryan will all see time in the slot. the two rookie corners, Jimmy Jean and Darryl Roberts will see the majority of snaps in the second half.

Roberts has shown mad skill in sticking with receivers in camp and may be a wild card that could blow up the secondary much the same way that Butler did last preseason, while Jean has the length to contest deep balls much the same as Browner did last season.

Safety Play

The Patriots have assembled what may very well be the most talented group of safeties in the league, and while the first preseason game isn't going to feature anything but vanilla coverages, Belichick should be able to get a bead on where his blue liners are in relation to run support and general understanding of the defense. The only newcomer to the group is Jordan Richards, who has been pegged as a box safety by scouts but has been trumpeted by his college coaches as a free/strong hybrid, and Thursday night will be our first chance to see which side is right.

Curiously, fourth year man Tavon Wilson has surprised in camp with a much-improved coverage technique and better angles to the ball. Mainly a special-teamer along with fellow safety Nate Ebner, Wilson could solidify his position in the deep safety corps with a standout performance. He will certainly see the reps to make that happen.

As crazy as it sounds, the Patriots could conceivably keep six safeties...

Linebackers in coverage

New England traded rookie cover 'backer Matthew Wells to the Chicago Bears on Monday, leaving the linebacker corps seriously thin - nearly anorexic - in terms of players with the ability to handle running backs in the pattern - but they still have one very bright ray of hope in third-year man Eric Martin.

While he's no Wells in terms of speed and coverage ability, Martin does possess wheels that belie his stocky 6' 2", 250 pound frame. Running a 4.53 forty, Martin can play many positions, though his best position with New England will most likely be at weak side linebacker, but he has the bulk and lower body strength to be a sideline-to-sideline pursuit middle man. Regardless of where he lines up, expect to see plenty of Martin, along with depth guys like returning edge-setter Darius Fleming, former Dolphin Jonathan Freeny and recently re-signed Cameron Gordon in the stead of the Patriots' top three.

Light night for defensive line

Don't think that you're going to see much of Sealver Siliga or Alan Branch in the middle of the Patriots' defensive line - if we see them at all. It's not as if its critical to have those guys in there, nor names like Ninkovich, Sheard or Chandler Jones, because the depth behind them is flat crazy.

Zach Moore is one of the more intriguing players along the defensive line as the 6' 6" defensive end had beefed up to 290 pounds, and the extra 10 pounds hasn't seemed to affect his explosion off the ball. He could see himself getting some reps at the three-tech in a rotation that will include Dominique Easley, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, but will mainly ply his trade in the stead of Chandler Jones...

...while rookies Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Xzavier Dickson will see the majority of reps on the outside. All were decent edge setters in college and Flowers in particular was a menace in the pass rush. Dickson played mainly as a defensive end in college but, like Flowers and Grissom, has the skill to pull off the hybrid act.

Boyce can make his statement

The Patriots currently have Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson and Brian Tyms out with injuries and Julian Edelman is being treated with kid gloves as he works his way back from an ankle tweak, leaving Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson and Josh Boyce as their top three options in the pattern - and this is exactly the opportunity Gibson and Boyce need to prove they have the goods.

Boyce in particular, as he has struggled with the concept-driven playbook and spent most of last season on the practice squad after an invisible rookie season, where he earned the praise of Belichick for his taxi squad work, but now entering his third season, this is make or break time for the speedster out of Texas Christian.

Did I say speed? Boyce is greased lighting, timed at 4.38 in the 40, and has a break off the line that average corners shouldn't be able to handle - this is his chance to shine, and it's a big one, and he needs to make himself available to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo underneath because he is likely to need a safety valve with the starting offensive line Belichick plans to trot out...

Spotlight on the passing backs

Belichick followed his typical method of operation in bringing James White into the fold last season as a 4th round draft pick, keeping him on the 53 man roster like he did White's predecessor, Shane Vereen in his rookie season. Many in the media are writing off White and looking to New Orleans Saints castoff Travairis Cadet as the leader for passing back duties, but that has been how the media has treated White since he was drafted.

Cadet and Brandon Bolden have been said to have leapfrogged White in the competition, which is preposterous considering that we haven't seen any game action out of anyone. Cadet is a big, lean back that doesn't do much in the running game and can't pass block and Bolden is a special teams ace who is best seeing limited reps on the offense, so the Patriots hope that White shines when the lights are the brightest.

With the release of Tyler Gaffney and the team probably not willing to test LeGarrette Blount's knee in preseason action, the onus falls to Jonas Gray as the big, early down back. Look for the big kid to run to the left a lot against the Packers and, hopefully, shows some wiggle to go along with his power.

Tight end depth on display

How does a two tight end duo of Jake Bequette and Jimmay Mundine grab ya?

The top three options at tight end, Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler and Michael Hoomanawanui will play sparingly, if at all, so the 4th year former defensive end Bequette and the rookie H-back out of Kansas will see the majority of reps.

Bequette is a natural pass catcher and absolutely needs to impress to stick on the team, while Mundine has nothing to lose as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Kansas. Mundine is actually more of a thick wide receiver than an actual tight end, and his blocking leaves something to be desired, but at 6' 2" and 240 pounds, he runs crisp routes, is experienced at finding the soft spots in a zone and has an extra gear in the open field.

His coaches at Kansas had to hold him back from going full speed at times, as he would run over the corners and safeties in practice, leaving them bruised and bleeding in his wake. Watch this kid...

Wall blocking on the offensive line

With a starting line up of Marcus Cannon and Cam Fleming at tackles and Shaq Mason, Bryan Stork and Tre Jackson on the interior, this line is begging to run the ball.

Drive blockers all, they are not what you might call a great pass blocking squad, but call a few running plays and let these guys go to work with the Patriots' new Wall Blocking scheme, and watch the yardage pile up. This is one unit that doesn't figure to have a lot of substituting going on until the game reaches the 4th quarter, as the rookies Mason and Jackson need the reps to gain chemistry with Stork on the inside.

Jimmy Garoppolo may be running for his life in the passing game with these guys in front of him, but the running backs are going to have a field day.

Speaking of Garoppolo...

With the inexperience of the offensive line in pass protection and the lack of experienced receivers in the pattern, we are apt to find out just how clever and cunning Jimmy G. is.

When he drops back into the pocket, the coaching staff will be looking for a quick release in the short passing game. In camp, the second year signal caller has developed some good chemistry with Josh Boyce on the outside and James White on the wheel routes. He has been late on crossers, which no receiver likes as it puts them in position to take a big hit.

But here's the thing: Garoppolo is a gamer - we saw it last season when he stunk up the first few weeks of camp, then came out like a boss in the preseason games and took Ryan Mallet's job - and it's not unreasonable to expect to see more of the same this year.

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