Monday, September 7, 2015

New England Patriots' Offensive Philosophy - No Quarter Given

"And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse, and he that sat upon him called faithful and true, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war." - Revelation 19:11

Funny how that works, huh?

The author of  the Book of Revelation has been a matter of some conjecture among biblical scholars since - well - biblical times, but regardless of who actually wrote the thing, its message strikes a frightening chord in God-fearing folks.  It is, after all, the Revelation of Jesus Christ, and it's bad juju for believers and followers to deny that the gospel is true.

Some scholars believe the book is nothing more than a chronology of past super natural events, while others see it as road map to the apocalypse and still others view it as the internal struggle within each man between good and evil - and that's fine for the zealots and the psychiatrists who treat them and the sociologists who study how persons under the influence of severe religiosity integrate within various cultures...

...but for football - and especially for the opponents of the New England Patriots - it means that the Patriots' offense, with the greatest quarterback who has ever played the game of football, surrounded by perhaps the most physically diverse pass catching corps in the league and a stable of running backs unlike any other in football, is going to run roughshod through their schedule with all due malice.

The offense has taken a different form from years past, which has the milk drinkers buzzing with panic - but only the standard-brand knee-jerk variety that finds them beating the drum for top players from other teams to join the Patriots, taking into account neither the team's salary cap limitations nor the fact that head ball coach Bill Belichick could probably take a pack of trained circus seals coach them up to play ball.

Which is bullshit of course, but it isn't any more far-fetched than folks wanting to bring in names like Fitzgerald and Chancellor who are signed with other teams and carry weighty cap hits, nor is it any more ridiculous than the folks singing the sad song of doom for the Patriots due to attrition and bad luck on the injury report.

Motivation is rarely considered either, and what could be more motivating than defending a Super Bowl title? Of course, the answer to that is having to endure seven months of having your character and professionalism questioned as quarterback Tom Brady has, which would be enough to provoke anyone to go full-Hulk on anyone who opposes them, let alone the best signal caller in the league.

So break out the white horse for Brady - faithful and true to his innocence and his team, and full of righteous anger and indignation - because he has already judged his adversaries and found them to be hypocrites, and is about to wage his own personal war on those who judged him for his alleged role in the stupid and wrong "Deflategate" saga.

For his part Belichick is on record with saying that stomping his opponents like so many grapes to atone for "Deflategate", leaving a slimy trail of destruction in his wake isn't important to him - but he lies. The character of players under his charge and the character of his boss has been dragged through the filthy money trench of both the NFL and the national media, and where his loyalties lie with his own people, embarrassing his opponents on a national stage is going to be part of his game plan.

Then again, when has it ever been good enough to Belichick to simply win? Oh sure, his teams may pull out a nail-biter or two each season, and he'll tell everyone that he's happy to win - and to a certain extent, maybe he actually believes that - but in the same breath he will explain that the team "has a lot of work to do."

Translation: "I'm pissed that we didn't beat this team by three touchdowns."

And it doesn't matter who they are playing, Belichick expects his teams to play flawlessly and will never be happy unless they do - which means he's never happy. But just the fact that they are capable of blowing out teams on a week-to-week basis means that Bill can deny he wants to run up scores of the other teams, but as long as he's got his players on the field, he wants them to advance the ball and score.

Forget sportsmanship. Forget about this offense taking their foot off the gas after gaining a comfortable lead. Forget everything you know about the etiquette of modern football, because this New England Patriots offense has loaded up to look more like a meticulous old-school attack that can morph into whatever decade they need to be in to dominate their opponent.

No? Well, when one considers that New England has the capability in their concept-driven playbook to accommodate regular two-back sets, regular two tight end sets, power rushing formations with four tight ends and a running back, or spread teams five wide - and all on the fly - this may be the toughest offense for a defensive coordinator to game plan for.

It may not have looked like it in preseason, what with the plethora of injuries and Belichick exercising caution in easing the afflicted back into the mix as they sufficiently heal, but that's the preseason. To the core veterans, the games mean nothing except for to regain whatever chemistry they had with one another during the offseason - but this year, more than most, there are significant changes within the infrastructure of the offense that can't be simulated in practice.

For instance, with the departure of Shane Vereen, one of the focuses has been an attempt to find a suitable replacement for the former passing back, the only issue being that there are too many excellent candidates as James White and Dion Lewis have impressed in splitting snaps while former Saint Travaris Cadet is working closer to a return and getting his shot.

All three made the 53 man roster, and combined with the excellent mixture of youth and experience along the offensive line and heft and dominating presence at tight end, the Patriots are going to look markedly different in their offensive philosophy but just as explosive as in 2014 - perhaps even more so.

Because while it is true that the receiver corps has been thinned by Brandon LaFell being placed on the PUP list, it is also true that his loss will be offset somewhat with the acquisition of former Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler - and while it is a fact that the Patriots lost 50 receptions per season when Vereen chased the money all the way to New York, it is equally factual that New England replaced his production two-fold with White and Lewis...

...perhaps tripled his production by retaining former New Orleans Saints' passing back Travaris Cadet, who at 6' 1" and 210 pounds is purely a pass catcher, who the Patriots will most likely use on the outside in spread formations. Cadet is not fast, he ran a 4.67 at his pro day in college, but he is shifty, has outstanding hands and delivers the hit before the defensive back can.

For sure, this Patriots' backfield is a huge departure from recent teams whose stables included a majority of power backs, with one spot allocated for a multi-tool third down back, but with Belichick cutting one-dimensional power back Jonas Gray on Saturday and keeping just one other true big back in 6' 0", 250 pound LeGarrette Blount, the philosophy on offense seems to have taken a complete 180.

Oh, they are still an intermediate dink-and-dunk entity, but how they go about their business is what has changed. With just four receivers on the roster (sans Cadet, who offers nothing in the running game) and with New England employing four tight ends on the roster (as opposed to the three that they have traditional kept), there are 13 players with pass catching prowess occupying spots on the depth chart - meaning that Belichick has dozens of different personnel groups he can employ.

It is important to keep in mind that the tight end position is the heartbeat of the offense - and not just any tight end, as young Rob Gronkowski is indisputably the most dangerous of the species, and is among the elite pass catchers in the league.

Time was that Gronkowski teamed with "move" tight end Aaron Hernandez to form the most prolific set of bookends in the history of the league, but that was short-lived as Hernandez went to jail and Gronkowski entered a dark period in his young life where he was forced to endure multiple surgeries that caused him to miss 15 games between 2012 and 2013, years that New England was eliminated in the AFC Championship game.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that in the seasons that Gronkowski made it through a full schedule, the Patriots went to the Super Bowl both times, winning the world title last season but losing the 2011 edition, when Gronkowski was hobbled by a severe ankle injury that required offseason surgery.

The Patriots never replaced Hernandez, instead relying on a rag tag group of pass catchers that included a handful of rookies and castoffs being mentored by veterans that no one else wanted, a power running game that was only applicable in lousy weather - and Gronkowski. Of course the entire thing was managed by quarterback Tom Brady, who has lead the team to four consecutive conference championship games by using these limited weapons to their full potential...

...last season being the best pass catching lineup they've fielded in a half dozen years. But this offseason, Belichick moved aggressively on Buffalo tight end Scott Chandler, a "move" tight end that just happens to stand 6' 7" with the wingspan of a condor and hands like a no pest strip.

The receiving corps took a hit when Brandon Lafell underwent offseason surgery on his left foot that has been slow to heal, mandating that the Patriots were better off stashing him away on the PUP list until week 6, leaving garden gnomes Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola as the top options among the wide outs, with enigmatic speedster Aaron Dobson looking for his game and undrafted rookie Chris Harper rounding out a numerically deficient corps.

At least it seems deficient until one stops to realize that Gronkowski is the true number one in this offense, with Edelman, Amendola, Chandler, Dobson and Harper mixed and matched to create personnel matchups as Belichick sees fit - and then when you add the talent coming out of the backfield, well, you get the picture.

But one area in which fans have expressed concern, and rightfully so, is with the state of the offensive line, which may have as many as two rookies starting on the interior, and their regular center's availability for early season games seems to be in serious jeopardy.

Center Bryan Stork has been absent from practice since early in camp, with rookie pivot David Andrews gaining most of the reps in his stead - and when flanked by fellow rookies Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson at the guard positions, the results were predictable - but all three showed major improvement over the course of the preseason, gaining most of the snaps as veteran guards Ryan Wendell and Josh Kline were on the mend...

...but both are now healthy and ready to assume starting roles if need be - but at least one of them will probably assume the pivot in Stork's absence - though Stork insists that he will be ready for the season - leaving at least one rookie starting at guard, probably Jackson on the right.

At the very worst, if the veterans play initially, the Patriots will have basically the same lineup that they used in last season's title run (sans retired Dan Connolly), and the rookies can be worked in slowly, as both Mason and Jackson could use some technique work in pass protection.

And again, what we all saw in the preseason is not necessarily a precursor to what we can expect to see in the regular season. For one, the Patriots had just one of their experienced pass catchers - Danny Amendola - available for the passing game, which meant that every opponent loaded up the box and dared Patriots quarterbacks to beat them through the air. The result was an offensive line that was overwhelmed in sheer numbers...

...but with Gronkowski, Edelman and Chandler joining Amendola in the pattern, teams in the regular season are not going to be able to stack the box and, as a result, the offensive line will appear to be more stable - because they will be.

The best thing about the way Belichick has built his offense is that with three passing backs in the mix, it adds another layer to the playbook - the heavy layer that promotes two back sets with any of the running backs capable of taking the ball right up the gut or wheeling out of the backfield and into the pattern. Bringing Chandler into the mix was key as well, as he is essentially a very tall wide receiver.

Of course, LaFell's surgery was not a primary reason for signing Chandler away from Buffalo as much as an opportunity to reinvent the two tight end sets, but foresight on Belichick's part leaves him with options until LaFell returns after week 6.

In the end, the New England offense appears to be a literal juggernaut, the concept-driven scheme having multiple layers added to it by the switch in philosophy - meaning that if the opposition thought the Patriots' offense was difficult to defend before, the added unpredictability that the passing backs and two tight end attack affords them is going to make Brady and company that much tougher to defend.

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