Saturday, September 19, 2015

Trifecta Of Backs, Twin Towers At Tight End The Keys For Patriots Offense On Sunday

"We're not going to ask one guy to cover him. Yeah, he'd have to look like King Kong." - Rex Ryan

Seems as if Rex Ryan has some sort of preternatural occupation with New England Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski. And why not? Gronkowski is the irresistible force that no one has been able to produce an immovable object to combat - and since the two sides of the omnipotence paradox can not exist together, the best anyone can do is just try to contain him.

But to do that means a combined effort from multiple defenders, as Ryan so astutely observed, though it stands to figure that King Kong has prior obligations and probably isn't available.

The polar opposite of being a polarizing figure, perhaps there is a sitcom in Gronkowski's future after football, something as unoriginal as Everybody Loves Gronk, because you just can't help but like the guy. He's fun-loving and with the world at his fingertips on his days off, but when he's on duty and the lights are on, he's as old school as you could want.

In fact, Gronkowski's talent and mindset transcends time, as he would have been a formidable opponent and the best tight end in the game regardless of era, because he can play the game any way you want - as in addition to his obvious receiving and route running skills, he is perhaps one of the better blocking tight ends in the game as well, particularly when pulling from the outside into the interior of the line, delivering a devastating wham block.

Maybe two or three tight ends in history could be mentioned in the same neighborhood as Gronkowski as far as all-around talent possessing all of the physical tools - but when one hears a coach talk that way about an opponent, it goes far beyond respect for the talent of an athlete, because what Gronkowski possesses is something that can't be coached... excitement of playing the game that is irresistible to friend and foe alike that, combined with top shelf natural ability and Herculean size and strength, makes him the best tight end in the game with a chance to become the greatest of all time, given health and maintaining his current production.

And it truly doesn't hurt to have perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time tossing him the rock.

So it's no wonder why Ryan would make statements bordering on the absurd in recognizing the problems inherent with game planning for two of the best players in the NFL this coming Sunday who is part of a supporting cast that fits what the Patriots do offensively like a glove.

When one looks at the Patriots' depth chart at the so-called "skill positions", it becomes apparent and obvious that there are no weaknesses, at least not any that would make enough of a difference to game plan for, what with Julian Edelman leading a group of dynamic playmakers as one of the toughest covers in the league, and a backfield consisting of a Sherman tank in LeGarrette Blount and a couple of passing backs with video game-like moves in the open field.

That leaves only the offensive line for Ryan and his Buffalo Bills' defense to attack with what may be the best defensive line in the league anchoring one of the best defenses in the game - and attack it they will, but at what cost?

The Bills are built to pressure the quarterback and, one would think with such large bodies up front, to stop the run as well -  but the front seven were merely middle of the pack in run defense last season while giving up 4.1 yards per carry to opposing runners, and picked up right where they left off against the Indianapolis Colts in last weekend's season opener, with essentially the same personnel as they fielded in 2014.

That could prove to be an issue for Rex Ryan's defense as the Colts' dismal ground game is no match for the Patriots' dynamic attack, with Blount and free agent newcomer Dion Lewis providing New England with a potentially lethal thunder-and-lightning approach to the ground attack.

Their running styles couldn't be more different, as the 250 pound Blount trudges through gaps like syrup on waffles, tacklers bouncing off of him like he was made of flubber, while Lewis slices through openings with an explosive first step, then makes people miss on the second level with a variety of ankle-breaking moves.

James White has elusiveness as well, as does former New Orleans Saint Travaris Cadet, who could see his first action of the season on Sunday, though neither of these players contribute to the running game to the extent that they warrant special attention - that comes when they are in the pattern, however, as both are excellent receivers...

...In fact, Cadet shouldn't even be considered a running back, as he was actually a wide receiver in college and will often line up split wide or in the slot, which may be the reason why New England has kept just four receivers on their roster while waiting for Brandon Lafell to come off the PUP list. Cadet is a taller back at 6' 1" and makes an enticing target underneath the zone and as a safety valve.

Another reason that the Patriots have kept just four receivers is because of Gronkowski, who is the number one pass catching option on the offense, and this season is teamed with former Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler, giving New England a set of towering bookends, the likes of which the NFL has never seen - and with which the Patriots abused the Pittsburgh Steelers pass defenders in their season opener.

The New England offense is no joke. Even with Lafell out for a few more weeks, there are still too many weapons able to line up in too many different spots to properly account for everyone logistically, particularly given that Gronkowski demands double teams, which will take a linebacker and a safety out of each play.

So how does Buffalo combat such a volatile lineup? Simply, they have to get to Brady before he has a chance to fire the ball off to one of his weapons - and with three of their linemen posting double-digit sack totals last season, they are equipped to do just that.

Especially considering that New England's offensive line is a work in progress on the interior where their starting center is a rookie playing in just his second NFL game, flanked by a guard rotation that features two similarly inexperienced rookies along with third-year utility man Josh Kline, which to the Buffalo rushers has to look like what fresh meat does to a shark.

The Bills pass rush was lead by defensive end Mario Williams, who posted an impressive 14.5 sacks in 2014, with fellow defensive end Jerry Hughes and massive defensive tackle Marcell Dareus chipping in with ten apiece - and combined with run-plugging defensive tackle Kyle Williams notching 5.5 sacks and his the backups notching seven between them, the Bills' defensive linemen accounted for 47 of the Bills' 54 sacks on the season.

That's a crazy 87% of the pass rushing production that came from just their defensive line, with the remainder split up between a couple of linebackers and defensive backs - but under Rex Ryan, those numbers are likely to increase, as Ryan enjoys sending pressure from the second level.

Buffalo may be engaged in too many underneath routes to be concerned with sending extra men after Brady, however, as Gronkowski, Chandler and the trifecta of passing backs present a formidable challenge to the linebackers and safeties. All have the ability to break off routes and get big if they see the pocket collapsing, a key component to Brady's unmatched ability to make defenses pay for sending a linebacker or a safety.

So assuming that Buffalo plays defense straight up, their best chance of containing Gronkowski - or at least holding the damage he causes to a minimum - is to have strong side linebacker Manny Lawson as part of the coverage team.

At 6' 5" and 240 pounds, there may not be a better matchup on Gronkowski or on the Patriots' offense as a whole than Lawson, who brings sub 4.5 speed into the mix, meaning that he has the size-speed ration to hang with Gronkowski in the pattern and to be effective in bringing him down after the catch - as indicated by the 22 passes defended and three interceptions on his career resume.

Weak side edge setter Nigel Bradham could see some time on Gronkowski or on Chandler as well, which takes care of the tight ends, but doesn't begin to consider what Belichick might have up his cut-off sleeves when it comes to the backs and receivers - for certain, if Cadet is healthy he will be deployed out wide in spread formations, while the other backs work best from the pro set. from where they can curl into the pattern if not picking up the blitz.

It's going to be interesting to see how Ryan deploys his corners when the Patriots go 22 personnel and there is only one wide receiver on the field.  Bills' fourth-year corner Stephon Gilmore told reporters this week that he wants a shot at Gronkowski, and it is conceivable that he would be in a rotation to help out on the man-child, leaving rookie corner Ronald Darby on whatever receiver Belichick decides to trot out onto the field...

...which is more than likely going to be Edelman. Regardless, however the game plan evolves, Ryan will likely bring his defensive backs right up on the line in press man in an attempt to prevent both the quick out and the jailbreak screen and force Brady to his second or third read in hopes that by the time he sizes up his second or third read, the pass rush will be in his face.

This opens up a potential can of worms for Ryan, though, as bringing his secondary up opens the seam and slant routes to Gronkowski and Chandler and, as always, makes the defense as a whole susceptible the trap draw. The tight ends and backs should see a healthy dose of safeties Bacarri Rambo and Aaron Williams, with either Corey Graham or Duke Williams holding down the blue line.

That said, Belichick's best option lies with running the ball with success early. Run the ball straight into the heart of Buffalo's run defense. Fundamentally a sound tactic as the more a team runs the ball, the more the defense has to account for defending the entire field. Running the ball slows down the pass rush and occupies the linebackers just long enough to make the blitz a 50/50 proposition.

Will that be enough to dictate terms to Ryan? Doubtful, as when he was with the New York Jets he pressured quarterbacks with extra rushers regardless of circumstances, and his teams have always seemed to give the Patriots as tough a game as they'll find anywhere - and now that he has a better overall defense than he had in New York, the sky is the limit.

Just don't look for King Kong to be lining up with his defense, though Ryan would probably be able to find a way to turn the giant ape into pretty decent defender...

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