Monday, October 26, 2015

Patriots Take Control Late, Ground Jets In Street Fight

Patriots' receiver Danny Amendola scores the go ahead touchdown against the New York Jets

What do you get when you pit the number one offense in the National Football League against the top-rated defense?

On Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, you got the two best teams in the American Football Conference slugging it out in an old fashioned street fight, the New England Patriots proving once again that they have too many weapons to keep them down for a full sixty minutes, and the New York Jets serving notice that they aren't backing down to anyone.

The New York Jets? One of the two best teams in the AFC?

It's the truth. Name another team in the conference that is head and shoulders above them. Denver? The Jets' defense would absolutely pulverize Peyton Manning, and it's a sorry state of affairs for the Broncos when their franchise quarterback would get outplayed by a career journeyman like Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The Colts? They've already picked off Andrew Luck three times and beat his Colts at Indianapolis. The Bengals have a good team but their signature win of the season was beating the obviously overrated Seahawks in overtime at Cincinnati, with their other five victims have a combined record of 11-22 - and with their defense giving up an obscene 4.9 yards per rush, the Jets would run the ball right down their throats.

So, yeah. Why not? Or to take a phrase from Tedy Bruschi usually reserved for the Patriots, "If not them, then who?"

The Patriots dodged a bullet on Sunday afternoon, one that could have hit home had Jets' wide receiver Brandon Marshall not channelled his inner-Wes Welker and dropped a potential dagger at the most crucial of moments, had running back Chris Ivory not tweaked a hammy on the first play of the game, and had coach Todd Bowles bothered to look at the clock every now and then.

Because the New York Jets' offense was having its way with the New England Patriots' defense as it was, and if the hard-charging Ivory been at full gallop, had Marshall been able to squeeze a catchable low and outside fast ball from Fitzpatrick in the end zone, and had Bowles had the presence of mind to use his time outs to save the 45 seconds that needlessly ticked off the clock after the two minute warning, Patriots' fans might have been lamenting a loss today...

On the flip side, had the Patriots receivers not dropped a combined eleven passes, none of that other stuff would have mattered. But none of those things happened.

Instead, trailing by four points with eleven minutes remaining in the game, and facing a third and seventeen from their own 27 yard line, the Patriots looked to be the latest victim of the stingy Jets' defense that had not allowed a 200 yard passer in their last three contests and had not allowed more than 231 yards in total offense in the same span...

...but quarterback Tom Brady reared back and fired a rocket at receiver Julian Edelman for a first down, in the same instant finally igniting the Patriots' boiler - working through a series of dropped balls that doomed several earlier possessions as New England pulled away from the game Jets when it counted for a 30-23 victory in Foxborough.

Brady kept his cool as one ball after another hit the field turf at Gillette Stadium - six of the eleven drops coming via the rusty mitts of wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who had just been activated from the PUP list and was seeing his first action since February - with the rest split between stalwarts Julian Edelman, tight end Rob Gronkowski and passing back James White.

But while those three took turns playing hot potato with Brady's offerings, wide receiver Danny Amendola held the fort with clutch catch after clutch catch.

Amendola's eight catch, 86 yard effort came on the heels of his seven catch 105 yard gem in Indianapolis last Sunday night, the second consecutive week that the oft-maligned receiver has come through in the clutch to help jump start the Patriots' offense - this time breaking out his high-wire act to haul down a couple of high throws, and displaying his usual toughness in gathering in crossers over the middle.

So imagine what Brady's stat line - not to mention the final score - would have looked like without the drops, as Brady completed 34 of 54 passes on the day for 355 yards and two fourth quarter touchdowns as it was, far and away the best numbers put up on the Jets' defense this season, dropping New York from the top spot in pass defense to fourth in the space of ten minutes and change.

In fact, Brady's performance equaled the passing yardage total that the Jets had surrendered in the past two games combined, and was just 100 yards short of matching the combined total from New Yorks' last three games - a testament both to the miserly oppression of the Jets' defense and to Brady's brilliance.

What makes these numbers even more amazing is that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels completely abandoned the running game, which allowed the Jets' pass rushers to pin their ears back and come after Brady, but the combination of Brady's new-found elusiveness and the solid pass protection from his patchwork offensive line kept the future first-ballot hall of fame quarterback upright most of the game.

"He suckered us," former Patriot and now New York Jets' cornerback Darrelle Revis said after the game. Then without elaborating, "We fought hard in the third quarter, but the big play was the third and seventeen. That changed the momentum, and then they made more plays than we did."

The Patriots never really had the momentum before that instant, even though holding a three-point advantage a halftime, courtesy of two Stephen Gostkowski field goals and a Brady one yard dive that countered the Jets' field goal and a Jeremy Kerley scoring reception - and not even after Gostkowski made it a six point lead just into the second half, as a short scoring toss from Fitzpatrick to Ivory wiped out that tenuous lead, then Jets's kicker Nick Folk made it a four point game.

It was then that the Patriots went to the four minute offense, making a concerted effort not only to score, but to do so while chewing up clock - or, in fact, doing exactly to the Jets defense as their offense had been doing to the Patriots' defense all game long.

After Edelman had miraculously converted the third and seventeen, Brady turned to Rob Gronkowski, who caught three consecutive passes, the second of which a classic Gronk moment, catching a short out to the left flat then dragging Jets' safety Marcus Gilchrist for the final 10 of his 23 yard reception, setting up Amendola's twisting touchdown at the goal line three plays later to give the Patriots a three point lead....

...then riding Amendola down the field on their ensuing possession, including the aforementioned circus move that gave New England a first down in Jets' territory, his three catches on that final drive setting up Gronkowski, who took a pass from Brady at the then and rumbled in untouched for the eventual dagger.

Things were not quite settled yet, however, and after the Jets got to within seven on another Folk field goal, Folk executed a perfect onside kick that slipped through the legs of linebacker Jamie Collins and was recovered by Marshall, giving the Jets a first down at midfield, but with just 14 seconds left because of poor time management by the Jets, who should have been calling timeouts to preserve the clock on New Englands' last drive.

In the end, the Jets did manage to hold New England to their lowest total yardage mark of the season, as well as their lowest number of first downs and rushing yards, though the Patriots essentially did that to themselves by calling only five rushing plays the entire game - while the defense actually held the Jets' offense to their lowest total yardage output in the last three weeks while forcing them into four three-and-outs.

Of course, it didn't seem that way throughout the first three quarters as the Patriots' defense struggled to get off the field on third down - and while Fitzpatrick and the Jets' offense did convert eight of fourteen third down opportunities, none of those came in the critical fourth quarter as the defense stiffened and allowed just two field goals.

With the win, undefeated New England created a wide gap in the AFC East division race, being now two games up on the Jets plus owning the early tie-breaker in the home-and-home series gives the Patriots the equivalent of a three- game bulge before the team even reach the halfway mark of the season.

That comes as New England finishes up their current three-game homestand, where they have the opportunity to raise their record to 8-0 should they be able to handle first the Dolphins and then the Redskins in the next two weeks, both at Gillette - but things could have looked much different had the Patriots not found their stride on both sides of the ball late against the Jets.

It wasn't perfect by any means, and you can thank Bowles and the Jets for some of that, but like Revis said, the Patriots made a few more plays than New York did - something that they have done in crunch time so many times that everyone knows what's coming, and on Sunday the Jets knew it was coming, but like so many Patriots' foes before them, they were powerless to do anything about it.

The New York Jets one of the two best teams in the conference? You bet, but they are still a ways from being the best.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Patriots' Offense Unfamiliar With Familiar Foe; Bowles Brings New Life To Jets' Defense

This Sunday, Bill Belichick's reputation is on the line.

Forget about Spygate, Deflategate or any other act of malfeasance that may or may not have the stupid and wrong suffix "Gate" attached to it, because Belichick's legacy is attached to what happens on the field, and this Sunday when his New England Patriots host their hated rival New York Jets, they do so with an offensive line in tatters.

Two weeks ago, left tackle Nate Solder was lost for the season - bummer, but there was swing tackle Marcus Cannon jumping into the fray and actually doing a better job than the incumbent in keeping Cowboys' Greg Hardy out of quarterback Tom Brady's face. A series of roster moves brought second year drive tackle Cam Fleming to the active roster from the practice squad...
Gronkowski (87) and Edelman are tough covers for the Jets

...which was a prudent move because Cannon went down with a toe injury early in the game against the Colts last Sunday night.  But since Fleming doesn't have the requisite lateral agility required of a left tackle, who will almost be facing the opposition's best pass rusher, the Stanford grad was inserted at right tackle, displacing Sebastian Vollmer, who took over for Cannon.

It was hoped that Cannon would get over his toe thing and return to the field this week, but it hasn't happened and Cannon has been downgraded on the injury report to "out", meaning that the Patriots are fresh out of tackles - and if either Vollmer or Fleming go down, it probably means that tight end Michael Williams is next man up - not the kind of news Patriots' fans ever want to hear,

but that is especially concerning given that the Jets feature an aggressive and explosive pass rush that is always hell bent on getting to the quarterback.

And what makes matters worse, the Patriots interior line was already working with three rookies, with center David Andrews flanked by a rotation of rookies Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson and third-year reserve Josh Kline, with both Mason and Kline questionable for the game this Sunday with a knee and a shoulder, respectively.

So, worst case, the Patriots face a top rated Jets' defense with Vollmer and Fleming at the tackles and with Jackson at right guard and Andrews at the pivot and, if neither Mason or Kline are able to go, greybeard Ryan Wendell at left guard.

There is no sugar coating the dire straights that the offensive line is trying to navigate, not with the likes of Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson staring down Brady from across the line of scrimmage like a pack of crows getting ready to pounce on road kill - except, well it might be nothing at all, but the Jets are tied for 30th in the league in sacks.

The Jets are on pace for a 25 sack season, a far cry from the Rex Ryan coached defenses of yesterday, where sack totals and the 40's were commonplace - but this is Jets' team with a different attitude with new head coach Todd Bowles, a defense that concentrates on stopping the run, keeping quarterbacks contained, and forcing turnovers.

The results speak for themselves, as the Jets boast a 4-1 record and lead the league in total defense.

But that doesn't begin to tell of how dominant the Jets' defense has really been. For instance, the most passing yardage allowed in a game was the 250 they grudgingly surrendered to Andrew Luck four weeks ago, and they haven't allowed a 200 yard passer in the three games since, and haven't allowed more than 231 yards in total offense in the same span.

Preposterous numbers to be sure, but no more so than the fact that they are forcing turnovers at a clip of three per game and have yet to allow an opposing offense to gain more than 18 first downs in a single game.

A lot of people will point to their competition as being the reason for such ridiculous numbers, as the Browns, Colts, Dolphins and Redskins have fallen to New York - teams that a good football team should beat, but teams that over the past three years, the Jets have not beaten. So the question looms: Why now?

A lot of it has to do with Bowles, whose personality belies his aggressive tactics, ensuring that his teams play under control, with discipline and with violent intent, and apparently has snuffed out Ryan's policy of providing opponents with bulletin board material, as the formerly loquacious defenders have resisted the urge to spout off about the Patriots, preferring to let the New York tabloids beg for table scraps.

And never will Bowles' policies and personality be more evident than when free agent safety Marcus Gilchrist told the blood suckers in the New York media that the Jets would prepare for Brady the same as they did last week for the Redskins' Kirk Cousins - of course, the media turned that into its own brand of bulletin board material, but a closer examination of the context meant that the Jets prepare for everyone the same way.

"We can't allow one game to be bigger than another." Gilchrist elaborated. "Do we realize the type of player that we're playing against? Yes we do, but you don't change. We've got to be 1-0 this week regardless of who it is - Brady - regardless of who we're playing."

In the defense of the New York media, they are used to Ryan's pompous stylings and his players' braggart sound bites - but when taken in context and with the entire interview being transcribed not just from Gilchrist, but also from the verbose Richardson (whom the media quoted as guaranteeing a Jets' win over the Patriots, which is far from what he actually said), it shows a manner of respect for the opponent that Bowles brings to the job.

The players do indeed know what kind of defense they bring into this game, but they also realize that they are facing the top-rated offense in the league - a New England offense that reinvents itself each week in order to take advantage of a defenses weaknesses and luring them into a false sense of security...

...and that weakness - if there really is one in a top-ranked defense - is on the second level, where Bowles 3-4 linebackers are merely average against the pass.

Fourth year weakside linebacker Quinton Coples and aged strongsider Calvin Pace flank run-stopping interior backers Demario Davis and David Harris to form a corps that will keep a quarterback contained by setting the edge and by limiting the running game, but have a difficult time keeping up with running backs and tight ends in the pattern, which gives the Patriots a huge advantage.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski and passing back Dion Lewis are two of the best in the game at their positions and, of course, have the best quarterback in the NFL tossing them the rock, which means that if the Jets want to eliminate that advantage, they are going to have to provide help to the underneath coverage, or anything else they do on defense won't make any difference.

Gronkowski is a game changer, and Lewis is ascending to that status in just his sixth game for New England. Neither can be covered one-on-one consistently, and with the same being true for wide receiver Julian Edelman, it presents New York with a damned if you do, damned if you don't quandary.

To get consistent pressure on Brady, the Jets will have to send a linebacker in the rush package, which is usually Davis on "A" gap blitzes, leaving Coples and Pace to deal with Lewis and Gronkowski - and they will need help, especially with Gronkowski, that help most likely coming in the form of Gilchrist, who has a team-leading five passes defended to go along with two interceptions, or from dime corner Marcus Williams, who sports a line of 4 and 2 in a part-time role.

Of course, the Jets could just assign all-world corner Darrelle Revis to Gronkowski and take their chances with Brady's other weapons, but this matchup promises to be one that evolves as the game progresses.

Bowles, however, is a fan of deception among his pass defenders and much of his success comes from confusing the opposing quarterback with rush packages and exotic coverages, so the most likely scenario is that he will use a combination of all of the above to try and keep the Patriots from exposing their underneath coverages consistently.

Whatever the case, the Patriots have skill players that can take advantage of anything the Jets throw at them in Edelman, fellow garden gnome Danny Amendola and power back LaGarrette Blount - but Belichick has two wild cards that could make all the difference on Sunday afternoon.

Receiver Brandon LaFell is expected to make his 2015 debut against the Jets and provides Brady with a large, downfield possession-like presence. Added to the active roster from the PUP list, LaFell gave Brady a stable target who put up 74 catches for nearly a thousand yards last season, and finishing second to Gronkowski in yards per reception.

But while LaFell is the most obvious wild card threat, the defense also has to be aware of tight end Scott Chandler, who sees an average two passes come his way in each game, but could find himself with a larger role on Sunday. Chandler is a huge target at 6' 7" and could be used as a safety valve at the sticks if the Patriots decide that a 12 Personnel look is more to their liking.

In the 12, Chandler and Gronkowski would be lined up on opposite sides of the line, with either Blount or Lewis in the backfield and Edelman combining with a rotation of LaFell and Amendola posing a formidable passing attack - at least as dangerous as any the Jets have faced all season.

This is the type of game where the Patriots can use their size advantage in the passing game, with Chandler and Lewis the dump off safety valves, the 6' 6" Gronkowski working the seam and with the 6' 3" LaFell a threat on crossers and go patterns, New England can spread out any defense and force them to defend a 20-30 yard box, sideline to sideline...

...making them susceptible to trap draws and wheel routes, two things that butter the Patriots' bread like nothing else.

Of course, that all depends on the offensive line being able to hold its ground against the monstrous defensive line of the Jets - and not just holding its ground, but making holes for Blount to run through as when the Patriots grab a lead, they must be able to run their four-minute offense to wear down the front seven and secure a game that has every indication of being a back alley brawl...

...which is what Ryan's teams always brought, but Bowles does it differently, with an emphasis on discipline in the gaps and staying away from the stupid mistakes and penalties that have doomed this team in past against New England.

If that's the only thing Bowles brought to the Jets, that alone would be enough to make them better, but given the moves to bring Revis and Antonio Cromartie into the secondary and a new-found respect that the organization brings toward all of their opponents, the Jets are indeed a formidable foe.

Which makes Belichick's task even more daunting - and if the Dark Master can piece together a game plan that allows his makeshift offensive line to both protect Brady and open enough holes for Blount and Lewis to be contributors, his team should be able to make enough plays to win.

After all, that is his reputation - one that he earns each and every week, and one that gets stronger with each win, despite mounting injuries.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Not A "Must Win" Against Jets, But As Close As You Can Get This Early In Season

As far as early season football games go, they don't come much bigger than this Sunday's matchup between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots.

The Jets are off to a 4-1 start, just a game behind the undefeated Patriots in the AFC East Division - which is neither here nor there for a week 7 game, but just the fact that it's a divisional game at Foxborough is compelling enough, because holding serve at home is essential to tie breakers for the division title...
Brady will most assuredly be fired up for the Jets

...but what makes it even more important is the fact that the winner of this game will hold the lead in the division.

If the Jets win, they will have an identical record with New England at 5-1, but will own the tie breaker with head-to-head wins, though the Patriots will have a chance to avenge a loss two days after Christmas at MetLife Stadium - but a Patriots' win puts them two games up on New York, plus they will hold the head-to-head tie breaker.

The two teams' remaining schedules are of consideration as well.

After this game, the Patriots' schedule sees them hosting Miami and Washington in consecutive weeks, then going to MetLife to take on the Giants, then home to host Buffalo, followed by a showdown with the Broncos at Denver, hosting the Eagles, at Houston, home for Tennessee then finishing the regular season at the Jets and at Miami...

...while the Jets travel to Oakland, then are home for Jacksonville and Buffalo, then they go to Houston, return home to face Miami, the Giants and the Titans, then go to Dallas with a home game against New England and a trip to Buffalo to finish up their schedule.

Having to go to Denver and making two trips to New York and finishing the season with two consecutive road games makes the Patriots' schedule a bit tougher, as the only real challenge the Jets still face is the prospect of playing at Dallas at a point when the Cowboys should have their offense intact.

So it is conceivable that if the Jets keep playing as they are capable, that the Week 16 matchup with the Patriots on December 27th could be for the division, but a Patriots' win this coming Sunday makes that prospect less likely.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Defense Rises To The Occasion As Patriots Put Down Colts

The New England Patriots defense is reverting back to last season's form.

During the stretch run in what proved to be the Patriots fourth championship season in franchise history, the defense surrendered just 32 points combined in the second half's of their last nine games, which included their last six regular season games and all three playoff games, culminating in head ball coach Bill Belichick hoisting yet another Lombardi Trophy...
Luck is sacked by Chandler Jones (L) and Dominique Easley

...but even more impressive is the fact that in that same stretch, Belichick's defense gave up only 12 fourth quarter points.  That's an average of 3.5 points per second half and a miserly 1.3 points for every fourth quarter - and all of this despite being merely average statistically.

But when the Patriots decided to let shutdown corner Darrelle Revis and his hard-hitting accomplice Brandon Browner leave in free agency, many opined that the Patriots would have a tough time duplicating their phenomenal and historic run to the championship - but after a slow start, the defense is rounding into the same point-stingy unit that helped New England dominate teams when it counts the most.

Again, the Patriots' defense ranks in the middle of the pack statistically but, again, they are starting to find their groove, adjusting to whatever teams are throwing at them, allowing just nine second half points in their last two games, including a closer-than-expected 34-27 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday night.

The Colts dominated time of possession, ran for nearly five-and-a-half yards per rush and quarterback Andrew Luck completed 30 of 50 pass attempts for 312 yards, but gained only 40 of their 409 total yards during a crucial stretch encompassing the first five possessions of the second half in which the Patriots offense scored 14 points to erase a halftime deficit and take control of a tight game.

All of the Colts' points were not on the Patriots' defense, and the points in the fourth quarter came in garbage time with the Patriots in three-deep shell - meaning that Luck and the Colts offense scored only 14 points when it mattered, as New England forced six punts and held on downs twice in 10 drives before mop up time, when the Colts gained 141 of their total yards on the night.

That's important to remember going forward, as is the fact that on their two desperation drives late in the fourth quarter, Luck was 7 of 15 for 113 yards, and also scrambled twice for 28 yards, meaning that when the game was still in question, the Patriots' defense allowed Luck to go 23 of 35 for 191 yards and two touchdowns and the Indianapolis running game 85 yards in 18 carries, for 4.7 yards per attempt...

...not elite stats for the "D" by any stretch of the imagination, but when you have an offense like the Patriots do, the defense is tasked no so much with stopping the opposition cold, but making them work for their yards and to rise up when absolutely needed to force them leave points on the field - and as they are giving up just a hair over 20 points per game while the offense is scoring at a clip of 37, well, mission accomplished.

Brady was far more efficient than his counterpart, completing 23 of 37 in matching Luck yard-for-yard with a matching 312, and in touchdowns with three, the only real miscue coming on his first interception of the season, which was more a matter of favorite target Julian Edelman bobbling a a quick out in the right flat, the ball ending up in the hands of Indianapolis safety Mike Adams, who jogged into the end zone for a 14 yard pick six.

Edelman's targets in the game, as well as his punt returning duties, fell by the wayside after he dislocated his right pinkie on a 12 yard touchdown reception in the first quarter and subsequently dropped three catchable balls, uncharacteristically letting the ball get to his body instead of plucking it out of the air - at which point Danny Amendola took over and put forth an Edelman-like effort.

Amendola led all receivers with seven catches for 105 yards and fielded two punts on the night, while Edelman himself finished with six catches on ten targets for 60 yards and the aforementioned touchdown, while tight end Rob Gronkowski found holes in the Colts' zone for three second half catches for 50 yards and a score...

...running back LeGarrette Blount contributing in the passing game as well with designated passing back Dion Lewis limited by an abdominal injury, catching an 11 yard strike from Brady for his first career receiving touchdown to go along with his 93 rushing yards on just 16 carries, highlighted by one of his patented Colt-killing long touchdown romps.

Like a heavyweight fight, the game started with each team landing heavy blows, the Colts going 89 yards in 13 plays to take the early lead, but New England countered with Edelman's finger-dislocating touchdown reception to knot the game at seven, then a Stephen Gostkowski field goal gave the Patriots their first lead of the night at 10-7 to end the first quarter.

Edelman's faux pas in the flat led directly to Adams' pick six to give the lead back to Indianapolis early in the second frame, but an ensuing onside kick failed, resulting in the Patriots having excellent field position, which they turned into Blount's 38 yard dash for a touchdown, New England regaining the lead in the process.

The Colts responded with a 12 play, 80 yard drive capped off with Luck feigning a scramble from the three yard line to draw Patriots' linebacker Jamie Collins closer to the line of scrimmage and abandoning his middle zone, then finding T.Y. Hilton in the vacated space to take the lead back at 21-17.

As is usually the case, the Patriots won the coin toss and elected to defer until the second half, a tactic that has paid huge dividends thus far in the season. In all, the Patriots have won the coin toss in every game except against the Cowboys, and are now five-for-five in doubling down - that is scoring just before the half and then scoring again with the first possession of the third quarter - and for the first time this season, doubling down got them out of a hole.

The Patriots responded to the Hilton touchdown with a Gostkowski field goal to cut the Indianapolis lead to one going into the room, then took the second half kickoff and drove 80 yards in seven plays, Gronkowski taking it the final 25 yards, taking a crosser and outrunning the zone coverage to give New England the lead for good.

Both offenses hit the skids after that point, with only Blount's touchdown reception breaking a cycle of punt-after-punt.

After the Colts gave the Patriots a short field to work with - the result of an ill-advised fake punt attempt turned into a epic fail - Brady needed only six plays to cash in. Flushed from the pocket and scrambling to his right, he found Blount, who released into the pattern at the same time Brady broke the pocket, on the two yard line and the 250 pound power back tumbled into the end zone for the dagger.

The Colts had the ball twice more, but the Patriots held on downs from the New England 28 to stymie one drive, but then gave up a touchdown pass from Luck to Griff Whalen with a minute and a half remaining in the game, but Collins leaped over the offensive linemen to block Pat McAfee's extra point attempt, then Gronkowski corralled McAfee's onside kick to settle the matter.

The defense will need to bring a similar effort next Sunday, when New England hosts the hated New York Jets, who are just a game back of the Patriots at 4-1, the winner taking control of the AFC East. The Jets are heavily slanted towards defense, as their top ranking in total defense will attest, but are also in the top 10 in total offense...

...each unit attaining those lofty rankings by running the ball with authority on offense and clogging the running lanes on defense - most definitely a different brand of football than what the Patriots have seen thus far in 2015, and perhaps their sternest test as well.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Grudge Match, Part 2 - Balance The Watchword For Patriots Offense Against Colts

A full quarter of the New England Patriots season has come and gone, and the team is undefeated.

If this were any other team in any other city, the fans would be ecstatic and riding the wave for as long as it lasts - albeit in the back of their minds knowing that the season could turn at any moment and they would be back at square one - but for Patriots' fans, this is old hat.

The difference between the Patriots and the other teams in the NFL? The Patriots start at square one for each and every game. Certainly, they have a playbook that gives them a point from which to proceed and from where they create a game specific manifesto based on the strengths and weaknesses of their opposition.

In reality, all teams do this to one extent or another, but there are precious few teams that can play it any way you want, evolving into whatever they need to be to take full advantage of their foe. Your defense going to try and take away our running game? Well then here's quarterback Tom Brady flinging the ball all over the place, his favorite receiver being the open one...

...and if you try to take away the passing game, then head ball coach Bill Belichick has what has been classified as the most efficient running game in the league for your consideration, highlighted by the syrup-on-waffles style of power running from 250 pound "lead" back LeGarrette Blount, complimented by the ankle-breaking stylings of "passing" back Dion Lewis.

And if you try to contain both the running and passing games, you'll be spread so thin that the Patriots will embarrass you with both, running up the score just to teach you a lesson.

The Indianapolis Colts, on the other hand, have a fan base that expects success as well, thanks to the years of service that former head coach Tony Dungy and former franchise quarterback Peyton Manning put into making the Colts a true contender for the better part of the past decade, earning nine consecutive playoff appearances before Dungy went to television, Manning got a bone stuck in his throat and the entire Colts organization mailed in the 2011 season, vowing to "Suck for Luck".

And suck they did, gaining the first overall draft pick in the 2012 draft, with which they selected current franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, the team improving in playoff status each of Luck's three years in the league: losing in the Wildcard round in 2012, losing in the Divisional round in 2013 and then losing to New England in last season's conference championship game.

The natural evolution would suggest that the Colts' next step would be to lose the Super Bowl, which is probably what most pundits were banking on when they made the Colts a prohibitive favorite to represent the AFC in next February's Super Bowl 50.

And why not? After all, Luck is just coming into his own as an NFL starter and General Manager Ryan Grigson has surrounded him with big name talent, while on the other side of the ball, he gave the Colts a badly needed transfusion with a healthy mixture of veteran guile and rookie exuberance - but Luck turned into an interception machine then separated his shoulder...

...putting the onus for the Colts' success on a defense that, despite the influx of new blood, still has plenty of holes - particularly in the secondary that is giving up nearly 300 yards passing per game, a number that places them in the bottom five in the NFL despite the presence of Vontae Davis and a decent safety combination of Mike Adams and newly acquired Dwight Lowery.

Grigson brought in several players both in free agency and the draft to compete with second corner Greg Toler, who was abominable in coverage last season, but rookie corner D'Juan Smith and undrafted free agent Tevin Mitchell ended up on the IR, leaving Toler the starter opposite Davis by default, which is neither here nor there when it comes to defending the Patriots because the real issue for the Colts is in how New England is built to pressure their linebacking corps.

The Colts' linebackers were awful last season, as the inside 'backers were too small to handle the run and the outside linebackers couldn't handle running backs or tight ends in the pattern, mostly leaving them to the safeties - and it was bad for Indianapolis last season when it was just Gronkowski and Vereen running over them, but it's worse now as Lewis does the Vereen role better than Vereen did, and Gronkowski now has a running mate down the seam in Scott Chandler.

Former Philadelphia standout Trent Cole joins the Colts in his 12th season, but the aging Cole is little more than a situational pass rusher who will rotate in and out on the weak side with greybeard Robert Mathis, who is a shell of his former self after suffering a torn Achilles that sidelined him all of last season, while ninth year strong sider Erik Walden draws combination coverage on tight ends along with the safeties.

Cole and Walden flank interior linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Jerell Freeman, who are mediocre in under zone pass coverages and simply don't have the size to match up in the running game. Former Bronco Nate Irving was brought in to rotate in and keep the duo fresh, but he has been a disappointment to this point.

The defensive line is certainly a work in progress, as the three man front is starting two rookies and an eight year veteran, none of whom were with the team last season. David Parry at nose tackle and defensive end Henry Anderson, teammates at Stanford, were drafted two rounds apart, Anderson in the third and Parry in the fifth as Grigson figured chemistry would win out if he had two guys who had played together for the past four seasons on the same line.

Which makes sense, though the depth behind them offers little, if anything at all, in the way of a rotation to keep the starters fresh. On the weak side, former St. Louis Rams defensive end Kendall Langford is the only veteran presence on the line, which is doing a fair job at stopping the run - giving up a middle-of-the-pack 3.8 yards per carry - but have not been able to generate much pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

In fact, the Colts have registered just six sacks in five games, tied with Houston for 31st in the NFL, three of them via one sack a piece for Langford, Anderson and Parry and three from the second level. Obviously this bodes ill for Indianapolis as the book on stopping Brady calls for the pass rush getting in his face, and even then, it's a crap shoot - just ask the Dallas Cowboys, who collectively hammered Brady with five sacks and half-a-dozen hits, yet still gave up 30 points.

All of these facts added up do not give the Colts much of chance of holding the Patriots below their 37 point per game average. In fact, a quick look at the stats effectively demonstrates what the Colts' defense is up against on Sunday night.

The Patriots offense is ranked first in the NFL in total offense, turnover differential, first downs gained, passing yards, passing touchdowns, interceptions against, scoring percentage, average yards per drive and average points per drive, and are second in scoring average and quarterback hits allowed...

...while the Colts are in the bottom five in the league in total defense and passing yards allowed, while maintaining a middle of the pack standing in rush defense and points allowed - so it goes to figure that the Patriots' mindset going into Sunday night's nationally televised showdown at Lucas Oil Stadium will be more about balance in comparison to recent history.

The two teams have met four times since 2012, with New England running the ball at will against the Colts, with efforts of 115, 234, 246 and 177 yards, each time running straight into the maw of the Colts' interior run defense. But that was with New England employing a veteran interior line known for their grit and determination more than skill level.

Now, of course, the Patriots will be entering this game a vastly different entity, with three rookies starting on the interior - a fact made more daunting by the loss of left tackle Nate Solder to a torn bicep, which causes two worries for New England. The most obvious of which is that Solder does a serviceable job of protecting Brady's blind side, but that has now fallen to an as-yet unnamed player among reserve swing tackle Marcus Cannon, starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and former Detroit Lions swing tackle Michael Williams.

The smart money has Cannon at the spot, with Williams acting as a sixth offensive lineman as an eligible tight end, leaving Vollmer to where he is best suited in the drive blocking scheme, particularly given that Belichick likes to pull rookie left guard Shaq Mason across the formation to the right to seal off the inside linebacker while Vollmer escorts the defensive end around the play.

But there is also the possibility that Vollmer will switch to the left side, as New England has activated second-year tackle Cam Fleming from their practice squad, giving the team another right tackle option.

The running back who has benefited the most from both the Patriots' excellent run blocking line and the Colt's porous run defense has been Blount, who torched Indianapolis for 314 yards and 7 touchdowns in two career meetings, and while it would be foolish to expect the same production this time around from one power back, it would also be prudent to suggest that the Patriots' running game is even more dangerous with the addition of Lewis.

Lewis leads the Patriots in total offense, rushing and opposing ankles broken and is second on the team to receiver Julian Edelman in receptions and receiving yardage. In fact,the Pitt product will likely see more snaps than Blount, simply due to his ability to hurt opposing defenses both in the pattern and up the gut, as he is a surprisingly tough runner between the tackles...

...but that depends on his health, as Lewis is questionable for the game with some sort of abdominal issue, though the fantasy geeks at RotoWorld expect that he will suit up. If he can't go, it changes the dynamic of the entire offense, though sophomore James White would take over for Lewis with an essentially similar skill set, but with very little experience

Blount will see his snaps as well, particularly when the four-minute offense is called for, and the fact that he and Lewis are a terrific one-two, lightning and thunder punch to hammer defenses with.

If, as expected, the Patriots are able to establish a solid running game, the Colts are finished as they will be forced to bring a safety up into the box, leaving just three defensive backs to cover all of the Patriots weapons - a task that is the toughest in the NFL when a defense is at full strength, but is absolutely impossible to stop when a team has to employ a safety in run support.

That said, the watchword for New England's offense in this latest installment is "balance" - for which the Patriots have a different definaition than most other teams in that Belichick feels that there is balance between the running and passing games if either one is effective enough to take the opposition out of their game plan...

...which, given the hole that the Colts are in before the game even starts, means going all in with multiple blitzers against both the run and the pass, clogging the rushing and passing lanes in hopes of getting to Brady and stopping running plays before the have a chance to get started.

Of course if they can't, Edelman, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler and receivers Danny Amendola and Keyshawn Martin will hurt them in ways that haven't even been invented yet.

In the end, the Colts have no other choice. If they lay back and play the pass, Blount and Lewis will rack up serious yardage up the middle, and if they stack the box to stop the run, Brady will easily pick apart their overwhelmed secondary - so bringing everything they have in a desperate attempt to stop both is really the only hope they have...

...with desperation being the key word.

Next up, Part 3: Patriots' defense vs, Colts' offense

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Grudge Match, Part 1 - Patriots Saying All The Right Things (but they lie)...

It wasn't the Colts' players, you know?

I mean, as diluted as the entire episode is now with the passage of time and not truly knowing who was telling the truth and who wasn't, there seems to be some players involved, but none of them were the person who wrote emails to the league that implicated the New England Patriots as ball-deflating cheaters, so why would the Patriots have any extra motivation when taking on the Colts this Sunday?

Because that person is Indianapolis Colts' General Manager Ryan Grigson, who has the distinction of being loathed not only by the Patriots and their fans for helping to ignite the so-call "Deflategate" controversy, but also by the Colts coaching staff and fans for his bonehead drafting decisions and his worn out belief in building a team through free agency.
Grigson (l) and Irsay run the Colts like a Pop Warner league

Grigson doesn't play football, though. He did, back in the mid 90's until a back injury ended what lean career opportunities he had in the CFL, but then quickly found himself on the scouting staff for the St. Louis Rams when they lost to New England in Super Bowl 36, then moved on to Philadelphia as a scout for a team that lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl 39...

...remaining with the Eagles until the Colts offered him their general manager position, where he has overseen his charges getting stomped like so many grapes by the Patriots every year since assuming the reigns, a 59-24 pasting at Foxborough in 2012, a 43-22 playoff jobbing at Gillette in 2013, and twice in 2014...

...once in Indianapolis by a score of 42-20 that proved to be enough losing to New England for Grigson, as he had the NFL dogs hastily checking the air pressure in footballs used by the Patriots against the Colts in last seasons AFC Championship Game, where they still got blown out by an even more embarrassing score of 45-7.

Obviously, Grigson had plenty of fuel to stoke his personal vendetta against the team he just couldn't beat, regardless of talent or venue, so instead of concentrating on building a team that could compete with New England, he chose to focus his energy on a Hitler-esque propaganda campaign to take down his enemy through attrition while maintaining a kid gloves approach with his own team, continuing to try and buy a championship through free agency.

And, whatever.  The Colts franchise is run like a Pop Warner league in which everyone gets to play regardless of talent level, and at the end of the season are awarded with banners for their accomplishments, a wrong-minded participation trophy that even the Indianapolis media finds embarrassing.

All of which makes no never mind to the Patriots themselves, who are freaky with motivation to take on the Colts in Indianapolis this coming Sunday night, and even more motivated to leave the city and the Colts a smoldering ruin in the wake of another impressive victory.

Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, the central figure in the controversy, has repeatedly said that the matter does not give him any extra motivation to take the Colts behind the woodshed, a sentiment echoed by both offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and head ball coach Bill Belichick, the Dark Master back in July saying that seeking retribution against the Colts didn't really interest him.

But they lie.

Even though it was Grigson and his crypt keeper boss who went running to the principal, there is no way that this is not personal for anyone wearing a Patriots' uniform, nor anyone who rocks their gear - human beings are not built like that. They don't just roll over after getting raped, robbed or ransacked and tell their assailant that it's ok and all is forgiven.

Well, maybe the Pope or the Dali Lama would do that, but rare is the person who will truly forgive those who have wronged them.  They may say they forgive them, but an episode like that changes a person's life forever - not just because of the irreparable harm done to their reputation, but because it causes a person to lose a certain amount of trust for his fellow beings.

The Patriots are on the fifth week of their "Scorched Earth Tour", but when considered in the grand scheme of things, anything after pulverizing and otherwise embarrassing the Indianapolis Colts shouldn't be as intense. It's like getting up on Christmas morning and tearing open your presents , then realizing that you have nothing else to look forward to until your birthday rolls around.

But don't expect a huge drop off from these Patriots after they annihilate the Colts, as the Jets. Dolphins and Redskins are out in the back yard cutting their own switches for Brady and the rest to whip them with - and all at Gillette Stadium.

There is also a little matter of the Patriots and their fans not being able to fully enjoy their championship as much as they would have without the albatross of the NFL and Roger Goodell hanging around their necks like a necklace made of dog crap, which means that Belichick and his boys are focused on winning another championship, this one with a full celebration.

So even though the New England Patriots are secretly treating this Colts' week as a hot dog with extra Chinese mustard on it, the team is so motivated to get back to the Super Bowl - not to mention being pumped up for their hated division rival, the New York Jets - that any notion of a let down after playing the Colts on Sunday night is absurd.

That said, just how will the Patriots exact their revenge on the Colts?

Next, Part 2: Patriots' offense vs. Colts' defense....

Monday, October 12, 2015

Lewis, Edelman Juke Patriots Past Cowboys

Greg Hardy got his wish. Kinda.

The New England Patriots' "Scorched Earth" tour resumed on Sunday after a week off, a week that also saw Hardy return to practice following a four-game suspension and the Dallas Cowboys' defensive end wasted little time in adding his name to a long list of people who piss off quarterback Tom Brady...

Which is a bad thing, right?  Most football players when they become angry, their play suffers - especially for a quarterback: the adrenalin races through the body, movements become sudden and exaggerated, with a maddening proclivity for overthrowing the deep ball and putting the ball into the turf two yards in front of the safety valve, the resultant frustration trickling down the entire roster.

But not Tom Brady, and not these New England Patriots.
Brady scores on a one-yard keeper

Hardy talked some smack about Brady earlier in the week, saying he hoped to see him "on his back", which would have been taken as just your run-of-the-mill bulletin board clipping had Hardy not decided to expand his soliloquy to include some creepy comments about his squeeze and her sister...

...and then he and linebacker Rolando McClain, who was also returning from suspension, almost single-handedly blew up the first four Patriots drives, both seeing Brady on his back early and often.

But then Brady scored his first rushing touchdown in two seasons on a one yard sneak, got to his feet and clear of the swarm at the goal line and spiked the ball with much fervor and ill intent, bellowing to the capacity crowd at AT&T Stadium in a language that only fans of the death metal genre would be able to interpret.

It matters not what he was saying, because without hearing a word the crowd knew that Brady and the Patriots had officially survived the Cowboys' best shot, and that there would be precious little for them to cheer about from that point forward. Brady thrives in situations where other quarterbacks melt under the pressure, his movements deliberate and sound, his focus razor sharp, so to anger him is to do so at your own risk.

Brady's dive into the end zone made the score 10-3 with nearly the entire first half eclipsed, then kicker Stephen Gostkowski made the score 13-3 at the half - and by the time running back Dion Lewis made it 20-3 with a video game quality touchdown catch-and-run to start the second half there wasn't one football fan in the building - nor among the millions watching on television - that figured Dallas had any chance of winning this football game.

In all, the Cowboys battered Brady for five sacks and nailed him just about every other time he released the football throughout the first half - Hardy, McClain and two defensive tackles named Crawford (Tyrone and Jack, no relation) making the Patriots good-and-getting-better offensive line look overmatched for much of the first thirty minutes, but the Patriots adjusted at halftime and had their way with the Dallas defense for the rest of the afternoon.

The adjustment?  It was a simple as running the ball.

Fundamentally speaking, there is no better way to keep the opposing pass rush in check than running the ball, so it should come as no surprise that once the Patriots committed to the run to start the second half, a tactic that neutralized the Cowboys' speed advantage on the pass rush, Brady got to enjoy the rest of the game upright.

Taking advantage of the athleticism of left guard Shaq Mason, the Patriots pulled the rookie drive blocker to level the path in front of power back LeGarrette Blount for 62 of his 75 yards on the day while mixing in quick hitters by Lewis to force the Cowboys to play the run, taking pressure off of Brady and opening up the underneath zones...

......the result being Edelman and Gronkowski contributing 4 catches a piece for 120 and 67 yards respectively as part of the Patriots' 220 of their 356 total yards for the game.

Hardy, McClain and both Crawfords initially dominated the Patriots on the wings, resulting in all five sacks of Brady in the first half, forcing punter Ryan Allen into the mix for the first time in three weeks - but the second-year lefty showed no rust from the extended layoff as he pinned the Cowboys inside their own 20 on each of his four kicks.

The New England defense took over from there, forcing three-and-outs on six of the Cowboys' seven possessions, then causing two turnovers and making a goal line stand in the second half to hold Dallas without a touchdown for the only time this season, getting to quarterback Brandon Weeden three times - twice by defensive end Jabaal Sheard, giving him four sacks on the young season - and extending their streak of forcing at least one turnover in all four games.

Brady's touchdown notwithstanding, the first half was a series of horrible beatings, culminating in a 13-3 Patriots halftime lead that seemed more tenuous than it actually was, as the Patriots began working Gronkowski and Edelman into the game plan along with Blount, taking the opening kick of the second half and putting together a gorgeous nine-play, 80 yard drive to build a three score lead, Lewis capping the thing off with his 10 yard catch and run...

...gathering in a short swing pass that he had to reach back with one hand for, turning his shoulders upfield and waiting for safety Barry Church to commit to overrunning the play, cutting hard inside and leaving Church grasping at air then immediately getting small and stopping on a dime to avoid the high heat coming from Jack Crawford who flew right over Lewis. After that it was just a matter of stepping through the Corey White would-be tackle before finding paydirt...

...all set up by a patented Gronkowski rumble down the left sideline after taking in a short Brady offering, running through a hit by cornerback Byron Jones and slapping safety J.J. Wilcox to the turf before being brought down after a 33 yard gain - then Gronkowski abusing Jones again, this time on a crosser for another 23 yards before Lewis performed his magic trick.

Edelman and Brady hooked up on the next Patriots' possession to put the game out of reach, Edelman hauling in a 20 yard go on the left hash, cutting hard to turn around the edge defenders and angling down the seam, outrunning half a dozen Cowboys for a 59 yard touchdown that showcased the speed and elusiveness of the Patriots receiving leader.

Despite the first half difficulties, the 30-6 victory over the Cowboys was as complete a team win as the Patriots have enjoyed this season, courtesy of the Cowboys' game plan, which sought to limit Brady's first two reads on any given play while turning loose Hardy and the rest of the defensive line to menace the sure first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Granted, Dallas was able to achieve thier game plan for the better part of the first half, limiting Edelman and Gronkowski while beating Brady like he stole something, but coming out of the locker room it was evident that the Patriots were intent on working both into the offense as well as adjusting protection along the line.

Both Lewis and tight end Michael Williams took turns helping reserve left tackle Marcus Cannon - in for an injured and ineffective Nate Solder - double up on Hardy and that, along with a turn to the four minute offense and the accompanying power running game, turned the momentum of the game as Brady found his footing and started slicing up the Dallas zone.

Needless to say, the Cowboys' offense stagnated against the ferocity of the Patriots front seven, and it will take a similar defensive effort by the Patriots to remain undefeated next Sunday when New England travels to Indianapolis for a grudge match with the hated Colts.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Cowboys' Lack Of Depth On Offense Spells Doom Against Fresh Patriots' Defense

The Dallas offensive line is considered to be the best in football. Unfortunately, the rest of the offense doesn't follow suit.
In the National Football League, a team wants to have a good balance between style and substance.

Having substance, of course, means being fundamentally sound - which puts a unit in position to be successful, while style is the manner in which a team applies its fundamental base.

Both the New England Patriots and thier opponents this Sunday afternoon, the Dallas Cowboys, have plenty of substance. The Cowboys can boast the best offensive line in the game and one of the best defensive lines that provide them with their fundamental base, while the Patriots substance is in their preparation for their foes on an individual basis, morphing into whatever they need to be to give themselves the advantage over their opponents...
Sheard and Collins plan on meeting in the Dallas backfield many times...

...and while the Patriots gain their style from impressive depth at virtually every position on the field, the Cowboys' lack of depth has cramped their style in the wake of one devastating injury after another, to the point where they are forced to just take what the other team is giving them and hope to break off something proper in the way of the big play.

Advantage, New England.  Impressive advantage.

Before the season began, this week four matchup was one that the fans of both teams had circled on their calendars because, hey, it's America's Team in the Cowboys against the Evil Empire of the Godless Patriots - both favored to win their respective divisions and some brave pundits even choosing the two to meet in Super Bowl 50...

...which may or may not happen, but with all of the injuries the Cowboys are dealing with, by the time they get back their starting quarterback and All Pro receiver Dez Bryant, they may be too far behind in the standings to make up enough ground to even qualify for the playoffs - but then again, they DO play in the NFC East, where the teams beat the living crap out of each other and a mediocre record just north of .500 is usually enough to wear the caps and tshirts.

One of the reasons why the Cowboys were favorites to win the east is due to their explosive offense, which features Bryant, Terrence Williams, Julian Edelman wannabe Cole Beasley and tight end Jason Whitten running patterns and catching passes from veteran quarterback Tony Romo, with a running game that would be ok despite losing All Pro running back DeMarco Murray to rival Philadelphia in the offseason.

Besides, all of this style operated with the best offensive line in the game, a fact that had the Cowboys' brain-trust certain that it didn't matter whether it was Murray or some scrub taking handoffs, because the line would open holes wide enough for Jerry Jones' ego to drive through - and at first glance of the statistics thus far in 2015, they would be right - but, as always, a little digging down through the numbers reveal a much different perspective.

Dallas' running game averages 4.1 yards per carry - but that includes the work of passing back Lance Dunbar, who is now lost for the season after tearing his ACL against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday, leaving the trio of Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Christine Michael to operate as a committee, a conglomerate that is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, good for a bottom-third-of-the-league standing.

The problem being that the Cowboys are having issues running straight up the gut, averaging just 2.2 yards per carry between the tackles where the excellent trio of left guard Ronald Leary, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin set up shop - most of which can be attributed to their opposition loading up the box since Romo and Bryant went down with season altering injuries, but some of the blame has to go on management for letting Murray walk without a suitable replacement.

Not that Murray is all that - he's averaging less than two yards per carry with his new team - but he could exploit the creases created by his interior line in a way that the other three apparently can not - which is a death knell in the absence of the two biggest play makers the Cowboys have.

The injuries have certainly sapped the Cowboys of their style, which for our purposes is defined as flashiness among the skill positions, leaving them in the middle of the pack so far as scoring points and, obviously, in overall record as they have dropped their last two games since Romo's collarbone was snapped like a twig in the week two matchup with Philadelphia.

Curiously, however, it has been the defense that has been the bitch-kitty for the Cowboys, allowing nearly double the number of points to their opponents in the two losses as they did the first two weeks of the season. The offense has continued to produce points at a clip of 24 per game, but the math dictates that when your defense is handing over 33 points a game to the opposition, there's not going to be many crooked numbers in the win column.

Not all of that is the fault of the defenders, however, as Dallas has lost the time of possession battle against their last two opponents and the offense been a pathetic 4 of 18 on third down conversions, their average drive lasting just five plays - meaning that the Dallas defense is on the field far too long, which enables the opposing offense to wear them down with sheer snap numbers.

So what the Cowboys need to do to is to find a way to counter what they've been left with on offense by converting a more reasonable percentage of third downs - which for a team that has been left bare bones in style points, falling back on the substance of fundamentals is going to carry them through most games, given the talent left on the roster.

But, unfortunately, it won't be enough for them to get by New England.

That is, unless they either cause a bunch of turnovers or actually start running the ball up to their enormous potential.

Leary, Travis and Frederick are flanked by one of the better tackle tandems in the league, fragile veteran Doug Free a drive blocking force on the strong side while two-time Pro Bowl selection Tyron Smith protects his quarterback's blind side - who at this point is former Cleveland draft bust Brandon Weeden, with recent addition Matt Cassel right on his heels.

Weeden is primed to be a career backup, and the Cowboys have shaved their playbook all the way down to the bone in bringing the fourth-year player along slowly, but there just isn't much more they can do with his sloth-like athleticism and his penchant for telegraphing his throws, two facts that have to have both the Cowboys' brass re-tinking the position and the Patriots' safeties drooling in anticipation of reading Weedens' eyes.

Cassel has been with the team for three weeks, and given his veteran status and the fact that he's had to learn five different offensive philosophies in his ten NFL seasons, he would seem to be the better option for Dallas against the Patriots, so no one should be surprised if Dallas coach Jason Garrett pulls the plug on Weeden if he struggles coming out of the gate on Sunday.

The running back position is another matter entirely, as Garrett is dealing with a running back by committee approach.  Randle has performed decently as the "lead" back in this offense with a 3.9 yard per carry average, while McFadden and Michael really don't have defined roles in the offense, other than being second and third on the depth chart.

Losing Dunbar could be the straw that breaks the offense's back, as he has been their most dynamic and stylish player as the third-down back and lagging just behind Witten for the teams' receptions leader.  Randle has a decent set of mitts and could see his workload increase across three downs, saving McFadden and Michael as seldom-used change of pace backs.

Shaving down the offense has meant checkdowns and dink-and-dunk passing, which is fine if you're making first downs and chewing up the clock to give your defense a rest, but when Garrett had seen enough of the inept product he kept trotting out onto the field with four minutes left in last Sunday's contest with the Saints, he exposed his remaining receivers as having enough potential to maybe let Weeden incorporate a liitle more of the playbook into his resume.

With their backs to the wall and facing a seven point deficit, Garrett had Weeden air it out, the result being an 8 play, 91 yard touchdown drive in which the besieged signal caller completed passes of 24, 28 and 19 yards to get the Cowboys in scoring position, then hit Williams with a 17 yard strike to tie the game.

Dallas eventually lost when New Orleans scored just seconds into overtime, an 80- yard wheel route by Saints' back C.J. Spiller the difference, but the drive led by Weeden was enough for Garrett to name him as the starter against a Patriots' defense that is rested and focused on continuation of New England's "Scorched Earth Tour", as it were.

During their bye week, the Patriots brought aboard plenty of reinforcements to their so far less-than-stellar run defense, Trading precious draft capital to the Saints for defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who was curiously being phased out of their defense after an up-and-down 2014 season. Hicks wore down at the end of the season, so joining a Patriots team that has enough depth in their front seven to rotate players in and out to keep them fresh without much of a drop off has to be intriguing.

Same with former Green Bay defensive tackle Khyri Thronton, whom the Patriots activated off the practice squad after the Packers cut him after just one redshirt season. Thornton joins fellow Southern Mississippi teammate Jamie Collins in a Patriots' defensive rotation that has been trying to find its gumption in the run defense after being shredded by the Steelers and Bills running games in respective weeks to start the season.

They were much better against Jacksonville in the week before their bye, but it appears that head ball coach Bill Belichick has chalked that up to the ineptness of the Jaguars' offense in bringing aboard two outsiders.  In reality, the New England run defense hasn't been as bad as their numbers indicate, as they have adjusted well during the course of games to what their opponents have run at them, and have been able to make key stops in helping the team start the season 3-0.

How deep are the Patriots in the front seven? How about the fact that they now boast 18 players for seven spots, with each one of them able to contribute in different positions.

That is a powerful toy which will enable the Patriots not only to rotate players in and out to keep them fresh, but also for them to disguise rush packages and to help the Big nickle secondary to hide their coverage assignments underneath. To aid in this task, Belichick sent more draft capital to Chicago for third-year weaksider Jon Bostic, who is an immediate upgrade to anyone the Patriots had the cover backs wheeling out of the backfield.

Despite the Cowboys' lack of depth at receiver and in their backfield, the Patriots will probably still play in their three safety nickle package with the focus being on stopping the run and shutting down Dallas' best weapon in Witten. Gavin Escobar has seen an uptick in his snaps since all of the injuries have occurred and is a lithe receiver in the intermediate game.

Dallas is razor thin in the pass catching department with Bryant and Dunbar gone, so the Patriots secondary will have to only deal with the likes of Williams and Beasley, with Devin Street and Brice Butler thrown in to the mix as possession options - but the fact of the matter is that without Romo and Bryant and even Dunbar, the Cowboys just don't have the weapons to challenge the New England defense.

But suppose the Cowboys did something perverted like going into an up-tempo offense to limit the Patriots' ability to morph from play to play on defense, held the players on the field in their stances until the play clock is almost wound down, then found the ability to run the football with authority?

That's a nice thought for Cowboys' fans, but given that Weeden is their quarterback should give them pause and snap them out of any daydream they have about their offense being anything more than a bottom-third unit until Romo and Bryant find their way back from the hot tub.