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.

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