Sunday, December 6, 2015

Eagles Present Issues For Injury Strapped Patriots

Statistically, the Philadelphia Eagles have one of the worst defensive units in the National Football League.

Ranked 25th in total defense, they are by far the worst-ranked defense the New England Patriots will have faced this season at 20th against the pass and an abysmal 27th against the rush. Their lone bright spot on paper is that they have given up only four touchdowns to their opponents on the ground, but that turns into a dim smudge when one considers that they have given up a whopping 25 touchdowns through the air, 31st in the league.

Good thing for them , then, that the Patriots' passing attack is coming into Sunday afternoon's showdown with the Eagles a few bullets short of being fully loaded.

Already down two of their most dynamic playmakers in wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back Dion Lewis, the Patriots were also forced to go without receiver Danny Amendola last week against the Broncos due to a bum knee, then lost all world tight end Rob Gronkowski to the same late in the contest.

The rate of attrition that the Patriots pass catchers are experiencing due to the injury bug is staggering. In fact, if one were so inclined to go back and take a look at New England's opening day depth chart, they would find that out of the nine original route runners, only two - tight ends Scott Chandler and Michael Williams - are fully healthy and are a full-go for Sunday's contest.

That's right, none of the wide receivers that were on the original 53-man roster are locks to play against the Eagles, and the tight ends that are still healthy weren't even on the team last year. That leaves Brandon LaFell, who started the season on the PUP list after undergoing offseason foot surgery, as the lone pass catcher of any consequence that has any chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady...and he's only played in five games.

That's a bitter pill for Patriots' fans to swallow, and desperation has caused many to vocally plead with head ball coach Bill Belichick to break out the old shovel and dig up a 42 year old Terrell Owens, who trolled the Patriots and their fans on social media last week by almost begging them to give him a try out.

Things may never get that bad for New England. LaFell is getting a bum rap from the media, who in turn have soiled the minds of the desperate fans against him - but in truth, LaFell isn't being given a fair shake by either, as he is just now getting into "football" shape, using the last four games as an impromptu preseason.

LaFell, Chandler (who has also drawn the ire of the media and fans for drops) and Williams (who is more of a sixth lineman than a pass catcher) are joined on the field by a pair of former Houston Texans, receivers Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson and are supplemented by passing backs James White, Brandon Bolden and newly-signed scatback Trey Williams.

When taken at face value, the fans' collective feeling of dread about the passing game is not completely unfounded, but there is help on the horizon.

Amendola has proclaimed that he is nearing 100% and may try to give his knee a go against the Eagles, while Gronkowski's injury has been deemed to be of no structural damage and his return is imminent - though not this week - and Edelman has been spotted around Boston with no walking boot and no noticeable limp in his recovery from a broken bone in his foot.

So with patience, the Patriots should be back to juggernaut status in a couple of weeks - and while that doesn't help them against the Eagles, they still have enough players to keep the Philadelphia secondary busy - the question is, will they keep them busy enough to prevent the Eagles from stacking the box and stopping the Patriots running game, effectively shutting down the offense?

That really all depends on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who laid an egg with his game plan against the Broncos last week that was so vanilla and predictable that the Patriots were forced into 10 punts, while their longest scoring drive was just five plays and their longest drive of night in terms of time of possession was a paltry 3:08.

Is it any wonder that the New England defense faltered down the stretch as the Broncos ruled time of possession for the game by over ten minutes and ran 72 offensive plays compared to New England's 58 - and only 16 of which were running plays, as Denver's defense dictated to the handicapped Patriots offense by clogging the running lanes and daring New England to beat them through the air...

...which would be football suicide with Brady fully stocked with weapons, but on this day it was a brilliant strategy that nearly backfired, as New England lined up to receive a punt early in the fourth quarter with a 21-7 lead and a very real opportunity to drive a nail into Denver's chances of winning the ball game - but one muffed punt later the lead was down to seven and the Patriots unraveled.

If that occurs again this week, the Patriots may be looking at a second consecutive loss, something that hasn't happened since early in the 2012 season.  But history has taught us that when McDaniels lays a stinker like that on us one week, he comes back with venom the next - and it's rarely pretty for the other team.

With or without Amendola - who, if he plays it will probably be sparingly - New England has enough with the aforementioned no-name receiving corps to keep the Eagles from loading up the box because, let's face it, the Eagles' defense is not even in the same league as the Broncos' - though they won't have to deal with Gronkowski like Denver did, making their job incrementally easier.

That should increase the number of running plays that Patriots are able to run, and should help them gain at least a split in time of possession to keep their defense fresh - which is key because the Eagles do field a passing attack that could be lethal to New England's defense, as it features the running backs and tight ends in heavy doses, an area where the Patriots have gotten burned many times in the last few weeks.

That should improve if strong side linebacker Jamie Collins comes back to the line up after a bout with a massive intestinal virus that laid him low for the past three games. Another dose of good news for New England is the fact that middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower, whose knee injury in the second quarter against the Broncos opened the running lanes for their explosive backs, may very well play against the Eagles despite being listed as questionable on the injury reports.

This is the type of game that will put pressure on the second level of the defense - as well as the safeties - and if either Collins or Hightower are not able to go, it won't matter whether the Eagles decide to go with Mark Sanchez at quarterback or back to Sam Bradford, because either one is capable of dinking and dunking the defense for long scoring drives.

Of course, being capable doesn't always mean that they can - and this is especially true against New England's unique Big Nickle defensive alignment.

As we've noted all season long, New England is the only team in the NFL with the depth and talent to employ the Big Nickle as a base defense, utilizing a stable of seven safeties in contrast to three or four game day active corners in order to keep a stout front seven intact with a run support-specific strong safety replacing a linebacker who will also key on Sproles or Murray wheeling out of the backfield and into the pattern.

Tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek would own the seam while Demarco Murray and Darren Sproles would roam the flat like lion kings otherwise, as corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan will have their hands full Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor.

Matthews is an example of the growing trend in the NFL towards tall, rangy slot receivers but can line up anywhere, probably taking Ryan with him as the third-year Rutgers corner has proven time and again that his prowess is being physical with receivers coming out of the slot. This would leave Butler on Agholor, Miles Austin or Riley Cooper, though it is also possible that the Patriots just align their corners on specific side of the field and fly with what Philadelphia throws at them.

The concern here is not so much Philadelphia scoring a lot of points, rather, it is them being able to control the time of possession battle. As mentioned earlier, the Broncos were able to creep back into the game last week with a New England turnover and the injury to Hightower, combined with having the time of possession edge that wore down the Patriots defensively - and a team that should not have been able to outscore New England eventually did.

So the key here is for the Patriots to build a two or three score halftime lead, then turn to the four-minute offense and get out with a victory, while the training staff works to get the rest of the weapons back on the field in the coming weeks...

All told, Patriots' fans' confidence is not unfounded, as New England's next-man-up philosophy still gives them a great shot at winning this game, just don't look for a complete blowout.

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