Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Loyalists - Mike And Jake Talk Hurt Guys, New Guys

Every week, two of our bloggers pick each others brains like a couple of zombie baboons - today it's Jacob Bertram from and Michael Hamm from Foxborough Free Press serving up questions for each other in advance of the New England Patriots' Sunday afternoon showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles...

If you're looking for an excuse as to how the New England Patriots lost to the Denver Broncos on Sunday evening, you have your pick of literally a dozen different incidents.

You could say the refs cheated your team. You could say that the play calling was juveline. You could blame the injury bug for sapping nearly all of the Patriots' proven playmakers and you could blame a rookie receiver who muffed a punt, turning momentum and sparking a Broncos comeback.

You COULD say those things, and you would have many who agree with you whole-heartedly, what with a litany of questionable flags thrown against the Patriots in moments when they would hurt the most, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels insistence on running the same four plays over and over again, and Chris Harper's untimely fumble of a punt when the Patriots had all of the momentum and were in prime position to sink a dagger into the heart of the game Broncos...
Blount should see more room against the Eagles than he did the Broncos

...and all of those things did contribute to New England's 30-24 overtime loss in Denver, but the biggest reasons that the Patriots were able to squander a 14 point lead was two fold. On offense, the play calling was about as imaginative as a sitcom based on the comedy of a stand up comic and their previously top-ranked run defense couldn't set the edge.

Not known for unusual team speed to begin with, the Patriots defense allowed the speedy and explosive Broncos' running backs to gain the edge on touchdown runs of 19 yards by Ronnie Hillman and 15 yards by C. J. Anderson to let Denver back into a ball game in which they trailed by two scores, Anderson topping it off with a 48 yard touchdown run in overtime that ended New England's 10 game winning streak to start the season.

The Broncos rushed for a season high 179 yards on 32 carries, running on the Patriots at will in the second half - a ridiculous 5.6 yards per carry - most every yard gained outside of the tackles. In fact, the normally solid interior run defense of the Patriots held the Broncos to 3.4 yards per carry between the tackles, as run pluggers Alan Branch, Akeim Hicks and Malcom Brown shut down the inside lanes.

The entire run defense was running at peak efficiency until just over five minutes remaining in the first half, when linebacker Dont'a Hightower left the game with what has been diagnosed as a sprained MCL, leaving the Patriots without their two best edge-setting linebackers as strongside 'backer Jamie Collins didn't even make the trip to Denver.

That should not be the case this Sunday afternoon when the enigmatic Philadelphia Eagles visit Foxborough.

While it is true that Hightower will not be back, Collins should be. While it is true that tight end Rob Gronkowski won't be back, receiver Danny Amendola should be. While it is true that Josh McDaniels laid a proverbial egg with his play calling, it is also true that every time he does, he usually comes back the next week with a masterful plan...

...that said, let's tackle this week's questions:

With Gronk most likely out this week against the Eagles. Do you feel we will see more of the three receiver sets or do you think Asante Cleveland will assume a larger role? If not who will those three receivers be?

Mike - Cleveland is not necessarily a receiving tight end. In fact, in seven career games spanning two seasons, he has one catch for one yard, that coming last week against the Broncos. He has decent speed for the position and is fluid in and out of his cuts, but has zero suddenness – and is more of an athlete than a football player.

I would not be surprised to see Bill Belichick cut Cleveland after the Eagles game in favor of Joseph Fauria, who is getting the Patriots’ cram session on the practice squad at the moment, and is much more of a pass catching weapon for the position and possesses good speed, surprising foot quickness for his size (6’ 8”, 260 pounds) and is adept at boxing out defenders. Despite all of that, he looks like a newborn fawn trying to find its legs when running in the open field and is easy to bring down.

My guess is that the tight end position will produce next to nothing against the Eagles between the 20’s, as the Patriots will rely on a pair of former Texans to team with Brandon LaFell and possibly Danny Amendola to move the ball through the air – but I also expect to see the running game have far more impact on the game plan, facing the Eagles’ 27th ranked run defense.

As for the receivers, I fully expect that LaFell and former Texans' teammates Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson will be the top three options, with Danny Amendola playing a limited role coming off of injury.

Tom Brady mentioned this week that he was as “Pissed off” as he’s ever been after the team’s loss to the Broncos, and he seemed to lose his cool after a couple of questionable flags – though we’ve seen him lose it before in the recent past – most notably on a Thursday night encounter with the Jets in 2013. On both occasions, however, he has been left with minimal receiving threats due to injury in his pass catching corps. Given that he likely will again be without at least some of his top targets this week, will he be able to hold his frustration in check?

Jacob - What I think you are describing is the fire he has, which in my opinion is one of the things that makes him so great. He's a known perfectionist, so when we are missing key members on offense a lot of things are not going to be perfect. So this Sunday if Martin, or Chandler, or whoever starts running the wrong routes or starts dropping passes, I'm positive we will see Mr Brady lose his cool once again. But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

Damaris Johnson and Trey Williams have both been signed this week. What do you know of the players and what do you think their roles going forward will be?

Mike - What I know of the players can be read here. I call both Garden gnomes because they are diminutive and shifty, both with good hands and speed. I wouldn’t look for much out of Williams initially, as he is strictly one-dimensional and his presence on the field will easily tip off the Eagles that a pass play is coming – and that they should bring the blitz because Williams is not effective at picking up hard-charging linebackers and safeties.

On the other hand, Johnson could be an off-the-street steal for this offense. He played in what is essentially the same concept-based scheme in Houston under Bill O’Brien as what the Patriots run, though the terminology is slightly different. He was a number three option in Houston last season to current Patriots’ teammate Keshawn Martin and current Colts’ receiver Andre Johnson, and put up some decent numbers in an offense limited by uninspired quarterback play.

Both are young and fast and both bring shiftiness and elusiveness in space, but in the end, they are both bit players with specified roles on the offense and on special teams. One of them will be returning kicks while the other fields punts.

Many are criticizing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this week, including me, for his lack of imagination in play calling and for being aggressive when the situation called for a more conventional approach in some instances and for being passive when in a situation where being aggressive would have been a more prudent call. We know that he is prone to laying an occasional egg, especially when matched up against a great defense, but is the result of having no confidence in his players in certain situations, or is this just a matter of out-thinking himself?

Jacob - I do think Josh tried to get a bit cute last Sunday. Whether it was running the ball out before the half instead of trying to score, or throwing the ball late instead of running it. It seemed we got away from what we do great last Sunday and it really cost us. Situational football is always what we hear as something that Belichick preaches heavy and after the Broncos game, I'm sure they had a lot to talk about after it.

Depth is looking a little shaky at linebacker. Do you believe in Darius Fleming? Can Mayo handle the Hightower load moving forward until he comes back?

Mike - I do believe in Darius Fleming, as his role in the NFL has always been that of an edge setter, something that was desperately missing on the weak side against Denver once Hightower went down with a bum knee. However, that’s all he really is. He can rush the passer in certain situations and he showed last season that he can blow up a screen here or there, but he can’t be counted on in coverage.

Mayo, on the other hand, can do it all – and he’s shown his former aggressive side in the past couple of weeks with Collins being laid low with an illness. Collins could be back, which would be a boon to the Patriots defense as he sets the edge on the strong side on pure rushing downs and has the athleticism to handle tight ends in the pattern.

Make no mistake, had Collins been in the lineup, last week’s abomination against the run doesn’t happen and if he does play this week, he will platoon with Rob Ninkovich and Jaball Sheard to set the edge against Philadelphia’s decent running game, while Mayo generates bedlam on the weak side. Jonathan Freeny will likely man the middle as the designated run stuffer in Hightower’s absence.

The Patriots’ corners performed well against Denver, right up until crunch time when they gave up huge chunks of yards to allow the Broncos to move into scoring position. Is this a disconcerting trend or just a residual side effect of the offense and special teams repeatedly putting the defense in bad situations, or was it the result of dedicating too many players into the box in the wake of the injury to Hightower to try and stop the Broncos running game and leaving the corners without over the top help?

Jacob - I think it's a mixture of Hightower being out, so as you said safeties and linebackers come up to play the run. Also, Sanders and Thomas are both great players who you can't hope to shut out for the entire 60 minutes.  Butler and Ryan both played very well for most of the game and just got burnt on back to back plays late in the fourth quarter. This was horrible timing of course, but we haven't seen many plays like that this season. Which says a lot for both of these guys, who in my opinion are both treated unfairly by some in the media.

To read all about the Patriots from an old-school twist, be sure to follow us on Foxborough Free Press and on twitter at @ffpblogger, and for a fresh, modern view of the team go to and follow Jacob on twitter as well at @gamegentsdotcom !

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