Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part II - Edelman's Return To Right Patriots' Listing Offense

Not too long ago, the New England Patriots were mired in an injury issue much the same as they are faced with today.

In January of 2014, the Patriots hit the playoffs so injured that they had little chance of making the Super Bowl - tight end Rob Gronkowski had been taken out by Cleveland's T.J. Ward a month earlier and was done for the season with a torn ACL. Newly acquired wide receiver Danny Amendola was severely limited with a fully torn adductor muscle with which he had already missed four regular season games...

...rookie draft pick Aaron Dobson was limited with a broken bone in his foot and fellow first-year speedster Josh Boyce was in and out of the lineup with a bum ankle, though he rarely made any sort of an impact at all, even when healthy.

But injuries didn't just impact that team during the playoffs. Amendola's groin muscle was torn in the first game of the season at Buffalo and restricted him all season. Gronkowski missed the first six games of the season recovering from multiple surgeries, and played in seven games all year. Dobson missed four games and Boyce was in and out of the lineup all season.

So the Patriots turned to a running game that ranked in the top 10 in the NFL, LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley combined accounting for nearly 1600 yards and averaged a stout 4.5 yards per carry to carry them through a treacherous playoff run that saw them blow the Indianapolis Colts out of Gillette Stadium before having to go to Denver to play the Broncos in the AFC Title game.

But by the time they got to Denver, Edelman was the only receiver who was anywhere near healthy, with Amendola out and Dobson with no speed or cutting ability, and an uninspiring tight end tandem of Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan offering little to no athletcism in the pattern - so the Broncos concentrated on stopping the Patriots' running game and dared Brady to beat them over the top.

That didn't happen, of course, and the Broncos managed a win for the right to go to Super Bowl 48 and get blown out by the Seattle Seahawks.

Point being, that the Patriots have seen this before, the only difference is that they are going to be getting healthy this time - or at least as healthy as they can be with so many players on the IR - just in time to defend the World Championship that they took from the Seahawks in 2014.

The main issue has been, of course, the loss of Julian Edelman.

The toughest cover in the National Football League, Edelman is what makes the Patriots quick-twitch, concept-based offense run. Sure, Brady is the catalyst, but without Edelman it just doesn't work the way it's supposed to.

For instance, in the nine games that Edelman has played in this season, the Patriots offense averaged 33.6 points per game and 418 total offense on 92 rushing yards and 326 passing yards per contest with six 300 yard passing games - but in the seven games he has missed, the points per game have dipped a full ten points to 23 and total offense has fallen off by over 100 yards per game, and Brady has had just one 300 yard game.

Even more telling is on third down. Where Edelman is a first down machine and helped the Patriots to a robust 54% conversion rate on third down, without him they are an abysmal 33%, meaning that the punt team is always on alert and the defense is on the field way too often.

In other words, Julian Edelman is the Most Valuable Player on this team.

Needless to say, the trickle down effect is much more than just losing his seven catches and 72 yards per game. Opposing defenses disrespected the Patriots' passing attack, even with Gronkowski at full health and Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell being part-time contributors and loaded up the box to stop what little running game offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels threw at them and dared Brady to throw over the top.

Sound familiar?

The result was Brady being relentlessly pummeled like a pinata, as the offensive line couldn't hold back the tsunami wave that defensive coordinators threw at them week after week after McDaniels invariably abandoned the run, leaving the Patriots one-dimensional and Brady a sitting duck, the line overwhelmed by sheer numbers as the secondary was able to play New England's receivers straight up, knowing the pass rush was going to get there eventually.

And why not? Giving up on the running game is an open invitation for defenses to rush the quarterback, and with as thin as the Patriots' depth chart has been at receiver, teams have been staying in their base defense or running the Big Nickle, sending delayed blitzers through gaps left by the initial wave - sometimes they get there before Brady can deliver the ball and sometimes they can't, but in both instances, Brady is punished.

That can't happen in the post-season, and Belichick has done everything that he can to make sure that it won't.

Edelman will have had two full months to recover from surgery on his foot and fellow wideout Danny Amendola will have had a full month to repair from his knee issues as Belichick has been very careful in handling his garden gnomes - because with them, he's not thin at receiver and teams can't stack the box against the Patriots' running game, which just added a fresh, savvy veteran in Steven Jackson.

The move to bring in Jackson was a brilliant one on Belichick's part, as the 32 year old former Ram and Falcon brings size (6' 2", 240 pounds), speed (a reported 4.55 in the 40) and 11 years of toting the rock almost 2800 times and caught 460 more. Even though he is most likely a five-game mercenary, he is the most complete back the Patriots have employed since Corey Dillon retired nine seasons ago.

His running style is most closely tied to Dillon's, as a matter of fact, and his receiving style is comperable to that of a "move" type tight end, so you can expect to see Jackson lined up all over the formation, though his primary duties are going to be powering through the holes that the offensive line can open for him - a monumentally easier task with the pass catching corps fully stocked.

Brandon LaFell, Keshawn Martin and Chris Harper join Edelman and Amendola at receiver, with Rob Gronkowski and the seldom-used Scott Chandler at tight end. At full strength, this is one of the best, most diverse pass catching corps in the NFL, and what makes it even better is the presence of passing back James White and the hired gun Jackson, as both have proven that they are more than competent in the pattern.

So with that quick-twitch passing game back in working order, what can we expect to see from the Patriots' offense?

Next - Part III: The Passing game

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