Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Mail Call - Talking Running Game, Play Calling And The State Of The Offensive Line

Most football fans would take a running back who has averaged 4.6 yards per carry and has rushed for 4,000 yards during a six year career. Those numbers are not elite nor ground-breaking in any way, but they are solid.

Would a back with those kinds of numbers be welcome in New England?

How about a guy who also has doubled as a kick returner, compiling an elite 27.1 average on 22 career touches in that capacity?  How about the fact that this back gets better the more critical the situation, averaging 4.8 yards per carry on 76 career playoff carries and has found paydirt 38 times in his career?

Admit it, you'd love to have this running back in the Patriots backfield.

Well, you already do, and his name is LeGarrette Blount.

Many questions sent in for this particular mail call have been of the knee-jerk variety regarding the running back position and who the Patriots are going to bring in to replace the injured Dion Lewis and, not surprisingly, statements regarding their lack of confidence in Blount.

All anyone has to do who doesn't believe that Blount is vital to the success of the Patriots' offense is just look at what happened to said offense when Blount went down for the year in the Texans game.  For the season, the Patriots averaged a pathetic 3.7 yards per carry, but were averaging 4.0 before Blount went down and an even 3.0 after he was finished for the season...

...and in the playoffs that dipped to an abysmal 2.6 yards per carry.  Needless to say, the Patriots' running game didn't scare anyone after Blount went on the shelf, particularly in the playoffs, when both the Chiefs and Broncos sent their pass rushers without prejudice, overwhelming an offensive line who didn't have time to anchor in their stances, leaving quarterback Tom Brady a human piñata.

Could another back do the same job as Blount, or better?  Sure, but how many of those backs could step right into the Patriots' complex concept-based scheme and be as effective?

The answer is, not many.

Let's give some love to Blount.  He's proven that he can carry the load, and the opposing defenses respect the Patriots' running game when he's in the lineup.

Now on to this week's questions:

Given the reported injury statuses of Vollmer and Mason, what sort of early season performance can we expect from the offensive line?  How do these injuries change how the Pats scheme in the run/pass game? - Darel (Utah via Foxborough Free Press)

There is no denying that the injuries are disappointing from the standpoint of cohesion and technique in pass protection, but not all is lost.

The Patriots run a "slide protection" scheme, meaning that on one side of the line, the tackle, guard and center will move in unison in the same direction, with a power step directly lateral (with no ground given), slide his other foot to match the first step , then thrust forward with the third step, delivering the initial punch to rock the defensive lineman.  The linemen on the other side, usually the strong side, will take on rushing defenders man-to-man, with a back stepping up into the gap created by the two concepts, taking on blitzers.

It is far too complicated for the space we have here, but it goes without saying that it takes chemistry between all of the linemen to pull this off - and it is exactly why Cannon taking over for Vollmer makes the most sense, for he knows the scheme inside and out.  What helps the cohesion of the linemen is having capable tight ends or a tight end and a sixth offensive lineman, usually on the weak side.

Now, you may hear throughout Patriots' games the referee announce "Number 71 is eligible", which means that swing tackle Cam Fleming is lined up on the weak side, leaving the strong side to one or more tight ends, and Fleming's job is to help the left tackle control speed rushers, while one or both tight ends release into the pattern, one of them chipping the edge rusher back into the path of the strong side tackle.

What all of this means is that the way that the Patriots use their tight ends and swing tackles takes a lot of pressure off of the linemen - kind of like a cornerback having safety help over the top - leaving them free to play with raw power and technique, so the state of the line as it is isn't as dire a situation as it would be with most teams.

The same goes for the running game, where one of the tight ends or the eligible lineman will pull into the gap to lead the back through.


If Lewis does, indeed, start the regular season on PUP, does White have the chops to be productive enough in the running game to be more than just a receiving threat? - Darel (Utah via Foxborough Free Press)

You know, White definitely has the ability in the running game.  We saw it in college and we've seen just a smattering of it this preseason.  The thing is with White is that in college, he had Wisconsin's massive wall blocking scheme to run behind and in the pros, it's been the zone blocking scheme that relies on backs cutting against the grain into holes created by pulling guards and by tight ends with wham blocks.

We've seen his subtle style in space, so it's entirely possible that he could do the same thing between the tackles.

More than anyone else, White could use a better blocking cast than the one we saw last season.  The players were capable, but when the team had to use 26 different line combinations, including 13 different starting lineups, continuity and precision in the running game is tough to accomplish.  If the Patriots can find the right line combination - hell, just stick with one - White can be productive in the running game.


We all know we get one of each, so who do you think is the surprise keeper and who is the surprise cut? - Ken (New Jersey via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

In all honesty, I had Bryan Stork listed as a cut, but upon waking on Wednesday morning, I discovered that Belichick had beat me to the punch.  Again.

I don't know how much of a surprise it's going to be, but three-tech tackle Anthony Johnson has played his way into a roster spot on the defensive line and I also believe that Elandon Roberts has shown well enough to create a niche for himself along side Kamu Grugier-Hill among the linebackers.  Cornerback Jonathan Jones could make the team as well.

The surprise cuts shouldn't be all that surprising either, as Aaron Dobson should get a pink slip along with a plethora of other receivers.  Clay Harbor is going to have to have a huge couple of weeks to make the team, and at this point I wouldn't be surprised to see Jonathan Cooper get the axe.


Is Cannon the answer? - Todd (Connecticut via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

This is the season when Cannon finally grasps the right tackle position and owns it.  Read more here.


With Vollmer and Mason out, what do you project the starting lineup to look like and do you expect Scar to go with a set unit or are they destined to rotate this season? - Rick (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Josh Kline and Marcus Cannon.  Of course, the right side is a question mark, especially at guard where Mason was set to dominate, and for them to go with the undersized Josh Kline would be a major step down in the running game - but the alternatives are limited. Ted Karras is a mauler and an interior street fighter, but doesn't handle speed rushers all that well.

Jonathan Cooper is an elite talent that would easily be considered the starter, but he is a china shop on a field full of bulls.  Tre Jackson would need to come off the PUP in the next couple of days to have any shot of regaining his right guard spot from last season.

That leaves Kline and Karras as the available guards.  Look for Karras to wedge his way into the lineup at some point, as the guy is potent in the slide protection scheme.


Do the Patriots have any plans on returning to the UK anytime soon? - Keith (Belfast, Northern Ireland via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

Unfortunately, the NFL doesn't have a rotating schedule or anything that might give us an idea of when the Patriots might return to the land of Fish and Chips, no set formula, per se.  About the best I can do for you on that front is to forward information regarding this year's international series games, for which there are three contests in the United Kingdom.

Week 4 - Colts vs. Jaguars at Wembley Stadium
Week 7 - Giants vs Rams at Twickenham Stadium
Week 8 - Redskins vs Bengals at Wembley Stadium

Patriots' owner Robert Kraft is a huge proponent for putting a team in London, and it has been a dream of many at NFL headquarters for a long time, so there's that...


Will Bill trade with the Browns for Josh Gordon? - James (Canada via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

Very doubtful, James.  The Patriot Way cuts him off at the pass.


Is there any area that concerns you about this team? - Daniel (Maryland via The Belichickians)

Honestly, no - at least not on the field.  Allow me to elaborate:

"There were two main issues that plagued the running back corps last season, and both needed to be addressed in the offseason.  The first being addressing the lack of tangible depth, as New England had no one to carry the load after they lost both scatback Dion Lewis and power back LeGarrette Blount, rendering the offense one-dimensional.

No one needs to tell Patriots' fans how ugly that was, nor how frustrating it was to watch the offensive line being overwhelmed like a earthen levee trying to hold back a tsunami, the lack of a running game allowing Patriots' opponents to load up their pass rush, knowing that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had next-to-nothing to attack the middle of the defense with.

The second issue was that McDaniels has a bad habit of ignoring the tenets of the offensive philosophy by passing to score, then passing to try and win - as evidenced by the Patriots logging the lowest number of running plays in the history of the franchise.

Some of that had to do with the injuries, but the pace was already set way before Blount went down with three games remaining on the Patriots' schedule - and that can't happen again if New England hopes to ascend to the pinnacle of professional football." - Foxborough Free Press, August 7, 2016

Those who follow this blog already know that I have a pretty big problem with the way that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels handles the running game.  I could go on and on about his track record in the second halves of games, relying on the short passing game to eat the clock when they have a running game for that very purpose.

My concern is for balance on offense, and the answer to that rests solely on the narrow shoulders of McDaniels.


How many guys look to start the season on PUP?  There are many banged up players who need time to recover, and none bigger than Danny Amendola. - Daniel (Maryland via The Belichickians)

Well, the number can't be any more than what they started camp with, per NFL rules, as a player has to be on the preseason PUP in order to be eligible for the regular season PUP.  That said, there are only four players still on the Patriots' PUP: Amendola, Tre Jackson, Sebastian Vollmer and Dion Lewis - the latter two shelved for at least the time period that the PUP runs for, which is until after week six of the season.

Jackson is recovering from a knee procedure and has been seen infrequently around Patriots' Place, so his status appears to be in doubt, while Amendola has been a participant in conditioning drills separate from the rest of the team, but appears to be running well and is likely the only player remaining on the PUP that could be activated by the team prior to the regular season.

But should they activate him, or save him until eligible to be activated to ensure full health?  The answer to that is found in the depth chart, where he would be buried and no better than the fourth receiving option behind Gronkowski, Bennett, Edelman and maybe even James White, so it may be that Belichick plays it safe with him and keeps him on the PUP.

Let's call it money in the bank.

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