Sunday, August 21, 2016

Patriots Balanced On Offense In Two Preseason Wins; Trending For Regular Season?

"There is so much talent at the tight end position and so much depth and skill at the passing back position, that Belichick could play an entire game using nothing but a short-yardage, Jumbo package - a 23 Personnel, if you will, meaning two running backs and three tight ends.  Nothing really weird about it and a pretty easy offensive package for a defense to match up with...

...until you remember that you are playing the Patriots, who have brought out Dion Lewis and James White as their running backs and have tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Bennett split wide outside the numbers with H-back Harbor in the slot.  No wide receivers on the field, yet your secondary is doomed.  This is what happens when you mess with Bill Belichick." - Foxborough Free Press, May 30, 2016

Back in May when I was giddy with excitement over the prospects of Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick being able to line up three skilled tight ends in his concept-based offensive scheme, I kinda-sorta jokingly introduced a wild thought that New England could line up in a 23 personnel "Jumbo" package and steamroll opposing defenses.

That was before redshirt sophomore A.J.Derby exploded onto the scene, literally from nowhere to shove free agent pick up Clay Harbor halfway out the doors at Patriots' Place, and if Derby has another outing this coming Friday in Carolina like has had in the first two preseason games, Harbor will most likely be looking for work come cutdown day.

That was also before Tyler Gaffney, himself a redshirt, also arrived with a thump - taking turns with a rejuvenated looking LeGarrette Blount trucking folks on the second level to form a lethal "next shoe", power running tandem - which is an awesome thing in and of itself, but even more so now that it appears that passing pack Dion Lewis will continue to rehab his bum knee on the PUP list to start the season...

...leaving James White as the only true passing back in the offense, which, as we've seen the second half of last season and all through preseason, isn't a handicap on the offense at all because if we didn't have Lewis to marvel at, we'd be doing the same thing with White.

For certain, the entire Patriots' offense has a different look and feel to it this season, and is steaming towards a huge departure from the finesse, take-what-the-defense-gives-you routine that has gotten them to five consecutive AFC Title games and won them one Super Bowl to what appears to be a return to the physicality of the millennial teams that won by punching folks in the mouth and not worrying too much about repercussions.

And that's what football is about, after all, right?  That's why these guys are decked out in all kinds of padding, helmets, cups, etc., because football is a physical sport - three yards and a cloud of dust. Despite some "innovators" trying to make it about over the top speed, it still comes down to being able to take what you want, a violent game of ground acquisition in which to be successful, an offense must be balanced in their attack.

Thus far in the preseason, the Patriots have thrown the ball 53 times, completing 43 passes for an even 500 yards and a touchdown, while running the ball 56 times for 265 yards and three scores.  If that's not balance, I don't know what is.

But, as always, simple stats can be deceiving - as they are in this case.

Of those 56 pass attempts, 37 have gone to tight ends or backs - a full two-thirds of the attempts, and when combined with the touches on the ground, the most physical of the Patriots' skill position players have handled the ball an astounding 85% of the time.

Sure, the Patriots' top receivers in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola haven't seen the field in preseason, which should account for some of that disparity, but the fact that top tight end Rob Gronkowski hasn't played at all and free agent pickup Martellus Bennett has played very sparingly, cancels that out - so with the numbers being as they are, can we expect a similar shift in philosophy during the regular season?

Of course, no one but Bill Belichick and his hair dresser knows for sure, but the odds of them running with a 22 personnel alignment - and even a 23 personnel "Jumbo" package are pretty good, given the immense amount of talent among the backs and tight ends, even now that Lewis has to undergo a second surgery on his knee and will probably not be ready until midseason.

Even so, there has been an increased emphasis on getting the ball in the hands of the running backs, with White and power back Tyler Gaffney seeing the majority of the targets, and the emergence of Derby, who is really more like a gigantic possession receiver than a traditional tight end, has opened the door for the ability to run a Jumbo package as a matter of course, rather than just as a short yardage formation.

It is not beyond the spectrum of possibility that we could see Gronkowski, Bennett and Derby lined up as receivers with any number of combinations at running back, such as White teamed with Blount or Gaffney - which opens up the entire playbook for the offense, and causes a lot of pre-snap confusion for the defense.

Will they actually do something like that?  It's a good bet that you will see it more than most people think, but just like with Gronk and Marty, it doesn't make much sense to keep Edelman on the sidelines, nor Hogan for that matter, so the predominant alignment will probably be the one back-two tight end 12 personnel...

...and even then, the Patriots will have some of the top talent in the league on the field at the same time, and isn't that what Belichick is striving for?

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