Friday, August 12, 2016

Patriots Ride Dominant Defense, Flair For Big Play In Win Over Saints

Bill Belichick likes things boring.

From his demeanor to his say-nothing press conferences to his posture on the sidelines, everything about him screams methodical, particular, stodgy.  He teaches his charges at every opportunity and there is nothing that can be done so well that there isn't a coaching point to be taken advantage of.

There were plenty of coaching moments to be had on Thursday night when Belchick's New England Patriots hosted the New Orleans Saints, but the biggest lesson learned in New England's 34-22 victory was by Belichick himself, who now has the most difficult task of his team-building career ahead of him.
Trey Flowers' strip sack and touchdown return sealed the deal for Patriots

Actually Belichick already knew that he has the deepest, most talented roster in his 17 years as team architect - he's mentioned it several times in his daily pressers - and on Thursday night, the fans got to see that for themselves.

Some it was old hat, like linebacker Jamie Collins demonstrating to the football universe that he may be it's brightest rising star and running back James White picking up right where he left of last season with another subtly illusive catch and run - but the coming out party for a kennel full of young greyhounds like Tyler Gaffney, Trey Flowers, A.J Derby and Kamu "KGH" Grugier Hill does seriously task Belichick with the most difficult personnel decisions in his tenure.

It isn't uncommon to see defenses ahead of offenses in the first preseason game - and while this phenomenon was true for the Patriots against the Saints, the manner in which the New England defense took over the game was scary - scary to the Saints and scary to the rest of the NFL, and maybe even scary to Belichick and his defensive-genius protege Matt Patricia...

...their blue liners forcing four fumbles - two of them recovered, one for a Trey Flowers touchdown - picked off two other balls, one returned for a touchdown by Collins, and recorded two sacks.

Sure, they surrendered 370 yards of total offense to New Orleans, but the Patriots held the Saints' tough runners to an average of 2.6 yards per carry and just about every throw that was completed by the trio of Saints' signal callers was tightly contested by the corners.

Most impressive was the edge setters throughout the game, as Jaball Sheard was virtually unblockable coming off the blind side, Chris Long showed great lateral agility in moving down the line of scrimmage and sealing off the flat, and Flowers bullied his mirror all night long, more times than not disrupting the offensive play before it had a chance to develop.

The interior defenders did a great job of causing congestion in the middle, Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Markus Kuhn and Terrance Knighton in an effective rotation that consistently took on double teams that allowed linebackers Collins and Dont'a Hightower to roam freely on the second level, directly leading to two of the forced turnovers and one score.

In all, the defense accounted for two touchdowns and forced two red zone turnovers by the Saints that killed scoring chances.  In other words, the unit as a whole has picked up right where they left off last season, and are only going to get better.

The Patriots' offense, besides being handicapped by having almost all of their impact pass catchers in street clothes, managed to score two touchdowns as well.

With the Saints leading 16-8 following Collins' pick-six and a couple of  Mark Ingram one yard touchdown dives, White took a safety valve screen from starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, made one subtle cut, jacked his propeller into high gear and raced 56 yards before being dragged down at the one foot line, LeGarrette Blount taking it in for the score on the next play.

The ensuing two-point conversion attempt failed, but New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski gave the Patriots the lead at the half, then Gaffney scored the eventual game-winning points on a very proper 44 yard sprint, cutting against the grain and running untouched to the end zone.

The only problem is, the big play is not what the Patriots' offense is predicated on.

Belichick's version of the Erhardt-Perkins philosophy relies on short passes and power runs to eat clock and win the field position battle, but the offense wasn't able to sustain many drives, their strongest effort coming on their final drive of the first half, a five-and-a-half minute possession that resulted in a field goal...

...none of their other possessions going for more than three minutes, including five of eleven drives that ended in the dreaded three-and-out.

Shades of last season, when the offense consistently put the defense in poor field position and back on the field without proper rest - but much of Thursday night's difficulties were a by-product of first Garoppolo - then Jacoby Brissett - having limited and untested weaponry to rely on in the passing game, with only prized free agent signing tight end Martellus Bennett and fourth-year bubble player Aaron Dobson being experienced in the pro game.

The benefit to this, however, was the aforementioned performances by White and Gaffney,as well as a breakout performance by second-year tight end A.J. Derby, who surprised many with his separation ability and concentration in traffic over the middle and his solid blocking on the weakside edge...

...a boon to an offensive line that struggled to protect Garoppolo initially, the third-year signal called sacked twice and nailed after the throw times-three, which was actually cured to a point by solid effort from the Patriots' running backs and by concerted balance in the play calling.

Granted, preseason games are void of much game planning, but the running game collecting  151 yards on thirty carries filtered the Saints' pass rush to a degree, allowing the linemen to get set in their stances and anchor against the rush, the protection gaining traction and giving the Patriots' quarterbacks a split-second more time to get the ball out of their hands.

Of course, the five yards per carry was aided by Gaffney's gem, but is also a legitimate representation of the efforts from White and Brandon Bolden between the tackles and the scrambling ability of Brissett, who otherwise looked every bit the rookie that he is in the passing game, forcing throws into tight windows on some throws and into the stratosphere on others, going 7 of 13 while working the entire second half.

For his part, Garoppolo was mostly solid, going 11 of 18 for 168 yards and the White pitch and run for a touchdown, though he appeared to hold the ball just a smidge too long and made a couple of questionable decisions, but overall had the type of performance that he can build upon going into next week's exhibition against the Chicago Bears...

...particularly if he has more of his impressive arsenal of weapons available to him.  Regardless, the team and it's fans can take solace in the fact that their defense is on the cusp of something very proper and appears to already up to the task.

But this is all just in one preseason game.  If this team progresses and becomes more cohesive in the rest of their exhibitions, Thursday night showed that Belichick does indeed have a monumental task ahead of him to pare this team down to 53 players - and that the rest of the NFL should be waiting to scoop up whomever the Dark Master is forced to cut loose...

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