Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Balance Gives Brissett, Patriots' Offense Reason For Optimism

The New England Patriots have many things going against them as they prepare to entertain the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium on Thursday evening.

After all, they are dealing with injuries to many key contributors, including All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski, scat back Dion Lewis, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Rob Ninkovich, causing them to go into games already on the second tier of depth along the offensive line, at middle linebacker and at passing back.
Brissett, McDaniels and Belichick should be able to game plan effecitively

But the major point of concern is at the most important position on offense, where the team is now working on their third layer at quarterback, preparing to start a rookie at the position for the first time since Drew Bledsoe arrived on the scene 23 years ago, against a Texans' defense that hasn't allowed a touchdown in six consecutive quarters and have sacked opposing quarterbacks nine times in two games...

 ...ranked third in the NFL against the pass and third overall in total defense, limiting opposing offenses to an average drive time of less than two minutes.

That is stout in every sense of the word, but the one way to negate that pass rushing advantage for the Texans, and also to give rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett time to find his multitude of pass catching options in the pattern is to achieve balance on offense - which thus far has been just as easily done as said in the first two weeks of the NFL Season.

Unfortunately for the Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs, they didn't stick with their running games against Houston enough to create that balance and both ended up losing close games despite overwhelming success against the Texans' run defense.

By contrast, the Patriots have the seventh-best rushing game in the league, averaging 134 yards per game and have the fourth-ranked rusher in the league in LeGarrette Blount.  Some will argue that New England and Blount achieved those rankings by running the ball more than most other teams - they are tops in the league with 69 running plays - but when compared to having 69 passing attempts, it is safe to say that New England's offense has been successful because it has achieved balance.

That's right, that seven letter word that was barely mentioned in and around Foxborough last season is front and center this year, pretty much by default as the Patriots' coaching staff seeks to put temporary starting quarterbacks in the best position to succeed - surrounding them with a Murderer's Row of skill position players...

...but the players that benefit most from the balance between the running and passing games are the offensive linemen, who performed so well in the season opener at Arizona and then again last Sunday against the Dolphins that they have been the unsung heroes of the first two weeks of the season.

That would have been hard to imagine given the fact that center David Andrews was the only true regimented starter from last season who suited up for New England in their opener, keeping then-starter Jimmy Garoppolo upright for the most part and giving the running game a fighting chance, especially on the edges where they should look again on Thursday night.

Against the Cardinals top five ranked run defense, the Patriots ran predominantly right behind tight end Martellus Bennett and right tackle Marcus Cannon and averaging four yards per carry, and also took their chances going left for five yards per carry, while the tag team of Calais Campbell, Josh Mauro and Frostee Rucker clogged the middle against Patriots' rookie guards Joe Thuney and Ted Karras...

...the former being replaced by the injured Shaq Mason at right guard when Karras struggled to anchor against Campbell. Mason, broken hand and all, and Karras rotated in and out against the Dolphins - but just as against the Cardinals, the interior linemen could not generate much push in the running game up the gut.

That shouldn't be an issue against Houston, as their Achilles heel is their run defense, which has allowed five yards per carry - third-worst in the league - and when running up the middle and around left end, the numbers are far more dismal for the Texans, as they have given up a whopping eight yards per carry up the gut, by far the worst number in the NFL.

Where the Patriots don't want to run is to the strong side, where the beastly J.J. Watt has his hand in the dirt and pocket-wrecker Whitney Mercilus lined up behind him, both stout against the run and absolutely murder on offensive linemen when rushing the passer - rather, the Patriots should test former teammate Vince Wilfork over center and on the weak side where defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Will-linebacker John Simon are superior pass rushers, but have difficulty setting the edge.

On the interior of the second level where one would normally find middle linebacker Brian Cushing is depth reserve Max Bullough, who at 6' 3" and 245 pounds is light for the position, meaning that he can't take on the guard or center on the second level to free up second-year Joker Benardrick McKinney to stuff the run, nor can the two switch positions because McKinney isn't nearly the athlete that Cushing or Bullough are, and the results would be pretty much the same as they are now, maybe even worse...

...because the Patriots have the ability to drive linebackers out of the running lanes with pulling tackles and tight ends hitting the gaps before the linebackers have the time to react. For the Patriots to accomplish this they will have to run out of 22 or 12 personnel packages with Martellus Bennett and/or Rob Gronkowski pulling to the weak side to free up left tackle Cam Fleming to go after Bullough.

But what is going to help Brissett and the Patriots' offense the most is the aforementioned balance.

Brissett has become a three-step drop, rythym thrower, whose reliance on the short passing game could prove to be a fatal flaw in the offensive philosophy, as the short game allows the safeties to cheat towards the line of scrimmage, stepping into the passing lanes or plugging the running gaps that Bullough and McKinney can't get to.

To combat this, the balance achieved allows for the play action that will freeze linebackers and safeties alike, and will aid the offensive linemen in setting their anchor in pass protection - but it will also take Gronkowski or Bennett up the seam to eliminate the safety and some intermediate routes on the part of Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan, requiring Brissett to change up on his dropbacks and, hopefully, getting the pass rushers to commit to poor angles.

The one thing that the Patriots don't want to do is to get Brissett in a roving pocket on the boot action, particularly to the right where both Watt and Mercilus are capable of disrupting the moving pocket, and which closes off half of the field, making coverages easier for the Texans' secondary.  The only thing that should be going outside the pocket is the pitch play to Blount.

Against the Dolphins, Blount took pitches from the quarterbacks while left tackle Nate Solder pulls to the outside to lead interference, allowing Blount to get up to full speed before hitting the line of scrimmage, the result being a lot of extra yardage and many frightened defensive backs who are rightfully wary of taking on a 250 pound running back at full speed.

Along those same lines, don't be surprised to see Brissett in the shotgun with either Blount, James White or D.J. Foster flanking him, and from where Brissett can either hand the ball off on a delayed draw, swing the ball out to one of them on the wheel route or in the flat on the jailbreak screen, or just keep them in to pick up the inevitable blitz coming from the second level.

In that formation, it gives Blount seven yards to get up to speed to hit the hole with force, and allows the vision and elusiveness of White and Foster to manifest, and even gives Brissett an opportunity to change the play out of a safe, limited set of options.

Because balance is everything.  Balance makes the defense have to defend the entire field.  Balance causes hesitation in the pass rush.  Balance opens up space at the top of routes for receivers to gain separation and balance helps the offense dictate to the defense rather than just having to take what the defense gives them.

There is enough weapons and plenty enough skill along an improving offensive line for head ball coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to devise a game plan to put Brissett in a position to succeed - but after that, it's all up to Brissett to make the most out of his opportunity.

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