Monday, September 12, 2016

Bennett, Backs Clutch in Patriots' Victory Over Cardinals

LeGarrette Blount (29) scores from eight yards out in New England's 23-21 win over Arizona on Sunday night.
 Chandler Jones didn't see the truck that ran him over - but LeGarrette Blount did.

Five minutes into the second half and with the New England Patriots nursing a three point lead over the host Arizona Cardinals, the Patriots had a first and goal from the Cardinals' eight yard line - quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo barked out signals from the shotgun, flanked by Blount who was the lone back in an eleven personnel (one back, one tight end) package, suggesting to the defense a passing play.

Jones crossed the face of the offensive line from left to right, arriving at the outside shoulder of left tackle Cameron Fleming just as the ball was snapped, hoping for an advantageous lane to rush the quarterback's blind side, but Garoppolo froze Jones in his cleats with a quick look to his left, then turned to Blount and stuffed the ball in the big man's gut - and that's the last thing Jones saw.

Fleming exploded out towards the second level as if shot out of a cannon, taking out linebacker Deone Buchannon and leaving Jones uncovered to meet Blount in the massive hole created by Fleming and left guard Joe Thuney - but just as Jones reacted to Blount taking the handoff, he was nailed by tight end Martellus Bennett, who executed a textbook wham block that left Jones counting blades of grass...

...Blount rumbled through a hole big enough for three power backs to fit through, Cardinals' safety Tyrann Mathieu making first contact at the four, defensive tackle Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson converging on Blount a split-second later, sandwiching the 250 pound load at the three - middle linebacker Kevin Minter flying in from the strong side, safety Tyvon Branch from the weak side, cornerback Patrick Peterson hitting the pile straight up.

The pile up, featuring three-quarters of a ton of testosterone-fueled humanity collapsed as Blount surged across the goal line, Thuney and right guard Ted Karras plowing into the scrum from the backside, disbursing red-shirted defenders as if they were pins hit by a couple of bowling balls.

Blount's eight yard power drive that gave the Patriots a 10-point lead was a spectacular display of just what the bruising six-year veteran brings to the table, but it wasn't even the most impressive play on his part, that being a 13-yard run on 3rd and 11 that extended the Patriots' game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.

In between, Blount had a tough time against a stout Cardinals' front seven, but the performance is a reminder of why it is important to stick with a running game, regardless of positive or negative impact early in games.

Blount ran for 70 yards on 22 tough carries, for an average of 3.2 yards per carry, which isn't going to make fantasy owners very happy, but feeds right into the old adage that has governed smashmouth football from the genesis of the sport: Three yards and a cloud of dust.

That is the original hallmark of what a running game should contribute to a balanced attack and a tenet of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick is relentlessly faithful to, a philosophy that dictates that a team must "Pass to score, then run to win."

Garoppolo, Blount and the rest of the Patriots followed that tenet to the letter in a powerful 23-21 win over the Cardinals on Sunday night in Arizona, a performance that left little doubt that the Patriots are still the team to beat in the National Football League, even if it did take a missed field goal by Arizona kicker Chandler Catanzaro from 47 yards out to seal the victory.

Garoppolo was steady, relaxed and in complete control of the offense, changing plays at the line of scrimmage when confronted with blitz looks and, even more important, when he recognized mismatches that he knew he could take advantage of, going 24 of 33 for 264 yards and an easy touchdown pass to wide receiver Chis Hogan as he changed the play when he saw Hogan single covered by rookie Brandon Williams...

...staying alive in the pocket with nimble feet and consistently finding his underneath receivers by freezing the Cardinals' safeties with look-offs and play action, then threading the football into tight windows that left the Arizona defensive backs slamming their fists into the University of Phoenix Stadium turf in frustration.

Overall, the Patriots' offense was well balanced, with the run accounting for 31 plays and an overall average of 3.4 yards per carry - not elite by any stretch of the imagination, but there's no getting around the fact that the Patriots' sticking to the running game opened up play action possibilities for Garoppolo, which benefited not only the quarterback and his receivers, but also helped the offensive line anchor against the Cardinals' pass rush, which is normally quick and violent.

Instead, the balanced play calling kept the Arizona pass rush back on their heels until the fourth quarter, when Cardinals' coach Bruce Ariens started sending multiple blitzers to try and get to Garoppolo, who remained steadfast in his resolve to keep the offense moving forward, using his backs to stem the tide of the blitzers.

James White continues to be the unsung hero of the offense, displaying solid hands, his trademark subtle elusiveness and the ability to pick up stunts and blitzers in pass protection - a perfect example was when he gave up his body by plugging a gap against a stunt on the pass play to Malcolm Mitchell that set up Blount's oxen-cart run for the touchdown.

Though the performance on offense was far from perfect, it was close enough to beat a powerful team on the road, despite missing key contributors that caused the Patriots to be nine-and-one-half point underdogs, despite handing the ball to the Cardinals on fumbles by Garoppolo and Blount, and despite the fact that the New England offensive line was missing three starters... essence, winning in spite of themselves - beating a team that the Arizona media claimed should blow out the short-handed Patriots, and that failure to do so should give the management pause and evaluate how good their team really is.

And they can question the quality of their club all they want, but the simple fact of the mater is that New England did to them what they have been doing to everyone else for the past decade-and-a-half, and there's no shame in being beaten by the Patriots, undermanned or not - but don't expect Ariens to dwell on what the media thinks he should do, as he knows exactly where things went wrong.

"We need to get the defense off the field on 3rd down" Ariens said, dejectedly, adding "They were ten of sixteen on third down conversions.  I thought that was the whole game right there."

Indeed, third downs brought out the best in Garoppolo and the Patriots, as White picked up four of them, Blount's staggering 13 yard run another and Garoppolo was a solid gold seven of nine on third down, including his two longest completions of the evening and his lone score.

In other words, the New England offense was clutch in the most dire of situations, and they were clutch missing quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and those three starting offensive linemen - and that's bad news for all of the Patriots' opponents, as the Arizona Cardinals will tell you from personal experience.

"They outplayed us." Ariens said, "and will will learn from it, grow from it, and continue on."

Perhaps all the way to Houston in February - and if so, one would think they'd like another crack at the Patriots...

No comments:

Post a Comment