Sunday, September 11, 2016

Patriots Have Plenty To Beat Cardinals Despite Doomsayers Claims

Lost in the doom and gloom over the New England Patriots missing key pieces to their offense is the fact that they still have a pretty damn good football team.

Patriots' head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick spent his entire offseason building depth behind his stars to ensure that what happened in 2015 - the decimation of his offense due to a cruel string of injuries - would not happen this season. And not just depth for the sake of depth, but quality depth.

The quality of the depth for the New England Patriots would be potential starters - if not actual starters - on virtually any other team in the league, and in most cases, they were.  On offense, for instance, Belichick brought in former second-round draft pick in Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett, then added former Eagles fourth-rounder Clay Harbor, all the while having a Rob Gronkowski clone in the person of A. J. Derby waiting in the wings...

...nabbing former Buffalo Bills' pass catcher Chris Hogan in free agency and using the draft to upgrade his offensive line in third-rounder Joe Thuney, who is being compared favorably to former Patriots' tough guy Logan Mankins in toughness and potential - and bringing in passing back D.J. Foster to back up and/or play along side James White in the backfield.

On defense, the depth is exponentially more stout.

By either trade or deft free agency movement, Belichick brought in former first round draft pics in defensive end Chris Long, weakside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, strong side linebacker Shea McClellin and added former second round cornerback Eric Rowe earlier this week, all while sitting on a couple of pretty decent draft picks in corner Cyrus Jones and tackle Vincent Valentine.

What does all of this mean in regard to tonight's contest in Arizona?  It means that the Patriots, regardless of who's in the lineup and who isn't, are built to take what they want by force, leaving behind the evil and wrong "Take what the defense gives us" philosophy and adopting a mindset that relies instead on just calling the formations and plays and daring the opposition to stop them.

That said, just run the damn ball.

Those familiar with my stylings are aware of this mantra and relentless hashtag on social media, as it has long been my opinion that New England Patriots' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels doesn't use his running backs to their full potential - instead opting for the short and intermediate passing game at a point in games when another mantra, taken from the time-honored Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy, should apply.

"Pass to score, run to win" is the tenet of the philosophy, meaning to use the passing game to build a lead, then give the ball to your backs to grind down the clock - it's as fundamental as football gets, and against the Arizona Cardinals, it couldn't be any more appropriate.

You see, the Cardinals like to blitz.  They like to blitz a lot, and because of their philosophy that speed kills, they are stocked right up the middle with perhaps the smallest and fastest linebacking corps in the NFL - and it works for them, to the point that they finished 2015 ranked fifth in total defense, holding opposing rushing games a meager 3.9 yards per carry.

But in football, small and fast will never beat big and nasty - at least not the whole game.

Small and fast may look good in the first quarter, and oftentimes into the half, but speed is a fickle thing.  Speed wanes deep in games when quarterbacks and receivers relentlessly test corners and safeties to the outside and down the seam. The effect on the human body - even those who are elite athletes - can be measured solely with the eyeball, the look in their eyes, hands on hips, winded...

Speed is abated when linebackers are physically manhandled by nasty-tempered guards, and even more so when they have to hold their ground against and effective running game - add to that a passing game that employs multiple tight ends and a couple of shifty passing backs, and the effect is even more pronounced - and all while continuously hammering them with a power running game.

You have heard television commentators and scouts describe power backs having an ability to get stronger as games wear one, but that is misleading - backs appear to have more left in the tank deep into games because they are the ones dishing out punishment to the linebackers, who have no choice to absorb the shock that saps even more of their wind.

That said, when New England faces the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night in Glendale, the best thing that they can do for the team as a whole is to run the damn ball - and keep running it regardless of initial success - not to mask any perceived deficiencies in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's game, nor just to play it safe...

...because for the Patriots to win this game, they are going to have to take what they want by force - but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can not abandon the running game in the second half, as he did in almost every game last season, opting instead to use the short passing game to chew clock, which is not what one would consider traditionally sound thinking.

Because this is the truth and there is no getting around it - the Patriots must establish a running game if they are to secure the desired outcome.

The offensive line is structured this week to run the ball, which is particularly true considering the news that Shaq Mason will return to action at right guard with a club of some sort on his broken hand - regardless of fashion statements, Mason joins an interior line consisting of center David Andrews and rookie Joe Thuney, flanked with Cameron Fleming and Marcus Cannon at the tackles... blockers all, though Thuney, Mason and, surprisingly, Cannon have looked very good in pass protection in the preseason.  Fleming is usually the sixth offensive lineman and almost always checks into the game as eligible, and if he struggles to hold back Arizona's Calais Campbell or even Chandler Jones, swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle is the superior pass protector of the two.

But to know exactly how the power running game benefits the Patriots' offense and, indeed, any offense in general, all one has to do is look back at the final quarter of last season and the post season to see what happens when the Patriots have no running game at all...

And those were lessons well learned, at least Belichick's moves in the offseason seem to speak to that end, what with bringing in two talented tight ends, a productive possession receiver and a hybrid passing back that is, essentially, a wide receiver to spell mainstays Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, both of whom spend time on the shelf with injury.

He didn't bring in another power back, however, so he'll be riding the syrup-on-waffles running style of the 6' 0", 250 pound LeGarrette Blount, complemented by special teams ace Brandon Bolden, who is good for five or six carries a game.  White is pretty much untested in the running game, but Foster was a running back in college before switching to receiver in his senior season, and he's provided some spark on the ground in the preseason.

The benefit of grinding out yards in this manner against the Cardinals factors into almost every facet of the game.

First and foremost, it forces the Cardinals to defend the entire field. Too often last season, the opposing defense was able to cheat towards their pass rush when the Patriots would abandon their running game, the extra burst a pass rusher gained by not having to worry about the run puts the offensive linemen back on their heels.

Conversely, when the Patriots' primary receivers were missing, especially Gronkowski, defenses could run with one high safety and concentrate on the intermediate zones, again the extra defensive back on the field meant that the pass rush could pin their ears back and go, knowing that the secondary had their back in tracking the running backs.

You'd have to be crazy on acid to not see how these things would aid Jimmy Garoppolo, as a successful running game would give him and the linemen the benefit of the play action, causing the pass rushers not only to delay their rush for a split second, but also taking any inherent explosiveness from the rush, and giving the linemen an instant to anchor and brace and to deliver the first punch.

The defense stands to gain as well, as the more first downs that are made by the methodical offense, the more time they have to get their proper rest, to be as fresh as possible to defend against Carson Palmer and his elite crew in the desert.

So, it's as simple as this for the Patriots tonight: Run the damn ball and keep running it right at Arizona all night and force them to respect the running game, or the Cardinals' defense will make things very tough on Jimmy Football and company - but if anyone out there feels that the Patriots are going to lose this game just because Brady, Gronk and Solder are missing, that's just not true...

...or at least, those circumstances aren't the sole deciding factors anyway.  Of course, the Patriots are a better team with those guys in the lineup, but there is still plenty enough talent and will power on the field for New England to win, yea, even dominate - but make no mistake, they have to be methodical and be conscious of time management.

And, yes, run the damn ball.

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