Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Patriots' 53 - Rough And Tumble Group Favors Substance Over Style

Defensive end Chris Long (95) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) epitomize the relentless and tough Patriots' defense

The Patriots have chosen substance over style.

With the release of multiple wide receivers, including "certain" cap lock Keshawn Martin, the New England Patriots have announced to the football world the very thing that we've been projecting since General Manager and head ball coach Bill Belichick traded for tight end Martellus Bennett: Juggernaut.

Eschewing the stylish and casual fan-favorited finesse offense in which the Patriots would move the ball down the field utilizing small, quick wide receivers and passing backs and largely dismissing the power game that is the essence of professional football, Belichick has assembled an offense that will be nearly as old school as most folks can remember....

...or at least back to the mid-1970's, when the Patriots took what they wanted by force.  Back then, the running game was the focus of the offense and the passing game was in a transition from being just an aesthetic novelty to a way for innovative coaches to dominate the game.

Now, many are perplexed and even upset that the Patriots kept just four wide receivers on the roster, and are following the Boston media's supposition that Belichick cut the unit down to bare bones in order to seek "younger" wide outs, but this simply isn't true. 

Oh sure, if Belichick came across a good deal to supplement his pass catching corps, he would make a move if the price was right, but to solely leave himself with talent in the skill positions simply to go shopping for a receiver is akin to clearing out your cupboards of good food in hopes that someone stops by with better products to restock you.

Belichick doesn't work like that - instead, he did keep his top 10 pass catchers on the roster, it's just that he doesn't limit his roster by differentiating between units, and that there is so much talent outside of the wide receiver corps that the tight ends and running backs sucked some of those outside depth slots away from them.

So, instead of a diverse group of smallish wideouts with blazing speed, Belichick has collected a stable of matchup nightmares that, combined, open up his entire playbook, no matter the down and distance, no matter the defensive personnel and no matter the personnel that he has on the field at the same instant.

For example, the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett are so complete for the position that they provide Belichick with both two large pass catching options in the pass pattern, but also two elite run blockers on the edge.  James White and D.J. Foster provide him with two wheel backs who are just as adept at picking up the blitz in pass protection as they are running patterns in the flat.

So what's left are two quick, shifty slot-sized receivers, an experienced possession guy and a developmental rookie with a ton of upside - there are no burners with world-class speed, just a collection of hands that do just about everything well, and who Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can position anywhere in their concept-based offense, exploiting the defense's deficiencies.

The running game, which many seem to feel has been devalued is indeed thin where power backs are concerned, has been left entirely to pretty much what they had to work with last season, and that has to be weighing heavily on Patriots' nation, as are the question marks surrounding the offensive line.

Quarterbacks - 2

Jimmy Garoppolo
Jacoby Brissett

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past 18 months, you knew the Quarterback depth chart was going to look similar to this.  Certain Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady will be eligible to return to the team after serving a four-game suspension, but don't expect either of these guys to hit the bread lines when he does...

...that is, unless a quarterback needy team makes Belichick an offer he can't refuse at the trade deadline for Garoppolo - and that offer would have to be a second-rounder, at minimum.

Many are falling off of the Garoppolo bandwagon after what they deemed as an uneventful and mediocre preseason, but what has to be remembered is that - just like with every other team in the league - the Patriots ran their offense without having a game plan in place, rather, they wanted to put Garoppolo in a position to see how he handled certain tasks.

It doesn't always make for the best football and, certainly, the fan comments bear that out, but it gave Garoppolo and the coaching staff invaluable film to go back and study without giving up too much of his current skill set to upcoming opponents.

Running Backs - 5

LeGarrette Blount
James White
D.J. Foster
Brandon Bolden
James Develin

The structure of the backfield isn't any different than what it was last season, except that rookie D.J. Foster is, in essence, Dion Lewis. 

Now, this is not to say that Foster is the same type of player, just that he is the only player making his first appearance and is a relative unknown ready to burst onto the scene in a similar manner that Lewis did last season.  As most people are aware, Foster switched from being a running back at Arizona to being a wide receiver as his coaches desperately attempted to find his niche in the offense, and the result was a Patriots-like diversity.
LeGarrette Blount

New England's passing backs are required to be able to line up anywhere in the formation, run precise route and encompass the entire route tree - such as it is in this offense - and to be able to pick up the blitz in pass protection.  If you can't do those three things, you will not be able to contribute to this offense - but Foster and third-year man James White are excellent at all three.

The power back duties in Belichick's versions of the Erhardt-Perkins offense combine elements of the passing back duties along with the ability to grind out tough yards on the ground in the running game, and despite grumblings to the contrary, Blount is such an entity, and according to advanced statistics, he has been one of the best in recent years despite not putting up fantasy numbers.

To supplement Blount, special teams' ace Brandon Bolden returns, and is good for a couple of carries per game, and also has value in the passing game, and Belichick signed former Tennessee Titans' second round selection Bishop Sankey to the practice squad.  Sankey is like-sized with White and is best suited as a passing back, but has also proven the ability to run between the tackles, though the Titans' rarely used him in that capacity.

Tight Ends - 4

Rob Gronkowski
Martellus Bennett
A. J. Derby
Clay Harbor

This is the key to the entire offense.

The Patriots have four very good to excellent tight ends, the top two options on the depth chart at elite status among their peers, with Harbor a crafty move option who is more an hback, and Derby has flashed athleticism and great hands all through preseason.

There is no reason the Patriots should have any less than two tight ends on the field at the same time, given the mix of pass catching, work after the catch and inline blocking skill - And when one considers that, it makes the lack of depth in the wide receiver corps make a little more sense.

The abilities that Gronkowski and Bennett bring to the field means that the 12, 13, 22 and 23 personnel packages can be incorporated as standard formations in the Patriots' offense, regardless of down or distance - and in the latter two, with two backs and either two or three tight ends, and all able to line up anywhere in the formation, it puts a lot of stress on the defense to identify who is running what route and who is going to cover whom.

As we know, the Patriots' tight ends have enough speed to leave linebackers in the dust and the requisite bulk and nasty demeanor to trample defensive backs, requiring most defensive coordinators to double at least one of them, leaving someone open in the pattern.

It's a recipe for success that will leave defenses spent, and make the running game that much more effective in clock-killing mode, truly grasping the tenets of the Erhardt-Perkins scheme, "Pass to score, run to win."

Receivers - 5

Julian Edelman
Chris Hogan
Danny Amendola
Malcolm Mitchell
Matt Slater

To say that a receiving unit has been devalued in an offense that features the concept-based philosophy would be absurd - at least it would be absurd unless the pass catching talent among the tight ends and backs numbered so many and was so eclectic in their structure that they actually represented three of the top four receiving options.

That's what defenses opposing the Patriots are staring down the barrel at, and it proposes a dose of reality for New England Patriots' fans.

With tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett being who they are, rarely if ever would one imagine they will be taken off the field, and if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels does as expected and plays at least one running back in each formation, that leaves just two "skill position" slots open for receivers.

Edelman and Hogan are the top options among the corps, leaving Amendola and Mitchell as dangerous depth options behind them.

Offensive Linemen - 9

Nate Solder (LT)
Marcus Cannon (RT)
Joe Thuney (LG)
David Andrews (C)
Jonathan Cooper (RG)
Ted Karras (G)
Shaq Mason (G)
Cameron Fleming (T)
LaAdrian Waddle (T)

The fact that Cooper made the 53 and was not waived with injury consideration makes him the favorite to start at right guard in the season opener, despite having zero reps in the preseason.

And, really, right guard is the only position on the line that isn't set with camp breaking.  Cooper battled a plantar issue throughout camp, while incumbent guard Mason broke his hand against Chicago in the second preseason game.  That left the position to be manned by the undersized-but-wily Kline (who has since been traded away, then not) and the stiff rookie Karras, so either Cooper or Mason would be a step up in talent.

Left guard Joe Thuney is drawing comparisons to a young Logan Mankins with his sound technique and nasty trench fighting while Andrews continues to be the feel-good story that won't go away - so with the interior seemingly buttoned up except the question at right guard, the conversation deflects to play of the tackles.

Sebastian Vollmer is gone for the time being - possibly for good as age and wear and tear on his body is starting to catch up with him - so the onus has fallen to Cannon, who has had a very nice camp and preseason.  Cannon caught a lot of grief last season as the main contributor to the beatings that Brady took, but the fact of the matter was that he was limited with a painful toe injury that forced him from covering Solder's spot on the left, and even made slide stepping on the right a challenge.

But he seems to be fully recovered and has mirrored opposing defensive ends well, not giving up the bull rush and showing the ability to push the more aggressive ends around the pocket.

If there is a question mark, it is with Solder, who appears a step slow against speed rushers and came up lame with what appeared to be a hamstring in the final preseason game.  If he can't go, Waddle will get the call, as he is experienced on the blind side, coming from pass crazy Texas A&M via the Detroit Lions.


These are exciting times for the New England Patriots' defense.

Last season, it was the defense that carried the team to the AFC Championship game, ranking ninth in total defense among 32 NFL teams, holding their opposition to under 300 yards of total offense nine different times, finishing the season second in sacks (behind only the Broncos), first in sack yardage, and were in the top ten in interceptions and forced fumbles.

All of this despite the fact that the Patriots' offense had the worst time of possession on offense in the league down the stretch, subsequently leaving opposing offense with the best drive starting positions in the league.

That shouldn't be an issue this time around, as the offense is - at least on paper - a literal juggernaut that should trample opposing defenses and do to them what happened to the Patriots' defense last season - but even if it doesn't, the defenders of Foxborough have gotten bigger, stronger, faster and smarter in the offseason, not to mention far deeper, and are poised for an epic run unseen in these parts in over a decade.

Consider: A front seven that had almost no depth at all last season is now perhaps the deepest in the league, spurred on by Belichick plucking "washed up" free agent Chis Long from the Rams, and "bust" DE/LB Shea McClellin from the Bears, then trading a third-day draft pick to Cleveland for misused athletic freak Barkevious Mingo - former first round selections, all...

...then fortifying the defensive backfield by drafting Alabama's Cyrus Jones in the second round and trading a fourth round pick to Philadelphia for their second round corner selection last season in Utah's Eric "Death" Rowe.
Barkevious Mingo

So now, instead of worrying if now-retired weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo was going to survive the season without going on IR with limited depth to replace him, the Patriots are stocked full of second level talent.  Now, instead of wondering how in the world Belichick was going to shore up the weakside edge so that teams didn't run for six yards per carry, he got rid of no-edge-setting Chandler Jones and replaced him with Jabaal Sheard and backed him up with Trey Flowers.

Now, instead of worrying that greybeard Rob Ninkovich was playing too many snaps and was going to be injured, the team has Long and McClellin to take over some of that workload - and good thing, too, as Ninkovich finds himself injured and suspended for the first four games of the season, so the depth is already paying dividends.

Defensive Line - 7

Chris Long (DE)
Malcom Brown (NT)
Alan Branch (DT)
Anthony Johnson (DT)
Vincent Valentine (DT/NT)
Jabaal Sheard (DE)
Trey Flowers (DE)

There may not be a younger interior defensive line in the NFL, nor one with such an eclectic skill set.

Brown is a nose tackle, plain and simple.  He takes on the double teams so that the players on the second level can step into the voided gap left by the guard and disrupt plays before they have a chance to get started.  Valentine has nose tackle size and is virtually impossible to twist and drive from his spot, as was evidenced in the preseason, but he also has some raw pass rushing skill and has worked at the three-tech...
Trey Flowers

...which is where Branch and Johnson will operate from.  Branch is a huge specimen for a rush tackle, but that's not all he is, as he proved to be very effective against the run down the stretch, and particularly in the post-season.

Johnson has the opportunity to become what Dominique Easley could not.  They are like-sized, but Johnson is no Easley in terms of sheer athleticism.  What Johnson does have going for him is that he is relentless and quick - perhaps a little too quick in college where he suffered numerous bouts of encroachment - and has experience from the 0, 1 and 3 tech spots.

The talent at defensive end is so good that it's almost unfair.

With Ninkovich Suspended for the first four games, Chris Long will continue his impressive work from preseason manning the strong side, where he proved to be every bit the first round draft pick he was early in his career with the Rams.  Sheard's health is a bit of a mystery, but when fully healthy he is a growing force on the weak side - and in his stead, second-year man Trey Flowers showed more than enough skill to fill in ably.

It doesn't hurt the ends to have names like Collins and Mingo backing them up on the second level, nor does it hurt that both Mingo and Shea McClellin can reduce down, put their hand in the dirt and be productive.

Linebackers - 6

Dont'a Hightower
Jamie Collins
Barkevious Mingo
Shea McClellin
Jonathan Freeny
Elandon Roberts

The largest and deepest linebacking corps in Belichick's tenure could also be the best.

Hightower and Collins are givens as starters, while the call could go to either McClellin or Mingo as the third in a standard 4-3 front.  Mingo changed the landscape on the second level with his performance in the last preseason game, when Belichick had him lineup in both outside spots to test his mettle on the edges and then in the middle to get an idea of his range...

...which is ridiculous, as the Cleveland Browns' castoff chased the ball all over the field - and by the time he was done for the evening, he had given rise to the notion that, for the first time in four seasons, the Patriots actually had the talent-in-numbers to run a base 4-3, with Collins and Mingo - freak athletes, both - flanking the warrior middle backer Hightower.

Freeny and Roberts are inside depth and Roberts earned his niche on special teams as well.

Cornerbacks - 6

Malcolm Butler
Logan Ryan
Cyrus Jones
Eric Rowe
Justin Coleman
Jonathan Jones

Is Rowe a corner or a safety?  Lord knows, Belichick likes his hybrids and Rowe is Devin McCourty like in that he has the size and ball skills to match up with receivers on the outside, while having the speed and instincts to play centerfield in the Patriots' Big Nickle alignment - but with the safety positions ably manned, let's call him a corner.

Solid group of corners, young fire-pissers who like getting up in the craw of the opposing receiver.

Butler has ascended over his claim to fame to become what appears to be a perennial Pro Bowl cover guy, and Ryan has made the most of his extended reps last season to become a more-than-adequate partner in crime, while Coleman draws the ire of many-a-receiver with his in-your-face press style.

Cyrus Jones is just as aggressive, if not more so, and did some good things in the secondary, but his calling card this early in his career is already getting inside the heads of the opposing receivers and showing instincts of a much more experienced corner - yeah, he got burned a couple of times in the preseason, but when he becomes that experienced corner, those won't happen.

Safeties - 6

Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung
Duron Harmon
Jordan Richards
Nate Ebner
Brandon King

Interesting twist with the defensive structure - what with the gain in skill and depth in the linebacking corps - has this most talented safety corps even more dangerous than they were last season, when they lead the Patriots' defense to the ninth-best ranking in the league.

Much of that was due to the 4-2-5 Big Nickle alignment wherein Chung would reduce down into the box, where he would essentially become a weakside linebacker and key on the running backs, and wherein McCourty would align as a double slot and help out the corners in press coverage - all the while, Harmon would patrol the north forty like a junkyard dog, showing a ridiculous range, even for a true centerfielder.

But with Mingo now onboard and with all of the qualities desired in a weakside linebacker, is there even a need for the Big Nickle any longer?

The answer to that is a resounding "yes", as the defense is loaded with so many hybrid players that with three safeties on the field, neither the opposing quarterback nor center will be able to easily detect where the pressure will be coming from in the pass rush, not will they be able to identify coverages, leading to good things for the Patriots' aggressive corners.

The deal just made for Eric Rowe from the Eagles could be a leverage move to extend Harmon, as Rowe possesses an identical physical makeup and skill set...

Specialists - 3

Stephen Gostkowski (K)
Ryan Allen (P)
Joe Cardona (LS)

Gostkowski enters this season as the most accurate kicker in NFL history, though he's had a few lapses in the past 8 months, missing a vital extra point in last January's AFC Title game, then blowing a couple of field goal attempts this preseason.

Allen is solid, if unspectacular, with a penchant for pinning teams inside their own 10 yard line.  Belichick prefers left footed kickers because the spin on the ball is - as you might guess - exactly the opposite as it is for right footed kickers, which make up the majority of punters in the NFL.

Cardona was transferred to the Naval Reserves this summer so he could pursue his NFL career, and that's the only word you will hear out of him - as with any lineman, and especially for centers, the less you hear, the better the job he's doing...

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