Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Balance Is Now Status Quo For Patriots' Offense

When you go up against the New England Patriots offense, it's next to impossible to take away all of their weapons.

I mean, the best tight end duo in the league, an electric wide receiver corps and a powerful and versatile running game - all led by the greatest quarterback to ever play the game - your 11 players are not going to be enough to take away their entire 11.

If you try to take away their twin tight ends, the receivers and backs will kill you underneath.  If you take away the receivers, the tight ends are good enough to beat you short and deep and the backs will take you up the middle - and if you take away the running game, Brady will throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns, and then power back LeGarrette Blount will put you away down the stretch anyway...

...and every once in while the Patriots will present you with unintentional opportunities via putting the ball on the ground, and if you can get to Brady enough to pressure him and maybe get a sack or two, you're going to have a chance.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had that chance late on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

Missing starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers still managed to move the ball effectively against New England's defense, but only between the twenties, as one of the best red zone offenses in the league couldn't find the end zone against one of the league's worst red zone defenses, settling for field goals the difference in the Patriots' 27-16 win in Pittsburgh.

"To be honest with you, we moved the ball up and down the field" said quarterback Landry Jones after the game, describing New England's defensive philosophy perfectly."we kicked field goals instead of scoring touchdowns."

Actually, the Steelers did find the end zone twice, and almost a third time, but a holding penalty wiped out one score in the second quarter that would have tied the game and Cornerback Malcolm Butler ended an earlier scoring threat, limiting Pittsburgh to just one touchdown in three red zone trips.

The Steelers' defense seemed to be collectively preoccupied with taking Gronkowski and Bennett out of the equation, sacrificing the short routes to Edelman, who caught nine balls for 60 yards, and leaving the box light for Blount, who flat abused the Steelers' run defense for 127 yards on just 24 carries - but the Patriots found a way to get the tight ends involved in the passing game in the second half, and the points started to pile up.

In actuality, however, perhaps Patriots head ball coach Bill Belichick was using the tight ends as decoys in order to get Edelman - who has had a slow start to the season - involved in the offense.

At first, it appeared that New England was going to balance the Steelers to death, as Brady sent both Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett on seam routes to clear out the underneath zones, leaving plenty of room for receiver Julian Edelman to cleanly separate, and for Blount to pick up ground in chunks, and good for an early fourteen point lead.

But dropped passes on third and short on consecutive series and untimely penalties stalled three consecutive possessions for New England, feeding a Pittsburgh offense with decent field position to start drives, that they were able to translate into scoring opportunities - but as has been the case since the start of the season, the Patriots' defense weathered the storm nearly every time.

A Chris Hogan fumble gave Pittsburgh the ball in Patriots' territory, but a Butler interception in the end zone denied the Steelers points, and a missed chipshot field goal by Chris Boswell denied them on another possession, all when mixed in with crucial stops on three other drives limited Pittsburgh's offense to 16 points, right on the Patriots' average points allowed for the season.

After the Patriots got past their bout of sloppy execution that plagued them through the second quarter and much of the third, they simply did what the offense is capable of and put the game away with touchdowns on consecutive drives.

And what the offense is capable of, is balance.

Thus far in 2016, the Patriots have run 433 plays on offense - 216 have been passing plays while 217 have been in the running game.  Of course that is not all a planned rotation of one pass, one run, another pass, another run - rather, it is one phase of the offense feeding off of the other and, in some cases, one setting up the other.

On the Patriots' four scoring drives, they ran 34 plays, 18 runs and 16 passes - and on the three possessions that were sandwiched between the scoring drives, the disparity between pass and run was 11 passes to three running plays.  The snaps evened out as the Patriots ran the ball to eat clock the final two possessions of the game, but the numbers don't lie - balance is the key to success.

This game against the Steelers was actually a status quo performance for New England in that they allow their opponents to hang around for a while, but eventually pulling away for the win. That has been the case for every contest except for the blowout of the Browns, where it almost seems like Belichick uses the first half to conduct mad-scientist experiments, then abandons the study in the third quarter, when his offense has scored at will.

Of course, nobody could be that arrogant, right?  But what other reason could there be for the erratic execution that has dogged them in the middle parts of games?

For his part, Steelers' linebacker Jarvis Jones was of the opinion that the Patriots were trying to do just that, trying to lull the Pittsburgh defense into a false sense of security by not targeting Gronkowski in the first half, using him and fellow tight end Martellus Bennett as lead men in the running game.

"They didn't throw the ball a lot to him in the first half" Jones said of Gronkowski, "Then they came out in the second half and they had two huge plays that set them up for touchdowns."

In fact, Steelers head ball coach Mike Tomlin admitted that on those plays he was getting desperate because his team had done everything in their power to pull even but were still trailing, so he took "calculated risks in an effort to win", but that the risks backfired badly.

In both instances - the 36-yard seam job for the touchdown and the 37-yard crosser that set up Blount's second touchdown of the game - the "calculated risks" were simply leaving Gronkowski single covered in order to get after Brady with extra rushers, which is the unforgivable sin when playing the Patriots.

Two plays in two short possessions, and the Patriots turned a tight one-point game into an eleven-point advantage and doomed Pittsburgh to their third loss of the season.

If there was a consistent force in this contest for the Patriots offense, it was Blount, who set the tone for New England early in the contest with 53 yards in 13 carries in the first half, but, perhaps more importantly, helped the offense settle back into their collective groove by putting them on his back and moving the pile.

"They had some good pressure early in the third quarter and got us in some long-yardage situation with holding penalties and having the quarterback force the ball out quickly." Belichick explained after the game, adding, "His (Blount's) runs were able to settle us down."

Blount scored twice in the game to bring his season total to eight, taking one up the middle for three yards which, combined with passing back James White's subtle 19-yard scamper with a screen from Brady, gave New England their quick 14-point cushion - and then again with a nifty five-yard job off tackle that provided the final edge.

And the defense made it hold up.

In yielding sixteen points to the Steelers, the Patriots' defense continued its five-game bend-but-don't-break, point-pinching ways in which they have given up an average of 331 yards per contest, but just an average of twelve points, defying conventional wisdom and raising the blood pressure of fans all over the region.

They have yet to surrender a 300 yard passing performance since allowing nearly four-hundred mostly garbage time yards to the Dolphins in week two as they have concentrated on limiting the big play against some larger-than-life big play athletes, and doing so while sacrificing individual stats in the name of the team.

Part of that is bleeding a little in the run defense up the middle in an effort to keep backs and mobile quarterbacks between the tackles and not let them gain the edge.  Part of that is rushing the quarterback with the bare minimum of players to concentrate more on coverage and in setting the edge, but also picking and choosing spots to blitz or send extra rushers.

Overall, the Patriots defense has yielded 107 points in seven games, an elite clip of just 15.3 points per game, but where the bulk of their success has been is in the second half, where in their past five games they have given up only 25 points, and only 12 in the fourth quarter - which corresponds with the Patriots' offense locating their aforementioned mojo...

...scoring 65 points in the second half of those games, usually pulling away late in the third quarter and complementing their stifling defense, which has been a hallmark of Bill Belichick defenses in New England for nearly two decades.

So Sunday's win against the Steelers was really the status quo for this Patriots' squad, which are still just scratching the surface of their enormous potential.  A lot of that has to do with the fact that quarterback Tom Brady is just now starting to get back in the groove after missing the first four games of the season - and while he has been excellent, he'll be the first to tell you that he and his teammates have a long way to go to be the team they want to be.

That is, World Champions.

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