Monday, October 17, 2016

Patriots' Dismantling Of Bengals An Omen Of Things To Come

Coming into Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots' All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski had only six catches for 120 yards on the season. 

He eclipsed both numbers.

Gronkowski caught seven balls for 162 yards and a touchdown, owning the seam and frustrating the Bengals defense into submission, while quarterback Tom Brady registered a nearly perfect performance as the Patriots pulled away from Cincinnati in the second half enroute to a 35-17 victory in Brady's homecoming game at Gillette Stadium.

But the talisman for the second half, come-from-behind juggernaut came courtesy of the New England defense.

Midway through the third quarter and looking sluggish in allowing the Cincinnati Bengals a 14-10 advantage, The Patriots' defense had the Bengals backed up at their own eight yard line when terminally underappreciated middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower broke through the Bengals pass protection and gave Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton the football equivalent of a high school swirly...

...spinning Dalton to the turf in the end zone with pure brute strength and registering his second safety in as many weeks to get the Patriots within two points.

Brady and Gronkowski took over the game from there.

New England scored on four consecutive possessions after Hightower's defensive spark, Brady throwing two of his three touchdown passes and leading a 24-3 onslaught that buried the Bengals, turning a tight game into a laugher, the Bengals defenders becoming so frustrated at the turn of events that they took to their typical antics of pushing and shoving and trying to goad the Patriots into retaliation...

...which did happen, but by the time the game regressed into a schoolyard shoving match, the outcome had all but been decided.

Brady was nearly flawless, going 29 of 35 for 376 yards, his only misses in the second half being throwaways toward wide receiver Julian Edelman while escaping pressure in the right flat and a purposeful overthrow of Gronkowski on a fade route in the left corner of the end zone - otherwise, Brady's arm was lethal to a besieged Cincinnati secondary that had no answer for Gronkowski, who had a career day in yardage.

Gronkowski caught five of his seven balls in that second half surge, while fellow monstrous tight end Martellus Bennett gathered in all five of his targets in the same time frame. In fact, the Patriots passing game went through the tight ends and running back for the second week in a row, with passing back James White picking up 47 yards on eight carries and power back LeGarrette Blount chipping in with tow receptions for 20 yards.

Overall, a full seventy percent of Brady's throws went towards either a tight end or a back, and three-quarters of his completions as the Patriots went solely 12 personnel for half of the game. On most other teams, numbers like that would be unheard of, but it's been standard brand in Foxborough since opening night - and the disparity in contribution between wide receivers and the backs and tight ends is only going to get wider.

Because while Bennett and White have been contributors since day one, Gronkowski has had a role in the passing game in just the last two contests and setting a personal pace that will see him right around 80 receptions and a ridiculous 1700 yards for the season despite missing the first two games of the season and being limited to a blocking role in two others.

Bennett, who seems to be just fine playing Robin to Gronkowski's Batman, is on pace for 70 catches and nearly 1000 yards, and White, who has earned a role in the offense while "filling in" for passing back Dion Lewis, is on pace for 65 receptions and almost 700 yards - between just those three players, the trio is on pace to deliver 215 catches and 3400 yards...

...while all of the wide receivers combined are on pace to account for "just" 160 catches and 2075 yards, which is a gap of 70% to 30% in favor of the backs and tight ends, and that doesn't even take into consideration that Lewis is due back this week and will add significantly to that total - and even if he and White split carries instead of the offense going 22 personnel, the gap remains.

Does this mean that the Patriots are devaluing the wide receiver position in favor of heavier sets?

If so, it wouldn't really be that much of a surprise, given that Edelman is the only one of the receivers that could be considered prolific from past experience, but even he may take a seat in favor of the taller and faster Chris Hogan, who owns a premium of 21.2 yards per reception as Brady's designated deep threat, and who is clearly ahead of Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell on the depth chart.

This is not to say that the receivers aren't an integral part of the offensive skill set, just that they have been passed in overall dynamicism and, perhaps more importantly, in versatility. That being said and true, a look at the past two contests with Brady back from suspension reveals a trend emerging.

The Patriots have been in 12 personnel - for the uninitiated, that's one running back and two tight ends - a little more than half of the offensive snaps, meaning that there has been room for only two receivers in the set on more than half of the snaps, and when Lewis returns, there is every possibility that head ball coach Bill Belichick and his number one, Josh McDaniels, will integrate the 22 personnel package...

...having Lewis and White in together on some packages and either Lewis or White together with Blount in others, and an increase of two tight end packages.  This will force defenses to defend differently than they normally would, with both Gronkowski and Bennett receiving the majority of the attention from the secondary, while Lewis and White will have linebackers focused on them.

All the while, keep in mind, having to defend against the run, as Blount and Lewis are effective runners and White has shown some spark as well.

The Patriots are just now scratching the surface of what their offense can be, and it's frightening - not just in how they will be able to move up and down the field at will, but how they can control the clock and limit possessions for their opposition.

The main beneficiaries of this will be the defense, which is second in the NFL in points allowed at 15.2, and which has allowed just one three hundred yard passing performance in six games, that to Miami who mounted a serious comeback in week 2 with New England in a two-deep zone shell to prevent the big play - essentially a "prevent" defense.

Otherwise, New England's pass defense is yielding just 228 yards per game through the air, which would make them a top 10 unit, despite the criticism from media and fans that they give up too many yards down the field and can't get off the field on third down - and Sunday's win over Cincinnati is an encapsulation of their success.

Against the Bengals, the Patriots defense allowed only five third down conversions in twelve attempts, allowed just 7.2 yards per pass attempt and 3.8 yards per rush, collected two sacks, had an epic goal line stand and scored a safety for the second game in a row.

It's complementary football at it's finest, and the Patriots are about to get stronger and more dangerous on offense.

Somehow, it doesn't seem fair - but if the actions of the National Football League in the "DeflateGate" matter against Tom Brady and the Patriots tell us anything, it's that fair is in the eye of the beholder, and that Patriots' fans see this as turnabout being fair play.

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