Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Patriots' Defense In Flux? Return To Big Nickel Proving Fortuitous

Quick, can you name the team that has a defense that during NFL action on Sunday allowed less than 300 yards in total offense, collected five sacks, forced five fumbles, held their opponent to five of fourteen in third down conversions and forced eight punts, including five three-and-outs?

Surely, you say, not the New England Patriots?

Any team facing the San Francisco 49ers would be expected to limit their anemic passing game, while struggling against their top five running game, and every team has.  One would expect that any team facing the 49ers would beat them handily, and nine of the ten teams they've faced in 2016 have  done just that.

The New England Patriots defense held the status quo in their 30-17 victory over San Francisco at Levi's Stadium on a soggy Sunday afternoon in the bay area, but also holding the 49er's to their second lowest scoring output of the season, only a last-ditch, desperation, garbage time touchdown keeping the 'Niners from establishing a new low water mark for offensive ineptitude.

But that is expected of the Patriots, to the point where their fans sometimes forget that the guys on the other side of the ball are professional football players as well, and are going to make plays.

That said and true, the rhetorical question that emerges in regard to the Patriots' defense is a three-part query: First, why do they look so confused at times and, secondly, was trading off linebacker Jamie Collins the talisman for the aforementioned look of confusion?

The third question is perhaps the the most poignant of all, that being, have our expectations as fans clouded our vision?

All of us bought into the preseason banter that the Patriots sported a top ten defense to compliment a juggernaut offense, and there was really no one that could beat them except themselves, which they did against the Seattle Seahawks last week by the offense turning the ball over twice to the at-the-time sixth-ranked Seahawks' passing game...

...and by shying away from the Big Nickel defensive alignment, a move that many decried as being a harbinger of things to come, when in reality the sloppiness can be attributed to different looks in an attempt to ascertain where the linebacker coverage skill sets lie in a real-world setting in order to make up for the loss of Collins.

They figured to have an easier time of it on Sunday - and they did - but as is often the case against teams with mobile quarterbacks and well developed passing backs, the Patriots struggled at times, because when a mobile quarterback escapes the pocket, more often than not he's looking for his hot read, which is almost always a back or a tight end.

The key to keep this from happening is for the defensive ends and outside linebackers to set the hard edge and funnel everything back to wards the center of the field, where bigger bodies await - but if the quarterback does escape and gets to the edge, the corners, safeties and linebackers have already been in coverage for four-to-five seconds, an eternity in pass coverage.

That's where the Big Nickel (three safety) alignment comes in so importantly,  as it gives the team a better chance to both set the edge and to get on top of backs and tight end in the pattern - the keys, of course, being that strong safety Patrick Chung reduces down to become, essentially, a weak side linebacker.  Chung, despite being undersized in the box at 5' 11" and 215 pounds, is one of the premier tacklers in the league and can set a hard edge by being faster to the spot than the offensive linemen.

That skill was on full display against San Francisco, and didn't escape the attention of head ball coach Bill Belichick.

"When you are coming out of space like that, you can't let the quarterback get outside when they are as athletic as Kaepernick or Tyrod Taylor." Belichick said after the game, adding, "It's a tough open field tackle, Chung is one of our best tacklers, he's got to be one of the best tacklers in the league whether he's in line or in space or whoever he's tackling."

Collins "free-lanced" his way out of New England by abandoning the edge and allowing too many plays to get outside of him, and the film on Jabaal Sheard the past few games suggests the same tendency, which is most likely why he didn't make the trip to San Francisco - so the Patriots made due at Levi's Stadium with greybeards Rob Ninkovich and Chris Long responsible for the edges...

...and the results were mixed as 49ers' quarterback Colin Kaepernick still managed to pick up his hot read on a few occasions - though not nearly the debacle New England suffered at the hands of the Seahawks - and Kaepernick managed to pick up a couple of first downs by scrambling up the middle.

So it's safe to say that the Patriots' defense is a work in progress, but when hasn't it been?

"When you get into the season we know things change - personnel, scheme, whatever the case may be." Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia offered up on Tuesday. "That's where we go in and try to adjust. You don't get too high, you don't get too low and you try to stay consistent."

Not much has been made of the timing of the Collins move - other than fans loudly wondering why the Patriots would trade away a premiere defensive talent in the middle of what was supposed to be a Super Bowl run - but coming off of the bye and facing two non-conference opponents in a row gives us a clue.

The non-conference record is far down the list on tie-breakers to determine conference seeding, so a loss isn't as devastating as an in-conference or in-division loss would be, so never would there have been a better time to get some game film on pieces like Shea McClellin, Barkevious Mingo or newcomer Kyle Van Noy than having two consecutive games against the NFC West - and both games against mobile quarterbacks who are dangerous in space.

None of the aforementioned players have had a large presence on the defense thus far - though all have seen significant time on special teams - but we have seen them with more of a role on the second level the past two games, and that should continue on a part-time basis.

Part-time, because there is not a team in the league that can run the Big Nickel like the Patriots can, and with the post-Thanksgiving stretch filled with danger - three divisional games and contests against the always tough Ravens and Broncos - fans should expect to see the New England defense back to their normal bend-but-don't-break philosophy.

Next up: The New York Jets, who have had a tough time scoring points and have one of the worst passing games in the NFL, but who rely heavily on their short passing game to - you guessed it - their running backs.  The Jets have had less than a 50% success rate at getting the ball to their downfield receivers, one of the worst rates in the NFL, so the onus will be on the Big Nickel to shorten the field and keep the backs in check.

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