Saturday, November 26, 2016

Patriots' Offense Rounding Into Form Despite Bumps In The Road

Right tackle Cannon has not allowed a quarterback hit or sack in the last four games
 Bill Belichick has long said that what his teams look like around Thanksgiving is as good as they are going to get.  This Thanksgiving, however, his New England Patriots are experiencing things differently than in any season past.

On defense, they have jettisoned their most physically gifted player, Jamie Collins, presumably for not adhering to the Patriot Way, and have spent the last two games scrambling to find their groove without their pro bowl linebacker, while on offense, the team has been slowly stabilizing as they get players back into the fold after missing significant time with one issue or another.

The blue liners have the Big Nickel alignment to fall back on, but things are not that simple for an offense that was predicted to be a literal juggernaut.  Given those lofty projections and with six games left in the season, the Patriots sit at sixth in the league in both total offense and scoring - disappointing, but there are reasons.

And it isn't as if the Patriots haven't been efficient on offense, but there have been issues with continuity, as several members of the squad have either missed good chunks of time this season, or are currently shelved - or both. Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed the first three games of the season and is currently on the shelf and expected to miss his second consecutive game with a chest injury...

...while quarterback Tom Brady missed the first four games in Roger Goodell's dog house and electric passing back Dion Lewis came off the PUP list just two weeks ago and saw limited snaps in his first action of the season in last Sunday's win at San Francisco.  Essentially, Brady's internal clock is pretty much set to the second week of the season, if we count his fist four games as a sort of preternatural preseason.

Same with Gronkowski, and Lewis has just started his preseason - but the Patriots have proven that, unlike last season, this offense is capable of carrying them to the win column.

The best and most telling sign of this comes with the incredible balance that has become a calling card.  Last season and, indeed, for the past decade, balance on offense to the Patriots meant running the ball just enough to keep the threat of the run in the brains of the opposing pass rushers.

But this season, as the offense leaned on the running game to help the team compile a 3-1 record before Brady returned, they also received a real-life tutorial on the fundamental importance of the protracted usage of the running game. Indeed, the Patriots sport the sixth-ranked rushing game in the NFL, with power back LeGarrette Blount working on a career season where he is projected to end up with nearly 1300 yards and nineteen touchdowns.

Those yardage totals haven't been seen around Foxborough in a decade, and the number of touchdowns has never been approached, but the most amazing thing about it is that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has learned that his running game is - to quote coach Herman Boone - just like Novocaine: give it time, it always works.

To Patriots' fans, there aren't too many things more beautiful than watching their 250 pound running back cut through a hole and get loose on the second level,  but is equaled in beauty by Gronkowski smothering the ball with his huge hands while sprinting up the seam, Lewis displaying his video game-quality elusiveness, James White's subtle electricity, Martellus Bennett's hand fighting at the line of scrimmage, and etc., etc.

But something is amiss in Foxborough.  Gronkowski is most certainly out this Sunday when the Patriots travel to New Jersey to take on the hated Jets, while fellow tight end Bennett and Brady were listed as questionable on the Thanksgiving injury report and did not participate in practice - which is particularly troublesome for Brady, as he's dealing with a bum knee and hasn't practiced for the past two days...

...and while Brady has such a grasp of the offense that he was able to step right in and start dominating after serving his four-game suspension to start the season, missing a couple of practices isn't a good sign. Fortunately, there's a somewhat seasoned Jimmy Garoppolo waiting in the wings in case Brady can't go against the Jets.

It's a unique situation that far sighted head ball coach Bill Belichick can use to his advantage. Garoppolo has already shown that he has a keen grasp of the offense and that he has all of the tools required of an NFL signal caller, throwing for 500 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions while leading New England to two early-season wins - and if Garoppolo does indeed end up playing on Sunday, it just adds another length of game footage to an already decent film study to either entice quarterback needy teams in the offseason, or to give Patriots' fans solace in Brady's golden years.

So, worst case, Garoppolo at quarterback, a full complement of wide receivers and a backfield full of sick moves and "Blount" force are in store for the Jets, as the passing back combo of White and Lewis and the deep seam element provided by Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell can somewhat offset the loss of the two tight ends against the mediocre Jets' secondary.

Somewhat, because Patriots quarterbacks have targeted their tight ends with a full 40-percent of their pass attempts this season, and their passing backs - primarily White - another thirty percent.  So it remains to be seen if the wide receivers can have an immediate and forceful impact on an offense that has obviously gone heavy.

Of course, everything on offense is dependent on two critical factors - Brady getting the ball out of his hands and to the receivers as they make their breaks, and the offensive line - a unit that looks as if they have rounded into form and are playing their best ball at the right moment - giving him that time.

Led by - dare we say it? - right tackle Marcus Cannon, who hasn't surrendered a quarterback hit or sack in the past four games, the Patriots offensive line has very quietly become a cohesive unit that is getting better as the season progresses. In fact, if one were to look at the line in a purely statistical nature, the Patriots rank in the top 10 for the least quarterback hits surrendered (49, ranked 10th in the NFL) and sacks (20, ranked 9th).

Given those numbers, it isn't surprising that New England is ranked sixth in the league in passing, rushing, scoring and total offense, and has helped to introduce balance back into the Patriots' game plan.

Cannon and center David Andrews are both getting whispers of Pro Bowl notice, while left guard Joe Thuney has an inside track to making the league's All- Rookie team. Gigantic Cam Fleming has become a staple swing tackle and lines up as an eligible tight end on a good portion of snaps (When you ear the referee say "Number 71 is reporting as eligible, that's Fleming) and usually lines up on the weak side covering the outside shoulder of left tackle Nate Solder.

Which is purposeful as the veteran Solder has been the weakest link on the line in 2016 and has been the culprit in several negative plays for the Patriots' offense in the past two games, including a holding penalty that negated a lovely 35 yard Blount rumble for a touchdown against the 49ers.

With so much talent on the Patriots' offense, finding a left tackle in the draft or free agency this offseason is probably going to be priority-one, but that is a subject for another time.

As it stands, the Patriots certainly have enough on both sides of the ball to take the Jets, whom they play twice in the final six games - even if Brady and Bennett join Gronkowski on the skids - but with the suddenly resurgent Miami Dolphins just two games back and representing the season finale for New England, the AFC East has the tightest race it's seen in almost a decade... every play counts, and every player is vital - and with a bevy of opportunists playing split wide, in the slot and in the backfield, there is no reason why the Patriots shouldn't come away with their eighth consecutive division title, and a decent shot at a first round bye.

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