Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Turnovers, Curious Play Calling Doom Patriots To Beating Themselves

Ball security is paramount to any football team's success, and on Sunday night in Foxborough, the entire country got a live tutorial on how negative an impact poor ball security can have.

For a moment, try to forget the Patriots' seemingly horrid pass defense and the curious play calling on both sides of the ball, and think about what transpired when wide receiver Julian Edelman put the ball on the ground with the game on the line against the Seattle Seahawks at Gillette Stadium.

In a see-saw affair that had seen six lead changes between two Super Bowl quality squads, the Seahawks were nursing a 25-24 lead on the strength of a Steven Hauschka 23 yard field goal with just over eight-and-a-half minutes remaining in a classic track meet that had produced just two punts for each team, both teams moving the ball seemingly at will...
C.J. Prosise burns Patriots' Elandon Roberts to set up a Seattle score

...and with excellent field position courtesy of butter-fingered rookie return man Cyrus Jones, who showed excellent burst to get the ball almost to Seattle's forty yard line before coughing it up - and the Patriots had seemed to have dodged a major bullet when alert safety Nate Ebner recovered the ball and the Patriots were in business just 5 yards out of field goal range.

Two plays later, Edelman laid an egg, giving the Seahawks the ball at midfield, and with neither defense being able to stop the opposing offense, no one in the stadium or watching at home were surprised when Wilson led the Seahawks right down the field for a touchdown and a seven point lead - nor were they surprised when Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady let his team right back down the field and poised inside the two yard line with a first and goal.

For reasons that may never be known, power back LeGarrette Blount, who had already found paydirt three times in the game, was given only one shot at the end zone from that spot, as a Brady sneak failed before he fumbled an exchange with center David Andrews, then overthrew tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was in full-grapple with Seahawk safety Cam Chancellor and fighting through a hole in his lung...

...so when the smoke cleared, Seattle walked off the field with a 31-24 win, a score that could have been reversed had New England not turned the ball over at the most critical of times.

The Seahawks scored on seven of their nine possessions, racking up an obscene 420 total yards but the Patriots' defense, true to form, allowed only the three Baldwin touchdowns in six red zone trips, forcing Seattle to have to settle for three Hauschka field goals after stalling inside the ten - while the Patriots scored on just four of their nine possessions, the result of not only being stonewalled on the goal line on the final drive, but also because of Edelman's gaffe and a what-the-hell-were-you-aiming-for Brady interception in the first half.

In short, the Patriots succeeded in beating themselves.

And that's been the thing all along, right?  That the only team capable of beating the Patriots are the Patriots themselves?

The Seahawks came into the game ranked in the bottom third of the league in total offense, leaning on their defense to propel them to a 5-2-1 record, but it had only been for the past three weeks that Wilson had been anywhere close to healthy, and the Patriots' win was the second week in a row that Seattle's offense had put up 31 points.

"This is what we've been talking about, trying to take this turn" Seattle ball coach Pete Carroll said after the game when asked about the uptick in offensive productivity. "We had been waiting to just get healthy, and maybe we waited a couple of weeks too long, but we had been waiting on Russ (Wilson) to get right, and we kicked it in last week.

"You saw the change," Carroll continued "all the offensive coaches seized the opportunity to go ahead and go."

And the weapons that Wilson has at his disposal are NFL-tested on the biggest stage the sport has to offer, all except at running back, where rookie C.J. Prosise has grasped the reigns and is making a strong case to keep the job permanently as he is proving to be an every down back.  His running between the tackles will never be confused with what the now-retired Marshawn Lynch offered...

...but his receiving ability out of the backfield is far more prolific than BeastMode, which goes to figure for a guy who runs a sub 4.4 in the forty and was a wide receiver at Notre Dame until injuries in their backfield dictated that Prosise fill in, for lack of a better choice - and with covering backs in the pattern out of the backfield a perpetual albatross for New England to begin with, Prosise was going to be problematic.

So why leave a guy that fast and that experienced in the pattern to a linebacker ill-suited to cover him with any chance of success? A better question might be, where the hell is the Big Nickel alignment that is structured just for the scenario that the Seahawks present?

And an even better question is, what is the use of having all the pieces for the Big Nickle defense, if you are not going to use it?

For the uninitiated, the Big Nickel defense employs five defensive backs, but unlike a standard nickel which calls for a third cornerback to replace a linebacker in obvious passing situations, the Big Nickel employs a third safety to replace the linebacker.  It may not sound like such a huge deal as both are defensive backs, but the difference between the two in the Patriots' scheme are like night and day.

In the Patriots' defensive scheme, weakside linebackers are devalued in favor of strong safeties in an effort to present a more difficult matchup for the opposing offense due to increased athleticism at the position to handle running backs, both curling out into the pattern and in the running game, where the strong safety will fill the gap much like a downhill-style linebacker would.

That leaves two safeties to fill in where needed, most often with free safety Devin McCourty reducing down to cover the double slot or to double on the outside, and hybrid Free/Strong centerfielder Duron Harmon patrolling the back end sideline-to-sideline - but Harmon played only a third of the snaps, and when he was in the game, he shadowed tight end Jimmy Graham, who was targeted only with linebacker coverage, mostly against Hightower

So on Sunday night against the surging Seattle Seahawks, with the Big Nickel conspicuously absent, Prosise caught seven out of seven targets for 87 yards against mostly linebacker coverage, including a 38 yard bomb that set up a Seattle score, an absolute nightmare scenario for the Patriots' defense.

Six of Prosise's seven catches converted third downs for Seattle - as a matter of fact, Prosise was on the receiving end of every single third down conversion for the Seahawks, with all but two with coverage provided by either Dont'a Hightower or Elandon Roberts, neither of whom with the wheels to stick with the sleek rookie.

Many will point to the cornerbacks, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Justin Coleman, as the goats in this scenario - and lord knows they could have played better, and have played better - but what they gave up in critical errors would not have been possible without Prosise converting third downs - and that is true in every single instance when Seattle scored.

One also has to wonder why New England didn't do the same thing on offense with passing back James White, who is even more prolific than Prosise, and with a developing NFL pedigree - but that is to be addressed at another time, along with the shakeup at defensive end.

But even with all of that happening and combined with an anemic pass rush, it came down to putting the ball on the ground in a critical moment that made the difference in a win or loss.

"Plus two in a game like this..." Carroll said with a smile, reflecting on Brady's first pick of the season and Edelman's egg, "it's fitting that a plus-two game would get you the win."

Fitting indeed.

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