Monday, December 12, 2016

Of Ponies And Unicorns - Patriots Simply Evolve Into What They Need To Be

Martellus Bennett was brought to Foxborough specifically for this eventuality.

Last season, the New England Patriots suffered a brutal string of injuries on offense that left it a literal shell of itself, causing a nose dive from the undisputed favorite to defend their world championship in Super Bowl 50 to a mix-matched motley crew that could barely squeeze out a touchdown here and there.

The issue, one that Patriots general manager Bill Belichick went to great lengths to repair this offseason, was a horrific lack of depth that greatly contributed to the Patriots finishing the regular season 2-4 down the stretch, then being eliminated by the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game.
Blount, Brady, Bennett and Edelman (l to r)

In four consecutive weeks, the Patriots lost wide receiver Julian Edelman, passing back Dion Lewis, slot receiver Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski - and while all but Lewis would eventually return, the loss of power back LeGarrette Blount in week 14 crippled the offense beyond any repair.

Going through such a debilitating string of injuries was unprecedented in team history, and hammered home the message that the Patriots' fortunes have always relied on the superficial, and Belichick lived dangerously for years with teams that looked awesome on the surface, but were about as deep as a conversation with a three year old.

In 2015, it came back to bite him in the ass.

With Lewis already gone for the season and passing back James White just getting his feet wet in the offense, the only options left for Belichick was Brandon Bolden and a clearly washed up Steven Jackson, and it absolutely killed them in the post season.  Without the threat of a running game - the 41 yards per game that they averaged in the playoffs can hardly be called a "threat" - the offense collapsed...

...just as it did in 2011 when Gronkowski suffered an ankle injury in the AFC Championship game and was a shell of himself in the Super Bowl; just as it did in 2012 when Gronkowski was lost for the season with a broken forearm; just like it did in 2013 when Gronkowski had his knee shredded for him, losing half of his season and all of the playoffs.

You get the picture. But in each season since the debacle in the Super Bowl against the Giants, Belichick has brought in depth to guard against Gronkowski's annual blood letting, with Kellen Winslow, Jr. in 2012, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan in 2013, Tim Wright in 2014 and Scott Chandler last season - but none of the aforementioned offered a viable alternative to the massively structured and talented Gronkowski.

Which, of course, really didn't matter in 2014 as Gronkowski enjoyed a relatively healthy season and he absolutely dominated in the playoffs and the Patriots won their fourth trophy.

Coincidence? Perhaps, especially considering he was healthy last season, but with neither the Chiefs nor the Broncos having any reason at all to respect the run, they set their sites on Brady and gave him the beating of his life, especially the Broncos who loaded up the pass rush and sacked him four times, but hit him hard, times six.

Brady went to great pains - pardon the pun - to target Gronkowski, completing eight of fifteen passes to the monstrous tight end for 144 yards and a four-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left in the AFC Championship that put the Patriots just a two-point conversion shy of overtime, but he also put the Patriots in a hole by targeting Gronkowski in triple coverage deep in his own territory...

...Von Miller intercepting and the Broncos converting three plays later, taking an eight point lead that would haunt the Patriots the rest of the game - and, indeed, the entire offseason.

Curiously, Belichick didn't address depth at running back in the offseason, opting instead to trade for Bennett, who calls himself the "Black Unicorn", with some forethought to the fist month of the season, knowing that Gronkowski would play sparingly, if at all, during a period in which Brady would be playing commando on an Italian beach instead of quarterback in Foxborough, courtesy of Roger Goodell's ego.

He brought back Blount with the notion that he had Lewis healing and Tyler Gaffney sitting on the practice squad, and then set his sites on backing up the wide receiver corps, bringing in restricted free agent Chris Hogan from Buffalo and drafting Georgia's Malcolm Mitchell, then went heavy on defense to replace departed pass rusher Chandler Jones and retired linebacker Jerod Mayo.

But that is a subject for another time.  What matters in the here-and-now is that despite the Gronkowski Injury - and, of course, barring any injury to the backfield - the Patriots' offense is still loaded.

The protracted absence of Gronkowski is about to cause the remaining Patriots' skill position players realize their purpose on offense and, perhaps more aesthetically important, it is about to cause the fans to realize that at least this season, there is life beyond Gronkowski.

For example, while the threat of the 12 and 22 personnel packages - that is, the two-tight end sets - may be history, the 21 personnel - that is the two running back Pro set - is alive and well, and it's called the "Pony".

The Pony offense is actually a variation of the Pro Set, but instead of utilizing a fullback the Patriots will employ two passing backs on some plays, a passing back and power back on others, and a power back and a fullback on still others - and since all of the Patriots' running backs are capable in the ground game, the Pony alignment will keep the linebackers and safeties on their heels...

...and perhaps even more so than having two tight ends in the pattern. This is not to disparage the effectiveness of a Gronkowski in the passing game, but it is far easier for the team to replace his blocking prowess in the ground game than it is to replicate his production in the passing game - and since the Patriots have swing tackles that report eligible and also Bennett, a fine blocker in his own right in addition to being a talented pass catcher, the Pony alignment will cause greater confusion on the second and deep levels.

This runs counter to what every opponent has come to expect from New England, especially division foes that are so familiar with Belichick's schemes - not to mention teams like Denver and Pittsburgh, whom the Patriots seem to play every single season -  that they build their defenses each season to answer what they know, simply from a personnel standpoint, that offense is capable of.

But where these teams fall into trouble is that while almost all teams have one subsection of their arsenal that their opponents absolutely have to game plan for, the Patriots have three.

Most are resigned to the now-fact that Brady is prepared to play into his 40's, and is still perhaps the steadiest, most consistent quarterback in the league.  There are a ton of intangibles that make up the prototype, having the same head coach for his entire career chief among them. In a way, they define each other - and the only way to game plan for them is to take away their weapons...

...and even that doesn't work most days, but the Patriots are entering an era where they are going to have to win with their running backs.

Two of them, power back Blount and White, have two of the top four totals in yards from scrimmage on the team, with Blount seriously flirting with a thousand yard season. Lewis looks to be regaining the form that made him an explosive home run threat - so that three-headed monster is something that must be game planned for.

The third is the offensive line. Quietly but quite convincingly, Dante Scarnecchia has put together a solid, if unspectacular, line that has allowed Brady to be sacked just 11 times in eight games, but just three times since the bye week and none in the last two games, and a line that has also allowed the backs to grind out 119 yards per game, good for sixth in the entire league.

Also something to keep in mind is that we've barely scratched the surface of what is essentially a complementary set of wide receivers, with a rotation of Edelman, Hogan and Mitchell, multi-purposed rookie D.J. Foster and newly signed Griff Whalen, who will serve in the stead of Amendola, who is battling a bum knee.

Patriots' lore offers up a time when former New England clipboard holder and current radio announcer Scott Zolak exclaimed "Unicorns! Show ponies! Where's the beef" when Brady tossed a touchdown pass with no time remaining in a game against the New Orleans' Saints a few years back, and most of us laughed it off as Zo just being Zo...

...but now the Patriots have the "Black Unicorn" running routes, a brace of speedy show ponies curling out of the backfield and plenty of beef up front - so maybe, just maybe, in Zolak's excitement he inadvertently predicted the Patriots' offense of the future.

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