Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"Boring" Patriots Stomp Rams With Workman Like Offense, Stout Defense

In all seriousness, the Los Angeles Rams were doomed from the second they stepped onto the field turf at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

On the very first Patriots' series, head ball coach Bill Belichick used all three of his running backs on a drive meant to destroy their morale and to put to sleep any notion that their defense was going to stop the New England offensive machine, forcing the Rams to bring their safeties up to help in run support which affected their seventh-ranked pass defense.

Passing backs Dion Lewis and James White lined up in the pony formation on the first play of the game - an alignment that we should see plenty of going forward - with Lewis taking a handoff and skittering to the left for four yards, then burly power back LeGarrette Blount took the next handoff for nine yards up the middle, then White replicated the production off left guard on the next play...

...and while the Patriots would have been content to rip off running plays for eight yards per carry and demoralize the Rams' run defense even further, they had to settle for a Blount 43-yard stomp to paydirt and an early 7-0 lead.

Settling, because the Patriots are all about methodically taking the opposition's will away, and really aren't given to the big play - for in reality, all the big play does is put your defense back out on the field without their proper rest, and they are not in that business.

The New England Patriots have to be the most boring team in the National Football League.

But that's not a bad thing, is it?

They don't have an explosive wide receiver that can break a game wide open - in fact their idea of a downfield passing game is finding a soft spot in the zone between the second level and the secondary. Their favorite passing play is a bubble screen, and they are thrilled when their power back cuts against the grain for four yards. They nickel and dime their way down the field, chewing up clock and before you know it, they've scored in the high twenties without you even realizing it.

They have a quarterback that runs his offense like he's a dispatcher at a public works facility.  They have a head coach who looks like you'd sooner see him in line at the Gut Truck outside a tire factory than you would on an NFL sideline. Their offensive coordinator is the young, hyper-active prodigy that needs to be reeled in and properly supervised while their defensive coordinator spouts off engineering jargon like most people casually chat.

None of them, from the owner to the 53rd man on the roster are people you would call the life of the party, except, of course, tight end Rob Gronkowski - but Gronk is no longer on the active roster, courtesy of a slipped disc in this back which has landed him on the injured reserved list though Blount has had his moments, primarily celebrating with the End Zone Militia after a touchdown

The New England Patriots, as a team, approach each week as a business proposition.  They practice and ply their craft each day, always looking to get better individually, but always buying into their now-famous axiom, "Do Your Job", motivated and compelled to achieve that most celebrated company motto.

Blount's thunder roll touchdown was a direct result of establishing a running game from the start.  When the Rams' saw that Blount was in the game, they naturally had to at least respect the possibility of the run, but more than that, the short passing game combined with early success in the run drew the defense close to the line of scrimmage...

...and when Blount approached the line, the bottleneck caused by so many defenders in the box enabled right tackle Marcus Cannon, fullback James Develin and tight end Martellus Bennett to seal off the edge against all eight defenders, leaving only the secondary to deal not only with with Blount's deceptive speed, but also his 6' 0", 250 pound frame, which replays show they wanted no part of.

To the credit of the Los Angeles coaching staff, they found a way to adjust to what New England was doing on offense and in the second half looked like a top-ten defense, but with only an anemic offense to hand the ball over to and facing a seventeen-point halftime deficit, the game was essentially over.

One didn't need a crystal ball to know what was about to happen to the Rams on offense. In the four games since their merciful bye week, the Rams' offense has scored a total of 19 points in the second half, and that includes a garbage time, last second touchdown against the Carolina Panthers four weeks ago.

Their running game, a strength last season, has been all but invisible this season and their passing game hasn't reached 200 passing yards in their last three games - and all of those trends would continue on a chilly Sunday afternoon in Foxborough.

As they always do, the Patriots' defense concentrated on stopping the Rams running game, hoping to make running back Todd Gurley's presence inconsequential, while trying to put more pressure on rookie quarterback Jared Goff than they've been able to since their own bye week - and the result was utter domination of the hapless Los Angeles offense.

New England held the Rams to a season low in rushing (36 yards), time of possession (22:03) and first downs (7) while limiting their passing game to their second-lowest output of the season by one yard (126 yards), picking off two Goff passes - both tipped balls, one by defensive end Jaball Sheard - and holding them to just 1 of 13 on third down conversions.

Their lone touchdown was, you guessed it, a garbage time, last-second toss from Goff to wide receiver Kenny Britt, but that couldn't mask the fact that the Patriots' defense forced eight punts - six of them of the three-and-out variety - and didn't allow the Rams to reach 100 yards in total offense until after the two minute warning in the final frame after holding them to just 26 total first half yards.

So, the Patriots' offense didn't have to do anything special, and they didn't.  It was just another day at the office.

Quarterback Tom Brady led a conservative, button-downed "attack", throwing 46 passes - completing 33 - for 269 yards, posting a yards per attempt a full three yards worse than his season average of 8.6. Some of that was a natural consequence of  calling an absurd amount of screen passes that the Rams were prepared for, but rare was the occasion that Brady put the ball up for more than a half a dozen yards.

The week before against the New York Jets, Brady was hobbled with a knee injury that made it so he had a tough time pushing off of his right leg, physics dictating that he would overthrow his receivers  with a high trajectory release. He barely got away with it against the Jets, but the Rams' secondary would probably have made him pay for those errant throws, so perhaps Brady's knee is still an issue and the game plan - including the arcane number of screen plays - was a result of that.

Whatever the case, wide receivers Julian Edelman and rookie Malcolm Mitchell accounted for more than half of those passing totals despite being caught up in the screen-fest themselves, but it was Chris Hogan who scored the Patriots only passing touchdown, a fourteen-yard, back shoulder beauty that turned out to be the game winner, putting New England up 14-0 early in the second quarter.

The rest of the game was a coming out party for struggling place kicker Stephen Gostkowski - who found his missing mojo, nailing four field goals right down the middle - and a tutorial on directional kicking by punter Ryan Allen and in punt coverage, as the Patriots' special teams help Rams' lightning quick returner Pharoh Cooper to four yards on three returns.

Patriots' fans who pine for an explosive deep threat or for someone to replace Blount are going to have to get used to seeing what we saw on Sunday for the rest of the season - a workman like, ball control effort on offense that averages 27 points per game, and a bend-but-don't-break defense that surrenders just 17 points per game, which thus far has resulted in a 10-2 record and having the team on the cusp on yet another AFC East division title.

If that's not good enough, a lighter bandwagon isn't going to hurt the company's bottom line...

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