Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 7: Patriots' Linebacking Corps Built For The Base 3-4 Alignment

The New England Patriots just keep piling on veteran players with an axe to grind...

On Wednesday afternoon, various media outlets were reporting that the team had signed ten-year veteran run-stuffer David Harris to the 90-man roster, shoring up what some believed to be a weak spot on the Patriots defense - and while there may be some truth to that notion, one has to wonder how that shakes up the defense as a whole, if at all.

As we know, New England played three-quarters of their defensive snaps last season in a three-safety nickel, rushing just three at times and playing three linebackers - sometimes only two - plus bringing strong safety Patrick Chung down into the box as sort of an impromptu and undersized weak side linebacker - in effect, giving the defense a traditional 3-4 look.
Hightower and Roberts form a good interior linebacking corps

The signing of Harris confirms that.

In the New York Jets' 3-4 defense, Harris played the "Mike", or strong-side interior linebacker who takes on rogue linemen trying to get to the second level, freeing up the "Will", the weak side interior linebacker, to flow to the football - a role that Patriots' defensive captain Dont'a Hightower played to success in college at Alabama.

Coincidence that New England would bring the veteran stone wall?  Not at all, considering that Hightower is considered the best blitzing linebacker in the NFL, and having a veteran "Mike" in the lineup to keep him clean from offensive linemen on the second level speaks to that end.

Coming out of Michigan in 2007, Harris was considered a two-down run-stuffer and a liability in pass defense - yet was taken in the second round, the Jets trading up from number 63 overall to number 47, surrendering that second rounder plus their third and sixth rounders to make Harris the anchor of Eric Mangini's 3-4 defense...

...and though he never made a Pro Bowl and notched just one lone second-team All Pro nod in 2009, Harris is a typical Patriots' pick up - a consistent, durable and amazingly agile athlete who does everything well, but is not elite in any particular aspect of the game and who finds himself in a circumstance of battling for a roster spot for the first time in his career.

Because the Patriots depth chart is loaded down with linebackers, but have experienced some volatility since Jerod Mayo's body started breaking down in 2013, eventually forcing his early retirement after the 2015 season.  In between, head ball coach Bill Belichick has ridden Hightower on the second level, his team-first attitude and flair for the dramatic turning the tables in two Super Bowls.

Veteran sidekicks have helped to fill the void left by Mayo's misfortune - Jamie Collins leading the list of temporary fill-in's that includes names like Dane Fletcher, Jonathan Casillas and Akeem Ayers - and now includes the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin...

...and as far as human missiles are concerned, the Patriots haven't had a true one since Brandon Spikes, though second-year man Elandon Roberts shows promise as a downhill stuffer - but there's also more to Roberts' game than meets the eye; pigeon-holed as a two-down run-stuffer with limited athleticism, Roberts posted a potential-sparking fifth-rated overall grade among rookie linebackers.

In fact, it was Roberts manning the middle of the second level zone, allowing for Hightower to blitz from the strong side and cause the strip sack that changed the momentum in the Super Bowl. But it was also Roberts who got tangled up with Falcons' receiver Mohamed Sanu and allowing running back Devonta Freeman to flow into the flat uncovered for a play that should have cooked the Patriots' collective goose.

So there's progress to be made with a young "Mike" linebacker with more game than advertised as a sixth-round pick - a low round pick surrounded by top round talent, in fact, as both Hightower and Shea McClellin are former first-rounders and Kyle Van Noy came into the league as a second-rounder, as did Harris.

That's some serious draft capital investment for a unit considered by many to be the weak spot of the defense - but if one takes the cup-half-full angle, they would realize that the linebacking corps being the weak spot of the defense just goes to show how good the defense actually is, and that the second level is actually designed this way for a reason.

Earlier it was mentioned that the defense played seventy-five percent of their snaps in the three-safety nickel alignment in 2016 - an alignment known to Patriots' fans as the Big Nickel - in which the linebacking corps "sacrifices" one of it's positions (usually the weak side linebacker) to allow the strong safety to reduce into the box and play the position to counter the opposition's off-the-line strengths.

That typically means coverage on either the tight end or the running back - vital because the type of linebacker that the Patriots employ usually leaves a bit to be desired in pass coverages which, as mentioned, is intentional in the scheme.  But it isn't as if the linebackers have no coverage skill, it's just that they typically have been a read-and-react entity, which leaves them subject to deception.

Case in point? We mentioned Roberts getting tangled up with Mohamed Sanu in the Super Bowl, leaving Devonta Freeman wide open in the flat for a 39 yard catch and run, and that was a designed play in which Sanu could have easily been called for interference for blocking downfield before the ball was thrown, but wasn't because he was also being engaged by strong safety Patrick Chung on the play.

On the play, Roberts had responsibility for the middle zone while Hightower shot the gap between the left guard and tackle as if expecting a running play, and the Falcons took advantage of the aggressiveness by isolating the rookie and easily eliminating him.  To his credit, Roberts recovered and eventually made the tackle, but that is a play that should have led to Atlanta icing the game...

...but their own aggressiveness got them in hot water a few plays later and they ended up kicking the ball back to the Patriots, who drove down the field to tie the Super Bowl and sending it into overtime. The same issue came up in Super Bowl 49 when former Patriots' linebacker Jamie Collins was isolated on Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who burned him in a similar manner to put Seattle in business late in that game.

The point is that teams have been able to exploit New England's defense when they take the aggressive route to try and force a play - and that can only happen when the opponent has put the Patriots in a mode where they have to take chances in coverage, and it usually involves a matchup issue between running backs and linebackers.

The solution? a switch back to the 3-4 base in which the "Mike" takes on the disruptor on the second level and freeing up the "Will", which in both instances would have been Hightower.

The depth is better now , with Van Noy and McClellin both able to play either the "Will" or the weak side and with greybeard Rob Ninkovich and rookie third-round pick Derek Rivers able to handle the strong side, and the signing of Harris providing invaluable depth as the "Mike" - not to mention mentoring Roberts in the role that Harris has excelled in during his ten-year career.

So the depth chart at linebacker is stocked to overflow, which means that it is likely names like Jonathan Freeny an d Rob Ninkovich become tough cuts at the end of training camp - perhaps even McClellin as well, if undrafted free agent Harvey Langi performs as advertised.

Langi is worth mentioning in the mix because he possesses a skill set that could make him an effective interior linebacker in the Patriots' scheme, though he needs work on the fundamentals of the position since he was used first as a running back, then linebacker, then defensive end in college, having the versatility to fill in where the team needed him to...

...which means that he has work to do, but what better way to learn the position than with Harris and Hightower showing the way, whether he make the 53-man roster or spends a season on the practice squad?

In the end, New England should sport a top linebacking corps.  They have essentially the same personnel that they ended last season with, but it has to be remembered that the unit was in flux most of the season - what with trading Collins during the bye and trading for Van Noy to take his spot - and they really didn't start to gel as a unit until their playoff run, but even then, it wasn't seamless.

This season, however, the corps starts fully stocked and ready to roll - and the competition for roster spots will bring out the best and cause the cream to rise to the top - and maybe, just maybe, this set of linebackers won't be a weak spot for the defense any longer...

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

General Manager Belichick Schools Rest Of NFL In Cap Management

The New England Patriots gave tight end Rob Gronkowski a raise a few weeks back. Kind of. Sort of.  Maybe?

That really all depends on his ability to stay on the field long enough to achieve certain levels of performance, the structure of which is rare in modern sports, and perhaps should serve as a template for athletes with elite-level talent, but with inherent frailty - or even for those whom have outperformed their current salaries, or even those who need a little push to perform at a higher level.

Gronkowski needs no such motivation to perform, but it goes without saying that, even though injury prone, he has still outperformed his current contract.
Belichick's cap savvy allows for contracts like White's

In what can only be described as an amendment to his current contract, the Patriots upgraded the incentive bonus structure of his 2017 season in such a way that give him an avenue to double his salary while at the same time protecting the team against injury to him, and the resultant lost time and onfield production.

Though Gronkowski's salary structure for the season will cost the team $6.75 million against their salary cap when factoring in prorated bonuses, the actual amount of cash being paid to him is a bargain basement total of $5 million.  The amendment to his contract will increase the amount of cash he can receive incrementally as he clears certain performance levels.

Such a contract could benefit other Patriots - wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back Dion Lewis come to mind - but the point of this is that the franchise took steps to ensure that Gronkowski's paycheck is commensurate with his production, as his 2017 salary structure makes him one of the highest paid tight ends in the game if he reaches certain incentives, the incentives very reachable provided he stays healthy and plays in all sixteen games.

Gronkowski's base salary for 2017 is a meager $4.25 million, though a bonus paid at the start of 2016 and prorated through the life of his contract plus roster and workout bonuses brings his cap hit up to $6.75 million - either way, the numbers are far below what one would expect the best tight end in the NFL should expect to earn...

...so instead of renegotiating the contract, the Patriots added incentives that, if he plays 90% of the teams' offensive snaps, makes him the second highest paid tight end in the league, just behind Jason Whitten's salary profile for the Dallas Cowboys.

That certainly wasn't the case with strong safety Patrick Chung, though on Saturday the team took measures to put a little coin in his pocket by amending his contract to include a multi-tiered incentive template that could mean an extra $900k for a player who previous to 2016 was one of the better box safeties in the league.

Last season was an up and down year for Chung, according to Pro Football Focus, his "uneven" play causing him to plunge drastically from the fifth-ranked safety in the NFL to 81st out of 91 qualifiers, and this after signing a one-year, $5.7 million extension at the start of the league year that keeps him locked up in Foxborough until after the 2018 season.

But here's the thing: There isn't another box safety in the league quite like Pat Chung, who should really be graded as a weak side linebacker as he spends 75% of the team's defensive snaps within eight yards of the line of scrimmage, and is one of the game's best at both tight end coverage and in blitz success.

Of course, this is due to the fact that New England runs with a three-safety, "Big Nickel" alignment that features the best tandem of blue liners in the league, with both Chung and free safety Devin McCourty reducing down into the box as coverage and run support entities, leaving the blue line to centerfielder Duron Harmon.

So his overall grade as a safety decreases as he becomes more valuable to the defense as a whole, an irony that is pervasive throughout the Patriots' team philosophy in which head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick demands that the game plans accentuate the positives of each player in a never-ending effort to keep the game bigger than the individual player - and adding incentive clauses to active contracts is his way of rewarding the player.

The team could have done that with Amendola as well, though they would have had to set the bar pretty low - not due to talent level, but simply due to the amount of snaps and touches he could be expected to receive in such a crowded receiver corps - and same with Lewis and the similarly loaded backfield.  Instead, Amendola agreed to a reduction in pay from a salary that would have actually paid him just as much as Gronkowski, due to the enormous, back-loaded contract he signed to come to Foxborough in the first place.

The difference between Amendola and Gronkowski is that Amendola is 31 years old and a redundant talent in this offense - clutch as he may be - while Gronkowski is 27 years old and the most dangerous weapon in the league when he is actually on the field.

Amendola is clutch in the biggest of moments, but the contract that he originally signed upon joining the Patriots was based on future production - and while it goes without saying that his regular season production isn't even close to what the team was expecting (mostly due to injury). there is zero doubt that he's worth his weight in gold when the lights are the brightest.

By contrast, Julian Edelman is also 31, but has toiled near the bottom of the receiver pay scale since assuming the role once held by Wes Welker four years ago, a role that Amendola was expected to fill but was never healthy enough to fully grasp the role.  Edelman has been the main cog in an receiver's corps that has essentially shouldered the load for New England during that time frame - and despite being the age when most players see their skill begin to erode, Edelman is as clutch as ever...

...to the degree that the Patriots offered him a contract (three years, $15 million) that will keep him in Foxborough through the 2019 season.

It's a mid-level contract for Edelman, and comes on the heels of the same sort of mid-level signings of core players like James White (three years, $12 million), safety Duron Harmon (four years, $17 million) defensive tackle Alan Branch (two years, $8.45 million) and center David Andrews (three years, $9 million) that is consistent with the Patriots habit of trying to be fair in distributing cap dollars to core role players.

It is also consistent with money being doled out to players coming in as free agents, as running backs Rex Burkhead (1 year, $3.15 million) and Mike Gillislee (2 years, $6.4 million) and defensive end Lawrence Guy (4 years, $13.4 million) signed up for money in that two-to-five million range in which Patriots role players reside.

Because that's the going rate for role players with tenure - meaning they've been in the league for at least three seasons - and in many cases, the Patriots are willing to pay more to a guy whom they envision having a particular role than other teams would who don't profess the week-to-week opponent-specific game plan philosophy that Belichick does.

It is important to note that all of this has been possible due to the masterful way that Belichick manipulates the salary cap.  Of the nearly $60 million in cap space that the Patriots started the league year with, they still have an $18 million buffer, despite spending big money on free agent corner Stephon Gilmore and incumbent defensive captain Dont'a Hightower...

...in addition to the aforementioned players to the mid-level contracts, while taking on the contracts of Brandin Cooks, Kony Ealy and Dwayne Allen, all of whom were acquired through trades.

Now Belichick's off-the-field attention should fall to the many players scheduled for free agency in 2018, though some such as tackle Nate Solder and cornerback Malcolm Butler would essentially eat up all of the remaining cap space, and then some.  Solder is could be a goner unless he takes a Marcus Cannon (five-year, $32 million) type deal, which would put him in Donald Penn territory in - you guessed it - a mid-level salary structure, and even then, it all depends on the development of rookie third-round pick Antonio Garcia.

Butler is a little easier to figure out.  Playing on a restricted free agent first-round tag, he was the central point in rumored trades throughout the offseason, and will most likely cash in on the open market in 2018 as an unrestricted free agent - motivated and guided by the fact that Belichick spent big money on Gilmore.

If they let both walk and also subtract the salaries of players who will likely look for employment elsewhere next offseason, the Patriots would carry $50 million in cap space into 2018, not counting the increase in the cap ceiling that has trended upwards of $10 million annually - and that means that Belichick would have the same amount of cap space to play with as he did this past offseason...

...all the while having suitable backups for each departing player already under contract - but with that much cap space, it be more prudent to pay Butler ( one can never have enough defensive backs) and invest the remaining money on keeping players like backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo around in order to maintain a competitive team for years to come.

Only Belichick knows for sure, and he's not going to tip his hand to anyone - but if there is a certainty, we already know that the Patriots will be loaded with a bunch of role players that are happy to be playing on mid-level or incentive-rich contracts in order to maximize their careers in a place where the culture breeds winners.

That is, after all, the Patriot's way.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

New England Patriots Projected 53-Man Roster: The Dog Days Edition

A changing of the guard is underway in Foxborough.

Actually, the forward-thinking head ball coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, has been slowly reworking his depth chart for the past couple of seasons, but this offseason and next could very well be the most crucial in deciding whether the team continues to remain contenders for the foreseeable future, or if they sink back into the pack.

Staples on the championship teams are aging or have otherwise run their course, and Belichick has proven time and again that he is not timid when cutting players loose when they no longer serve his purpose - this is not to say that the Dark Master is heartless, as his respect for players that have performed under his leadership is also well documented...
Wise, Rivers, Garcia and McDermott all figure to make the team as rookies

...and with the number of new players under contract via the most impactful free agency period in Belichick's reign - particularly on offense - the writing could be on the wall for some incumbent talents.

The Patriots came into this offseason with seventeen players scheduled to hit the open market, but the list of players that they let walk or released outright tells a story of attrition.

It came as no surprise that Belichick released anchor tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who most likely told tale of wanting to retire while he could still walk, nor was it a head-scratcher to unload young but injury prone guard Tre Jackson, which thinned out the offensive line ranks and made the unit a priority in the draft, especially considering that left tackle Nate Solder is an impending free agent after this season.

Consequently, Belichick brought in two college tackles through the draft.  One, Troy's Antonio Garcia, is projected as a Solder replacement as the Patriots are unlikely to be able to absorb the huge contract he will almost certainly command, while UCLA's Conor McDermott projects as a swing tackle who could also double up as a left guard in an emergency.

The defensive line became a priority as well when the team let defensive ends Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long and Barkevious Mingo ply their trade elsewhere, then replaced them with former Carolina Panther Kony Ealy and ex-Baltimore Raven Lawrence Guy in free agency, then using two of their four draft picks on Youngstown State's Derek Rivers (who actually projects as a strong-side linebacker instead of a defensive end) and Arkansas' Deatrich Wise.

Belichick did re-sign defensive tackle Alan Branch, who along with Guy and Wise give the Patriots the versatility to morph between three and four-man fronts, as all three, plus defensive ends Trey Flowers and Ealy, are capable of handling three and five-technique gap responsibilities.

Along with Branch, the Patriots retained the services of both linebacker Dont'a Hightower and centerfielder Duron Harmon as core mainstays, and also retained the rights to exclusive right free agent and core four special teamer Brandon King and elite cornerback Malcolm Butler, who just recently signed his restricted free agent tender...

...teaming him with former Buffalo Bills top corner Stephon Gilmore to give New England one of the best defensive backfield in the league.

The receiving corps and backfield will have a different look as well, as Belichick let power back LeGarrett Blount go to Philadelphia and washed his hands of short-term rental Michael Floyd, the troubled wide receiver headed to Minnesota.  Neither loss should have as much of a negative impact on the offense as will losing tight end Martellus Bennett to the Packers, as free agent pick up Dwayne Allen from the Colts appears to be a step down in class...

...while picking up running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead give the Patriots redundant talents in which to open up the playbook more than they could with Blount on board, and then trading for vertical slot threat Brandin Cooks opens up the offense even more.

All told, the Patriots did an excellent job of cutting fat from the roster and replacing it with lean youth - and don't be surprised if Belichick cuts a few more veterans to round out his 2017 roster, with an eye to the future...

Quarterbacks:  A bit of a quandary here.  The team is so loaded with talent and depth at just about every position that some may ponder whether the Patriots will keep three quarterbacks - it's a decent argument, but one that is steeped in karma and dependent on things going just right for the Patriots leading up to the regular season.

Belichick is apparently all-in on Jimmy Garoppolo remaining in Foxborough, and it's going to take some record-setting cash for Prince Ali to continue holding a clipboard for another couple of seasons - but the status of second-year signal caller Jacoby Brissett isn't as clear.  Brissett struggled in OTA's and in minicamp when he had some extended reps as Garoppolo dealt with a minor leg issue...

...and Belichick has some really tough decisions to make at just about every point on the depth chart - so having an extra roster spot would make things easier in that respect.  But for the time being, let's assume that he carries three quarterbacks - at least up to the trade deadline, where some quarterback desperate team could make him an offer that would be tough to refuse.

Tom Brady
Jimmy Garoppolo
Jacoby Brissett

Running Backs: On paper, this unit is a compendium of what a bell-cow running back should be, but split up between four guys.

Redundant talents in that they can all carry the ball between the tackles and also are adept at playing catch, each still has attributes that make them unique.  White has gained the most trust with Brady in the pattern, and has effectively renamed what was previously known as the "Vereen Role" as the primary passing back while Dion Lewis specializes as a tough change-of-pace back...

...while newcomers Gillislee and Burkhead give the Patriots versatility on early downs, Gillislee a controlled power back who should project to a short-yardage specialist in addition to being the closest thing to a bell-cow that New England has had in a decade, and Burkhead is the helter-skelter back whose combination of loose hips, elusiveness and power could make Lewis a surprise cut or a candidate for the PUP or IR if his injury history continues down it's dark path.


James White
Mike Gillislee
Dion Lewis
Rex Burkhead
James Develin

Receivers: In the space of two offseasons, the Patriots have gone from primarily a dink and dunk passing game to one that properly spreads the field.

With the addition of Cooks this offseason added to last offseason's grab bag of Chris Hogan in free agency and Malcolm Mitchell in the draft, the Patriots went from an aging, over-achieving, try-hard cast to a young, legitimately frightening corps of pass catchers that can play it any way Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can dream up.

Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are both into their thirties and have both had contracts reworked in some manner this offseason, and both have proven their mettle in the biggest of moments under the brightest of lights and should be locks.  Mitchell is an emerging talent on the cusp of stardom while Hogan is the ultimate possession receiver who average over nineteen yards per reception last season.

Cooks sends this unit over the top with his blistering deep speed that resonates from anywhere on the field, though he is most effective working out of the slot, catching shot throws and turning on the afterburners to separate from defenders.

Julian Edelman
Brandin Cooks
Chris Hogan
Malcolm Mitchell
Danny Amendola
Matthew Slater

Tight Ends: The Patriots may have missed with former Indianapolis Colt Dwayne Allen, as he has developed a case of the dropsies.  Coming out of college at Clemson, Allen was known particularly for his hands and his ability to shield off defenders to show the quarterback his numbers - and while the latter will be on display only after the pads go on in training camp, the former has to have the Patriots a little concerned.

Or perhaps even disappointed, as the whole purpose of having Allen on the roster is the peace of mind that Martellus Bennett gave the Patriots last season, knowing that if All World tight end Rob Gronkowski went down, they still had a legitimate starting-quality tight end to fall back on - Gronowski did go down and Bennett did step up in a big way,

That said, it's too early to call Allen a flop, but the good news on the salary cap front is that his contract is guaranteed only for this season, so if he doesn't turn out to be the angel on Gronkowski's shoulder, it won't cost the team long-term...

Rob Gronkowski
Dwayne Allen
James O'Shaughnessy

Offensive Tackles: This is most likely Nate Solder's swan song, as the Patriots are unlikely to be able to afford his asking price when he hits to open market after this season, which is likely why Belichick snagged Troy's Antonio Garcia in the third round of the 2017 draft - and if Garcia performs in the pros anything like he did in college, Solder will be gone for sure.

A street fighter who plays through the whistle - meaning he relishes putting opposing players on their butts - Garcia is also a technician who understands leverage and should make a fine replacement for Solder and an excellent bookend to go along with Marcus Cannon, who made several All Pro lists last season and finally has been able to emerge from the shadow of Vollmer to claim the spot solely for himself.

Cameron Fleming is excellent as a sixth offensive lineman in short-yardage situations, but isn't suited for pass protection, which makes him one-dimensional in a role - that being swing tackle - that calls for doing everything well.  In this instance, McDermott could factor in to Fleming's demise as he is certainly and all-around better athlete.  This is one battle that bears watching.

Nate Solder
Marcus Cannon
Cam Fleming
Antonio Garcia
Conor McDermott

Interior Offensive Line: The trio of left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are looking to become a stone wall to both protect Brady and to open holes for the four-headed monster at running back, but can only do so if Thuney makes an expected second-year jump in performance.

Thuney was the main culprit when Brady was hit in the pocket, but he fared well as a run blocker. Both Andrews and Mason made huge improvements in 2016 over their rookie seasons, but depth is a huge concern as only Ted Karras currently projects as a backup to all three spots - such is the nature of the interior line that someone like McDermott could figure in as an emergency replacement at one of the guard spots.

The interior is well taken care so long as health doesn't become a concern.

Joe Thuney
Shaq Mason
David Andrews
Ted Karras


Defensive Line: With the team making somewhat of a transition to more of a three-man front to accommodate the size, strength and talent of their defensive linemen, it made sense to extend Branch and to bring in Ealy, Wise and Guy to give Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia a truly enormous rotation.

Flowers is an emerging star and even at "just" 265 pounds does his best work as a five-technique (inside shoulder of the offensive tackle).  He is the smallest of the linemen, with Ealy and Wise (both at 275) the only other linemen under the 300 pound threshold.  Guy (310) and Branch (350) can both work the three and five-tech spots while Malcolm Brown and Vincent Valentine (both 320) are pure nose tackles.

Belichick has a policy of rotating his big uglies to keep them fresh for crunch time, and he looks to have succeeded in finding incredible depth, not just for a three-man front in the Big Nickle, but also in four-man fronts where linebackers Derek Rivers and Rob Ninkovich can contribute with their hands in the dirt...

Malcolm Brown
Alan Branch
Trey Flowers
Vincent Valentine
Kony Ealy
Lawrence Guy
Deatrich Wise

Linebackers: Could we have seen the last of Rob Ninkovich in New England?  A fan favorite and one of key members of the unit for the past eight seasons, "Nink" has seen his snap count steadily decrease and put up his worst stat line since 2009, his first year with the Patriots.  Belichick could have to make a tough cut to make room for the younger, more dynamic players on the roster, and with the Blue-collar Ninkovich at 33 years old and counting -  not to mention that he looked a step slow in the playoffs and Super Bowl - he may be wearing down.

It's a numbers game. Derek Rivers was a defensive end in college but projects as a strong side linebacker in the pros, as does undrafted free agent Harvey Langi.  Both Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts can handle the interior positions and Shea McClellin looked natural at the weakside spot - of course, Hightower is the key to this unit, as he is capable at any position on the second level and makes the defensive calls.

Look for Van Noy to have increased responsibility in that capacity as well, as he integrated as well as anyone could to the complex Patriots' defensive scheme upon arrival from Detroit last season.

Dont'a Hightower
Kyle Van Noy
Shea McClellin
Derek Rivers
Elandon Roberts
Harvey Langi

Cornerbacks: Oh, what an awesome problem to have!  The Patriots sport three starting-quality corners on the 2017 roster, with second-year speedster Jonathan Jones making all kinds of waves in mincamp, taking most of the slot reps.

That is not to say that he will absolutely man the slot, as Butler is more than capable in the phone booth, where Cyrus Jones could also see some action.  Gilmore and 2016 pickup Eric Rowe are taller corners and could get the call on the outside against the bigger receivers that New England is likely to see this year, though Butler will see time on the outside against the likes of Antonio Brown and Jarvis Landry.

The diversity of the cornerback corps gives Patricia many options in the Patriots' week-to-week game planning, and if either of the Joneses contribute, Gillette Stadium could easily turn into a no-fly zone...

Stephon Gilmore
Malcolm Butler
Eric Rowe
Jonathan Jones
Cyrus Jones

Safeties: There is not a better combination of safeties in the league than Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, and all three are signed to multi-year contracts - while Nate Ebner and Brandon King more than earn their bones on special teams.  The problem is that in order for the Patriots to run their preferred Big Nickel alignment (one high safety and two in the box), they need McCourty, Chung and Harmon healthy and on the field.

Injuries haven't been a huge problem, but if one of them hits the shelf, it disrupts the entire defensive philosophy, so the search is on for players who can fill in at any of those positions.  While not drafting any blue liners, Belichick did pick up Big Nickel-type defensive backs in Richmond's David Jones and Minnesota's Damarius Travis, with Travis being the versatile box safety that could potentially spell Chung.

This means that third-year player Jordan Richards is the odd man out no matter which undrafted player remains, with Jones making his way to the practice squad...

Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung
Duron Harmon
Nate Ebner
Brandon King
Damarius Travis

Specialists: The only question here is if Stephen Gostkowski is going to rebound from his less-than-stellar 2016, when he missed several extra points, seeming to push everything to the right, which if put in terms of physics, means that he isn't striking the ball as consistently as he should be.

Some attribute that to Belichick's preference of easing up on kickoffs to force the opposition to return kicks rather that take a touchback out to the 25 yard line, perhaps throwing off his natural leg swing on field goals and extra points - but he is excellent at pinning the other guys deep on his kickoffs, so the trade off is congruent.

Allen is a field position weapon that has gotten the offense out of plenty of holes in his career, and is clutch when he absolutely needs to be, while Cardona's worth is in never hearing his name, which means he is spot on in his long snaps.

Joe Cardona
Ryan Allen
Stephen Gostkowski

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 6: Big Nickel Defense In Full Effect

The 2016 draft class supplied the New England Patriots with two cornerbacks named Jones.

The Patriots' top pick of the draft, Alabama corner Cyrus Jones had what can only be described as a mostly disappointing rookie season as he treated the football like a microphone after a hot take, while Jonathan Jones made a name for himself on special teams after edging out several other candidates to make the team as an undrafted free agent.

Neither saw many snaps on defense, as Jonathan - blessed with 4.28 speed - became a core-four special teams demon and Cyrus got benched and ultimately deactivated for his inability to hold onto the football when returning punts.
Patriots McClellin, Flowers, Branch, Hightower and Harmon celebrate

Now that the 2017 organized team activities and mandatory mini-camp are underway, Cyrus has done nothing but continue to pull gaffes on fielding punts and looks to be in danger of being perhaps the biggest draft bust of the Bill Belichick era, but Jonathan Jones is serving notice that he's ready to compete for the nickle corner slot left vacant by the defection of Logan Ryan in free agency.

If he can pull it off, the Patriots, who already have one of the top corner tandems in the league with Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore, would become the lone team in the NFL to employ two undrafted free agents as starters in their secondary, given that Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia run out of the nickel about eighty percent of the time.

Granted, the Big Nickel - a five defensive back alignment that utilizes three safeties rather than three corners - is in play a lot of the time to give the Patriots a more flexible unit to match up against teams with bigger personnel, but in a standard nickel, it is Jonathan - not the more widely heralded Cyrus - that looks to be in position to gain significant playing time this season.

But let's pump the brakes a little bit here.  We're talking about dime depth here, with names like Gilmore, Butler and Rowe ahead of the Joneses on the cornerback depth chart, and names like McCourty, Chung and Harmon filling out the Big Nickel before either of the youngsters get an opportunity in the defensive backfield, making the lineup a tough egg to crack.

Because the Big Nickel alignment dictates the Patriots' defensive philosophy.

For the uninitiated, the Big Nickel is an alignment that features flexibility on all levels of the defense. Originally, the alignment was nothing more than a desperation sideline adjustment made by the Philadelphia Eagles way back in the early 1960's, defensive assistant Jerry Williams,bringing in rookie safety Irv Cross to cover Chicago Bears rookie tight end Mike Ditka, who was too big for a standard nickle corner to cover and too fast for a linebacker.

Ditka was the prototype for what was to be known as the "move" tight end, and he was running roughshod all over the league until Williams put the clamps on him, in what he called the "Chicago Special" defense - and then some years later Los Angeles Rams' defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmer resurrected the alignment to defend against the juggernaut San Francisco 49ers offense...

...particularly against tight end Brent Jones and running back Roger Craig as both were too much for his group of linebackers, and used it as the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals in the early 90's when his linebacking corps was beset by a myriad of debilitating injuries

The philosophy had been dormant for several years since then, and only resurfaced in 2010 when Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick drafted a pair of elite tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.  Knowing that the success the two would bring to his offense would spur copy cats around the NFL - and also to find a way to cover the two in practice - he started collecting safeties through the draft.

That would account for the seemingly weird reaches in the draft, taking what many scouts considered to be undraftable, including safeties Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 draft and then Duron Harmon in the third round of the following season.  Wilson never really panned out, but Harmon became the centerpiece of the Big Nickle...

...the sideline-to-sideline centerfielder whose speed and other-worldly range enabled Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to run with one high safety, and to drop cornerback-turned-free Safety Devin McCourty and strong safety Patrick Chung closer to the line of scrimmage, where they could pick up man coverages on tight ends and running backs while filling the box in run support.

One of the main advantages of this alignment is that the Patriots are a rare team that has good enough coverage play from their safeties to line them up in the slot, if need be, causing confusion for the opposing quarterback and his offensive line - confusion as to who is actually in coverage and who is coming on the blitz, because in the Big Nickel, they are able to disguise their intent like no other team in the league.

This has a curious effect on the rest of the defense.  Since a weakside linebacker and a strong safety require similar skill sets - ie,. lateral agility, field vision and tackling skills to key on the running back - in the Big Nickel, especially against an offense that features good passing game production out of the backfield, a safety will take the place of the weakside linebacker.

Against offenses that rely more heavily on spread formations, the strong safety will still reduce down into the box even though the situation would normally call for a standard nickel because the defensive line has the ability to morph between 3 and 4 man fronts, and on several occasions last season we saw this play out, fans bitching about the pass rush not being able to get to the quarterback.

This offseason, however, Belichick stocked the line with players who can rush from the outside, and can also reduce down to a five-technique on a three man front and even to a three-technique on four man fronts - so the defense can essentially transform into whatever they need to be at the drop of a hat - and he didn't just stock the line, he stocked it with proven, veteran talent.

Lawrence Guy is a great example of what Belichick was seeking on the market.  Guy is an early-down run-stuffer who graded out as Pro Football Focus's eighth-best in that category last season, and was a vital cog in the Baltimore Ravens fifth-best rush defense, and now joins forces with the likes of Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Vincent Valentine on a Patriots' run-busting rotation that ranked fourth in 2016.

Guy is just one of several Patriots' defensive linemen with the versatility to produce in both three and four-man fronts - the breakdown for which is forthcoming in the next piece in this series - which gives even more flexibility to Belichick and Patricia in the Big Nickel, particularly given the quality of the linebacking corps.

Last season we saw a lot of the 4-2-5 alignment in the Big Nickel - four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs - but the preferred option this season may be the 3-3-5 look, given the fact that Belichick now seems to be collecting five-technique, 3-4 defensive ends and eschewing traditional 4-3 rush ends.

There is really only one of those on the roster, rookie Derek Rivers, but in this scheme he projects to be more of a stand-up rush linebacker, what with his 4.61 speed and penetration skills to force running backs to the sidelines laterally as an edge setter - and no one would be surprised to see Rivers execute much like departed Jamie Collins did on the strong side.

In fact both Rivers and fellow draftee Deatrich Wise were projected to be attractive to teams looking for 3-4 fits, with Wise having tons of experience in Arkansas three-man line as a five-tech. Everyone else on the line has the versatility to play on shifting fronts, and all of the linebackers have the flexibility to play any of the positions on the second level, led by clutch veteran Dont'a Hightower and flanked by names like McClellin, Van Noy, Roberts and Ninkovich.

The players that make the 2017 New England Patriots defensive unit are going to be the players that fit the Big Nickel scheme, which is not necessarily players who would be considered elite, all-around athletes - rather, the players that fit the scheme are those identified by Belichick as the ones whose skill sets can be incorporated into the game plans on a rotational basis...

...long a staple of Belichick defenses, the rotation allows for a wide open play book as well as keeping players fresh for the fourth quarter, both of which were on full display in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, as the Patriots' defense matched up fresh players with the Falcons' offense and eventually got to Matt Ryan to turn the game in New England's favor.

So all anyone has to do who is wondering why the Patriots are doing something that looks funky on the surface, is to remember that Belichick has been building his defense to accommodate the Big Nickel for years, and that if that confuses them, think about how confusing it is to their opponents as well.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 5: Young Offensive Line Helped By Balance In Play Calling, Health

The New England Patriots are absolutely and unequivocally loaded on offense.

There isn't a friend or foe of the team that will deny that they have a rotation of running backs built to create matchup issues all over the formation, a set of tight ends so monstrous and physical that they will dominate the seam and the red zone, and a receiving corps that is the most dangerously diverse in all of professional football...
Linemen Solder, Thuney and Andrews celebrate with Edelman, Brady

...and lest we forget that the entire kennel is led by perhaps the greatest quarterback who ever laced up a pair of cleats, who runs the unit with such grace and efficiency that they can substitute at whim while giving the opposition almost no chance to rest their weary warriors, a fascinating lesson on personnel rotation resembling a line change in hockey.

With such advantages all over the skill positions, there is no way that a defense can cover that many studs every single play of every game - sooner or later, they are going to burn you and there's nothing that anyone can do to prevent that, regardless of the quality of their secondary and linebacking corps.

The Patriots are just too good and there's just too many of them.

So the only realistic hope that any opposing defense is going to have in containing the Patriots' juggernaut is to load up on pass rushers and get to Brady before he can unload the ball.

Good luck with that.

Brady runs the Patriots system like a sniper posing as a chess master, spending mere seconds in the huddle to give his players a concept to align in so that he has twenty-plus seconds at the line of scrimmage to move them around like so many pawns, their motion creating an equal and opposite reaction by the defenders that gives Brady a pretty good idea where his mismatches are...

...so that once the ball is finally snapped, he knows exactly where he's going with it, wasting little time loading up and firing to virtually any point on the field.

Brady is decisive and has the snap in his release that bleeds confidence - something that came to the forefront in the final twenty minutes of the Super Bowl, but if there was one thing that really turned the game in the Patriots' favor, it was the protection that Brady received from his offensive line.

Truthfully, that was a mixture of tenacity, will and the sheer number of plays run by the Patriots offense taking it's toll on the Falcons' pass rushers, as they were exposed to 63 passing plays, the equivalent to running 63 ten-yard windsprints while pushing a 300 pound blocking sled - and with that type of volume, even the most well-conditioned of pass rushers are going to wear down.

Brady is protected by what Pro Football Focus proclaims as one of the up-and-coming offensive lines, a line that is defined by their youth, football intelligence and nastiness.  The folks at PFF rated the Patriots' offensive line number ten for their efforts in 2016, which is saying a hell of a lot considering that they were starting a rookie at left guard and a second-year undrafted free agent at center...

...not to mention bookend tackles who have had plenty of issues the previous couple of years and a second-year right guard that couldn't pass block to save his - or Brady's - life in his rookie campaign.

A lot of different things factored into the Patriots offensive line's improvement over the course of the season, but the biggest reason was simply gaining balance in the play calling, something that has obviously been recognized by Belichick and his staff as they have worked to add new dimensions to both the running and passing game in an attempt to continue the trend.

In 2015, the Patriots were thirtieth out of thirty-two teams in rushing offense, the balance lopsided in the favor of passing offense by a ratio of 63% - 37%.  Predictably, since the Patriots were not all-in on running the football, the opposition focused on getting to Brady instead of stopping New England's less-than-scary running attack, and Brady took the beating of his life.

In 633 drop backs, Brady was sacked an atrocious 38 times, and was pressured or hit on over 35% of his attempts otherwise - not including the playoffs, where the Denver Broncos beat him like he stole something, sacking him four times and hitting him twenty in what was a perfect encapsulation of the offense's entire season.

Last season, however, the Patriots set their line early by installing Cannon at right tackle with the powerful Mason flanking him on the interior and drafting North Carolina State's Joe Thuney to man left guard to complete what New England considers vital to keeping Brady upright, namely, the play action.

New England sports the most unique play action concept in the football world, pulling their guards and employing a sixth offensive lineman to hard-sell the run, causing the opposing linebackers to play downhill and vacate the second level, leaving both the seam and the intermediate crosser - staples of the Patriots' passing game - wide open, the concept isolating corners one-on-one with Brady's pass catchers.

The numbers back that up, as Brady put up the best completion percentage and passer rating in the NFL when invoking the play action at a deadly 72%, and a filthy 125.0, respectively - both far and away the best numbers of his career.

Of course, the play action will never work if the opposition doesn't have any reason to respect your running game, and the Patriots gave them plenty to respect in 2016 - and probably even more in 2017.

In 2015, the Patriots built an undefeated record through their first ten games despite a horrific series of injuries along their line as the play action off of the running game worked to keep Brady upright for the most part, and were even able to hold things together for a while after electric running back Dion Lewis was lost for the season in week 9...

...but they weren't able to overcome losing power back LeGarrette Blount's season-ending hip injury in week 14, as the yards per carry took a nose dive - and, subsequently, the Patriots' opponents had nothing to fear from the running game and concentrated on loading up the pass rush to get to Brady.

All of that makes what they were able to accomplish as a unit that much more impressive - impressive enough, even, to extend new contracts to right tackle Marcus Cannon and center David Andrews that will keep them in Foxborough for at least the next couple of years.

But as successful as Brady was in the play action with his running backs presenting one-dimensional skill sets that tipped off the defense as to what was coming, Belichick made sure that he supplemented  the running game by signing a couple of all-purpose backs, the threat of a run on any down sapping the aggressiveness of the opposition's pass rush.

This illustrates the fact that the entire offense has direct impact on the performance of the line. Play action is the single most important weapon in the arsenal, but is made possible only with the success of the running backs and with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels featuring them in the attack. The tight ends all are devastating run blockers and all can get loose up the seam, making it problematic for safeties to blitz without giving Brady a wide open target...

...and with receivers that can stretch the field in Cooks, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, that helps the line in the same capacity in that while they are stretching the field, Brady is firing off back shoulder throws and hitting those guys on dig routes, cutting the pattern short and showing their numbers to Brady.

When any of that happens, one can count to three and ball is out, usually with good results.

Along with balance, a lot of the improvement among the players is due to the in-your-face coaching style of line coach Dante Scarnecchia, while still more can be attributed to the players remaining healthy, which enabled them to become a cohesive unit - and still more can be attributed to them just growing into their positions, as there is no substitute for experience.

Take Cannon for example.  Long loathed by Patriots' fans due to his revolving door-style of pass protection, the Texas A&M product produced at such a level in 2016 that he earned second-team All Pro honors at right tackle, the result of the aforementioned benefits but mostly due to the fact that for the first time in his career, Cannon was able to call the position his, as it had been previously manned by Sebastian Vollmer and Cannon was his backup.

It also helped that right guard Shaq Mason experienced a second-year jump in production, more than holding his own in pass protection in addition to his elite status as a drive blocker in the running game. Typically, it is the powerful-yet-nimble-footed Mason that pulls to sell the run in the play action, with the tight end or the sixth offensive lineman pulling into the gap vacated by Mason to chip the pass rusher.

Andrews has become a trusted pivot, as his reputation as a nasty street fighter precedes him, and Thuney will be given every opportunity to improve on his deficiencies as a pass blocker this season, which was confirmed when Belichick virtually ignored the guard position in free agency and the draft, leaving a thin layer of depth when he released Tre Jackson and Chris Barker.

Solder is in a contract year, and is in a no-win situation.  If he plays well, New England will not be able to afford to keep him as a premier left tackle, not even with the franchise tag - but if he plays poorly, the writing will be on the wall that his performance down the stretch last season was an anomaly and that his skill is deteriorating.

Those scenarios don't lend themselves to Solder wearing a Patriots' uniform past 2017, and Belichick knows that, having drafted the mean and talented Antonio Garcia out of Troy, a developmental left tackle whom the team will groom for the position under the tutelage of Scarnecchia and is a lock to make the team, as veteran Michael Williams has been released...

...and to make room for sixth-round pick Conor McDermott, swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle may see his roster spot pulled out from underneath him - though McDermott could use a year on the practice squad to bulk up, his 6' 8", 310 pound frame and thin lower body needing the attention of a professional strength and conditioning coach.

McDermott certainly isn't ready to anchor against NFL pass rushers, and may never be, but his athleticism - he was named a finalist for the McDonald's All-American High School basketball team as a senior and was named Mr. Basketball in Tennessee the same season - and his elite knack for the cut block makes him a perfect sixth lineman, as he has the feet and the recoil in his hips to pull into gaps to clear out linebackers.

Veteran Cam Fleming holds that office currently, and was tendered at the original round (fourth) in restricted free agency which will earn him $1.8 million non-guaranteed in 2017 if he makes the squad, which doesn't preclude him from being shown the door if McDermott's athleticism wins out over Fleming's sheer size and power.

All of that said, the starting five are solid and the sixth lineman is well accounted for, but depth is very young.  If there is anything that is going to derail the Patriots' juggernaut offense, it is going to be injuries to the offensive line - even more devastating than in 2015 because of the inexperience of the depth...

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Patriots' Offseason Moves Confirm Tenets Of Offensive Philosophy

You can't stop them, you can only hope to contain them.

That particular axiom was made popular by ESPN's Dan Patrick during his heyday as the anchor of the network's popular nightly SportsCenter broadcasts, but it's roots go back as far as recorded time itself.  Some attribute it to Sun Tsu's Art of War, while others consider it a Machiavellian utterance and still others say it was an appropriate description of basketball's Wilt Chamberlain...

...but Sun Tsu didn't mince words like that and Machiavelli was a brutal dictator who plagiarized the Chinese general's treatise into his own twisted variant - the saying did show up in a couple of articles geared towards Chamberlain's dominance, however, but whatever the genesis of the axiom, the modern meaning is meant to describe a juggernaut in team sports.

Like the New England Patriots' offense.

The last team to stop the Patriots' offense was the Buffalo Bills last season in week four, when the Patriots started obviously injured rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, who had to endure multiple injections into his damaged thumb just to be able to grasp a football - and Brissett was filling in for an even more injured Jimmy Garoppolo, who was filling in for a suspended Tom Brady.

The last team to truly contain the New England offense was the Denver Broncos in week fifteen - working in tandem with the bitter cold and altitude, the Broncos' defense held Brady to under 200 yards passing for the only time all season, their pass rush sacking him twice and staying in his face all day long.

Only the midstream adjustment of inserting scatback Dion Lewis into the game saved the offense that managed only 16 points, and even then was aided by Broncos' turnovers for excellent field position that resulted in ten of those digits.  Lewis exposed Denver's run defense for nearly 100 yards and the Patriots' top ranked scoring defense held the Broncos to a lonely field goal.

Which proves that merely containing the Patriots' offense isn't enough, something that the Atlanta Falcons found out in the Super Bowl when they toyed with New England and stood on precedence instead of finishing them off when they had the opportunity, committing the cardinal sin of allowing Brady to hang around long enough to rip their hearts out.

Because the Patriots offense can dictate terms to any defense - usually by taking an early lead and forcing them to adjust constantly throughout the game.  Of the sixteen regular season games in 2016, New England posted the initial score fourteen times, and did so two out of three times in the postseason as well.

In fact, the Patriots were the best team in the National Football League at putting their opponents on notice the first time they had the ball, taking leads on opening drives eleven times.  For good measure, they also started the second half of games putting up crooked numbers on their initial drives eight different times and, most memorable, did so in the only overtime period they played in all season.

And when they score, it's usually in bunches. Twenty times last season the Patriots scored on back to back possessions - and as if that wasn't enough, they scored on three consecutive possessions four times, four consecutive possessions three times, and on five straight possession once, that being in their behind-the-woodshed flogging of the Bills at Buffalo, payback for the Bills aforementioned shutout with Brissett at quarterback.

For those keeping score, those numbers mean that the Patriots scored 71% of their points in bulk, a literal devastating tsunami of methodical and controlled move-the-chains football that eats up clock and crushes the will of the opposition.

One of those back-to-back-to-back-to-back occasions was in the Super Bowl, as the Patriots put up 31 unanswered points to erase a twenty-five point deficit and win the title in overtime against an Atlanta defense that simply ran out of gas midway through the third quarter and wilted like week-old lettuce in a hot dumpster.

The Falcons had the proper game plan to contain the Patriots, and two turnovers by New England put Atlanta's defense in a position to stop them completely - but, strange as it may sound, it was the second gaffe by New England, a pick six thrown by Brady to Robert Alford, that started the wilting which ultimately did the Falcons in.

With 8:48 remaining in the first half and the Falcons up by 14 points thanks to two quick-strike touchdowns from excellent field position, Brady led the Patriots on a 12-play drive that culminated in Alford's interception return for a touchdown, then New England was immediately back out on offense and initiated an 11-play drive for a field goal to make the score 21-3 at halftime...

...but lost in the euphoria was the fact that the Falcons defense was on the field for 23 consecutive plays and a grand total of 43 plays for the half, totaling 19:32 of actual game time, the turnovers and quick scores causing the Falcons' defense to wear down, then subjecting them to scoring drives of 13, 12 and 10 plays in the second half to put them in the dirt.

The point being, is that it isn't just a matter of having a good defense and a solid game plan to stop New England, it's also a matter of their offense balancing the time of possession and giving the defense time to both get their proper rest and to regroup and adjust to what Brady is doing.

Like the Patriots did to their opponents on offense last season.

Including the playoffs, New England scored 63 touchdowns and 34 field goals in 2016, averaging a mind-numbing 4:30 in actual game time for each scoring drive.  That is four-and-one-half minutes that the Patriots' defense gets to rest while Brady and company are sapping the life out of the opposing defense.

What's amazing about those numbers is that the Patriots accomplished all of this with their running backs serving one-dimensional purposes for the most part, and with their passing game without All World tight end Rob Gronkowski for the majority of the season.  Of course, New England had Martellus Bennett to somewhat fill the void left by Gronk, but the running game was what it was.

But what's even more amazing, is that the Patriots have upgraded their skill position players to the point that they could improve exponentially on all of those numbers in 2017.

How?  Well, instead of employing a power back, the Patriots went out and procured the services of two all-purpose, four-down backs in former Cincinnati Bengals pine-rider Rex Burkhead and former Buffalo Bills up-and-comer Mike Gillislee, joining White and Lewis to give New England a more dynamic, less predictable offense.

Some may see them as redundant talents - and in the way the Patriots will use them, they probably are - but in this instance, that is a wonderful thing as no matter who or how many backs are aligned in the backfield, the presence of a seemingly endless supply of multi-tool backs means that the opposing defense will have to respect the run on every play and to defend the entire field...

...something that didn't always happen in 2016, as early down back LeGarrette Blount offered very little in the passing game and passing back White offered very little on the ground, so that gave the opposing defense a little latitude in defending the Patriots offense, loading the box when Blount was in the game and loading up the pass rush when he wasn't.

Of course, adding an element of deep speed in the form of former New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks advances that philosophy even further by forcing the defense into defending the entire field, which opens up running lanes.

All of this adds up to a more efficient offense, because despite the fact that the Patriots were the third best scoring team in the league, they scored on only 43% of their possessions - embarking on 221 drives in 2016 and scoring on just 97, that means that they left points - and time - on the field, and did so with a predictable offense.

For the sake of comparison, the Falcons scored on 52% of their possessions, but to do so, they sacrificed time of possession which, in the end, did them in.

The statistic that shows the disparity between New England and Atlanta comes in the form of third down plays per game.  New England, being a ball control, move-the-chains type of offense found themselves in third down situations fifteen times per game, converting over half of those into first downs - while the Falcons limited their third down opportunities only 11 times per game, and converting just four times, on average.

That tells us that the Falcons are a quick-strike entity that struggled when faced with do-or-die scenarios while New England preferred a more methodical approach, which resulted in better production when it really counted - on third down and in the red zone - because small ball is the way the Patriots play, so it comes naturally for them to focus on minute details.

The addition of Cooks doesn't change this philosophy, despite his elite deep speed, it just makes the Patriots more difficult to defend - because like everyone else on the offense, he will be expected to line up wherever Brady identifies a mismatch.  But because he does have the aforementioned deep speed, he along with Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Rob Gronkowski give New England the ability to strike quickly if need be.

It's their choice.  The Patriots have built an offense that can spread your defense thin, then either bomb you into submission or nickle and dime you to death - so when you hear an announcer or prognosticator state that a defensive coordinator has to "pick their poison" when it comes to defending New England's offense, that should be taken literally...

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 4: Belichick "Cooks" Up Enticing Receiving Corps

"A modern day warrior
Mean, mean stride
Today's Tom Sawyer
Mean, mean pride."

When Neil Peart, the world class drummer for the Canadian rock band Rush, penned the lyrics to the band's most recognizable and signature tune Tom Sawyer, New England Patriots head ball coach Bill Belichick was just starting to cut his football teeth as linebackers' coach for the New York Giants under the tutelage of Ray Perkins...

...the same Ray Perkins who, along with Ron Erhardt, devised the concept-based Erhardt-Perkins offense while they were both offensive assistants with the Patriots, a system so complex in it's simplicity that learning the playbook has ruined many competent veteran receivers with it's reliance on versatility.

Perkins' influence on Belichick is evident every time his Patriots take the field, as the mantra for the Erhardt-Perkins offense, "Pass to score, run to win" is pretty much how it's done in New England with their pass-first mentality and their ability to close out games by running out of their four-minute sets - but finding players that "get it" when it comes to the concepts is not an easy task.

The offense requires that every player knows what every other player is supposed to be doing, and relying on their diverse skill sets to give them the ability to line up at any position on the field, be it split wide, in the slot or in the backfield.

For years, Brady has called the play in the huddle - a simple one word designation that tells each player where to line up and what route he is running, breaking the huddle quickly and then using the rest of the play clock to survey the defense, unmask the coverages by sending any number of players in motion and gauging the defenses' reaction, then adjusting the pass catchers to a spot in the formation to take advantage of mismatches.

So, there's a reason why Belichick selects the pass catchers that he does, a reason why Patriots' receivers are no-name, often nomadic creatures who wouldn't make another team's roster because they lack any number of requisite qualities that fans will pay to see - literal jacks-of-all-trades, receivers that are successful in the concept have three things in common:

They are intelligent, both academically and in football vernacular.  They are versatile.  They are dependable.

Not a list of traits looked at with any degree of enthusiasm by the casual fan - or by many coaches, it seems - it is these traits that have fueled the Patriots' offense for close to two decades, ruining the aforementioned tenured veterans and making cult-figures of ambiguous, ill-figured athletes, some of whom had not played at receiver until Belichick got hold of them.
"Tom Sawyer was a collaboration between myself and Pye Dubois.  His original lyrics were kind of a portrait of a modern-day rebel, a free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful.  I added the themes of reconciling the boy and the man in myself, and the difference between what people are and what others perceive them to be." Neil Peart
The gap between what Belichick is and what people perceive him to be has narrowed exponentially with each division title, with each conference championship and with each Super Bowl.  Initially, the man we've come to call "The Dark Master" was perceived to be a curmudgeonly old malcontent who loathed the media and didn't give two shits what anyone thought of him...

...his sole saving grace in the public eye was the obvious affection that he had for the men who played ball for him - and even that took hits every time he released or traded away a player whom the fanbase had decided had lots of gas left in their tank.

He discarded certain hall-of-fame receiver Randy Moss after he ceased to be useful, and dumped slot receiver Wes Welker after openly mocking him with the moniker "Wally Pipp" and giving his job to Julian Edelman.  He took chances on a washed-up Chad Ochocinco and Reggie Wayne, but both crashed and burned at the prospect of having to learn the playbook.

His track record of drafting receivers that could actually function in the system is abysmal, so instead he concentrates on collecting already broken-in talent with varying degrees of success and rides the lightning with them - his track record in that endeavor solid gold despite the failed Ochocinco experiment.

Moss set records and made mockery of secondaries throughout football.  Welker became the prototype for garden gnome-sized slot receivers, holding the fort for Edelman, a former-college quarterback that worked his way into the lineup.  Danny Amendola was signed the day that Welker was shown the door and became one of the most clutch receivers in team history.

Chris Hogan didn't even play college ball at Penn State, instead playing Lacrosse on scholarship then using his final year of eligibility to learn to play the position at tiny Monmouth College, and last season became the Patriots big play game breaker - and in Malcolm Mitchell, all indications are that Belichick may have finally gotten a draft pick right.

Indeed, Mitchell was the highest-drafted receiver on the roster last season - with the exception of late-season rental Michael Floyd - being taken in the fourth round and wowing the fans at Gillette Stadium with his toughness, resilience and electric moves after the catch, and all indications were that Mitchell was ready to break out onto the scene as a sophomore...

...that is until Belichick traded away his first-round draft pick to New Orleans in exchange for Brandin Cooks, a move that will either limit Mitchell's progress by taking snaps from him or make him that much more dangerous as opposing secondaries look to contain the speedy Cooks.

Running a blazing fast 4.33 in the 40 yard dash, Cooks routinely ran away from coverages operating out of the slot, his short area burst causing instant separation as he took slot corners inside out across the face of the intermediate zone and up the sidelines which draws the attention of the high safety and should leave the other pass catchers on the roster in single coverage.

That's bad news for defensive coordinators on the Patriots' schedule, especially considering that Mitchell and Hogan are no sloths, running 4.45 and 4.47 respectively - we saw what both did last season when left in man coverage, and the fact that they rose to the occasion when their team needed them most in the post-season makes them solid gold in Belichick's system.

No, his mind is not for rent
To any God or government
Always hopeful but discontent
He knows changes aren't permanent

Terminally discontent despite holding another trophy, in trading for Cooks Belichick addressed the most worrisome issue coming out of their championship season, that of not having a speed merchant to force the defense to defend the entire field and allowing defenses built on quickness - such as the Atlanta Falcons - to key down on taking away the short game that has been a staple of Belichick's offenses throughout his tenure.

His Patriots overcame that disadvantage in the Super Bowl, barely, but Belichick can't count on making epic comebacks week-after-week after spotting teams large leads - so he went out and did something about it.

In Cooks, Hogan and Mitchell, the Patriots are suddenly youthful in their receiving corps.  Cooks is 23 and still working on his rookie contract, though Belichick picked up his option for 2018 and making him a multi-millionaire.  Mitchell is in his second season at age 24 and also on his rookie contract, while Hogan is still just 28 and entering his sixth season...

...joining Edelman (30) and Amendola (31) to form perhaps the most dangerously versatile receiving corps in the National Football League.

Now add in the combined talents of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen - both just 27 years old and under contract for multiple seasons - along with the pass catching talent coming out of the backfield in the personages of Super Bowl hero James White (25), Dion Lewis (26), Rex Burkhead (26) and Mike Gillislee (26), and one has to wonder how anyone is going to stop the apparent juggernaut that Belichick has built.

Luckily for opposing defenses, the Patriots are only allowed five skill position players on the field at any one time - but that is going to be hard enough for them to cover and account for...

Today's Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the space he invades
He gets by on you

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 3: Miscast, Underused in Indy, Allen Set To Break Out With New England

National Football League teams using two tight end sets is as old as the game itself, but how they benefit the individual offenses is a matter of overall talent and depth - and since the start of this decade, no team has relied more on - nor gotten more out of - their tight ends than the New England Patriots.

Selected in the second and fourth rounds of the 2010 NFL Draft, respectively, Arizona's Rob Gronkowski and Florida's Aaron Hernandez helped the Patriots and head ball coach Bill Belichick revolutionize how offenses attack defenses - and how defenses defend against them.

So lethal was the Gronkowski-Hernandez pairing that acquiring monstrous and athletic tight ends became en vogue, as it were, for other teams to follow suit and jump on the gravy train while defensive coordinators were still trying to figure out how to stop the dual-tight end look, and acquiring the players to do it.

Ultimately, most teams had to settle for less on both sides of the ball, but even though Gronkowski has missed considerable time with injury and Hernandez ended up in the poke, Belichick never reverted back to a normal pro set, opting instead to keep signing tight ends to complement Gronkowski, as names like Kellen Winslow, Jr., Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells, Matthew Mulligan, Tim Wright and Scott Chandler came and went as possible complements...

...but it wasn't until last season when Belichick traded a low-round draft pick to the Chicago Bears to pick up the disgruntled yet animated Martellus Bennett that the Dark Master finally hit on a deal to bring in a true complementary weapon, though he turned out to be more of a vital cog in the championship machine when Gronkowski went down with a slipped disk at midseason than a mere complementary chess piece.

So, it's not such a huge surprise that the Patriots won Super Bowl 51 without the services of Rob Gronkowski, though it is a scary thought for the rest of the NFL to ponder, particularly given that of the previous two Super Bowls that the Patriots have participated in since Gronkowski was drafted 42nd overall back in 2010, the road traveled was bumpy and full of obstacles...

...losing in 2011 when he was injured to the point that he should have been on the IR, then in 2014 the massively talented workhorse tight end was completely healthy against the Seahawks, though it took a miracle at the end of the game for New England to pull out their fourth championship.

In Super Bowl 46 against the New York Giants, Gronkowski was hobbled with what was initially diagnosed as a high ankle sprain, but what turned out to be partially ruptured ligaments that required surgery to repair, and in Super Bowl 49 he was a difference-maker down the stretch that allowed the Patriots to take a late lead and eventually win the title.

Last February, he was on the IR after back surgery forced him to the sidelines, but this time the Patriots were able to come back and win a fifth title, scoring 31 unanswered points after spotting the Atlanta Falcons a 25 point lead.

The difference, of course, was the presence of Bennett, a depth option that the Patriots haven't had since Hernandez went rogue, as well as a full complement of various-sized and shaped weapons for quarterback Tom Brady to target - depth that Brady has never had to work with before.

In 2011, Brady had only Wes Welker, a rapidly aging Deion Branch and the now deceased Hernandez to fall back on as options to Gronkowski, as names like Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman were not yet viable targets, but were options in 2014.  Last season, Edelman teamed with Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Bennett and running back James White to earn a trophy...

...depth that has gotten even deeper this offseason with the additions of receiver Brandin Cooks and running backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee - and even though Martysaurus Rex (Bennett) is making cheeseheads in Wisconsin, head ball coach and chief roster builder Bill Belichick brought in tight end Dwayne Allen to level the playing field at the tight end position.

Oh yeah, Gronkowski is back, his surgically repaired back one-hundred percent and ready to dominate both the line of scrimmage and the seam.

By himself, Gronkowski is the ultimate matchup nightmare and accounts for over one-third of the Patriots' total passing yardage when he is active for gameday - but as we saw last season, that's nowhere close to a guarantee, and that's why there has been a concerted effort by Belichick to load up at other "skill" positions, including depth at tight end.

Allen is an enigma, but those types of players tend to show up on the positive side of the malady more often than not in Foxborough.

Built like a linebacker with a timed-40 that puts him in that same classification, Allen's forte is running dig routes across the face of the opposition's second level, where at 6' 3" and 255 pounds, he is an absolute load to bring down.  A different player than Gronkowski, Allen is more of a "Move" tight end, meaning that, simply, Brady can move him around in the formation to set protections and take advantage of potential mismatches.

Of course, Gronkowski is so talented that he can be used in the same manner, only with his size and speed, he is a much more dangerous target and is in a class all by himself.

Allen is also an athlete with a unique skill set, however, and should be a perfect fit in the Patriots' offense.  Flexible and explosive, Allen can pop off of the line and into the pattern without having to align in the slot, and is a polished route runner - something that Brady will enjoy about having him in the formation right off the bat...

...and also because he is a reliable safety valve over the middle who can't be intimidated by smaller coverage 'backers or strong safeties, and will drag said defenders like death chains until someone gets underfoot.

In other words, he will likely become the team's go-to chain mover, and chances are very high that he will be far more successful in coordinator Josh McDaniels' offense than he was with the Indianapolis Colts', who dealt him to New England for a fourth round draft pick, simply due to the fact that his skill set is a better fit with the players around him.

Gronkowski is going to take folks up the seam and to the sidelines on "out" and "post" routes, running back James White will own the flat on "buttonhook" and "wheel" routes, receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will drive slot corners crazy with "return" and "jerk" routes and Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell will take corners on deep posts, occasionally sitting down in intermediate zones just to take advantage of zone coverages...

...so chances are that those digs that Allen is so good at are going to be wide open, especially since he is so adept at shielding the defender from the ball with his wide body - and if they are not, then someone else is going to be open somewhere.

The formula is simple: dictate to the defense how they are going to defend, then use their alignment against them.

For example, if New England went full-spread, it would normally force the defense into a dime look (six defensive backs), but with two talented and dangerous tight ends on the field in the spread, either those extra defensive backs are safeties with enough bulk to handle tight ends, or the defense would have to scale back into a nickel and counter Allen with a like-sized athlete.

We already know how futile and dangerous that concept is when guarding Gronkowski - when Brady sees him isolated on a linebacker or in single coverage of any kind, he starts drooling and changes the play to take advantage of the mismatch - and the same should hold true for Allen, who has enough ability to destroy second-level zones on technique alone...

...and has shown the capacity to move the chains as a check down, possession-type receiver with extraordinary hands and playing speed faster than his timed-40 would suggest.

Other than Gronkowski and Allen, the depth is mostly questionable, though there is talent in the group. Belichick signed veteran Rob Housler, traded for James O'Shaughnessey and brought in undrafted free agent Jacob Hollister to compete with incumbents Michael Williams and Matt Lengel for a third tight end spot, if there is to be one.

Housler is a pass catcher only, while Williams and Lengel offer little more than massive inline blocking. O'Shaughnessey is the favorite to carve out a role with the team, given the fact that he has developed behind Travis Kelse in Kansas City and came out of Illinois State as a highly rated "move" tight end that has become a decent blocker and has enough vertical speed to challenge the seam.

The draft day deal that brought O'Shaughnessey to New England is exciting in that he was considered a second-round prospect coming out of college that fell all the way to the fifth round, presumably due to the fact that he hadn't faced any real big college challenges and his development as a complete player probably wasn't going to happen as quickly as most teams would like, given the "win now" nature of the NFL.



So Belichick did what Belichick does, let Andy Reid indoctrinate him to the pro game while he learned behind Kelse for a couple of seasons, picking him up for what amounted to peanuts against the cap and in draft capital, and now has the opportunity to field a broken-in youngster with a ton of upside - which is essentially an insurance policy in case it turns out that Allen continues underachieving as he did in Indianapolis...

...though much of that was due to the way the Colts used him - or should we say underused him - in their spread attack, then eventually replacing him with combination tight end Jack Doyle, who fit more in Chuck Pagano's offense due to his ability to work well on the move, frequently moving in motion before the snap to gain explosion coming out of his initial cut.

Allen is essentially what the Patriots need in a move tight end, and O'Shaughnessey adds a layer of depth that gives the Patriots - surprise! - the deepest corps of tight ends in the NFL.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 2: Clutch White Leads Stable Of Young Greyhounds in Patriots' Backfield

When push came to shove in the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots turned to the man they call "Sweet Feet".

James White has spent his entire football career sharing the backfield with runners who were considered more explosive and dynamic in their skill sets and, indeed, many that he's shared backfields with since high school have found their way to rosters around the National Football League...
White mobbed by teammates after scoring the Super Bowl winner

...splitting time with Giovanni Bernard at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida - where his creative writing teacher pinned his nickname on him - then with names like John Clay, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon in his four seasons at the University of Wisconsin, taking a back seat to all three, but still able to distinguish himself.

In 2010, he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year after putting up a stat line of 1052 yards on just 156 carries, a mammoth 6.7 yards per carry, and finding paydirt 14 times.  With Ball ahead of him in his Sophomore and Junior seasons, his touches went down precipitously, though he was still able to maintain an average of over six yards per carry...

...and then enjoyed his finest season as a Senior, logging 1444 yards on 215 carries and putting himself on the radar for selection in the NFL draft.

Fighting the notion that Wisconsin running backs' numbers and talent were inflated due to the exceptional quality of the Badgers run blocking scheme - and the subsequent busts of high draft picks Ron Dayne, Clay and Ball through the recent past did nothing but encourage the notion - it was clear that New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick saw White as a passing back, a Shane Vereen-like talent, breaking the mold of big-bodied Badgers bell cows.

So sharing the backfield with other talented runners was nothing new to White, as he found himself competing for touches with seasoned NFL veterans in LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis - and it took injuries to both during the 2015 season for White to get his shot to show what he could do for the Patriots, the momentum from the stretch run spilling over into the 2016 season, when White subtly emerged as a legitimate weapon.

There's that word.  Subtle.  It may be the best way to describe White's running style, as when used as an adjective, the word is defined as "being so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyze or describe" - which certainly pertains to his elusiveness, utilizing a toe drag that would make a hockey player envious and a stutter step that leaves linebackers grasping at air.

He doesn't have pronounced video game moves, so he's not thought of as an explosive runner, and he doesn't possess blazing speed, so he's not what one might consider a home run threat - what he is, is dependable and consistent, and he gets what the Patriots' offense is all about.

White very quietly had the best season for a passing back in Belichick's nearly two decades long tenure as master of the franchise, surpassing Vereen and the great Kevin Faulk for catches in a season with 60 and averaging nearly 10 yards per catch - but he was rarely used in the running game for the third consecutive year, averaging 4.3 yards on 40 carries.

And he had no carries at all in the divisional round of the playoffs against Houston and just one inconsequential touch in the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh as Blount and Lewis shouldered the load on the ground for New England - but when Belichick called his name in the Super Bowl, White delivered perhaps the most epic performance in the history of the game.

Eight of his touches went for first downs, three went for touchdowns and one went for a crucial two-point conversion, meaning that 12 of his twenty touches either moved the chains or caused numbers to change on the scoreboard - and most of that happening at just about the time that quarterback Tom Brady caught on fire.

White is the latest example of what Belichick describes as the kind of "Smart, tough, dependable" player that he's come to count on the most when the chips are down.

"In critical situations, you can count on those players to perform under pressure.  You can count on those players to execute what you want to execute as a team." Belichick said recently at a coaching clinic at Ohio State University. "The tougher the game, the more critical the game, the more important the situation, the more I want the tough, smart, dependable player in the game, in the eye of the storm."

The Patriots are stacked to the ceiling with those types of players - Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Marcus Cannon, Duron Harmon and Dont'a Hightower are other examples of this phenomenon - and all come through in the clutch, and when Brady and Belichick need a play, there is no hesitation whatsoever in calling any of their numbers...

...and, indeed, they all came up big on the biggest of stages in February, but it was White who had the ball in his hands when it came time to put the ball in the end zone, and with Edelman, Chris Hogan and Cannon crashing down to deliver key blocks to isolate White in the right flat, where he powered through a couple of arm tackles to score the winning points in Super Bowl 51.

Why White in that situation when Blount had handled that situation all season and scored an NFL-high 18 touchdowns on typically short-yardage dive plays?  Because having a dual threat in the backfield at that moment caused the Falcons to have to account for White in both the run and passing game, while having the one-dimensional power back in Blount would have allowed Atlanta to play in a heavy goal line package.

Brady spread out the defense and once the ball was snapped, the Patriots formed a wall of humanity that shielded off eight defenders once Edelman and Hogan crashed down the line, so it was up to White to find a seam, make a cut and end the game.

This offseason, Belichick opted to find more runners that could bring the same package no matter the down and distance, and let Blount hit free agency where has yet to find work - signing up former Cincinnati Bengal Rex Burkhead off the market and making an offer in restricted free agency to Buffalo Bills backup Mike Gillislee...

...which, when added to White and the fragile-yet-electric Lewis, gives New England four runners that are equally adept at curling out into the pattern as they are taking the hand off, forcing the opposition into constant nickel and dime situations that naturally open up the seam for the tight ends and also lightens the run defense and trumps the explosiveness of the pass rush.

So with four multi-tool greyhounds in the running back stable, the Patriots' offense is going to be even less predictable than they have been in the recent past, and they lose nothing in the passing game by hauling out the "Pony" formation - that is, having two backs on the field - as all are able to split wide, or into the slot, or simply stay at Brady's side for a shotgun hand off or to pick up the blitz, another requirement of Belichick backs.

The Patriots have loaded up at every single position on the field, and have so much talent across the board that the only problem that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has is finding enough touches to keep everyone happy - but at least they know that when the chips are down and the situation is most critical, they can count on James White to come through.