Wednesday, October 18, 2017

No Paper Tigers, These Patriots Are Mean Counter-Punchers

"In the animal kingdom, the rule is eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined." - Dr Thomas Szasz
The noted Psychologist Thomas Szasz stated that little ditty in response to critics of his postulation of the quick and the dead. "The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself." the doctor was quoted in The Columbia Law Review in 1958, "In the typical western, two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground. Whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives, his adversary is shot and dies."

"In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words. Whoever first defines the situation is the victor; his adversary, the victim."
Lewis has been under-used in Patriots' offense

That said, in the never-ending struggle for the media and fans to define the New England Patriots, they have instead defined themselves, and it's nothing like what anyone was expecting.

The New England Patriots' secondary was considered among the best in football coming into the 2017 National Football League season.

And why not? After all, defacto General Manager and head ball coach Bill Belichick signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore away from Buffalo to go along with Pro Bowl corner Malcolm Butler and up-and-coming winger Eric Rowe - and when combined with the best, most versatile safety corps in the league, the optimism was hard to argue with.

But now, a full one-third of the way into the season, the Patriots are ranked dead-last in the league in both passing yards yielded and in total defense, yet they stand atop the AFC East with a 4-2 record.

The Patriots skill positions on offense had fans and foes alike thinking juggernaut, but after an initial four-game spread that saw them scoring over 32 points per game, they have been held to a measly 21 points per game in their last two - yet they stand atop the AFC East with a 4-2 record.

How this is possible is testament to a coaching staff that has scrambled to minimize the impact of injury, and to a group of players that are true Patriots all the way down to their spleens: toiling in the trenches, stuffing the run when they absolutely have to, scoring when they need it the most, most of their games coming down to the last possession...

...and were it not for a missed assignment here and a missed tackle there, this rag-tag team, warts and all, would be undefeated - but by the same token, were they not so fortunate on a couple of occasions, they would be winless and talk of the Patriots' dynasty being done would be factual.

But 4-2 is where the team stands after Sunday's gut-check against the Jets at MetLife Stadium, a game that's script has become all too familiar to Patriots' fans - but a rough draft that will pay dividends down the road, should this year's version of the New England Patriots ever put the entire thing together and play like the paper version of themselves indicate they should be.

Paper tigers? So far this season they have yet to live up to the media-generated hype surrounding the roster, and instead have reset to their default settings to get them through, a state of being ruled by Belichickian mystique and fundamentalist philosophy that dictates that no matter how lousy the team plays through bulk of the game, they almost always in a position to punch through the crust when winning time arrives.

It's not pretty, but that's their identity. They have been defined as a team full of Keystone Kops that magically and collectively transform into a battlefield juggernaut, seemingly oblivious to their maladroit antics that allow their foes to have the upper hand for much of the battle, their brazen and pretentious efficiency at the most opportune of times laying waste to any clumsiness beforehand.

It's as if they are somehow piggy-backing off of their epic comeback in Super Bowl 51 to introduce Patriots' fans to their new persona: fall behind, often on plays that display a lack of discipline not seen in Foxborough in decades, then staging mind-boggling comebacks where they briefly look like the team everyone expects them to be... if the entire act is purposeful, toying with their prey until that Darwinian time comes to eat or be eaten; for a brief moment rising above their status as paper tigers of which they have been defined just long enough to put a crooked number in the win column.

For certain, it leaves their fan base reaching for xanax and whatever blood pressure medicine they have been prescribed, washing it down with ice cold beer while muttering epitaphs of rude discontent - and if that's the way things are going to be in Foxborough this season, their fans should seriously consider auto-refill at their pharmacy of choice.

For instance, the Patriots victories in the past two weeks have been scandalous - a 19-14 victory over Tampa Bay which was decided for them by the Buccaneers' kicker who missed three field goals that would have provided the winning points, and Sunday's 24-17 adventure that was essentially decided by the referees invoking an obscure rule to nullify a New York Jets' touchdown.

Patriots' fans can take solace in the notion that even if Tampa's Nick Folk would have nailed his field goal attempts and had Jets' tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins not bobbled the football while falling out of bounds across the goal line to cause a touchback, the aforementioned mystique coupled with the Dawninian-inspired flipping of the switch would likely have been plenty enough to save the day, regardless.

So, that's their identity - and it could be worse.

It could be a hell of a lot worse. But no matter what is going on with injury and illness, this team has the veteran leadership with just the right infusion of youth to keep pulling off this magic act until they either run out of fairy dust or bring home another trophy - and we've seen enough from the Patriots in the first six weeks of the season to be able to make that kind of claim.

They haven't improved, they've just adjusted and have learned how to work around their shortcomings. On defense, that means that they are leaning heavily on fundamentals and playing a basic, vanilla type of ball that has seen them collect six sacks, pick off two balls, force three fumbles hold their opponent to just 13 of 30 on third down and have allowed just 3.7 yards per carry in the running game for the past two weeks.

None of those are elite numbers, but they are adequate - adequate to the point that they have surrendered an average of just 15 points in those games - which is a good thing since the offense has taken a nose dive in point production over that same span, scoring just twenty points per contest after averaging 32 in their first four contests.

That is a huge decline against middle-of-the-pack defenses that featured sincere matchup advantages for New England that the offense failed to take advantage of.

Despite having three quality running backs, all of whom are capable in the pattern, the offense has targeted them in the passing game just 49 times for the season, 42 of those going to James White, who leads the team in both categories - while human joystick Dion Lewis has been targeted only seven times and Mike Gillislee none - accounting for only 21% of the team's production through the air.

That is the same percentage of passing attempts to the backs as last season, when Julian Edelman was busy hogging up close to one-third of the team's total targets in the pattern. Just that number alone should give one an idea of just how dependent this offense was - and still is - on Edelman.

Part of the reason that the backs haven't been able to assuage the loss of Edelman is the fact that opposing defenses rightly viewed Edelman as quarterback Tom Brady's security blanket, and now that he's no longer in the picture, they smell blood in the water and are being aggressive in both coming after Brady in the pocket as well as trying to punk his receivers coming off the line.

This causes an interesting phenomenon called having to keep your backs in to pick up blitzers, which limits their opportunity in the pattern. Still, the Patriots lead the league in passing yardage and in total yardage and in red zone scoring opportunities - and that's where the wheels seem to fall off.

The Patriots have been in the opponent's red zone 25 times this season, converting that into just 12 touchdowns - and if one couples that number with turnovers within Stephen Gostkowski's field goal range, New England has left an alarming 62 points on the field this season, missing out on a little over ten points per game.

Now, to expect the Patriots to score a touchdown on each possession is unrealistic, and to say that the offense is experiencing a bit of a slump is missing the point. This team is riding a wave of expectancy, which has turned them from the aggressors they were in the past to mean counter-punchers in the present, with the ability to land a finishing shot to end what has become bloody trench warfare...

...going toe-to-toe with the Chiefs until they got stuffed on a fourth-and-one at midfield, setting off a Kansas City blitzkrieg, and then grinding the Saints in oblivion before trending into the pugilists that we are currently witnessing.

They answered thirteen straight points from the Texans with a list minute touchdown dime from Brady to newcomer Brandin Cooks, erased a fourteen point deficit with two touchdowns in four-and-a-half minutes to knot the score with the Panthers before losing on a last-second field goal, converting field goals that Tampa Bay could not and then gutting out a still-controversial win over the Jets on the strength of two second half scores.

In that respect, this team resembles the 2011 squad that finished the season one play short of the Lombardi trophy, losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl - reaching the big game despite being next-to-last in the league in total defense.

The job that the coaching staff pulled off in 2011 was perhaps the finest in Bill Belichick's tenure as head coach, doing just enough on offense to pull games out despite Brady being sacked 32 times and despite being decimated in their secondary and linebacking corps - people should remember the biggest defensive play of the season being unknown safety Sterling Moore stipping the ball out of the hands of Baltimore's Lee Evans int he end zone...

...which was a sure touchdown otherwise, then being the beneficiaries of kicker Billy Cundiff pulling the subsequent 32-yard field goal wide left with eleven seconds remaining in the game.

The point being that if the Patriots play their hearts out and leave it all on the field, they are going to be in every game, and with Brady being Brady, they are going to win the majority of those close games.

It almost makes things like missed field goals and nullified touchdowns seem almost karmic in nature, but while you can't live on luck every week, the Patriots always seem to do enough to put themselves in position to win - and if that's the way New England is defined, fans should stock up on the heartburn and blood pressure meds, but always with the thought that their Patriots are playing hard and doing their jobs.

It's not pretty, but football isn't supposed to be.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

McDaniels Has To Become Mix-Master For Patriots' Offense To Realize Their Potential

After dropping their first two games of the 2017 NFL season, the New York Jets have won three straight heading into their matchup with the New England Patriots this Sunday.

How they are winning is a mystery, however.

In the bottom third of the league in just about any stat you could come up with, the Jets seem to be winning using smoke and mirrors, slight of hand and the constant rubbing of rabbits feet, because there is no other explanation.
Using Gillislee Properly can only help Brady

On defense, they give up 143 yards per game on the ground and a yield of 4.6 yards per carry and through the air they cough up two touchdowns per game to their opponent despite posting a relatively miserly 211 yards per game in that category - while on offense, they go for 111 on the ground and 189 through the air respectively.

Not exactly a juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination, yet they are somehow tied for the AFC East division lead with New England and Buffalo, each with a record of  3-2.

Of course, their three wins have come against the offensively challenged Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns while their two losses came at the hands of the aformentioned Bills and the Oakland Raiders - but each contest has been about game planning and optimizing the talent that they do have, and it's worked pretty well for them so far.

For instance, in their win over Miami, they concentrated on stopping Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins' running game and dared Jay Cutler to beat them - the result being 18 yards on 11 carries for Ajayi and a typically dismal day for Cutler. Against the Jaguars, they concentrated on getting to Blake Bortles and let rookie running back Leonard Fournette have his yardage, and Bortles' game was just as dismal as Cutler's while Fournette carried 24 times for 84 yards...

...and against the Browns, they concentrated on nailing rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, beating him so badly that he was replaced under center by Kevin Hogan, who fared better, but it wasn't enough.

The final score in two of those games were relatively close, but the one thing that they all had in common is that their opponents each scored last-second touchdowns, or got scores from their defense to make the score seem closer than it really was - as evidenced by the thirteen points per game they've surrendered during their winning streak, which reduces down to seven points per game if one were to eliminate defensive and garbage-time scores.

On the other side of the ball is a Patriots offense that is really in no condition to challenge the Jets' Defense.

After all, despite success on the ground, the Patriots inexplicably don't try to optimize the talent they have in the backfield, instead putting quarterback Tom Brady in harm's way by making him drop back to pass on a full two-thirds of New England's offensive snaps - which feeds right into what New York does best on defense.

Brady's forty pass attempts per game put him on pace to set a career high, which currently stands at 637 in 2012, and to top last season's number by more than 200 attempts, which is also partially due to Brady serving a four-game suspension - but still five more attempts per game.

The need to reduce Brady's exposure to abuse should be paramount, given his age and the fact that he's already had to peel himself off the turf more in the first five games of 2017 than in all of last season. To be fair though, the total sacks for all of 2016 is actually 24, and when considering that nine of those came with fleet-of-foot Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett under center in a total of four games, the numbers from the present season don't seem particularly out of line thus far.

Curiously, the running game has been virtually ignored at times when it should be foremost in the mind of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

After all, McDaniels used the running game to protect his young quarterbacks while they were filling in for Brady at the start of last season, protecting them while his young offensive line sought cohesiveness and chemistry - balancing out the offense to the point that the Patriots could have actually been considered run-heavy, even when Brady returned in week five...

...yet despite Garoppolo and Brissett being far more mobile than Brady, they still took ten sacks to start the season, and lost Jimmy Clipboard when he took a nasty hit from Miami linebacker Kiki Alonso and Brissett tore ligaments in the thumb of his throwing hand in the following game against Houston, rending him and the Patriots' offense inert the week after that in a shutout loss to Buffalo.

No matter which way you look at it, the song remains the same. Had the Patriots the same imbalance last season as they have this season, the number of sacks suffered by the quarterbacks would be virtually identical - one sack every 12.3 snaps in 2017 compared to once every 12.2 last season. But what's missing and what people are forgetting is that the line allowed fourteen more sacks the rest of 2016, and another nine sacks in three post-season games.

That means that in the 15 games Brady played in last season, he went down in the grasp of a defender twenty-five times and hit times-three.

So the line is just about where it was last season, considering the disparity between running plays and passing plays, which brings us to the eternal question of how to keep Brady upright so that he can survive the season and to give the offense a chance to realize it's full potential - not to mention matching up well with the New York Jets this Sunday - and the answer is as clear as a bell:

Run the damn ball.

Running the ball cures many ills, not the least of which is the fact that all Brady has to do is to turn and hand the ball off and become a spectator. Theoretically, mixing the run with the pass forced the defense to defend the entire field and paves the way for an effective play action sell that mitigates an aggressive pass rush to a certain degree...

...but having a 66/33 split between pass and run, respectively, causes the defense to focus on getting to Brady and dares the offense to beat them on the ground - but the Patriots are handicapped even more by the way McDaniels calls running plays when he decides to use the ground game.

Given the fact that power back Mike Gillislee has not been targeted in the passing game at all, it goes to figure that with him in the game, the opposition is going to stack the box against him - yet he still manages to break into the second level. Where things go south for him is when three or four running plays are called in succession as McDaniels seems to like to go with something until the defense stops it, then moves on.

New England has more success with James White or Dion Lewis in the backfield because they are used in both facets of the game, so teams have to account for them in both the running and passing games.

Gillislee hasn't been used a lot in the passing game, but he has great hands and once the play calling starts targeting him in the passing game, it will eventually force defenses to respect him as a receiving threat and open up wider running lanes - instead what is happening is that the play call will go to fullback James Develin out of a two back set, with Gillislee remaining in to block.

All of this said and true, what will it take for the Patriots' offense to get untracked against a decent Jets' defense?

Simply, they are going to have to mix up the run and the pass, distributing the play calls in a manner that doesn't scream the obvious, because running the ball twenty times in a game by lumping the runs into a condensed time span does the offense no good. Against the Jets, an offense must establish the run to keep the play action relavent, which keeps their pass rushers on their heels...

...though every team the Jets have faced thus far in 2017 have done exactly that, yet there isn't a 300 yard passer among them - in fact, New York has held two of their opponents under 200 passing yards per game.

But the Jets haven't faced a quarterback like Brady yet - Oakland's Derek Carr is the only thrower the Jets have faced in five games who is anywhere close to a true franchise passer, and the Raiders torched New York for 45 points in a lopsided win - so that streak of holding opposing passers under 300 yards may be in jeopardy.

But then again, if the Patriots find a true mix of run and pass, they won't need a big day out of Brady, as the Jets have allowed opposing offenses to rush for more than 140 yards in four of their first five games - if they can't find that mix, however, New York could win their fourth straight by forcing the Patriots to become one-dimensional, abusing Brady along the way.

It's all in the hands of Josh McDaniels.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Vanilla Patriots Survive Buccaneers In Early Season, Old-School Gut Check

According to the dictionary people at Merriam-Webster, a Gut Check is a "test or assessment of courage, character or determination" - and if they needed a reference as to what one looked like, all they had to do was watch the New England Patriots' defense on Thursday night.

Well, at least for the first three quarters, as the unit that had previously been yielding over 450 yards per game in total offense to their opposition gave up just 200 yards in the first forty-five minutes and held the potentially dangerous Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense to a meager seven points - then surviving a furious Buc's rally to help eek out a 19-14 victory in Tampa.
Defensive captain Duron Harmon showed plenty of scrap in win over Bucs

Eventually, the Buccaneers' offense did get untracked in the final frame, more than doubling their total yardage output and scoring another touchdown as New England's defense went into a three-deep shell to try and protect a two-score lead, which would have backfired on them had it not been for Tampa's kicking game going sideways on them, place kicker Nick Folk missing two fourth quarter tries that would have won the game for them.

So it wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is something for head ball coach Bill Belichick to hang his hat on as his Patriots head into a ten-day stretch to build upon what they have discovered about themselves through this particular sixty-minutes of play.

What became increasingly obvious as the game wore on is exactly what we've suspected all along - the philosophies have changed on both sides of the ball and Belichick is attempting to implement them on the fly, which is either incredibly arrogant or amazingly bold, or both, even for the Dark Master.

We saw this first when the defense went as basic and vanilla as you will ever see in a regular season game, playing a 3-3-5 Big Nickel version of a hybrid match-up zone where in each defensive back matched up in man coverage against any receiver that came into their area of responsibility - and the results were encouraging, particularly in light of Stephon Gilmore's confession that he is much more motivated as a press-man cover corner... admission that makes a ton of sense, given the communications problems that the defense has been experiencing in the secondary, and also that it plays to the strength of the safety-heavy alignment that also utilizes linebackers to patrol the gaps between quarter zones, with Gilmore matched up on Bucs' wide out Mike Evans.

A brilliant scheme from Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, designed to keep the chunk plays that the Buccaneers' offense is built for down to a minimum, but also to keep the board clean, as it were, to give the Patriots' coaches an uncluttered view of how their players performed, on a fundamental level.

What they discovered isn't necessarily what they wanted to see, but it gives them an idea of how to proceed.

In addition to Gilmore essentially shutting down Evans (five catches on eight targets for a pedestrian 49 yards), strong safety Pat Chung showed that his skill set hadn't necessarily completely eroded, as he demonstrated excellent technique in covering tight end Cameron Brate when going across the middle - though he also showed that covering on seam routes, ie, with his back to the quarterback, is a trend that needs to be addressed...

...while covering backs and receivers on flat, smoke and wheel routes continue to be an issue with the entire unit, regardless of the fact that the Patriots entered the game on reset to their default, fundamental settings, most of the time playing in that three-deep zone to keep from giving up the chunk plays that the Buccaneers' offense is built for, while keeping enough players in the box to defend against the run.

The latter turned out to be an issue as Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin ripped off gains of nearly six yards a pop while it also left the flats exposed as safe areas for quarterback Jameis Winston to escape and extend to when forced from the pocket, which happened a half-dozen times and resulted in some big gainers with Winston finding his improvising receivers down the field.

There appears to be no cure for that and is something that Patriots' fans are going to have to accept on the edges if the pass rush can't get to the quarterback, at least until strong side linebacker Shea McClellin returns from the IR - but there is also the fact that the scheme called for just three lone rushers most of the night, though Patricia called for blitzes at opportune times.

Still, the New England pass rushers generated enough pressure to keep Winston on his toes, but not enough to take him off his feet, as the Patriots recorded just two sacks to go along with two roughing-the-passer penalties in succession - those coming right before the half and giving Tampa the opportunity to cut into the lead, only to see kicker Nick Folks' 56-yard field goal attempt flutter harmlessly awry.

Good thing, as the Patriots offense continually shot themselves in the foot with penalties, turnovers and giving up sacks - not to mention another curiously-called game by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

Growing pains? Perhaps, and as Belichick has earned the benefit over several hundred doubts, it is wise to consider that what's happening with the erratic play calling is simply a case of growing pains as the new-look Patriots try to implement a more vertical attack, but the new philosophy paired with injury and an imbalanced attack that sees quarterback Tom Brady drop back to pass twice as often as he turns to hand the ball to a back is flirting with disaster.

It happened again on Thursday night despite tremendous early success with the ground game.

Power back Mike Gillislee (4.3 yards per carry) hit the hole with purpose while Dion Lewis (7.6) displayed a level of explosiveness that has been missing from his game since he tore an ACL almost two years ago, yet there were only nineteen carries between them in a game that screamed for thirty.

In contrast, Brady dropped back forty times and completed thirty passes, hit hard as he released the ball seven different times, was sacked three more and pressured half-a-dozen more along the way, throwing his first interception on the season and losing a fumble on a third quarter strip sack - and all of that arcane punishment netted them less than twenty points.

They moved the ball, no doubt, but their finishes left sixteen points on the field and made Patriots' kicker Stephen Gostkowski a fantasy star with field goals of 27, 23, 45 and 48 to go along with one New England touchdown, a five-yard curl from Brady to Chris Hogan.

In fairness, however, New England's problems on both sides of the ball had more self-inflicted than anything the Buccaneers were doing.

On top of Brady's pressurized gaffes, drive-killing penalties on left tackle Nate Solder and receiver Brandin Cooks and the aforementioned sacks, the defense committed penalties that extended Tampa Bay drives, and while they suffered no points against on those drives, it still kept them on the field for an extra five minutes of game play.

But wait, they did win.  The Patriots collectively reached down into their souls and pulled out a game that each player knew that they absolutely had to have, the intestinal fortitude required to do so trumps anything and everything else. Despite all of the errors, all of the points left on the field and all of the chirping by the fans, the Patriots rose above it and ground out a win.

Most of all, they learned that they could. There hasn't been a pretty game among their five already played causing blood pressures to increase by a dozen or so points among Patriots' fans of all ages along with rude dissension among the younger set - but the old-school crowd, the ones who used to pray for a 9-7 season just so they could say their team had a winning record, the opening quarter of the season has been a trip down memory lane...

...only this team has a chance to be much better than .500, but just like back in the days before Brady and Belichick, this team grinds, and those old-time fans know that the tribulations the team is going through right now are just going to make them more resilient as time moves on, and will make them incredibly dangerous come January.

Because they now know how to win. They beat the Houston Texans two weeks ago with an electric comeback and lost to Carolina last Sunday in similar fashion. They were competitive in both games but needed impact plays and last-minute heroics by the offense to get close in the end - but on Thursday night, they played with a slim lead - and while the offense struggled to score points, the defense made the lead hold up.

That's progress.

It's almost as if they had to learn how to lose to be able to learn how to win. And with the tough meat of their 2017 schedule approaching quickly, there couldn't have been a better time to learn that lesson.

"I know, nobody knows
Where it comes and where it goes
I know it's everybody's sin
You got to lose to know how to win" - Dream On, Aerosmith

Monday, October 2, 2017

Patriots Stuck In Time Loop, Drop Heartbreaker To Panthers

Win some, lose some.

New England Patriots' fans of the new millennium aren't used to that kind of ambiguity surrounding their team - but if every game is going to be a shoot out, maybe they should accept that reality and concentrate on finding the silver lining, if there is one.

Against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday afternoon, the only silver linings visible at first glance were to ones outlining the few clouds floating by high above Gillette Stadium as the weird playcalling on offense and the acquiescent philosophy of the defense rendered the Patriots to victims of their own personality and left them at 2-2 on the young season.

The 33-30 score has become the norm in Foxborough, as the Patriots seem to be mired in some sort of Groundhog Day-like time loop.

In the film, a Pittsburgh television weatherman played by Bill Murray is sent on assignment to nearby Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the festivities surrounding Groundhog Day, but makes obvious his contempt for the assignment and mocks the townfolk as "hicks". After the celebration Murray wants to return to Pittsburgh, but a snow storm that he predicted wouldn't hit the area arrives in full fury, forcing Murray to stay in Punxsutawney for another night.

Upon waking, he discovers that he's reliving Groundhog Day once again, though the townspeople and his own production crew seem unaware of the phenomenon. Murray takes advantage of the situation after waking to the same song on the radio and attending the same festivities day after day, treating the locals with contempt and disdain and breaking every rule and law he doesn't feel like obeying, knowing that when he wakes up the next morning, he will simply start all over again.

Murray eventually loses his passion for the loop and becomes so depressed that he tries suicide, unsuccessfully, but then starts to embrace the good that he could do with the extra time - until he figures out that if he simply does the job he was sent to do in a professional fashion and treated the townsfolk respectfully, he can break the loop and return to his home.

The time loop that the Patriots are stuck in sees their defense give up chunk play after chunk play in allowing the opposing offense to rack up yardage and points at a clip not seen in New England in over two decades, while the offense struggles to maintain consistency, yet delivers stunning comebacks to climb back into games.

Some they win, like last week against the Houston Texans, and some they lose - like Sunday's game against the Panthers - but one thing is certain, and there's no getting around it: If the Patriots don't find a way to put a consistent, professional product on the field, every Sunday is going to be like the last.

Some may look at the Patriots' top-ranked offense and wonder how they could possibly do any more than they already do, but they miss scoring opportunities at a torrid pace and leave lots of points on the field in every game, something that the normally upbeat Rob Gronkowski addressed with reporters after the game.

"We've got to put up more points because we didn't win." Gronkowski said, matter-of-factly, adding "We want to put up points every time we have the ball. I mean, we had two great drives in the fourth quarter, but we've got to be doing that all game."

Quarterback Tom Brady echoed Gronkowski's analysis, but denied feeling the extra pressure to carry the defense.

"No, I don't feel like that." Brady bristled, "I feel like we can do a better job all the way around. We left some opportunities out there on the field and it came back to bite us."

Of course, Brady isn't the kind to throw his teammates under the bus, but it is the defense that is really struggling, going from a bend-but-don't-break entity that in years past kept the team in games long enough for Brady to pull out a miracle, to a passive, docile entity that provides seemingly little resistance to the whim of opposing offenses.

The players are accepting the blame for the poor play, but in most instances it is the philosophies and coaching that are the issues.

That might sound weird, considering that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick consistently finds ways to outsmart his counterparts, and that his base playbook is ingrained with Patriots' philosophy dating back to the era when Chuck Fairbanks, Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins haunted the sidelines in Foxborough - but this is a team that eight months ago completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history by staying on task with a philosophy that compares to novocaine: just give it time and it always works.

But somewhere along the line, Belichick seems to have sold out on that philosophy, naturally becoming enamoured with improving upon a team that has won at least 12 games in each season since 2010, playing complementary ball with an offense that always ranked in the top ten in yards gained and points scored but with a defense that typically ranked in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed, yet ranking in the top ten for points allowed.

Enamored, that is, with the idea of improvement perhaps after his team was dominated for over half of the Super Bowl last February by the speed of the Atlanta Falcons, being in his nature to be progressive and innovative

This season, the Patriots are once again at the top of the statistics on offense, but dead last in the league in both yardage and points allowed.

This with essentially the same key personnel that has taken two of the last three Lombardi trophies by playing disciplined ball on both sides, each player doing his job to the complement of the others - so it's hard to believe that the issue is with talent, and easy enough to believe that the philosophy has changed...

...something that has become increasingly obvious as we hear the defenders talk after games, with this one being particularly frustrating to team captains Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon.

"We've been putting our offense in a shootout every week" McCourty said on Sunday, "It's almost like they have to get points on every drive - they have to be frustrated with us. It's frustrating for us because we work hard in practice, but it's not showing on Sunday."

To which Harmon added while trying to shoot down the negativity towards cornerback Stephon Gilmore, "It definitely wasn't all him. I tell him that the whole time. You might have a mistake, but we all had mistakes. It takes 11 players to play great defense, and we're just not getting it done."

Gilmore is under intense scrutiny for his play and was benched to start the second half after being responsible for two big gainers in the first half, totaling 71 yards and a touchdown - his technique was better in the second half, but two sketchy penalties for illegal hands to the face and illegal contact extended two scoring drives that ultimately killed the Patriots.

The first one was on a third-and-eight from the New England 37 which the Panthers took advantage of by scoring on a 17 yard Devin Funchess reception in the third quarter, but the real killer was on third-and-seven from deep in Panthers' territory that negated a Deatrich Wise sack that would have given the Patriots excellent field position to drive for a game-winning score...

...but instead, the penalty gave the Panthers an automatic first down, then Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart took to the ground to get the Panthers to the Patriots' thirty, where kicker Graham Gano nailed the game winner with no time left on the clock.

To a man, the defenders are all rallying around Gilmore and calling the issue one of communications and not of talent or attitude, and as for Gilmore himself he's vowing to keep playing aggressively and to get the communications issue fixed - and the Patriots really have no choice but to do just that as it just won't do to have a man making eight-figures sitting on the bench, and with all of the money that's he's guaranteed, they can't just cut him.

So, the Patriots are going to have to work through the defensive struggles.

Not all things defensively were bad, as the Patriots' pass rush pressured Newton on 24 of his 33 drop backs, Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower picking up their first sacks on the season, and Malcolm Butler forcing a fumble and snagging an interception playing over the top of Gilmore. The run defense yielded 140 yards, but 44 of those came on eight Newton scrambles - a couple of them frustrating drive extenders.

The Patriots are not playing well enough on defense to be able to survive the plethora of mistakes they are making in coverage - be it by communication issues or containment error - but the front seven are starting to show signs of life, which is a start.

And now with a short week and very little practice time to get ready for a Thursday night match up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots philosophies will be on full display for a national television audience, so if there was ever a critical time for New England to magically address their issues like they have always been able to in the past, this is it.

Because being stuck in a time loop where things are going horrifically wrong isn't entertaining - it's downright frustrating.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Patriots Defense: A Case Of Playing Not To Lose Rather Than Playing To Win

What is the difference between playing not to lose and playing to win?

According to sports psychologists, players, coaches and even entire teams perform differently when they view an opponent in two distinctly different ways. First, when a team views the opposition as a threat, they tense up and more times than not, the choke - but when they view their opposition as a challenge, they are much more likely to achieve their goals.

That said, despite the team's 2-1 record after three weeks, the New England Patriots' defense has been playing not to lose.
After a rough start, Marsh has started to have an impact

A study of soccer players who were facing a scenario of having to make a penalty kick to tie a game choked 40% of the time, while the same players who faced making the same kick with the score tied and his team could win with a made shot made the shot 92% of the time - the difference? The pressure of possibly losing the game can be overwhelming, and cause players to do things that they normally wouldn't do.

A similar study looked at basketball players who will consistently shoot above their career average from the free throw line during a tie game vice being up a point or down a point when they shoot well below their average.

"The point is that when athletes are challenged to rise to the occasion, they perform better than when they are threatened not to blow it." says John O'Sullivan of the Changing The Game Project, "Challenged athletes tend to focus on the prize for success, while threatened athletes focus on the consequences of failure."

Could it be that the New England Patriots' defense is struggling to start the 2017 season because they are playing not to lose?

It would make sense, given the number of new players they are trying to incorporate into a unit that is also missing key members to injury - in other words, they are hanging by a thread until reinforcements arrive in the form of patched up wounded and the newbies demonstrate a working knowledge of the philosophies and playbook.

The latter will take some time, but the new guys are integrating and are becoming more of a factor each week - especially the pass rushers, rookie Deatrich Wise and former-Seahawk Cassius Marsh - but the former could come true on Sunday when the Patriots host the Carolina Panthers, as linebacker Dont'a Hightower and corner Eric Rowe are expected to return to the lineup.

Whatever the case and in the interim, the Patriots are playing like they are in a prevent defense - not from lack of interest or effort, but from design, and when that happens - when a team is playing not to lose - they yield too many yards and too many points unnecessarily, and it has a trickle down effect on the entire team.

Now, the Patriots have never been an aggressive defensive team. They are disciplined to do the one or two tasks that they are assigned to them as one of 11 pieces in a jigsaw puzzle - and when the other ten players do likewise, the result is a stout unit that plays the run and the pass equally well, because each player is complementing the others with their discipline.

For instance, on the interior of the defensive line, the job of the nose tackle is to take on double teams, which serves to keep a guard from climbing to the second level to harass linebackers and open up options for a running back, should he slip through the containment, but also allows said linebacker to fill the gap created by the double team...

...while on the edges, the ends are supposed to set a barrier for backs to discourage them from trying to gain the corner, funneling them back toward the interior, where the aforementioned tackles and linebackers are working in tandem to prevent positive gain.

But with Hightower out and former-Jet David Harris seeing no playing time for reasons yet to be unearthed - and in addition to youngsters Elandon Roberts and Harvey Langi logging time on the trainers' table (not to mention strong-side linebacker Shea McClellin on the IR), the linebacking duties have fallen to Kyle Van Noy and whomever is healthy enough to join him at any given moment.

Hell, the Patriots even tried out safety Jordan Richards as a linebacker in the season opener, but his poor angles and sloppy tackling nixed the idea moving forward.

Ordinarily, the Patriots defense aligns in what is known as the Big Nickel, in which a linebacker is sacrificed in order to get a third safety on the field - which is centerfielder Duron Harmon, who seems to be the only player on the defense that hasn't been affected by the youth and injury. When Harmon comes on, strong safety Patrick Chung will reduce down into the box, effectively becoming a coverage linebacker.

This is where things get tricky, as Chung has been horrific in coverage on tight ends - but luckily for him and the rest of the defense, Carolina's Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen is out of the lineup and on the IR, leaving only Ed Dickson and his hands of stone at the tight end position, leaving the pass catching duties to tight end-sized wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin (6' 5", 245) and Devin Funchess (6' 4", 230)...

...and also to the rookie garden gnome-sized Swiss army knife Christian McCaffrey, who presents a clear and present danger to secondaries around the league with his elusiveness and sure hands. Listed as a running back, he has been solely a receiver thus far, but one that the Panthers can move around to take advantage of mismatches on linebackers.

Assuredly, the Patriots are not going to give McCaffrey a chance to work against one of the precious few linebackers, so look for cornerback Malcolm Butler to mirror the dynamic rookie, in a move that may prove that Butler is of more value to defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and head ball coach Bill Belichick as a Big Nickel-type coverage safety than as a traditional corner.

Benjamin and Funchess will be dealt with by taller corners Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe, while Harmon and fellow safety Devin McCourty patrol the blue line.

The Patriots can afford to be a little more aggressive against the Panthers offense, especially if Hightower does return, because quarterback Cam Newton is playing hurt and has been wildly inaccurate, tossing four interceptions and not completing more than 20 passes in a game so far this season. What's more, he's been sacked ten times in three games, which brings his net passing yardage down to a meager 188 yards per game.

Clearly, the Patriots defense has an opportunity to get right against the Panthers offense, and that means against the running game as well McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart have combined for 3.6 yards per carry behind an offensive line that, much like the Patriots, are struggling at the tackle position but strong on the interior - even though the Panthers will be missing starting pivot Matt Kalil.

While this defense is hanging on by a thread, in-wait for the positive influx that maturation of newbies and the return of the wounded bring, it has to be remembered that playing not to lose is the only option that Belichick and Patricia have to work with, as being too aggressive without the proper personnel in place could prove even more disastrous than what they are experiencing now.

With Hightower returning, the Patriots should be able to plug the gaps created by the defensive line, while the rotation of Flowers, Wise and Marsh abuse the struggling bookends and egt to Newton, who is hurting and not a mobile as in the past - and while it's unrealistic to assume that Butler will take over for Chung in tight end coverages, this is the type of contest that should give a little less responsibility and maybe allow him to build a little confidence...

...and maybe, just maybe, New England's defense can get untracked and put together a solid game. The effort has been there, as has the will and the desire to play the game to win, and with things getting better on the injury front and with new players becoming more and more acclimated to their roles on the team, perhaps we'll have seen the last of them playing not to lose.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Patriots Top-Rated Offense Needs Backs Involved To Clash With Panthers Blue-Chip Defense

For the Carolina Panthers, like with the rest of the teams in the National Football League, stats only tell part of their story.

Ranked the third worst offense in the league, the Panthers nevertheless match up very well against a Patriots' defense that has the worst statistical unit in the NFL, as one might imagine when considering the numbers - while Carolina's top-ranked defense has demonstrated that they have what it takes to counter anything New England's top-rated offense can throw at them.

On paper, the odds look to be stacked in Carolina's favor to not only come into Foxborough this coming Sunday and pull out a win, but to do so in a convincing manner.
Lewis, Gillislee and White (l to r) ,must become more involved

And why not? The Panthers move the ball well on offense, but have become victims of their own design, turning the ball over deep in their own territory three times last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, who scored 17 points off of those miscues - which were part of the reason why their defense suffered just 213 yards to Drew Brees and the Saints' passing game.

New Orleans played from a short field most of the game - and when that happens, there's only so many yards to be had, but Brees took advantage of every one of them.

So in reality, the Panthers' defensive numbers do tell most of their story, especially in the passing game where they are allowing a meager 162 yards per game and have yielded just three scores through the air, all of them by Brees - and though some credence has to be given to the fact that their first two opponents were not exactly offensive juggernauts, those are still very impressive numbers.

Against the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener, the Panthers allowed only 166 passing yards and 217 yards overall - and then against the offensively challenged Buffalo Bills, they were even more stingy, allowing 176 total yards and just 107 through the air. Those are elite numbers to be sure, but the Patriots' offense is in a different class.

New England's passing game is tops in the league, averaging an absurd 340 yards per game, helping them to a 33 point per game average despite injury-induced limitations in their personnel and every bit as dangerous as the Saints through the air - but while many in Patriots Nation believe that head ball coach Bill Belichick has changed his offensive philosophy to a more vertical attack, it is the exact opposite that works against Carolina's defense.

In three games, opposing offenses have attempted only 12 passes of twenty yards or more, completing three for a 25% completion rate - in contrast, the opposition has completed 60 of 77 passes for a 79% completion rate when targeting their pass catchers underneath, with backs and tight ends doing the majority of the damage.

It's not as if the Panthers' secondary is anything special, it's just that their front seven is so good at pressuring the opposing quarterback that they rarely have time to wait for a downfield receiver to go through the progression in their patterns.

Cornerbacks Daryl Worley and James Bradbury give lots of cushion in off-man coverages that are designed to prevent the big play. They are both big corners - same size as Patriots' Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore - but Bradbury is looking to rebound from a horrible game against the Saints where he was burned by Michael Thomas in coverage and lost contain against the run several times...

...while Worley busted up his shoulder in run support and is out against New England - and with the nickle back being the aging Captain Munnerlyn and with second-year man Kevon Seymour taking Worley's spot on the outside, the prospects for the Patriots' passing game look favorable, so long as the offensive line can keep Brady relatively clean in the pocket.

And that's the rub.  How do the Patriots give Brady enough time go through his progression, but also keep him loaded up with route options?

Simply put, just play Patriots' football.

For years, the Patriots have dined on "small ball", stretching the field horizontally by spreading their tight ends and backs out wide and drawing their speedy little wideouts into the slot - in essence turning the opposing defense inside-out and forcing the corners into run support and the linebackers and safeties into boundary coverage.

They haven't been able to do much of that this season because their first three opponents have loaded up their pass rush, abusing the Patriots' tackles and coming after Brady like he insulted their mothers. In response, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has had to keep at least one option in-line to either chip the outside rusher or pick up rogue blitzers.

That exacerbates the issue even further as it leaves Brady with one less target in the pattern.

The solution is, as we've mentioned for three weeks straight, is to use the pass rusher's aggressiveness against them by getting their backs involved in the offense on trap draws and the screen game. In both play calls, the tackles yield ground to the outside rushers until they take themselves out of their lanes, and then it's an easy flip to the back in the flat or in the bubble on the screen - or a quick handoff into the "B" gap.

Either would eventually draw the pass rush off of Brady, as would establishing a running game, which the Patriots have succeeded in doing early in ball games, only to abandon it in favor of gambling on chunk plays.

Which is a shame, as the running game is little more than a novelty at this point, averaging 3.5 yards per carry mostly because New England is one-dimensional with their backs, which completely defies the promise of diversity that came with the signing of Rex Burkhead, the contract extension for Super Bowl hero James White and the return to full health for Dion Lewis.

The thought was that any of the three could break the Patriots' playbook wide open, given that they all have proven to be effective in the running game and approaching elite status in the passing game, but due to the aforementioned ineffectiveness of the offensive tackles and McDaniels' general malaise in regard to mixing the run and pass, that part of the New England arsenal has not manifested as yet.

Burkhead has been injured as well, and though he practiced on Friday, it would be a surprise if he were active for the Panthers' game - but that still leaves Lewis and White, and then power back Mike Gillislee to tote the rock.

Teams have been successful running the ball on the Panthers, as San Francisco's Carlos Hyde picked up 45 yards on 9 carries (five yards per carry) in week one and the trio of Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara picked up 115 yards on 25 carries (4.6 YPC) last week - so it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Patriots could maintain an effective ground game themselves.

Because the running backs haven't been used in the manner in which breeds success - usually being called upon for several plays in a row until the defense stones them, then tossed aside in favor of the deep passing game - their combined 3.5 yards per carry doesn't really scare anyone, but their potential should. If the running game ever really gets rolling, the trickle-down effect on the rest of the offense could be catastrophic for opposing defenses.

Also, even though New England has been successful on those vertical chunk plays, they have to think of their obligation to the other two entities of the team, defense and special teams, and the impact that quick scores or quick outs has on them - for the special teams it could mean punting from deep in their own territory if a couple of those throws go errant, and for the defense, it means that they don't get their proper rest.

Ordinarily that wouldn't have the same impact as it does now, but with the injury bug taking down defenders like bowling pins, the defense just doesn't have the rotation to keep their front seven fresh.

The screen game and the trap draws also offer another benefit to the offense, as they can act in tandem with the running game to keep the defense off-guard, and put the play action in effect - and with New England and Brady being perhaps the best play action-selling unit in the league, bringing that back into the fold will eventually open up the vertical game in select spots.

In short, the Patriots have to get back to playing Patriots' football - methodically moving the ball down the field, eating chain and clock and wearing down the opposing defense, dictating the pace until they can do anything they want on offense, which is a scary thing to think about.

Just because the Patriots have the weapons to go vertical doesn't mean that they are somehow obligated to do so. It's fun to watch, but not practical in the grand scheme of things. The best way for McDaniels to approach his offensive game plan would be to run the ball and stick with it, spreading the field horizontally and getting his backs involved in the pattern...

...because if they can do that, the vertical game will come naturally in the flow of the game, which makes the entire offense that much more lethal.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Complementary Football Critical To Helping Patriots' Defense

"...quarterbacks have the capacity to control a football game in all three disciplines, and they do this by playing the field position game-within-a-game, and by controlling the clock - and while it is true that Brady doesn't play defense, it is equally true that he is the best there is at putting his defensive teammates in position to have the best chance at being successful." - Foxborough Free Press, July 4, 2017
Statistically, the New England Patriots' offense and defense are polar opposites.

Despite not being fully loaded due to injury and chemistry issues, the Patriots offense leads the NFL in total offense and in just about every passing statistic you could come up with, while the defense ranks last in total defense and in just about every passing statistic you could come up with.
Cooks and Brady have what it takes to help out the defense

Offensively, quarterback Tom Brady is playing out of his mind, and is on pace for 5,800 passing yards and 43 touchdowns - that is unless he gets killed before then, his offensive tackles playing a game of revolving doors with defensive ends that could see him sacked over 50 times this season.

His pass catchers could all have career numbers if things continue to play out, with wide receiver Brandin Cooks on pace for a 53 catch, 1365 yard season, while tight end Rob Gronkowski (85, 1269), the ever-clutch Danny Amendola (74, 1100), Chris Hogan (53, 821), and James White (64, 702) are all trending towards monster years...

...all the while, the defense is trying different combinations of personnel and alignments in order to mitigate the double-whammy of breaking in new players on top of injury and/or attitude among key incumbents.

Along the way, they have made opposing quarterbacks look like world beaters and made opposing defenses look they are running in circles - and the scary thing is, they are nowhere close to being where they want to be on either side of the ball. But the offense is closer and in a much better position to control the dynamics of a football game.

For example, back in July we opined on NBA Superstar Lebron James' remarks that he couldn't consider Tom Brady the greatest athlete in the world because he doesn't affect both sides of the ball by stating that, in essence, offenses in general and quarterbacks in particular have the ability to affect the defensive side of the ball more than most people realize.

Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick calls it "Complmentary Football", where if the team is running at full efficiency, it is because the defense feeds off the field position afforded them by the offense and special teams, and vice-versa, but while the defense is largely reactionary by nature, the offense seeks to control defenses by forcing them to react to various stimuli.

When an offense goes into a spread formation, the defense counters by sending it's corners to all points of contact, and if the formation calls for an empty backfield, the box between the hash marks is lightened up because the possibility of a running play decreases exponentially - conversely, if the offense goes into a "Jumbo" package with two tight ends and a fullback, the defense would normally stack the aforementioned box with plenty of big bodies to stem the likelihood of a running play.

The offense can also control things like how much time rolls off the clock, which is the main point.

The Patriots have had 37 offensive possessions in the first three games of the season, scoring on 17 of those (45%), but out of those scoring drives, ten of them came in at under 3:00 per possession and of those, eight came in at under two minutes - and on possessions where the Patriots did not score, 18 of those came in at under three minutes and thirteen of those eighteen came in at under two minutes.

The proof of how time of possession affects the team shows in breaking down the individual games. Against New Orleans in the second game of the season, New England  averaged a whopping 4:00 per possession and scoring seven times while limiting the number of possessions for each team to ten for the game...

...but in games against the Chiefs and the Texans, the Patriots averaged 2:07 and 2:00 per possession, respectively, allowing each team 14 and 13 possessions.

How much difference did those extra seven possessions make in the outcome of each game? It can only be speculated, but it goes to figure that the less opportunities a team has to score, the less of a chance they have to score - but it also goes to figure that a defense that has four minutes on the sidelines as opposed to two will be fresher and more rested and, therefore, better able to resist the opposing offense's whim.

Now, the offense isn't responsible for chunk plays given up by the defense, of which there has been a bundle - in fact, the offense isn't responsible for any of the miscues, communications errors or poor tackling by the defense, but they can help mitigate their effect by limiting the number of times the opposing offense has the ball, and can put their special teams in good spots to flip field position to expand the field.

Of course, this means that the Patriots would have the ball less often as well, but given the rate at which they score, that could still translate (and has translated) to over 30 points a game, particularly when winning the coin toss and deferring to the second half where they could potentially gain one extra possession.

It is also to be remembered that this defense is dealing with the aforementioned two-headed albatross in that they are dealing with injuries to core players and are breaking in new players - something that sometimes works on the fly, but most times not - whatever the case, those things are important to remember when breaking down the defense.

The front seven is most assuredly a work in progress, but it isn't as far away from being a finished product as most people fear.

The pass rush is getting to the opposing quarterback, as fellow Arkansas Hogs Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise have proven a handful for opposing tackles, Flowers leading the team with three sacks in as many outings and Wise notching two in as many games - and early-season addition Cassius Marsh is now playing as advertised and registering a sack and a couple of quarterback hits after a rough start.

There is no way to properly address the horrific run defense except to point out that of the 391 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry that the Patriots' opponents have posted against them, other than the usage of personnel on the second level has been, shall we say, curious?

Indeed,  Star linebacker Dont'a Hightower has been missing since a little more than halfway through the season opener, and in his stead have been the odd couple mix of Kyle Van Noy and whomever is healthy enough to pair with him. Veteran David Harris hasn't been used at all and fellow run-stuffers Elandon Roberts and Harvey Langi have been used sparingly while the Patriots have chosen to go light in the box in order to get enough coverage on their opponent's pass catchers - so there are certainly resources available, especially if Hightower returns to the lineup.

The injury situation at linebacker has taken the most toll on the defense, opposing quarterbacks toasting the underneath coverages as over half of the total targets on the year have gone for 469 yards and six of the ten touchdown allowed by the defense thus far. At first, safety Jordan Richards was tried at weakside linebacker, which proved disastrous, and the Big Nickel isn't as effective as in years past as Patrick Chung appears to have lost a step in coverage.

That said, the secondary has been the real head-scratcher, as the Patriots sport the worst pass defense in the league, statistically, despite having one of the strongest lineups in the league on paper.

Having Eric Rowe missing for the past game and a half has stung, but Jonathan Jones has filled in admirably, and newly-minted top corner Stephon Gilmore has recovered from a rough season opener to post consecutive solid games. Malcolm Butler has been off his game as either communication or attitude have retarded his growth and chemistry - though he put in a solid performance against the Texans.

Obviously, both Jordan and Chung are seen as liabilities in coverage, leaving free safety Devin McCourty hanging out to dry a couple of different times on chunk plays that make up a great deal of the passing yardage.

That's an easy fix.

As mentioned in previous articles, Butler plays like a linebacker in a corner's body and could tremendously impact the underneath coverages by assuming the role of the Big Nickel "Star" linebacker that Jordan and Chung are struggling with, turning the biggest issue on the defense into a positive as Butler's speed and feistiness fit right into the job description of a coverage hybrid.

Something that isn't get enough airplay is the fact that punter Ryan Allen is struggling mightily, netting just 37 yards per punt attempt, most of his kicks flipping end over end. Punters are weird, like pitchers in baseball, and get into grooves where they struggle with aim and consistency, so it's likely that Allen has just reached a dry spot and needs to get off a couple of boomers to get back to his old self, who is a field position-flipping weapon.

The good news is that the Patriots are 2-1 and the injured defensive players are expected back sooner rather than later, but it is obvious that the offense and special teams are going to have to help out the defense until things start coming together for them - and the offense could start by getting their backs more involved, while Allen gets back to his normal production.

The problems on defense are not insurmountable, and with all three elements of the team improving each week, getting healthier each week and playing complementary football each week, the Patriots can be the complete juggernaut they need to be to get back to the Super Bowl.

If they can't do these things, it's bound to be a long, anxiety-filled season with no guarantees at the end...

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

"Bill Of Accommodations", Not Anything Tangible, To Blame For NFL Flap

"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than the absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."  - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Penned from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King's reply to fellow clergy posed to him in correspondence in regards to his protests in that town was a visceral beatdown of the the leaders of the churches who found the protests to be ill-timed, and that he should be content to let time bring about change.

King's response to the clergy, who were predominantly Caucasian, meant that while he appreciated their concern for his well being, as men of the cloth they should have a greater understanding of the premise behind the protests - which had become convoluted by the fact that he was considered an outside agitator by a loud majority of the residents, who cared neither for King nor his message...

...a message that became lost not only amid the hateful diatribe of the ill-meaning gentry, but also the well-meaning but insensitive pleading of the white clergy.

To King, it was more frustrating that the people who preached love and understanding had very little understanding that time had cured little in the struggle for civil rights - and that he had more patience for people whom he knew opposed him with hatred.

Why? Simply because he knew the agenda of the opposition, but wasn't so sure he could count on the people he should be able to. In other words, at least he could count on the the people who hated his message to be consistent in their hatred, and to understand his message, even though they didn't agree with it.

This same attitude has come into question with me as I watched NFL Players and owners display varying degrees of amplitude in their reply to inappropriate statements made by President Donald Trump in Huntsville, a straight hour-and-a-half iron shot north of Birmingham, during a rally for republican senate candidate Luther Strange.

Trump is a hated man for many, and is seen as an agitator to many, but the similarities to Dr. King begin and end right there. His statements seem to bring out the hatred in those who oppose him just as fiercely as those who opposed King, yet there seems to be no rhyme nor reason nor any direction to the loose cannon in the White House, where King's message was always pointed and consistent.

His statement regarding players who "disrespect the flag" by kneeling during the national anthem should be fired by the teams that employ them was uneven, detatched and unrealistic - and in turn caused a response that would have warmed King's heart because he understood the intent, but would have caused him to be frustrated with them.

The message has become lost, and the protests are now inspired by hatred for a man who is almost criminally loquacious rather than being inspired by racial inequality.

When Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the anthem on the sidelines of the San Francisco 49ers, his message was that he couldn't stand to pay homage to a flag and anthem of a nation that oppressed people of color, and one that subjected them to more forceful punishments - sometimes completely unwarranted - than what white folks would receive.

For that, Kaepernick divided a nation of football fans, and at the same time spurred protests that spiraled into the maw of ambiguity - because Kaepernick himself is no leader.  People who start movements are guided by people who have staunch beliefs and a clear message, not by a person who preaches civil rights then parades around in garb edifying persons who were some of the most violent civil rights violators in history.

Kaepernick is confused, as is Trump.  They both head off on tangents that stir the coals of unrest, yet their message is inconsistent and dangerous.

The movement that Kaepernick no doubt feels very strongly about is based on the shallow understanding of people who agree with his message, while his opposition is based on people with the same shallow understanding.  Both grasp at straws and use the words of leaders past for their own agenda, but the truth of the matter is that neither the movement nor the opposition have the leadership to further the cause.

So disjointed is the cause that every NFL team this past weekend hurriedly prepared statements denouncing Trump's impromptu and off-the-cuff remarks, then held protests either before or after the national anthem to show that the players and management of their organizations were unified in their resolve - but the unification came as a response to Trump, not to the original message.

That is a vital point that all of us are failing to understand, or at least have a shallow understanding of.

We want our citizens to be able to protest, but we set conditions on what is acceptable and what is not. We want our President to be clear-headed and impartial, but we set conditions on what those things mean.  We want everyone to have rights as stated in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but lawyers and politicians have diluted the interpretation of those rights to the point where we have a Bill of Accommodations instead.

To many, football is a sacred institution.

The game has evolved with the times, but never since President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban the game due to it's violent nature and seeming disregard for human life has it faced a crisis in which it is engaged today.

On Sunday, we all witnessed a coming together of a group of athletes to demonstrate unity in the wake of remarks made by current President Donald Trump regarding the practice of kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem - their response to his comments igniting a firestorm of visceral opinion among fans.

Which is fine on one hand, as it gave people a reason to regurgitate their feelings towards the President, but is wrong on the other hand because it is impacting the purity of a sport with political subterfuge.

The place for protest isn't on the sidelines of an NFL game.  The place for protest isn't on the stage at the Emmy's or Grammy's.  It isn't on stage at a popular Broadway musical and it's not at rally's for political candidates - or maybe it is, and an outside entity makes us have to tolerate it as part of the subculture.

Even that isn't clear.  The impetus for any of these things are fear and the hate that fear produces. But that fear is exasperated by a media that can't get enough of either, because both sell magazines, newspapers and ad space - and it's all must-read and must-see until it involves you, then it's fodder for protest and anger.

Like Stephen King once said, It stops being funny when it starts being you.

All of us have faced or will face an issue in our lives that we feel strongly about. There is no doubt that people who take the time to protest are motivated to do so - but where that motivation comes from is where we run into problems like the one dividing the nation today.

As a veteran, I served my country not because I felt an obligation as an American, and not because I'm any more patriotic than anyone else and not because my father served - I did so because a TV ad told me that I could be all I could be. I'm proud of my service, but I had an agenda, an agenda to make a better life for myself.

Is that the agenda that Kaepernick has? To make a better life for himself and for people of color, or did he just get a wild hair one day, got caught on TV and then improvised himself into a great divider? Did Trump run for President because he wanted a better life for all Americans, or did he pull a publicity stunt that gained steam until he found himself as a serious contender for the office?

As always, there's two sides of the story and the truth is probably in the middle somewhere - but it doesn't matter because all these two have done is politicize things that should have been left well enough alone, and forced their agendas onto our national consciousness.

I would never disrespect the flag, nor would I kneel during the national anthem - I don't feel strongly enough about that either way to really care if anyone else does - but what I do care about is that we live in a country that I feel is the land of opportunity for everyone, but that had been diluted by special interests that the aforementioned "Bill of Accommodations" has usurped what our forefathers intended for our rights to be.

Everyone wants more than the next guy.  When one group wins special treatment, the next group wonders why they don't get the same, and then the next group, and then the next, and before you know it, fights and protests break out and people start hating each other because they haven't been accommodated to the extent of others.

And that is the issue. It's not a President that can't keep his hands off his twitter handle. It's not a football quarterback that contradicts himself and confuses people. It's because people want what you have, and if they don't get it, they protest, which causes people to take sides, which causes turmoil, which causes people to get all bent out of shape, which causes hate.

I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't want what other people have, I'm simply suggesting that if one feels that strongly about it, they live in a country that affords everyone that opportunity through hard work and dedication, that they can be all they can be if they dedicate themselves to be so. To earn something is what we are given the opportunity for, and there's really no better feeling in the world.

And if that's what people are protesting by kneeling during the national anthem, then we have identified what exactly is wrong with the country today.

If someone else doesn't want you to have what they have, then you know their agenda. They can't stop you from striving for what they have, though they have demonstrated their misunderstanding from ill will, in which case, at least you know where you stand with them.

But as Dr. King said in his letter from decades ago, frustration comes from the shallow understanding of the issue at hand, and that's what has happened with the Country in the wake of this past weekend's war of words - the message has gotten lost - or at least diluted. It's now about politics, and there's no room for that.

The NFL teams may be united in their stance, but this has nothing to do with racial equality. The NFL and it's employees are united against someone calling them "Sons of bitches" - and very few of these players or owners cared enough to kneel before Trump opened his mouth...

...nor until the media egged them on.

Since when did football players get such thin skin, anyway?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Texans Win The Battles, But Patriots Win The War In Classic Shootout

For sure, the New England Patriots had been in bigger holes than they faced with time running down on them on Sunday afternoon.

The Houston Texans' defense had dominated the Patriots for the entire second half at Gillette Stadium, forcing three New England punts and surrendering just seven points and 131 total yards to what was supposed to be the most prolific scoring offense in modern history, and after being sacked six times, hit five more and fumbling twice, Tom Brady walked out onto the turf an Gillette Stadium needing 75 yards and a touchdown to beat the determined and violent Texans.

But after a holding call made the task a little taller, Brady did what Brady does and has done so many times in his storied career, pulling an eight-play drive out of his magic helmet, turning a five point deficit into a 36-33 Patriots victory that may just be a defining moment for the struggling Minutemen from Foxborough.

Ordinarily, one wouldn't call an offense that averages thirty-three points per game a struggling unit, but coming into the game, Brady had yet to develop a chemistry with newly-acquired wide receiver Brandin Cooks, and the rest of his pass catchers had been dealing with a variety of maladies that had been holding the New England offense far below their potential efficiency...

...but Brady found Cooks twice on the final drive, including the 25-yard gamer with 23 seconds left to go and the Patriots' much-maligned defense made it hold up as safety Duron Harmon emerged with the ball from a scrum in the New England end zone after a last-gasp Hail Mary from Houston rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson just missed it's mark.

Just the fact that New England is not purring along on offense and still averaging 33 points per game is both scary and ridiculous at the same time, but it becomes downright terrifying when it is considered that the line hasn't gelled as yet and the backs are spending more time picking up rogue blitzers than handling the football.

That is a trend that continued on Sunday, as James White and Dion Lewis had just four receptions between them, a direct result of the revolving door style of the offensive tackles needing two of the Patriots' most dynamic skill players to chip pass rushers coming off the edge so that the tackles can catch up to them.

That takes a critical element out of the Patriots' offense, holding it back from realizing it's potential, and the opposition knows it - but the alternative is subjecting Brady to undue physical abuse, and besides, Brady has started to develop a bond with Cooks, for which the blocking of the backs has a direct impact.

Cooks' breakout performance combined with the standard fare from fellow wide receiver Chris Hogan (4 catches for 68 yards and two touchdowns) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (8/89/1) helped the Patriots score 36 points for the second straight week - his five-catch, 131 yard performance doubling his production for the season and his two scoring grabs represented the first and second of his short career in New England...

...while Danny Amendola continues to show up in the most critical of moments to move the chains, hauling in four balls for 48 yards, none bigger than a tough 25-yard snag over the middle on third-and-eighteen to set up Cooks' gamer one play later.

A see-saw affair in which the team combined to use every inch of the new carpeting at Gillette, the contest between the two familiar rivals was an entertaining and physical main event that saw two heavyweights batter each other with haymakers, staggering each other but each unable to put the other away.

Watson was fantastic in just his second start as a professional, the zip he put on his throws when he stepped up in the pocket equaled only by his amazing Houdini-like escapability that had the New England defense on their heels all game and frustrated the pass rushers who had their hands on him several times, but ended up with nothing but thin air.

"That dude is a slippery quarterback" defensive tackle Alan Branch mused after the game, "It was really frustrating as a defensive front just seeing that we had him right our grasp and not quite being able to finish him off."

The Texans scored in combinations to keep the Patriots on the ropes most of the contest, New England scoring off the ropes like mean counter-punchers - and just like in boxing, when the hungry young fighter gives the gnarled old veteran a sliver of an opening, the veteran landed the fatal blow late in the match.

The Patriots opened the game like they usually do, marching right down the field to take the early lead on a Brady shot to tight end Rob Gronkowski, but then Houston gained control with a Fairbairn field goal and a Deshaun Watson laser to Bruce Ellington at the goal line to take a 10-7 lead in the first quarter - then after Chris Hogan found the corner of the end zone to give the Patriots the lead in the second, the Texans countered with fury...

...a Jadeveon Clowney fumble recovery for a touchdown followed another Fairbairn field goal gave the lead back to the Texans before another Hogan touchdown reception from 47 yards out gave the Patriots a one-point lead going into the room.

New England seemed to give themselves a little breathing room when Brady hit Cooks on a 42-yard deep crosser, who then engaged his thrusters to easily outdistance the coverage, but Houston's rookie quarterback took control of the game pulling Patriots' defenders to the weak side time and again and throwing across his body to complete the improbable pass.

His ability to extend drives coupled with the burden he put on both the pass rushers to chase him down and the secondary to hold contain on his receivers took it's toll in the second half, as he led drives that ate up at least three-and-a-half minutes on each, resulting in a scoring toss to tight end Ryan Griffin in the back of the end zone and two more Fairbairn field goals to put New England in the position of needing Brady to come through at the last second.

In contrast, and as much to the detriment of the defense as Watson's magic act, the Patriots' offense generated drives of more than three minutes just once in the game, more often than not holding the ball for less than two minutes, putting the defense back on the field without much of a rest.

"We (the offense) didn't do much there in the fourth quarter." Brady admitted in his post-game presser, "the defense kept holding them to a field goal and gave us just enough time."

So it is to the defense's credit that they found the intestinal fortitude to stop Texans' running back Lamar Miller short of the line to gain on the New England 18 - against a three-receiver set, no less - to force a field goal and give the ball back to Brady and the offense with a little over two minutes to play and with one time out remaining - and Brady rewarded them with a drive for the ages.

No need to elaborate further, as the old gunslinger converted on third-and-long twice to extend the final drive, eventually hitting Cooks for the toe-tapping gamer with an absolute rocket to fit the ball into the tightest of windows...

...and what great Patriots' comeback would be complete without Harmon coming down with a game-sealing interception in the end zone?

Brady channeled his inner John Lennon after the game stating, "I believe that love is the greatest thing we have. It overcomes a lot." - and so does practicing and focusing on situational football, because it was that which helped the Patriots to overcome the upstart Texans, who with sheer talent and a slippery quarterback won a lot of individual battles, but eventually lost the war.

Because, it's Tom Brady and he loves his teammates.

And because he's pretty good at what he does.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Patriots Must Dictate Terms To Houston's Rugged Defense

The Houston Texans' defense is an aggressive bunch...

...what with perhaps the most talented front seven in the game, a group of speedy sack artists and run-plugging brutes combined with an up-and-coming secondary, there is no reason to doubt that they will give the New England Patriots' offense all they can handle this coming Sunday, so it will be how the Patriots counter that aggressiveness that will be the difference between victory and defeat.

The last time these teams met when the games meant something, the Patriots beat Houston in Foxborough on a chilly January evening in the divisional round of the 2016 playoffs - but it wasn't easy, and many believe that if the Texans would have had any semblance of an efficient offense at all, it would have been Houston advancing to the AFC title game.

But all they could muster was a touchdown and a handful of field goals, never able to take advantage of the Patriots offense practically handing the Texans' defense the ball in a much-closer-than-the-score-indicates 34-16 win that ended the Texans' season and finished quarterback Brock Osweiler in Houston.

The Texans' defense, despite being down several impact players, gave up only 27 of those points, as New England got a nifty 69-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Dion Lewis and took advantage of three Osweiler interceptions - forever to be known as the "Rutgers Trifecta", as former college teammates Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon picked off three Osweiler offerings...

...turning them into two field goals and a short touchdown drive to turn what was tight game into a Patriots win going away, as New England produced just two sustained drives on the evening - one extended by a long pass interference penalty - mostly due to the Texans' aggression on defense that pulled Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady off his mark several times and harassed him all night long.

All of that, mind you, without All World defensive end JJ Watt as the Texans employed a deception-heavy scheme that had the offensive line and Brady with their heads on a swivel, wondering where the pass rush was going to come from time after time.

But this time, Watt is healthy and ready to lead the most talented squad of pass rushing greyhounds in the league against a Patriots' offense whose receiving corps has been ravaged by injury and whose offensive line has featured a pair of matadors on the edges, forcing Brady to climb the pocket to be able to step into throws - sometimes letting them go off his back foot as the pocket collapses around him.

Not all is lost for the Patriots, though, as the backfield has performed as expected and the interior offensive line has held fast.

Injuries have piled up for New England, however, as pass catchers Chris Hogan, Philip Dorsett and Rob Gronkowski, right tackle Marcus Cannon and runner Rex Burkhead all suffered lower-body injuries last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints - but while Cannon and Burkhead appear to be destined for the shelf this Sunday, Hogan, Dorsett and most importantly Gronkowski all figure to participate in some capacity.

New England should also be welcoming back receiver Danny Amendola, who should provide a boost to Brady's arsenal, provided Brady stays on his feet long enough to get the ball to him.

Houston defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel moves his front seven around in a sort of chaotic jumble, at times bringing defensive ends and linebackers straight up the middle in three or four man rush packages while dropping them into coverage on others.  There is no way to predict where the rush is coming from, but there is a way to mitigate their impact.

It's called using your running backs.

In James White and Dion Lewis, the Patriots have dual mismatch threats that, if used in tandem, should be able to dictate to the Texans how they approach their pass rushing scheme.  Both are excellent receivers and fine runners, but it is their skill in picking up rogue linebackers on the blitz that up their value to New England, particularly against the heavy pressure that Houston can bring.

Both give up half a foot in height and seventy pounds in weight, on average, to the Texans' pass rushers, but are equal to them in size of heart, willingly putting their bodies between Brady and those human flying projectiles to achieve the greater good - which against Houston means giving Brady an extra half-second to go through his progression...

...which is going to be important given that right tackle Cannon is most likely a no-go and the powerful yet far-from-limber Cam Fleming is his understudy - which is bad in and of itself, but it becomes a waking nightmare when facing Watt on the edge.

Things don't get much better on the other side with Nate Solder's lateral agility in question after revolving door performances in the first two contests, leaving the interior of the Patriots line as the strength of the unit - center David Andrews and guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney forming a tupperware-like seal up the middle that has allowed just two pressures and one sack, combined.

They have not faced pass-rushing talent like Houston's this season, but the memory of being abused by them in the playoffs last January is probably still thick in their minds.

Of course, while the offense starts with the offensive line, they are just one piece of the whole puzzle that last January saw the Patriots lean heavily on now-injured and unavailable wide receiver Julian Edelman, who accounted for 13 of the 22 Brady targets to receivers, and half of the team's receiving yards.

But New England shouldn't be looking to repeat that performance from eight months ago, as without timely penalties on the Texans' defense and ineptitude displayed by their offense, that would have been a losing effort.  The Patriots played the "Take what they give us" game then, and the same mindset in this game could have disastrous results.

The key with the Texans' defense is to force the issue to get them out of their game, to dictate to them what formations they can run, what personnel can play and to wear them down to take advantage of them late in the game.

The most fundamental of these tasks is to use their aggressiveness against them in establishing a running game while maintaining their ability to spread the field horizontally - and the best way to do that, particularly in light of the injury issues among the pass catchers, is to use dual backs in White and Lewis, moving them around in a pre-snap cadence to identify who's rushing and who's covering and to adjust accordingly.

Of course, the best way to get that moving is through the no-huddle offense - not a two-minute, hurry up, but with a four-minute clock-killing approach that keeps the defense in their stances for a protracted amount of time while Brady scans the field to identify mismatches.

The purpose of this approach is two-fold. With that much time at the line of scrimmage - and all the while Brady barking out cadence - the Texans are likely to tip their hand in coverages, especially if they are worn down by the Patriots' no-huddle tactics, which includes the energy-sapping ploy of holding the pass rushers in their stances.

After the effects of this course of action take hold, Brady can start mixing up both the cadence and the timing to gain even more advantage.

Look, all of this is basic, fundamental football. The Patriots' offense is predicated on misdirection along the offensive line to give the appearance that the play call is a run when in fact it is a pass and vice-versa.  New England uses their guards - in particular right guard Mason - as a pulling lead blocker in the running game, but also will pull him to draw the defense to the strong side, catching them light on the weak side...

...where a back or one of Brady's speedy little pass catchers will be waiting in the flat or up the sidelines on a wheel route, or even going over the top if the safeties bite hard and crash down to provide run support.

A defense really takes their chances on the play action against New England, as the Patriots do this as well as anyone, and with the ability of their backs to run between the tackles, pick up the blitz and catch the ball out of the backfield, they are the most versatile players on the turf and will be keyed on by defenses to sniff out plays. But just because the Patriots would be in a two-back set doesn't mean that their playbook is limited, because both White and Lewis are capable of lining up anywhere in the formation.

Which means, of course, that in a concerted effort with Hogan, Gronkowski, Amendola, Cooks and perhaps Dorsett, the Patriots can still spread the Texans' thin both horizontally and vertically.

It's called dictating to the defense, not just taking what the defense gives you.  It's the Patriot way.