Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Super Bowl LI - Patriots' Receivers, Akin To Misfits, Bask In Belichick's Offensive System

Keyshawn Johnson was right.

Sort of.

The loquacious, quite well-traveled former NFL wide receiver said on Friday that none of the receivers on the New England Patriots roster wouldn't find themselves on any other team's depth chart, simply because they are a product of the Patriots' system, which accentuates their limited individual skill sets.
Players no one else wanted: Hogan and Brady represent lethal hook up

Where the former Jets, Bucs, 'boys and Panthers' pass catcher has a point is where recent history suggests that receivers whom have been part of the New England culture since head ball coach Bill Belichick arrived on the scene at the turn of the century, just haven't been impactful - neither before they arrive on campus, nor after the leave.

Where Johnson is off the mark is when he says they are a product of the system - because they aren't a product of the system, they are the system.

You see, where most coaches and personnel men select players whom they can integrate into their offensive scheme, Belichick builds his scheme around his receivers combined skill set.  This allows Belichick much more latitude in game planning, expanding the concepts in his playbook and allowing a seemingly endless combination of personnel packages.

It's the theory of not trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, rather, to bore out the round hole to allow the square peg to fit.

And while Johnson is mostly correct in his assertion that Patriots' wide receivers wouldn't be contributing factors in most other passing games around the league, it is also true that Belichick is consistently above the curve when it comes to innovation - his concept-driven offensive philosophy requiring above average intelligence and intestinal fortitude, and if you have those things, he will put you in the position to succeed.

But Belichick is under no obligation to ensure that any player who leaves his team is ready to take on any other scheme - and, as we've seen and as Johnson points out, many are not.

Belichick's offense is predicated on the old New England standard introduced by offensive coordinators Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins during their time together on Chuck Faurbanks' staff during the early and middle parts of the 1970s, and include the same plays that would conjure memories if one had played high school ball...

...only that the defense has no way of determining what they plays are because they are run from what coaches refer to as "concepts", which means that these simple and fundamental plays are formed in a group, depending on the personnel on the field, that gives the quarterback a myriad of options to take advantage of whatever formation the defense has committed to on any given play.

The concepts are easy for the players to learn, as they form a mental picture of routes, blocking assignments and running gaps from a single word.

Everyone who watches football hears a quarterback barking out numerical and linguistic instructions to the other ten offensive players on the field, and for most teams, the quarterback is simply calling an audible - changing the play at the line of scrimmage - or setting different blocking instructions for his linemen, but when one hears Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady's cadence, he is actually calling the play at the line of scrimmage.

The Patriots are able to do this because of their personnel, as every player on the field at any given time has the skill set that enables Brady to shift them into any position in the formation, knowing that each player is capable of running the route assigned to the position - in effect, each player has an interchangeable skill set that has been incorporated into the offensive system during the previous offseason and implemented during training camp.

If there is a drawback to the system, we saw it during the 2013 and 2015 seasons when the Patriots lost so many players to injury that the system broke down when replacement players were signed out of desperation, limiting the offense to simply running plays instead of utilizing their conceptual scheme.

In both seasons, the team lost enough pass catching threats that it altered the play calling to more of a bare bones playbook, reducing them to one-dimensional entities that better defenses in the NFL were able to take advantage of, losing in the AFC title game to Denver in both seasons because they simply couldn't impose their will on the Broncos' top-rated defense.

To combat this, Belichick turned his attention to depth signings this past offseason, not willing to chance losing another season because his offense couldn't operate at max-efficiency.

For example, instead of keeping his fingers crossed that All World tight end Rob Gronkowski could make it through an entire season unscathed, he send a late-round draft pick to Chicago to acquire Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett - and while this move solicited visions of a revisitation to the days of Gronkowski and now-incarcerated thug Aaron Hernadez terrifying opposing defenses with a two-tight end attack, it was instead a depth move that worked out famously when Gronkowski went down midway through the season.

Similar moves have been made in the past few seasons, with names such as Chris Hogan and Dion Lewis brought in to ensure that injury wouldn't limit their conceptual system - a system that have seen them in six consecutive AFC Championship games in as many seasons, and are now vying for their second World title in three tries during the same time span.

The good news for the Patriots is that, with the exception of Gronkowski, the Patriots are whole on offense with no limitation to their concepts.  The bad news for their opponents, the NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons, is that no team in the past two-plus seasons have been able to contain the Patriots' offense with a full complement of weapons effectively enough to give their own offense a chance to outscore them.

The Falcons, in fact, are very similar defensively to what the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded in their title tilt showdown with New England, in that they are mediocre against the run, surrendering an eye-popping 4.5 yards per rush, while their secondary ranks in the bottom five - a number that is a bit deceiving in that Atlanta's offense tends to jump out to huge early leads, forcing the opposing offenses to be one-dimensional to play catch-up.

The result, of course, is that Atlanta's pass rushers pin their ears back and come after the opposing quarterback and their secondary goes into a dime look where they can shut down ordinary receivers playing in ordinary passing attacks.

Of course, the Patriots have anything but an ordinary attack and are led by the greatest quarterback to ever take a snap, playing in a system designed to take advantage of the considerable individual skill sets of their players - and with New England's offense playing with a full complement of weapons, feeding off of the top scoring defense in the National Football League, the chances for  Falcon's victory seem dim...

...and all of this from a collection of receivers that wouldn't be able to make another team's roster.

So says Keyshawn Johnson, anyway.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Patriots Stomp Steelers In AFC Title Tilt; Will Face Falcons in Super Bowl

Jesse James had beaten Patrick Chung on a post route and had a sure touchdown.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' tight end had feigned a seam route that he had beaten Chung on earlier, and the New England Patriots' strong safety had taken the cheese, giving James ample room to catch the ball from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and Chung's pursuit angle suggested that even if he was able to bring him down, he would easily break the plane of the goal line anyway...

...then, suddenly, Patriots' centerfielder Duron Harmon appeared out of nowhere, lowering his shoulder as he made contact with James, the collision dropping the tight end to the turf mere inches from the mark, denying the touchdown.
Harmon (30) denied James the end zone

Harmon was playing over the top and somehow was able to get over to assist on the play.  Big deal, right?  The Steelers would surely score anyway - if not on first and goal from 5 inches away, then on the ensuing downs.

But on first down, Patriots' linebacker Dont'a Hightower stuffed Steelers' running back DeAngelo Williams for a one yard loss, then on second down rookie defensive tackle Vincent Valentine dropped Williams for a loss of three.

Eventually, the Steelers would have to settle for a field goal so they would at least get three points out of the drive, but the epic goal line stand by the Patriots turned the tide in what was shaping up to be a track meet, the first team to break the tape at the finish line going on to Houston to play the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51.  But from that point forward, the Steelers seemed to run out of gas, and the track meet was cancelled due to lack of interest.

Up 17-9 and with less than two minutes remaining in the first half, surrendering a touchdown in that situation would have put the Steelers in good shape, down just one point - or even tied with the Patriots with a successful two-point conversion - and knowing that they would be receiving the ball first in the second half, a touchdown would have given Pittsburgh all of the momentum...

...but instead they went into the locker room down by five, and then New England's defense stifled Pittsburgh on their initial possession of the second half, the Patriots' offense taking over from there, going on a 19-0 run over the next twenty minutes to blow the Steelers out of Gillette Stadium, taking the American Football Conference championship by a score of 36-17.

As a result, New England will face the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 in Houston on February 5th.

In reality, there were many players on the New England side of things who came up big.  There are the obvious ones - like Chris Hogan whom the Steelers apparently either sorely underestimated, or just plain forgot about, to the tune of nine receptions for a whopping 180 yards and two touchdowns - and the ones who did their job in a more subtle manner.

Take your pick, be it James White picking up rogue blitzers, the entire offensive line that protected Brady like he was the King of the world, or even Harmon who flipped the game around with his fundamentally sound tackle. There was Malcolm Butler punking Pittsburgh's All Pro receiver Antonio Brown. not allowing him clean releases at the line of scrimmage, and New England's defensive line winning the battles in the running game - but homage should also be paid to the mistakes made by the Steelers themselves, mistakes that turned a relatively close game into a laugher.

Again, take your pick, be it Eli Rodgers' fumble that gave New England excellent field position and led to a Julian Edelman touchdown catch late in the third quarter, receiver Cobi Hamilton's illegal touching of a pass in the end zone that nullified a touchdown pass, or Roethlisberger's who-the-hell-is-he-throwing-that-to interception early in the fourth quarter that cornerback Eric Rowe returned deep into Pittsburgh territory...

...or the Steelers' safeties losing containment on both of Hogan's deep touchdown receptions - all were contributing factors in the outcome of the game, whether forced by the Patriots' defense or just unforced errors by the Steelers themselves - and one also has to wonder how the game would have gone had Pittsburgh's All Pro running back Le'Veon Bell not pulled a groin and sat out the majority of the game.

Bell had reportedly been bothered by a sore groin for some time, though he looked to be in top form in the post-season prior to coming to Foxborough - and truthfully, he wasn't all that effective in his limited touches before leaving the game, picking up just 20 yards on six carries while his replacement, Williams, averaged a weak 2.4 yards per carry, a stat made even more impressive by the fact that he had a 15 yard scamper mixed into his 14 carries, and if one were to eliminate that, he ran for only 30 yards on 13 carries.

No doubt, Bell being left pouting on the sidelines helped the cause defensively for New England, but only as far as being able to concentrate more on situational football, but what helped even more was that the Patriots' offense was able to build a three-score lead early in the second half, forcing Pittsburgh to become one-dimensional and into obvious passing situations.

As a result, New England was able to rotate fresh defensive personnel into the game at a rate that would impress a hockey coach, with linebackers Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Hightower each garnering about 50% of the snaps in a two man rotation, with strong safety Chung reducing down to the second level to punk James coming off the line.

That kind of rotation is normally reserved for the Patriots' defensive line to keep the big uglies up front fresh for the stretch run in each ball game - and it works.  All one has to do is to look at some very basic stats to see just how effective that scheme is.

In the last five games, the Patriots' defense has allowed a combined 21 points in the second half, surrendering just two touchdowns, one of them the garbage time scoring pass from Roethlisberger to Cobi Hamilton, and have generated an astounding 14 turnovers, the majority of them coming in the second half when their concentration is broken by being exhausted while the Patriots are rested and focused.

That's what happened to both of New England's playoff opponents, not to mention the number of times that the Patriots have held their opponents on downs late in games, simply because they had more gas in their tank.

So what they did against the Steelers was predictable, kind of an old "Rope-a-Dope" mentality where you take the opponent's best shot, let them wear themselves out, then stomp them like a grape - and it works on both sides of the ball.  Brady had the Patriots up to the line and had the ball in his hands with 15 seconds or more left on the play clock to limit both the time the Steelers had to substitute and to get lined up for the play...

...several times catching Pittsburgh's defenders out of position, most notably on both of Hogan's touchdowns and on a key pass to fullback James Develin for a first down. When one team has the talent, proper scheme and incredible depth, the advantage is with them and the score is usually lopsided.

It's almost unfair.  Almost.

The Patriots can't be blamed for being the more talented, better prepared and better conditioned team, because that's what the game is all about - and is why the Patriots are on their way to Houston, armed with an air of invincibility, a most advantageous intangible indeed...

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Prelude To A Championship, Part 2 - Offensive Line, Backs Hold Key For Patriots In AFC Title Tilt

Marcus Cannon has been the highest rated tackle in the National Football League over the last eleven weeks of the regular season. Consecutively.

That's the highest rated tackle in the entire NFL, and that's all tackles regardless of which side they play, and while he may not have been voted to the Pro Bowl by the fans, he gained enough votes from the pro football writers across America to be named a second-team All Pro by the Associated Press...

...and was selected as a second-team All Pro by Pro Football Focus,no small feat considering that the closest Cannon had come to being All-Anything in his football career was filling in for 2010 second team All Pro Sebastian Vollmer on the right side of the New England Patriots' offensive line.

Because the various All Pro teams are selected by journalists and are not subject to fan interference, The players selected for the first and second teams generally are considered the best of the best, and not merely a name recognized by the fans who vote nationwide in the Pro Bowl balloting, which is really nothing more than a popularity contest.

Cannon's ascension to elite status has been meteoric and unexpected, as he came into this season as a much-maligned swing tackle that never seemed to get a break with either paying time or injury.  This season he's gotten breaks on both, and looky what happened.

Not only is the fifth-year emerging star a load in the running game, where he combines with right guard Shaq Mason to form one of the best young strong side tandems in the league, but he is also a nimble brawler in pass protection that defensive ends have to fight through to earn a shot at quarterback Tom Brady - and he has held off some of the finest pass rushers that the NFL has to offer.

In fact, when it comes to opening holes in the running game or protecting the likely league MVP in Brady, head ball coach Bill Belichick has assembled a group that has stayed healthy - the current lineup of Cannon, Mason, center David Andrews, left guard Joe Thuney and left tackle Nate Solder have played in the same lineup for ten consecutive games - and have gelled into a cohesive unit.

The numbers bear this out. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots have the eighth best offensive line in the league in both run blocking and in pass protection, while Pro Football Focus has them listed at 10th - their grade brought down a bit by the fact that rookie Joe Thuney has struggled in pass protection, allowing 45 pressures of Patriots' quarterbacks and flagged ten times for holding.

His struggles may not have been as noticeable if the rest of the Patriots' interior had more experience, as Andrews and Mason are just in their second year, and their first season as full-time starters.

New England quarterback Tom Brady has been sacked 17 times in thirteen games played this season, most of them coming left of center.  Last week, the Houston Texans presented the rest of the league with the blueprint on how to pressure Brady, which added up to moving their edge rushers to align over the pivot, using their quickness to wedge between Andrews and Thuney.

Brady took a horrible beating in the first half, but the team was able to adjust in the second half by going after Houston's deep coverages over the top, Brady throwing a couple of 50/50 balls to force the Texans to drop more players back into coverage - the result, of course, was that it gave Brady a little more time in the pocket, and he shredded the Texans' coverages underneath as New England pulled away for a divisional round win.

It was a bold adjustment for sure, and one rife with danger, particularly against the top defense in the National Football League, and even more bold considering the results had his receivers not been able to win those battles - one could say it even smacked of desperation, and maybe it was. But the coaching lesson learned by the Patriots is to not let themselves get into a narrow fist fight in the first place...

...and particularly not against their opponent in the AFC Championship Game, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have an offensive machine that would make the Patriots pay for their mistakes in a way that the Texans could not.

Against the Texans, New England jumped out to a quick two-score lead, but handed the momentum right back to Houston with a pair of turnovers that eventually cut their lead to one point and forced the Patriots to the air to gain separation from their opponent, a notion that led to Brady getting beat like he stole something, instead of being able to balance the offense with the running game.

While the Steelers don't have the statistically dominating defense that the Texans possessed, they can still get after the quarterback and have the personnel to disrupt the New England game plan - but first, they have to stop the Patriots' underrated rushing game.

That may be a tall task, given the fact that Pittsburgh has surrendered an eye-popping 4.3 yards per rush in their last three regular season contests, but have found ways to shut down both Miami's and Kansas City's ground games in the post season, doing so against the Dolphins simply by jumping out to an early lead and forcing them to the air...

...while just being patient against the Chiefs as they wrong-mindedly used their greatest offensive weapon, Tyreek Hill, as a decoy instead of feeding him the ball.  When Kansas City did run the ball, they found success right up the gut, but were so locked in on their game of deception that they fooled themselves into two turnovers that gave Pittsburgh prime field position and contributed mightily to Kansas City falling behind in the second half and having to abandon their ground game.

So it goes without saying that the Patriots need to be better at protecting the football, as the Steelers are far more adept at taking advantage of turnovers.

Since being activated from the PUP list Patriots' scatback Dion Lewis has assumed control of the lead back in New England's offense, compiling a 4.4 yards per carry average on the ground while picking up where he left off last season by being a dual threat in the passing game.

The reason for this is very simple. Lewis provides a multiple-threat profile when in the game as opposed to power back LeGarrette Blount, who does little in the passing game, and passing back James White, who hasn't shown Lewis' ability to pick up yardage up the gut.  This is not to say that either Blount or White are liabilities, rather, it demonstrates that Lewis is simply a tougher matchup for a defensive front seven.

Why? He is like Steelers' running back Le'Veon Bell in his versatility, equally adept in carrying the ball through the tall trees and abusing linebackers on the wheel routes, so he adds an element of deception to the Patriots' offense and allows the play action to work it's magic.

Of course, Blount and White have their specific roles which add to the dynamicism of the New England offense, as Blount has rushed for over 1100 yards this season, mostly when the opposition knows he's getting the ball - while White ended up catching the second most balls on the team in the passing game - and this with names like Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola in the same pattern.

Indeed, the New England running backs will have a profound effect on the outcome of the AFC Title tilt - but the level to which they do have an effect will be directly dictated by ball security as well as a return to the balance on offense that made New England so hard to defend all season long.

Suffice to say that the Patriots will not be making the same mistakes they did against the Texans last week, not will they be making the mistake of using Lewis purely as a decoy to try to open up other areas of the offense - instead, playing straight-up fundamental football to keep the Steelers from taking advantage of self-induced mistakes.

Once the running game is established, the Steelers have a habit of retreating into a coverage style known loosely as a cover-six, a two-tiered zone concept in which five defensive backs and one linebacker - usually Ryan Shazier - are responsible for a particular part of the field in the passing game.

The cover-six involves four zones in the short to intermediate levels, plus two safeties that split the field in half on the deeper zones. The concept is vulnerable to trips formations which will flood two zones on one side of the ball and forcing the defenders in adjacent zones to move laterally in an effort to assist in coverages, leaving the zones on the opposite side in what amounts to man coverage.

Brady can take advantage of this by looking off the safeties, and once they bite in one direction of another, flip the script to the weak side where he should have his choice of a running back and a tight end to choose from in the pattern - and, if set up properly, the screen game could have a momentous impact on early downs.

What the balance combination does is neutralize the aggressiveness of the Steelers' quick-twitch linebackers and forces them back on their heels where they can not rely on their superior closing speed to limit yards after the catch. It also takes some of the aggressiveness away from the Pittsburgh pass rush by forcing them to reveal their intentions through motion by the Patriots during their pre-snap adjustments.

Shazier and fellow youngster Bud Dupree join greybeard James Harrison as the top pass rushers on the team, all of whom have the ability to ruin drives with their athleticism alone, so establishing the running game will go along way to leveling the playing field in both facets of the offense, and will open up the short and deep passing plays while the Steelers are stuck in their own intermediate zone jail.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Prelude To A Championship, Part 2 - Gap Integrity Key To Patriots Limiting Steelers' Options On Offense

Gap Integrity.

When it comes to containing the high-octane Pittsburgh Steelers' offense, gap integrity is the most crucial discipline of them all - because everything that they do is predicated off of the running game, and if the opposing defense doesn't fill gaps, they have an All Pro running back who exploits running lanes better than any other back in the NFL.

New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick knows this better than anyone, and has consistently tried to fill his defensive front seven with disciplined gap-pluggers and edge-setters, but it wasn't until after the team's bye week in week nine that the unit blossomed into one of the best run defending entities in the league.

In reality, however, the process of becoming such started back at the beginning of the league year in March, when veteran defensive end Chris Long took a visit and a workout with New England on the 13th, setting in motion a series of events that would see Belichick trading Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals two days later..

...and then during their bye week, the Dark Master dumped athletically-gifted linebacker Jamie Collins to the Cleveland Browns for a late-round draft pick, in the interim picking up linebackers Barkeveous Mingo from the Browns and Kyle Van Noy from the Lions to fill out their depth chart.

And, why? Well, Jones couldn't set the edge to save his life, his value always being as a pass rusher - and even then his performances were erratic. Collins was said to have "free-lanced" his play, meaning that he would abandon his gap to take the quickest route into the backfield, often over-running the play.  Both players left a lot to be desired so far as gap integrity is concerned.

But once they were gone and the rest got up to speed in Belichick's scheme, the Patriots have become the best run defense in the league - through the second half of the season, of course - and clearly have what it takes to shut down an opposing running game, allowing a meager 64 yards per game on the ground since their break.

The key to any run defense is to force the opposing offensive line to double team the nose tackle, and hopefully that nose tackle is stout enough to take on the double team and not allow the second blocker to disengage and flow to the second level, where he can neutralize a linebacker.  On the Patriots, that nose tackle could be any number of players, depending on a number of variables...

...which is why the Dark Master is so enamored with versatility in his players. As for actual defensive tackles, he lists just three on the roster, all working in a rotation that is meant both for the situational football that Belichick lives for and to keep those large human beings fresh for crunch time - and their snap counts reflect that philosophy.

The playoff game against Houston last Saturday night is a decent snapshot of how the rotation works for them. Rush tackle Alan Branch played a hefty and effective 71% of the defensive snaps, coming away with top honors of three quarterback pressures and seven tackles in eating up two gaps with his massive 6' 6", 350 pound frame, spelled primarily by rookie load Vincent Valentine (6' 2", 320) and like-sized sophomore Malcom Brown.

However, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have found success in moving second year defensive end Trey Flowers over center in pure passing situations, where he uses his quickness and sheer brute strength to reestablish the line of scrimmage two yards deep in the opponent's backfield, blowing up running plays and collapsing the pocket from the inside out in the passing game.

Flowers is also effective on the edges, but he is more of a chess piece that Patricia moves around to take advantage of mismatches along the line. The edges belong to a pair of veterans in greybeards Long and Rob Ninkovich, both of whom excel at setting the hard edge and funneling things back inside for the big boys to handle.

But to stop Bell, who has the patience of a saint and the initial burst of a jack-in-the-box, the Patriots linemen need not just to maintain gap integrity, but to maintain gap integrity for what may seem like an eternity compared to playing against other backs. Bell's running style consists of floating behind one of his offensive linemen, playing peek-a-boo with the linebacking corps, waiting for a gapper to lose containment, then he explodes through the hole...

...so it is imperative that New England's linebackers are protected from being menaced by rouge guards on the second level and free to flow to whichever gap they are needed.

Dont'a Hightower and Van Noy pair up for a formidable run plugging duo, with rookie thug Elandon Roberts spelling either effectively.  Both Hightower and Van Noy are excellent blitzers as well, and if one of the lineman can draw a double team, they generally have the green light to go after the quarterback.

Problem being, Bell is excellent in the passing game and will rarely remain in the backfield to pass protect, so either linebacker blitzing may be a pick-your-poison proposition, and leaving him one-on-one with a linebacker in the pattern is just asking for trouble.

Which is why against the Steelers, the Patriots will primarily be in their three-safety, Big Nickel package, with Duron Harmon playing centerfield while Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung reduce down to take on coverages - McCourty covering the double slot on tight end Jesse James and Chung shadowing Bell - or vice versa.  Besides Belichick and Patricia, no one really knows what kind of rabbit the Patriots' defense will pull out of their collective hat game-to-game, or even play-to-play.

Disguising coverages and rush packages is always part of the game plan in New England, but there are very few teams that put together their schemes in such a manner that they can plan for gaining tactical advantages, then implement them on the fly during a game.

There is no such thing as putting too much emphasis on Bell, as the entire offense revolves around his skill set, and if you take him away, it forces Pittsburgh to rely on a receiving corps that can be overwhelmed in the Big Nickel, and even in the basic nickel, as corners Malcolm Butler and Eric Rowe are capable outside-the-numbers guys, and Logan Ryan has emerged - once again - as one of the top slot corners in the game...

...and with McCourty ready and able to assist over the top, it limits what the Steelers are able to do in the passing game, particularly with no play action to freeze the linebackers in the middle zones.

These types of games are won in the trenches, and the real battle is between the Pittsburgh offensive line and the Patriots' front seven in what promises to be an old fashioned street fight

Around midseason, the Steelers' offensive line started to click after a slow start, and their nine-game winning streak entering this contest found it's genesis in the line's chemistry.  Most of Bell's success has come running behind center Maurkise Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro, but has also seen recent improvement on the edges, where left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and strong side tackle Marcus Gilbert are equally adept at sealing their mirror to the inside.

Villanueva, in particular, has been solid in pass protection, allowing just one sack in the past dozen contests, while left guard Ramon Foster has not allowed a sack all season long. But despite excellent protection, the passing game has been the Steelers' bitch-kitty.

Since the beginning of December, and not counting their season finale when they mailed it in against Cleveland and still won the game, Pittsburgh has enjoyed amazing balance in their offense - practically a 50-50 split between run and pass - with Bell dominating in the post season to the point that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has only had to drop back on 40% of their plays...

...which is good for the Steelers, since he has been an interception machine since the end of November, throwing nine picks in six games - and it has continued in the playoffs as Big Ben has been victimized thrice in two playoff games. Those numbers are very un-Roethlisberger like and one has to wonder if his knees and foot are affecting his ability to fully step into his throws.

That in itself is a great reason to rush Roethlisberger right up the gut and force him off his mark - and given that the Steelers offense as a whole are horrible on third down conversions (a meager 36% in the post season), limiting the run and keeping the Steelers out of third-and-short situations would seem to lead to turnovers, either by punt or interception.

But it all starts with gap integrity.

Next: New England offense vs Steelers' defense...

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Prelude To A Championship, Part 1 - Balance Between Individuality And Team-First Mentality Drives Patriots

"It's a lion's den. I've been there. A lot of us have been there. This ain't going to be fun."

Ben Roethlisberger knows all about Gillette Stadium, the dynastic New England Patriots and about their raucous fans, for he could not have selected a better description of what his Pittsburgh Steelers are walking into this coming Sunday Evening - as in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, Roethlisberger is acknowledging that Foxborough is " a place or state of extreme disadvantage, antagonism or hostility."

Gillette will certainly be hostile, especially since that video of Steelers' coach Mike Tomlin calling the Patriots a collection of chocolate starfish surfaced - and while that can be attributed to Tomlin being a coach and firing up his charges, perhaps more discretion on the part of Antonio Brown, whose phone recorded the comments, is warranted.

Regardless, it's nothing more than Tomlin being proud of his players and keeping them motivated after a big win - and if one goes through the entire video, we get to see Roethlisberger delivering his eloquent soliloquy regarding what a nightmare it can be for an opposing team to go to Foxborough and play the Patriots, a notion echoed by Tomlin on Tuesday.

"We're in the AFC Championship game" Tomlin said after apologizing for his language on the Brown video. "You're not going to creep in the back door in New England and win a football game, then creep out of there with the AFC Championship."

As a matter of fact, not many creep into Gillette Stadium and come away with anything but a participation trophy, and especially with so much on the line.

For the eleventh time in the Bill Belichick era, he is set to lead his New England Patriots into the American Football Conference Championship Game - and for the fourth time, he will lead his team into a meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Patriots star power is limited to Brady and maybe a few others, but most of the players on their roster toil in anonymity so far as the electorate is concerned, as New England under head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick employ a considerable number of castoffs and retreads from other teams to populate their depth chart...

...giving each player one specific task in each game and asking only that they do their job. Most are not incredible athletes, but all are cerebral, tough and relentless, be it watching game film or chasing down rogue quarterbacks or throwing blocks to spring their teammates for big plays.

Those things are aesthetically pleasing primarily only to Patriots' fans - well, most of them anyway - while the rest of the league and their fans see New England as a heartless machine that methodically and painfully take away the will of their opposition - savagely efficient, boring.

Is it any wonder that such a dull and tiresome entity with the ability to make the bad guys lapse into the football equivalent of a tryptophan-induced coma then stomp them like grapes while they're down are overlooked for individual awards?

"Everybody wants to play more, but at the same time everybody wants a good team and everybody wants to win." Belichick explained about the mentality of his team, "Everybody wants to do their role. We all want it to be bigger but sometimes we have to understand the bigger team picture, which our players do."

"You give that up when you play football. You give up some of your individuality. You give up some of your individual preferences or individual control you have to play the great team sport of football."

Patriots fans fall into the same trap that every other fan base does - that is, they know their team so well, and they recognize the nuances of the scheme and assume that the rest of the football world is connected with their psyche and should know the team as we know them - but they don't. Even the people who are paid to know these things, the national media, are collectively ignorant of the talent buried on any teams' depth chart.

But they know enough to realize that the Patriots are the best team in the NFL, and with Belichick running the show, are certainly more than the sum of their parts.

How do they know this? On offense, besides the obvious quantity displayed by Brady - who was the top rated quarterback in all of football - the Patriots sported a top-10 offensive line, a thousand-yard running back, the second-best passing back in all of the NFL and seven pass catchers with twenty or more receptions...

...while the defense boasted a top-three secondary, and a unit that scored in the top-10 in every major statistical category under the tab of total defense and allowed only 15.6 points per game, tops in the entire National Football League.

These things are all public record, but mean nothing unless the ultimate goal is achieved.

Offensively, Belichick still runs his version of the old Erhardt-Perkins philosophy, utilizing a concept-driven scheme that requires each player, regardless of position, to know exactly where everyone in the formation is supposed to be, and requires that any so-called "skill" position players to line up where they can be most effective, usually in a position that takes advantage of the opponent's weaknesses.

Against Pittsburgh, a team that features speed and-or requisite quickness in just about every position, Belichick could use his passing backs split wide to open up the middle of the field for the bigger possession receivers and to maximize the effectiveness of the bubble screens.

On defense, the preferred package is the Big Nickle - which features three safeties in an effort to neutralize elite tight ends and running backs - but Pittsburgh has speed to burn outside the numbers and the best all-around running back in the NFL, so they force many teams to play them straight up or in a standard nickle...

...but whatever schemes are ultimately employed, success or failure will be determined in the trenches - offensive lines vs. defensive front sevens - and in subsequent articles, we will prepare you for any and every eventuality, with the focus being on blocking and rushing the passer, as these are the areas that will determine which team will represent the American Football Conference in Super Bowl LI...

Next: Part 2 - Pittsburgh running game vs. New England's Front seven

Monday, January 16, 2017

Patriots Grind Out Win Over Texans; Face Steelers In AFC Title Tilt

Normally, when your quarterback completes less than half of his passes, your running game is bogged down and you turn the ball over three times deep in your own territory you are going to lose the game.

Fortunately for the New England Patriots, they are the New England Patriots.

Quarterback Tom Brady threw two interceptions and passing back Dion Lewis coughed up the football twice, losing one fumble, setting up the visiting Houston Texans inside the Patriots' 35 yard line three times - but true to the bend-but-don't-break philosophy on the other side of the ball, the Patriots' defense minimized the damage by allowing only field goals on two of the three instances...

...and then creating three second half turnovers of their own while forcing the Texans' offense into punts on nine other possessions, allowing just a lone field goal in the second half as New England pulled away for a 34-16 Divisional round victory at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night.

What makes the Patriots the Patriots is their ability to minimize the effect of negative plays and level the playing field by resetting to their default fundamentals, which enables them to survive their opponent's best shot, then regain the momentum and press their will until the opposition succumbs.

They do it every single game, and against Houston on Saturday they delivered the perfect example.

How the Texans delivered their best shot was more about trying to capitalize on New England mistakes and beating Brady like he stole something - which is the best that they could hope for, given the disparity between their offense, which is very average, and their top-ranked defense - and with their defense is how they delivered their best shot.

Taking a play from the Patriots' defensive playbook, the Texans aligned their cat-quick defensive ends over center David Andrews, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus getting free runs at Brady to force him into his worst performance of the season, at the same time disguising their underneath coverages to try and take advantage of the pressure and forcing errant throws.

As a result, Houston was able to pick off Brady twice over the middle, both on tipped balls.  The pressure applied by Clowney and company was relentless - sacking Brady twice but nailing him right in the grill another dozen times - forcing Brady to heave the football into contested situations down the field which, fortunately, his receivers won more times than not.

That is not typical of Brady or the Patriots, who prefer their offense to be methodical in lulling their opponents into a coma, but as the game wore on, it became clear that Houston's top-ranked defense was prepared for that contingency, leaving offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels no choice but to take chances to move the ball.

It was a brilliant scheme by Texans' defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell that kept the Texans within striking distance of the Patriots most of the evening, but his effort was matched blow for blow by New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's game plan, which concentrated on protecting the edges and the sidelines and forcing the Texans' offense to funnel everything inside the hash marks - essentially taking away two-thirds of the field.

The schemes were polar opposites. Crennell's charges sought to limit the Patriots' offense by taking away the middle of the field where Brady and his receivers like to operate. As a result, the Patriots had next to no initial success on the ground, and Brady found himself running for his life outside of the pocket, being brutalized by Houston's violent pass rush.

As dictated by the aforementioned circumstances, the Texans had to play a nearly flawless game and force the Patriots into mistakes to have any chance of winning - and for just over one half of play, they did just that - but thanks to the Patriots' defense and some nifty work by Lewis, Houston still trailed the Patriots despite dominating nearly all aspects of the game.

Lewis took a 12 yard swing pass to the house to open the scoring midway through the first period, then after the Texans' Nick Novak booted a 33 yard field goal - aided immensely by an a personal foul on New England cornerback Eric Rowe that gave life to a possession that had stalled - Lewis took the ensuing kickoff right up through Houston's kick coverage, going 98 yards to make the score 14-3, and the rout was on.

But that was when the Texans started harassing Brady.

A slightly overthrown Brady pass to receiver Michael Floyd was tipped right into the hands of trailing corner A.J. Bouye, who returned the interception to the New England 27 yard line, but the Patriots' defense held them to another Novak field goal, seemingly dodging a bullet - but Lewis fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the New England twelve, and two plays later Texans' quarterback Brock Osweiler found tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz wide open in the end zone, and suddenly the rout was cancelled as Houston cut New England's lead to one point.

A Stephen Gostkowski field goal increased the Patriots' lead to four going into the room at halftime, then shortly after Brady found passing back James White on a 19 yard wheel route to boost the New England lead to eleven - then subsequent scores by Lewis and Gostkoswski, a one yard run and 43 yard field goal, respectively, finally ended the Houston threat...

...an interception by New England corner Logan Ryan setting up the Lewis touchdown run and picks by fellow Rutgers' alums Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon helping to stymie Texans' drives in the second half.

Aside from the "Rutgers Three" pulling off a rare thieving act, the defense as a whole played as well as can be expected, given the opportunities the Patriots' offense handed the Texans.

The 181 passing yards represent the fourth time this season that New England as limited the opposing offense to less than 200 yards passing, and the second time they've held the Texans under that standard in 2016 - and the 285 total yards produced by Houston counted as the seventh time New England's defense has held an opponent under 300 yards of total offense, and, again, the second time this season against the Texans.

And, just for good measure, the sixteen points surrendered by the Patriots' defense is right in line with the average points they gave up per game in the regular season which, of course, was tops in the National Football League.

The worry coming into this game is that the Patriots would be rusty enough after having a bye week to affect their execution, leading to mistakes that the Texans were well-prepared to capitalize on - and they did, to the tune of 13 points off of three turnovers, not to mention the drive-extending penalties on defense and the drive-killing errors on offense.

It could have been worse, had New England not been playing the offensively challenged Texans and been matched up with a team like - well, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who bring their high-octane machine to Foxborough next Sunday night to play for the right to go to the Super Bowl, and to make that many mistakes against a team with an offense of that quality would likely turn out far differently...

...unless Lewis duplicated his positive plays, in which he accounted for three of the Patriots three touchdowns, becoming the first player in NFL history to score in the passing game, the running game and on a kick return in the same game.

"I did ok," the humbled Lewis said after the game, adding, "There are some things I could do a lot better on, like ball security - because I put my team in jeopardy...I've got a lot of work to do, and that's what most of my focus is going to be on."

It is exactly that kind of team-first mentality that makes the New England Patriots the New England Patriots.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Texans Must Play Nearly Perfect Ball To Upset Patriots' Juggernaut

The Houston Texans have been called "Patriots' South" by more than one observant writer, and a quick peek at the coaching staff quantifies the axiom - but that doesn't mean they play anything like the Juggernaut Patriots.

Since the Texans showed former head coach Gary Kubiak the door following the 2013 season, no less than five former Patriots have populated their coaching ranks, starting with the hire of former New England offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as their head coach - the caustic O'Brien bringing in former Patriots' defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell and quarterbacks coach George Godsey to man the same positions with Houston...
Patriots' power back Blount racked up 105 yards in week three

...and lining up former Patriots' players Mike Vrabel and Larry Izzo to be their linebacker's coach and Special teams coordinator, respectively, and also elevating Godsey to the office of offensive coordinator this past season.

So it goes to figure that there would be some similarities in the way the Texans are run, given the top shelf lineage from whence the powers-that-be spawned, but O'Brien has put his unique  stamp on his team to the point that only the manner in which he prepares his team - both in the classroom and the practice field - is similar to the philosophies that New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick maintains, and has maintained for the better part of two decades.

The reasons are valid.  First and foremost, the offensive personnel that he inherited from Kubiac featured smallish, agile offensive linemen, a pedestrian brood of pass catchers and hard-running but injury prone power backs. Conspicuously missing from his bag of tricks, however, are two staples of the Patriots' offense: versatile passing backs and Tom Brady.

So it goes to figure that O'Brien would be forced into an offense - and, indeed, his entire team - that is suited for the personnel that he does have, which means running the ball with authority to set up a play action, employing a timing-based passing game, then trusting in a defense inspired more by a Seattle Seahawks philosophy of aggression than the Patriots' constantly evolving scheme.

There are certain nuances missing from the equation, particularly on offense, such as an elite quarterback and a power back that looks to punish defenders - and they will be hard-pressed to win anything more than a purple heart in tournament play until they solve their deficiencies.

Though they don't employ a passing back, per se, the Texans do get some production through the air with lead back Lamar Miller and, to a lesser extent, Alfred Blue.  Neither Miller or Blue are going to scare anyone, as they both tend to avoid contact at the second level, but their proficiency at pass catching gives the Texans an advantage in that the play action is always going to be effective if a running game has been established, and Houston has the eighth-ranked ground attack in the NFL despite being more of an in-space entity.

As far as the Brady reference, he is a once in a generation talent, so the Texans would have to settle for a steady gunslinger, which is what they thought they had in prize free agent Brock Osweiler, but the return on their massive investment hasn't been what they had envisioned in Osweiler's first season. He has the potential to be a very good starting quarterback, the evidence being what we all witnessed last season when he was under center for the Broncos for a good chunk of their season...

...and also in what we've seen from him in the past couple of games, coming off the bench in relief of Tom Savage in a season-ending loss to Tennessee and in a solid start against the Oakland Raiders in the wildcard round.

That said, Osweiler doesn't match up well against the Patriots. For starters, he rarely throws to his running backs, which New England has shown a propensity to struggle defending. Instead, he looks to his monstrous tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin on shallow crossers and to his deep threats, DeAndre Hopkins and rookie Will Fuller, in the intermediate and deep zones.

Problem is, his arm to the deep sideline is shaky at best, meaning that New England's secondary can play their standard Big Nickle, the corners pinning the perimeter receivers to the sidelines while the safeties eliminate the tight ends - and all the while keep the Texans' running game in check with their athletic linebackers.

This is the very same game plan that the Patriots used against Houston earlier in the season, shutting them out in Foxborough - and should New England grab an early lead in the AFC Divisional round matchup on Saturday night, Savage is waiting on the sidelines.

At this point in their careers, Osweiler has made more headlines, but Savage may be the best option at quarterback against New England as he is steady in the pocket and won't take chances with the ball, and what the Texans really need from their offense is to protect the football, gain first downs and keep Brady on the sidelines, limiting his possessions, and therefore, his scoring opportunities.

Other than Savage getting a couple of late season starts, nothing has really changed for the Texans on offense since thier week three meeting, while New England has had tremendous turnover of personnel and have evolved into a top-10 unit, ranking 8th in total defense and a solid gold first in the NFL in points allowed, which, as everyone knows, is a compelling display of the effectiveness of the bend-but-don't-break philosophy employed by Belichick for years...

...all the while, the Houston Texans have been towards the top of the total defensive rankings, and actually ended the regular season as number one in yardage allowed, but have given up close to three touchdowns per game - a testament to their offense's propensity for turning the ball over and putting the defense in short-field situations.

If that trend continues against New England, the Texans don't stand a chance.

Turnover differential has been the bitch-kitty for Houston all season long, as they are in the bottom third of the NFL in opposition starting position, which would account for the disparity between total defense and scoring defense, but when the Texans are able to flip the script and force the opposition into more mistakes, it generally turns out well for them.

Defense is the Texans' calling card. Though they are ranked just twelfth against the run, they have overcome early-season troubles in that respect, and in the second half of the campaign have allowed just shy of 65 yards per game on the ground, far and away the best number in the league in that span, while their pass defense hasn't allowed a 300 yard passer all season.

But every defense in the league have had issues with the Patriots' offense - not so much because because their passing game is the reincarnation of the Greatest Show on Turf, nor because their newly-discovered power running game is dominating the opposition's front seven, but because of the Patriots' incredible balance.

That's right, the Patriots are winning ball games the old fashioned way, using their balance to keep the opposing defense back on their heels.

And why not?  Even with All World tight end Rob Gronkowski on the skids with a season-ending back injury, Brady still has one of the most dynamic offenses in the league - and perhaps the most versatile in franchise history. Funky free spirit Martellus Bennett is a fine fill-in for Gronkowski and is a top tight end in his own right...

...while perennial tough cover Julian Edelman is the most recognizable pass catcher on the team. But what makes the Patriots so difficult to defend in the pattern is actually a combination of he and slot man Danny Amendola taking care of the short reads, while newcomers Chris Hogan and Michael Floyd give the Patriots size and speed on the perimeter that they haven't had in nearly a decade.

Even that would be enough to task the Texans' secondary to the limit, but when you add in the three-headed Ghidorah of power back LeGarrette Blount and dynamic passing backs James White and Dion Lewis, it's just too much for defenses to handle - particularly since all of New England's receivers are capable of lining up anywhere in a spread formation.

So, how do the Texans combat such a juggernaut?

There is but one hope, and that is for their pass rush to get to Brady and force him off his mark, and to do it with just four pass rushers because Brady is at his best checking down against the blitz and finding his hot reads - and then when a team backs off to prevent the hot take, Brady will shred a secondary with his precision accuracy.

So it will take a complementary effort of the Texans' front three plus rush linebacker Whitney Mercilus getting past New England's eighth-rated offensive line to harass Brady, their fine set of run-plugging linebackers doing just that, and their equally fine secondary holding coverages on New England's pass catchers to have a shot at an upset - but it is a tall task indeed...

...as to accomplish this, they will have to get around left tackle Nate Solder and up the middle where Brady's pass protection is it's most vulnerable, they will have to fend off perhaps some of the best second level run blockers in the league in tackle Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason off the strong side and they will have to physically contain Brady's receivers.

But the key, as mentioned, is the pass rush.  If we hear the names of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Quinten Demps in abundance during the game, then we'll know that the Texans' defensive game plan has given them a chance, but if we hear Brock Osweiler's name in conjunction with interceptions or fumbles, their offense will have killed their chances.

It's a tight line to have to walk for Houston, but if they are to advance to next weekend's AFC Championship Game, they will need to be as disciplined on both sides of the ball as they have been all season - and then some.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Patriots Stomp Dolphins; Secure Top Seed, Homefield Advantage

The Miami Dolphins did what they always do.

Against the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon, the Dolphins got off to a slow start, but somehow managed to stick around and cut a three score deficit down to one early in the third quarter and had the Patriots in a third and long at their own 23 yard line, and the Miami fans in the stadium could feel the momentum shifting towards their Dolphins.

Then the Patriots did what they always do.

Julian Edelman caught a quick out from quarterback Tom Brady just across his own 30 yard line, made a quick move to the inside, eluding a weak attempt at an ankle tackle from Bacarri Rambo and split a pair of defenders who apparently thought Rambo would bring Edelman down - one of whom absorbed a savage hit from New England Patriots receiver Michael Floyd...

...a blindside job that liquefied Lippett's extremities and opened up the rest of the field for Edelman's 77 yard touchdown catch and run - Edelman saw the hit coming and even felt compelled to shift into an extra gear that he wasn't sure he had, because there wasn't much separation between him and Lippett, and Edelman didn't want any part of what was about to happen behind him.

Floyd had been working downfield, and when he saw Edelman split the defenders he took the angle toward midfield, where he collided with Lippett and left him prone and drooling on the Dolphins logo while the Patriots celebrated in the end zone.

Just like that, the score was 27-14, then 35-14 moments later as the Patriots' offense converted a seventy yard fumble return by linebacker Shea McClellin into a short LeGarrette Blount touchdown rumble, and the Patriots were headed back to Foxborough with the number one seed in the upcoming AFC playoffs, and fourteen days to prepare for their first opponent.

Floyd's posterization of Lippett was only the final act of his coming out party with the Patriots, as earlier in the game he had several key blocks in the running game, then executed a textbook in-cut to score his first touchdown for his new team, catching the ball just inside the Dolphins' ten yard line, cutting into a gaggle of defenders massed at the five, then fought his way to the end zone in an impressive display of strength.

The game was an encapsulation of how the season has gone for both teams.  For Miami, they always seemed to dig a big hole for themselves, but were able to hang around and crawl out of those holes ten times coming into Sunday's tilt with the Patriots, who always seemed to get out to fast early leads, sleepwalk into the room at halftime and stumble back out, then recover in time to score a decisive blow.

The pudding of proof  for the Dolphins lies in the fact that they have played so many one score games this season - ten of their sixteen, to be exact - that they could just as easily have been playing for a division title as playing out their string, with the latter being the more believable of the two. Four of Miami's six losses have been by more than two touchdowns, while only two of their wins have been of the same margin.

New England, on the other hand, had only four games decided by two scores or less, and were 3-1 in those games, their average margin of victory a robust 12 points despite scoring at a clip of 27.5 points per game - their lowest average points per game since the 2009 squad went for 26.5 - the 35 points scored against the Dolphins on Sunday representing their second highest point total of the season.

How they ended up winning fourteen games isn't exactly a secret, however, as the two main factors being their incredible balance in their offensive attack, and the resiliency of their defense - and both were on full display at Hard Rock Stadium.

New England opened the game with two consecutive touchdown drives, leaning heavily on the running game in each. Six of New England's 13 play calls on the first drive were handoffs to either Blount or Dion Lewis - ending in a Martellus Bennett backline score - and three of the five plays run in the second drive went to Blount exclusively, culminating in Floyd's power play - the combined 59 yards on the ground representing nearly half of the Patriots' rushing yards for the game.

In fact, the Patriots had 94 rushing yards in a first half that they dominated, and only 26 in a second half in which is was more about the defense coming up large, despite once again giving up huge chunks of yardage, only to stiffen when it mattered most.

The New England defense forced five punts on ten Miami possessions and caused two turnovers, the second of which sealed the game for the Patriots.

Following the Edelman touchdown, the teams traded punts on four consecutive series before the Dolphins got something proper started to begin the fourth quarter, driving to the New England nine yard line and threatening to shave their deficit down to a single score again - but on second and goal, safety Devin McCourty punched the ball away from Miami passing back Damien Williams...

...linebacker Shea McClellin scooping up the loose ball in the left flat and rumbling down the left sideline to set up New England's final score.

The fourteen points surrendered by the Patriots' defense lowered their league-leading points per game average to 15.6, assuring them that they will finish the season as the top scoring defense in the NFL - and they did it the way they've done it all season, shutting down the Dolphins' powerful rushing game and limiting big plays in the passing game - in essence forcing Miami to dink and dunk their way down the field, chewing clock the entire time.

Miami tried to counter the Patriots' game plan by going up-tempo, and it worked as they scored both of their touchdowns in the hurry up offense, but New England adjusted by going full shift-change in the waning moments to rotate in fresh personnel.

Now the Patriots wait, rest, heal and sharpen their technique and focus - watching to see who will be coming to Foxborough to challenge them in the Divisional round of the playoffs, with the lowest surviving seed between Houston, Oakland and Miami the candidates...