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

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