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... 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...

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