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.

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