Friday, February 24, 2017

Relaoding The Musket, Part 4 - Super Bowl A Quantification Of Patriots' Philosophies On Both Sides Of Ball

"If the enemy sees an advantage to be gained and makes no effort to secure it, the soldiers are exhausted" - Sun Tzu in The Art of War

When the Atlanta Falcons' Robert Alford intercepted New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady and returned the pick for six, many in the audience felt that the Falcons had sealed the deal and had the Patriots right where they wanted them.

Turns out, the Patriots had the Falcons right where they wanted them.

You see, despite the fact that New England tends to lean towards being pass-heavy in their approach on offense, their ultimate goal - besides outscoring the other team - is to control the clock with time-consuming and turf-eating drives, coming away with points or flipping field position out of each one, whatever it takes to either limit the number of possessions by their foe, or to make them have to go as far as possible to score.

That philosophy runs counter to everything that the pass-happy National Football League strives for, but has now added up to six consecutive appearances in the AFC Title Game and two world championships in the last three seasons - and Lord only knows if it could have been three straight titles had the Patriots not been so heavily injured going into 2015's conference championship.

This is not to say that the Patriots aren't aided by the constantly evolving rule changes that feed into the NFL's want of making the game more aesthetically pleasing to even the most casual of fan, it's just that head ball coach Bill Belichick's insistence on his players being being both fundamentally sound in their approach to the game and in superior condition to their foe sets them apart.

This goes beyond the Dark Master's criteria for selecting personnel for his team that requires a passion for the game - not just the passion that most players give lip service to in the media, but real give-it-all-you-have-in-practice passion - coupled with intelligence and versatility, all of which add up to value...

...which is why you will see Belichick cut a player loose in their prime, because when a player loses his passion, it doesn't matter how intelligent or how athletically gifted he is, his value to the collective decreases - and the Patriots' history under Belichickian rule is riddled with the bones of players who lost their value to the team.

Most of that passion directly impacts the desire to prepare for games both in the classroom and on the practice field, and incites the requisite mental toughness that combines with superior conditioning and preparation in the fourth quarter of football games, where contests are won or lost.

Like in Houston a couple of weeks ago, where Sun Tzu's passage above, in his epic work called the Art of War, came to fruition.

At halftime of the Super Bowl, the Falcons had a seemingly commanding 21-3 lead, a lead perpetuated and increased exponentially by the big play, because that's who the Falcons are - the top scoring offense in the league, led by the newly minted NFL Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year.

The problem, however, is that while the Falcons have a very effective offense, as a team they are far from efficient.  No doubt, their offense is full of explosive intensity and are capable of reaching the end zone from any position on the field and relies on downfield momentum to get them there, but that tends to cause a phenomenon known as gassing their defense, especially when facing a team, like New England, that has an offense that is as efficient as any in the league.

How efficient? The Patriots ranked third in the NFL in plays per game, calling nearly seventy per contest - a number that climbed to eighty in the post-season, an astronomical number considering that the league average falls short by twenty plays per game.  That keeps their defense on the sideline for long stretches at a time...

...and when coupled with the fact that Belichick likes to keep a rotation going with the front seven to limit the number of snaps that his heavyweights play, it keeps them fresh for the fourth quarter.  Add to that the aforementioned conditioning that Belichick puts them through, and the sum equates to a fresh, strong defense that regularly overwhelms their counterparts.

The Falcons? Not so much.

Atlanta is in the bottom five in the NFL in that category, number 27 out of thirty-two teams in plays called per game.  Not surprisingly, this corresponds to their defense wearing down in the second half as evidenced by the fact that they gave up the third-most second half points in the NFL, and the most points in the league in the fourth quarter.

So is it any surprise that the Patriots, despite being down by eighteen at the half and by twenty-five with half of the third quarter gone, were supremely confident that the game wasn't lost?

Although it goes without saying that the Patriots would rather have not had to dig out of that abysmal hole, they had to take solace in the fact that they had moved the ball well on offense, but turned the ball over in scoring position twice - the second time, Alford ran the interception back for what appeared to the naked eye as a backbreaking touchdown, but which in reality became the genesis of a series of events that doomed the Falcons.

Alford's interception came on the 15th snap of a sloth-like 52 yard drive that had eaten up six-and-a-half minutes of game clock, and after the TV timeout, the Falcons' defense was right back out on the field, absorbing 10 more snaps and surrendering a meaningless-looking field goal to take a 21-3 lead into the locker room.

But during that last possession, the Falcons' coaches desperately tried substituting with Brady running the no-huddle attack, finally calling a time out to give their guys a blow and slowing down the Patriots' momentum.  They were intimately aware of their own shortcomings

But it was too late.  Their guys were spent.

The Atlanta offense looked like they hadn't broken a sweat, and had been sitting on the sidelines for what was nearly an hour thanks to the two long New England drives and the traditional extended halftime period before hanging another seven on the Patriots to build the lead to twenty-five - until Brady took control of the game...

...leading the Patriots on four consecutive scoring drives to tie the game, grinding down the Atlanta defense with forty plays that ate up sixteen-and-a-half minutes of game clock and erased the Falcons' lead.

Conversely, the Patriots' defense, fresh from their policy of rotating their heavies and Brady's protracted wizardry. forced three punts and a fumble in the final 17 minutes of regulation, having only to stay on the field for a total of 16 plays as they worked along with the offense to take the Lombardi Trophy away from Atlanta.

The Falcons score quickly.  It's what they do, but the consequences are something that they dealt with all season long, and it came back to bite them in their collective hind parts in the Super Bowl. The Patriots, on the other hand, grind you into the ground with their methodical approach that is devoid of glitz and glitter and heavy on substance.

That substance is generated by their philosophical approach to the game.  On defense, that means to take away the opponent's top threat to New England's base, and not necessarily their "best" player - but the best way to do that sometimes isn't determined until the game starts and the coaching staff has a look at how their plan is impacting the opposing offense.

Against the Falcons, the plan was to take away their running game and to stay on top of explosive wide out Julio Jones - and they did neither in the first half, as Jones was instrumental in Atlanta's two scoring drives, catching three balls for 60 yards while the Falcons' running backs went wild on the edges, going for 80 yards on just 10 carries...

...but the Patriots adjusted in the second half, allowing only the 27-yard acrobatic sideline catch to Jones that momentarily looked like the death knell for New England, while completely shutting down Atlanta's running game, giving up just 14 yards on nine carries, lead back Devonta Freeman being stuffed for no gain or losses five different times.

The combination of the two explains why the Falcons felt compelled to pass instead of run during that crucial stretch late in the game, a stretch that led to a series of events that took the Falcons out of scoring position that could have iced the game for them.

The reason, just like every other game for New England, was because of their philosophies dictate that they take what they can get while the other team is fresh and the playing field is level - then grind them down, make slight adjustments to force them into situations where they are at a disadvantage, and feed off of their one-dimensional alternative.

The Patriots don't have many superstars, they just have incredible depth at just about every position, which allows them more latitude in play calling as the game rolls along, forcing the opposition to play into their hands.  So in reloading the musket, one can be assured that Belichick will load up on role players to promote depth, and play into their strengths.

It's called leverage, and with Belichick being an unrepentant leverage junkie, it only makes sense that his philosophies have been so successful in the past and in the present, and will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

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