Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Patriots' Offseason Moves Confirm Tenets Of Offensive Philosophy

You can't stop them, you can only hope to contain them.

That particular axiom was made popular by ESPN's Dan Patrick during his heyday as the anchor of the network's popular nightly SportsCenter broadcasts, but it's roots go back as far as recorded time itself.  Some attribute it to Sun Tsu's Art of War, while others consider it a Machiavellian utterance and still others say it was an appropriate description of basketball's Wilt Chamberlain...

...but Sun Tsu didn't mince words like that and Machiavelli was a brutal dictator who plagiarized the Chinese general's treatise into his own twisted variant - the saying did show up in a couple of articles geared towards Chamberlain's dominance, however, but whatever the genesis of the axiom, the modern meaning is meant to describe a juggernaut in team sports.

Like the New England Patriots' offense.

The last team to stop the Patriots' offense was the Buffalo Bills last season in week four, when the Patriots started obviously injured rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, who had to endure multiple injections into his damaged thumb just to be able to grasp a football - and Brissett was filling in for an even more injured Jimmy Garoppolo, who was filling in for a suspended Tom Brady.

The last team to truly contain the New England offense was the Denver Broncos in week fifteen - working in tandem with the bitter cold and altitude, the Broncos' defense held Brady to under 200 yards passing for the only time all season, their pass rush sacking him twice and staying in his face all day long.

Only the midstream adjustment of inserting scatback Dion Lewis into the game saved the offense that managed only 16 points, and even then was aided by Broncos' turnovers for excellent field position that resulted in ten of those digits.  Lewis exposed Denver's run defense for nearly 100 yards and the Patriots' top ranked scoring defense held the Broncos to a lonely field goal.

Which proves that merely containing the Patriots' offense isn't enough, something that the Atlanta Falcons found out in the Super Bowl when they toyed with New England and stood on precedence instead of finishing them off when they had the opportunity, committing the cardinal sin of allowing Brady to hang around long enough to rip their hearts out.

Because the Patriots offense can dictate terms to any defense - usually by taking an early lead and forcing them to adjust constantly throughout the game.  Of the sixteen regular season games in 2016, New England posted the initial score fourteen times, and did so two out of three times in the postseason as well.

In fact, the Patriots were the best team in the National Football League at putting their opponents on notice the first time they had the ball, taking leads on opening drives eleven times.  For good measure, they also started the second half of games putting up crooked numbers on their initial drives eight different times and, most memorable, did so in the only overtime period they played in all season.

And when they score, it's usually in bunches. Twenty times last season the Patriots scored on back to back possessions - and as if that wasn't enough, they scored on three consecutive possessions four times, four consecutive possessions three times, and on five straight possession once, that being in their behind-the-woodshed flogging of the Bills at Buffalo, payback for the Bills aforementioned shutout with Brissett at quarterback.

For those keeping score, those numbers mean that the Patriots scored 71% of their points in bulk, a literal devastating tsunami of methodical and controlled move-the-chains football that eats up clock and crushes the will of the opposition.

One of those back-to-back-to-back-to-back occasions was in the Super Bowl, as the Patriots put up 31 unanswered points to erase a twenty-five point deficit and win the title in overtime against an Atlanta defense that simply ran out of gas midway through the third quarter and wilted like week-old lettuce in a hot dumpster.

The Falcons had the proper game plan to contain the Patriots, and two turnovers by New England put Atlanta's defense in a position to stop them completely - but, strange as it may sound, it was the second gaffe by New England, a pick six thrown by Brady to Robert Alford, that started the wilting which ultimately did the Falcons in.

With 8:48 remaining in the first half and the Falcons up by 14 points thanks to two quick-strike touchdowns from excellent field position, Brady led the Patriots on a 12-play drive that culminated in Alford's interception return for a touchdown, then New England was immediately back out on offense and initiated an 11-play drive for a field goal to make the score 21-3 at halftime...

...but lost in the euphoria was the fact that the Falcons defense was on the field for 23 consecutive plays and a grand total of 43 plays for the half, totaling 19:32 of actual game time, the turnovers and quick scores causing the Falcons' defense to wear down, then subjecting them to scoring drives of 13, 12 and 10 plays in the second half to put them in the dirt.

The point being, is that it isn't just a matter of having a good defense and a solid game plan to stop New England, it's also a matter of their offense balancing the time of possession and giving the defense time to both get their proper rest and to regroup and adjust to what Brady is doing.

Like the Patriots did to their opponents on offense last season.

Including the playoffs, New England scored 63 touchdowns and 34 field goals in 2016, averaging a mind-numbing 4:30 in actual game time for each scoring drive.  That is four-and-one-half minutes that the Patriots' defense gets to rest while Brady and company are sapping the life out of the opposing defense.

What's amazing about those numbers is that the Patriots accomplished all of this with their running backs serving one-dimensional purposes for the most part, and with their passing game without All World tight end Rob Gronkowski for the majority of the season.  Of course, New England had Martellus Bennett to somewhat fill the void left by Gronk, but the running game was what it was.

But what's even more amazing, is that the Patriots have upgraded their skill position players to the point that they could improve exponentially on all of those numbers in 2017.

How?  Well, instead of employing a power back, the Patriots went out and procured the services of two all-purpose, four-down backs in former Cincinnati Bengals pine-rider Rex Burkhead and former Buffalo Bills up-and-comer Mike Gillislee, joining White and Lewis to give New England a more dynamic, less predictable offense.

Some may see them as redundant talents - and in the way the Patriots will use them, they probably are - but in this instance, that is a wonderful thing as no matter who or how many backs are aligned in the backfield, the presence of a seemingly endless supply of multi-tool backs means that the opposing defense will have to respect the run on every play and to defend the entire field...

...something that didn't always happen in 2016, as early down back LeGarrette Blount offered very little in the passing game and passing back White offered very little on the ground, so that gave the opposing defense a little latitude in defending the Patriots offense, loading the box when Blount was in the game and loading up the pass rush when he wasn't.

Of course, adding an element of deep speed in the form of former New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks advances that philosophy even further by forcing the defense into defending the entire field, which opens up running lanes.

All of this adds up to a more efficient offense, because despite the fact that the Patriots were the third best scoring team in the league, they scored on only 43% of their possessions - embarking on 221 drives in 2016 and scoring on just 97, that means that they left points - and time - on the field, and did so with a predictable offense.

For the sake of comparison, the Falcons scored on 52% of their possessions, but to do so, they sacrificed time of possession which, in the end, did them in.

The statistic that shows the disparity between New England and Atlanta comes in the form of third down plays per game.  New England, being a ball control, move-the-chains type of offense found themselves in third down situations fifteen times per game, converting over half of those into first downs - while the Falcons limited their third down opportunities only 11 times per game, and converting just four times, on average.

That tells us that the Falcons are a quick-strike entity that struggled when faced with do-or-die scenarios while New England preferred a more methodical approach, which resulted in better production when it really counted - on third down and in the red zone - because small ball is the way the Patriots play, so it comes naturally for them to focus on minute details.

The addition of Cooks doesn't change this philosophy, despite his elite deep speed, it just makes the Patriots more difficult to defend - because like everyone else on the offense, he will be expected to line up wherever Brady identifies a mismatch.  But because he does have the aforementioned deep speed, he along with Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Rob Gronkowski give New England the ability to strike quickly if need be.

It's their choice.  The Patriots have built an offense that can spread your defense thin, then either bomb you into submission or nickle and dime you to death - so when you hear an announcer or prognosticator state that a defensive coordinator has to "pick their poison" when it comes to defending New England's offense, that should be taken literally...

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