Thursday, July 27, 2017

Patriots' Super Bowl Win, Active Offseason Set Stage For Continued Success On Offense

In early February of this year, the entire world saw a display of emotion that is rarely, if ever, offered from a certain coach and a certain quarterback for a certain professional football team that is otherwise universally recognized as a cold and heartless corporation that proactively fires people before they outlive their usefulness...

...yet, on the other hand, they reach out to aging veterans and offer them part-time work, but at a fraction of what they have made elsewhere.  Some may consider their tactics flippant and cheap, but in a world where success is measured not in dollars made, but in quotas reached, only the organization that manufactures one large silver trophy is considered the best of the best.

And manufacturing trophies is exactly what the New England Patriots do.
Cooks taking on Stephon Gilmore

Sometimes they reach their quota, as they have two of the past three seasons and five times in the past decade and a half, and sometimes they don't, but the thing about the Patriots is that they are always in the mix at the end, something appreciated by their fans and the aforementioned aging veteran - enough so that the phenomenon is given the moniker, the Patriots Way.

Four years ago at about this point of the summer, I wrote that the Patriots' Way doesn't mean perfection, it means doing your best and striving to reach the zenith of your profession, putting aside self-edification - be it monetarily or psychologically - and working in tandem with 52 other guys of the same mindset in order to achieve a common goal.

That mindset produces a "Us Against The World"attitude for 53 different reasons, an attitude that eschews personal gain and platitudes - which is important to understand as the Patriots open training camp in earnest on Thursday morning to start the competitive phase of the team building process, a process that has plenty going on behind the scenes.

The way that the NFL has incrementally changed rules to benefit flashy offenses to make the game more exciting - which is understandable in that it puts butts in seats to watch the games - runs against the grain in post-millennial Foxborough, and because of that, Patriots' coach Bill Belichick has initiated a renaissance of sorts.

It's not anything new, as Belichick has stayed faithful to the offensive and defensive schemes that he came to New England with, and are similar in name to the approach that the Patriots instituted under Chuck Fairbanks more than four decades ago, except instead of calling the offensive blueprint the Erhardt-Perkins offense - a run-heavy scheme with a motto of "pass to score, run to win"...

Belichick calls the Erhardt-Perkins system, a concept-based, pass-heavy approach in which the play calls are a single word that tells the five "skill position" players what routes are to be run and where players are to line up, and then adjusted at the line of scrimmage through, again, one-word verbiage or hand signals, which sets in motion a series of resets to manufacture mismatches against the defense.

With the base call and the options that Brady has at his disposal to adjust at the line, there are literally dozens of different formation options that just one word can conjure.  Those who watched the way that the Patriots' offense dismantled the Atlanta Falcons' defense in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl witnessed the concept system running at max efficiency...

...working quickly down the field with deliberate intent, moving the chains in 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back) with a short rotation of wide receivers Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and rookie Malcolm Mitchell, so that when the Patriots made a personnel change, it was just to rotate Amendola and Mitchell.

Brady and the New England offense didn't miss a beat, as tight end Martellus Bennett and running back James White took turns picking up rogue blitzers to give Brady time to find his guys down the field - but when either of them found themselves with the ball, it was pure magic.

Down 28-3 midway through the third quarter, the Patriots produced a full game's worth of yardage and points in the space of about 20 minutes, yet their longest play was just a 25 yard safety valve to Bennett on the right sideline. In that span, the Patriots ran 49 plays and ground out an unbelievable 19 first downs - and before you knew what had happened, the Patriots had put up 31 unanswered points to win the title.

It happens in spurts like that for New England.

What we'll be paying close attention to on offense, and some initial observations:

Conor McDermott vs. The Field

A former "Mr. Basketball" in his home state of Tennessee and was a finalist for the McDonald's All American team as a high school senior, but chose football as his one true path to professional sports and went to UCLA after spending a year in a prep school while healing from a separated shoulder.

McDermott is essentially the same size as left tackle Nate Solder at a gigantic 6 ' 8" and 310 pounds and with his basketball background has a type of slide-step and power-to-the-hoop athleticism that has to have line coach Dante Scarnecchia licking his chops in anticipation of turning the kid into a pro.

Many feel that he needs a redshirt year in 2017, working closely with the strength and conditioning staff, but the team has to be hoping that he shows signs of being ready to contribute rather than expose him to waivers on the way to the practice squad, because with his athleticism, he'll probably not clear waivers and the Patriots would lose him.

Fellow rookie tackle Antonio Garcia also has a big-time basketball background, and also needs time to turn into a profession, but his nastiness and tenacity often overcomes his size limitations (6' 6", 300) and his lack of a heavy anchor.  The ideal situation for New England would be for both of them to serve as swing tackles for the season.

More than at camp, their tests will come with major playing time in the preseason

Brandin Cooks' route tree

If the first day of camp is any indication at all, Cooks has integrated himself into the Patriots way of doing things and looks comfortable on the outside and in the slot.  Brady hit the speedster for a 30 yard score against double coverage and scored again on an end around, displaying plenty of speed on both.

The biggest worry that Patriots' fans have to have when a new pass catcher comes in is whether or not they can pick up the nuances of the concept-based offense, as many have washed out - but Cooks seems to be on the same page at this point in his development, which is testament to his intelligence and work ethic.

Expect to see him all over the formation, as he has said that his best destiny includes working from the slot, which is where he made the majority of his bones in college.

Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead rotation

While we won't be able to see the backs in all their glory until pads go on this Saturday, Gillislee showed nice burst through the hole and good hands out of the backfield, as did Burkhead.  Dion Lewis surprised a bit with his electric, video game like moves in the return game...

...we'll come back to this subject on Saturday.

No kid gloves for Gronkowski, but focus on Allen

Rob Gronkowski may be 100% for the first time in years after missing most of last season after having surgery to repair a disc in his back, but don't expect to see Belichick take it easy on Gronkowski, though some well-placed "Gronk Days" could be in the offing when the monstrous man-child takes some time to repair.

So the focus will be on newcomer Dwayne Allen, who has the opportunity to make Belichick's job a lot easier at cutdown day with a solid camp.  Allen is known for his ability to shield off defenders and for his soft hands, but has struggled in OTA's and minicamp with both.

It could be that Allen is dealing with a confidence issue after losing his job in Indianapolis to undrafted free agent Jack Doyle midway through last season, so don't be surprised to see all of the Patriots quarterbacks test him early and often in an attempt to build up his confidence.  He's not going to be cut - not with a dead money hit of $4.5 million hanging on him, so the Patriots have a lot to lose if they can't build this cat up.

But on the first day of camp, Allen showed no signs of the hands of stone that he displayed in OTA's and mincamp - an excellent sign, as having a complementary talent to offset Gronkowski means just one more way for the Patriots to expose opposing defenses.

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