Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Patriots' 53: "Scavenger" Belichick Putting Together Roster Full Of Intrigue

Bill Belichick is football's version of a vulture.

Or at least it seems that way - mostly due to the success he's had poaching other teams' rosters for players that are being misused or underused and who have performed well in Belichick's rigidly segregated game plans. Segregated in that in his mind, every player has a specific job to do and if they just do that job, they will mesh with the other individuals on the field into one cohesive unit.

How many times have we heard him chide a player for trying to do too much, overlapping into someone else's responsibility? "Look, it's simple, guys." He bellows in one instance caught on camera during a certain championship game, "Just do your job! Don't try to make too much out of it, just do your job!"
Foster scores from 22 yards out

Some people just don't get the concept of leaving your individuality in the trunk of their cars when they go to work - but the ones that do, the ones who have a specific talent and will focus on their jobs and leave the accolades  - or the negativity - for the media to embellish are the ones that are successful, and Belichick is the master at swooping in and bringing them onboard.

It's not just veteran players, either.  A lot of people will look at Belichick's failures on draft day, especially with receivers and cornerbacks, and say that he isn't a great personnelman - and there is something to the lack of success in drafting players in those specialties - and all you really have to do is look at the projected roster below to see the evidence...

...because while a full two-thirds of his roster are players drafted or otherwise signed directly out of college by Belichick, only two of five receivers were drafted by Belichick - one being a college quarterback converted to a receiver - and just three of five corners (with two of them being undrafted free agents), he still manages to field a top offense and a top defense nearly every single season.

Same with running backs, as half of the Patriots runners are home-grown talents - in fact, besides the safety position, the roster is spotted with players brought in from other teams, and while those players rarely gain the big-time spot light, together they make up one championship team.

Does he have the makings of another title contender?

Quarterbacks:

Tom Brady
Jimmy Garoppolo

In my mind, Jacoby Brissett came into Saturday night's game on the bubble, and I'm not sure he did enough to change that.

Both Brady and Garoppolo lost floaters along the sideline that were picked off by Texans' defensive backs (though Brady's was negated because the player landed out of bounds) as they both attempted to spread the field horizontally in order to open up the middle of the field to work with their backs and tight ends, so it goes to figure that they were both pressing the issue...

...something that you wouldn't see either do in the regular season.  If there's one play that sticks out from Patriots' quarterbacks on Saturday night, it was Garoppolo hitting Austin Carr with a laser beam on an out pattern that was reminiscent of Brady's throw to Danny Amendola during the overtime period of the Super Bowl.

Not saying Garoppolo is Brady, just saying that he has the arm to make the toughest throw - as does Brissett, but his poor mechanics get in the way...

Running Backs:

James White
Mike Gillislee
Dion Lewis
Rex Burkhead
James Develin

There is a certain protocol that is followed in preseason games, so when a guy is out there with the ones, plays a few snaps and then relaxes on the bench for the rest of the night, that means he has earned his keep.

James White has earned his keep.

Rex Burkhead was with the two's and he distinguished himself, as did Dion Lewis (who really didn't need to do much), as did D.J. Foster, who makes our list of 53 with an eye-opening performance against some of the Texans' two's and mostly their three's - but the only reason he's on the list in the first place was because of the ambiguity surrounding Mike Gillislee - but since Gillislee has returned to practice, it bodes ill for Foster's chances...

Receivers:

Julian Edelman
Brandin Cooks
Chris Hogan
Malcolm Mitchell
Danny Amendola
Matthew Slater (IR Designation)

Try as they might, the undrafted free agents from this year and the holdovers from last season are not going to make a dent in this receiving corps unless an injury besets them, which is always a possibility.

Of course, last Saturday night's contest with the Texans turned out to be getting the backs involved in the passing game, so only ten total targets found the wide outs, but this coming Friday we can expect to see a far more balanced attack - albeit french vanilla - with the starters playing until at least halftime.  It would behoove fans to pay attention to who is rotated in and out with the one's, because if a bubble-dweller gets a chance with them, it means he has a chance to make the roster.

The only reason there is a chance is because of Matthew Slater's doubtful availability.  If he starts the season on the IR, maybe one of the bubblers get a shot at the 53...

Tight Ends:

Rob Gronkowski
Dwayne Allen
James O'Shaunnessey
Jacob Hollister

...but my guess is the Patriots have enough receivers, and may go heavy on tight ends, which means if Slater hits the IR, there is a possibility that Belichick keeps four of them - and O'Shaunnessey and Hollister have been getting the reps.

Offensive Tackles:

Nate Solder
Marcus Cannon
Cam Fleming
Antonio Garcia
Conor McDermott

Fleming gave the left tackle position the old college try on Saturday night, but showed that he is a far better drive blocker than a pass protector.  He did ok, but also got shoved back into the pocket by a defensive end 40 pounds lighter, and doesn't have the kick-slide to match speed.

Waddle is better on the left, as is Garcia but they are both injured - but the good news is that Solder practiced in full on Tuesday...

McDermott deserves a closer look on Friday, as he was serviceable on the right side, featuring a mean cut block and a decent kick-slide, though he allowed Garoppolo to get murdered on a screen play by not selling the pass play.

Interior Offensive Line:

Joe Thuney
Shaq Mason
David Andrews
Ted Karras

JJ Watt abused Andrews on an inside stunt early in Saturday's game, but he does that to everyone. Together, Andrews, Thuney and Mason comprise an excellent young interior that has gotten better through failure in pass protection, but can always improve - and they will the more they play together.

The depth in camp is atrocious, however, so Karras will win a roster spot simply by process of elimination.  His best spot is at center, but he can fill in at both guard spots.

Defensive Line:

Malcolm Brown
Alan Branch
Trey Flowers
Vincent Valentine
Kony Ealy
Lawrence Guy
Deatrich Wise
Adam Butler

The Patriots played a ton of three man line rotation against the Texans, and it will be interesting to see if that becomes a trend.

Flowers and Wise never saw the field, but that was due to concussion and preservation, respectively, Guy appeared to tweak something in his right leg early on, and Valentine had the trainers come out an check on him, so those are situations worth monitoring - so it was fortunate that Matt Patricia had his charges in a 3-4 to begin with.

With all of the injuries, keep an eye on third-year special teamer Geneo Grissom, who is making a push for a roster spot at defensive end despite being inactive for the game.

Linebackers:
Dont'a Hightower
Kyle Van Noy
Shea McClellin
Derek Rivers (IR - out for the season)
David Harris
Elandon Roberts
Harvey Langi

While the Patriots were working in a 3-4, Undrafted free agent  and resident Swiss Army Knife Harvey Langi took on a role normally reserved for Dont'a Hightower, as sort of a chess piece on the second level, but mostly aligning on the strong side, where injured rookie Derek Rivers had been lining up.

Langi has a puppy-like manic style that may need to be toned down a bit, as he tends to overrun gap responsibilities at times instead of holding his ground and forcing plays to the inside, but that will come with experience in the pro game.  Harris has turned out to be a Godsend for New England in the middle with Roberts constantly getting dinged up, and Van Noy has continued his strong play on the weak side.

Cornerbacks:

Stephon Gilmore
Malcolm Butler
Eric Rowe
Jonathan Jones
Cyrus Jones

The beginning of the turn around for Cyrus Jones has begun, and it's not all that surprising.  Jones tends to get down on himself and lets negative reports in the press exasperate that, but the opposite is also true, where he becomes encouraged by positives, and the way his teammates rallied around him after some decent returns in the kicking game and some solid work in coverage, they are trying to feed him all of the positivity they can muster.

In truth, this is a pattern with Jones that has followed him from High School and college where he started off with some rough outings, got down on himself, grew a huge chip on his shoulder, then broke through the crust to play some amazing football.

Safeties:

Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung
Duron Harmon
Nate Ebner
Brandon King
Damarius Travis

Jordan Richards has been getting a lot of playing time, but it isn't translating to what the Patriots need from their strong safety - mainly, good pursuit angles and steady tackling.  He looks to have bulked up over last season and maybe he can't carry the extra mass as a safety, and it would be intriguing to see his fit as a linebacker, but the time for experimentation for the third-yard player is up.

Chung, on the other hand, looks to be revitalized as a human missile in run support and has shown an awesome instinct as a trail-technique on tight ends - which is wonderful news as undrafted rookie free agent Damarius Travis isn't ready for the role yet, but looks to have the upper hand on all other comers.

Specialists: 

Joe Cardona
Ryan Allen
Stephen Gostkowski

All three are solid, though Cardona had a couple of low snaps to Allen in the punting game, one disrupting Allen's timing and nearly causing a blocked punt by the Texans.

Timing is everything in the kicking game, and angles are everything in covering kicks - and both areas need some work before the regular season starts.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Running Backs Featured For Patriots In Loss To Texans

The New England Patriots running back stable is ridiculously deep.

In fact, it's deeper than anyone thought.

Rex Burkhead shined in his Patriots' debut, hitting the hole hard in his seven carries and displaying a natural catching rhythm that will probably earn him the starting nod when the games start to count, then Dion Lewis and D. J. Foster followed up with impressive performances, but three turnovers by New England signal callers doomed New England to their second preseason loss in as many games...

...dropping a 27-23 decision to the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on Saturday in a contest that did little to clear up a convoluted depth chart at just about every position, and in some cases - particularly at running back - made the story a little more hazy.

Not from poor play, but from solid effort by all five backs that played and a breakout campaign for Foster who could find himself on the opening day roster if projected power back Mike Gillislee's hamstring lands him on the Injured List, and Brandon Bolden put himself solidly on the map with some opportunistic blasts through the middle of the Texans' run defense.

The thing about preseason games is that the game plan is usually simply to ride the waves and take advantage of each circumstance that comes along as a coaching point - heaven knows there were plenty of those in the second exhibition game for both teams - but it seemed that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick's purpose for his offense was to remain as vanilla as possible, and that means mixing the running game with the short passing game.

And that means the spotlight was squarely on his running backs.

First, it seems he wanted to see how Burkhead handled picking up the blitz in live game action, then how fluid Lewis looked a full year removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL - and he got what he needed when Burkhead stoned an aggressive stunt-blitz on linebacker Brian Cushing to allow quarterback Tom Brady a chance to step into a throw, and Lewis displayed a nice combination of power and elusiveness, planting hard and exploding into the crease.

Typically, where the Patriots' backs did most of their heavy damage was through the air, however, combining for 115 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions, though their 110 yards on the ground shouldn't be overlooked, nor should the fact that the offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels kept feeding them the ball, their 38 combined touches counting for exactly half of the plays run by the Patriots offense on the evening...

...which included just a few snaps for passing back James White, who is firmly entrenched as the Patriots' go-to guy as he played only with the first-team, then enjoyed the rest of the night watching his stable-mates go to work on the league's top-rated defense.

Quarterback Tom Brady saw his first action of the preseason, playing two series and contributing 69 yards on six completions and a touchdown before yielding to backup Jimmy Garoppolo, who played the majority of the game and had an up-and-down performance, throwing for 145 yards and a touchdown, but also suffered a strip sack and floated a throwaway along the sidelines, having it picked off in comical fashion.

Jacoby Brissett finished the game and showed much better decision-making skills than he did in the first preseason game, but still couldn't finish off a comeback for the second week in a row - and, as a matter of fact, other than the performance of the running backs and some solid work on the interior of the offensive line, the Patriots put in a relatively sloppy performance on offense.

Brady also made a poor decision on a throw to the sidelines which was originally ruled as an interception, but overturned on replay.  He recovered from his near-pick to lead the offense to their first touchdown, finding Burkhead wide open over the middle for a 22-yard pitch and catch in which the Nebraska product displayed smooth route running, soft, sure hands and enough speed to split the seam after the catch and sprint into the end zone untouched.

Garoppolo didn't get the chance to atone for his gaffe along the sidelines as he was replaced by Brissett on the next series, but did offer up an explanation.

" I avoided the D-end at first and was just trying to throw it away, but I didn't get enough on it." Garoppolo said after the game, "It was just a bad play."

Garoppolo also tried to take blame for the strip sack that gave the Texans excellent field position and led to a Houston field goal, and while it is his responsibility to protect the football, being blindsided by an unfettered linebacker has it's consequences.

"It's just my fault.  I'm the quarterback."

Garoppolo did have many more bright moments than dim ones, going 15 of 23 for 145 yards and leading the charge to the Patriots' final score, a 25-yard crosser to Foster, who showed speed and toughness, racing through the secondary after taking the short toss from Garoppolo and breaking the plane of the end zone while fighting through a big shot from safety Eddie Pleasant.

Foster may have had the most impressive night of anyone on the offense, carrying the ball six times for 23 yards and catching four balls for 52 yards and the touchdown, albeit against the second and third levels of the Texans' defense - while Bolden, normally a core special teamer, picked up 33 yards on eight stiff-looking carries.

Brissett also had the ball knocked out of his hand from behind just as he was about to fire one of his rockets into the end zone with time ticking down under one minute to play, the momentum from his throwing motion propelling the ball through the end zone for a touchback to end a Patriots comeback bid seven yards short.

Adding intrigue to the Patriots' high-class running back situation is the mystery surrounding free agent addition Mike Gillislee, whose hamstring injury suffered in OTA's has kept him from participating in practices and, obviously, from games, which is likely the reason behind the rest of the backs being focused on in Saturday night's contest...

...one in which Belichick has to be pleased with the performance of his backfield and confident that they can fulfill their role on offense as dual threats as runners and pass catchers, and may have helped him make up his mind on Gillislee's short-term future in New England.

The upside, of course, is that Belichick can safely place Gillislee on the injured-reserved list with a designation to return, meaning that he can activate the power back in the middle of November after he's had time to let the hamstring properly heal, then unleashing him with fresh legs on worn down opponents during the stretch run to the post-season - possibly opening the door for a guy like Foster to land on the roster in the interim.

When you have a running back kennel that features so much talent, you can afford to do such things.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Defensive Line, Offensive Line In Focus For Patriots Against Texans

Injuries and the natural ambiguity surrounding them makes this Saturday night's game with the Houston Texans a chance for New England Patriots' fans to see if their players in the trenches are stout enough to start the season with.

Much has been made of the depth along the defensive line since Chris Long and Jaball Sheard left in free agency, and then even more has been made of it since Rob Ninkovich retired - and now Patriots' Nation is in full-blown panic mode with the news that rookie defensive end / linebacker hybrid Derek Rivers is lost for the season with a bum knee.

Head ball coach Bill Belichick has been experimenting in joint practices with the Texans this past week, and while his Patriots recovered from a slow start on Tuesday to dominate Bill O'Brien's defense on Wednesday, a defense that is widely considered to have the best front seven in the National Football League...

...while Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense pushed around the Texans' offense in both padded practices - but to make fans feel any better in light of all of the injuries the Patriots have incurred, the lines on both sides of the ball are going to have to prove that their depth can do the job.

On the offensive side of the ball, left tackle is the major concern, with the top three candidates for the job on the shelf with various injuries - though the issue with starting left tackle Nate Solder is shrouded in mystery, as he has not been seen nor heard from outside of the facility in weeks, and given his medical history, his absence and the ambiguity surrounding it is quite disconcerting, and not just from a football perspective.

Solder's professional football career has been marred by a torn bicep that cost him almost all of 2015, during which time he also revealed that his infant son had been diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer, and that after battling testicular cancer himself the year before - and while the notion of a relapse with he or his son is pure speculation, it can not be dismissed, though we hope it's simply injury related.

Whatever the case, with Solder, Tony Garcia and LaAdrian Waddle shelved with injury, the job of Brady's blindside protector falls to Cameron Fleming.  As many already know, Fleming has played the role of the "Dime" or "Gigantor" tackle, which means that he is the sixth offensive lineman, offsetting the tight end by lining up on the weak side on the outside shoulder of the left tackle...

...and usually on running plays where teams would normally be in their "Jumbo", two or three tight end package or in the four minute offense when the team is trying to run the clock.  Infrequently, Fleming will come in on passing downs if the opposing defense is showing the propensity for loading up the blind side to come after the quarterback, and he's seen limited success in that role.

The problem is, however, that Fleming is a natural right tackle, a powerful run blocker who wins in pass protection with a vicious initial punch to push the strong side rusher wide of the pocket - it's a different dynamic from playing on the blindside, and although he registered some wins over Texans' beastly rush end Jadeveon Clowney in joint practices, it will be interesting to see how he does in a real game circumstance.

We should also see rookie sixth-round pick Conor McDermott, who manned the blindside at UCLA for the past three seasons, and who was competent against average competition, but was truly dominated against the likes of Texas A&M's Myles Garrett - and while that is not uncommon (Garrett was the first pick in the NFL Draft for a reason), the way he dominated McDermott was the cause for concern.

Garrett initially put him on skates with his bull rush, pushing him right back into the pocket and moving the quarterback off his mark consistently, then after he had sapped McDermott's energy and will, Garrett put on a clinic for winning with speed - which was a little surprising since McDermott's calling card in pass protection is his agility in the his slide-step.

Clowney presents a similar skill set to that of Garrett, so if neither Fleming nor McDermott can keep Clowny off of Brady, not only will we see Garoppolo sooner than expected, but we may see a free agent tackle or two in camp next week to add other options.

On the opposite side, right tackle Marcus Cannon seems to have picked up where his 2016 All Pro season left off, stoning a fresh JJ Watt in practice several times and seems prepared to build upon his breakout season, while the interior of the Patriots' line appears to be taking the same course.

All of that said, Belichick and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia couldn't ask for a better test for their offensive line, and we should see the entire starting unit in the game until at least halftime to take advantage of the opportunity to line up against the best in the business.

On defense, the fan base has been saturated by news of defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid Derek Rivers tearing his ACL and being lost for the season - and while no injury is good, we should collectively pump the brakes on the doom and gloom being forecast for the Patriots' defensive line for 2017...

...at least until we see how that remaining players on the depth chart perform this evening against the Texans.

But the ruckus caused in the media by Rivers' injury is somewhat overblown, considering that the Patriots' third-round draft pick hasn't played an NFL regular season down, and is considered more of an off-the-line entity along the lines of what former Patriots' strong side linebacker Jamie Collins brought to the field.

Rivers is a hybrid - too small to be an effective every down defensive end in the NFL, but a perfect candidate to pose a threat as a situational pass rusher, playing in a rotation that takes advantage of certain skill sets in certain circumstances.  It's a familiar tactic deployed by Belichick to keep his players fresh for the fourth quarter and to keep the opposing offense guessing  as to who is supposed to be doing what to protect their own quarterback.

So, as much as we all would have enjoyed seeing what Rivers brings to the defense this season, and with all due respect to his skill set, it's not as if the Patriots lost a tenured veteran that was an integral and irreplaceable cog in the New England football machine.

In fact, with the manner in which Belichick builds his defense, there are few integral and irreplaceable cogs in the Patriots' front seven, with the possible exception of linebacker Dont'a Hightower. because the focus is always on the team, as a collective, and the players are part of the roster because they can be counted on to do a specific job upwards of simple fundamentals.

That said, how do the Patriots compensate not only for Rivers' injury, but for lack of pure defensive ends on the depth chart?

They simply do what they have done since the dawn of the Belichick era, which is to morph into whatever it is they need to be - which in this case, we should see the front seven flip-flop between a 4-3 and 3-4, or perhaps the 3-3-5 Big Nickle, if Duron Harmon is suiting up for the game.

Of course, Belichick will want to limit what he is showing the rest of the world by casting a vanilla flavor over his game plan, but it will be interesting to see how all of his five-technique defensive ends - Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler in particular with Kony Ealy involved as well - function together on a three man line.

In a four man line, those five-techs would be three-tech tackles, but with Ealy, Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers being the only 4-3 defensive ends on the team with Deatrich Wise being injured as well, we should see the linebackers with a more prominent role on the pass rush...

...which is where undrafted rookie Harvey Langi comes into play, as he is also a true Hybrid in the Collins/Rivers mode, and perhaps even more of a dynamic entity than Rivers, given that he played both linebacker and defensive end at a high level in a major college program, and could be everything we were hoping Rivers could be.



Friday, August 18, 2017

Knee Injury Shelves Rivers For Season

The New England Patriots have lost their top draft pick for the season.

Rookie Derek Rivers suffered a season-ending knee injury on Wednesday in a joint practice between the Patriots and the Houston Texans.  He remained on the ground for a few minutes while being tended to by team medical staff, but arose and walked off the field under his own power, prompting optimism that the injury wasn't serious.

Turns out, it was.

As the Chicken Little crowd will tell you, the injury doesn't bode well for the depth at defensive end, especially in the wake of Rob Ninkovich's retirement along with other bumps, bruises and attitudes along the edges, but it isn't like the defending world champions have no options to fall back on.

The first option is to look at the fact that the rest of the personnel along the defensive line fit mostly into a 3-4 look to begin with, though players like Rivers, newcomer Kony Ealy and rising star Trey Flowers made it possible for the Patriots to switch fronts to a 4-3 look on a whim, particularly given the depth the team sports at linebacker...

...which is where Rivers fit anyway, as he was and is too light to consistently set the edge as an every down defensive end and is more in the Jamie Collins strong side linebacker mode, and would probably have been brought along slowly, in much the same manner as Collins was.

A quick look at the defensive depth chart shows that the Patriots are rich in five-technique ends and outside linebackers, which screams 3-4.

With true nose tackles Malcom Brown (6' 2", 320) and the like-sized Vincent Valentine able to control interior gaps, New England can flip-flop between three and four man fronts with relative ease, as five tech defensive ends Flowers (6' 2", 270), Ealy (6' 4", 275), former-Raven Lawrence Guy (6' 4", 300), rookie Deatrich Wise (6' 5", 271) and surprising undrafted free agent Adam Butler (6' 5", 300) can fill a multitude of roles.

The key to being able to transition into both lies mostly with tackle Alan Branch, anyway, as the 6' 6", 350 pound man-mountain is the team's top run-stuffer, and can do such from virtually anywhere along the line.

At linebacker lies a diverse group headlined by Dont'a Hightower, who is at his best as a weak-side interior 'backer - the same goes for Jonathan Freeny - while the "Mike" position is well-manned with veteran David Harris and second-year load Elandon Roberts.  On the outside, where Rivers really belonged, the Patriots still have depth in Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin and dynamic undrafted rookie free agent Harvey Langi...

...not to mention that the Patriots normally play in their three-safety Big Nickle alignment, where the team's strong safeties become weak side linebackers in the scheme - plenty of versatility to compete and win.

Perhaps the players with the most to gain from Rivers' injury are Langi and Adam Butler.  Langi was already headed towards a roster spot and Butler was rising quickly on the depth chart, as this offseason of attrition appears to be making the Patriots younger and younger, while still maintaining a solid veteran presence.

The second option is to scour the waiver wires and break out the rolodex to find another defensive end - and while this is a possibility, head ball coach Bill Belichick already has pieces in place to mitigate the loss, so long as health is on the upswing.

In the end, losing a player of Rivers' potential is never good, but perhaps the Patriots will be able to unearth some diamonds in the rough that will serve them well for years to come.


Monday, August 14, 2017

With Cooks, Fantasy Equals Reality

In the world of situation football, Brandin Cooks is a pawn.

When the New England Patriots traded their top draft pick to the New Orleans Saints for the three-year NFL veteran, many had visions of a sugar plumb named Randy Moss running through their heads, with the notion of a quick-strike vertical game that would render even the best cornerbacks in the league a staggering shell of themselves.
Cooks in camp with Amendola (80) and Edelman

And why not?  After all, Cook does run a sub-4.4 forty yard dash and has proven time and again that he can gain separation and outrun defenders like a gazelle running from a hungry lioness, and when you combine that kind of speed with sure hands and quick feet to win off of the line of scrimmage, there is every reason to believe that the Patriots do have the vertical game that can take the top off of any defense.

So why isn't Cooks listed on the fantasy football sites as a top ten wide receiver?

Fantasy football sites are our very best source of information on professional football players, because they weigh a player's athletic gifts and combine that with the talent around them and the overall scheme of an offense, which gives them a pretty good idea on how to project the production of  an individual player.

So it's not going to surprise anyone to hear that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are the top fantasy quarterback and tight end, respectively, in the National Football League, given that Brady leads an offense that has as much firepower as an in the game, and that Gronkowski is the biggest matchup nightmare in the pattern.

But Cooks isn't listed among them - in fact, not even in the top ten of receivers - but there are some very good reasons for that.

First of all, Cooks isn't Moss no matter how much fans want him to be.  There will probably not be another player in our lifetime with the combination of size, speed, hands and instincts that Moss possessed.  When he played with in New England, Patriots fans were treated to a showcase of everything Moss was, and is probably the only player in the world of football that could make Brady a better quarterback...

...as all Brady had to do was to put the ball up in the air and Moss would find a way to run underneath it, making the entire exchange appear effortless - as if Brady were throwing Moss open which, in essence, he was.  Many feel that just because Bob Kraft mentioned Cooks in the same breath as Randy Moss that they should expect the same production - but that's a lot to lay on a diminutive slot receiver.

Secondly, Cooks plays on a roster so loaded with skill position players that he is realistically the second or third option in the pattern, depending on the play call.

The offense revolves around Gronkowski, whose size/strength/speed ratio demands double coverage - and even then it's a crap shoot for defenders, who are reduced to going after the man-child's knees to even their odds of taking him down.  Then there's Julian Edelman, who has the quickest feet of any receiver in the game and is known league wide as the toughest cover in football...

...to take nothing away from Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell or the clutch Danny Amendola, while on some plays, Brady will go to his backs first, as James White and Dion Lewis are most dangerous passing back tandem in the league.

Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that head ball coach Bill Belichick prefers a ball-control, move-the-chains, methodical offense that grinds opposing defenses into the dirt and saps their will to compete.  In that mindset, Cooks is an entity that will more often than not be used in the slot to take advantage of his elite quickness and yards after the catch ability to move the chains.

All one has to do is look at a replay of Super Bowl 51 to see how effective that philosophy works when a team sticks to it and doesn't panic.

In fact, coming out of college. most scouts saw Cooks as a slot receiver with some utility as a boundary receiver due to his balance and uncanny ability to gain immediate separation and run away from the defender. If, however, they find themselves in a position where they need to become vertical, say at the end of the half or the end of the game where they are behind, it's nice to know that they have the capability to do so, and do it right.

So, in regard to Brandon Cooks, what fantasy football sites believe is what the reality of his situation is.

Yes, he's got speed to burn and has been lighting up camp.  Yes, he developed a bond with Brady and they are clicking.  But so has Brady and Gronkowski, Brady and Edelman, Brady and White, etc., etc., etc., but the Patriots way is about leaving your individuality locked in the trunk of your car and embracing the team.

This is not to say that Cooks won't have games where he's the main attraction, because in a game plan offense, a star is born on any given Sunday and Cooks is bound to have a tremendous impact - but how his presence impacts the team could be in any number of capacities ranging from playing catch with Brady in the intermediate zone to playing decoy to clear out the safeties for another player...

...because truth be known, to use a weapon like Cooks as just a vertical threat to take the top off a defense is limiting what he can do for any individual game plan, and is a waste of resources.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Rotation, Conditioning Hallmarks Of Success For Patriots' Defense

Being able to get off the field on third down is the goal of every National Football League defense - and with the exception of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New England Patriots were the best in football at doing just that.

During the 2016 season, Patriots' foes faced third down situations an average of 13 times per game, and converted an average of only four times - in fact, the New England defense allowed an average of only 18 first downs per game overall, also second in the league behind only the Houston Texans while allowing 338 yards per game, good for 8th in the NFL.

What really matters, however, are how many points are on the scoreboard when all is said and done, and New England allowed just 16 points per game, tops in football by a wide margin - which goes to figure since they went 17-2 and captured their second Lombardi Trophy in three years, and their fifth since the turn of the century.

Elite numbers for sure, but does all of this translate to the Patriots' defense residing in that rarefied air?  And even more important, how does the Patriots' philosophies heading into the 2017 season impact that standing?

It really doesn't matter that much that the lone full-time player that New England lost over the offseason was cornerback Logan Ryan, while role players Chris Long, Jaball Sheard, Barkevious Mingo left for more playing time elsewhere, but it does indicate a willingness among players being brought in to buy into the team philosophy of "team over individual - and that is important to remember going forward, because with the exception of the secondary, the Patriots have a policy of rotating players in and out of their front seven in an effort to keep them fresh for winning time in the fourth quarter.

It's easy to see why some players move on from New England after only a short stay, as many like and need more action than they get in a situational rotation - but don't expect Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick to move on from his philosophy of rotation and conditioning just because he lost a couple of players, because he has a very recent example of how well it works for his team...

...as his defense held the highest scoring team in the league scoreless through the majority of the second half of the Super Bowl, while his offense put up 31 unanswered points in the same time frame to claim that fifth trophy.

Why?  Because the Patriots were fresh on both sides of the ball, while the Atlanta Falcons blew their load on a furious pace that saw them go up on New England by 25 points - and they just didn't have the conditioning to keep up that pace and, unfortunately for them, they were facing another offensive juggernaut in a Tom Brady led unit.

By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the Patriots were doing practically anything they wanted against the Falcons.  In fact, from the point where Atlanta took their 25 point lead midway through the third quarter, the Patriots defense held them to just 44 yards on 16 plays.

Think about that for a second.  In the 18 games leading up to the Super Bowl, the Falcons led the league in yards per play with seven, yet a fresh New England defense held them to a paltry 2.75 yards per play, forcing three punts and a fumble in their final four possessions - but it's not as if the defense was playing particularly poorly up to that point.

For the entire game, the Falcons' offense put up only 21 points on the Patriots' defense - an additional touchdown was added to the scoreboard through a pick-six by Atlanta's Robert Alford - perhaps the biggest reason is that they couldn't covert a third down to save their lives.

That, of course, was a season-long trend in which the Falcons were essentially an all-or-nothing type of entity, running a high-octane offense that would have done very well in Canada, facing just eleven third down opportunities per game in an average on 62 plays per game, but converting just 40% of those opportunities.

But in the Super Bowl, the Falcons went 1-8 on third down, with quarterback Matt Ryan going 1-4 through the air and being sacked four times, his lone conversion a touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper to open the scoring in the second quarter - that's only a twelve percent conversion rate, far below their season average,and the reason is simple.

The New England offense is a methodical, chain-moving entity that saps the life out of opposing defenses by running nearly seventy plays per game and averaging just 5.9 yards per play, translating that into 23 first downs every game - but in this particular matchup, the Patriots ran a mind-boggling 93 plays, 37 of those resulting in first downs.

On the other hand, the Falcons score quickly, going 71 yards in five plays for their first score and 62 yards in five plays on their next possession, covering those yards in less than two minutes per possession, which means that their defense had little time to rest.  The Patriots stuck to their chain-moving methodology even down two touchdowns and went 12 plays in six-and-a-half minutes before Brady was picked off by Alford for six...

...then came back onto the field and rattled off another 11 plays in hurry-up mode to score on a field goal just before the half.  That was 23 consecutive plays that the Atlanta defense had to endure without a sustained break, and it destroyed them.

What all of this amounts to is that the Patriots philosophy is built by two factors.  First, they know that every team coming into the a game is going to give New England their best shot and, secondly, their conditioning and having players who buy into playing a role rather than wanting to be stars.

In essence, that translates to the Patriots defense absorbing and enduring their opponent's best shot, then grinding them down when they've spent their their all.

It's not fancy, but it's not meant to be.

For proof of how well the philosophy works, all one has to do is look at the teams who have the best puss rushers and best run pluggers on defense.  In 2016, of the teams that were in the top half of the league in sacks, only three, Seattle, Pittsburgh and Green Bay, made the playoffs - and the teams with the best run pluggers, only five of them made the playoffs.

New England finished in the middle of the pack in both statistics, meaning that they were steady, yet unspectacular, finishing the season eighth in total yards allowed and first in points allowed.  The Falcons? How about 27th in both yards allowed and points allowed, lending credence to the notion that their fast-paced, high-flying offense put their defense at a disadvantage, and in the end, it killed them.

To beat the Patriots, you have to beat them at their own game.

Only one team was able to do that last season, and even then it was a toss-up until the final play of the game. with the Patriots' offense unable to convert a fourth-and-goal from the Seattle Seahawks' one yard line, a Seahawks team that benefited from two New England turnovers in Seattle territory.

That's it.

For years between championship runs, the Patriots had leaned on the philosophy of having a juggernaut offense combined with a bend-but-don't-break defense, more often than not scoring enough points on offense to overcome whatever is happening on the other side of the ball, which until 2014 meant that New England was surrendering enough yards to put them in the bottom third of the league, but in the top ten in points allowed...

...but now has them in the top ten of yards surrendered as well, with Belichick leaning on his philosophy of rotation along the line to keep his big linemen fresh, along with what many players around the league consider an over-the-top conditioning program to help ensure the aforementioned freshness.

All you have to do is chat with newcomers to the team to realize how focused the Patriots are on conditioning, which ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss did recently with tight end Dwayne Allen, asking him how eye-opening the Patriots' conditioning program is.

"Very" the first year Patriot replied, "That's why we hit the hill.  That's why we do other things to make sure that we are conditioning our legs, our minds, our lungs daily.  It's just uncommon."

Allen speaks the truth when it he calls the focus on conditioning uncommon - because if it was common, the Patriots would just be ordinary - and they are anything but that.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Patriots' 53: Knee Jerk Reaction To Thursday's Loss To The Jaguars

Coaching points.

That's what the preseason is all about, putting players in certain situations and to see how they respond to them.  It's not unlike Pavlov's experimentation with conditioned response, only in football the subjects are human beings, and the ringing of a bell doesn't elicit a drooling response.

Well, maybe some drooling is involved, but that is neither here nor there in the grand scheme of football.  What does matter is that players with little or no experience in the professional game are put into actual game situations, giving the coaches a body of work from which to do things like correcting mechanical flaws, improving technique and just plain making things become routine for them.
Jacob Hollister with one of his seven catches

For every player coming out of college that makes a roster in the NFL, there are a dozen others who don't - and much of the difference comes in whether they take to coaching or not.

Players like Jordan Richards and Cyrus Jones have held onto roster spots despite no improvement in their game while players with developmental potential have been cast by the wayside in order to give the two second round draft picks the benefit of their draft position - but this year there are too many good players pushing them and if they don't show vast improvement next Saturday night against the Texans, they could find themselves on the bread lines come September.

But something that has to be remembered is that none of the Patriots starters on either side of the ball played in the game, and the gameday roster was pieced together - the result was a delay in the lineup achieving the type of cohesiveness that allows them to meld with the talents of their teammates, so some of the poor play around the roster can be attributed to that, but some of it, like what is covered in the following position sections, is all technique.

Quarterbacks:  Training camp is pretty much business as usual for Patriots' quarterbacks: Tom Brady looks in mid-season form, Jimmy Garoppolo is "struggling" and Jacoby Brissett is hot and cold.

Hearing that Garoppolo is struggling in training camp is like hearing that the sun always sets in the west - you can count on it, but sure as shooting when the guy gets into an actual game situation, he steps up and delivers.  He explained this very phenomenon a couple of weeks ago by claiming that he takes more chances in practice to put receivers in situations where he can determine such things as what their catch radius is, their willingness to go after high or low balls, etc, etc...

...which he saw plenty of on Thursday night while running for his life behind a make-shift offensive line and throwing to a gaggle of rookie receivers.  He was stuck in neutral in the first quarter while trying to find his gears, but once he did, he put on a show in the second and third quarters.

As far as Brissett is concerned, Belichick sliding past a question in regard to him in his Tuesday presser could be taken as a sign of things to come.  Usually when asked a question about a player, the Dark Master gives his usual, "He's a hard working kid, does what we ask, meow, meow, meow", but when cornered about Brissett and his development in his second camp, Belichick was unusually abrupt, even for him.

"Well, it's a work in progress." Belichick offered hastily. "We'll see."

Yikes! Well, Brissett didn't get much work in the loss to the Jaguars and, in fact, confirmed that his mechanics are still an issue, overthrowing folks badly on anything more than a dump off.  Some believe that Brissett's late entry into the game combined with his poor showing makes him camp fodder, but despite his cryptic evaluation before the game, Belichick isn't going to slice a guy from the roster over this poor outing...

...but if he struggles against the Texans with his mechanics and decision making, you could see the depth chart at quarterback look like it does below:

Tom Brady
Jimmy Garoppolo

Running Backs: Bill Belichick wants to keep the defense guessing, but he knows that he needs more than just an effective running game to complement the passing game.

To truly open up the playbook, he needs a back on the field that can run the ball with authority, willing to pick up the blitz and be a consistent threat out of the backfield in the passing game.  Gone are the days when backs were labeled as power backs or passing backs, as the only label needed for his kennel of young greyhounds is "all-purpose".

But what we saw on Thursday night was Dion Lewis and Brandon Bolden splitting some carries and undrafted rookie free agent LeShun Daniels making a few decent plays down the stretch.  One thing that was consistent with the Patriots over the years is them using their backs as vital cogs in the passing game, and Thursday night was no exception as Lewis worked the flat and D.J. Foster got some good looks over the middle.

Overall, there wasn't anything happening to cause any changes to the list of locked in backs.

James White
Mike Gillislee
Dion Lewis
Rex Burkhead
James Develin

Receivers: The Patriots receivers are a fragile bunch early in camp, with seemingly everyone plagued with one malady or another, all except, that is, for Brandin Cooks who is instead making the defensive backs sick from eating his dust.

But none of the "roster locks" played against the Jaguars, healthy or not, as Thursday night was about exposing the youngsters to the professional game - and in the process, the Patriots were able to get some good film on some prospects, especially much-hyped rookie Austin Carr, who made some dazzling plays on some rockets launched by Garoppolo.

Carr showed some veteran savvy in showing Grop his numbers in the back of the end zone, then showed his athleticism in high-pointing the ball in traffic and coming down with it for six, then pulled a Julio Jones on a toe-tapper along the home sidelines.  Not enough, mind you, to bump a veteran at this stage, but a similar performance against the Texans next Saturday could have impact on the roster.

The one thing that could introduce a youngster to the roster is the injury incurred by special teamer Matthew Slater.  If it is significant enough, Slater could be placed on the IR with a designation to return, giving a player like Carr or Devin Lucien a chance to see the regular season.

Julian Edelman
Brandin Cooks
Chris Hogan
Malcolm Mitchell
Danny Amendola
Matthew Slater (IR)
Austin Carr

Tight Ends: The only question mark for the Patriots' tight ends is whether or not they are going to keep three tight ends on the roster, and if so, who will that third one be?

Gronkowski is a given, and Brady is targeting Allen like a mad man in the scrimmages, but Thursday night was all about the race for the number three tight end, and while rookie Sam Cotton showed up well on the inline blocking mode, it was Jacob Hollister that made the big splash, displaying solid route running and a willingness to break off route and to high-point balls in traffic...

...even taking some nasty shots coming back down to earth that cost the Jaguars 30 yards in personal fouls - and while that is just football, Hollister popping right back up, going back to the huddle and performing again has to be given some serious consideration.

Rob Gronkowski
Dwayne Allen
Jacob Hollister

Offensive Tackles:  Perhaps Belichick was giving us all a lesson in appreciation for the starters on the offensive line as none of them played, leaving Cam Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle and rookie Conor McDermott to shoulder the load as bookends, the the results left us wanting Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon.

Solder, however, is dealing with some mysterious malady and has missed a sizable portion of camp, and whether it is a recurrence of his previous medical issues, be it cancer or torn bicep, the prognosis for the offensive line is not good, if last night's performance has any bearing on the situation.

Now, we don't know what Solder is dealing with, so it would be unfair to speculate, but what we do know is that if he can't go in the regular season, the job will most likely fall to rookie Antonio Garcia who has a nasty streak a mile wide - but while the other tackles had a poor night against the Jaquars pass rush, they did perform well in the running game, all except rookie Conor McDermott, who tried to cut block a would-be tackler on a running play in the first quarter and whiffed badly.

It was good thought, putting McDermott at right tackle as he is a better run blocker than a pass protector, but he did himself no favors last night.

Nate Solder
Marcus Cannon
Cam Fleming
Antonio Garcia
LaAdrien Waddle


Interior Offensive Line: Joe Thuney seems to be figuring out what his lot in football is, as he has shown up as a solid pass protector in camp - which in comparison to his well-documented struggles last season isn't saying a whole lot.  But there seems to be an edge to his game now.

We won't know for certain until he sees the field against the Texans next Saturday night when the Patriots should be starting their regulars - unless they really want Watt, Clowney and company to get free shots at their quarterbacks - and there is no better way to discover where your line is in terms of cohesiveness than going up against the best.

Joe Thuney
Shaq Mason
David Andrews
Ted Karras


Defensive Line: The Patriots have the ability to morph into anything they want, or need, to be, and the defensive line is no exception.  Who remains on the depth chart isn't so much a question as is where would they line up on each play?

At the moment, it would appear that the Universities of Texas and Arkansas are dominating the top of said depth chart, with nose tackle Malcom Brown (Texas) and defensive ends Trey Flowers and rookie Deatrich Wise (Go Hogs!) displaying excellent form, though we didn't see Brown at all last night and Wise's night ended early when he suffered a concussion taking a knee to the helmet.

The depth was atrocious otherwise, and the linebackers were forced to set the hard edge most of the night on the outside.

Malcolm Brown
Alan Branch
Trey Flowers
Vincent Valentine
Kony Ealy
Lawrence Guy
Deatrich Wise

Linebackers:  Just a few months ago, this group was considered a weak link in the defense.  Now we're trying to figure out what to do with all of the talent.

Elandon Roberts went helmet-to-helmet with someone in the middle of a scrum and had the look of a fighter on wobbly legs.  Harvey Langi filled in ably and Jonathan Freeney showed that he's not quite ready to surrender the roster spot he's held for a couple of seasons, as he an Langi were setting the edge all night long.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, the middle of their run defense was like jell-o and the Jaguars ran roughshod on them without any of their starters playing in the game - so last night certainly wasn't an indication of what we will see when the games are for real, nor did it change any minds on what the final depth chart will look like, unless injuries mount in camp.

Dont'a Hightower
Kyle Van Noy
Shea McClellin
Derek Rivers
David Harris
Elandon Roberts
Harvey Langi

Cornerbacks: Oh, what an awesome problem to have!  The Patriots sport three starting-quality corners on the 2017 roster, with second-year speedster Jonathan Jones making all kinds of waves in mincamp, taking most of the slot reps, but he also got repeatedly torched by the Jaguars, mostly on the same dig routes that he sees all the time in practice...

Butler is more than capable in the phone booth, where Cyrus Jones could also see some action, because it is becoming increasingly more obvious that Jones can not stick with receivers on the outside - in fact, Belichick used him as a safety on Thursday night, in part so that he could keep the action in front of him because as a boundary corner, he looked lost.

Gilmore and 2016 pickup Eric Rowe are taller corners and could get the call on the outside against the bigger receivers that New England is likely to see this year, though Butler will see time on the outside against the likes of Antonio Brown and Jarvis Landry.

The diversity of the cornerback corps gives Patricia many options in the Patriots' week-to-week game planning, and if either of the Joneses contribute, Gillette Stadium could easily turn into a no-fly zone...

Stephon Gilmore
Malcolm Butler
Eric Rowe
Jonathan Jones
Cyrus Jones

Safeties: There is not a better combination of safeties in the league than Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, and all three are signed to multi-year contracts - while Nate Ebner and Brandon King more than earn their bones on special teams.  The problem is that in order for the Patriots to run their preferred Big Nickel alignment (one high safety and two in the box), they need McCourty, Chung and Harmon healthy and on the field.

Injuries haven't been a huge problem, but if one of them hits the shelf, it disrupts the entire defensive philosophy, so the search is on for players who can fill in at any of those positions.  While not drafting any blue liners, Belichick did pick up Big Nickel-type defensive backs in Richmond's David Jones and Minnesota's Damarius Travis, with Travis being the versatile box safety that could potentially spell Chung.

And Travis actually accounted well for himself on Thursday night, starting the game and contributing three stops and a pass defended before being replaced by Jordan Richards, who had a night he wishes he could forget, particularly since he appeared to dislocate his wrist in the fourth quarter, forcing Belichick to use Cyrus Jones to replace him.

This means that Richards is the odd man out no matter which undrafted player remains, with Jones making his way to the practice squad...

Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung
Duron Harmon
Nate Ebner
Brandon King
Damarius Travis

Specialists: The only question here is if Stephen Gostkowski is going to rebound from his less-than-stellar 2016, when he missed several extra points, seeming to push everything to the right, which if put in terms of physics, means that he isn't striking the ball as consistently as he should be.

Some attribute that to Belichick's preference of easing up on kickoffs to force the opposition to return kicks rather that take a touchback out to the 25 yard line, perhaps throwing off his natural leg swing on field goals and extra points - but he is excellent at pinning the other guys deep on his kickoffs, so the trade off is congruent.

But against the Jaguars, "Ghost" was shaky once again, pulling a 56 yard kick that had no chance from the second it left his foot, though his kickoffs were money.

Allen is a field position weapon that has gotten the offense out of plenty of holes in his career, and is clutch when he absolutely needs to be, while Cardona's worth is in never hearing his name, which means he is spot on in his long snaps.

Joe Cardona
Ryan Allen
Stephen Gostkowski

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Big Plays, Patriots' Gaffes Help Jags to Preseason Win

All Matt Patricia could do is shield his eyes against the debacle unfolding in front of him.

Granted, it was his New England Patriots' defense's first preseason game, and hardly any of the players he had available to him had any sort of impact during last season's championship run, and most were still in college - but it goes without saying that he had to have higher expectations than what he actually got.

The bane of his existence on a warm, mid-August evening in Foxborough, Massachusetts wasn't the second and third team offensive units of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who put up most of the Jags' total yards, rather, it was his own players who gave up the chunk plays that the Patriots are usually so good at avoiding.

As a result, backup quarterback Chad Henne went 5 of 6 for 139 yards and third-year back Corey Grant carried the ball eight times for 120 yards, leading the not-as-explosive-as-the-Patriots-defense-made-them-look Jacksonville Jaguars to a 31-24 win over New England at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night...

...because if you take away the chunk plays - Henne's 97 yard bomb to rookie Keelan Cole and Grant's 79 yard touchdown run right through the heart of the Patriots' defense - their numbers were average and ordinary as Henne went 4 of 5 for a pedestrian 42 yards and Grant 7 carries for 41 yards. Even third string quarterback Brandon Allen got in on the fun, hitting rookie wide out Dede Westbrook with a 42 yard scoring strike to provide the winning margin.

Those chunk plays accounted for nearly half of Jacksonville's 447 total offense, and came at the expense of a secondary missing all of it's starters.

Both touchdown passes came with second-year corner Cyrus Jones in coverage with third-year safety Jordan Richards over the top.  Jones lost Cole in man coverage when he looked back for the ball, and didn't have the recovery speed to catch him, giving up at about the 20 yard line, then later looked as if he was releasing Westbrook to Richards in zone, but on both plays, Richards was nowhere near the play.

Even worse was safety Richards's form on Grant's touchdown rumble, buying an shoulder feign from Grant, getting turned around in the box and allowing Grant the sideline where he easily outran the entirety of the Patriots secondary.

But despite all of the issues with the defensive depth, the Patriots offense moved the ball well and matched Jacksonville score for score until a fumble by Patriots' running back D.J. Foster broke the pattern and gave the Jaguars the advantage, the only real surprise being quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo playing nearly three quarters of football before relenting to third-string passer Jacoby Brissett with less than five minutes left in the third frame.

Always the gamer, Garoppolo shined with a nearly perfect 22 for 28 performance for 238 yards and two scoring tosses while six different backs combined for 116 rushing yards on 29 carries.  Brissett went 8 of 13 for 88 yards in a little over a quarter of uneven work - not bad for an offense that, like the defense, was giving it's starters the night off in order for the coaching staff make some initial impressions of their depth players.

Two players that made immediate impressions were tight end Jacob Hollister, who flat owned the seam against a Jags' safety corps that had just as rough a night as the Patriots' blue liners did, putting up a seven catch, 116 yard stat line that was a game high for either team, while wide receiver Austin Carr hauled in five balls for 44 yards, one for a touchdown in which he elevated in the back of the end zone and came down with the tough grab.

K.J. Maye also found paydirt, taking a bubble screen from Garoppolo and showing good vision in traffic, weaving through a maze of defenders to go five yards for the score, while running back D.J. Foster found the edge on a three-yard touchdown run after previously putting the ball on the ground and ending a Patriots drive inside the red zone.

There were few bright spots on defense, though strong safety Damarius Travis had a strong game in the box, contributing three tackles and a pass defended.  The linebacking corps was the best unit on the field all evening with solid performances by veteran Jonathan Freeney, second-year load Elandon Roberts and versatile rookie Harvey Langi, all of who were flying to the ball.

The teams exchanged field goals in a measured performance for both, but after a beautiful coffin-corner punt by Ryan Allen that pinned the Jaguars inside their own five yard line, Henne went right after Jones on the first play - Cole baiting Jones to look back for the ball, then angling him off to gain separation, then taking the pass in stride and easily outdistancing Jones to the end zone.

After the next Patriots possession stalled, Ryan got off a flat punt that was returned to midfield, four plays late rookie back Leonard Fournette finding paydirt from one yard out to give the Jags a 17 - 3 lead,

Garoppolo responded on the next series, running off nine plays in less than two minutes and moving the offense 76 yards, capping off the drive with Carr's high-wire, trapeze catch in the back of the end zone to cut the Jacksonville lead to seven going into the room, then tied the score early in the third quarter on the screen to Maye.

Gordon's explosive run off left guard gave the lead right back to the Jaguars, then Allen took advantage of Foster's fumble, hooking up with Westbrook seven plays later to run the Jacksonville lead to two scores - and Foster's three yard scamper late in the game got the game close, but it couldn't make up for the turnover that ended what promised to be the tying drive earlier in the half.

Belichick is giving his charges a couple of days off to rest and recover before meeting up with the Texans for some joint practices next week leading up to the second preseason game for both next Saturday in Houston.




Patriots' Team Building Process On Full Display Against Jags

We've all heard it a thousand times.

When asked about the progress of any player at this point in the team building process, we usually get a canned response from New England Patriots head ball coach Bill Belichick, something to the effect of a combination of "He works hard", "He's a smart kid" and the ever popular, "We'll have to see."

But on Tuesday when asked about second-year quarterback Jacoby Brissett, we got something straight from the depths.

"He's a work in progress." Belichick deadpanned to the glee of bored beat writers.

When Brissett is in the game on Thursday night against the Jaguars, it will most likely be with all manner of position battles happening all over the offensive line, so we are going to be able to witness first hand if Brissett has made that essential second-year progression in regard to his mechanics.

You see, the North Carolina State alum has a penchant for throwing off his back foot when being pressured up the gut, a natural knee-jerk reaction that produces overthrows without much on them, especially up the sidelines, making them ripe for interceptions by centerfielders in the worst-case scenarios, and wasted downs in the best-case.

Thus far in camp, it's obvious that he still has the issue and has thrown the aforementioned high ball off of his back foot release and it seems as though he is trying to compensate for the poor mechanics rather than correcting them.  It will be interesting to see if Jacksonville makes it a point to pressure him up the middle to force those floaters, and also to see if they align a single-deep safety as a ball hawk to pick him off.

This is what camp and preseason are for.  Brissett has an absolute rocket for an arm when he can step into throws and does have good accuracy on the intermediate and short throws, making him an adequate short-term backup, but the issues with his mechanics make him a poor choice as a long-term fill-in, as teams would easily be able to game-plan against his weaknesses.

Needless to say, tonight's game is going to be important to his future with the team.

Other players we will be watching closely:

Dion Lewis - From all accounts the "Human Joy Stick" is back to his old elusive self, breaking ankles and causing would-be tacklers to grasp at thin air.  How much he used in the preseason - and even early in the regular season is anyone's guess, but it makes sense to limit the demure all purpose back's exposure to things that might rip his legs apart, so if he does play, we really can't expect it will be for very long.

Rex Burkhead - On the other hand, we will probably see plenty of Burkhead, who has a little bit of every type of running style known to man inside of him.  He can play the power guy, he can catch the ball, he can protect the passer - which may turn out to be a godsend to Patriots quarterbacks in the preseason - and once he's in the open field, he looks like a newborn fawn trying to find it's footing, with elbows and knees everywhere.  Regardless of how it looks, he's been effective with it in the past.

Devin Lucien - Lucien has generated plenty of press clippings the past few weeks, and now it's time to see if he's just a workout warrior or if his star rises when the bright lights come on.  You can read more about the Arizona State product here...

Jacob Hollister - The Patriots generally carry three tight ends, but the third guy is normally more of an inline blocking machine than what Hollister presents, but his receiving skills can't be ignored.  Of the candidates for the roster spot, the Wyoming product is far and away the best pass-catching prospect, but he offers little from a blocking perspective, certainly less than what the other candidates bring.

For that very reason, Hollister is going to have to bring the "Wow" factor in the preseason if he wants to make this team.

Conor McDermott - Does the athletic McDermott have the sand-in-his-pants anchor to play the blindside protector?  Either Brissett and/or Jimmy Garoppolo is going to find out on Thursday night when the UCLA product goes up against names like Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler.

Blessed with a basketball player's size and slide step, McDermott looks every bit a tight end - but one can't help noticing that he is a far more effective blocker on the move in the running game pulling into the interior on a "wham" assignment, using a killer cut block to take down rogue linebackers while his set and slide technique screams "tackle" in pass protection, he just doesn't have the anchor - or does he?

We'll probably get to see tonight...

Deatrich Wise - The Jacksonville offensive line is a hot mess everywhere except at the pivot, so the Patriots coaches should reasonably expect to see their defensive linemen dominate - but in a preseason game in which the coaches are looking at form and technique, domination is not always going to be apparent to the naked eye, nor will it necessarily show up on the stat sheet.

With Wise, who has long arms and enormous hands, he should be rag-dolling tackles early in the game with a savage initial punch, and bull rushing him back into the pocket.  Like Trey Flowers before him, Wise dominated as a defensive end at Arkansas with uncommon strength, but unlike Flowers, he's not quick-twitch so a lot will depend on his pad level as the game wears on.

If he plays into the late stages of the game and he's still stacking up tackles like cord wood, it may be an indication that the Patriots have struck gold twice in drafting hogs.

Derek Rivers - Rivers was an All American defensive end at Youngstown State, but in the pros, his best destiny is at strong-side linebacker, as his size and skill set whispers "Jamie Collins".

Rivers has been working on his pegs on both sides of the second level all through camp, and when rushing in tandem with Wise, who has worked exclusively as a down lineman, they have been nearly unblockable.  Rivers' issue is that he has zero experience as a stand-up linebacker, so the learning curve is protracted - but if his production in camp is any indication, he's well ahead of that curve.

Cyrus Jones - Naturally, everyone in the civilized world and Canada will be watching with a blood-lust to see if Jones muffs a punt or makes some sort of crazy, knee-jerk decision of some sort that will result in a turnover, but Jones seems to have regained much of his confidence on fielding kicks, so in addition to his special teams play, he will be getting some reps at corner, perhaps a bunch.

Damarius Travis - strong safety Jordan Richards is in the fight of his career for a roster spot, but every kid in the mix that gets injured makes him closer to a lock to hold on to his spot for a this season.  The only player left in his way?  Damarius Travis.

Travis is an undrafted box safety with a reputation for going after the big hit, eschewing proper wrap-up technique required for run support.  He also is reported to have issues with handling tight ends on seam routes, which belies his extraordinary height (6' 2") for the position.  That said, we'll be looking to see if the Jaguars can cause those deficiencies to manifest, of if he has taken to professional coaching.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Lucien Turning Heads At Camp, But Does It Translate To A Roster Spot?

Devin Lucien left UCLA for Arizona State because he wasn't getting enough playing time to attract the attention of NFL Scouts - and while that turned out to be a fortuitous decision on his part with the resultant notice having been received, now Lucien may be attracting too much attention...

Which is going to make life difficult for the New England Patriots, though in this particular context, it's a "high class problem" to have, as team owner Bob Kraft would say.

With bumps and bruises taking their tool on the Patriots' receiving corps, Lucien is making the most of the increase in targets that he's receiving in training camp, consistently squaring up in his route progressions, making the tough - and oftentimes spectacular catch - and generally just being available, which is high on head ball coach Bill Belichick's list of positive attributes as a player.

Perhaps having one of the more impressive camps thus far, along with names like Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Garcia on offense, the 6' 2", 200 pounder has put himself squarely in the sites of the powers that be, and if his impressive play spills over onto the field in preseason, he will make cutdown day less than a month from now very interesting...

...interesting in that he has forced his way into the conversation for a position on the depth chart that was previously pretty much cut-and-dried, with an impressive list of the speedy Cooks, tall boundary guys in Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell and the tough as nails garden gnomes in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola - not to mention the plethora of other pass catching options on a stacked roster.

So, the Patriots don't need Lucien, but if they cut him and expose him to waivers, you can bet the farm that he's gained enough attention around the league that someone is going to give him his shot at a regular season roster, and the chances of him reverting to the practice squad are slim-to-none.

Of course, there's still plenty of camp left, and even though they've had seven padded practices with some heavy contact and a few hurt feels, it's safe to say Lucien has piqued the interest of the media, but what about the coaching staff?

"He knows the offense better." Belichick said, tongue partially buried in cheek and just before he went on his first real Belichickian screed of the season about the media being better talent evaluators then he, but did manage to finish his thought on Lucien before getting all worked into a froth...

..."he knows the techniques better, has trained, is in good shape, is stronger, faster, quicker , more explosive. He's definitely headed in the right direction."  And that was before the pads went on - since, he has been all of that, and more, as he keeps showing and announcing his intentions with his solid camp.

So at the risk of putting the cart in front of the horse as far as Lucien's position with the team - not to mention the incredibly deep roster that already exists - how would Bill Belichick find room for him?

If it came down to breaking through against one of the receivers, Lucien would be in trouble because the position is just too talented and too deep to drop anyone on the list - with Hogan, Cooks and Mitchell a young and talented trio on the outside and Edelman and Amendola as clutch as any receivers in the league, the only listed receiver who doesn't contribute offensively is special teams ace Matthew Slater, and barring injury, he is likely to remain the Patriots sixth option...

...though the ten-year veteran has shown some wear and tear in the recent past and is currently on the shelf with an undisclosed injury and missed three games late last season with a stinger and some lower leg issues.  It was reported that Slater spent some time in the medical tent last Thursday, emerged walking very gingerly and hasn't been seen since.

If the six-time Pro Bowl selection and four-time first-team All Pro gunner is indeed dealing with the same lower leg injury that he suffered last season, it would be a huge blow to the special teams, but also a hand engraved roster invitation not only for Lucien, but for a bevy of bubble boys that also have special teams ability.

All of that said, even if Lucien were to make the roster, how many targets would he see in such a stacked depth chart, and how many games would he even suit up for, given that every team has to declare seven players inactive each week in order to get down to the 45 player game-day limit?

Again, those are horses being put in front of the cart - but Lucien has lived through those kinds of things, hauling in just 49 passes in three years at UCLA before becoming a graduate transfer to Arizona State, where he easily surpassed his career total to that point and putting himself on NFL scouts' radars...

...turning down offers from nine different schools to play just that one season to stay close to home - and now that's he's proving to be competitive on a depth chart that no one has a realistic chance of broaching, it could be the UCLA/Arizona State thing all over again, only this time he wouldn't have a choice, he'd have to go to whatever team poached him off of the waiver wire.

And someone will, because being a tough cut of the defending Super Bowl Champions with a veteran roster loaded for bear means only that they just couldn't find room for a 6' 2" youngster with tremendous upside - a "high class problem", and one that becomes a boon for another team...


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Cutler A Dolphin: Impact On New England Is Negligible

Ian Rappaport is reporting that the Miami Dolphins have reached a contract agreement with retired NFL quarterback Jay Cutler, a move that impacts the New England Patriots in a couple of different ways.

First, it means that Miami's regular starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill is done for the season, but the Dolphins organization is in full panic mode, thinking they are just going to waste all of the talent that they've acquired over the past couple of years by going into battle with Tannehill's long-time backup Matt Moore.

Moore is a capable backup, and could very well have led Miami to a playoff berth as he did down the stretch in 2016 before taking a savage beating in their wildcard game loss to Pittsburgh - but even in that game he was having his way with the Steeler's secondary before linebacker Bud Dupree likely concussed him with a helmet-to-helmet hit just before halftime.

Moore apparently passed the Dolphins' concussion protocol but wasn't the same after the hit, throwing a pick and losing two fumbles that doomed Miami's chances, a performance that prompted the league to issue a warning to the franchise that they need to get onboard with the protocol.

But despite the performance in the last four regular season games and the first half against Pittsburgh in the playoffs, the Dolphins opted to bring in Cutler, reasoning that he knows head coach Adam Gase's offense, an offense that plays to the strength of his skill set, that being boundary throws to taller receivers - of which Miami has several - seam throws to tight ends and dump-offs to backs in the flat.

It's a run-and-screen form of the Erhardt-Perkins offense that Gase encountered as a wide receiver's coach under Josh McDaniels in Denver and which he brought to Chicago as their offensive coordinator and now to Miami as their head coach, the advantage of which is to draw the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage to open up the mid-range options in a ball-control scheme that concentrates on moving the chains.

Under Gase as the Bears' offensive coordinator, Cutler enjoyed perhaps his finest statistical season as a professional quarterback, setting career highs for efficiency (completing 65% of his throws), and for quarterback rating (92.3), and cut his interceptions to a career-low average per pass attempt - but what matters for the Dolphins, as well as teams defending against them, is that Cutler is tailor made for the run-and-screen offense while Tannehill struggles in it.

In Cutler, Gase gets a guy that excels in the short-passing, ball-control offense and can make all of the throws required of an NFL quarterback and is deadly accurate on the short-to-intermediate throws, while Tannehill was often indecisive when going over the middle and frequently made off-target throws that put his receivers in harms way, not to mention that Tannehill was quick to pull the ball down and scramble instead of going through his progressions.

The second impact comes in the aforementioned Josh McDaniels factor, which provides Cutler with additional motivation to perform well against the Patriots.

When McDaniels was hired by the Broncos as their head coach in 2008, the first thing he did was to alienate Cutler by engaging in talks with Tampa Bay involving a three-team trade that also involved New England which, had it gone through, would have sent Cutler to the Buccaneers, Patriots' quarterback Matt Cassell to Denver and to the Patriots, a first round draft pick.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Lions had entered the fray and made an offer to the Broncos for Cutler and a similar offer the New England for Cassell - all deals fell off the table when Belichick traded Cassell to the Kansas City Chiefs, but while it was widely reported that the Bucs and Lions approached the Broncos and not the other way around, Cutler became incensed that McDaniels would even entertain the notion of a trade.

In a classic case of over-reaction, Cutler put his Denver home on the market and immediately requested a trade, saying that the relationship between he and the head coach was irreconcilable. Broncos' management accommodated Cutler's request and traded him to Chicago, the Bears giving Denver quarterback Kyle Orton and a couple of first-round draft picks.

The story on McDaniels became rather sordid after that contentious start, and he lasted only a year and a half in Denver.  Suffice to say that his feud with Cutler started the McDaniels tenure in Denver in the wrong way, and it spiraled into the toilet from there with claims of immaturity following scraps with his own players and those from other teams...

...while that same label followed the equally enigmatic Cutler, whose entitled behavior wore on his Bears' teammates to the point that when John Fox took over the team as the head coach in 2015, he struggled with a decision of whether to keep Cutler around, and caused former-Patriots' tight end Martellus Bennett to question Cutler's leadership skills.

So after a 2016 season in which Cutler played in just five games due to injury and indifference on the part of the Bears' coaching staff, he was released by Chicago, signing on with FOXSports as a color commentator, but has now put that career on hold to become Miami's starting quarterback.

But the true impact on New England is that the defense is built to take away the boundaries and force everything inside, so in theory the Dolphins should be easier to defend against as Cutler is more of a pocket passer compared to Tannehill, who pressured the Patriots' front seven with his scrambling ability and caused them to shadow him with a weakside linebacker or a strong safety...

...but with Cutler under center, the defense can concentrate on taking away the middle of the field and force him to the boundaries - and from what we know about him, Cutler will start trusting his arm strength more than the technique he developed on underneath routes, making a feast for New England's excellent secondary to pick off passes.

In short, it's hardly ever a positive thing for a team to lose their starting quarterback, but if Miami is getting the good Cutler who reads his progressions and takes care of the football, they can make the playoffs - but if they get the "entitled" Cutler, their season is finished.

That said, they could have gotten the same out of Matt Moore.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Eric Rowe A Valuable Chess Piece In Patriots' Secondary

Lots of football players have been able to extend their careers by switching from one position to another.

For example, how many times have we seen a veteran cornerback switch to safety in the twilight of their careers?  In fact, you may recall that former shutdown corner Darrelle Revis this summer was offering to move to safety if that would entice them to sign him.  You may also recall that New England Patriots' head ball coach and general manager Bill Belichick opined that Revis' skill set didn't translate to safety.

Many in the National Football League feel the same as Belichick, apparently, because the artist formerly known as "Revis Island" is still looking for work.  Granted, some of that may be because of the exorbitant price tag that the former All Pro carries, but most of the issue with Revis is that he has displayed a genuine degradation of skill in the past two seasons, seasons in which he slipped down the stretch with a New England team that eventually won a Super Bowl in his 2014 season...

...in fact sliding so badly that he was no better than nickle corner in that game - a trend that carried over into 2015 and by the time last season was finished, so was Revis' career.

Which is neither here nor there for the purposes of switching to safety, as what Belichick really meant is that his skill had declined to the point that he couldn't be trusted on the back end of his defense - a defense that is already manned by three of the better players on the back end in the league, of which Devin McCourty is a Pro Bowl free safety, Patrick Chung is essentially a small weakside linebacker as a strong safety and Duron Harmon is the best centerfielder in the game in the Big Nickle alignment.

Harmon, however, had ankle surgery in the offseason and hasn't been seen since the first day of training camp, adding fuel to the speculation that he may not be ready for the start of the regular season.

Good thing the Patriots have a built-in centerfielder in Eric Rowe.

Rowe is listed as a cornerback and has played the position for his first two years in the National Football league, but he also spent the first three years in his college career as a free safety, and is still becoming acclimated as a corner and looked like a seasoned veteran in the Super Bowl with tight coverage on Atlanta Falcons' All Pro wide out Julio Jones.

It was a war between Jones and Rowe, and although Jones caught the only two balls thrown his way with Rowe in his hip pocket, both were fantastic toe-draggers and one was so improbable that it will forever live in Super Bowl lore as one of the best catches in the history of the game.

The problem facing Rowe, however, is the fact that Belichick went out in free agency and plucked cornerback Stephon Gilmore away from the Bills and still managed to keep Malcolm Butler in the fold despite a messy almost-divorce between he and the team that lingered throughout the summer, culminating when Butler signed his first-round, restricted free agent tender...

...leaving Rowe seemingly high and dry as a nickle corner, since the Patriots are in the three-safety, Big Nickle formation around sixty percent of the time, which is their response to the growing trend of their foes employing receivers who are bigger and faster than they were less than a decade ago.

Rowe tried to appear unfazed by the circumstances, even telling reporters that he thought he could play the slot - and Lord knows he's got the physical makeup to do so, and with Harmon on the mend with no known timetable for return to full strength, the opportunity for Rowe to make an impact as the nickle back is front and center.

In the slot, however, is where he will meet shorter and quicker pass catchers like he did in camp on Tuesday when he tried to cover new Patriots' deep threat Brandin Cooks, whose deep speed was actually almost matched by Rowe in coverage, but Cooks' separation ability off the line gave him a step on Rowe and backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett hit Cooks for what would have been a big gainer.

Which brings up another point.  Rowe runs a 4.39 forty-yard dash, and played the sideline-to-sideline role at the University of Utah for his first three seasons with the Utes - and when combined with his elite athleticism (he placed in the top three among defensive backs in every drill at the 2015 combine) and size (6' 1", 210), he is a very valuable chess piece for Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

As a corner, he does his best work in press-man, inside technique where he can force the receiver to the outside where the boundary acts as a safety over the top, taking away ninety degrees of catch radius from the receiver, and Rowe is big enough and has good hops to take away the other 270 - while as a safety, he is the aforementioned centerfielder whose range and hitting style compares favorably to Harmon's.

For those who are initiated into Rowe's skill set, Pro Football Focus set him apart from just about every other cornerback in the league by allowing just 49.8 percent of targets against him to be completed, second in the league only to Minnesota's Xavier Rhodes, also named in the top ten list of players who made the biggest second season jumps in 2016.

So how will Eric "Death" Rowe be used in 2017?  Probably mostly as a boundary corner, but with his experienced versatility, don't be surprised to see him patrolling the blue line every now and then if Harmon can't go.

He's too talented to keep stewing on the bench.