Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Replacing Edelman: Next Man Up Should Read "Next Men Up"...

When the New England Patriots signed unrestricted free agent Danny Amendola away from the then-St. Louis Rams, the idea was to replace an increasingly garrulous Wes Welker, though that spot in the offense was instead overtaken by Julian Edelman.

Edelman, a former 2009 seventh-round draft pick who had played quarterback for Kent State, had been on the upswing in the season leading up to Welker's departure - and as the story goes, and as is caught on mic'd up video after Edelman scored on a weaving punt return,  prompting Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick to ask Welker if he had ever heard of a baseball player named Wally Pipp.

Belichick ambled up to Welker after the score and when he asked Welker about Pipp, he shook his head and replied that he didn't.

It is important to note that Welker wasn't playing that day because he told the trainers that he didn't feel well, yet he was all over the sidelines, chatting it up with teammates during a contest with the Philadelphia Eagles, and when Belichick caught up with him, he was obviously feeling a lot better.

"Wally Pipp played first base before Lou Gehrig" Belichick grinned without recounting the fact that Pipp went to team trainers for a couple of aspirin for a headache, and asked to be left out of the New York Yankees' lineup one afternoon, and the trainer responded for him to go ahead and take the day off and "let's give that kid Gehrig a shot today.". then Yankees manager Miller Huggins inserted Gehrig into the lineup and the rest, as they say is history.

Pipp was waived after that season, but Welker remained on the Patriots as an elite slot receiver for another three seasons, but what Belichick said to him on the sidelines began a volatile and contentious relationship between he and Welker.

"That might be a punt return story" Belichick continued with Welker on the sidelines after Edelman's return for the touchdown in reference to the Pipp/Gehrig tale, to which Welker replied, "Hey he can have it, man."

Belichick shook his head sadly then bellowed sarcastically, "Way to compete, way to compete."

So when Welker's contract came up for renewal, Belichick was never going to allow that to happen as he had Amendola in town on the night before the start of free agency, poised to take a physical and sign a contract once 4:00pm rolled around.

The moral to the story? Availability, dependability and effort are everything to Belichick, so when the start of the 2013 season started for the Patriots in Buffalo and Amendola suffered a complete tear of his adductor muscle just minutes into the game, Edelman took his place and the rest, as they say (again), is history.

The tables have turned in 2017, with Edelman suffering a complete tear of his ACL, while Amendola is completely healthy for the first time in four seasons in Foxborough.

Amendola's extensive injury history is actually more a matter of the way he has performed his job than anything else, which was with reckless abandon and having little regard for his own safety - but Amendola has mellowed with age and experience and as a result of the adductor tear, which lingered for three years as he had surgery to repair the tear and afterwards he and team had to manage recovery time with part-time action.

But if Amendola is completely healthy and if he's learned to play the game in a more measured and thoughtful way, would he be able to replace Edelman the way he was originally signed to replace Wally Pipp - er, um, Wes Welker?

To answer that question righteously, we need to explore Amendola's medical history.

In 2011, which was his third season in the league, Amendola tore his triceps in the season opener and was lost for the entire season. and then in 2012 he dislocated his clavicle, which nearly killed him as the bone went inward instead of outward, narrowly avoiding his aorta - and then came the groin tear in the 2013 season opener with the Patriots.

As most of his injury history suggests issues with his muscles tearing, it would make sense that part of managing Amendola and preserving his health lies in the training staff keeping his muscles loose and with extended stretching before any competitive activity - and particularly at the start of a season - because when healthy and playing, Amendola is just as capable as Edelman of being the go-to guy when the Patriots really need a play.

And in that respect, Amendola is as clutch as they come - and especially when the moment is biggest and lights are the brightest.

The most recent example of this came last season, when Amendola caught 23 balls for 243 yards (10.6 yards per catch) which, if taken at face value doesn't seem like much, but when you consider that of his 23 catches, nine went for a first down and four went for a touchdown, that presents the fact that 57% of the time that Amendola caught a ball, it either moved the chains or put points on the board...

...but in the playoffs, and in particularly the Super Bowl, when Amendola caught eight balls for 78 yards, a touchdown, the game-tying two point conversion and three first downs - one of those on a critical fourth down conversion on the Patriots' first touchdown drive -  it becomes clear that Amendola and Edelman are cut from the same cloth.

The fact that the Patriots use Amendola mostly in have-to-have-it situations speaks volumes as to his dependability and the chemistry he has with quarterback Tom Brady - and with that said and being undeniable, how exactly does Amendola fit into the equation for buffering the loss of Edelman's production?

With the amount of talent on the pass catching depth charts in New England, he certainly will not have to do it alone, but it goes without saying that Brady and the coaching staff trust Amendola implicitly - but as they proved last season, they also trust Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Rob Gronkowski, and now have former New Orleans speedster Brandin Cooks in the fold.

A very impressive list, indeed, so it's not beyond the realm of imagination that Amendola will continue his role as a late-down specialist and perhaps see an uptick in his overall production which could rival his 2015 season when he hauled in 65 balls - almost triple what he caught in 2016.

But as mentioned before, the burden for replacing Edelman's production doesn't lie solely with Amendola and, truthfully, the players that could truly take on a lot of the burden of filling Edelman's shoes in 2017 are running backs James White and Dion Lewis.

Very quietly and certainly under the radar, White put together the best receiving year for a Patriots' back in the history of the franchise, catching 60 balls - two more than Kevin Faulk did in 2008 and one more than Shane Vereen in 2014 - for 551 yards and five scores, then added 18 receptions for 137 yards and two more touchdowns, giving him 78 receptions for nearly 700 yards and seven scores...

...while Lewis looks to be his old self again like he was in 2015 before tearing his ACL.  That season he caught an astounding 36 balls in seven games for 388 yards and two touchdowns - which would have averaged out to 82 balls for 900 yards.

Of course, this is all speculation.  Perhaps the offense falls apart like it did at the end of 2015 when the Patriots entered the post-season with a still-gimpy trio of Edelman, Amendola and Gronkowski and with no running game to speak of and Brady takes a retirement-inducing flogging from opposing defenses - or maybe everyone stays healthy and the Patriots become a 2007-esque juggernaut that issues the beatings to the defenses.

If the latter occurs, the players on the roster won't have to do do much more than they have already proven they can do to reach that level, as the graph above will attest.  In 2007, Brady competed 403 passes for 4,731 yards and an NFL record 50 touchdowns.

So as a team, the Patriots should be able to make up for Edelman's lost production without batting an eye otherwise.

All they have to do, is do their job.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Patriots' 53, Part 2: Defensive Personnel, Belichick, Give Us A Lesson In Alignments

So...which is it, Bill?  Is it a three-man line or a four-man line?

During the past two preseason games, the New England Patriots' defense has used a variety of what appears to be a three-man front.  On some plays, the nose tackle is lined up right on the center and two players are lined up head-to-head on the offensive tackles - and on some others, there are linebackers flanking the down linemen.

But most of the time, it has been three down linemen offset from the strong side, meaning that instead of the linemen set up in even spacing over the center and tackles where they would be responsible for covering two gaps, they shift into odd spacing with one linebacker sliding up to where one would typically find a 4-3 defensive end...

And, yes.

But if you were to ask Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick what he would label the defense he's been using, he'd tell you that labels are overrated.

"There are a lot of different alignments out there" Belichick said when tasked with the question a few years back, "You see 4-3 teams using odd spacing, you see 3-4 teams using even spacing.  You have 11 players that you can put in different positions."

What we have seen lately is a 3-4 team using odd spacing with a linebacker, typically rookie Harvey Langi, standing up at the end of the line on the strong side, which Belichick elaborated on by using an anaolgy from when he was the defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells with the New York Giants.

"Most people thought we played a 4-3 at the Giants." Belichick explained, "Lawrence Taylor did a lot more pass rushing than he did dropping into coverage, probably 80 to 90 percent of the time, he was the designated rusher on the defense. It wasn't always a pass play, but certainly in passing situations and on pass plays, he was the designated fourth rusher, which really did put us in what amounts to a 4-3."

This isn't to suggest that the rookie from BYU is anywhere close to being in the same class as one of the greatest linebackers to ever lace up a pair of cleats, it just goes to show that in the National Football League, and especially with Belichick, it's a fools errand to label anything.

That said, I have been trying to tell anyone who will listen to me that the moves that Belcihick has made this offseason - starting with the free agent deal for former Baltimore Ravens' five-tech end Lawrence Guy and ending with the drafting of Arkansas defensive end Deatrich Wise and the signing of undrafted Vanderbilt free agent Adam Butler - are directly in line with someone who is stocking up for a three man line.

What really hammers that home, however, is the depth that Belichick has accumulated at linebacker.

In signing former New York Jets' linebacker David Harris, Belichick brought in a veteran "Ted" 3-4 interior linebacker, which essentially frees up the rest of the linebacking corps to play their natural positions.  For example Shea McClellin is a natural strong-side "Sam" linebacker who can set the edge in the running game and drop into zone coverage to hammer crossers...

...while Kyle Van Noy is a natural "Mike", an interior linebacker who feeds into the gap that has been neutralized by the "Ted" and flows to the ball, and is also an excellent weak side "Will" linebacker who can cover backs curling out of the backfield.  Harvey is a wild-card who has gotten the looks at the "Jack", which is essentially a hybrid defensive end / strong side lienbacker.

But the player that makes the whole thing work is Dont'a Hightower, who can - and has - played all of those positions and will likely become a chess piece all along the front seven.  In college at Alabama, Hightower played the "Mike", the "Jack" the "Sam" and also had his hand in the dirt as a 3-4 rush end.

He can do it all, and just the fact that Pro Football Focus has named him the best blitzing linebacker in the NFL for three years running makes him a valuable chess piece indeed.

But wait, there's more: Most times, the Patriots are in a nickle look which, of course, means that they have a fifth defensive back in the alignment at the expense of either a lineman or a linebacker, but when the Patriots align in the Big Nickle - which is their three-safety look - the strong safety, usually Patrick Chung, reduces down into the box and becomes, in essence, a weak side linebacker...

...while free safety Devin McCourty helps out in coverage or even goes press-man in the double slot, leaving Duron Harmon as the "centerfielder", with sideline-to-sideline speed typical of a free safety but with the striking style of a strong safety.

In other words, just about every player on Belichick's defense is a hybrid of some sort, which means labels be damned.

"Honestly," Belichick mused about labeling alignments, "I think that's something (labeling) that's a media fabrication."

A needed fabrication, as it serves as a decades-old template from which a reporter can relay to their viewers and readers the most fundamental formations, so that they are able to conjure an image in their mind that when one of them says the team is in a 3-4, the image that comes to mind is three down linemen and four linebackers.

So, like it or not, Bill, for many to understand the sport in lay terms, things have to labeled - and then the more a person becomes familiar with the sport, they start getting more in-depth and can move away from the labels, or at least expand them to accept the possibilities that what has been taught fundamentally is, but can and does carry more than just one specific destiny.

"You teach the techniques of your defense. That is what's consistent." Belichick said in closing. "They will continue to play the same fundamental techniques as they've been teaching the entire year. I think that's what teaching defensive fundamental football is all about.  It's about fundamentals. Wherever you put the players, you've got other people in complimentary places."

Meaning, of course, that players are taught the techniques that Belichick wants them to learn, and they play those techniques no matter where they align, as the flow of the game dictates, secure in the knowledge that if you just do your job as you've been taught, and the people around you do as they've been taught, everything meshes together regardless of the label.

"It's pretty straight forward, really. It's more of techniques and fundamentals that you teach your defensive players, more than it is the 4-3 or 3-4 alignment."

Defensive Line:

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

Brown and Valentine are true nose tackles, though both have the versatility to play either gap or both and both are solid in occupying the center and a guard, allowing others to flow to the ball unimpeded while Guy and Butler can be found playing just about anywhere on the line that the alignment dictates.  Wise and Flowers are defensive ends that are able to reduce down to a three-technique (shading the outside shoulder of the guard).

But what really makes the line unique is the gargantuan presence of Branch.  Even at the ripe old age of 32, Branch is a physical freak at 6' 6' and a listed 350 pounds, and with the wingspan of a condor (35" long arms) and consistently grades out as one of the best run-pluggers in the league.

Linebackers:
Dont'a Hightower
Kyle Van Noy
Shea McClellin
David Harris
Elandon Roberts
Harvey Langi

Given Belichick's rant above, could he have planned for Hightower what he had going with Taylor on the Giants years ago?  There certainly seems to be a possibility, given the talent and depth at linebacker and the fact that the Big Nickel adds personnel to this grouping with the strong safety reducing down onto the second level.

Cornerbacks:

Stephon Gilmore
Malcolm Butler
Eric Rowe
Jonathan Jones
Cyrus Jones

Solid - all around solid group.  I had a moment where I wanted to add Justin Coleman to this list, so I wouldn't be surprised to see him on the roster in September.  Cyrus Jones is going to be crucial now that Edelman is injured, as he will have only Danny Amendola backing him up on punt returns, and with the possibility that we could see Dion Lewis as an emergency fit.

Beyond that, Gilmore and Rowe have looked awesome in the preseason, and while Butler has suffered from a case of the hiccups in the last two games, he remains a quality corner - a corner that will likely be relegated to the slot where his foot quickness and feistiness will work in covering smaller receivers on some Sundays, while still playing on the outside covering smaller receivers on the boundary.

Safeties:

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

I've personally been waiting for the team to use King as part of the Big Nickel - because he played the "Star" position while in college at Auburn, which is the weakside nickel linebacker hybrid, though with his sub 4.4 speed and special teams prowess as an angle obliterator, he could conceivably play centerfielder as well.

I saw enough of Travis to be convinced that he is an immediate upgrade over Jordan Richards as Chung's backup.


Specialists: 

Joe Cardona
Ryan Allen
Stephen Gostkowski

In watching video of Gostkowski's kicks over the past couple of years, it is clear on his misses that he changes up his leg speed on extra points, probably in response to having to do so on his kickoffs, as Belichick doesn't want to just give up twenty-five yards of field position on a touchback.  It's a good thought and usually his coverage units hold the opponents far short of the mark - so it's a matter of taking the bad with the good.

Allen is a weapon that can flip field position, as seems to do so in the most dire of situations.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Patriots' 53, Part 1: The "Losing Edelman" Edition

James White should be the biggest beneficiary of Edelman's absence...

In the New England Patriots' concept-based offense, every single player knows exactly where his teammates are supposed to be.

For the linemen, that means that they know what direction the play is going, whether or not a combination block is called for and when they can release downfield to block on screens.  For the backs in the running game, they know what direction the play is going and where to look for the cutback lanes.

That is by no means a comprehensive list, but it illustrates a point that every player has a hand in the success or failure of the unit.  It's not like the Patriots are unique in that regard, as many teams utilize a zone blocking scheme with assigned direction, downfield releases and cutback lanes, but how many of them employ a group of pass catchers who can all play in every spot along the line of scrimmage reserved for the "skill" positions?

How many of them employ tight ends that can do the same, and take their mirrors right up the seam to be the team's deep threat or cross the face of the linebackers and move the chains just as easily? How many of them employ a kennel full of running backs who can split wide , jump into the slot or remain in the backfield as elite blitz barriers?

Only the Patriots, and we're about to see why Belichick builds his team the way he does.

Make no mistake, part of Patriots' head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick's mantra is depth at every position, to the point of gleeful overindulgence.

Why? A visit back to 2015 provides us with an answer.

The 2015 season was an unmitigated disaster on the medical front for New England, losing left tackle Nate Solder in the fourth game of that season to a torn bicep, which started a string of injury that incrementally sapped the effectiveness of the offense to the point that they entered the AFC Championship game that year with names like Austin Collie running the wrong routes and Steven Jackson falling forward to pick up two yards.

Both were signed out of desperation to fill up a depth chart that looked like a triage roster from a M*A*S*H unit, and turned out to be present in spirit only.

Solder going down against the Cowboys started a slow leak to the sidelines that turned into a tsunami during the team's stretch run as receiver Julian Edelman suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot in week ten against the Giants that shelved him for the remainder of the regular season - then fell Danny Amendola, who was on-and-off  New England's active 46 for the rest of the season...

...before that, running back Dion Lewis was lost for the season with a bum knee, then tight end Rob Gronkowski took a shot to the knee against Denver that left him a shell of his usual dominant self, then running back LeGarrette Blount was lost for the season in week 12 with ligament damage in his hip.

The result is that a team that managed a 10-0 start and looked like they could run the table all the way to the Super Bowl instead went 2-4 down the stretch to lose homefield advantage to the Denver Broncos, where they would eventually lose the conference title game, ironically, on poor coaching decisions and play calling in the final moments of the game.

Edelman returned for the playoffs and Gronk was there as well, but the Broncos had Edelman wrapped up like a baby swaddled in a warm blanket for one very big reason: The Patriots had no running game to counter the passing game.

With Edelman out for an extended period and Amendola and Gronkowski nursing manageable nicks and bruises - and even with losing Lewis for the season - the Patriots' offense suffered very little in points scored per game (dropping from 34 ppg to 31) and in completion percentage (73.2 to 69.2) - and that was due to the team being able to mix in Amendola and Gronkowski in spot duty while James White started find his legs in the passing game.

But where the drop off and eventual demise of the offense occurred was when Blount was lost for the season.

Not just because it was Blount, mind you, but because Blount was their running game, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and on a pace for  1000 yard season when the injury occurred - and once he went down, the Patriots lost their ability to balance their offense.

That had an expected, yet oddly curious effect on a team known more for their passing game than their running game.  Without the threat of a running game, teams were able to load up their pass rush and come after Brady, as well as dedicate their game plans into stopping whatever receivers the Patriots could muster on a weekly basis.

Without a solid running game for the last three weeks of the season and their two playoff games, the Patriots' rushing average went from 90 yards per game and a combined average of four yards per carry to 60 yards per game, that number brought down precipitously by stout defenses in the playoffs which held New England to 2.8 yards per carry...

...and made Brady their top rusher in the post-season with nine carries for 20 yards as he ran for his life to try and keep plays alive - and that was with Edelman and Gronkowski in the lineup.

The lesson learned is that the running game is much tougher to replace than it is to replace a receiver, or even a group of receivers, because without the running game, the team becomes one-dimensional and opposing defense can then effectively neutralize the passing game.

The real kicker was, however, that Brady was somehow able to get his Patriots to within two points of going to the Super Bowl, and had it not been for errant play calling and decision making by the coaching staff, the would have won that game and gone on to meet the Carolina Panthers in the big game, whom the Broncos beat despite having a clearly washed up Peyton Manning at quarterback..

So is it any wonder that this past offseason Belichick loaded up on running backs with multiple tools in their repetoir, a delightful mix of power between the tackles and grace in the pattern?

Quarterbacks:

Tom Brady
Jimmy Garoppolo

Both Brady and Garoppolo looked and sounded somber in their post-game pressers on Friday night when asked about Edelman, but they both know how stacked this offense is - it's just when you lose a guy like Edelman who was, as Brady put it, a "Gladiator", it does take away from some of cohesion on the unit.

That aside, both are unquestioned locks on the roster, while Jacoby Brissett's time may be approaching the end.  It was curious not to see him play even one series in the third preseason game, but Belichick left us to stew in speculation.

Running Backs:

James White
Mike Gillislee
Dion Lewis
Rex Burkhead
D.J. Foster
James Develin

White showed some power in running against the Lions, trending from his running in the Super Bowl and proving that he can be an all-purpose back if called upon to do so - which is pretty much Belichick's mind-set as mentioned in the screed above.  It does the team no good to have backs with set and determined roles in the offense as it makes the offense just as one-dimensional as does not having a running game at all.

Foster makes this list for that very reason, as he is explosive out of the backfield, but also has tons of experience from being  a receiver in college.

Receivers:

Brandin Cooks
Chris Hogan
Malcolm Mitchell
Danny Amendola
Matthew Slater

Weird not seeing Edelman here.

Rumors abound about who is going to replace The Squirrel's production, but the truth of the matter is that this team is loaded down with move-the-chains playmaker types who are money when the chips are downand the lights are the brightest.  Losing Edelman hurts, yes, but just like in 2015, the team can't spend any time grieving, and must move on.

Tight Ends:

Rob Gronkowski
Dwayne Allen
Jacob Hollister

Hollister has been "inactive" for the past two games after posting a monster stat line in the first preseason game - and what exactly that means we can't be sure of until Belichick tells us.

All we can do is speculate.  We already know what Gronkowski brings to the table, and Allen showed his blocking prowess against the Lions and will contribute in the passing game.  But while those two were showing what we already know about them, James O'Shaunnessey took a step back on Friday night, whiffing on downfield blocks that took away from the effectiveness of the screen game.

Offensive Tackles:

Nate Solder
Marcus Cannon
Cam Fleming
Antonio Garcia

The depth behind Solder and Cannon is concerning in that Garcia hasn't played a down in preseason and Fleming is a matador in pass protection without help on his shoulder.  Rookie Conor McDermott loses a numbers game in this list, though this is perhaps the most volatile position on the depth chart and could swing any number of ways.  For now, let's put him on the practice squad.

Interior Offensive Line:

Joe Thuney
Shaq Mason
David Andrews
Ted Karras

Solid, solid group.  Beyond these four, however, is a festival of nothingness.  The Patriots would do well to snag some waiver wire types to plug into the practice squad, just in case of injury. Karras has improved from last season and can fill in at all three interior positions, but that's about it for depth.



Saturday, August 26, 2017

Starters Hammer Lions In Dominating Patriots' Performance

The third preseason game on the National Football League schedule is traditionally what the media has dubbed a "Dress Rehearsal" for the regular season, but don't call it that around Bill Belichick.

"I don't think you can compare this game to a regular season game, though I've heard people try to do that." the sometimes-virulent head ball coach of the New England Patriots said last year before their third preseason game. "In terms of game-planning and strategy, and what we see in the regular season compared to what we see in the third preseason game, I don't think you're in the same universe."
Chris Hogan hauls in a 32 yard TD from Brady

"We're still running our basic plays." the Dark Master continued, "Our opponents, we'd expect, would run their basic plays."

Assuming this is true, God help the rest of the NFL when the Patriots open up their playbook.

In a mere fourteen minutes of work and running their "basic" plays on offense, quarterback Tom Brady and his starting unit had their way with the Detroit Lions' top defense, scoring on four straight possessions to start the game and racing out to a 24 point lead before Belichick decided he'd shown the football world enough to scare the living bejesus out of them...

...benching Brady and the most of the starters on both sides of the ball in what eventually evolved into a come-from-behind 30-28 Patriots' victory, a last second Stephen Gostkowski field goal providing the winning margin at Ford Field in downtown Detroit on Friday evening.

So dominating and brutish were the Patriots that Lions' color commentator Chris Spielman was reduced to an exasperated bundle of cliches, spitting out sentence fragments and shooting barbs at the defense for what he termed as being a "failure to compete".

No, Chris.  That was simply what the Patriots' offense is going to do to folks this season.

Brady was white-hot, going 11 of 12 for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter, finishing his night 12 of 15 for 174 yards - yielding the reins to backup Jimmy Garoppolo late in the first half after throwing an interception in Detriot's end zone when he and dangerous wideout Chris Hogan got their signals crossed on a deep out and up route into double coverage.

The rest of Brady's throws were a clinic in precision, the only footballs to hit the ground incomplete being a drop by Brandin Cooks on a crossing route, and a drop by tight end Rob Gronkowski on what was nearly a spectacular, twisting grab up the seam on a throw in which Brady was hit from behind just as he was releasing the ball.

The second and third offensive units were just plain offensive and unable to mount any sort of threat until late in the contest once the Lions had scored 27 unanswered points, gaining just 28 yards in four possessions until Garoppolo led two fourth quarter scoring drives.

Despite the miscommunication with Brady on the interception, Hogan was unstoppable and scored on a sit-down route from seven-yards out for the first Patriots' score, then displayed terrific concentration as Brady laid a perfect spiral right into Hogan's bucket from 32 yards out and into double coverage.

Dion Lewis started the game at running back and had a rather pedestrian showing before yielding to James White, who seems to have used his solid performance in last February's Super Bowl as a confidence springboard in the running game, posting 25 yards on only four carries (6.25 yards per carry) right into the teeth of the Lions' run defense...

...while Mike Gillislee took over from there and played the remainder of the first half, getting his feet wet in the Patriots' offense by scoring from the one yard line for New England's third touchdown, converting a two-point try with a burst up the middle, then later giving the Patriots' a little breathing room from deep in their own territory, rumbling 27 yards while displaying the foot speed and vision that caused Belichick to target him in free agency.

While all of this was happening, Matt Patricia's defense bared it's teeth in earnest on Friday night, sandwiching three punts between two turnovers and allowing just 78 yards of total offense before Patricia started replacing his entire secondary and most of his front seven late in the first half.

New England's rush defense came out in force, holding the Lions' running game to a paltry 33 yards on 11 carries in the first half, with five-technique ends Alan Branch and Lawrence Guy flexing their muscles and sealing everything inside, while flushing Stafford from the pocket consistently, Branch recording the game's only sack, a one-handed "get-back-here" job, dragging Stafford down from behind.

Cornerback Malcolm Butler bounced back from a horrific showing against the Houston Texans six-days earlier by punching a ball loose from Lions' receiver Golden Tate on Detroit's first possession - leading to the Brady-to-Hogan 32 yard connection for six - and then deflected a pass that ended up in the hands of fellow-corner Eric Rowe.

For the game, Stafford posted a decent stat line of 15 of 22 for 190 yards, two touchdowns and the Rowe pick, but much of that came late in the first half and early in the second as he led consecutive scoring drives to slice New England's lead to ten points before Lions' coach Jim Caldwell pulled him in favor of Jake Ruddock in the middle of the third quarter...

...but going just 7 of 13 for 55 yards before finally finding his rhythm in the hurry-up against a three-deep zone with time winding down in the first half.

Despite the dominating performance of the starting units, not all was cheeseburgers and beer for New England, as they most likely lost receiver Julian Edelman for the season with what is believed to be a non-contact ACL tear in his right knee and the reserves on both sides of the ball looked lost for most of the second half...

...though that can be chalked up to the fact that it looked as if Belichick was using this game as a conditioning tool, particularly for his defensive line as he kept his starters in the game until the last couple of series, and they appeared to be completely spent towards the end of their time on the field.

But that is nit-picking and reaching to find things to complain about on a night that was a seeming coronation of what most fans and experts already knew: this Patriots' team is loaded on both sides of the ball, and Friday night's short, intense blitzkrieg over, around and through a decent Detroit Lions squad should have color commentators around the league grasping at straws to explain to their viewers why their team looks like they are nothing but road fodder for a Patriots' team hell-bent on trophy number six...

Friday, August 25, 2017

Cyrus Jones Speaks Out, Now Seeks To Back Up His Words

"Buy the ticket, take the ride - and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well, maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten..." - Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Cyrus Jones says he doesn't listen to the negativity that fans throw his way.

That's fortunate for him, as there has been plenty leveled at him in the 15 months that he has been a member of the New England Patriots - but for a man who in college retaliated on twitter against opponents who disrespected him just as much as a certain current President does, how can that be?

Especially since while he was in college at Alabama, he used negative tweets about him as additional motivation to become what a former fellow Crimson Tide corner described as a "shut down" corner - but only after he would respond to the nasty tweets in kind.

"What right do you have to say anything to a player that's out there doing what we do?" Jones said after the opening game of his senior season at Tuscaloosa, adding, "I can't really say what I want to say all the time."

Tide coach Nick Saban would have preferred Jones not say anything at all, preferring that his players do their talking on the field - which Jones did in that opener, returning a punt 69 yards for a touchdown and holding Mississippi State's De'Runnya Wilson to three catches for 38 pedestrian yards and slapping away a touchdown pass despite giving up seven inches to Wilson.

Quite a response to Bulldog fans who razzed him all week leading up to the game, tweeting that Wilson was going to abuse him down the field.

"I don't back down from anyone." Jones said after the game.

In 2015, Jones put himself squarely on the NFL map with a senior season in which he recorded two picks and seven passes defended despite quarterbacks throwing away from his side of the field as a matter of course.

"I really can't remember many balls that Cyrus has given up this time of the year" fellow corner Marlon Humphries said late in the 2015 season. "The quarterbacks look at him and say 'ok, I'm going to throw on him', and then he turns around and gets a pass break up or a pick - and then that side of the field is shut down the rest of the game."

But it was his electric punt returning skill that had scouts all fired up, and one of the primary reasons Patriots head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick selected Jones in the second round of the 2016 draft, thinking he had plenty of talent in his secondary to be able to bring Jones along slowly.

Things fell apart quickly for Jones, however, as he fumbled seven of the fourteen balls that he had a chance to field in the kicking game, and was so down that Belichick deactivated him for the final few games of the regular season and for all of the playoffs, causing Jones to remark that he felt like he didn't earn his Super Bowl ring.

"I'll never take credit for something that I feel I didn't contribute to." Jones was quoted saying in the Baltimore Sun. "I was part of the team, but I didn't feel part of it."

For his performance in his rookie season, Jones took a horrible beating from the Patriots' faithful, and he understands why. "What I did this year is not me. I don't care how anyone tries to sugar coat it." Jones continued, "Yes, I was a rookie, but I feel like I should be one of the best players on the field."

Jones didn't respond to the criticism on twitter, as Belichick most likely nixed his social media life after speaking to Alabama coach Nick Saban, who forbade his players to respond to insults by Ohio State players and fans prior to Alabama's playoff game at the end of Jones' senior season, and Jones still retaliated.

"Coach told us not to do it, but Cyrus did it anyway." Tide defensive back testified after that game. "I knew that he would, because that's the kind of person he is."

"Honestly, it was hell for me." Jones said of his rookie season, "I didn't feel like I deserved to be a part of anything that was happening with the team. I was embarrassed that these people probably felt that they wasted a pick on me."

"I honestly felt cursed. I reached a point where I didn't even want to play, I just didn't have it."

There were many in the media and in the fan base who took that as Jones giving up on himself - and maybe he did at that point - but Jones put to rest any of that talk by cancelling his entire itinerary for the offseason to dedicate himself to his craft, and to toughen up both in the gym and in his head.

The thing to remember when it comes to Jones is that up until three years ago, he had spent his entire football career catching balls, not swatting them away, and it wasn't until his senior season that he got much playing time at all, which means he's really only had one season of playing corner.  He knows that the learning curve is huge when faced with something like that.

But fans, sometimes they don't stop to think of the intangibles.  That is their entitlement for buying the ticket and taking the ride, but it also means that they are locked in to taking the good with the bad - but they can't turn back if things get too heavy.  That would make them fair-weather fans, which is something Jones addressed on Wednesday...

...and if his words hit a conscious nerve or two and works to offend fans, well, then that's the way things are these days, isn't it?

"I know what I play the game for. I know who I play the game for." Jones offered up in an impromptu interview at his locker, "The people out there saying this and that, that's not important to me. They're not my  teammates.  They're not my coaches. They're not my family. So, I mean, they really don't mean anything."

"They're fair-weather fans."

Do his words offend fans? Most likely, there are some - then there are some who won't like his brash demeanor, and there are some who will think he's garbage and always will be - but that's not what is happening in the locker room, and it's not what's happening on the field this preseason.  All you had to do is watch his teammate's reactions when he returned to the sidelines after a couple of promising punt returns last Saturday night...

...for which his coach offered up some praise afterwards, "I thought Cyrus did a good job in the return game" Belichick said, adding, "Ran hard, ran aggressively, made good decisions with and without the ball. I thought he did a nice job."

His teammates never gave up on him, nor did the coaches.  Certainly Jones didn't give up on himself, though he might have felt like it at points last season - and after a shaky first preseason game against Jacksonville, Jones had his best performance as a pro against the Texans and is seeking to expound upon that against the Detroit Lions on Friday night, when he hopes to continue his upward trend.

But don't expect him to be eagerly awaiting the approval of the fan base.

"All they're doing is watching, spectating, criticizing." Jones continued, "They're not Bill Belichick. They're not guys in this locker room. Those are the only people that matter when it comes to critiquing my play."

Jones' attitude smacks of a certain coach who loathes the media, and cares not what anyone says about him or his team, and Jones has that attitude down pat - and if you don't like it, that's fine with them.

Hi soliloquy echos what every professional athlete wants to say, but rarely does. Jones doesn't care what you or I think of him, he only cares what his coaches and teammates think and feel, and it's obvious that they all think highly of the second-year player.

Why? Because he has thick skin, and has brushed off opinions of his work in the media and social media and has concentrated on improving his craft - and if his words offend you or cause you to feel animosity towards him, then that's on you...

...because as a Patriots' fan, you bought your ticket and you take the ride - and if you jump off the bandwagon, well, Jones has let all of us know exactly how he feels about that. It's been building up inside him for the past year and when he finally got the opportunity to address it, he got his money's worth, and then some.

But at least he didn't take to twitter to retaliate.  That's so gauche these days..

"There is a progression of understanding vis-a-vis pro football that varies drastically with the factor of distance - physical, emotional, intellectual and every other way, which is exactly the way it should be." - Hunter S. Thompon

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