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... 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.

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