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... 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.

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