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?


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.


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.

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