Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Belichick's Logic Sound; Accusations Of Throwing Game Senseless

Lost in the controversy surrounding the end of the New England Patriots' overtime loss to the New York Jets - either real or contrived from the minds of paranoid conspiracy theorists - is the fact that the Patriots almost pulled that game out despite the tremendous amount of adversity loaded on the shoulders of the players.

Any other team would have mailed it in and used the injury issues as an excuse.

Yet, despite getting only 13 points from an offense that was plagued with an aversion to the yardage marker- as going just one for ten on third down conversions will attest - the Patriots forced their showdown with the Jets into overtime with a clutch drive when it mattered the most, converting two fourth down conversions along the way...

...after riding the defense for the entire game, a defense that had held the Jets' offense to one field goal and 81 yards for the final twenty minutes of regulation while scoring a touchdown themselves on a Jabaal Sheard strip sack and Jamie Collins recovery and return - forcing two three-and-outs and three punts overall in the fourth quarter.

The hot hand was most assuredly with the defense, so when overtime called and the Patriots had won the coin toss, head ball coach Bill Belichick elected to kick the ball away to the Jets to start overtime and trust his defense that had dominated the Jets in the second half to force the Jets to punt and, hopefully, flip the field position to give Brady and the offense a short field to work with to get into kicker Stephen Gostkowski's considerable field goal range.

Instead, the Jets drove down the field, going 80 yards in five plays to score the winning touchdown in a 26-20 fist fight that gave New York new life in their pursuit of the post-season while denying the Patriots an opportunity to secure homefiled advantage throughout the playoffs.

In truth, even though the Patriots defense had been dominating the Jets in the second half, the secondary had been living dangerously all game, lucking out on several throws down the field that the New York receivers either couldn't quite get a handle on, or that Jets' quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had just plain overthrown...

...but the key play in the winning drive was a result of reserve safety Tavon Wilson being rubbed into cornerback Leonard Johnson, taking him out at the knees and allowing a short pass in the left flat to receiver Quincy Enunwa to go for 48 yards, opening up a chain reaction that saw the Jets score a walk-off touchdown two plays later.

New York made the overtime drive look so effortless that many in the media and in the fan bases of several teams wondered aloud if Belichick called off the dogs and let the Jets win in order to to drive a stake into the hearts of the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose loss to the Baltimore Ravens just moments earlier severely crippled their playoff hopes.

But, why would Belichick even conjure such a thing?

Some are speculating that Belichick saw a perfect storm that would keep his team from having to deal with the offensive juggernaut of the Steelers, delivering a double whammy that gave the Jets a leg up in the race for the final playoff spot in the AFC, but there are a couple of holes in that conspiracy theory.

First, Belichick is already regarded around the league as a "Cheater", with unfortunate monikers like "Belicheat" attached to his legacy, so in accordance with maintaining public perception he needs to do his thing cleaner and better than the other guy - so a blatant episode of fixing the outcome of a game - something that could and should be considered outright cheating - would not be a prudent choice, as not even the arrogant Dark Master has the stones to pull off something so obvious.

Secondly, a loss to the Jets compounds an already fluid injury situation, as now instead of being able to rest his core players in what would have been a meaningless game against the Dolphins on Sunday, he is forced to expose them to injury if he wants his team to have homefield advantage for the AFC playoffs.

That can not be overstated, because if the Patriots had been able to win on Sunday, It is likely that after about a quarter of work in Miami this coming Sunday for Brady, it would have been the Jimmy G. show, the second year heartthrob (come on, ladies, you know it's true) running for his life behind a makeshift offensive line while the defense would have seen names like Ebner, Wilson and Bostic starting and picking up a few stats...

...while the more injured of the starters would have had a full three weeks to lick their wounds before the Patriots take the field in the divisional round of the playoffs - and with modern medicine being what it is, three weeks is enough time to heal everyone on the active roster and make them available for another Super Bowl run.

Lastly, why in the name of Woody Johnson would Belichick want to take the chance of having to face the Jets for a third time? The last time these two teams hooked up in the post-season, it didn't turn out very well for New England, and since they are natural rivals the games are usually too close for comfort.

The Steelers screwed themselves by losing to the Ravens, with Ryan Mallet (of all people) at quarterback. If Pittsburgh and their funky cold head coach Mike Tomlin don't make the playoffs, well, that's on them. The Jets beat the Patriots because they executed when it counted, and it was legit.

Or at least as legit as it could be given the Patriots' injury situation, which grows exponentially every week and has left New England's offense a shell of itself - and even though the team follows the mantra that they don't use injury as an excuse for losing or for poor play, you'd have to be crazy on acid not to recognize what the injuries have done to this team.

But this loss to the Jets was exactly because of injury and poor play, and even though the Jets played just as poorly as New England, in the end they had just enough to pull out the win.

Regardless of Fitzgerald's struggles with finding open receivers downfield, he pretty much had his way with New England's defense for a little more than one half of play, going 15 of 23 for 155 yards and two touchdowns during that time frame while building a 17-3 lead, much of that yardage and both scores going to enigmatic receiver Brandon Marshall, who consistently abused Patriots' cornerback Logan Ryan...

...while the powerful New York running game hammered the Patriots' front seven - the healthiest unit on the entire team - for 97 yards on just 17 carries, much of it right into the teeth of the Patriots' usually stout run defense, but then gained only 46 yards on 10 carries the rest of the way - and while giving up 4.6 yards per carry down the stretch isn't something for the Patriots to hang their hats on, it's certainly better than the 5.7 yards per carry average they surrendered before that point.

By contrast, New England's offense picked up a measly 113 yards in the first half as Brady took an epic Steve Grogan-like beating every time he dropped back to pass, completing 8 of 10 for 67 yards while his running game accounted for 46 yards on 12 carries, which isn't bad until one stops to consider that 15 of those yards came on two Brandon Bolden carries as New England curiously ran out the last two minutes of the half in a conservative manner.

At least running out the clock with two minutes and two time outs remaining seemed curious at the time, until the struggles by both units combined with the fact that the possession started deep in New England territory are taken into account, as well as the fact that the Patriots' defense had been on the field for 19 minutes in the half and had just given up a touchdown on a 13 play, seven minute drive, and were collectively exhausted.

So Belichick decided, correctly, that had he turned Brady loose to go downfield with the ball and they failed to pick up a first down, the defense would have been back out on the field, exhausted and demoralized, the odds favoring them giving up more points to the hot Jets' offense...

...which happened on the first drive of the second half anyway - but then the Patriots' defense suddenly found life and stiffened, holding New York to just three points the rest of the half and scoring the touchdown that got New England right back in a game that they had no business being in.

But in it they were, and the only real question I have for Belichick is why, instead of playing for overtime, he didn't call for a two-point conversion after Brady's clutch drive, riding the hot hand to give the Patriots the lead and relying on his defense to hold a lead with 1:55 left in the game.

Caution should be exercised when attempting to explain anything that Bill Belichick does, however, and far be it for any Patriots' fan to question his logic, unconventional as it may have been, as the Dark Master has been right far more times than he's been wrong, and to accuse the man of throwing a game to gain a competitive advantage in the playoffs is as paranoid as it gets.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

To Rest Or Not To Rest? Patriots Have Decisions To Make in Advance Of Playoffs

To rest or not to rest, that is the question.

Besides armature bloggers plagiarizing the works of famous 17th century poets, there remains a modern day question of whether the talisman of football masterpieces - the great Bill Belichick - has any designs on resting his starters and injured players in the final two weeks of the regular season, having already secured at least the second seed in the American Football Conference.

Of course, having the second seed in the conference assures the Patriots of a first round bye, meaning that they do not participate in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, but will be watching intently as they are guaranteed to host the highest remaining seed surviving the initial knock-out round - a fairly lofty achievement given their injuries this season, but certainly not the pinnacle of conference play...

...that would be securing the top seed, and with it a first round bye, a guaranteed hosting of the lowest remaining seed from Wild Card weekend and homefield advantage in the AFC Championship game, should they prevail in the Divisional round.

Obviously, having the top seed in the conference is important, but it isn't essential for winning out and making it to the Super Bowl, as the following chronology will attest:

2001 - 2nd seed, beat Oakland in Divisional round and Pittsburgh in the AFC Title game, then beat St. Louis in the Super Bowl

2003 - 1st seed, beat Tennessee in Divisional round, beat Indianapolis in AFC Title game, then beat Carolina in the Super Bowl

2004 - 2nd seed, beat Indianapolis in Divisional round, beat Pittsburgh in AFC Title game, then beat Philadelphia in the Super Bowl

2005 - 4th seed, beat Jacksonville in Wild Card round, lost to Denver in Divisional round

2006 - 4th seed, beat NY Jets in Wild Card round, beat San Diego Chargers in Divisional round, lost to Indianapolis in AFC Title game

2007 - 1st seed, beat Jacksonville in Divisional round, beat San Diego in AFC Title game, lost to NY Giants in Super Bowl

2009 - 3rd seed, lost to Baltimore in Wild Card round

2010 - 1st seed, lost to NY Jets in Wild Card round

2011 - 1st seed, beat Denver in Divisional round, beat Baltimore in AFC Title game, lost to NY Giants in Super Bowl

2012 - 2nd seed, beat Houston in Divisional round, lost to Baltimore in AFC Title game

2013 - 2nd seed, beat Indianapolis in divisional round, lost to Denver in AFC Title game

2014 - 1st seed, beat Baltimore in Divisional round, beat Indianapolis in AFC Title Game, beat Seattle in Super Bowl

For those keeping score, as the first seed under Belichick, the Patriots have advanced to the Super Bowl four times and falling short just once, while as the second seed they are 2-2, and any thing lower than that, they are 0-3 - so as far as the difference between gaining the first seed instead of settling for the second seed, there really isn't that much of a difference, historically.

The Patriots need only to win one of their last two games to secure the top seed in the conference, but would also gain as much with one Cincinnati Bengals' loss in their final two games. There is no combination of wins and losses to be had - and it's pretty well cut and dried. New England has road trips to New York to play the Jets on Sunday, then to Miami to take on the Dolphins next Sunday...

...while the Bengals must travel to Denver for a Monday night affair, but then get to return home to host the lowly Baltimore Ravens to finish out their season. With health, the Bengals have enough to win both of their final two games - but their top quarterback, Andy Dalton, is out for the rest of the regular season with a fractured thumb.

Problem is, both teams they are facing have back up quarterbacks playing as well, Brock Osweiler for the Broncos and Matt Schaub for the Ravens. The Broncos have played well defensively but are finding things difficult in the scoring department on offense, while the Ravens are train wreck on both sides of the ball.

So, it is no guarantee that either team will be able to beat the Bengals, even with A.J. McCarron holding down the fort until Dalton returns for the post-season, so it is most prudent for the Patriots to concentrate on their own business and not allow chance to dictate their destiny - that is, if they even care about their seeding at all.

And that's the real question here: the Patriots have suffered through a record-shattering string of games lost to injury this season, at one point depleting the potency of the offense to where their struggles were not enough to overcome poor special teams play, so that we're looking at a team that is currently 12-2 instead of being undefeated...

...a truly remarkable accomplishment considering the aforementioned injury woes, but with a solid defense that has achieved elite status, New England is in position to control their own destiny.

The best scenario for the Patriots would be to beat the Jets on Sunday to clinch the conference's top seed, then piece together a skeleton crew for the game at Miami, which would have no bearing on anything at all. That would essentially give Belichick's charges a full three weeks to lick their wounds and to fuel up the juggernaut for a Super Bowl run to defend their title.

On the flip-side, however, is the scenario in which the Patriots just go ahead and minimize the snap counts of the starters against the Jets and letting their fortunes rest on back ups, then wait and see what happens between the Bengals and Broncos on Monday night before deciding how to proceed against the Dolphins next Sunday - as it may turn out that resting starters against the Jets could give the Patriots' injured nearly a full calendar month to regain health, should Denver prevail over Cincinnati.

That is, of course, if Belichick even cares about securing the top seed in the conference - because right now his team is sitting pretty with the second seed, while everyone else is scrambling to either improve their seeding, or to even make the playoffs at all - and one of those teams, the Broncos, could actually miss the playoffs if they lose one more game.

So with so much riding on Monday night's game against the Bengals for the Broncos, perhaps it is in Belichick's best interest to take a wait-and-see approach to the top seed, then plan for Miami accordingly.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Patriots' Defense Reaches Elite Level, Can It Be Sustained Through The Post-Season?

How many times do Patriots' fans have to hear a commentator called the defense "underrated" before they finally get their due?

Now, being underrated is not necessarily a bad thing, but the New England Patriots' defense has evolved past a point now where the moniker no long fits. They are no longer the surprise unit that lost both of their starting corners from last season to free agency. They are no longer the unit that lost the anchor from their defensive line.
Newcomers Sheard (L) and Brown (R) have had major a impact on the defense

Rather, this is a defensive unit that started out well in the secondary despite the heavy attrition suffered in the offseason and have allowed just 230 yards per game through the air, with only two quarterbacks - Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and New York Giants' Eli Manning - to top the 300 yard plateau...

...and including a front seven that started out slowly - allowing 115 yards per game on the ground in the first five games - but have become miserly since, decreasing that average by a full 30 yards per game.

As a result, New England stands 8th in pass defense and 10th in rush defense, their averages making them the sixth-ranked defense in the entire National Football League - not bad for a unit that was supposed to wilt under the pressure of not having Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner locking down the secondary and for not having Vince Wilfork occupying offensive linemen so that others can plug gaps and make tackles.

That perception is now officially blown away. In fact, this Patriots' defense is better all the way around, statistically speaking, than last year's championship edition.

Through 16 games last season, the Patriots were a Top 10 unit against the run, allowing 104 yards per game, but 17th against the pass at 240 yards per game, bringing them in at 13th in overall defense while logging 40 sacks and 81 passes defended, Revis leading with 16...

...but through 14 games this season, New England's defenders are surrendering 95 yards per game on the ground and 230 yards per game through the air, and are the 6th ranked defense in the entire league. They have already logged 48 sacks and 77 passes defended.

Those numbers alone should be convincing enough for anyone, but for the hardcore who will look you in the eye and call you flat moronic for thinking any defense could be better minus Revis - consider that both Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler are within one pass defensed of what Revis accomplished all of last season, both far surpassing what Brandon Browner was able to do as well.

These facts have not been lost on coaches around the league. In fact, New York Jets' coach Todd Bowles - he no stranger to coaching elite corners in his day - calls the duo one of the best tandems in the league.

"They can play zone, they can play man." Bowles said during a recent press conference "They're both big, they're both physical. They can tackle. Their defense has been outstanding. Those two corners are a big reason, a big part of it."

Bear in mind that this is the man who has coached names like Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis in the past two seasons, which makes his gushing assessment all the more remarkable, but he didn't stop there. Bowles went on to qualify his statement concerning Butler in particular, saying, "He's not just a man corner, he's a zone corner, too. he's fiesty and he's got good techinque too, which is rare."

"You can tell he works at it. I enjoy watching him play."

Another reason why the secondary is outproducing last season's crew is because of the play of the safeties.

As you know, the Patriots employ a "Big Nickle" base about 70% of the time, which means there are two free safeties and one strong safety on the field at the same time - and they are all far more involved in coverage this year than last, Patrick Chung (9 passes defended), Duron Harmon (5) and Devin McCourty (5) are all solid in underneath and / or over the top work, while Ryan and Harmon lead the team in interceptions.

Up front, Belichick has an embarrassment of riches, starting with defensive end Chandler Jones who has finally been healthy for a full season and is having a Pro Bowl year - probably an All Pro year as well - with 12.5 sacks, 43 tackles and four forced fumbles. Rob Ninkovich (6.5/43/1) starts on the strong side opposite Jones and Jabaal Sheard (7/31/3) completes a three-man rotation that is keeping these pass rushers fresher than their mirrors as the game goes on...

...while the same holds true for the interior of the defensive line, as off-tackles Alan Branch and Akiem Hicks rotate in with nose tackle Malcom Brown. The benefit of the rotation along the line becoming evident late in games, when the Patriots' pass rush always appears to be a step faster than their counterparts.

Sometimes you'll see a huge four-man package with Brown, Branch, Jones and Ninkovich, sometimes their version of a NASCAR alignment, bringing in Akiem Hicks and/or and Sheard to rush from the inside. Other times you'll see Hicks at the three tech with Branch at the nose and Sheard on the strong side. There are literally dozens of situational subpackages where the Patriots get their best athletes for the circumstance all on the field at the same time.

Among the linemen, the aforementioned riches consist of the draft picks used to select the players, which Belichick sees as solid-gold bullion - there are two 1st round draft picks in Jones and Brown, two second rounders in Sheard and Branch, a third rounder in Geneo Grissom and a fifth-rounder in Rob Ninkovich.

And then there's the linebackers. Just like the safety corps, there is probably not a more talented group of linebackers in the NFL, and all living up to their lofty draft statuses. with Mayo (2008) and Hightower (2012) taken in the first round and Jamie Collins (2013) in the second, though that second round selection was the Patriots first pick in the draft.

Reserve linebackers Jon Bostic (Chicago, 2nd round) and Jonathan Freeny (UDFA Miami) were not on the team last season, while Darius Fleming (San Francisco, 3rd round) was part of the rotation in Foxborough in 2014.

The Safeties are diamond-studded as well, with a 1st rounder in Devin McCourty, second rounders Pat Chung, Tavon Wilson and rookie Jordan Richards and a third-rounder in Duron Harmon - all told, that's a lot of high draft capital expended by Belichick and others as compelled by their evaluation processes - but what about the corners?

Well, that's the amazing thing. Ryan has the highest draft ranking in the bunch, being taken in the third round, and he's matched up with three undrafted free agents, rookie Justin Coleman, fourth-year man Leonard Johnson and, of course, Butler - not a first or second rounder in the bunch, and together with the rest of the fellas comprise the sixth best overall defense in the National Football League.

They are starting to get some attention on the national scene, which is fine, but most compelling is how a third year cornerback and an undrafted cornerback have been able to come of age right before our eyes - and all you have to do is to look at how all three levels of the defense work in harmony with each other to realize it's not just one unit or another stepping up.

The Patriots just have a solid defense that's always fresh, seems to get stronger as the game goes on, and flat gets after the opposing quarterback.

But none of this makes any difference if it doesn't translate to the playoffs.

We've already pointed out that, statistically, this year's Patriots are superior to their 2014 counterparts, and it's a trend that must continue if New England plans on retaining their world title. Last season it didn't, and it nearly resulted in disaster.

In the two games that were competitive in the playoffs - meaning the divisional round game against the Baltimore Ravens and the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks - the two opponents rushed for 136 yards and 162 yards respectively, and both eclipsed the season average for passing yards surrendered.

Both, however, lost the game when challenging the Patriots' defense with the final seconds ticking off, and both on interceptions - once by Harmon to top a 14 point comeback for New England over Baltimore and once by Butler to secure a come-from-behind victory and a world championship over Seattle.

And that's important to remember going forward with this defense. nine of the twelve starters from last season's Super Bowl are still on this team and of the other three, Butler and Ryan played and had an impact in the big game and throughout the post-season. Only nose tackle Malcom Brown hasn't been exposed the brightest lights on the biggest stage...

...while everyone else is battle-tested tough, and with impressive depth backing them up everywhere except at corner, where an undrafted rookie free agent and a seldom-used journeyman back up a third-round pick and another undrafted free agent.

That doesn't sound like a recipe for success, nor is it likely to translate to such a high ranking pass defense - but these are the New England Patriots, and they've done more with less than any other team in the league.

But please don't call them underrated. We're beyond that.

And we're on to New York.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Patriots Sign Steven Jackson As Hired Gun For Balance Of Season

Bill Belichick waited until he saw what he had in the backfield, then made his move.

According to a plethora of media outlets, the New England Patriots head ball coach and defacto general manager has signed former Rams' and Falcons' runner Steven Jackson to a contract, nearly a full week after having the 6' 3", 225 pound veteran in for a workout, and the timing seems just about right.

Belichick's Patriots topped the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, going with the trifecta of big back Brandon Bolden, passing back James White and sledgehammer Joey Iosefa in the stead of injured running back LeGarrette Blount, who hit the IR with a trick hip that was blown out in last week's victory over the Houston Texans...

...and although he got the production he needed out of those three, the logistics involved with bringing Bolden to the forefront as the lead back for the rest of the season from his usual place as a core-four special teams ace apparently left a bad taste in Belichick's mouth.

In Sunday's win, Bolden didn't play on even one special teams package, and for a unit that's already struggling with turning the ball over and with Punt protection, that is apparently deemed unacceptable.

Make no mistake, Bolden did enough to show that he could carry the load at tailback and be competitive, but in the end Belichick probably feels that it spreads him too thin.

In Jackson, Belichick gets a 32 year old veteran who is a pro's pro, can run between the tackles and has enough speed to turn the corner if asked to - not to mention that he's pure smooth hell in the pattern, as his 460 catches for 3663 yards and nine touchdowns will attest. In other words, Belichick and the Patriots get a true every down back who is a proven commodity,

Strike that, I meant to say the Patriots get a true every down back who is a proven commodity AND who has fresh legs.

Leave it to the Dark Master to pull a coup like this. He gets an experienced ball carrier with solid hands and who is excellent in pass pro on what amounts to a five game rental. Many question what Jackson has left in the tank, but with fresh legs and the desire to show the world what he does have left, it is a no-brainer to expect that Jackson can pull the wagon for five games, especially since there's a bye week smack in the middle.

For his career, Jackson has carried the rock 2,743 times for 11,388 yards and 68 touchdowns in his 11 NFL seasons, and while many fans are looking at this move as a reincarnation of Antowain Smith or Corey Dillon it should be recalled that Dillon was 30 when he joined the Patriots and subsequently enjoyed his finest season in the pros, while Smith was a spry 29, also enjoying his finest season upon his arrival in Foxborough.

It is also worth noting that Smith was done with the Patriots when he was 31, and Dillon was shown the door when he was 32, so as far as lead backs are concerned, Belichick is venturing into uncharted waters - but if platooning with Iosefa and White, there is precedence for success.

In the 2009 season, Kevin Faulk (32), Sammy Morris (33) and Fred Taylor (33) all platooned with Laurence Maroney to make up the 12th best running attack in the league, though Morris and Taylor broke down and didn't play a complete season - which should give some pause to the idea of bringing Jackson in, but in being a short-term hired gun, there really is no downside in the signing.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Patriots Defense Dominates, Offense Does Enough To Down Titans

When Bill Belichick this week hinted that he was concerned about increasing Brandon Bolden's touches on offense, he apparently meant it.

"He's been a four down player for us" the Dark Master said on Wednesday of Bolden, "He's played the role of the big back for us, he's played the role of a sub back, and he's played well for us in the kicking game. I think it would be hard to increase each role."
Jaball Sheard sacks Tennessee's Zach Mettenberger

Of course, Belichick then went on to job this week's opponents, the Tennessee Titans, by feigning confusion in a manner consistent with someone who was really torn about the decision by moaning "maybe you just increase one and decrease another. I think we're going to have to figure that out."

He figured it out.

Bolden carried the ball just ten times, yielding to the power running of rookie Joey Iosefa and the increasingly impressive stylings of James White in the pattern, while the Patriots defense picked up the slack of an otherwise sluggish offense by scoring a touchdown on a fumble and sacking Tennessee quarterbacks five times as New England topped the game Titans by a count of 33-16.

Iosefa rumbled for 54 yards on 14 carries in his professional football debut as a roster replacement for injured LeGarrette Blount, and White had his third consecutive excellent performance, hauling in seven passes for 71 yards - a total that he had nearly doubled on one big play in the fourth quarter, taking a Tom Brady offering in the left flat, making his man miss, then scampering 70 yards on a play that would have nailed the Titans' collective coffin shut...

...but a questionable offensive pass interference call on Keshawn Martin on the play negated the big gain and denied White the biggest statistical game of his career.

Brandon LaFell led the Patriots with four catches totaling 88 yards and tight end Rob Gronkowski pitched in with five and 54, despite a couple of uncharacteristic drops. Brady had typical Brady-like numbers - 23 of 35 for 267 yards and two touchdowns - as the offense did just enough to win the game.

And while doubling your opponent's scoring output would make one think blowout, and despite the novelty of Iosefa and the coming of age of White, this was an overall sluggish effort that confirmed that this offense will clearly not be able to get over the loss of Julian Edelman, regardless of the tremendous effort put forth by the players.

The defense, on the other hand, had no such issues despite their captain, safety Devin McCourty, being on the shelf with a bum ankle. Sure, Titans' receiver Dorial Green-Beckham used Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan like a tissue to the tune of six catches (on nine targets) for 133 yards, but the rest of Tennessee's offensive weapons were summarily held in check.

Titans' starting quarterback Marcus Mariota took a horrible beating from the New England pass rush, being sacked three times, the last one the result of a Jamie Collins hug blitz that knocked the rookie signal caller from the game in the second quarter - replaced by the seemingly far more capable sophomore Zach Mettenberger, who threw two scores to tight end Delanie Walker, but also interceptions to cornerback Malcolm Butler and linebacker Jamie Collins.

The Patriots' top ten run defense shut down the Titans' running game, allowing just 2.8 yards per carry and forcing first Mariota and then Mettenberger to the short passing game, mostly targeting their running backs and tight ends for quick gainers underneath, with an occasional deep throw to Green-Beckham or Walker.

Mariota was under siege every time he dropped back to pass, and being sacked by Akiem Hicks, strip-sacked and injured by Jones, and then knocked out of the game on Collins' sack, twisting his body so that his leg was pinned beneath him, ending his day...

...while Mettenberger enjoyed a little better protection, he still took two for the team, Jones getting him in the third quarter for 12.5 on the season, which counts for the third highest sack total in franchise history and fellow defensive end Jabaal Sheard notching his seventh on the year.

As seems to be the Patriots' M.O. of late, Brady led the Patriots right down the field on their first possession, capping it off with a short toss to Gronkowski for a 7-0 lead, that number increasing to 14 points jjust seconds into the second quarter, when defensive end Chandler Jones strip-sacked Mariota and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks recovering in the end zone for a two score lead.

A pretty James White flat screen that went for 30 yards made it a three score advantage for New England, but they would not find the end zone again, settling for four Stephen Gostkowski field goals the rest of the way while Mettenberger played well enough to find the end zone twice in the second half, but that said, Tennesseee never seriously threatened at any point of the game.

New England's defense continues to evolve into an elite unit of speedy sack artists and punishing run stuffers, backed up by a pack of young greyhounds in the secondary that common sense tells us shouldn't be as good as they are, while the offense seems to treat the games as a live scrimmage, running high-percentage, low-risk plays out of basic formations as if working on fundamentals...

...which makes sense, because with as many players as they have to integrate into the offense, practice is fine, but not enough. In essence, the seldom used players who now are being counted on to produce are in what can only be called an impromptu breaking in period not unlike what the team as a whole uses preseason games for.

Except these games count, and the "new guys" on the offense seem to be getting better game by game - but make no mistake, the offense will not be a great offense until Edelman returns. They are good without him - getting-by good - and that's been enough to get by Houston and Tennessee in successive weeks, but more importantly, the experience that these players are getting under duress will certainly come in handy come playoff time.

With the win, and coupled with Denver's loss to Pittsburgh, the Patriots have assured themselves of a first round bye, which is essential to a team as banged up as New England actually is - because with time to heal, the offense will reach juggernaut status, and combined with their constantly evolving defense, there's no reason to think the Patriots won't be defending their title in San Francisco in February...

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Loyalists - Mike And Jake Talk Brady's Illness, New Guys' impact

Every week, two of our bloggers pick each others brains like a couple of zombie baboons - today it's Jacob Bertram from Gamegents.com and Michael Hamm from Foxborough Free Press serving up questions for each other in advance of the New England Patriots' Sunday showdown with the Tennessee Titans...

What a long, strange week it's been, even for the six weird little states that comprise New England.

Instead of a hint of white on the ground as Christmas approaches, folks are out golfing in spring-like mildness that promises temperatures in the upper 50's on Christmas Eve. Stressed out, bleary-eyed college kids are walking around like zombies, trudging from class to class clutching Styrofoam cups half-full of long-since-cold coffee in search of their final grades and I was actually able to find a parking spot reasonably close to the entrance of Walmart.

And, oh yes, Tom Brady missed a practice.
Brady should play on Sunday despite illness

The latter caused barely a rumble as New England Patriots' fans are so desensitized to players being injured and unable to play that even the absence of the Greatest of All Time was met with sneers and F-bombs instead of the usual, "What next?"

Brady is listed as questionable for this Sunday's contest against the Tennessee Titans, but the smart money has him taking an aspirin and coming in to work - but all of that is covered in this week's edition of Jake and Mike's Excellent Adventure:

The Tennessee Titans just aren’t a very good football team. That said, if quarterback Tom Brady’s illness were to keep him from playing this Sunday, could backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo take over and win a game? If so, what would envision a game plan to look like in the wake of the injury bug hitting the running back position?

Jake: I have to imagine that unless Brady is abducted by aliens or finally decides to go take off ISIS by himself, he will be out there playing Sunday. Worst case scenario if he can't and Jimmy has to play, I think it would make for a very interesting game. Jimmy has almost two years in the system now and our defense is playing at a pretty solid level. The Titans haven't been great all year, but at times have turned it up on offense. So Jimmy would have to probably score somewhere in the 20's to be safe. If the Pats could get a defensive score, I would like our chances even more in this situation.

Running the ball would obviously be very important if Jimmy was forced to start a game and with our current running back situation, that might get tricky. With Blount out, Brandon Bolden becomes your early down back and asking him to take 20 plus carries might be asking too much. James White has excelled lately in the passing game but hasn't had too much success running in between the tackles. Unless Montee Ball is called up to the active roster, this is what Jimmy would be working with on Sunday. Jimmy might have to be asked to do a little more with his arm then they would like him to. Hopefully none of this matters and Ole Tommy boy will play.

It's well documented how when healthy Dominique Easley brought pressure up the middle on opposing quarterbacks. Now on IR who do you think the Patriots turn to to to attempt to replace his presence in the middle of the defensive line?

Mike: It’s really no secret that early-season pick up Akiem Hicks has actually been the Patriots’ most explosive and productive interior defensive lineman, so it makes sense to start with him.

As you know, the Patriots traded tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to New Orleans for Hicks, who had fallen out of the rotation with the Saints – which, if you’ve watched Hicks play, it makes sense that the Saints defense is absolutely abysmal now that they purged many contracts on both sides of the ball to become more lean under the cap.

Hicks is a classic three-tech, as at 6’ 5” and 325 pounds he has the height you want from a defensive end and the bulk and explosion to handle the run as the under-tackle. Matched together with the even larger Alan Branch and surging rookie nose tackle Malcom Brown, the Patriots are still in very good shape on the interior.

The Titans’ passing game is predicated on the short game to the tight ends and running backs, mainly because they are down to bare bones on their wide receiver depth chart due to injury. Their running game doesn’t impress anyone and so their short passing game really is an extension of their running game with their backs having more success in the pattern than between the tackles. Should the defensive game plan be more a matter of base 4-3 or will the Patriots be able to go Big Nickle?

Jake: I'm positive that the Tennessee game plan will be to attempt to establish the run game early. If this fails, I'm sure we will see more of Marcus using his legs and attempting to push the ball down the field. The Patriots will attempt to make Marcus do just this, so I see them staying in heavy run formations and trusting Butler, Ryan, and Harmon if McCourty doesn't play to cover down field. 

I think we may see the extra safety, whether that be Tavon or Richards, to help in the box against the run and covering the tight ends and backs out of the backfield. As far as the Patriots game plan, as usual I think that all depends on Tennessee and what they choose to run. If they come out big sets, I'm sure we will see a lot of Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch with Richards and Chung helping out against the run. If the Titans look to spread us out and use Marcus's speed to their advantage, I think you will see the big nickel with more athletic players on the line as well.

Marcus Mariota has had a very solid rookie year for the Tennessee Titans. With a 2/1 touchdown to interception ratio and a quarterback rating of 91.9 Marcus can throw at a NFL level and is always a danger to take off and run as well. How will the Patriots go about defending his particular skill set?

Mike: As always, the Patriots will shadow Mariota as they would any other mobile quarterback – only this week, that task will be easier than most.

You see, the Titans’ running game is capable, but just like we see almost weekly from the Patriots, they tend to abandon it in favor of the short passing game – a passing game that has taken just as many debilitating bites from the injury bug as New England has, and now rely on swing passes and screens to their backs and crossers from their tight ends, meaning that the Patriots’ coverages will often be within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

But the real key to stopping a mobile quarterback is to keep their offense in long yardage situations, where their odds of making a first down with their legs is not as good as throwing the ball to the sticks.

For the second week in a row, the Patriots will be facing a top 10 pass defense, and a middle-of-the-pack run defense. Do we see a game plan similar to their plan against the Texans, or is there too much a different dynamic in place to be so conservative and predictable?

Jake: With Blount now on IR it will be difficult to form the same game plan they had against the Texans. Bolden filled in admirably and I admire his ability to run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield. As I said earlier however, asking him to do that for an entire game might be asking too much of the special teams ace. That being said, I'm positive the Patriots will attempt to move the ball on the ground Sunday and as of right now, Brandon Bolden would seem to be the guy to carry the load.

I believe personally James White has earned himself a few more carries, and to be honest more snaps all together. I don't think we will see just two running backs active Sunday, so I am expecting some kind of move before that. Whether that be Montee Ball or Joey Iosefa, somebody might have to come up, even if it’s just injury insurance. Come game time I do expect the Patriots to want to run the ball, but may force them to rely on Brady quite a bit as well.

How do you feel newly acquired LaAdrian Waddle and Leonard Hankerson will fit in going forward and do you see wither of them making a big impact?

Mike: Some may disagree with my assessment, but I see Waddle as a better player with more upside as a swing tackle than either Marcus Cannon or Cam Fleming. 

His issue has always been longevity and staying healthy and is still recovering from an ACL tear almost exactly a year ago. He works best on the left side and is a much better pass protector than a run blocker – so this is a shrewd move by Belichick to shore up Brady’s blind side with the potential to move Sebastian Vollmer back over to his more natural right tackle spot.

As far as Hankerson, he is the deep threat that many Patriots’ fans have been screaming for, just without the big name. But what might make those fans cringe is that he grades out to being just a slightly faster Brandon LaFell.

Hankerson has deep speed, but is not explosive off the ball, building gradually. For this reason, I see him as more of a possession receiver that, if he can be consistent with his hands, can eventually knock Aaron Dobson from the roster – that said, he will be no more than a fourth or fifth option in this offense.

To read all about the Patriots from an old-school twist, be sure to follow us on Foxborough Free Press and on twitter at @ffpblogger, and for a fresh, modern view of the team go to Gamegents.com and follow Jacob on twitter as well at @gamegentsdotcom !

Friday, December 18, 2015

McCourty Injury Puts Spotlight on Ryan, Butler

The Patriots are the only team in the National Football League capable of running the hybrid Big Nickle defense as a base alignment.

Rather, let's make it that, they were.

The high ankle sprain suffered by New England free safety Devin McCourty is a huge blow to a secondary that is just starting to come into its own - not to mention a terrible loss for a defense that is starting to look like world beaters.

The Patriots are working on their back up facilities at several positions currently, including wide receiver, running back, offensive tackle, defensive tackle and middle linebacker - but none of the injuries at those positions are as hard-hitting and potentially devastating as losing the lynch pin of the entire secondary.

New England head ball coach Bill Belichick has been collecting safeties for the past four seasons, "reaching" with high draft picks for some of them in the eyes of many media members and fans - but there was a reason why he wanted those players and why he valued them much higher than the experts did...

...because he was creating a talent pool in which he could rotate his safeties in and out as desired, setting up his opponent with a defensive alignment that could keep the team in the nickle as a base defense while still being able to keep the running lanes accounted for.

Like the standard nickle alignment, the Big Nickle is a formation that utilizes five defensive backs to prevent the opponent from flooding the field with receivers - but unlike the standard nickle that sees a third cornerback in place of an early-down, run-plugging linebacker, the Big Nickle utilizes three safeties: a single high "centerfielder" and two hybrid safeties who help out in coverage in passing situations and who are rugged enough to reduce down into the box in run support.

So when the Patriots are in full roll in this alignment, McCourty aligns close to the line of scrimmage and either helps out in coverage or takes a receiver from the slot, Pat Chung also aligning close to the line to help out with tight ends and to plug running lanes, while speedy Duron Harmon covers sideline-to-sideline on the back end.

You wonder how the Patriots keep getting away with carrying just three healthy corners? That is how. But now with McCourty going down and questionable to play this Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, corner depth will become an issue because McCourty is the key to the entire secondary.

Projected as a late second round selection out of Rutgers, McCourty became the first "reach" selection in Belichick's secondary at 27th overall in the first round as a cornerback, where he gained Pro Bowl and second-team All Pro honors in his first season at corner, after which Belichick started toying with him at free safety toward the end of the 2012 season, then moved him there permanently next to Chung midway through the 2013 season...

...his elite 4.34 speed and excellence in zone coverages precipitating the move. By that time, the team had already selected Illinois corner Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 draft and Harmon in the third round of the 2013 process, completing the Big Nickle look by "reaching" for Stanford safety Jordan Richards last May.

Belichick groomed Harmon for the centerfielder job just as he did McCourty in the 2012 season as he contemplated the switch in positions, Harmon's coming out party a month-long affair last January when he transformed into a scavenger of the highest order in securing New England's comeback from two fourteen point deficits by picking off Baltimore's Joe Flacco in the divisional round in the playoffs.

The rest of the post-season was just a coronation of sorts, as Harmon and rookie corner Malcolm Butler penciled their names in the lineup with their tough, clutch play.

But there is a reason why the Patriots broke out the company card and made McCourty a multi-millionaire with the second-richest current contract for a safety in the NFL. Out of he, Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis, Belichick knew that the one that could least afford to lose was McCourty, given his experience as a true hybrid.

This is not to say that the safety play is masking the cornerback play as much as it is turbo boosting it,but the proof in that pudding will come on Sunday if McCourty is forced to miss the game against the Titans.

Well, maybe not against the Titans, as their receiving corps is lead by 31-year old tight end Delanie Walker with running back Dexter McCluster a distant second in catches on the season. In fact, the most receptions by a wide receiver on that team is 33 by Kendall Wright, who will be inactive for the game while nursing some cracked ribs.

So, right. Maybe not this Sunday. But most definitely the following Sunday against the New York Jets, who sport some big receivers and a modern day Steve DeBerg at quarterback, who is so hot and cold that he could look like Dan Fouts one game and JaMarcus Russell the next.

But that's getting ahead of the situation. McCourty returned to practice on Friday and is officially listed as questionable for the game against Tennessee, but circumstances are not nearly as dire enough to risk putting McCourty into harm's way at less than 100%, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

With Tennessee's game being the short passing game to backs and tight ends, this is more of a linebacker / safety coverage game, which means that Harmon could still patrol the back end, with Chung and maybe Richards gaining leverage on the second level. Butler and fellow impressive corner Logan Ryan should have things well in hand with the likes of 31-year old Harry Douglass and rookie Dorial Green-Beckham being the top two outside threats.

So, it's probably a good game for McCourty to miss. He can hang with his brother, Titans' cornerback Jason, who is also on the shelf and actually on the team's injured reserved list. They can kick back in a booth, put their feet up and catch up with each other - but if he remains out for more than just this week, we will get to see if the cornerbacks really are playing as well as they seem to be, or if the safety play has been masking deficiencies.

Every Patriots' fan alive wants the corners to be legit, and they certainly appear to be, with Butler seemingly in a good rut where he gives up one big play per game, then shuts his man down and Ryan making his second-year jump in his third season, after spending most of his sophomore campaign behind the aforementioned Browner and Revis.

In fact, at this point in their development, it would be natural for Ryan to be ahead of Butler in technique, but how much of that success can be attributed to having that safety over the top?

If McCourty misses more than just this Sunday, we're going to find out.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bolden Set For Extended Run As Lead Back

Brandon Bolden deserves this chance.

Each of the past four seasons, the undrafted Bolden fought his way onto the New England Patriots' 53 man roster - mainly due to his prowess as a four core special teamer, tending to his duties while watching a seemingly endless procession of running backs make their way through Bill Belichick's revolving door...

...as a rookie in 2012 playing behind sophomores Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, who platooned with fan favorite Danny Woodhead. In 2013 and 2014 it was the three-headed monster of Ridley, Vereen and newly acquired LeGarrette Blount.

Hell, even training camp this season was loaded down with backs. Ridley and Vereen were both shown the door, but the team brought in former Browns and Eagles benchwarmer Dion Lewis and former Saints' passing back Travaris Cadet while retaining the services of Blount and giving extra snaps to second-year change-of-pace back James White.

Belichick initially kept all five backs on the roster, but this time with Bolden the senior member of the committee - however, the team sliced Cadet because he couldn't pick up the blitz to save his life, then Lewis went down with an ACL and then Blount was lost for the season with a bum hip, leaving just Bolden and White to carry the load.

Truth be told, there really wasn't a more dependable back on the roster than Bolden, who has never disappointed when called upon to carry the rock.

 In his fourth season out of Ole' Miss, the 5' 11", 220 pounder has averaged 4.3 yards on 177 carries and has accounted for 300 yards on 35 receptions in spot duty throughout his career - this after a successful college career, averaging 5.3 yards per carry in amassing 2600 yards and 27 touchdowns, also hauling in 76 passes for over 800 yards and six touchdowns - and all against run-tough SEC defenses.

So there's little doubt that Bolden would be able to handle an increase in his workload - even becoming the Patriots' abbreviated version of a bell cow - though to listen to Belichick, one would have to think he might have an issue with it.

"He's been a four down player for us" the Dark Master said recently, "He's played the role of the big back for us, he's played the role of a sub back, and he's played well for us in the kicking game. I think it would be hard to increase each role."

Belichick paused as if pacing his word count, then continued.

"It's possible." he said, thoughtfully. "But I think it would be hard, realistically to do that, but maybe it needs to be done. Or maybe you just increase one and decrease another. I think we're going to have to figure that out."

Indeed, figure it out. But one needs to keep in mind the struggles that the Patriots have had on special teams the past three weeks, and wonder aloud if the kicking game can afford to have Bolden's role cut back significantly, if at all. That was probably the thinking behind the team signing former Bronco Montee Ball to the practice squad and for having a cup of coffee with grizzled veteran back Steven Jackson over the past couple of days.

Jackson left town with no deal and Ball remains on the practice squad, which means that in all likelihood, Bolden will be the leading man when the curtain opens on this Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium, but with White garnering most of the snaps in the pass-heavy Patriots' offense.

White and Ball played together in college at Wisconsin, which makes for an intriguing subplot.

During Ball's senior season with the Badgers, he rumbled for over 1800 yards and 22 touchdowns, while White played to role of change-of-pace back while gaining 800 yards and scoring 12 times. Of course, Ball went on to Denver, where he followed the lead of Wisconsin backs before him, flaming out in two short seasons.

White, on the other hand, went on to record over 4000 rushing yards in his part-time role with the Badgers, with an insane 6.2 yards per carry average while handling the passing back role as well, his numbers comparable to those of Bolden's in college.

Of the three, Bolden has the most diverse skill set combined with good size and decent speed, and the Patriots need all of that from him. In fact, if Belichick can work out Bolden's snap count between the backfield and all four units on special teams, Bolden offers something to the lineup that none of the other running backs could...

...because Belichick wasn't just blowing our figurative skirts up when he praised Bolden for being a four down back. He runs for Power and has the speed to turn the corner, is outstanding in blitz recognition and pick up and is skilled in the Patriots' concept-driven passing scheme. To finally have him in a game as the lead back presents issues for the opposing defenses that Blount did not, and White can not.

When Blount is in the game, the defenses know that he rarely curls into the pattern, so instead of the strong safety mirroring him at the snap, he can plug a gap or blitz. When White is in the game, the opposition knows that he most likely isn't going to be getting many carries between the tackles, so they will break down into a nickle or dime and count on their pass rush to provide pressure.

But with Bolden, the defense will have to be ready for any scenario, and will be forced to defend the entire field.

He sounds like a complete back, one capable of carrying a heavy load for the New England offense, and he has proven his worth in spot duty over the past four seasons - but how will he hold up when being THE man in the Patriots' backfield?

Belichick appears to be willing to find out, and if he can use Bolden's entire skill set to keep the defense off balance, perhaps some good will have come out of all of these injuries.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Loyalists - Mike & Jake Talking Texans, Gronkowski And The Need To Run The Ball

Every week, two of our bloggers pick each others brains like a couple of zombie baboons - today it's Jacob Bertram from Gamegents.com and Michael Hamm from Foxborough Free Press serving up questions for each other in advance of the New England Patriots' Sunday night's flexed showdown with the Houston Texans...

When the Houston Texans got blown out of Miami by the Dolphins back in late October, they stood at 2-5 and were essentially a laughing stock. To that point, they had surrendered 28 points per game while scoring just over twenty per contest themselves. As it turns out, that's not going to win many games.

But since giving up 44 points to Miami, they have given up just 13 per game, including just six points a piece to Tennessee, Cincinnati and New Orleans before laying an enormous 30-point egg to Buffalo last week.

The connection? The running game.
The pressure is on James White and the Patriots running game on Sunday

The Texans are 6-6 and tied with the Indianapolis Colts for the lead in the AFC South and have more than a decent chance of running the table down the stretch if they can just keep the opposition's running game in check. The numbers don't lie: In their six losses, Houston has been gouged for 158 yards per game, but in their six wins, just 70 yards per game.

So it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what it takes to beat the Texans: Run the ball and let their offense beat themselves.

As one might expect, the Bills, Jets, Panthers and Falcons had a ton of success running AWAY from JJ Watt, which usually means running to the offensive left - or weak side, as it were - and with a premium on executing the play action in the passing game, because the Texans are incredibly stingy with giving up yardage through the air, as evidence by the fact that they have allowed just one quarterback to top the 300 yard plateau against them...

...their last five opponents averaging a microscopic 185 passing yards a game, tops in the NFL during that period by a wide margin.

In contrast, the Patriots lead the league in passing and are third in total offense, all while being an abysmal 28th in rushing in amassing their lowest percentage of running plays versus passing plays in 13 years.

Against the Texans, that is going to have to change.

This weeks questions:

James White's had a break out performance against the Eagles with 10 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown. Did this performance finally earn him some consistent snaps going forward and not just when we are down in a game?

Mike: I think what we saw out of White last Sunday is just the tip of the iceberg.

To anyone who follows my blog, it’s of no surprise to them that I am a big fan of James White, so I feel that this breakout game was long overdue – and it really doesn’t matter that it came out of desperation for a team missing three top targets – in fact, it should mean MORE to the team that he was able to step it up with no Edelman or Gronkowski present to set the table.

When Brady pointed at him in the Pattern during the comeback in the Eagles’ game, motioning him into an empty spot in the Philadelphia zone, that showed me that Brady knew he could count on White to get there and to make the catch. White is a solid player and he should be the number one option as a passing back on the team.

The Houston Texans’ defense has allowed one – ONE – 300 yard passer all season long, which was Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles way back in mid-October. Since then, the Texans are giving up a miserly 236 passing yards per game. The thing is, there is no one player besides Watt that really stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, indicating that on this defense, each level works in tandem and feed off of the others – a true team concept. How does the Patriots’ offense attack the most balanced defense in the league?

Jake: The Patriots received great news Friday when it was announced that Julian Edelman has returned to practice. Unfortunately he has already been ruled out for Sunday’s matchup with Houston. With Gronk questionable that leaves us with the possibility that other than Danny Amendola we will be trotting out the Martin and Chandler combo again, along with recently struggling Brandon Lafell. Going against a pass defense as you described, this would seem to leave the Patriots at a disadvantage.

What needs to happen for success on Sunday is the Patriots and Legarrette Blount need to be successful on first and second down runs. They were in the first half against the Eagles, and abandoned it for some reason early in the third quarter. Give Brady some third and shorts and the ability to use play action, and he will have more than 236 yards passing. I guarantee it.

JJ Watt broke his hand in practice this week but reportedly is still going to play. Rob Gronkowski has started practicing this week as well, if both play which injured player will have more of an impact on the game?

Mike: This is kind of like the MVP question, where the criteria is solely a question of which player is most valuable to his team.

Watt is perhaps the most disruptive force in the game today, while Gronkowski is the preeminent tight end. This comes down to which team is more in need of the spark that each player provides. On one had you have Watt, who is indisputably the best all around defensive player in the league and is annually a legitimate candidate for the MVP award. The most daunting number as it pertains to Watt is that he leads the team with 13.5 sacks, while his teammates have accounted for just 16.5.

In other words, without Watt, their pass rush essentially drops to bottom of the league numbers. On the other hand, Gronkowski, despite missing two games, leads the team in pass targets, yardage from scrimmage, touchdowns and yards after the catch – but besides all of that, New England has still put up 28 points on Philadelphia, which would have been a lot more without Brady’s two red zone interceptions.

Bottom Line: The Patriots can still score without Gronkowski, though it would be infinitely easier with him dictating double teams, while the Texans are toast without Watt bringing strong side pressure. Watt will have more of an impact.

The Texans under Bill O’Brien are winless when their opposition scores 21 points or more, which suggests that their offensive output is hardly prolific. What should be their game plan on offense to ensure they can score more than 21 points?

Jake: To be successful on offense Sunday it comes down to a few things for the Houston Texans. 
I'm sure Billy O is aware that Bill Belichick will attempt to take DeAndre Hopkins out of the game. So, repeatedly looking in his direction Sunday might not be to beneficial. Brian Hoyer needs to find the matchups that don't include Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Devin McCourty regularly to have success. 

Hoyer should look to the Patriots third corner often played by a safety, or to linebackers matched up with receivers or tight ends. If Hightower plays along with Collins the Texans will struggle to run, putting more of the load on the arm of Hoyer. Houston need success early on the ground, they also need Brian Hoyer to make good decisions if they want to score in the upper 20's Sunday night. Of course the Patriots need not help them by making mistakes similar to the ones in the Eagles game.

Do you think Billy O's knowledge of our offense system along with Romeo Crennel and Mike Vrabel combined defensive knowledge gives the Texans any kind of an advantage or is that all hocus pocus?

Mike: Four years removed from prowling the Patriots’ sideline, enough time has passed where O’Brien probably doesn’t have intimate knowledge of the Patriots’ offense as it stands now, simply due to personnel changes and the fact that Belichick’s offense evolve to take advantage of mismatches, usually on a game-to-game basis.
Crennel and Vrabel have been gone for centuries, but both learned under the Dark Master.  What they should have also learned is that you don’t get to be the best in the biz like Belichick if you don’t understand how to compensate and to attack the oppositions weaknesses. The issue for Belichick is that the Texans are a top three defense against everyone, not just New England.
Familiarity in this respect doesn’t really count, given that the Texans coaching staff are years removed from Belichick’s round table.

The Patriots’ running game has come under scrutiny in the past few weeks for not being all that the fans think it should be. Most are blaming running back LeGarrette Blount for not being the hammer through the middle of the line that he has been in the past, while still other blame the play calling of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who has the offense on pace to have the lowest number of running plays in a season since the 2002 season. In reality, is there even an issue with either of these guys, or have injuries along the line and at receivers negatively impacted the running game?

Jake: I think when it comes to the Patriots running game, it all comes down to situations. There is something to be said about Blount's dancing behind the line, and the offensive line being staffed with rookies at guard. However, I think the biggest problem is when they choose to run and when they choose not to. The last couple weeks have seen the Patriots run at times when aggression was needed and then throw when a more conservative approach would have made sense. 

I am all for letting Brady air it out because most of the time that is the right decision. Yet with how our offense currently stands with his most prolific weapons on the sideline, a more dedicated approach to running might be in order. I've been saying all week I don't want to run in an attempt to gain massive yardage, I just want to run so Brady isn't forced with 3rd and longs repeatedly. Let Brady throw, but put him in the best position to do so with an effective run game

To read all about the Patriots from an old-school twist, be sure to follow us on Foxborough Free Press and on twitter at @ffpblogger, and for a fresh, modern view of the team go to Gamegents.com and follow Jacob on twitter as well at @gamegentsdotcom !

Friday, December 11, 2015

Patriots' Record Inconsequential; Health Implies Return To Juggernaut

The 31 National Football League teams that reside outside of Massachusetts are shaking in the cleats.


Well, not because the New England Patriots have lost two straight games and have fallen behind both the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals for the two top seeds in the American Football Conference - as anyone who has played the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in January will attest, not having to travel to Foxborough is an excellent thing...

...and not because those Patriots are staring down a Houston Texans' team that have won four of five and are playing the best pass defense in the NFL right now, while New England goes into Sunday night's contest with more question marks than healthy pass catchers on offense.
Brady has had to make due recently, but all for the better come post-season play

In fact, the Patriots could lose a third straight at Houston to fall another game back of their conference rivals and still have both teams quivering in fear - and the reasons are two-fold:

First, while it's true that the Patriots have lost those two straight and barely squeezed by the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills before that without their top receiving target - wide receiver Julian Edelman - in the line up, the fact remains that they had enough to beat the aforementioned Giants and Bills without Edelman, and had given themselves a chance to win both of the games that they lost to Denver and Philadelphia.

As a matter of fact, had it not been for precipitous special teams errors in each game, we'd probably still be talking about the Patriots being undefeated instead of 10-2, losing in overtime to the Broncos after their low-diving secondary took out tight end Rob Gronkowski with three minutes remaining in regulation and New England driving, then falling to the Eagles when a furious fourth-quarter comeback fell short when the receivers they do have developed a case of the Wes Welkers...

...battle-hardening this team like no other contender can state, and giving their cast of back ups much needed NFL game day experience while waiting for the other shoe to drop.

That other shoe, as it were, is the fact that both Edelman and Gronkowski are back at practice, Edelman way ahead of schedule after having surgery just three weeks ago to mend a fractured bone in his foot, and Gronk just chilling with his knee in a brace and waiting for an "all clear" from the Patriots' docs.

And while it remains a long-shot for either to play on Sunday in Houston (particularly Edelman), it doesn't change the fact that both will be ready for the stretch run, probably just in time to run roughshod all over their final three opponents to secure a first round bye.

Of course, that will take either the Broncos or Bengals losing a game or two here or there, but it's hardly beyond the spectrum of possibility - especially since they must play each other in Denver on the second-to-last Sunday of the regular season.

Denver has the resurgent Raiders, then travel to Pittsburgh before hosting the Bengals and the always disappointing Chargers, while Cincinnati hosts the Steelers this Sunday, then travel to San Francisco and Denver before closing out with the cupcake Baltimore Ravens - with the winner of their head-to-head matchup likely becoming the top seed in the AFC.

But the Patriots can't concern themselves with that, nor should they, because once whole and healthy again, Bill Belichick's crew will resume their juggernaut status and resume their Scorched Earth Tour, blowing folks out of the stadium, be it Gillette or elsewhere. It just doesn't matter.

A top two seed would be nice, as it would give the Patriots a week to rest and mend after the arduous regular season, then only have to play two games to get to the Super Bowl in San Francisco - but if they have to host a Wild Card game and be forced to win three in a row to make to Levis Stadium in February, they will be poised to do just that.

So do not fret, Patriots' Nation. Instead, think of this like having dinner at your Aunt's house, and you've finished your steak, but have to consume a heaping helping of canned spinach before you can have any dessert.

You know the dessert is going to be awesome, so it makes the spinach a little easier to choke down.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Abandoning The Running Game The Talisman For Patriots' Woes

Four times.

That is the number of times that New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady was able to take the snap turn and hand the football off to one of his running backs during the course of the second half in Sunday night's contest against the Philadelphia Eagles - the same Philadelphia Eagles that entered the game with a miserable 27th ranking out of 32 teams...

...the same Philadelphia Eagles that had surrendered an average of 166 rushing yards per game in their last five contests, unsurprisingly losing four of the five, their lone win coming in overtime against the injury riddled Dallas Cowboys nearly a month ago - the same Philadelphia Eagles that do not rate in the top half of the league in any category besides special teams, in which they are exceptional.

So it is of small wonder that those Philadelphia Eagles were not about to look a gift horse like the Patriots abandoning their running game in the mouth, dropping six into coverage and blitzing Brady relentlessly - generating two interceptions and four sacks to end New England drives - then turning to their special teams to bury the Patriots, handing them their second consecutive loss.

And how did that happen?

Running the football is the most fundamentally sound play in the sport. It sets up everything else because if you are running the ball as successfully as the Patriots were, it sets up the play action. It sets up the route running by the pass catchers as they don't find themselves doubled up nearly as often because the opposition must devise a way to stop the run or the offense will drive it right down the field.

The running game causes the pass rushers to hesitate just a split-second, especially on the play action where they find themselves setting their feet to prepare for the back to come through their gaps. It helps the offensive linemen by giving them that split-second to get into their anchor positions. Obviously it helps the quarterback by getting that split-second longer to find his reads and get rid of the ball.

So when the Patriots mysteriously gave up on a running game that had gouged the Eagles for 90 yards on just 15 carries in the first half, a running game that set up consecutive touchdowns in the second quarter, all of that advantage disappeared - all of the time and effort for the classic set up wasted. And it doesn't get much more classic or fundamental than when in the first two possessions of the game, running back LeGarrette Blount led an attack that picked up 30 yards in just four carries, forcing the Eagles to adjust by bringing a safety down into the box.

The next two possessions, both resulting in touchdowns, the Patriots ran for only 21 yards in eight carries as the Eagles remained in their base defense and Brady shredded them, completing 7 of 10 passes for 95 yards.

That was apparently enough for Eagles coach Chip Kelly as he went nickle and dime the rest of the way, willing to allow New England to get whatever they could get on the ground just to keep Brady's receivers down - a prudent choice as it turns out, as even though running backs Brandon Bolden and James White combined for 28 yards on three carries, the pass rush got to Brady.

Apparently, the halftime adjustment for New England was to abandon the running game, as for the rest of the game, the Patriots gained just 14 yards on those four lone carries. Instead of gaining the advantage by forcing Kelly to eventually commit his safeties to the box, the Patriots played right into his hands.

This contest must serve as a perfect example of what happens when the offense is unbalanced. But being balanced means something different to the Patriots than it does other teams. For the Patriots to be balanced, they run the ball just enough to make the defense respect the ground game, forcing them to play straight up in a base defense or in a variation of a big nickle.

On Sunday, they didn't even do that, and it cost them in just about every way imaginable.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Eagles Present Issues For Injury Strapped Patriots

Statistically, the Philadelphia Eagles have one of the worst defensive units in the National Football League.

Ranked 25th in total defense, they are by far the worst-ranked defense the New England Patriots will have faced this season at 20th against the pass and an abysmal 27th against the rush. Their lone bright spot on paper is that they have given up only four touchdowns to their opponents on the ground, but that turns into a dim smudge when one considers that they have given up a whopping 25 touchdowns through the air, 31st in the league.

Good thing for them , then, that the Patriots' passing attack is coming into Sunday afternoon's showdown with the Eagles a few bullets short of being fully loaded.

Already down two of their most dynamic playmakers in wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back Dion Lewis, the Patriots were also forced to go without receiver Danny Amendola last week against the Broncos due to a bum knee, then lost all world tight end Rob Gronkowski to the same late in the contest.

The rate of attrition that the Patriots pass catchers are experiencing due to the injury bug is staggering. In fact, if one were so inclined to go back and take a look at New England's opening day depth chart, they would find that out of the nine original route runners, only two - tight ends Scott Chandler and Michael Williams - are fully healthy and are a full-go for Sunday's contest.

That's right, none of the wide receivers that were on the original 53-man roster are locks to play against the Eagles, and the tight ends that are still healthy weren't even on the team last year. That leaves Brandon LaFell, who started the season on the PUP list after undergoing offseason foot surgery, as the lone pass catcher of any consequence that has any chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady...and he's only played in five games.

That's a bitter pill for Patriots' fans to swallow, and desperation has caused many to vocally plead with head ball coach Bill Belichick to break out the old shovel and dig up a 42 year old Terrell Owens, who trolled the Patriots and their fans on social media last week by almost begging them to give him a try out.

Things may never get that bad for New England. LaFell is getting a bum rap from the media, who in turn have soiled the minds of the desperate fans against him - but in truth, LaFell isn't being given a fair shake by either, as he is just now getting into "football" shape, using the last four games as an impromptu preseason.

LaFell, Chandler (who has also drawn the ire of the media and fans for drops) and Williams (who is more of a sixth lineman than a pass catcher) are joined on the field by a pair of former Houston Texans, receivers Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson and are supplemented by passing backs James White, Brandon Bolden and newly-signed scatback Trey Williams.

When taken at face value, the fans' collective feeling of dread about the passing game is not completely unfounded, but there is help on the horizon.

Amendola has proclaimed that he is nearing 100% and may try to give his knee a go against the Eagles, while Gronkowski's injury has been deemed to be of no structural damage and his return is imminent - though not this week - and Edelman has been spotted around Boston with no walking boot and no noticeable limp in his recovery from a broken bone in his foot.

So with patience, the Patriots should be back to juggernaut status in a couple of weeks - and while that doesn't help them against the Eagles, they still have enough players to keep the Philadelphia secondary busy - the question is, will they keep them busy enough to prevent the Eagles from stacking the box and stopping the Patriots running game, effectively shutting down the offense?

That really all depends on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who laid an egg with his game plan against the Broncos last week that was so vanilla and predictable that the Patriots were forced into 10 punts, while their longest scoring drive was just five plays and their longest drive of night in terms of time of possession was a paltry 3:08.

Is it any wonder that the New England defense faltered down the stretch as the Broncos ruled time of possession for the game by over ten minutes and ran 72 offensive plays compared to New England's 58 - and only 16 of which were running plays, as Denver's defense dictated to the handicapped Patriots offense by clogging the running lanes and daring New England to beat them through the air...

...which would be football suicide with Brady fully stocked with weapons, but on this day it was a brilliant strategy that nearly backfired, as New England lined up to receive a punt early in the fourth quarter with a 21-7 lead and a very real opportunity to drive a nail into Denver's chances of winning the ball game - but one muffed punt later the lead was down to seven and the Patriots unraveled.

If that occurs again this week, the Patriots may be looking at a second consecutive loss, something that hasn't happened since early in the 2012 season.  But history has taught us that when McDaniels lays a stinker like that on us one week, he comes back with venom the next - and it's rarely pretty for the other team.

With or without Amendola - who, if he plays it will probably be sparingly - New England has enough with the aforementioned no-name receiving corps to keep the Eagles from loading up the box because, let's face it, the Eagles' defense is not even in the same league as the Broncos' - though they won't have to deal with Gronkowski like Denver did, making their job incrementally easier.

That should increase the number of running plays that Patriots are able to run, and should help them gain at least a split in time of possession to keep their defense fresh - which is key because the Eagles do field a passing attack that could be lethal to New England's defense, as it features the running backs and tight ends in heavy doses, an area where the Patriots have gotten burned many times in the last few weeks.

That should improve if strong side linebacker Jamie Collins comes back to the line up after a bout with a massive intestinal virus that laid him low for the past three games. Another dose of good news for New England is the fact that middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower, whose knee injury in the second quarter against the Broncos opened the running lanes for their explosive backs, may very well play against the Eagles despite being listed as questionable on the injury reports.

This is the type of game that will put pressure on the second level of the defense - as well as the safeties - and if either Collins or Hightower are not able to go, it won't matter whether the Eagles decide to go with Mark Sanchez at quarterback or back to Sam Bradford, because either one is capable of dinking and dunking the defense for long scoring drives.

Of course, being capable doesn't always mean that they can - and this is especially true against New England's unique Big Nickle defensive alignment.

As we've noted all season long, New England is the only team in the NFL with the depth and talent to employ the Big Nickle as a base defense, utilizing a stable of seven safeties in contrast to three or four game day active corners in order to keep a stout front seven intact with a run support-specific strong safety replacing a linebacker who will also key on Sproles or Murray wheeling out of the backfield and into the pattern.

Tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek would own the seam while Demarco Murray and Darren Sproles would roam the flat like lion kings otherwise, as corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan will have their hands full Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor.

Matthews is an example of the growing trend in the NFL towards tall, rangy slot receivers but can line up anywhere, probably taking Ryan with him as the third-year Rutgers corner has proven time and again that his prowess is being physical with receivers coming out of the slot. This would leave Butler on Agholor, Miles Austin or Riley Cooper, though it is also possible that the Patriots just align their corners on specific side of the field and fly with what Philadelphia throws at them.

The concern here is not so much Philadelphia scoring a lot of points, rather, it is them being able to control the time of possession battle. As mentioned earlier, the Broncos were able to creep back into the game last week with a New England turnover and the injury to Hightower, combined with having the time of possession edge that wore down the Patriots defensively - and a team that should not have been able to outscore New England eventually did.

So the key here is for the Patriots to build a two or three score halftime lead, then turn to the four-minute offense and get out with a victory, while the training staff works to get the rest of the weapons back on the field in the coming weeks...

All told, Patriots' fans' confidence is not unfounded, as New England's next-man-up philosophy still gives them a great shot at winning this game, just don't look for a complete blowout.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Loyalists - Mike And Jake Talk Hurt Guys, New Guys

Every week, two of our bloggers pick each others brains like a couple of zombie baboons - today it's Jacob Bertram from Gamegents.com and Michael Hamm from Foxborough Free Press serving up questions for each other in advance of the New England Patriots' Sunday afternoon showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles...

If you're looking for an excuse as to how the New England Patriots lost to the Denver Broncos on Sunday evening, you have your pick of literally a dozen different incidents.

You could say the refs cheated your team. You could say that the play calling was juveline. You could blame the injury bug for sapping nearly all of the Patriots' proven playmakers and you could blame a rookie receiver who muffed a punt, turning momentum and sparking a Broncos comeback.

You COULD say those things, and you would have many who agree with you whole-heartedly, what with a litany of questionable flags thrown against the Patriots in moments when they would hurt the most, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels insistence on running the same four plays over and over again, and Chris Harper's untimely fumble of a punt when the Patriots had all of the momentum and were in prime position to sink a dagger into the heart of the game Broncos...
Blount should see more room against the Eagles than he did the Broncos

...and all of those things did contribute to New England's 30-24 overtime loss in Denver, but the biggest reasons that the Patriots were able to squander a 14 point lead was two fold. On offense, the play calling was about as imaginative as a sitcom based on the comedy of a stand up comic and their previously top-ranked run defense couldn't set the edge.

Not known for unusual team speed to begin with, the Patriots defense allowed the speedy and explosive Broncos' running backs to gain the edge on touchdown runs of 19 yards by Ronnie Hillman and 15 yards by C. J. Anderson to let Denver back into a ball game in which they trailed by two scores, Anderson topping it off with a 48 yard touchdown run in overtime that ended New England's 10 game winning streak to start the season.

The Broncos rushed for a season high 179 yards on 32 carries, running on the Patriots at will in the second half - a ridiculous 5.6 yards per carry - most every yard gained outside of the tackles. In fact, the normally solid interior run defense of the Patriots held the Broncos to 3.4 yards per carry between the tackles, as run pluggers Alan Branch, Akeim Hicks and Malcom Brown shut down the inside lanes.

The entire run defense was running at peak efficiency until just over five minutes remaining in the first half, when linebacker Dont'a Hightower left the game with what has been diagnosed as a sprained MCL, leaving the Patriots without their two best edge-setting linebackers as strongside 'backer Jamie Collins didn't even make the trip to Denver.

That should not be the case this Sunday afternoon when the enigmatic Philadelphia Eagles visit Foxborough.

While it is true that Hightower will not be back, Collins should be. While it is true that tight end Rob Gronkowski won't be back, receiver Danny Amendola should be. While it is true that Josh McDaniels laid a proverbial egg with his play calling, it is also true that every time he does, he usually comes back the next week with a masterful plan...

...that said, let's tackle this week's questions:

With Gronk most likely out this week against the Eagles. Do you feel we will see more of the three receiver sets or do you think Asante Cleveland will assume a larger role? If not who will those three receivers be?

Mike - Cleveland is not necessarily a receiving tight end. In fact, in seven career games spanning two seasons, he has one catch for one yard, that coming last week against the Broncos. He has decent speed for the position and is fluid in and out of his cuts, but has zero suddenness – and is more of an athlete than a football player.

I would not be surprised to see Bill Belichick cut Cleveland after the Eagles game in favor of Joseph Fauria, who is getting the Patriots’ cram session on the practice squad at the moment, and is much more of a pass catching weapon for the position and possesses good speed, surprising foot quickness for his size (6’ 8”, 260 pounds) and is adept at boxing out defenders. Despite all of that, he looks like a newborn fawn trying to find its legs when running in the open field and is easy to bring down.

My guess is that the tight end position will produce next to nothing against the Eagles between the 20’s, as the Patriots will rely on a pair of former Texans to team with Brandon LaFell and possibly Danny Amendola to move the ball through the air – but I also expect to see the running game have far more impact on the game plan, facing the Eagles’ 27th ranked run defense.

As for the receivers, I fully expect that LaFell and former Texans' teammates Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson will be the top three options, with Danny Amendola playing a limited role coming off of injury.

Tom Brady mentioned this week that he was as “Pissed off” as he’s ever been after the team’s loss to the Broncos, and he seemed to lose his cool after a couple of questionable flags – though we’ve seen him lose it before in the recent past – most notably on a Thursday night encounter with the Jets in 2013. On both occasions, however, he has been left with minimal receiving threats due to injury in his pass catching corps. Given that he likely will again be without at least some of his top targets this week, will he be able to hold his frustration in check?

Jacob - What I think you are describing is the fire he has, which in my opinion is one of the things that makes him so great. He's a known perfectionist, so when we are missing key members on offense a lot of things are not going to be perfect. So this Sunday if Martin, or Chandler, or whoever starts running the wrong routes or starts dropping passes, I'm positive we will see Mr Brady lose his cool once again. But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

Damaris Johnson and Trey Williams have both been signed this week. What do you know of the players and what do you think their roles going forward will be?

Mike - What I know of the players can be read here. I call both Garden gnomes because they are diminutive and shifty, both with good hands and speed. I wouldn’t look for much out of Williams initially, as he is strictly one-dimensional and his presence on the field will easily tip off the Eagles that a pass play is coming – and that they should bring the blitz because Williams is not effective at picking up hard-charging linebackers and safeties.

On the other hand, Johnson could be an off-the-street steal for this offense. He played in what is essentially the same concept-based scheme in Houston under Bill O’Brien as what the Patriots run, though the terminology is slightly different. He was a number three option in Houston last season to current Patriots’ teammate Keshawn Martin and current Colts’ receiver Andre Johnson, and put up some decent numbers in an offense limited by uninspired quarterback play.

Both are young and fast and both bring shiftiness and elusiveness in space, but in the end, they are both bit players with specified roles on the offense and on special teams. One of them will be returning kicks while the other fields punts.

Many are criticizing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this week, including me, for his lack of imagination in play calling and for being aggressive when the situation called for a more conventional approach in some instances and for being passive when in a situation where being aggressive would have been a more prudent call. We know that he is prone to laying an occasional egg, especially when matched up against a great defense, but is the result of having no confidence in his players in certain situations, or is this just a matter of out-thinking himself?

Jacob - I do think Josh tried to get a bit cute last Sunday. Whether it was running the ball out before the half instead of trying to score, or throwing the ball late instead of running it. It seemed we got away from what we do great last Sunday and it really cost us. Situational football is always what we hear as something that Belichick preaches heavy and after the Broncos game, I'm sure they had a lot to talk about after it.

Depth is looking a little shaky at linebacker. Do you believe in Darius Fleming? Can Mayo handle the Hightower load moving forward until he comes back?

Mike - I do believe in Darius Fleming, as his role in the NFL has always been that of an edge setter, something that was desperately missing on the weak side against Denver once Hightower went down with a bum knee. However, that’s all he really is. He can rush the passer in certain situations and he showed last season that he can blow up a screen here or there, but he can’t be counted on in coverage.

Mayo, on the other hand, can do it all – and he’s shown his former aggressive side in the past couple of weeks with Collins being laid low with an illness. Collins could be back, which would be a boon to the Patriots defense as he sets the edge on the strong side on pure rushing downs and has the athleticism to handle tight ends in the pattern.

Make no mistake, had Collins been in the lineup, last week’s abomination against the run doesn’t happen and if he does play this week, he will platoon with Rob Ninkovich and Jaball Sheard to set the edge against Philadelphia’s decent running game, while Mayo generates bedlam on the weak side. Jonathan Freeny will likely man the middle as the designated run stuffer in Hightower’s absence.

The Patriots’ corners performed well against Denver, right up until crunch time when they gave up huge chunks of yards to allow the Broncos to move into scoring position. Is this a disconcerting trend or just a residual side effect of the offense and special teams repeatedly putting the defense in bad situations, or was it the result of dedicating too many players into the box in the wake of the injury to Hightower to try and stop the Broncos running game and leaving the corners without over the top help?

Jacob - I think it's a mixture of Hightower being out, so as you said safeties and linebackers come up to play the run. Also, Sanders and Thomas are both great players who you can't hope to shut out for the entire 60 minutes.  Butler and Ryan both played very well for most of the game and just got burnt on back to back plays late in the fourth quarter. This was horrible timing of course, but we haven't seen many plays like that this season. Which says a lot for both of these guys, who in my opinion are both treated unfairly by some in the media.

To read all about the Patriots from an old-school twist, be sure to follow us on Foxborough Free Press and on twitter at @ffpblogger, and for a fresh, modern view of the team go to Gamegents.com and follow Jacob on twitter as well at @gamegentsdotcom !