Friday, January 30, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 5: Blount Where He Belongs, Ready For Shot At The Title

"Pittsburgh had a golden opportunity to feature the heftiest, most powerful running attack in the NFL with both Bell and Blount, but once the season started and Bell became the "Bell Cow", it was just a matter of time before the lack of playing time for Blount became a problem - and it came to a head on Monday night when Blount received no carries, on top of getting just two the week before." Foxborough Free Press, November 20, 2014
If the Pittsburgh Steelers had not knee-jerked their way to releasing backup running back LeGarrette Blount in late November, there would have been a very good chance that it would have been them - not the Baltimore Ravens - that the New England Patriots would have hosted in the Divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

Not for any reason, though, other than when their lead back Le'Veon Bell went down with a knee injury shortly after Blount's release, they had no other big back to carry the load - and it likely cost them a win over the Ravens in the wildcard round of the playoffs with a trip to New England at stake.  It was a calculated risk by the Steelers and a decision that perhaps they would have liked to have back...
Blount (29) and Gray (35) are big backs key to a Super Bowl victory

...because it was them.  They are the ones that went back on their word to Blount, the word that enticed him to sign with Pittsburgh in the offseason with the vision of he and Bell running roughshod over their opponents, a promise that disintegrated slowly after the first few weeks of the season gave the league a glimpse of what it could be with a two-headed monster in their backfield.

After rushing for 118 yards on just 10 carries against the Carolina Panthers in week 3 - part of a 246 yard rushing day for the Steelers in which Bell rushed for 147 yards on 21 carries - Blount's touches and production dipped dramatically, barely eclipsing that yardage total in the next seven games combined.

The low point, of course, was the Steelers' 27-24 win over the Tennessee Titans on November 17th, when Blount unceremoniously departed for the locker room ahead of his teammates while the game was still going on, then departing the stadium without showering nor talking to the media - and the next day, he was released from his contract with Pittsburgh - and at least one of his teammates on the Steelers bid him good-riddance.

"We're fine." center Maurkice Pouncey said to reporters a few days after the incident, when questioned how the move would affect the team. "We have our starting running back. It's probably a good thing it happened.  If it was a cancer (in the locker room), he ended up leaving on his own. That's a blessing for us, we don't need him."

Pouncey is far from being innocent of transgression, and he was certainly mistaken when he announced that the Steelers didn't need Blount.  As it turned out, they did need him in a big way - and now Pouncey and the rest of his teammates are going to be watching Blount play in the Super Bowl against the defending world champions Seattle Seahawks.

This has been a point of contention for a variety of folks, particularly in the wake of the stupid and wrong "Deflate-gate" mess, and something that was brought up by a rouge reporter on Media Day, who ambushed Blount on how it all went down and insinuating that it seemed pretty convenient that Blount essentially got himself fired from a team that wasn't using him and ended up on a team that was in the midst of a very proper run toward the Super Bowl...

...the very team that he left in free agency during the offseason after racking up nearly a thousand yards for New England last season in tandem with Stevan Ridley - and perhaps motivated by need after Ridley's season ending knee injury early this season, the Patriots took advantage of how things shook out for Blount, and were thrilled to be able to bring back a guy that had been so productive for them in the past, but also a guy that was well-liked by his New England teammates.

Perhaps most importantly, however, was that Blount already knew the system and the language, and was able to step right in like he hadn't left at all.

So in response to the media's ambush, Blount could do nothing but smile, knowing that the subject of acquisitions and contracts were taboo in Patriots' Nation - but his silence fueled the conspiracy driven media into a firestorm of indictment in the name of collusion.

As if the media hadn't pig-piled the Patriots enough in the past dozen days, now they are up in arms about how it all came to be with Blount and the Patriots, asking him whether he knew that he had a job waiting for him in Foxborough were he to get himself "fired" from the Steelers - and perhaps he did know that he would end up back with the Patriots, but there was still a matter of how.

Upon his release, Blount appeared on the league-wide waiver wire wherein any team in the league could have put in a claim on him - but no one did.

Calculated risk by head ball coach Bill Belichick?  Well, it couldn't have been much of a risk, given Blount's checkered (albeit misunderstood) past, rife with confrontation from the college level on up - and when combined with the thought that Blount "abandoned" his teammates when he headed for the locker room that fateful night, it was a pretty good gamble on Belichick's part that most teams would steer clear of him...

...and when they all did - even the running back needy Broncos who knew first-hand what he brought to the field -  Blount suddenly appeared in the Gillette Stadium locker room where he was greeted with hugs and smiles from his former-now-present teammates.

"We were like, 'LeGarrette's back'!" said Patriots' safety Devin McCourty of the morning that Blount surprised everyone in the Patriots' locker room. "He honestly picked up right where he left off.  What happened in Pittsburgh doesn't matter.  What you did on a previous team, that doesn't matter.  It's all about who you are on the Patriots."

Who Blount is on the Patriots is perhaps the queen piece in a chess match between the league's best and most diverse offense against the leagues' best defense - a defense defined by violent intent, speed, intelligence and toughness - but also a defense that lost every game that their opposition ran the ball more than 27 times.

The 6' 1", 250 pound Blount is certainly capable of carrying that kind of work load, and his syrup-on-waffles running style will wear down any defense, if given that type of opportunity - but Blount really doesn't have to do the running all by himself, though that would appear to be the plan.

There is also overnight sensation turned flash-in-the-pan Jonas Gray, whose lone claim to fame was steamrolling the same Indianapolis Colts' defense in November that Blount did not even two weeks ago - which means that with Blount and Gray working in tandem, the Patriots can always have fresh legs in the backfield - and not just fresh legs, but twin battering rams that could relentlessly pound the Seahawks into oblivion, should New England gain a lead.

But no matter how it shakes down, if both men are on their game, they represent a huge challenge for the speedy-but-small Seattle front seven - particularly now that the Patriots have their starting offensive line intact with the return of center Bryan Stork - meaning that the Patriots now have everything that the Steelers could have had, but failed to capitalize on.

About that, LeGarrette Blount still just smiles, happy to be back where he belongs.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 4: Patriots Should Test Sherman And Thomas Early

Under normal circumstances, Richard Sherman is best left alone.

But these are less than normal circumstances, as the Seattle Seahawks are going into the Super Bowl with their best cover corner on the mend with torn ligaments in his left elbow - so the New England Patriots would be crazy to not go after him early, perhaps bogging him down with the likes of Brandon LaFell or even get him isolated on Rob Gronkowski.

Especially with back shoulder throws along the sideline, bringing his injured wing into play when he has to spin to locate the ball and try to make a play on it - and a crosser or two from either side of the formation should be in the mix as well, perhaps a screen or three to force him to come up and tackle.  A healthy Sherman would take all of that in stride and probably be gone the other way with at least one of them...
Sherman played the balance of the NFC Title game one handed...

...but a wounded Sherman is a different story.

A wounded Richard Sherman is not going to have the reach that he otherwise might enjoy, and in fact may be further inhibited if wearing a brace of some sort - and, of course, he might take an injection or two in the process of preparation on game day that will allow him to play more pain-free - but even then, there is no miracle cure that would allow him to stretch that arm out enough to exhibit his normal Condor-like range.

The Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) is the structure that keeps a normal attachment of the humerus bone (upper arm) and ulna (one of the forearm bones) and is usually seen on athletes that hit the turf hard with their arm stretched out in front of them, but in Sherman's case, his arm was stretched out to try to make a tackle along the sidelines, where it was impacted and pinned against the ball carrier by teammate, safety Kam Chancellor.

Traditional symptoms of a UCL tear include the inability to straighten the elbow joint, numbness and tingling of the ring and pinkie finger and throughout the hand, and weakness of hand grip.  If Sherman were a receiver, he would be useless in this game, but since he on the opposite side of that spectrum, he's going to give it a go.

This could be a real problem for the Seahawks' secondary, because if the Patriots are able to find success on him early in the game, it will force Seattle to either give him safety help over the top or replace him altogether if the injury turns out to be as limiting as it should be.
Thomas injured his shoulder when he couldn't wrap up this tackle

Sherman is on record as saying that it feels better every day - but, really, what is he supposed to say?

Indeed, Sherman and the Seahawks are taking a big chance with one of the best cornerbacks in the league, as any trauma to the area could result in injury to the Ulnar nerve, which could cause protracted numbness, tingling and weakness of the hand, and in severe cases these symptoms could become permanent.

Perhaps the bigger issue, however, is the degree of separation in the shoulder of safety Earl Thomas, whose injury forced him from the NFC Championship game against Green Bay, and then returned once the shoulder was stabilized by the Seahawks' medical staff - and just like Sherman, Thomas vows to play in the Super Bowl.

Upon arriving in Glendale for the Super Bowl, Thomas declared his shoulder 100%, a farce by any stretch of the imagination, but it apparently got the attention of the NFL league offices, who selected Thomas for a "random" test for Human Growth Hormones, an occurrence that Thomas called a "league office distraction."

Human Growth Hormones, or HGH, can significantly accelerate the healing process in virtually any injury, and while the league insists that the testing done on the Pro Bowl free safety was of random selection, it seems plausible that the testing was in response to Thomas' assertion that his shoulder was healed.

A shoulder separation occurs when when the ligaments that act to stabilize the shoulder joint stretch or partially tear, causing intense pain, arm weakness and limited range of motion in mild cases.  An athlete who suffers a mild separation can recover and be back in action in two to three weeks, but just like with Sherman's elbow issue, the injury can become significantly worse - something that Thomas apparently isn't thinking about.

"When I come alive, nothing is limited." Thomas said on Tuesday in Arizona in response to questions about having to tackle the likes of the Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back LeGarrette Blount. "I can still play fearless and throw my body around, and whatever happens, happens."

"It's a lot to deal with, my first major injury." Thomas continued, "I got the big picture."

So do the Patriots, who would be wise to test Thomas' shoulder stability early in the game as well - perhaps not in the manner that cornerback Brandon Browner suggested, that being to break his arm, but in spreading the Seahawks out and throwing the aforementioned crossers, wheel routes and screens, forcing the 5' 10", 200 pound Thomas to either square up to the receiver looking for extra yardage or be reduced to grasping for him, which would give a clear definition of the impact of his injury.

This will be even more effective if the Patriots can implement the running game early, which will draw strong safety Kam Chancellor up into the box and leave Seattle even more vulnerable in the secondary.

Browner's comments notwithstanding, New England should test the entire Seahawks' secondary, but not do it just to do it.  Balance is the key, and to arrive at a diagnosis on the two defensive backs should be quick work, but they must be careful not to sacrifice what got them to the Super Bowl just to ascertain if either player is handicapped beyond effectiveness.

Certainly, the Seahawks will try to protect them with an aggressive pass rush and by playing perhaps more zone coverages than they normally would - and whether this turns out to be the case or not, the Patriots needn't alter their game plan either way, but if Sherman and Thomas are indeed hurting, it opens up their play book just that much more.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Grumpy Old Men - New England Patriots Style...

The friendship between Brady (L), the Krafts and Bill Belichick have made them "My Family" Bob Kraft said Monday

Imagine if you will, a movie filmed in heaven...

...Burgess Meredith sitting in the owner's booth at Gillette Stadium, speaking randomly to any number of celebrities whom he had invited to watch his New England Patriots play - down on the field is Walter Matthau stalking the sidelines with his familiar scowl, Jack Lemmon getting last second instructions before trotting out on the field armed with a litany of tackle-eligible options.

After the Patriots score, Lemmon limps to the sidelines, Matthau is still standing where he was moments earlier with the same scowl, and Meredith is cutting penis references in the owner's box in response to yet another New England score.

"I've laid more pipe in this town than Foxborough Public Works!" He yells, alienating the women and children, making John Kerry pull his scarf over his face to hide his grin and causing Mark Walberg to laugh like a hyena and high-five everyone - except Meredith.
Kraft giving the business to the media and NFL on Monday

And, yes.

Absurd notion, but perhaps not so far off base - particularly in light of what the New England Patriots have had to endure this week amid rampant accusations of cheating, a venomous media who have been circling the stadium like sharks and the infantile leaking of rumors from the NFL home office - the result of which has been Matthau and Lemmon, er, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady left with their bits blowing in the wind.

So the crusty old Meredith decided he'd heard enough of the noise and took the opportunity to have a few words with these people who were gathered into a press conference upon the arrival of the Patriots in Arizona in advance of Sunday's Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks.

I mean, Bob Kraft.

He had been hearing all of the negativity for a week, watching Belichick and, to a greater extent, Brady, squirm in the face of rapid-fire questioning of their integrity and that of the organization - and, to even more of his disgust, hearing reports that the NFL has been slowly leaking information to the press after each press conference, lending credence to the thought that his team was mired in a playground argument with a bully.

So Kraft took the opportunity to get some things off his chest in front of a captive audience, who thought they were there to make Belichick refuse to answer any more questions regarding the integrity of his team and to make Brady twist uncomfortably with the same - Kraft was not scheduled to speak but seized the podium first anyway and delivered a gut shot to both the media and the NFL in one powerful two-minute sermon.

"I want to make it clear that I believe unconditionally that the New England Patriots have done nothing inappropriate in this process or in violation of NFL rules," Kraft said, following it up specifically, "I am disappointed in the way this entire matter has been handled and reported on."

At this point, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was seen speaking into his cell phone in the hallway, a dark cloud forming over his head, and the hundreds of members of the media who were gathered in the room began the uncomfortable squirming dance in their seats.

"I am confident that this investigation will uncover whatever the facts were that took place last Sunday and the science of how game balls react to changes in the environment." he continued, then lowed the boom. "This would be in direct contrast to the public disclosure thus far, which has been driven by media leaks (from the NFL) as opposed to actual data and facts."

Ouch.  Direct accusations of conspiracy and dark malfeasance are rarely uttered by owners of NFL franchises, let alone on one of the biggest stages in the world of sports, but here was 73-year-old Robert Kraft giving the business to perhaps the most powerful commissioner in all of sports, as well as the increasingly rabid and irresponsible media - but he wasn't finished.

Not even close.

"Because of this, many jumped to conclusions and made strong accusations against our coach, quarterback and staff, questioning the integrity of all involved" Kraft said, leveling a finger at the media present, "Tom, Bill and I have been together for 15 years.  They are my guys.  They are part of my family.  And Bill, Tom and I have had many difficult conversations over the years, and I have never known them to lie to me."

"That is why I am confident in saying what I just said, and it bothers me greatly that their reputations and integrity, and by association that of our team, has been called into question this past week."

Some may laugh off that last statement by Kraft, given that Spygate happened on his watch as well, but during that investigation, Kraft asked Belichick if the accusations were true, and when Belichick affirmed to him that they were true, Kraft's lone response was another question:

"How much good would any of that have done for us?" Kraft asked, and when Belichick replied that it was not much, if any, Kraft responded, "The you're a real schmuck?"

Bob Kraft does not pull punches.  he asks the hard questions and expects the truth.  He feels like that's what he got from his "Guys", but not what he's getting from the NFL, to whom he delivered a parting shot.

"If the Wells Investigation is not able to definitively determine that our organization tampered with the air pressure on the footballs, I would expect and hope that the league would apologize to our entire team and, in particular coach Belichick and Tom Brady for what they have had to endure this week."

And while an apology is nice to think about, perhaps Kraft should take the advice of Burgess Meridith from the film Grumpy Old Men, when he said "Hope and one hand and shit in the other, then see which one fills up faster."

Perhaps they should just win the Super Bowl and forget about all of this noise.  After all, through this episode they have learned just how depraved and irresponsible both the media and the NFL offices really are, and Kraft has said more than once that he doesn't associate with people like that...

Monday, January 26, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 3: Gap Discipline Key To Patriots Limiting Seahawks' Options On Offense

Patriots' defenders Arrington (25), Chung (23) and Collins are keys to stopping Seattle's read option offense
The Seattle Seahawks rank dead last in number of passing attempts in NFL during the 2014 season - but when you have the type of ground game that the Seahawks' possess, there is really no need to air it out.  Besides, to say that the Seahawks are undermanned at the pass catching positions would be kind of an understatement anyway.

But don't mention anything like that to receiver Doug Baldwin, who is very vocal in his resolve that the Seahawks have one of the best corps in the league and is staffed with "Elite" receivers.

Known as "Angry Doug" to many, particularly after his Rodney Dangerfield-style rant after the NFC Championship about the Seahawks not receiving any respect, Baldwin is way off in his perception of the Seahawks having one of the best receiving corps in the NFL, but it suits what the team wants to do on offense - which is giving quarterback Russell Wilson perhaps a more diverse set of options than usual to move the ball downfield.

That said and true, Wilson is the heartbeat of the Seattle offense, which makes him the number one priority for the New England Patriots to defend.

Notice how that statement didn't translate to stopping Wilson from doing what he does - rather, to take away the options that Baldwin and his fellow pass catchers represent so that the Patriots' front seven can concentrate on limiting what Wilson does on the ground together with running back Marshawn Lynch, and New England may have the perfect defense to do just that...

...what with shutdown corner Darrelle Revis, physical menace Brandon Browner playing opposite him and quick-twitch slot man Kyle Arrington masterfully denying slot receivers access to the crossers and the seam, the Patriots are experiencing a surplus of quality defensive backs, meaning that they are in decent position to defend and perhaps limit what the Seahawks are able to do on the ground.

This is not to mean that Seattle's passing game should be taken lightly, as they factor in the Seahawks' overall balance, albeit run-heavy balance, but the fact remains that due to injury and attrition, Seattle's pass catching corps is far from elite - which can be a true advantage for New England so long as they defend Seattle's read option attack with gap-intensive discipline.

Similar to what the Patriots faced in the divisional round against the Baltimore Ravens, the Seahawks employ a zone blocking scheme that relies on cut blocks from the back side tackle and cut backs by the running back.  What makes Seattle's variation of the scheme more dangerous than Baltimore's is the not just the quality of the running back in Lynch, but also in the masterful execution of their read-zone attack.

Relying on the stretch run to set up their blocking zones and to create a floating pocket off the play action, quarterback Russell Wilson has the option to hand off to Lynch, keep the ball and dart through or around the line of scrimmage, or keep the ball and boot to the outside to look for his sneaky pass catchers which, if the read option is running correctly and efficiently, may have become a dangerous afterthought.

Wilson may be the best read-option quarterback in the National Football League, and can make every throw required of an elite signal caller.  He is a master of deception and as tough as they come, but he is painfully short for the position, so the way to combat Wilson's highly effective execution of the read-option is maintain gap discipline, to get hands up in the passing lanes and to keep the speedy third-year man confined to the pocket.

In the read-option, as we know, the quarterback keys on the weakside defensive end and his movements to decide what he's going to do with the football.  If the end starts to break laterally down the line of scrimmage, it usually means that he's playing the running back and the quarterback should keep the ball and run to where the end vacated, but if the end maintains the integrity of his gap and dances in unison with the movement of the quarterback, he should hand off to the back.

If going left, which the Seahawks prefer to do, the backside end will be Rob Ninkovich who is rarely caught out of position and seems to have a knack for getting to the ball - but if they go to the right, the backside end is Chandler Jones, who has been known to allow himself to be escorted out of the play whether up and around the pocket or trapped inside, and is vulnerable to the backside cut block.

Perhaps in this instance the Patriots may think about supplementing the front seven with safety Patrick Chung, or with a mixture of Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas as nickle linebackers - but regardless of how they intend to defend in the box, the defensive line must control the interior linemen and not let them get to second level.

In a game where gap integrity is crucial, keeping linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins clean and unencumbered by rouge linemen allows them to flow to the ball and, perhaps even more critical, to play sideline to sideline in setting a hard edge.

One thing that could make this a little easier for the Patriots is the fact that both right guard J.R. Sweezy and right tackle Justin Britt are questionable for the game, meaning that neither will be at 100% if they play in the game as expected - and if they can't go Ninkovich and linebackers Hightower and Collins will be able to feast on their backups...

...and if the Patriots rotate their defensive tackles effectively to keep them fresh, well, the read option won't have as big an impact, given the quality of the Patriots defense overall and the limitations and injury status on the Seahawks' side.

Another element to this offense is the quick pitch to the outside, where a receiver comes in motion and crosses the face of the play just at the snap of the ball, which accomplishes two things.  First, the reaction of the cornerback assigned to the receiver off the line will tell the quarterback if the defense is in man coverage - if the corner follows the receiver laterally across the formation - or in zone coverage...

...and also gives the quarterback a pitch option in case the hole left vacated by the defensive end closes quickly and he needs to get rid of the ball.  The Seahawks ran this option many times with receiver Percy Harvin, but when Harvin was traded earlier in the season, that element of the offense suffered, though it still remains an element.

This is a weak spot for the Seahawks.  At the start of the season, Baldwin may have been accurate regarding the receiving corps being among the "Elite" in the league, what with Angry Doug, fellow undrafted wideout Jermaine Kearse, Harvin, rookie speedster Paul Richardson and tight end Zach Miller...

...but the Harvin trade and season-ending injuries to Richardson and Miller has left the cupboard mostly bare.  Names like Ricardo Lockette and tight end Luke Willson have picked up the slack somewhat, but not enough to dig the Seahawks out of their abyss in the passing game.

Does this mean that Seattle is doomed if they have to go up top?  Anyone who saw the end of either of the Seahawks' playoff victories knows that Wilson can lay a football into his receivers with the best of them, but it's no secret that to stop Lynch and Wilson from getting the ground game going is key.

The Patriots should easily be able to blanket Kearse on the outside and up the seam while slot corner Kyle Arrington takes on Baldwin.  Willson has made a few big catches in recent games and is murder in the red zone, so if his former teammate Brandon Browner gets involved and manhandles the big tight end off the line, that leaves the Patriots' linebackers and the strong safety to concentrate on preventing Lynch and Wilson from generating a running game.

Again, just as the Seahawks' defense is not without shortcomings, their offense is limited by a lack of quality depth among the pass catching options, which should translate to New England being able to concentrate on stopping the run and keeping Wilson in the pocket, where his movement is limited and his size becomes a detriment - because if he gets outside of the pocket, he is as dangerous as they come.

This is the same thing that the Denver Broncos did to defeat the Patriots in last season's AFC Title game, but it's important to remember that Seattle's offense is keyed by the running game and, even as limited as they are in depth among the pass catchers, they still aren't as bad off as New England was in that game...

...but if the Patriots remain disciplined, stay in their gaps and do their jobs that have been assigned to them, there's no reason to believe that the Seahawks will be able to exert their will on New England's defense.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 2: Winner Of Super Bowl Will Be The Best When It Counts The Most

"Great teams aren't great all the time; they're just great when they have to be."

Legendary NFL Films narrator John Facenda coined that phrase over thirty years ago, but he may as well have been talking about both of the entrants of Super Bowl 49.

For those who don't know of Facenda or are too young to even have an inkling as to who he is, his voice could only be described as deep as a bass drum, his appearance that of Rick from from the television show Pawn Stars, his prose as elegant as that of Grantland Rice - "The Voice of God" as was proclaimed by legions of football fans, a voice so iconic that to this day it is often parodied and replicated...

Kam Chancellor and the Seahawks have been stout on defense...
...and were he alive today, I suspect that he would again dip into this most poignant of quotes to describe both the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, who both endured turbulent starts, then turned on the afterburners to run roughshod over the rest of the National Football League.

In fact, were Facenda somehow resurrected and put behind the microphone to narrate the 2014 NFL Season, there would probably be a hint of marvel in his voice, for when he passed away in 1984 of Lung Cancer, the Patriots has a combined three playoff appearances in their 24 year history, while the Seahawks were still relative infants with two playoff appearances in their eight years.

Things change.  Times change.  Now the Patriots are about to appear in their eighth Super Bowl and the Seahawks their third, both eschewing their previous monikers of doormats and indeed entering the game as the unquestioned top two teams in the National Football League.

And how they got to this point are two amazingly similar stories, at least as far as statistics will take you.
...but so have Brandon Browner and the Patriots.

It has long been held by the Seattle media and perhaps by the team itself that the turning point in their season was a distressing loss at Kansas City in Week 11 that left the Seahawks with a mediocre 6-4 record and in second place in the tough NFC West Division, a full two games behind the Arizona Cardinals, and amazingly being counted out of the running for the division title.

The Seahawks won six straight down the stretch to finish out the season, eclipsing those fading Cardinals for the division title and eventually securing the number one seed in the conference, and have since won two home playoff games to find themselves headed to Glendale, Arizona to face a New England team that also counts a 41-14 drubbing at the hands of those same Chiefs as a turning point to their season...

...tearing off a very proper seven game winning streak after that loss and winning 10 of 11 to secure the AFC's top seed in week 16 before coasting home with a loss to the Bills on a meaningless final Sunday of the regular season.

But to properly appreciate what these teams have done to get to Super Bowl 49, one must jump inside the numbers - and what one finds there suggests that football fans around the world may just be in for the treat of a generation.

In the eight games since their loss to Kansas City, the Seahawks' offense has put up 155 points on the scoreboard, an average of 19 points per game - which is ok, because they have allowed only 78 points, a mind-blowing average of just 9.75 points per game, while during the same time period, New England's offense has amassed 213 points, or nearly 27 points per game while their defense has yielded two touchdowns per game.

So it's easy to see how both teams had success in the past two months, but those figures don't tell the entire story.

The two teams' opponents have done most of their damage on offense in the first half of games, with Seattle's foes scoring 49 points in eight games while the Patriots' nemesis' have hammered out over twice as many - which is neither here nor there for the purposes of this discussion.

Where the two teams have have shined the brightest, where these two great teams have been at their greatest is in the second half of their games, particularly in crunch time, and while the offenses remain incredibly consistent from the first half to the second, the difference in these games have come from the teams' defenses, and the numbers are staggering.

In the past eight games, the Seattle Seahawks have given up a ridiculous 29 points in the second half, 16 in the third quarter and 13 in the fourth, completely shutting out three of their foes and giving up just one touchdown, that to Carolina in the divisional round of the playoffs - they are, after all, the appropriately named "Legion of Boom".

But perhaps it's time to find a trendy nickname for the Patriots' defense because they have been even better.

In the same two month span, New England's defense has yielded but 22 second half points, 10 in the third quarter and only 12 in the fourth, shutting out four opponents, including the thrashing they gave the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game - the only touchdown surrendered in that time frame was to Baltimore, again in the third quarter of the divisional round.

So, what are we to make of these numbers?  Well, on paper, the Patriots have a slightest of advantages, the math suggesting an 18-17 Patriots' victory - but these are just numbers and this is just paper.  When the whistle blows and play begins in what should be an epic Super Bowl, we will see what the two teams can do on grass...

...and the winner will be the one who may not be great throughout the entire game, but the one that is the greatest when they have to be.

Roger Goodell Steps In It Again

It's poop again.

In the movie Billy Madison, there is a scene in which Billy, played by Adam Sandler, and two of his friends scoop up some rouge dog crap off of the sidewalk and slide it into a paper bag, then Billy sneaks up onto Old Man Clemens' front porch, lights the bag on fire, rings the doorbell and runs like a bastard.

From the cover of a large shrub they wait for the old man to answer the door, which he does wearing just his skivvies and a pair of work boots.  He yells at his unseen wife to call the fire department, claiming the small fire is "out of control", then proceeds to stomp the fire out - the smell of the ignited excrement wafting into his nostrils, causing the standard disgusted look as the smell visited his olfactory.

Because, let's face it: Poop smells terrible, and when it's ignited it takes on an odor that one never forgets, and when one faces the unpleasant task of having to stomp out a flaming bag of shit, they usually don't fall for the gag a second time.

Unless, of course, you are Old Man Clemens.  Or Roger Goodell.

The Commissioner of the National Football League had a big bag of under inflated caca set afire on his front doorstep last Sunday night, just the latest of many that he has had to extinguish this season, but instead of taking a shovel and scooping it to the curb, he chose to stomp on it, and now it's all over his boots.

"It's poop again."

What else could it be? There are many, many opinions on just what occurred between the time that the game officials inspected the New England Patriots' game balls on Sunday night before the AFC Championship Game - when the officials have noted that the balls were properly inflated - and halftime, when they claim that the balls were not properly inflated.

The ensuing accusations leveled against the Patriots of wrong-doing has compelled the league to launch an investigation, and the collaborative efforts of the media to indict the Patriots despite the lack of any information coming out of the league offices has turned the process into and old-fashioned witch hunt that has every two-bit writer in the country picking up their pitchforks and torches.

There are enough angles to this story to make a Geometry teacher go mad with blindness, and not even a child with a keen touch for connecting the dots can figure out this puzzle, but the one thing that makes all of the opinions, speculation and accusations a moot point is the fact that the officials claim that they reinflated the footballs at halftime, and put those balls back into play for the second half.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but taking the key evidence in any investigation, altering the evidence in any manner and then handing it back to the "criminals" to do with as they please not only violates every tenet of investigative protocol, but also raises suspicion in the opposite direction.

In the real world, tampering with evidence is a felony, but in the world of football and their curious discernment of protocol, it constitutes nothing more than a raised eyebrow.

And when taken in context, along with the thought that Indianapolis Colts' owner Jim Irsay indirectly petitioned the league into what can be called nothing less than a "Sting" operation - which is defined as the use of a "cooperative member of the public or a law enforcement officer playing a role as a criminal partner or potential victim and goes along with a suspects actions to gather evidence of a suspects wrong-doings." - should raise more than a few eyebrows.

So, why reinflate the footballs at halftime?  And not only reinflate them, but press them back into service?

At the very least, the league made a poor decision with evidence once again - and at the very most is guilty of trying to discredit the Patriots' organization on the word of a life-long junkie with a taste for liquor and a history of using his employees to cover up his rouge behavior, which is documented very nicely in an article by Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz... fact, the very same Bob Kravitz who was played the liason between Irsay and his accusations of ball tampering by the Patriots and the NFL.

If one strings together these things, it becomes entirely possible that the league knew of Irsay's accusation well before the AFC title game was played - and if this chain of events led to the league instructing their officials to allow the Patriots to play the entire first half of the game with altered footballs just to set up a scenario where the officials took measures at halftime to destroy that evidence - well, something doesn't make sense.

And then there's the ruse at the beginning of the second half, holding up the Patriots' initially possession to publicly remove one of the footballs and replace it with another.  If the officials had indeed reinflated footballs at halftime and were using the same balls as were used in the first half, now with the proper PSI, why remove it?

Madness, all of it.  But here's the thing, and it's hard to overlook: Someone in the league offices is covering up something.  Either someone is covering up a story that got blown way out of proportion while the league musters their damage control mavins to try and sweep it all under the rug, or someone in the league office authorized the destruction of evidence that would have implicated the Patriots.

That is not beyond the spectrum of imagination, as anyone who remembers the "Spygate" investigation will recall when the team turned over video evidence of whatever happened, and the league office authorized their destruction.

Either way, the National Football League has stomped on a big bag of flaming dog crap that Jim Irsay placed on their front porch, and it's all over Roger Goodell's boots - so in the interest of transparency in future cases of dark malfeasance, perhaps the league should insist that future smoldering masses of impropriety be placed in plastic baggies, so they can at least see what is on fire before they step in it. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 1: Patriots' Running Game Could Resemble "Student Body Left"

"Blount is a glider who slips through holes and who is most dangerous once on the second level, where his low center of gravity and sheer mass makes him akin to a bumper in a pinball machine, defensive backs and linebackers bouncing off of him like a pinball...while Gray is pure power, a one cut downhill bruiser that picks up nearly half of his yardage after contact. Combine those two with a smaller yet more conventional passing back in Shane Vereen and the Patriots may suddenly have the best stable of running backs in the league." Foxborough Free Press, November 20, 2014

LeGarrette Blount ran through the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night like he was shot out of a cannon, sliced through them as if he was a hot knife to their butter, stomped through them like Hannibal through the Alps.

Why, even the normally demure and often-times befuddled color analyst Phil Simms committed a Freudian slip and called him Marshawn Lynch.  So does that mean that the Patriots' have some manner of "Beast Mode" happening for them right before they take on the namesake's team in the Super Bowl?
Blount and his offensive line have what it takes to dominate Seahawks

Certainly, we can all hope.  After all, it's not like the Seattle Seahawks have a trademark on it.

The New England Patriots earned the right to meet the defending champions Seahawks on Sunday night with an impressive display of power, hammering the clearly over matched Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium by a count of 45-7 - delivering such a beat down that not even the controversy regarding supposed deflated footballs could dampen the deed.

How this translates to the Super Bowl matchup with Seattle is yet to be determined, as everything is on paper right now, but the prospect of the Patriots getting their rush on against the notorious "Legion of Boom" defense isn't quite as imposing at it may seem.  It is a well known fact that the Seahawks are the second-ranked run defense in all of football, allowing a scant 3.4 yards per carry on the season.  But, as always, there is more to the story than just the generic interpretation of that ranking.

First of all, only three teams were rushed against less than Seattle, as the Seahawks faced only 380 attempts on the season, the result being that just five teams topped 100 yards against them, those being the Chargers, Cowboys, Rams, Chiefs and 49ers, which, not coincidentally, account for all four of the losses the Seahawks absorbed on the season.

Their lone win in that scenario was the week 15 victory over San Francisco, most of that yardage due to the scrambling ability of Colin Keapernick and a 28 yard run by backup running back Carlos Hyde.

After Seattle slipped to a 6-4 record when Kansas City dropped nearly 200 rushing yards on them, the Seahawks faced an Arizona team twice, who started two different backup quarterback, a 49ers team that couldn't throw the ball to save their lives (or their season), a Philadelphia team that was working with Mark Sanchez under center and a Rams' team that was playing out the string.

Regardless of the level of competition, the Seahawks gave up a minuscule 3.1 yards per carry in those last six games, winning all and qualifying for the post-season as the NFC's number one seed.

But that's where things get interesting.

Against Carolina in the divisional round and Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks surrendered 132 and 135 yards respectively, with each team running the ball 30 times a piece, an aggregate of 4.5 big yards per carry with the Panthers' Jonathan Stewart and the Packers' Eddie Lacy doing the majority of the damage.

In fact, the Seahawks opponents in their last five games overall have rushed for at least 130 yards three times, with only the 20th ranked Rams and the abysmal 31st ranked Cardinals not following suit.  The others?  The 4th ranked 49ers, 7th ranked Panthers and the 11th ranked Packers - but where does that leave the 18th ranked Patriots?

Well, the Patriots are different animal than the others in that they have proven that they can beat anyone regardless of how they are defended.  New England has perhaps the preeminent quarterback in the game in Tom Brady with a plethora of talented pass catchers to throw to and an offensive philosophy that adheres to the tried and true axiom of the Erhardt-Perkins offense, "Pass to score, run to win".

If a team devotes extra men into the coverage to try and take away the passing game, the Patriots are able to attack the lighter box that is left with 250 pound running back LeGarrette Blount - and if they load up the box to try and stop Blount, Brady shreds them over the top.  It's a recipe for success that New England has enjoyed the majority of the season...

...which should translate to the Super Bowl against the Seahawks lighter than normal - yet very quick - front seven, particularly running to the left, where the Seahawks are vulnerable to power backs going off guard.

All season, Seattle's opposition have tried the left with success to the tune of 4.4 yards per carry, running right at undersized defensive end Cliff Avril, who is backed up on the second level by weak side linebacker K. J. Wright.  Teams have even had success running right at the Seahawks' tackle tandem of Kevin Williams and Tony McDaniels, neither with the bulk that you would traditionally find in a run stuffing tackle.

And that's because the Seahawks rely on middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and strongside 'backer Bruce Irvin to stymie the run, with strong safety Cam Chancellor sneaking down into the box for run support.

Teams have not had much success running to the right at big defensive end Michael Bennett, with the aforementioned Irvin on his backside, nor are teams very successful trying to gain the corner against the speedy Seahawks.  Power football is what is required, and New England has shown a propensity to play exactly that when when there is a tactical advantage...

...and since Blount seems to enjoy running left with the nimble feet to cut back against the grain up the middle, that seems to be the tactical advantage that New England needs to gouge the Seattle defense.

And make no mistake: The Seahawks are not invincible on defense despite their cute nickname.  Just like any other unit in the league, if they are run on enough to make them respect the ground game, they can be worn down, and with Brady flinging the ball to his receivers to mix things up, it becomes a guessing game for the defense if they have to keep at least seven in the box...

...and any time that you keep a defense guessing, that affords the offensive line the advantage of an extra split second to either pull and isolate on a particular gap in the running game or to anchor themselves against the pass rush, and with how precisely Brady can sell the play action - see his touchdown pass to Nate Solder against the Colts - it allows his receivers to gain extra separation.

So there shouldn't be any question as to the recipe for taking advantage of the Seahawks' lighter-than-normal, yet extra-speedy front seven: Hammer the ball to the left and force the Seahawks to commit an extra man to the box, eventually wearing them down.

Left, left, left - lull them to sleep, then hit them down the seam or on an intermediate crosser or a wheeler to the flat - because once New England has the defense committed to stopping the run, Brady will have them right where he wants them: Chasing the play - and, indeed, the scoreboard - from behind.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 4: Heavy Rains After Halftime Could Shift Game Plans

The weather forecast for Foxborough on Sunday night is for bleak conditions - especially in the second half - with heavy rain and a sustained wind out of the southeast at 12-15 miles per hour - gusting to 25 mph at times - with temps in the low 40's at kickoff, dropping to the high 30's by the final snap.  It is estimated by the National Weather Service that more than an inch of rain could fall at Gillette Stadium during the course of the game.

Belichick can become the all-time wins leader in the postseason with 21
Naturally, the rain puts a premium on ball security and, mixed with the winds, could bring the running game more into focus.  While this shouldn't affect the Patriots' game plan coming in, it could cause the Colts to alter theirs a bit.  Look for them to put the ball in the air early and often to try and gain a halftime lead, then go to a more ball control offense in the second half to eat the clock.

Both quarterbacks, New England's Tom Brady and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck have strong arms and can zip the ball through a tempest, but where the wind could play a factor is on the outside down the field, which affects Luck more than Brady - particularly if Luck is forced to throw from the pocket.  With the field conditions likely to be slippery and the wind playing a factor, the Patriots' safeties could enjoy some wind-driven, off-target throws to feed off of, especially if the Colts enter the second half down.

other items of interest for Sunday's AFC Championship Game:

* Defensive tackle Joe Vellano has been activated from the practice squad in favor of tight end Steve Maneri, who was released.  The team has been down a three-tech since Dominique Easley went on the IR, and while it seems improbable that Vellano will find his way onto the game day roster for the AFC Championship, perhaps the move is part of long-range thinking, looking forward to a Super Bowl matchup where both NFC teams still in the hunt have superior ground games than Indianapolis.

* With center Bryan Stork already ruled out for the title tilt, veteran brawler Ryan Wendell will likely get the nod at the pivot.  Wendell is undersized for the position, but if there is one thing that has become evident throughout this season, it is that Wendell has plenty of grit and seemed to really take to mixing it up with defensive tackles at the right guard position.  That job now likely falls to Josh Kline, who has had an up-and-down season, to say the least.

To help Kline hold the line in the running game, the Patriots have many options, from wham blocks from the tight ends to two-back sets with a fullback leading the way through the hole.  But in pass protection, be looking for one back to stay in for max-protect.  Of course, getting the running game going early will negate much of the Colts' pass rush, so that should be a priority.

*There is still the chance that cornerback Brandon Browner could be a scratch for the game.  Perhaps it comes down to a gametime decision, but if he's not able to go, Logan Ryan will go in his stead, as already spoken of in part 3 of this series.  It could be that Ryan sees a lot of the field anyway, as Browner's knee could limit his lateral movement, so he could be more of an in-the-box safety type entity in the middle of the underneath zone.

* Should the Patriots prevail, they will tie the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers for most all-time appearances in the Super Bowl with eight.  Of course, all but one of those appearances have come under the ownership of Bob Kraft, whose business savvy has been highlighted recently in this blog.  Going to the big game 7 times in 20 years is all the evidence anyone should need to confirm Kraft as one of the most successful owners in NFL History.

* A few other individual honors are at stake in this game as well.  With a win over Indianapolis, head ball coach Bill Belichick will overtake Tom Landry as the all-time leader in post-season wins in NFL History with 21, and Tom Brady will pass John Elway for the most apprearances in a Super Bowl by a starting quarterback with 6.

At halftime in the NFC Championship Game, the Green Bay Packers are playing their game plan to perfection and are leading the defending World Champions Seattle Seahawks 16-0.

Part 1:  Patriots enter championship Sunday fully loaded
Part 2:  Patriots' offense ready for encore performance
Part 3:  Colts offense custom built....

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 3: Colts' Offense Custom-Built To Challenge Patriots' Defense

The best way to get to Colts' Andrew Luck is with "Hug" Blitzes, with Linebackers like Dont'a Hightower.

The evolution of the tight end from the big lumbering end-of-the-line blocker into the even bigger, more athletic downfield threat has changed the way that defenses regard the position, and to what extent defensive coordinators game plan for specific threats.

Today's tight ends are more akin to a power forward in basketball than their ancestors, bringing jumping and running ability with big, soft hands that suit them well running up the seam, at times almost looking like the aforementioned power forward driving the lane towards the hoop...

...except in football they can be stopped by being tackled by any assortment of linebackers, safeties and corners, and usually it takes more than one.

Tight ends stretch the field like no other position, given the athleticism and speed employed, as well as they number of defenders that it takes to stop them, routinely taking two players up the seam with them, which opens up the field for other pass catchers - and particularly slot receivers and running backs curling out of the backfield.
Containing Fleener is a group effort, including linebacker Jamie Collins

And although the New England Patriots present perhaps one of the most effective usages of a tight end in the world of professional football, they have also provided that entity a blueprint in which other teams might employ these freakish hybrid into their game plan, both as pass catchers and as field stretchers to open up the rest of their play book.

In that sense, you might say the Patriots created a monster that has changed the way defenses game plan, and that has come back to haunt them many times this season. It has usually been on underneath routes when the Patriots are in zone coverage where the big guys settle into the gaps in the zones - but because of the quality of New England's cover corners and safeties, there hasn't been many who test the seam.

The exception to this was the Indianapolis Colts on November 16th, who unleashed tight end Coby Fleener, whom quarterback Andrew Luck found seven times for 144 yards.  New England corner Brandon Browner served as the goat on most of those deep balls, while safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Jamie Collins had far more success underneath.

The problem for the Colts on that night was that they had virtually no production from their backs, either on the ground or curling out into the pattern, and also because Kyle Arrington was able to manhandle speedy Indianapolis receiver T.Y. Hilton while shutdown corner Darrelle Revis did exactly that to an aging Reggie Wayne on the outside... head ball coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia were content to play the Colts straight up and let the chips fall where they may, the result being a 42-20 blowout of the Colts on their own turf.
Patriots' safeties will play a huge part in defending the Colts

Some things have changed for the Colts since that night.  For one, Wayne has fallen off the map, rookie Donte Moncrief emerging in his stead, but the biggest difference in this team is the presence of a shiny new set of running backs that still don't provide much on the ground, but enough for their opponents to at least have to respect the run.

The biggest difference that Indianapolis has going for it is that these backs provide effective targets in the passing game, causing a quandary for the Patriots in this Sunday's AFC Championship Game that wasn't an issue for them back in November.

Many teams use the screen pass and the wheel route into the flat as an extension of their running game.  The Indianapolis Colts now take that to a whole different level.

The Patriots have had a tough time recently in covering the flat, blowing up the screen and shutting down the opposition's tight ends, particularly on third down where a combination of those threats spread New England thin - and where Luck is a mobile quarterback who often finds success floating out of the pocket, that just adds an extra layer for the Patriots' defense to have to fight through.

So what can New England do to level the playing field against the Colts' improved weaponry on offense?

The success that Arrington had on Hilton is compelling, as Arrington is a quick-twitch slot corner that took on Hilton out of the slot in the first meeting and holding him to a pedestrian three catches for 24 yards, so that matchup may work itself out once again unless Hilton lines up split wide, in which case he may find himself either layered against Browner and a safety over the top or lined up opposite Revis.

In this respect, it makes sense for the Patriots to deploy Revis to one side of the field regardless of who is lined up there to simply take away that side of the field and to limit the amount of room that Moncrief and Fleener have to operate, and let nickel corner Logan Ryan take on the other side, leaving Browner (who is limited with a bum knee) to take on an interior zone, much like a box safety.

Keeping Fleener in a phone booth to one side of the field with Browner underneath to crack him coming off the line allows Collins and Chung freedom to pick up the leftovers in the flat and to help set the edge on the line of scrimmage.  In this scenario, the Patriots will probably have to sacrifice the pass rush to a certain extent, but it's not as if New England can consistently get to the quarterback anyway...

...instead playing a game of keeping Luck in a jar with solid outside containment and consistent gap integrity with the big uglies up front and middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower roaming freely to plug gaps and chase down plays to the edge.

Containing Luck is the biggest key to defeating the Colts, but it's not as if there has to be a defender shadowing him.  As long as defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich do not get drawn up and around the pocket and maintain their edge, keeping a lid on Luck falls to the interior rush where timely hug blitzes should be able to get to him on occasion.

Of course, there are more weapons on the Colts than just Hilton, Fleener, Moncrief and running back Dan Herron, as Wayne still demonstrates veteran savvy and old Patriots nemesis Hakeem Nicks has started to come on late in the season - and the Colts' have Dwayne Allen and young Jack Doyle as larger targets to compliment the tight end position.

If all of this sounds imposing, that's because it is.  The Colts are one wide receiver and some offensive line help short of being a truly elite offense, but what they have at the moment is obviously enough for them to be known as one of the two best teams in the American Football Conference, and their heart should not be taken for granted...

...for after being trounced by New England in mid-November, Indianapolis responded by winning seven of eight to get to Foxborough, and while their schedule down the stretch wasn't exactly the Murderer's Row that New England had to face, the fact remains that they closed out things in impressive fashion, winning the games that they were supposed to.

And now they have the chance to finally get past a New England team that has dominated them early in the Andrew Luck era, and will likely try to do so by getting the ball to Hilton underneath and on the screen, letting Fleener carry a linebacker and a safety up the seam to clear out room for Herron and the rest of their backs to make plays by snagging balls in the flat.

In other words, the Colts are custom-made on offense to take advantage of what New England hasn't shown much success in stopping on defense, but with Bill Belichick's game-planning expertise and with having the athletes to pull off just about any scenario, this defense has enough in the tank for one more shut down and to earn a trip to Arizona for the Super Bowl.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 2: Patriots' Offense Ready For Encore Performance Against Colts' Defense

The Patriots' Big Three of Brandon LaFell (19), Julian Edelman (11) and Rob Gronkowski (87) are poised to dominate

The intelligence was there.  Something was amiss with Peyton Manning.

It had been evident for the entire second half of the season.  He was pushing the ball more than throwing it, his wobbly knuckleballs devolving into floating ducks.  More and more the Broncos became reliant on the running game to limit the thought that there was something seriously wrong with their franchise quarterback...

...and they were able to defer it through the end of the regular season, but once the playoffs hit and the level of competition and intensity had risen to new heights, they could mask their deficiencies not longer.  The Indianapolis Colts recognized something in his set up or release that made them not so wary of Manning's arm, choosing instead to take away Denver's running game and making Manning's broken body beat them.

As it turns out, Manning had played the last month of the season and last week's disastrous run-in with the Colts with a torn right quad, which, depending on the severity of the tear, can severely limit the push off of a right-handed thrower in initiating his throwing motion, resulting in things like bad overthrows and equally bad-looking interceptions.

The point being that the Colts were able to do the Broncos' offense last week what the Broncos' defense did to New England in last season's AFC Championship Game - stacking the box to stop the run and put the game in the hands of a handicapped quarterback.

But while Manning's inability to generate push off his plant leg was the issue that killed the Broncos on Sunday, last season it was Tom Brady's lack of receivers that caused the same kind of ugly offensive performance.  In both cases, the passing game was the weak link, which had a trickle down effect on the entire offense, from the inside out.

Even so, the Colts are still far from having a stout run defense.
Jonas Gray had a career game against the Colts in November...

Focusing on the eight games that Indianapolis has played since being blown out by New England on November 16th, the run defense didn't give up anywhere close to the 246 rushing yards that Jonas Gray and company laid on them in that game, but they haven't been particularly rugged in that department, either.

Much is being made of defensive end Arthur Jones missing the game with the Patriots back in November, as well as safety LaRon Landry being limited in coming back from suspension, many pointing to the speculation that the running game would not have produced what it did that night, and that tight end Rob Gronkowski would not have been as effective...

...but what is being forgotten is that even with Jones at his regular three-tech position in the Colts' 3-4 base alignment, the Colts actually gave up 10 more yards per game than when he was absent and that when Landry came back from suspension, that number increased even more.  As far as Gronkowski is concerned, he caught only four balls on five targets that evening for 71 yards (right on his season average) and a touchdown as Brady needed only 30 dropbacks to keep the defense on their heels, completing 19 balls.

Obviously, Sergio Brown was no match for Gronkowski in coverage, but where Gronkowski made the biggest difference in that game was in his run blocking.
...just as LeGarrette Blount did against the last January

Following Gronkowski to the right of the formation on his patented "Wham" blocks, Patriots backs picked up yardage at a clip of 6.2 yards per carry, running 26 times to the right for a staggering 160 yards, and when running to the left with reserve tackle Cameron Fleming claiming eligibility as a tight end, New England busted loose for 6.5 yards per carry.

With those kind of numbers, it's easy to see why there was such a disparity between run (46 plays) and pass (30) - and probably a good thing, too, as the victory over the Colts was not quarterback Tom Brady's best outing of the season.

Brady threw two interceptions on two poor decisions, the Colts turning those picks into all 10 first half points that they managed, both on a short field.  All of these facts added up shows that the Patriots' success on offense was no fluke, that the Colts aren't necessarily any better on defense with their returning starters than they were without them, and that the only way that Indianapolis was able to stop New England's offense was to take advantage of Brady trying to fit a rocket into a tight window.

That said, do the Patriots go into the game on Sunday night with a similar mindset and game plan?

Rhetorically speaking, why not?

Why not line up in similar formations and try to run the ball right down the Colts' collective throat?  Well, one point of contention is that New England will likely be without Bryan Stork at the pivot, meaning that Ryan Wendell will slide back into the center spot that he's manned for the past couple of seasons, and second year man Josh Kline will take over at right guard.

Another point to consider is that the Patriots pass catchers were underused in that game plan, by design, and if using their entire compliment of talent in the corps to their full advantage, they outclass the Colts' secondary by a wide margin - and just the fact that Danny Amendola has started to round into form only makes the Patriots' offense that much more potent.

It goes to figure that Belichick would use the passing game a little more than he did in the first game, if for nothing else just to mix it up a little bit.  The Colts' secondary is brimming with confidence after what they were able to realize against the Broncos, so it would be just like the Dark Master to go after them early to bring their confidence back to earth a little bit, ruminating that their "success" was more a matter of Manning being handicapped than anything special the Colts' had designed.

The same goes for the run defense, where they are beating their chests after holding Broncos' running back C. J. Anderson to 80 yards on Sunday, which really isn't that impressive - and even less so when you stop to ponder both that Anderson gained those 80 yards on just 18 carries, a 4.4 yards per carry average, and also that the Broncos inexplicably stopped running the ball at halftime. 

All of that considered, it must be noted that the Patriots stable of running backs has also received a boost since the November matchup with the fortunate signing of LeGarrette Blount to the team right after the game, and it is certain that Patriots' fans remember the carnage his presence caused in last season's divisional playoff game against the Colts last season.

There is nothing to limit the imagination and play calling of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in this game other than his own penchant for forgetting about the running game at times - but that will be difficult for even McDaniels to pull off if they can get the running game going early and often, and even if the Colts somehow manage to slow the New England ground game, the Patriots can turn right around and lull them to sleep with their methodical passing game.

So if the Colts are to make a game out of this, they are going to have to do it on offense, where they have the ability to take advantage of New England's maddening habit of letting running backs and tight ends roam free in the pass pattern....

This is the second installment of a four-part series leading up to Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Foxborough.  Part 1 focused on the Patriots' structural integrity and overall health. Part 3 will take a look at their defense and Part 4 will delve into game day intrigue...

Part 1:  Patriots enter championship Sunday fully loaded

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 1: Patriots Enter Championship Sunday Fully Loaded...For A Change

Rob Gronkowski is healthy for the title game for the first time in his career.  Is he the X-factor to win it all?
What a difference a year makes.

Almost a calendar year to the day since dropping an ugly 26-16 decision to the Denver Broncos in the 2013 AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots enter the 2014 edition of the conference title game almost an entirely different team...

...and not because of different personnel, though there have been a couple of positions that have undergone a significant upgrade, but because of the availability of the personnel.

The Broncos offense gashed the Patriots' defense for over 500 total yards, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning throwing at will to his set of Thomases, with wide receiver Demaryus going 134 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions and tight end Julius catching eight for 85 yards, while slot receiver Wes Welker took out then-Patriots' version of a shut-down corner in Aqib Talib, a blindside shot to his quad that rendered Talib a pedestrian.

Still the New England defense rose to the occasion time and again, bending plenty but breaking seldom, yielding just two touchdowns to the powerful Broncos' offense, stifling them in the red zone and forcing Denver to kick four field goals - and all of this while missing names like Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and, early in the second quarter, Talib.
Jonas Gray ran wild in November...since, not so much.

But the solid work of the patched together defense all went for naught because the Patriots' offense was even more destitute.

New England entered that title match with just one healthy starting pass catcher in Julian Edelman, with names like Rob Gronkowski and Kenbrell Thompkins replaced by Michael Hoomanawanui and emergency signing Austin Collie, respectively.  Aaron Dobson tried to go with a broken bone in his foot, and Danny Amendola was essentially useless with a completely torn adductor muscle...

...prompting Denver coach John Fox to implement a game plan that called for his defense to stuff the box to stop the previously stout New England power running game and daring quarterback Tom Brady to beat them throwing to his walking wounded receiving corps.

As a result, the Denver front seven completely overwhelmed the New England offensive line and shut down the middle of the field, making it possible for the pass rush to pin their ears back and come after Brady, who took a savage beating - but still, the Patriots made it a game in the fourth quarter, scoring twice as the Broncos backed off a bit once they had a two-score lead.

New England lost the chance to meet Seattle in the Super Bowl simply because they were undermanned, and easily rendered one-dimensional by a Broncos' team that still couldn't put them away despite their obvious handicap, the same team that was exposed by the Seahawks two weeks later at MetLife Stadium - and pretty much the same team that had their heads handed to them by the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday in the 2014 Divisional round.

Fast forward to this Sunday night, when the Patriots will this time be hosting the AFC Championship Game with all pass catchers present and accounted for, and a defense far superior to the one that valiantly attempted to keep their team in the game last season.

Edelman has had another monster season, teaming with free agent signee Brandon LaFell and a finally healthy Amendola to form the genesis of a high-speed, low-drag pass catching entity - and when adding the All Pro talent of tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots sport the best pass catching entity that they've been able to field in the playoffs for half a decade.

What this means is that the Patriots enter their fourth consecutive AFC Championship game healthier than they were in any of the previous three, with a full compliment of receivers, a backfield loaded with power and a defense that rivals any that the Patriots have fielded in any season of their dynastic decade-and-a-half run.

Needless to say, as long as the Patriots don't make themselves one-dimensional on offense, they should be headed to Arizona to take on the winner of the NFC Championship game in the Super Bowl.

But that certainly doesn't mean that the Colts are going to be content being a speedbump on the road to Arizona, as they present their own set of challenges to the Patriots - mostly in the way that they matchup on offense against New England's defense, the front seven in particular, and could make life very tough on the Patriots' stoppers simply by building upon what they did to get to this point.

The Colts hosted the Patriots back in mid-November, getting a New England team that was just starting to hit their stride on offense, and was unknowingly about to embark on a remarkable defensive journey that that made them one of the best second half defensive team in all of football.

Things have cooled a bit on offense since their epic mid-season juggernaut, and that, combined with the Colts getting back some big defensive players that were missing the first go-around, promises that Indianapolis will put up a far better fight on defense than they did in their 42-20 loss...

...and that, coupled with the fact that the Patriots on defense still haven't figured out how to effectively cover a tight end, nor the fact that they haven't been able to generate a pass rush from the edges means that this is a similar group to the one the Colts faced two months ago, but this time Indianapolis has discovered a running game to go along with their terrific and uber-ambulatory quarterback Andrew Luck.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  The biggest storyline right now is that the Patriots are healthy, as are the Colts, which sets us up nicely to discuss the Patriots' offense vs the Colts' defense in our next installment...

This is the first installment of a four-part series leading up to Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Foxborough.  Part 2 will focus on the Patriots' offense, Part 3 on their defense and Part 4 will delve into gameday intrigue...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Patriots Onfield Success Tied To Business Philosophy, Deft Personnel Management

"...the only thing that matters is that Kraft's business savvy combined with Belichick's continued coaching excellence and commitment to both Kraft's business philosophy and Fairbanks' "old school" football strategies maintain the successful mantra known universally as The Patriot Way...

...a model for protracted success in the era of free agency and burgeoning salary cap rules, a system of which the Patriots use to their advantage when other teams are handcuffed by it - utilizing free agency to win the ever-evolving battle of attrition and the rules for the cap to devise a sort of rotating turnover that keeps the franchise both loaded with talent and on the path to financial solvency."
Foxborough Free Press, July 14, 2014

No matter who won the AFC Divisional round matchup between the Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts in Denver on Sunday afternoon, the New England Patriots were guaranteed to host a team in next Sunday's Conference Championship game that they had already beaten handily during the regular season.

That said, did it really matter who won the game?

Not to the Patriots, who were undoubtedly busy scouting and devising the genesis for a game plan for either, but now that the Colts have finished off a Broncos' team whose demise was set in motion midway through the 2014 season, the two best teams in the American Football Conference will now square off on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium for the right to represent the AFC in February's Super Bowl.

Playing in the Conference title match is old hat to both teams, as they have been part of a group of predominant elite franchises in professional football since the turn of the century, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens - all of whom have been more consistent than any team in the National Football Conference in that period of time - but the paths of each team has had vicious twists that left them broken down on the side of the road...

...all except for the Patriots, who are headed to their ninth Conference Championship since the start of the new Millennium.

When taking a moment to absorb the numbers, they are consistently staggering: Nine AFC title game appearances in 14 seasons, a run of success matched only in the history of professional football by the San Francisco 49ers of the mid-80's through the late 90's, whose three consecutive conference title game appearances from 1989-1991 falls short of the four that the Philadelphia Eagles played in from 2001-2004 and, of course, the fourth consecutive appearance that New England is set to host.

Many of the plaudits for the success of the franchise has been laid at the feet of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, who are the lone on-field constants for the franchise in that time period, but it is equally the result of Bob Kraft's business philosophy, of which head ball coach and defacto General manager Belichick strictly adheres to.

The Patriots are indeed the model franchise of the NFL.  Their on-field record speaks for itself, despite the hate and asterisks generated by fans and - in some cases the coaches - of other teams, and while things like "Spygate" are always going to have a place in the NFL's lexicon when it comes to New England, the front office has been above reproach, both in it's dealings with the league and in it's business philosophy.

Unlike many contenders, the Patriots have refused to "load up" on high-priced talent in order to win now, despite the exorbanent contract given to corner Darrelle Revis this past offseason - instead, they tirelessly scout players to find that right combination of toughness and versatility that has become the hallmark of the franchise - though many have labeled the fiscally conservative Patriots as cheap penny pinchers...

...and while nothing could be farther from the truth - the Patriots routinely spend to their cap with a small buffer to play with during the season - their insistence on not going top heavy on an abundance of over-the-top contracts has drawn considerable lamentations from their fan base, as they skip over most high-priced, big-name free agents in favor of solid niche players, and the results speak volumes.

"There's nothing more important to me personally than winning as many championships as we can while the good lord lets me be on this planet." Kraft said during the Larry Fitzgerald rumor-fest last offseason. "You can gear up (load up), but I think a better strategy is to try and be solid and compete year in and year out - we want to be in the running and do whatever we can to be the best that we can be."

How's that working out for Kraft? In the 20 years that he's owned the franchise, this will be the 10th Conference Championship game, and a win on Sunday will send him to his seventh Super Bowl - and to do that, a team must first win their division or otherwise qualify for the playoffs, which the team has accomplished 14 times in his tenure...

...while it was obviously a solid business decision to hire Belichick as the head man, as 12 of those division titles, nine of those conference championship game appearances and, thus far, five Super Bowls and three World Championships have come during his reign.

Obviously, his philosophy is a recipe for success.

The Patriots are in the midst of their annual pilgrimage through the post-season with a team constructed on the foundation of Kraft's business sense and Belichick's unrivaled maintenance of a 53-man NFL roster, but those who have been fans long enough know that the silly season  of free agency is forthcoming, a time in which we are bound to see reports of players rumored to be "perfect fits" for the franchise.

But there most likely will not be a Larry Fitzgerald, nor an Andre Johnson, nor even a Ndomukong Suh headed to Foxborough, despite the pleas of fans, fueled by idle speculation from bored and unimaginative beat writers, because to do so would disrupt the delicate pay structure in place that keeps the model franchise of the NFL stable and competitive...

...because as Belichick has been fond of saying, you can't win a title if you don't first make the tournament - and since the Patriots have done that more consistently than any other team in the modern NFL, the old adage of "if it ain't broken, don't fix it" should ruminate through the brains of those who pine for the big-name, big-money players...

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Counter-Punching Patriots Eliminate Ravens in Heavyweight Playoff Tilt

Danny Amendola goes airborne for the pylon to score his first of two touchdown receptions.

Tom Brady threw the ball low,  and he threw the ball wide.  He threw one that ended up in the hands of an opposing player.

Brady was hardly perfect on a chilly evening in Foxborough, Massachusetts, but what separates the sure-fire first-ballot hall of fame quarterback for the New England Patriots from his contemporary playing for the Baltimore Ravens on the opposite sideline, is that he was perfect when he absolutely had to be - and Joe Flacco wasn't.

Brady threaded the needle to wide receiver Brandon LaFell along the left sidelines for a 23 yard scoring strike to give the Patriots their first lead of the game with just over five minutes left, then unheralded reserve safety Duron Harmon picked off an errant Flacco pass to preserve a 35-31 come-from-behind win over the Ravens at Gillette Stadium on Saturday evening.

A heavyweight fight from the opening bell, Baltimore slugged New England in the mouth, then the Patriots countered with a couple of haymakers of their own, and one got the feeling that this game was going to come down to which team's quarterback flinched at winning time.
Harmon comes down with his game-saving interception

That was Flacco, who tried to hit receiver Steve Smith in the end zone from 36 yards out between cornerback Logan Ryan and the strong safety Harmon on a 2nd and 6 with over a minute to play.  Certainly, Flacco was trying to take advantage of the second year corner who took over for an injured Brandon Browner, but the ball was overthrown and Harmon was in perfect position to make the game-saving theft.

The Patriots battled back from two separate 14 point deficits, collectively displaying the style of a mean counter-puncher in absorbing body shot after body shot, coming off the ropes and going toe-to-toe with a team that has become their arch-nemesis, Brady finding LaFell to send the Ravens reeling, then Harmon delivering the shot to the chin that finished them off.

With the win, the Patriots now await the winner of Sunday afternoon's game between the Denver Bronco and the Indianapolis Colts, hosting the survivor of the divisional play-in for the AFC Championship next Sunday evening - but regardless of what happens to the Patriots from this point forward, Saturday night's heavyweight tilt will be long-remembered and a source of water cooler banter for years to come.

And if one listens very carefully to head ball coach Bill Belichick, it is obvious he feels that his team turned a corner against the Ravens, one that has been difficult to navigate in the past few years.

"There's nothing like a playoff game.  There's nothing like a playoff win." Belichick ruminated after the game. "The regular season is great, but when you play these games it's single-elimination and the urgency and what's at stake for you and your team and what you've worked five-plus months for to get to this point all comes down one game, or in some cases, one play.  That just heightens everything."

"I'm just thankful that out players hung in there and made the plays they needed to make to get us a victory. belichick continued. "Hopefully we can build on that and coach better next week and play better next week."

Certainly, there is plenty to improve upon, particularly in trying to break their season-long habit of starting games slowly, forcing them to dig their way out of some pretty deep holes - but none have been so ominous as the holes that they dug for themselves on Satuday night, as the Patriots became the first team in NFL history to overcome two separate 14 point deficits to win a playoff game.

The outlook was bleak for New England right from the opening defensive series when Flacco led the Ravens to an easy-looking five-play, 71 yard drive, hitting former Patriots' receiver Kamar Aiken on a short toss in the right flat that he turned into a 19 yard touchdown by outracing a couple of out-of-position New England defenders for a quick 7-0 lead...

...the wide open pass play to Aiken made possible by the initial success of the Baltimore running game that eventually gashed the Patriots' ground defense for 136 yards at a clip of 4.9 yards per carry, generally on the stretch where Flacco could isolate the outside linebackers in no-man's land and force them to make a decision as to whether to play the run or take the receiver coming out into the flat.

The boot-action that fed off of the success of the stretch haunted the Patriots all evening, especially on fourth down and in the red zone where Flacco and the Ravens' excellent play calling caused the Patriots' defenders to look confused and perpetually out of place.

The Ravens made the score 14-0 on a Steve Smith reception on a crossing route against New England cornerback Darrelle Revis, who got a hand on the ball as it reached Smith, but the veteran pass catcher was able to hold on for the nine-yard score.

"Those early points they had, they were kind of on their script" said nose tackle Vince Wilfork, eluding to a practice that many teams employ of running their first 15-20 plays of the game off of a linear group of plays. "They were doing some things that typically they weren't going to do during the course of the game, but just wanted to see what we were going to do."

"They got us" Wilfork continued, shaking his head sadly. "They hit us on some plays, so once the game settled down, we really got into our game plan mode, calling our plays, and we really got settled down and started playing a lot better."

The proof of that came in looking at the big picture, when after the Patriots spotted the Ravens their easy two touchdown lead, the Patriots doubled-up their long-time nemesis by a 35-17 count the rest of the way - but it wasn't even as close to being as easy as the big picture makes it sound.

After battling back to tie the score on a Brady four-yard scamper late in the opening frame and a terrific Danny Amendola catch-and-run with just under four minutes left in the first half, Brady committed his one lone faux pas, a drive killing interception on a pass intended for tight end Rob Gronkowski up the seam that was cut off by linebacker Daryl Smith with just over a minute to play in the half...

...Flacco masterfully collecting immediate dividends on the turnover, hitting tight end Owen Daniels in the back of the end zone with three Patriots draped all over him for a 21-14 halftime lead.

A short pass into the right flat again burned the Patriots' defense just minutes into the second half, running back Justin Forsett taking a short pass from Flacco and essentially walking into the end zone from 16 yards out to again build the Baltimore lead to 14.

And then, the light suddenly came on for the Patriots.

Brady, still steaming from his ill-advised pick to end the first half, responded to Baltimore's score with a checkoff to Rob Gronkowski on the ensuing Patriots series, the old gunslinger identifying single linebacker coverage on Gronkowski, the audible sending the mammoth tight end on a quick slant on first and goal from the five yard line and firing a bullet into his gut to trim the Ravens' lead by half.

Back on their heels all evening, the Patriots' defense followed Brady's lead, suddenly becoming aggressive, sending blitzers to try and disrupt the Raven's continuity on offense, and while the New England pass rush never really got to Flacco, he certainly felt the heat rise with the extra man coming at him from seemingly a different direction each play - and the previously unflappable Flacco started to flinch.

Brady got the ball back quickly as the Patriots' pass rush forced a three-and-out, hitting receiver Julian Edelaman and running back Shane Vereen with short passes to reach midfield - though a moment of trepidation occurred when Vereen lost control of the ball and was originally ruled to have fumbled, but replay amended the turnover...

...all the while setting up the Ravens' defense for their demise.  All game, Brady had been lulling the Ravens to sleep with short "juke" routes, seven yard curls into the left flat left the receiver with the chance to turn upfield for some yards after the catch - taking the snap after the reprieve from the replay officials, Brady turned and fired the ball at Edelman as a lateral.

The corner on Edelman and the linebacker up on Amendola, who was lined up to the same side, bit hard as Amendola initially set up as if he were blocking for a screen, but then released and ran past the coverage, Edelman lofting a perfect spiral to Amendola streaking down the sideline - and as fast as you can say "Trick Play", the score was tied at 28.

"He throws it better than I did. It was a perfect spiral right in stride." Brady said of Edelman's pass to Amendola in his post-game presser, laughing. "I've got to make some rules that he can't throw it better than I can, but he did.  It was pretty sweet."

Baltimore had one last bullet left in the chamber, driving down to the Patriots' nine yard line before the pressure from the pass rush forced incompletions in the end zone and the Ravens had to settle for a field goal to give them back the lead at 31-28, setting up Brady's mega-clutch game-winner to LaFell on the ensuing drive.

"It was man-to-man coverage and Jojo (LaFell) got a great release" Brady explained as he broke down the winning play. "The guy (cornerback) looked like he had his right arm kind of arm-barred and he caught it with his left - and he was able to get his right hand on it, so it was a great play."

Baltimore got the ball back twice more, but Harmon's interception in the end zone ruined the first one and Rob Gronkowski and Logan Ryan teamed up on the game ending "Hail Mary" to finish the Ravens and to send the Patriots to their fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game, and the ninth conference title try of the Belichick era.

The Ravens have been the albatross around the necks of the Patriots in two of those most recent games, and generally a pain their collective neck for the past half dozen-plus years, but on Saturday night in Foxborough, Brady and Belichick completed the first part of their two-game gauntlet, perhaps the toughest of the two, in what seems like an annual right of passage to the bright lights of the Super Bowl...

...and perhaps vexing the demons by vanquishing a foe that has been the source of much grief and a constant source of dark malfeasance for all of New England for the better part of a decade.