Sunday, September 27, 2015

Brady, Gostkowski Make History As Patriots Punk Jaguars

Tom Brady on Sunday became only the fourth quarterback to throw for 400 touchdowns.
The New England Patriots scored on every possession they had against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday afternoon.

Well, almost every possession - there was the final series where Jimmy Garoppolo traded in his clipboard for the pigskin, kneeling down twice to kill the final minute of the game - but the Victory Formation doesn't count. Or maybe it does, but either way you want to look at it, to score on nine consecutive possessions to start the game is mighty impressive.

For the third week in a row, the Patriots offense has proven to be increasingly unstoppable, going from scoring 28 points against the Pittsburgh Steelers to 40 last Sunday at Buffalo, topping off the season-starting trifecta approaching juggernaut status by hanging 51 on the Jaguars at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Next week the Patriots face the only thing that will be able to hold them down, as an early-season bye will keep that offense off the field - which was the only chance that Jacksonville had of staying in the game on Sunday - but they even lost the time of possession battle by a wide margin, scoring only 17 points in the process, seven of those in garbage time with New England in their three-deep shell.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady again had his way with an opposing secondary, going 33 of 42 for 358 yards and two touchdowns as his vendetta tour against the league continued at record pace, his two scoring strikes both notable as his first to Danny Amendola was the 400th of his career, while his second to the newest Patriot Keyshawn Martin was Martin's first NFL touchdown,

Amendola actually gave away Brady's historic ball to a fan after scoring, but Brady said he didn't care and Amendola admitted he wasn't aware of his gaffe. "I didn't realize until I was halfway back to the sidelines that I gave the 400 ball away, but we got it back, so it's all good." Amendola said with a shrug.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski continued his torrid pace as well, smothering four of Brady's offerings in his huge mitts for 101 yards, while Julian Edelman contributed his usual yeoman-like effort in catching eight balls for 85 yards and running back Dion Lewis pitched in with five receptions for 30 yards.

The Patriots ground game finally found its legs against a stout Jacksonville front seven, with LeGarrette Blount coming on as the designated clock killer in the second half to post 75 yards on 18 carries and scoring three times, while Lewis contributed 37 yards in eight carries but seeing his lowest snap total of the young season, giving way to Blount and passing back James White, who had 34 yards in six touches.

Defensively, the formerly porous New England run stoppers held the second-ranked Jaguras to just 57 yards on 20 carries, a 2.6 ypc average, while keeping second-year signal caller Blake Bortles in check while it mattered, with 80 of his 242 passing yards coming on Jacksonville's last possession, a scoring drive that came against the Patriots version of the prevent.

Coming into the game, Bortles had thrown an interception in each of his previous games, and had two very close calls before safety Devin McCourty picked off  a badly underthrown ball deep in the second quarter with the Patriots lead standing at just ten, setting up Brady and the New England offense with good field position near midfield, that Brady quickly turned into his 400th career scoring toss to Amendola.

In all, Brady led the Patriots on touchdown drives of 64, 57, 67, 80, 24 and 58 yards, the last of which was the most impressive of the afternoon - a 17 play effort that took nearly ten minutes off the clock, converting five third downs while mixing eight passes with nine runs, helping to tie a franchise record with 35 first downs for the game.

With the defense forcing Jacksonville to a three-and-out on their first series, the Patriots offense went 65 yards in five plays to take a 7-0 lead, Gronkowski accounting for 53 of those yards on two receptions, one a 43 yard catch-and-run up the seam, Lewis running the ball in from eight yards out to give the Patriots a lead they would not relinquish.

Two Stephen Gostkowski field goals capped the next two possessions for New England, sandwiching a 17-play, 58 yard field goal drive for Jacksonville to make the score 13-3 in the second quarter, the Jaguars driving for what would have been at least for a field goal, but McCourty's interception turned the momentum of the game and Brady's scoring strike to Amendola 1:29 later gave New England a 20-3 lead going into the rooms at halftime...

...another Gostkowski field goal got the second half started, with a one-play, 67 yard "drive" for a touchdown to run New England's total to 30 points following, 66 of those yards coming on two pass interference calls on Jacksonville to get the ball to the Jaguars' one yard line, where Blount powered into the end zone for his first of three scores on the day.

Bortles responded on his next series with a gorgeous 59 yard pitch and catch for a Jacksonville touchdown, receiver Allen Hurns finding a soft spot in the Patriots zone between a leaping Malcolm Butler and safety Duron Harmon, the latter overrunning the play, leaving Hurns nothing but green as the Jaguars closed the gap to twenty points.

But Brady found Martin for a 13 yard score on the Patriots' next series - after which Gostkowski set a new NFL record by nailing his 423rd consecutive point after - then Blount scored on consecutive possessions to close out the game.

After three games, Brady is 96 of 133 for 1112 yards and nine touchdowns, all except the touchdown total on pace to smash his career high numbers.

His average of 32 completions on 44 attempts would net him personal bests of 512 completions on an insane 704 attempts, eclipsing personal bests set in 2012 by a wide margin, the difference of which will see him complete 72% of his passes, which would also be a career high.

At his current pace, Brady will approach 6000 passing yards and will lead this offense to 635 points, far and away the best in franchise history, but he's not doing his numbers any favors by letting his running backs find paydirt, as LeGarrette Blount scored three touchdowns on short runs and Dion Lewis broke a few ankles on an eight-yard run to get things started, as on this pace he will fall a couple short of his record 50 passing touchdowns.

But Brady isn't thinking about records, though he became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to eclipse the 400 touchdown plateau, and could have had plenty more were it not for that darned running game.

"I've always said that I don't care whether we run it in or throw it in," Brady said after the game, "As long as we score points and we're winning, it makes it fun for me, so I'm happy."

The Patriots are most assuredly scoring points and no team has won as much as the Patriots have since the turn of the century, so that must mean that Brady is having more fun than anyone else in the game, and judging from the pace he's set for himself and elevated skill level he's demonstrating, he's likely to have more fun than anyone else for years to come.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Lewis, Twin Towers Present Challenge For Jacksonville's Stout Front Seven

So, Tom Brady is pissed off.

And why not?  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ruined his Super Bowl week, victory celebration, Valentine's Day, Easter, Spring Break and most of his summer with his relentless pursuit of cheating allegations aimed at the New England Patriots' quarterback, who wisely chose to remain mute with legal action pending against the league.

He remained quiet while the national media - not to mention quite a few Boston media personalities - trashed his character. He remained quiet while several of his contemporaries suggested that he should fess up and admit that he had a hand in deflating footballs, and when many Patriots' fans publicly pleaded with him to accept whatever reduced penalty he could get and just put the whole issue behind him.
Rookies Andrews (60) and Mason (R) have their hands full

But Brady never wavered. He stood firm when the NFL was leaking false information to various media outlets - ok, ESPN and the Indianapolis Star - He stood tall when the owners of 31 NFL teams and their fans prayed for his ban to hold and he kept his mouth shut, waiting for the season to start so that he could do his talking with his play.

Yes, Tom Brady is angry - not just angry, but a special kind of pissed off.

Brady has eight months worth of remaining quiet and unable to defend himself in public under his fingernails - and now that he can speak about deflategate, he refuses.  Brady stiffed NBC Sports when he had originally agreed to a post-game interview following the season opener against Pittsburgh, mostly because the talking heads that hosted the pregame show had already discussed the issue ad nauseum.

Tom Brady has nothing to apologize for, nothing to explain - and whatever he feels he needs to get off of his chest, he appears to want to do it on the football field, taking down one antagonist at a time - the aforementioned stiffing of the national media on opening night his first act of defiance to a group of people who dragged his character through the mud since January...

...and then the entire Buffalo Bills defense who had nary a good word to say about Brady nor the Patriots in general the week before the sure first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback punked them to the tune of 466 yards last week - and this weekend, his sniper sites are set on the Jacksonville Jaguars.

No particular reason to rip their defense to shreds, other than the Patriots are hyper-motivated and intensely focused on a fifth Lombardi Trophy, and the Jaguars are in the way.

But if one was really reaching for a reason for Brady to have a little extra mustard on his throws this Sunday, he could do a Bobby Boucher and imagine that now-retired, ex-Jaguars' quarterback Mark Brunell is under center for Jacksonville, and Brady most assuredly has a score to settle with that guy - Brunell appearing on ESPN just hours after the whole Deflategate business broke into a major news story, shedding tears at the thought that Brady had something to do with the controversy.

But that's absurd, right? The best thing that Brady could do in that situation is to tell Brunell that he's drinking the wrong water, and that his momma told him that Brunell was the devil, and that "Foosball" is the devil's game.

Most feel that the Jaguars are perennial doormats, and while that has been the case for the past dozen seasons or so, it appears that head coach Gus Bradley has his team ready to take an upward turn, particularly on defense, where the Jags are loaded with talent and aggression in their front seven, even in spite of losing their prize first-round rookie to a torn ACL.
Chandler (88), Gronkowski and Lewis should be too much for Jaguars defense

In fact, the Jacksonville Jaguars are in first place - and while it's true that being in first place after the second week of the season doesn't mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things - except when considering that they play in the God-awful AFC South division - folks should just let them have this moment of glory, because it isn't going to last long...

...not because anyone in their division is showing any signs of life and not because their schedule is that brutal and not even because their own offense is terrible, but simply because they are the next victim of the New England Patriots, who have the aforementioned huge chip on their collective shoulders.

But what better way to assess where your team truly is early in the season than to take on the defending world champions on their home turf, where anything remotely resembling a close game would give the Jaguars a big shot of confidence heading into the rest of their schedule, which right now looks like an lineup of patsies?

In fact, the Patriots, Falcons and the upstart New York Jets are the only team on Jacksonville's schedule over .500 to start the season, while the rest of their opponents are a combined 4-18 after two weeks of play, hardly a murderer's row of foes, even with teams like the Colts and Ravens on the list, both a dismal 0-2.

Does that mean that there is hope for the downtrodden Jaguars?  Certainly it does if their defense continues to improve from last season, and if their offense can hold out and keep putting together balanced attacks until their injured stars return from the hot tub - but the next three weeks will tell them all they need to know about the character of the team going forward... after they visit Foxborough on Sunday, they travel to Indianapolis to face a desperate Colts' team that can't get out of their own way on offense and then go to Tampa Bay to face a Buccaneers' team that is currently 1-1 after two weeks before heading home to host the Texans.

About the only thing that the Jags have going for them coming into their Sunday matchup with the Patriots is that they can run the ball, and have done so against two pretty decent front sevens in Carolina and Miami, while defensively holding both to a dismal 2.9 yards per rush, good for second in the NFL.

In that respect, it appears that the Jaguars are building a team with a solid fundamental base despite a rash of injuries that have plagued them since the inception of the offseason.

First round draft pick OLB/DE Dante Fowler tore his ACL in OTA's, which was a huge blow to the Jaguars dream of not only putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but doing so at an elite pace. Jacksonville recorded 45 sacks last season, the majority coming from their blind side combination of three-tech tackle Sen'Derrick Marks (8.5), defensive end Chris Clemmons (8) and reserve end Ryan Davis (6), but hardly anything coming from the strong side combination of Roy Miller and Tyson Alualu.

But the Jaguars did not settle for the same production going into 2015, as they backed up the Brinks' Truck to Jared Odrick's bank account, making him the fourth highest paid defensive tackle in the game to pry him away from Miami and joining an interior rotation that is suddenly stout against the run and can get after the quarterback.

In fact, the Jaguars' rotation on the interior could be one of the strongest on the schedule for the Patriots, and certainly the most underrated - but takes a significant hit as Marks is doubtful to play on Sunday while still rehabbing a knee injury that ended his 2014 season, meaning that the veteran reserve Alualu has become a more significant part of the tackle rotation in Jacksonville's 4-3 alignment.

Obviously, Marks' absence is terrific news for the New England interior linemen, who have been impressive against two of the better pass rushing teams in as many weeks to open the season, even giving Brady time to step into his throws, and the results have been staggering

On the second level, the trio of second-year man Telvin Smith, veteran incumbent Paul Posluszny and San Francisco retread Dan Skuta are solid. Smith was a tackling machine from his weak side post in 2014 and was adequate in coverage, defending four passes and chipping in with two blitz sacks, while Posluszny was limited to just seven games after suffering a torn chest muscle. In his tenth season, the Penn State product is closing in on the 1000 tackle plateau.

The Patriots' running game to this point has been based primarily with utilizing the skill set of running back Dion Lewis, who is easily one of the top ten feel-good stories in the NFL this season, and this game should be no different - mostly because the Jaguars tend to not blitz their linebackers much, meaning that Lewis will be spending less time getting in the way of a 250 pound human projectile to protect his quarterback, and spending more time in the pattern.

The way the depth in the backfield has worked out, it appears that Lewis is not so much a change of pace back as originally advertised, but as tone-setter - the guy that gets to wear out the front seven by making them chase him all over the field. It's a genuine reversal of roles from the contemporary line of thought in the NFL that a team uses a bigger back to grind down the opponent, but the Patriots' bigger back. LeGarrette Blount, seems to now be the change up...

...which isn't the worst thing in the world, as Blount is as good as anyone in the game at clock killing in the four-minute offense, plus he holds onto the ball and as long as the play call doesn't take him outside of the tackles, he rarely loses yardage.

It remains to be seen if the Patriots maintain the status-quo against the stout Jacksonville run defense or it they make use of their speed advantage over the Jags' linebackers, which will in turn force the box light, making room for both Lewis and Blount to maneuver.

The Jaguars are light in the secondary as well, with nickle cornerback Dwayne Gratz on the skids with an ankle injury. Former Packers' nickle guy Davon House mans one corner while second-year man Aaron Colvin takes care of the other, while corner-safety hybrid Jonathan Cyprien joins ex-Colts' and Patriots free safety Sergio Brown on the blue line, with Louisville rookie James Sample hot on Brown's heels as the third safety.

The Patriots present a huge challenge for this young secondary, especially with the size and speed of New England's tight ends, something that Brown can attest to as he was abused by the monstrous Rob Gronkowski last season, then got "thrown out of the club" by Gronkowski after getting up in his face... it's a good thing that Jacksonville has Cyprian to take on the best tight end in football, lest Brown end up tossed into another camera stanchion, though it wouldn't be as embarrassing as least season when the incident took place on national television.

Cyprian has the requisite size at 6' 0" and 225 pounds to at least grapple with Gronkowski, but a better choice might be weak side linebacker Smith, who at 6' 3" and 225 pounds is built more like a free safety, and runs a 4.54 - so when the Jaguars attempt to double up on Gronkowski, it is likely one would see one or both on him every play.

But that's the end of the good news for the defense, as their young corners are no match for the sage wisdom of Patriots' receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, nor are they up to the task of defending Lewis, James White or Tavaris Cadet out of the backfield - not to mention that Aaron Dobson and Scott Chandler both present their own unique challenges to any secondary...

...Dobson for his deep speed and willingness to break off post routes to come back for the ball, leaving corners lagging behind, and Chandler simply due to his massive height and flypaper hands.

The Patriots' offense is no joke.  They have scored on 12 of the 21 possessions (not counting victory formations) that they have had thus far in 2015 and are currently on pace to score 544 points, which would qualify as the third most in franchise history, behind only the 2007 (589) and 2012 (557) teams - and being as it is too early to be making assumptions, we'll leave it at that with the caveat that this offense typically doesn't start rolling until October, so the best is yet to come.

Fortunately for the Jaguars, they get to see the Patriots before they bond into the machine that they will become toward the midpoint of the season, but what they get on Sunday afternoon will be plenty enough for them to handle anyway - and given their injuries and lack of depth, one could reasonably assume that 40 points is ultimately reachable...

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Brady On Fire, Defense Records Eight Sacks And Three Picks In Win Over Bills

Nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills.

That mantra hasn't changed much since ESPN's Chris Berman coined the phrase to describe the comeback capabilities of the Bills, and on Sunday afternoon in Orchard Park, New York, the Bills proved that it still applies - but the one thing conspicuously absent from the equation is that in order for the Buffalo Bills to circle the wagons, they first have to give up huge leads to their opposition.

And that is exactly what the Bills did against the New England Patriots, as they allowed quarterback Tom Brady to throw for 466 yards and three touchdown passes behind a patchwork offensive line, while tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Dion Lewis each gained more than 100 yards of total offense, then fell just short of what would have been an epic comeback, eventually falling to the world champions by a score of 40-32.

The final score is not indicative of the dominance displayed by the champs for a majority of the game, carrying a 37-13 advantage into the fourth quarter, when Buffalo followed up a 10 play, 80 yard drive by taking advantage of the Patriots turning the ball over on consecutive possessions - once on downs and once on a Brady fumble to give the Bills a short field...

...scoring on drives of just seven and two plays, respectively, to close the gap to just five points with over four minutes left to play, but a Logan Ryan interception stopped the bleeding and secured the victory that left the Bills' fans broken-hearted and boosted the Patriots record to 2-0 on the young season.

The Bills came into the game with a reputation for being a pack of speedy sack artists, licking their chops in anticipation of dominating New England's young interior offensive line, but it was the Patriots' pass rush that came away with a headline-grabbing eight sacks of Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor while the Bills pass rush fell victim to Brady's quick reads and even quicker release, logging just two sacks for the game.

Chandler Jones led the onslaught with three sacks and Jamie Collins followed that up with 2.5 on the afternoon as the Patriots' defense held the Bills to 160 total yards through three quarters - exactly half of that total coming on the first drive of the game - in building a 24 point lead. Outside of that initial drive, the Patriots defense forced Buffalo's offense into five three-and-outs and picked off Taylor twice in that span.

But Buffalo found their legs in the fourth quarter, scoring three touchdowns in ten minutes of game time and found themselves with a slim opportunity to tie the game at the end, but needing to drive 80 yards in 1:15 and working with no time outs before Ryan's first pick of the season ended any hope the Bills had of circling the wagons one last time.

Linebacker Rob Ninkovich and defensive tackle Alan Branch contributed sacks, while Malcolm Butler and Duron Harmon added interceptions to contribute to Buffalo's demise.

One thing that the Bills did consistently well was run the ball, averaging six yards a pop against a porous New England run defense with running back LeSean McCoy doing the majority of the damage on 15 carries for 89 yards, though Taylor boosted the average on five scrambles for 43 yards and a rushing touchdown.

Taylor was generally on target, as his 23 of 30 for 242 yards and three touchdowns will attest and, combined with Buffalo's 160 yards on the ground, they should have had more to show for their day, but three interceptions combined with 14 penalties for an absurd 140 yards were just too much to overcome.
Andrews (60) and the Patriots' line protected Brady well

The Patriots weren't perfect by any means, logging 11 flags themselves for over a hundred yards, losing two fumbles and turning the ball over on downs two different times - and the Bills turned most of those gaffes into points.

Lewis solidified his position as the Patriots' passing back - and lead back for the second straight game despite putting the ball on the ground again - by averaging nearly six yards each on his seven carries and catching six balls for 98 yards, which was second on the team behind tight end Rob Gronkowski's seven carries for 113 yards and a score.

Julian Edelman put in his usual yeoman's effort with 11 receptions for 97 yards and two touchdowns while Aaron Dobson made his presence felt by taking in seven of Brady's offerings for 87 yards.

Initially, it appeared that the Bills had the Patriots figured out, as Taylor and running back LeSean McCoy gouged the Patriots defense for 56 yards on their first drive, capped off by a two yard Karlos Williams run to give Buffalo an early 7-0 lead, then held New England on a three-and-out on their first possession - but just as they did against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Patriots went with three safeties to get eight in the box...

...stopping the Bills with a three-and-out of their own on the next series, Ninkovich's sack forcing a punt. New England scored the first of three consecutive touchdowns on their ensuing possession, Brady hitting Dobson for 17 yards and Gronkowski for 36 before Edelman tied the score with a seven yard touchdown reception.

A Collins sack ruined Buffalo's next possession, forcing the Bills to punt from their own endzone, Danny Amendola returning the ball all the way down to the Buffalo 27, where the first of several personal fouls was assessed on the Bills, setting up Brady at the 14 yard line, then Lewis scoring on a tough run from 6 yards out to give the Patriots a lead they would not relinquish.

Butler's interception just seconds into the second quarter ended yet another ugly Bills' possession and gave the ball to Brady at the Buffalo 30, catches of 16 by Lewis and seven by Dobson preceding an easy pitch and catch between Brady and Gronkowski and a 21-7 New England lead.

Another Jones sack and Lewis' second fumble in as many games came to no harm to either team, but a failed deep pass on 4th and 1 from midfield by the Patriots gave Buffalo a break they needed to climb back into the game, a 39-yard pass interference penalty on Patriots corner Bradley Fletcher contributing greatly to a resultant Bills' touchdown - a nine yard toss to Buffalo tight end Charles Clay closing the gap, but kicker Dan Carpenter missed the extra point wide right to leave the score at 21-13.

A Stephen Gostkowski field goal made the score 24-13 with just over two minutes left in the half, a score that held up thanks to Harmon's second interception of the season that ended a promising Buffalo drive and sent the teams into the locker rooms.

New England's initial drive of the second half stalled at the Buffalo three and Gostkowski salvaged three points out of it to make the score 27-13, but after the next Bills' possession went nowhere, Brady hit Edelman with a 22 yard scoring strike for what would eventually be the game winner - and after Branch and Collins sacked Taylor on consecutive plays to end Buffalo's next possession, Gostkowski hit another trey to give New England a 24 point lead heading into the final frame.

That's when the Buffalo Bills circled the wagons.

Having already been dropped by Collins and Dont'a Hightower for a shared sack on their first possession of the fourth quarter, Taylor found room to pass when escaping the pocket, hitting receiver Robert Woods in the end zone for 32 yards and a touchdown - but only trimming New England's lead by six when their two-point conversion failed.

Another fourth and one from near midfield produced the same doomed play call on the Patriots' next drive as in the first half, Buffalo taking over on downs and driving 59 yards on seven plays, Taylor scoring from seven yards out on a designed quarterback draw, but again only trimming the lead by only six points as another two-point conversion failed and left Buffalo trailing by 12 with five and a half minutes remaining in the game...

...but a strip sack of Brady by Bills' linebacker Jerry Hughes gave the ball right back to Buffalo at midfield, Taylor finding receiver Sammy Watkins for 24 yards on just the second play of the possession, and the extra point made the score 37-32 with over four minutes left in the game, and Buffalo with two time outs.

Gostkowski's fourth field goal of the day increased the Patriots' lead to eight with just over a minute to play in the game, but Ryan intercepted a tipped ball at midfield to preserve the New England victory that became much harder than it should have been.

After the game, Bills' coach Rex Ryan was adamant that he was out-coached by Belichick and that was the reason his team lost, but as noble as it is for him to take one for the team, the simple fact of the matter is that his team's lack of discipline - resulting in the fourteen penalties - and the miscues on special teams that left five points on the field were the actual culprits...

...not to mention that his pass rushers couldn't punch through the crust of the Patriots' offensive line to pressure Brady and that his pass defense had no answer for neither Brady, Gronkowski, Edelman, nor Lewis - while Ryan's offensive line had no solution for the Patriots' pass rush.

Obviously, both teams will need to improve going forward, with the onus being more on Buffalo - not just because this loss drops them a game behind New England in the standings, but also because they have to pick up the pieces and take their act to Miami, where a Dolphins' team coming off a humiliating loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars will be waiting for them...

...the loser of that game likely to be a full two games behind New England as those same Jaguars will be visiting Foxborough next Sunday looking for their second consecutive upset of an AFC East opponent - which isn't likely, unless they can stop a Patriots' offense that has scored 68 points in two games, something that Buffalo's top five defense didn't even come close to doing on Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Trifecta Of Backs, Twin Towers At Tight End The Keys For Patriots Offense On Sunday

"We're not going to ask one guy to cover him. Yeah, he'd have to look like King Kong." - Rex Ryan

Seems as if Rex Ryan has some sort of preternatural occupation with New England Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski. And why not? Gronkowski is the irresistible force that no one has been able to produce an immovable object to combat - and since the two sides of the omnipotence paradox can not exist together, the best anyone can do is just try to contain him.

But to do that means a combined effort from multiple defenders, as Ryan so astutely observed, though it stands to figure that King Kong has prior obligations and probably isn't available.

The polar opposite of being a polarizing figure, perhaps there is a sitcom in Gronkowski's future after football, something as unoriginal as Everybody Loves Gronk, because you just can't help but like the guy. He's fun-loving and with the world at his fingertips on his days off, but when he's on duty and the lights are on, he's as old school as you could want.

In fact, Gronkowski's talent and mindset transcends time, as he would have been a formidable opponent and the best tight end in the game regardless of era, because he can play the game any way you want - as in addition to his obvious receiving and route running skills, he is perhaps one of the better blocking tight ends in the game as well, particularly when pulling from the outside into the interior of the line, delivering a devastating wham block.

Maybe two or three tight ends in history could be mentioned in the same neighborhood as Gronkowski as far as all-around talent possessing all of the physical tools - but when one hears a coach talk that way about an opponent, it goes far beyond respect for the talent of an athlete, because what Gronkowski possesses is something that can't be coached... excitement of playing the game that is irresistible to friend and foe alike that, combined with top shelf natural ability and Herculean size and strength, makes him the best tight end in the game with a chance to become the greatest of all time, given health and maintaining his current production.

And it truly doesn't hurt to have perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time tossing him the rock.

So it's no wonder why Ryan would make statements bordering on the absurd in recognizing the problems inherent with game planning for two of the best players in the NFL this coming Sunday who is part of a supporting cast that fits what the Patriots do offensively like a glove.

When one looks at the Patriots' depth chart at the so-called "skill positions", it becomes apparent and obvious that there are no weaknesses, at least not any that would make enough of a difference to game plan for, what with Julian Edelman leading a group of dynamic playmakers as one of the toughest covers in the league, and a backfield consisting of a Sherman tank in LeGarrette Blount and a couple of passing backs with video game-like moves in the open field.

That leaves only the offensive line for Ryan and his Buffalo Bills' defense to attack with what may be the best defensive line in the league anchoring one of the best defenses in the game - and attack it they will, but at what cost?

The Bills are built to pressure the quarterback and, one would think with such large bodies up front, to stop the run as well -  but the front seven were merely middle of the pack in run defense last season while giving up 4.1 yards per carry to opposing runners, and picked up right where they left off against the Indianapolis Colts in last weekend's season opener, with essentially the same personnel as they fielded in 2014.

That could prove to be an issue for Rex Ryan's defense as the Colts' dismal ground game is no match for the Patriots' dynamic attack, with Blount and free agent newcomer Dion Lewis providing New England with a potentially lethal thunder-and-lightning approach to the ground attack.

Their running styles couldn't be more different, as the 250 pound Blount trudges through gaps like syrup on waffles, tacklers bouncing off of him like he was made of flubber, while Lewis slices through openings with an explosive first step, then makes people miss on the second level with a variety of ankle-breaking moves.

James White has elusiveness as well, as does former New Orleans Saint Travaris Cadet, who could see his first action of the season on Sunday, though neither of these players contribute to the running game to the extent that they warrant special attention - that comes when they are in the pattern, however, as both are excellent receivers...

...In fact, Cadet shouldn't even be considered a running back, as he was actually a wide receiver in college and will often line up split wide or in the slot, which may be the reason why New England has kept just four receivers on their roster while waiting for Brandon Lafell to come off the PUP list. Cadet is a taller back at 6' 1" and makes an enticing target underneath the zone and as a safety valve.

Another reason that the Patriots have kept just four receivers is because of Gronkowski, who is the number one pass catching option on the offense, and this season is teamed with former Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler, giving New England a set of towering bookends, the likes of which the NFL has never seen - and with which the Patriots abused the Pittsburgh Steelers pass defenders in their season opener.

The New England offense is no joke. Even with Lafell out for a few more weeks, there are still too many weapons able to line up in too many different spots to properly account for everyone logistically, particularly given that Gronkowski demands double teams, which will take a linebacker and a safety out of each play.

So how does Buffalo combat such a volatile lineup? Simply, they have to get to Brady before he has a chance to fire the ball off to one of his weapons - and with three of their linemen posting double-digit sack totals last season, they are equipped to do just that.

Especially considering that New England's offensive line is a work in progress on the interior where their starting center is a rookie playing in just his second NFL game, flanked by a guard rotation that features two similarly inexperienced rookies along with third-year utility man Josh Kline, which to the Buffalo rushers has to look like what fresh meat does to a shark.

The Bills pass rush was lead by defensive end Mario Williams, who posted an impressive 14.5 sacks in 2014, with fellow defensive end Jerry Hughes and massive defensive tackle Marcell Dareus chipping in with ten apiece - and combined with run-plugging defensive tackle Kyle Williams notching 5.5 sacks and his the backups notching seven between them, the Bills' defensive linemen accounted for 47 of the Bills' 54 sacks on the season.

That's a crazy 87% of the pass rushing production that came from just their defensive line, with the remainder split up between a couple of linebackers and defensive backs - but under Rex Ryan, those numbers are likely to increase, as Ryan enjoys sending pressure from the second level.

Buffalo may be engaged in too many underneath routes to be concerned with sending extra men after Brady, however, as Gronkowski, Chandler and the trifecta of passing backs present a formidable challenge to the linebackers and safeties. All have the ability to break off routes and get big if they see the pocket collapsing, a key component to Brady's unmatched ability to make defenses pay for sending a linebacker or a safety.

So assuming that Buffalo plays defense straight up, their best chance of containing Gronkowski - or at least holding the damage he causes to a minimum - is to have strong side linebacker Manny Lawson as part of the coverage team.

At 6' 5" and 240 pounds, there may not be a better matchup on Gronkowski or on the Patriots' offense as a whole than Lawson, who brings sub 4.5 speed into the mix, meaning that he has the size-speed ration to hang with Gronkowski in the pattern and to be effective in bringing him down after the catch - as indicated by the 22 passes defended and three interceptions on his career resume.

Weak side edge setter Nigel Bradham could see some time on Gronkowski or on Chandler as well, which takes care of the tight ends, but doesn't begin to consider what Belichick might have up his cut-off sleeves when it comes to the backs and receivers - for certain, if Cadet is healthy he will be deployed out wide in spread formations, while the other backs work best from the pro set. from where they can curl into the pattern if not picking up the blitz.

It's going to be interesting to see how Ryan deploys his corners when the Patriots go 22 personnel and there is only one wide receiver on the field.  Bills' fourth-year corner Stephon Gilmore told reporters this week that he wants a shot at Gronkowski, and it is conceivable that he would be in a rotation to help out on the man-child, leaving rookie corner Ronald Darby on whatever receiver Belichick decides to trot out onto the field...

...which is more than likely going to be Edelman. Regardless, however the game plan evolves, Ryan will likely bring his defensive backs right up on the line in press man in an attempt to prevent both the quick out and the jailbreak screen and force Brady to his second or third read in hopes that by the time he sizes up his second or third read, the pass rush will be in his face.

This opens up a potential can of worms for Ryan, though, as bringing his secondary up opens the seam and slant routes to Gronkowski and Chandler and, as always, makes the defense as a whole susceptible the trap draw. The tight ends and backs should see a healthy dose of safeties Bacarri Rambo and Aaron Williams, with either Corey Graham or Duke Williams holding down the blue line.

That said, Belichick's best option lies with running the ball with success early. Run the ball straight into the heart of Buffalo's run defense. Fundamentally a sound tactic as the more a team runs the ball, the more the defense has to account for defending the entire field. Running the ball slows down the pass rush and occupies the linebackers just long enough to make the blitz a 50/50 proposition.

Will that be enough to dictate terms to Ryan? Doubtful, as when he was with the New York Jets he pressured quarterbacks with extra rushers regardless of circumstances, and his teams have always seemed to give the Patriots as tough a game as they'll find anywhere - and now that he has a better overall defense than he had in New York, the sky is the limit.

Just don't look for King Kong to be lining up with his defense, though Ryan would probably be able to find a way to turn the giant ape into pretty decent defender...

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Gap Integrity, Edge Containment Key for Patriots' Defense Against Bills

The Buffalo Bills weren't hard to figure out last season, nor are they that hard to figure out this year.

A big win over Green Bay and going 4-2 in the AFC East with lopsided dominance over the New York Jets in 2014 were negated by bad losses to the likes of Oakland and Houston. And, of course, one of their wins was over the New England Patriots on the last day of the season - a Patriots' squad that was resting a majority of their starters and still lost only by a touchdown.

Regardless, posting nine wins was a boon for the hungry Bills' fans, who hadn't seen their team finish at or above .500 in a decade, nor had they experienced a trip to the playoffs since Wade Phillips led them to the postseason in 1998 and 1999 with Doug Flutie under center - and if those fans are to be believed, all that was missing that would have made the 2014 Buffalo Bills a playoff team was attitude and intensity.

Oh, and a quarterback.

So imagine how stoked the fans were when the ownership went out and snagged a big dose of attitude and intensity in hiring former New York Jets' coach Rex Ryan to lead the team this season who, after being crushed by the Bills twice last season, had to figure that it was easier to join them than to try and beat them.
Sheard came up huge vs Steelers, and will be counted on vs Bills

Despite his jocular playfulness with the media, Ryan is all business. Intense and considered by many to be on a level approaching that of New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick when it comes to defensive genius, Ryan takes over a team that had one of the best defenses in the NFL combined with an offense that was a player or two short of escaping mediocrity.

The problems on offense weren't tough for Ryan to address in the offseason, as most of the issue came down to health of the skill position players, adequacy along the offensive line and the fact that their quarterback was a much traveled and now retired 32 year old Kyle Orton, who was backed up by the equally unimpressive EJ Manuel.

So Ryan dumped his oft-injured running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson in favor of former Philadelphia Eagles' All Pro runner LeSean McCoy, allowed physically limited tight end Scott Chandler to escape to New England in favor of former Miami Dolphins move tight end Charles Clay and reworked the offensive line by drafting Louisville slugger John Miller to man right guard and signing former Dolphins' bully Richie Incognito to take over at left guard.

Ryan also improved his pass catching ranks by bringing former Jet Percy Harvin along for the ride and adding him to a receiving corps that already featured more speed than one would find from a back-alley pusher, and is welcoming back Marquise Goodwin from the injured list.

The only question that remained was who would be throwing the ball to them, with Ryan answering by naming former Baltimore Ravens' fifth-year career backup Tyrod Taylor as his starting signal caller, rendering the disappointing Manuel and journeyman Matt Cassell to being clipboard holders, and putting in play the boot option which Ryan seems to prefer over pure pocket passing.

On Paper, that should be enough to put the Bills in playoff contention, despite the inexperience at quarterback, given that Ryan returns nearly every member of that top five defense that added Florida State speedster Ronald Darby to their already excellent secondary - but while his offense dominated the Indianapolis Colts in the first half of their season opener last Sunday, the entire team tailed off badly in the second half, allowing the Colts to make a comeback that fell short due to their own ineptitude.

The Patriots likely will not fall victim to the same manner of ineptitude, but must take into account the improvements made by Ryan and his staff - and it all starts with stopping the run and getting pressure on Taylor.

One game does not a season make, but the tale of two halves represent perhaps a gap between all of Buffalo's talent and their ability to morph with their opponents' adjustments, not to mention their lack of discipline - particularly along their offensive line - as an inordinate number of penalties helped to contribute to stalled drives.

Actually, the best drive the Bills put together all day was an 11 play, 80 yard effort which showed that the Bills can maintain and extend drives with balance, as Taylor threw 4 times for 48 yards while the Bills ground game contributed 27 yards on seven carries - with the remainder of their scoring drives being of the quick, big play variety as Buffalo found paydirt on two series of five plays each.

Buffalo showed great balance in their scoring onslaught through the first half, capped off by the beauty of a drive to start the second half and surviving multiple holding penalties on their offensive linemen, but faltered after that point to net just 52 total yards and three points in the five series spanning most of the third quarter and all of the fourth... holding penalties on the line and the Colts ability to pressure Taylor into quick, off-target throws doomed those drives - and that is what the Patriots' defense should be concentrating on in order to even the odds against a talented Buffalo offense.

In spite of the reworking of the line, Buffalo is still dealing with two incumbent tackles who are nowhere near elite. Cordy Glenn is employed to protect Taylor's blind side, yet he was the man primarily responsible for the line's breakdown in the second half, being called for holding twice and generally being a turnstile that allowed drive-altering pressure on the quarterback time and again.

Center Eric Wood, also an incumbent that Ryan couldn't find anyone to replace, had a tough time of it in the second half as well - which shouldn't be that surprising given that all of the linemen are drive-blocking maulers with limited pass protection ability, meaning that first and foremost, the Patriots must concentrate of stopping the run this Sunday, putting the inexperienced Taylor in the pocket on third down behind his shaky pass pro line.

Last Thursday, the Pittsburgh Steelers spread out the Patriots' defense by deploying speed on the outside, much like what the Bills will be able to do, the difference being that Taylor is no Ben Roethlisberger, and the Buffalo offensive line has  a ways to go to match the protection that Pittsburgh's line gave their thrower...

...especially on the wings where Seantrel Henderson is a train wreck at right tackle and where Glenn is slow and plodding, relying on grabbing onto the defender and hoping that the ref is paying attention elsewhere. Henderson is massive, and does well in the run game but needed former Patriot Matthew Mulligan to help him out on the edge in pass protection.

All of this bodes well for the New England defensive ends, especially on the strong side where Jabaal Sheard has to be licking his chops at the prospect of locking horns with Henderson, but on the blind side, Chandler Jones must play under control and not do Glenn's job for him by being too aggressive with the outside technique and washing himself out of the play and allowing Taylor - a very fast and illusive runner - a running lane off tackle, where he killed the Colts by running for a full third of Buffalo's rushing yardage.

The Patriots should play a more conservative game plan of defense against the Bills than they did against the Steelers, trying to stop the run and forcing the game onto Taylor's shoulders. Unlike against the Steelers, the Patriots don't necessarily need to gain penetration on the interior, and must instead maintain gap integrity - allowing themselves to be prepared for the run with a full box and keeping Taylor in the pocket, where his lack of height becomes an issue, as one of his downfalls is his propensity for having balls batted down at the line of scrimmage.

The Patriots also had success in stopping the run against Pittsburgh by going with a three man line which allowed the athletic New England linebackers to better maintain their gap integrity by diagnosing the play on the fly while still playing light in the box - which also supports a tighter underneath zone for Buffalo's running backs and tight ends to contend with in the pattern.

This plan puts an great amount of pressure on the secondary, who should be running in the safety-heavy big nickle.

If last weeks was any indication of how balanced the Buffalo offense can be, having a third safety on the field should prove advantageous for New England, as half of Taylor's completions and more than half of his passing yardage went to McCoy and Clay on checkdowns. Linebacker Jamie Collins has had some luck against Clay in the past and safety Pat Chung is familiar with McCoy's moves as they were once teammates.

Harvin accounted for almost all of the rest of Buffalo's receiving yardage, most of which came on a pretty 51-yard bomb from Taylor, while Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and Marquis Goodwin were all essentially locked down and shut out as Taylor too often felt pressure and opted for his second read, so against New England, Ryan will more than likely try to find a way to get those speedy guys the ball on shorties and allowing them to make defenders miss to gain yards after the catch.

This plays into the Patriots' hands, however, as slot corners Logan Ryan and Bradley Fletcher are best playing in that phone booth, keeping the receivers in front of them, and as it also allows for corners Malcolm Butler and Tarell Brown to play inside technique in either man or zone coverages, with safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon lending a hand from the blue line.

The Buffalo Bills are who they are, and it's not tough to figure out. They retained 12 skill position players (9 legitimate pass catchers and just three running backs) and kept three quarterbacks on their roster, showing that while Ryan prefers a boot action quarterback on the field, he isn't quite comfortable with a relatively unknown quantity...

...leaving little depth on their already inadequate offensive line, making them as thin a unit as one will ever see. So if the Patriots can stop the run - be it with four linemen or just three - and give themselves an opportunity for their pass rush to pin their ears back and come after Taylor, Buffalo's offense likely will struggle...

...but if they can't and Buffalo runs the football as they are able, opening up second or third and short situations, the talent at their skill positions and the fact that New England will have to respect their running ability instead of throwing caution to the wind in the pass rush could spell doom for the Patriots defense.

It's entirely up to the Patriots. Stop the run and keep Taylor in the pocket or be kept off balance by the plethora of weapons that Ryan and Taylor have at their disposal.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Patriot Grades - Steelers' Team Speed Dictated In-Game Adjustments To Run Defense

On the surface, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line dominated the New England Patriots' defensive line - but upon closer examination, things were not nearly as bad as they originally appeared..

The Steelers are one of a only a handful of teams that can spread a defense out to the point that it can affect their tackle box the entire game, as their receiver corps is nothing but pure unadulterated speed - check that - pure, unadulterated, experienced route running speed, and on Thursday night, that speed forced New England into constant nickle situations, leaving six players in the box.

It seemed as if Steelers' runner DeAngelo Williams was ripping off double-digit sprints through the Patriots' defense every time he carried the ball, but in truth that occurred only in the first drives of each half. On the first drive of the game, Williams went exclusively to the right carrying three times for 33 yards, but for the rest of the half he went seven for 20...

...then on the first drive of the second half, Williams ripped straight up the gut four times for 46 yards, but the rest of the game he went seven for 27 yards. In all, for the first drives of each half, Williams carried seven times for a 79 yards for a whopping 11.2 yards per carry, while after the Patriots adjusted, he slipped markedly, carrying 14 times for 47 yards, a 3.3 yards per carry average.

The difference? New England went Big Nickle by bringing in a third safety to fit a seventh player in the box, switching between two, three and four down man fronts depending on the personnel the Steelers brought on each down - and the result was that instead of linebackers and linemen chasing plays down from behind with a guard in their face, the linebackers were able to read and diagnose, arriving in the gap at the same time as the back.

Overall, the Steelers' offensive line had a relatively easy night in pass protection and were able to double down on the Patriots' rushers, as Pittsburgh spreading out the defense didn't afford New England many blitz opportunities. There were a couple of plays in the second half where Roesthlisberger could have made himself a sandwich before throwing the ball, but that could also be considered a testament to how the Patriots' coverages improved exponentially when going zone.

New England registered five quarterback hits and three sacks in Big Ben's 38 drop backs, but one of the sacks came on a failed receiver option when Malcom Brown caught up with Antonio Brown and brought him down when the latter ran out of green and into his own linemen, and another came on a "A" gap hug blitz by Dont'a Hightower...

...the only legitimate sack by a lineman was by defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who played head and shoulders above the rest of the defensive line, simply due to sheer mass and strength - something that New England lost on the inside as the early hip injury to tackle Dominique Easley forced a change in the rotation, replacing him with defensive end Geneo Grissom, who gave up nearly 40 pounds in the exchange...

Regardless, there were reasons for the appearance of poor defensive line line play, but thankfully for the Patriots, they don't face many more opponents that can spread them out quite like Pittsburgh did.

Quarterbacks - A

Brady was, well, Brady.

Remarkable poise and a quarterback that is far more than his contemporaries could possibly hope to be, as he has no peer in the business. Just ask his opponents.

That said, the man is human, and while he makes things look automatic at times, he does have the propensity to overthrow the deep ball, and he has such confidence in Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman that he seems to take more chances in trying to fit balls into tight coverage to them - which explains the first quarter throw to Gronkowski in quadruple coverage.

Bit that's nitpicking...

Running Backs - A

Coming out of college, Dion Lewis was projected to be a change-of-pace back but wasn't considered a true passing back due his struggles in pass protection and lack of explosion out of his cuts.

Well, either he got much better or those scouts were talking out of their hind parts, because Lewis showed up in pass pro and in the pattern, going for 120 yards of total offense and helping a couple of Steelers defensive backs find their socks after he juked them right out of them...

...He's a tough inside runner, but he missed a couple of holes in favor of trying to gain the edge, and he put the ball on the ground once, but given the fact that his running forced Pittsburgh's front seven to respect the Patriots' running game and give Brady an extra split second on the play action, that's an "A" in anyone's book.

Pass Catchers - A+

As good a quarterback Brady is in that he makes the players around him better, sometimes that wisdom cuts both ways.

There isn't a more sure pair of hands in the game than the gigantic paws of tight end Rob Gronkowski, unless you're talking about wide receiver Julian Edelman,  Danny Amendola has mitts as well, as does Aaron Dobson, though his catches cause a bit of anxiety with fans as he has a trademark on double-clutching the ball.

And we would be remiss in excluding tight end Scott Chandler, whose hands are even bigger than Gronkowski's - and together should form perhaps the most lethal twin towers in all of football.

All of them helped the passing game look good, but it all came against a Steelers' secondary that was less-then-stellar, to be kind. They will need to get Amendola and Dobson more involved in the offense going forward, as well as hoping that passing back Travaris Cadet, who is more of a receiver, can get healthy and add another dimension to the corps.

Offensive Line - A

How cool was it to see Nate Solder pop Jarvis Jones in the face mask?

Sure, it resulted in a 15 yard penalty, but it set the the early tone that the Patriots offensive line was not going to be intimidated by - nor would they be willing to tolerate - any extra-curricular activity. So when Jones jammed a fist into Solder's throat, Solder clocked him with one of those George Foreman ham-fisted shots that would have dropped him were it not for the aforementioned face mask.

The fist fighting in the trenches started in earnest at that point, and the Patriots linemen gave as good as they got, and not only protected Brady as well as anyone could have expected, not only opened creases for the explosive Lewis to squeeze through, but did so with a rotation along the interior that at times saw three rookies on the field at the same time - and none of them responsible for their mirror laying a hand on Brady.

Of course, Brady was getting the ball out of his hand quickly which always helps, but on the times that the rush did get to him, it was a matter of linebackers and safeties coming on plays designed for them to be set free, as in Bud Dupree's sack of Brady on a screen play in which Both Sebastian Vollmer and Lewis vacated the strong side, giving Dupree a clear line to the quarterback...

Special Teams - A

Punter Ryan Allen was solid, though he sailed one of his punts into the end zone for a touchback, and would have bounced another through the end zone had Antonio Brown not fair caught one of Allen's boomers on his own seven yard line.  Brown also had to call for a fair catch on his 19 and gained only three yards on his only return of the evening before gunner Matthew Slater brought him down.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed all four of his extra point attempts and forced four of his five kickoffs through the back of the end zone, Pittsburgh's Dri Archer returning the fifth for 22 yards before being brought down by Nate Ebner.

Defensive Line - C

Already covered above, but while there are reasons why the Steelers' offensive line dominated the Patriots' defensive line, the fact still remains that the linemen need a better anchor in their resolve going forward to not allow the opposing guards get to the second level to eliminate the linebackers, who are back there to make plays off of the linemen occupying blockers.

Linebackers - B

With the Steelers taking advantage of the Patriots four-man defensive line at the point of attack, they were able to open up multiple gaps on either side of the center, giving Williams the time to react to whichever gap Dont'a Hightower shot through, leaving the big middle linebacker grasping at air while cutting into the clear gap, forcing the New England defenders to chase him down from behind.

Hightower and Jamie Collins were the sole linebackers on the field for much of the contest, though the Patriots eventually aligned into a 3-3-5 look to patch the leak in run defense - Rob Ninkovich seeing the field more often than not in this mode - which gave the Patriots a slight advantage in disguising which linebacker was shooting the gap.

In all, the linebackers were an active group, by default - and are apt to be just as active next weekend at Buffalo, a team that promises to cause problems closer to the line of scrimmage, with a quarterback who will demand better outside containment and sideline to sideline versatility from the linebacking corps.

Secondary - B

Despite giving up two long receptions to Brown, Malcolm Butler had a decent debut as the team's number one corner, and former 49er and Raider Tarell Brown had himself a night as well. The issues lied with the Steelers running go routes out of the slot and making slot corner Bradley Fletcher play with his back to the ball which, as anyone who has followed his career will tell you, is never a good thing.

But this is something that the Seahawks exposed in the Patriots' coverage schemes in the Super Bowl, and it nearly ruined them - and while the Patriots were saved in that game by Butler replacing Kyle Arrington, it also provided a blueprint for other teams to employ against New England: Put a tall receiver in the slot and take the corner for a ride.

In this case it was 6' 3" Darrius Heywrd-Bey and his 4.3 wheels taking Fletcher down the field, and it wasn't pretty - in fact, Heyward-Bey got loose for a 43 yard gain, and nearly had a touchdown in the following series had he been more aware of where he was on the field, as his foot grazed the sideline in the end zone as he caught a bomb from Roethlisberger.

Fletcher was also a step slow in the fourth quarter when Roethlisberger tried to find Heyward-Bey in the end zone from 50 yards out, but Duron Harmon stepped in front of them and picked off the ball to thwart the best chance the Steelers had of getting back into the game.

Harmon doesn't get a lot of credit from the fans or the media, but he shows up once or twice a game with an impact play and seems to always take the best angles to the ball - as witnessed both in last season's divisional round playoff game against the Ravens and also on Thursday night in using his speed and knack for the proper angle to undercut routes that the opposing quarterbacks don't seem to notice until it's too late.

But both plays were game changers, and one really can't expect anything more from the centerfielder.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Offenses Dominate In Patriots' Victory Over Steelers

New England tight end Rob Gronkowski scores the first of his three touchdowns in the season opening win over Pittsburgh
Lewiston, Maine 3:23am

The storm clouds that swept over Gillette Stadium just hours ago are squeezing out a heavy load over southern Maine before moving on to harangue points north. The air is cool and moist, and the overcast din lends a somber gloom - perfect for agonizing over just about anything, even mulling over and revisiting painful memories...

...even for football, which on this night can't be helped because as home openers go, the New England Patriots battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night was a blast from the past, and not much of it was of the pleasant recollection type.

Oh sure, the Patriots had their moments, but on the night that they raised their fourth championship banner, plays made by the potent Steelers' offense conjured dark images from the recent past - for instance, there was a helmet catch, a close-to-impossible sideline catch, someone accusing the Patriots of cheating, an opposing running back shredding the Patriots run defense, and an opposing quarterback leading his team up and down the field seemingly at will,

And despite all of that, plus coming off of the most turbulent offseason in the history of offseasons, the Patriots still won.

That's important to keep in context, because how New England won on Thursday night is how they have won since head ball coach Bill Belichick took over 16 seasons ago: tough, bend-but-don't-break defense that gives up big chunks of yards between the twenties, then collectively becomes as stout as a smoky Icelandic Beer inside the red zone - and a fast-paced, tight end-centric  attack on offense that feeds off of a complicated series of concepts.

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hung 351 passing yards on the New England secondary with a dazzling display of deep ball accuracy, and the apparently not-quite-as-washed-up-as-we-were-lead-to-believe DeAngelo Williams ran for 129 yards - but coaching errors and untimely penalties at critical points in the game doomed the hard luck Steelers' offense to lose a game in which they did everything they needed to do to win - except score points.

Earning just 14 points when it really mattered, the Steelers dropped a 28-21 decision to the Patriots in the season opener for both teams despite driving inside the New England 30 yard line - and twice inside their ten - in five of their first six possessions of the game, kicker Josh Scobee missing two field goal attempts before making two and a Will Johnson one yard touchdown run and ensuing two-point conversion being all Roethlisberger had to show for his night...

...while Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes to his tight ends - three to Rob Gronkowski and one to Scott Chandler - and change-of-pace back Dion Lewis collected 120 yards of total offense while the New England defense got in Roethlisberger's way just enough - and at critical moments - to win the first game of their world title defense.

The Patriots bread and butter all night was the quick out to the left sidelines where Brady was 11 for 11, counting on the skill and wiggle of his trio of garden gnome receivers to turn his four yard tosses into four more - drawing the Pittsburgh defense down into the five yard buffer enough times to open up the intermediate passing game, which was devastating all night long.

At one point, Brady had thrown 19 consecutive completions as the Steelers chose to play off of the New England receivers, with nary a contested ball in his 25 of 32 night for 288 yards. Julian Edelman picked up where he left off in the Super Bowl, picking up first downs in rapid succession and averaging nine yards per catch while Gronkowski flat abused the Pittsburgh coverage on five catches for 94 yards.

Gronkowski's 19 yard per reception average spoke volumes as to how deep the linebackers and safeties were playing off of him - be it a show of respect for his skill or just plain ignorance of the game plan - even after a few in the Pittsburgh coverages had boasted all week long of their ability to stop Gronkowski by jamming him at the line, which now sounds like a total bag job.

Not counting kneel downs to end both the first half and the game, the Patriots enjoyed just eight possessions and lost the time of possession battle by a slim margin to the Steelers, who ended up with one more possession than New England, putting together drives of 54, 52, 57, 80 and 67 yards that yielded little more than a purple heart for the Pittsburgh offense...

...beginning with the first drive of the game, a nine play drive that fell short when right tackle Marcus Gilbert was flagged for holding, forcing a Scobee field goal attempt that he pushed wide right, then after the two teams traded punts Brady lead a methodical 13 play, ninety-yard drive, shredding the passive Pittsburgh defensive backfield with double digit yardage every time he dropped back to throw, capping it off with a quick out to Gronkowski who was split wide with no defender within 20 yards of him.

Brady's eyes got wide as he realized that Gronkowski was uncovered, furiously clapping his hands together and screaming at rookie center David Andrews to snap the ball before the Steelers realized what was happening and called a time out.

Gronkowski's 16 yard walk in the park to paydirt put the Patriots up 7-0 just moments into the second quarter and, after Scobee pushed another field goal attempt wide right, Gronkowski put New England up by 14, easily winning a jump ball over two Pittsburgh safeties in the back of the end zone with four minutes left in the half. Scobee finally nailed a 44 yarder with just seconds left to break the crust for the Steelers, who trailed by eleven going into the room.

The gnomes took over for the Patriots on the first drive of the second half, Edelman, Lewis and Danny Amendola taking turns moving the chains on short dump offs from Brady - a pass interference on Pittsburgh corner Cortez Allen in the end zone setting up the home team at the one, where Brady found Chandler short left, the 6' 7" import from Buffalo casually reaching the ball across the goal line before any defenders could reach him.

The Steelers responded with frightening intensity, Williams breaking off a 28 yard gainer to set the tone, then Brown burning Patriots corner Malcolm Butler on a sweet double move for 33 yards to get into the Patriots' red zone where fullback Will Johnson punched the ball through for Pittsburgh's fist touchdown, the ensuing two point conversion closing the Patriots' lead to just 10 points at 21-11.

Pittsburgh closed the gap to seven with another Scobee field goal after failing three times to punch the ball into the end zone from the one yard line, but then Gronkowski put the Patriots back up by 14 on a fade to the left - this after Brady and he connected on a 52 yard catch and run up the seam, and then saving the drive by recovering a Lewis fumble at the goal line.

The Steelers sealed their own fate two plays later when Roethlisberger didn't pick up on Patriots' safety Duron Harmon undercutting a go route deep in Patriots' territory, the resultant interception all but ensuring a New England victory - then Pittsburgh's curious clock management for the remainder of the game making defeat a certainty for them.
Harmon's pick ended the Steelers' hopes of a comeback

The final touchdown came with just two seconds left in the game with Roethlisberger dropping a bucket throw to Brown just over the reach of Butler, who despite Brown's obscene statistics, actually played the All Pro receiver tight most of the game. 80 of Brown's 133 yards came on two throws, one where Butler looked like a rookie in biting on the double move, and the other being picked on a crosser that freed up Brown down the right sideline.

Take those learning experiences away and Butler held arguably the best receiver in the game to seven catches for 53 yards, most of those throws tightly contested.

Williams enjoyed gaping holes to run through in the heart of the Patriots' run defense, as Roethlisberger spread out the Patriots and forced them into constant nickle and dime situations, leaving the box light with as few as six defenders to battle the Steelers' offensive line - and now New England is in preparations for a visit to Buffalo next Sunday, a team that features big fast receivers and a dynamic running game like they experienced against Pittsburgh...

...but also with an inexperienced but electric quarterback operating behind a very good offensive line. To be sure, the Bills defense won't lay back on the Patriots' receivers, as head coach Rex Ryan always seems to come up with game plans designed to limit the potency of the New England offensive attack.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Patriots' Front Seven, Passing Backs Key To Success Against Pittsburgh

The times, they are a changin'.

When one converses about the Pittsburgh Steelers, the thought process always allows for the brain to focus on the defensive side of the ball. And why not? The Pittsburgh Steelers have traditionally leaned on a ferocious set of linebackers to set the tone for their perennially top-rated defense, which has carried their entire team for decades...

...but that isn't the case any longer. Under Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have become an offensive-minded entity that has chosen to outscore folks rather than dominate them on defense - and the results have been mixed.
Shifty Dion Lewis and equally shifty James White are keys on Thursday night

Certainly, they have been the second most successful team of the new millennium, winning two Super Bowls and qualifying for the playoffs nine times, but seem to run in cycles of twos, making the post season two years, then skipping a season before hammering out two more playoff berths, and so on, and so on...

The script has changed a bit recently, as the Steelers posted identical 8-8 records in 2012 and 2013 before earning a wildcard berth in 2014, riding the arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and their second-ranked offense to an 11-5 record, only to be slapped by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round.

On the surface, that's progress - under the tarp, however, is the fact that they had to win four straight to end the regular season in order to qualify

For certain, it has been feast or famine in running game. When the Steelers were good, they were very good, rushing for 151 yards per game in the nine games where they rushed for over 100 yards - but when they were bad, they were atrocious, averaging just 66 yards per game in the other seven - the trend pointing out that whenever they played a team with a dynamic and stout defensive line, their offensive line just couldn't open holes big enough for their backs to power through...

,,,as Baltimore, Houston, the New York Jets, Kansas City and Cincinnati all held the vaunted Steeler's running game well under the Mendoza line. Good thing for them that Roethlisberger geared up half way through the season and put up some crazy numbers, or they would have been looking at another 8-8 campaign.

After a week 6 loss to the Browns left them with a 3-3 mark, Roethlisberger strung together an impressive streak that saw him pass for over 300 yards in nine of their last 11 games, including outrageous performances against the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints, throwing for 522 and 435, respectively.

But when it came down to the nitty gritty, their inability to run the ball in the playoffs doomed them to a one-and-done. At issue, of course, was the fact that the Steelers went into the game with the Ravens without their workhorse back Le'Veon Bell, who went down with knee injury in the season finale against the Bengals, but had been curiously ineffective for a couple of weeks before that.

Bell will also miss the opener at New England, as he is suspended for the game for violating the league's substance abuse policy.  Bell's absence affects both facets of the Steelers' offense, as he was the second leading receiver on the team last season behind All Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, averaging six receptions a game for nearly 55 yards per contest.

Also suspended for the opener is speedy wide out Martavis Bryant, the second year phenom out of Clemson averaged a ridiculous 21 yards per reception in his rookie season but, like Bell, has a taste for the ganja, and will pay for it through the first four games of the season.

Their offense also took a legitimate hit in the preseason, as All Pro center Maurkice Pouncey suffered a broken ankle and fractured fibula and has been placed on the team's injured reserve list with a designation to return, leaving the pivot duties to journeyman center Cody Wallace, who held up admirably in spot starts backing up Pouncey last season, and will be flanked by offensive linemates who are all incumbent starters from last season.

Kelvin Beachum protects Roethlisberger's blind side and Marcus Gilbert returns at right tackle, while tough guys Ramon Foster and David Decastro join Wallace on the interior, all three grading out as top run blockers - but who will they be blocking for?

Carolina Panthers retread DeAngelo Williams is the only back of any consequence to replace Bell while he serves his suspension, while being backed up by Williams' former Panther teammate and change-of-pace back Jordan Todman. Second year back Dri Archer contributes next to nothing in the running game, but is clearly the team's third down back at this point.

Despite Bryant's absence, one place the Steelers are well stocked is at the pass catching positions, where they will provide a huge test for the Patriots' new-look secondary.

The lack of an effective running game will most likely place most of the production on Roethlisberger and his receivers, but with the Miami of Ohio product a burly, illusive and strong-armed presence in the pocket and out, and his pass catchers a speedy lot, the Steelers could find some success outside the numbers on Thursday night.

The speed and route running crispness of Brown (4.45), rookie Sammie Coates (4.43), third-year Oregon State product Markus Wheaton (4.40) and journeyman speed merchant (4.30) promise to stress the Patriots' corners, particularly Brown split wide and Wheaton coming out of the slot - but New England also must contend with durable and sneaky tight end Heath Miller, who was third on the team in receptions last season.

Belichick experimented with safety Devin McCourty returning to corner in the preseason in anticipation of a situation that the Patriots will find themselves in on Thursday night, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to see McCourty as a dime back, playing the slot or double slot to account for the speed of the Steelers with either Pat Chung or rookie Jordan Richards inching up into the box to take on Miller, leaving third-year blue liner Duron Harmon to patrol the back end - and he will need to be on his toes to make sure none of those burners sneak behind him.

It is unclear whether Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick will utilize second-year corner Malcolm Butler or savvy eight-year veteran Tarell Brown on Pittsburgh's top target Antonio Brown, or if he will prefer to keep Butler on the left and Brown on the right, with either Bradley Fletcher or Logan Ryan in the slot - or maybe even McCourty.  But what is clear is that the best way to combat Pittsburgh's speed is to not allow Roethlisberger time to find his targets.

The Steelers' veteran line allowed 33 sacks last season on 641 dropbacks, an average of one sack every in every 20 chances, while the Patriots defense generated 40 sacks in 604 tries, or one sack for every 15 dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks - and the New England pass rush has gotten even better - on paper, at least.

The probable passing down lineup for the Patriots is fearsome indeed, with second-year breakout candidate Dominique Easley flanking versatile and slippery rookie nose tackle Malcom Brown, and elite edge rushers Chandler Jones and Jaball Sheard looking for containment on Roethlisberger - and there is considerable depth along the line, so look for Belichick to substitute often in a rotation.

The defense's second level is among the best in football, as Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins are all athletic, all purpose linebackers, with Collins the most versatile of them all. Collins can be found on Miller on some plays, while he and Hightower are excellent stunt masters who will try to take advantage of Pittsburgh's backup center on "A" gap blitzes.

Rob Ninkovich is in an interesting spot as Sheard has all but taken over his right defensive end position, allowing the Purdue product to become a dangerous chess piece in Belichick's second level.

What gives New England an advantage is that the Steelers just don't have the horses coming out of the backfield to contribute consistently in their passing game, and it remains to be seen if Williams can give them anything on the ground - if not, Belichick may opt to go man with his defensive backs and flood the box with pass rushers which, if successful, will force Pittsburgh to keep a tight end and a back in to pass protect, thereby limiting Roethlisberger's potential targets.

But the best way to keep Pittsburgh's prolific passing attack in check is to limit the time that they are actually on the field, which means that the Patriots' offense should be in four-minute mode - a bit of a tall task given lead back LeGarrette Blount is suspended for the game - but unlike the Steelers, Blount's absence is not as limiting.

With versatile Brandon Bolden the only true big back on the roster in Blount's stead, the Patriots may opt for two back sets, as they employ twin passing backs James White and Dion Lewis, both of whom are dangerous runners, be it up the gut or on wheel routes and screens curling out of the backfield - and this is particularly true against Pittsburgh's less-than-elite secondary.

Julian Edelman and Danny Amedola provide a potent one-two punch in the possession passing game, while oft-maligned Aaron Dobson give the team a field stretcher who actually had his best game as a pro against the Steelers in 2013, sneaking behind their secondary for a perfect bomb from Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady that he took 80 yards to the house.

A couple of wildcards that could test the Pittsburgh secondary are rookie free agent Chris Harper and passing back Travaris Cadet, who offers little in the running game and frequently lines up wide as a receiver in the pros, as he did in college - though Cadet may be inactive as he is still hobbled with a leg issue suffered early in training camp.

Greybeards Mike Mitchell and Will Allen will most likely get the start at the safety spots for Pittsburgh, while William Gay and Cortez Allen should start on the wings - not necessarily a lineup that puts the frighteners into opposing offensive coordinators, though things would be different if third-year safety Shamarko Thomas and fourth-year corner Antwon Blake were more consistent...

...but if New England struggles coming out of the gate with their passing game, it allows the Steelers to involve their linebackers in both the pass rush and in coverage, which flips the advantage to Pittsburgh's sideline.

Linebacker is where the Steelers are the most talented and deep on the defense. with Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones playing the wings and Lawrence Timmons and speedy-but-undersized Ryan Shazier patrolling the interior. Shazier has had plenty to say this week in regards to the Steeler's plans to slow down Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski - and, in truth, he may be the one player that Gronkowski sees on regular basis on Thursday night.

The second year player from Ohio State is more of a strong safety than a linebacker at 6' 2" and 230 pounds, but what sets him apart as a coverage 'backer is his 4.37 speed, meaning that he has the wheels to dominate running backs in the pattern and the speed and hops to stick with either Gronkowski or fellow tight end Scott Chandler up the seam.

Shazier is the key for the Pittsburgh defense against the dink and dunk attack that the Patriots' are likely to employ, as their screen game and getting the ball into the flat will be an extension of their running game.

Like Pittsburgh, New England is down to their second option at center on the offensive line, but unlike the Steelers, the rest of the line isn't loaded down with crusty veterans. Center Bryan Stork was placed on the IR with a designation to return, and the Patriots have a couple of options to replace him, either with veteran pivot Ryan Wendell or with undrafted rookie free agent David Andrews...

...though going with Wendell in that spot leaves at least one of the guard positions manned by a rookie. Both left guard Shaq Mason and right guard Tre Jackson are set to play in their first professional football game, and while both are noted drive blockers in the running game, it remains to be seen how they hold up against the Pittsburgh pass rush.

The Steelers weren't quite as productive in their pass rush in 2014 as in past seasons, netting just 33 sacks on the season, and have since lost their best rusher, linebacker Jason Worilds, to retirement, leaving strong side defensvie end Cameron Heyward and designated pass rush specialist James Harrison as the only true prolific sack artists on the team, though nose tackle Steve McLendon and blind side five-tech Stephon Tuitt have promise in Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme.

In the end, both teams need to do the same things in order to win their season opener: Pressure the quarterbacks on defense and not let them get to their second reads, while on offense controlling the line of scrimmage and getting the running backs involved in the game plan is paramount...

...and with New England having a decided advantage in both areas, the defending champions should come away with a victory at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night.

Monday, September 7, 2015

New England Patriots' Offensive Philosophy - No Quarter Given

"And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse, and he that sat upon him called faithful and true, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war." - Revelation 19:11

Funny how that works, huh?

The author of  the Book of Revelation has been a matter of some conjecture among biblical scholars since - well - biblical times, but regardless of who actually wrote the thing, its message strikes a frightening chord in God-fearing folks.  It is, after all, the Revelation of Jesus Christ, and it's bad juju for believers and followers to deny that the gospel is true.

Some scholars believe the book is nothing more than a chronology of past super natural events, while others see it as road map to the apocalypse and still others view it as the internal struggle within each man between good and evil - and that's fine for the zealots and the psychiatrists who treat them and the sociologists who study how persons under the influence of severe religiosity integrate within various cultures...

...but for football - and especially for the opponents of the New England Patriots - it means that the Patriots' offense, with the greatest quarterback who has ever played the game of football, surrounded by perhaps the most physically diverse pass catching corps in the league and a stable of running backs unlike any other in football, is going to run roughshod through their schedule with all due malice.

The offense has taken a different form from years past, which has the milk drinkers buzzing with panic - but only the standard-brand knee-jerk variety that finds them beating the drum for top players from other teams to join the Patriots, taking into account neither the team's salary cap limitations nor the fact that head ball coach Bill Belichick could probably take a pack of trained circus seals coach them up to play ball.

Which is bullshit of course, but it isn't any more far-fetched than folks wanting to bring in names like Fitzgerald and Chancellor who are signed with other teams and carry weighty cap hits, nor is it any more ridiculous than the folks singing the sad song of doom for the Patriots due to attrition and bad luck on the injury report.

Motivation is rarely considered either, and what could be more motivating than defending a Super Bowl title? Of course, the answer to that is having to endure seven months of having your character and professionalism questioned as quarterback Tom Brady has, which would be enough to provoke anyone to go full-Hulk on anyone who opposes them, let alone the best signal caller in the league.

So break out the white horse for Brady - faithful and true to his innocence and his team, and full of righteous anger and indignation - because he has already judged his adversaries and found them to be hypocrites, and is about to wage his own personal war on those who judged him for his alleged role in the stupid and wrong "Deflategate" saga.

For his part Belichick is on record with saying that stomping his opponents like so many grapes to atone for "Deflategate", leaving a slimy trail of destruction in his wake isn't important to him - but he lies. The character of players under his charge and the character of his boss has been dragged through the filthy money trench of both the NFL and the national media, and where his loyalties lie with his own people, embarrassing his opponents on a national stage is going to be part of his game plan.

Then again, when has it ever been good enough to Belichick to simply win? Oh sure, his teams may pull out a nail-biter or two each season, and he'll tell everyone that he's happy to win - and to a certain extent, maybe he actually believes that - but in the same breath he will explain that the team "has a lot of work to do."

Translation: "I'm pissed that we didn't beat this team by three touchdowns."

And it doesn't matter who they are playing, Belichick expects his teams to play flawlessly and will never be happy unless they do - which means he's never happy. But just the fact that they are capable of blowing out teams on a week-to-week basis means that Bill can deny he wants to run up scores of the other teams, but as long as he's got his players on the field, he wants them to advance the ball and score.

Forget sportsmanship. Forget about this offense taking their foot off the gas after gaining a comfortable lead. Forget everything you know about the etiquette of modern football, because this New England Patriots offense has loaded up to look more like a meticulous old-school attack that can morph into whatever decade they need to be in to dominate their opponent.

No? Well, when one considers that New England has the capability in their concept-driven playbook to accommodate regular two-back sets, regular two tight end sets, power rushing formations with four tight ends and a running back, or spread teams five wide - and all on the fly - this may be the toughest offense for a defensive coordinator to game plan for.

It may not have looked like it in preseason, what with the plethora of injuries and Belichick exercising caution in easing the afflicted back into the mix as they sufficiently heal, but that's the preseason. To the core veterans, the games mean nothing except for to regain whatever chemistry they had with one another during the offseason - but this year, more than most, there are significant changes within the infrastructure of the offense that can't be simulated in practice.

For instance, with the departure of Shane Vereen, one of the focuses has been an attempt to find a suitable replacement for the former passing back, the only issue being that there are too many excellent candidates as James White and Dion Lewis have impressed in splitting snaps while former Saint Travaris Cadet is working closer to a return and getting his shot.

All three made the 53 man roster, and combined with the excellent mixture of youth and experience along the offensive line and heft and dominating presence at tight end, the Patriots are going to look markedly different in their offensive philosophy but just as explosive as in 2014 - perhaps even more so.

Because while it is true that the receiver corps has been thinned by Brandon LaFell being placed on the PUP list, it is also true that his loss will be offset somewhat with the acquisition of former Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler - and while it is a fact that the Patriots lost 50 receptions per season when Vereen chased the money all the way to New York, it is equally factual that New England replaced his production two-fold with White and Lewis...

...perhaps tripled his production by retaining former New Orleans Saints' passing back Travaris Cadet, who at 6' 1" and 210 pounds is purely a pass catcher, who the Patriots will most likely use on the outside in spread formations. Cadet is not fast, he ran a 4.67 at his pro day in college, but he is shifty, has outstanding hands and delivers the hit before the defensive back can.

For sure, this Patriots' backfield is a huge departure from recent teams whose stables included a majority of power backs, with one spot allocated for a multi-tool third down back, but with Belichick cutting one-dimensional power back Jonas Gray on Saturday and keeping just one other true big back in 6' 0", 250 pound LeGarrette Blount, the philosophy on offense seems to have taken a complete 180.

Oh, they are still an intermediate dink-and-dunk entity, but how they go about their business is what has changed. With just four receivers on the roster (sans Cadet, who offers nothing in the running game) and with New England employing four tight ends on the roster (as opposed to the three that they have traditional kept), there are 13 players with pass catching prowess occupying spots on the depth chart - meaning that Belichick has dozens of different personnel groups he can employ.

It is important to keep in mind that the tight end position is the heartbeat of the offense - and not just any tight end, as young Rob Gronkowski is indisputably the most dangerous of the species, and is among the elite pass catchers in the league.

Time was that Gronkowski teamed with "move" tight end Aaron Hernandez to form the most prolific set of bookends in the history of the league, but that was short-lived as Hernandez went to jail and Gronkowski entered a dark period in his young life where he was forced to endure multiple surgeries that caused him to miss 15 games between 2012 and 2013, years that New England was eliminated in the AFC Championship game.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that in the seasons that Gronkowski made it through a full schedule, the Patriots went to the Super Bowl both times, winning the world title last season but losing the 2011 edition, when Gronkowski was hobbled by a severe ankle injury that required offseason surgery.

The Patriots never replaced Hernandez, instead relying on a rag tag group of pass catchers that included a handful of rookies and castoffs being mentored by veterans that no one else wanted, a power running game that was only applicable in lousy weather - and Gronkowski. Of course the entire thing was managed by quarterback Tom Brady, who has lead the team to four consecutive conference championship games by using these limited weapons to their full potential...

...last season being the best pass catching lineup they've fielded in a half dozen years. But this offseason, Belichick moved aggressively on Buffalo tight end Scott Chandler, a "move" tight end that just happens to stand 6' 7" with the wingspan of a condor and hands like a no pest strip.

The receiving corps took a hit when Brandon Lafell underwent offseason surgery on his left foot that has been slow to heal, mandating that the Patriots were better off stashing him away on the PUP list until week 6, leaving garden gnomes Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola as the top options among the wide outs, with enigmatic speedster Aaron Dobson looking for his game and undrafted rookie Chris Harper rounding out a numerically deficient corps.

At least it seems deficient until one stops to realize that Gronkowski is the true number one in this offense, with Edelman, Amendola, Chandler, Dobson and Harper mixed and matched to create personnel matchups as Belichick sees fit - and then when you add the talent coming out of the backfield, well, you get the picture.

But one area in which fans have expressed concern, and rightfully so, is with the state of the offensive line, which may have as many as two rookies starting on the interior, and their regular center's availability for early season games seems to be in serious jeopardy.

Center Bryan Stork has been absent from practice since early in camp, with rookie pivot David Andrews gaining most of the reps in his stead - and when flanked by fellow rookies Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson at the guard positions, the results were predictable - but all three showed major improvement over the course of the preseason, gaining most of the snaps as veteran guards Ryan Wendell and Josh Kline were on the mend...

...but both are now healthy and ready to assume starting roles if need be - but at least one of them will probably assume the pivot in Stork's absence - though Stork insists that he will be ready for the season - leaving at least one rookie starting at guard, probably Jackson on the right.

At the very worst, if the veterans play initially, the Patriots will have basically the same lineup that they used in last season's title run (sans retired Dan Connolly), and the rookies can be worked in slowly, as both Mason and Jackson could use some technique work in pass protection.

And again, what we all saw in the preseason is not necessarily a precursor to what we can expect to see in the regular season. For one, the Patriots had just one of their experienced pass catchers - Danny Amendola - available for the passing game, which meant that every opponent loaded up the box and dared Patriots quarterbacks to beat them through the air. The result was an offensive line that was overwhelmed in sheer numbers...

...but with Gronkowski, Edelman and Chandler joining Amendola in the pattern, teams in the regular season are not going to be able to stack the box and, as a result, the offensive line will appear to be more stable - because they will be.

The best thing about the way Belichick has built his offense is that with three passing backs in the mix, it adds another layer to the playbook - the heavy layer that promotes two back sets with any of the running backs capable of taking the ball right up the gut or wheeling out of the backfield and into the pattern. Bringing Chandler into the mix was key as well, as he is essentially a very tall wide receiver.

Of course, LaFell's surgery was not a primary reason for signing Chandler away from Buffalo as much as an opportunity to reinvent the two tight end sets, but foresight on Belichick's part leaves him with options until LaFell returns after week 6.

In the end, the New England offense appears to be a literal juggernaut, the concept-driven scheme having multiple layers added to it by the switch in philosophy - meaning that if the opposition thought the Patriots' offense was difficult to defend before, the added unpredictability that the passing backs and two tight end attack affords them is going to make Brady and company that much tougher to defend.