Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Art Of War - Belichick's Adherence To Ancient Teachings A Key To Patriots' Success

"He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated...Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy...Thus is it that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory." - Art of War, Chapter IV, verses 11-14
The Art of War may be 2500 years old, but the lessons contained in its text have been appropriate and meaningful for practically any military application or in the business or sports worlds since fabled Chinese General Sun Tzu jotted them down in the five centuries before the birth of Christ...

It is timeless advice - be you a General, a business magnate or a football coach - that the contriver who assures himself of the best chance for victory is the one who wins the battle before it even starts. As that translates to football, just being the best prepared team isn't always a harbinger of success on the field, as there are many other conditions that affect the outcome of a contest.

Sun Tzu defines these in the first chapter of The Art of War:
* Which teams' coach is more imbued with the "Moral Law", that is, which coach inspires his men to follow his direction, to be "in complete accord" with him;
* Which teams' "General" has the most ability, general defined as the quarterback;
* With which team lies the advantages of "Heaven and Earth", that is which team does the elements favor;
* On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced;
* Which army is stronger;
* On which side are the officers and men more highly trained;
* In which army is there greater constancy both in reward and punishment?
Without question, the team that has most exemplified these seven military conditions since the turn of the century has been the New England Patriots - as head ball coach Bill Belichick's track record in discipline and reward are well documented,  his game plans ensuring that his men are more highly trained week-to-week absolutely screams respect, and the way he builds his team has them playing at their best when the elements are at their worst...

...and, of course, his quarterback consistently displays better ability than his peers - the result of which has been the best record in the league since Belichick assumed the reigns of the franchise. His teams have been to nine Conference championship games in his 16 year tenure, winning six times and translating those into four world titles

Bill Belichick is the head ball coach and defacto General Manager of the New England Patriots, and there is no one in the league - either on the sideline or the front office - that does those jobs more efficiently and just plain better than the Dark Master - and while Belichick gets plenty of credit for being the best coach of the generation, his record as a General Manager is just as impressive.

Forget his much-publicized misses in drafting cornerbacks and wide receivers - because just like in playing the actual games, no one wins them all, but Belichick has won more on and off the field in the past 16 years than any other coach or General Manager in the business, because of his adherence to the ageless wisdom of the Art of War in regard to preparation, a level of preparation that nearly always assures him of victory even before he enters the arena.

The fact that he is intimately and actively involved in every facet of team operations means that he scouts every player coming out of college - and even more so, the free agent market - which has resulted in some of the more interesting and artistic team building the National Football League has ever seen, as the Patriots' roster is littered with players that didn't quite make it on other teams who didn't have the solid foundation in place that allows those coaching staffs to use them to their full potential.

To be sure, Belichick has had the great fortune of being employed by an owner that was patient enough with him to allow him to implement his own brand once he was free and clear of the far-reaching Bill Parcells era and, to a lesser extent, the Pete Carroll experiment, mix-matching his philosophies with what he inherited at the turn of the century and turning the product on the field into Super Bowl titles...

...drafting names like Brady, Seymour, Light, Givens, Branch and Samuel to complete the puzzle and jump start an amazing run that has seen his teams win ten or more games in thirteen consecutive seasons - a run that even spanned what could be called the "Dark Ages" of his tenure, the 2008 - 2010 period in which the team was good enough to qualify for the playoffs, but not diverse enough to go any further.

Without doubt, this period was governed by questionable drafts after the Championships as Belichick attempted to sever all ties from the Parcells/Carroll teams, where Belichick earned his unfortunate reputation for missing on defensive backs and wide receivers, as names like Ellis Hobbs, Chad Jackson, Terrence Wheatley and Brandon Tate came in with much fanfare, only to fizzle when faced with the rigid structure of a most fundamental approach.

Because of this, Belichick doesn't go after players who will fit his system, he goes after players who accentuate his system and makes it possible to open up more of his playbook. Its a subtle difference, but one that allows him to be just as diverse in his game planning as his players are on the field.  If a starter goes down, his game plan morphs and his play book adjusts, allowing for what the backups bring to the table.

It's not as black-and-white as most understand, but that's the beauty of having the company credit card with a $143 million dollar spending limit - and it's amazing what value the man gets for his dollar.
"What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease" - Chapter IV, Verse 11
On the field, Belichick adheres faithfully to the tenets of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy along with a loose interpretation of the Fairbanks-Bullough defense - "loose", because that philosophy has traditionally been interpreted as a 3-4 but the Patriots' recent history of their linebacker depth being taxed due to injury has precipitated what amounts to a 4-2-5 "Big Nickle"...

...most of the time the fifth defensive back being a third safety rather than a third corner. The Patriots feature great depth in their safety corps - by design, as Belichick has been stocking it with "reaches" in the draft for the past four seasons, and now allows him to run with a single high safety while one safety drops into the box and another reduces down and either doubles up or covers the slot.

But the key to this alignment is that at the snap, the Patriots have eight players within seven yards of the line of scrimmage, making it very difficult for the opposing quarterback to be sure of where pressure will be coming from, and which defensive players are covering his receivers. This offers the Patriots a distinct advantage, particularly in obvious passing situations and in run-heavy schemes where the safeties act as linebackers in plugging the gaps.

The same versatility is required by the "skill" position players on offense, as the concept-driven Erhardt-Perkins scheme relies on a particular brand of athlete - pass catchers that can run every route on the tree, and have the mental capacity to realize the importance of knowing not only where his teammates are aligned, but also to understand why.

It's complicated, but it also causes the defense to have to defend the entire field, as tight ends and wide receivers are classified merely as pass catchers and all are expected to run the entire tree if called upon to do so, and all are expected to become excellent blockers because they know that the concepts require them to be so.
"Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valley. Look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death" - Chapter 10, verse 25
But perhaps Belichick's greatest attribute is that he treats every player who comes through the doors to Gillette Stadium with respect.  He doesn't play favorites - though one could be inclined to believe that he has a soft spot for safeties, given his penchant for carrying an excessive number of them on his roster - and sees a way to incorporate a players' skill set into a game plan.

Every player counts, and all of them have a job - from one to 53 - and he respects his players so much that the ones that end up on his practice squad are typically paid more for their work than what is required by the CBA - and he values their work through the week to get the active roster players ready for Sunday.

Many see him as cold and heartless, releasing players when they cease to be useful in his scheme, but he also understands the big picture that the NFL is a business and the 53 players that give his team the best chance at success are the ones that stay - and people who think he's got a heart of stone don't realize the anguish he goes through when forced to make a tough decision.

Former players universally have nothing but kind things to say for Belichick, and the sentiments are reciprocated. Players around the league want to play for him, but not all can - and he understands that. There are good players that wouldn't be able to pick up the concept-driven offense and good players for whom the defensive strategy escapes them...

...which is one reason why he rarely signs the big name receiver, pass rusher or cornerback when all of Patriots' nation is up in arms about one of them being available, not that they wouldn't get it, but all you have to do is think back to names like Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth to realize that many times, the roster spot and resulting cap hit are most times not worth the risk.

Those were expensive lessons, and mistakes that still resonate in Foxborough as their inability to pick up the team philosophy is just one of many reasons why the G.M. Belichick isn't inclined to move on a top free agent, even if cap space isn't an issue - Darrelle Revis being an exception to that rule, but at $7 million was a relatively inexpensive rental for one season and a very appropriate bridge spanning the gap created by losing Aqib Talib in free agency... Belichick knew that he had his freakish safety corps almost completed and his front seven approaching dominance, setting the stage for a big nickle defense that leads the NFL in points allowed, is second against the run and second in the NFL in sacks, all of which supports a thin cornerback position.

So, in accordance with the Art of War, Bill Belichick not only knows his opponent, but also knows his team and exactly what he has to work with, getting the most out of his players and limiting the effectiveness of his foe going hand-in-hand. There are many reasons why the Dark Master is regarded the best football coach of his generation, and perhaps ever, but if one makes themselves familiar with The Art of War, perhaps Belichick would be better understood.
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." - Chapter III, verse 18

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Loyalists - Jake And Mike Tackle The Pass Catchers, Denver's Defense

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

The Broncos' lead the league in sacks with 34, their linebackers and safeties accounting for 23 of that total. Given how the Bills battered Brady by bringing blitz after blitz from the second level and their defensive backfield, should we expect Brady to take the same manner of punishment from Denver?

Jacob: I never expect this team to see the same problem week after week. One more week of all the offensive line unit being together, including the return of Tre Jackson and possibly a return of Seabass to left tackle, should help the protection issues. That being said, James White is going to have to continue being solid in blitz pickup, and Brady is going to have to get rid of the ball quickly. With Amendola possibly out Sunday, either Chris Harper or possibly Keyshawn Martin will have to be that go to guy. That is a very big step to take.
Amendola has been ruled out for Sunday night

Do you assume this week that Malcolm Butler will draw Demarious Thomas or will he see more of Emanuel Sanders, with Ryan and McCourty handling Thomas?

Mike: The damage done to the Patriots through the air - or the lack thereof - has been fairly consistant this season. The opposition's top receiving threat has been more or less shut down and their number two has had limited success - neither really making a mark on the game, so I'm not so sure that either Thomas or Sanders will have the impact on this game, no matter the matchup.

That said, I do expect it to work out just as you have asked, with pretty much the same results as any other game - but in every other game, the opposition has turned to their third and fourth pass catchers, usually a tight end or running back, to inflict damage underneath. Look for plenty of wheels and delayed screens to Hillman and Anderson, with some jailbreak screens targeting Sanders. Their success on these plays will be directly related to how mobile Osweiler is in the pocket.

Owen Daniels is a name to become familiar with. He killed the Patriots in the pattern while a member of the Baltimore Ravens and is having a good year in Denver.

The Broncos' running game has managed to hit 100 yards in only four of their ten games this season, averaging just 53 yards in those games. In contrast, for the games in which they have topped the century mark, their average is a whopping 157 yards per game, including a 170 yard effort against Chicago last Sunday. Against the Patriots top-rated run defense, which Broncos' running game shows up?

Jacob: With Brock Osweiler playing over the injured Peyton Manning this Sunday, I do expect the Patriots defense to sell out on the run and trust their corners and safeties in coverage. Forcing Brock to have to throw the ball early and often, should be a recipe for success. I do believe Anderson and Hillman will be held in check and the Broncos will need to go to the air to consistently move the ball. It will fall upon the arm of Brock in only his second start to beat the Patriots.

If both Amendola and Dobson are unable to suit up this Sunday, will the Patriots be forced to sign a free agent or will they rely in what is already in house?

Mike: This scenario reminds me of when the Patriots went into the 2013 AFC Championship game in Denver, when they had just one healthy starting pass catcher, Julian Edelman, to go along journeyman Austin Collie and a clearly hobbled Dobson, with Michael Hoomanawanui their starting tight end - and they still had an opportunity in the fourth quarter to make a game of it.

The difference this time is that they have Rob Gronkowski at tight end along with Scott Chandler, and on the outside they have Keyshawn Martin and Chris Harper to flank Brandon LaFell. If the Patriots are going to make any sort of a move, I think it would be to bring up Joseph Fauria from the practice squad, so that they can run something perverted like an airborne jumbo package to tax the lack of size in the Broncos' secondary.

Imagine if you will: 6' 6" Gronkowski, 6' 7" Fauria, 6' 8" Chandler and 6' 3" LaFell flooding the underneath zone with one of them penetrating the seam. That could open up a lot of room for Martin, Harper and running back James White. (Note: The Patriots put Dobson on the IR and brought blocking tight end Asante Cleveland up from the practice squad. They have also ruled out Amendola for Sunday night.)

Denver's secondary hasn't allowed a 300 yard passer all season - not even close to it - and their run defense ranks second in the NFL, allowing just 3.5 yards per carry to opposing backs.  The teams that have been most successful against the Broncos this season have one thing in common: They ran the ball and kept running it, regardless of initial success or failure. Do the Patriots have what it takes to gain that 3.5 yard average?

Jacob: I think the Patriots might have no choice but to have a heavy run game plan on Sunday. With Brady short on weapons, their best bet will be to have success on the ground to set up the play action. I don't think Brady dropping back 50 times to throw it to Harper and Martin will do much good against that secondary. Blount and White need to find success on the ground. Which also means the slowly coming back to health offensive line probably needs to have their best game of the season. It will be a struggle, but they need to get the run game moving effectively on game day

Do you see Scott Chandler's role increasing over the last six weeks of the season with the Patriots short on pass catchers?

Mike: You know, I've been disappointed in Chandler's role on the offense, but it isn't all his fault. The play calling on plays that are designed to go to him are of the fade route variety and along the sidelines.  The fade routes have been a disaster for the offense all season, and Chandler is best when running up the seam and on the intermediate crossers.

In goal to go situations, the Patriots have been much more successful with the wheel routes to the backs and on the crossers in the end zone. I don't think there is any question that Chandler needs to have a bigger role in the pattern, but McDaniels needs to be a little more diverse in his play calling to free him up. If he wants jump balls in the end zone, they need to be along the end line, not fades into the corners.

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Safeties Play Key Role In Patriots Rugged Win Over Bills

Patriots corners Logan Ryan (26) and Malcolm Butler (21) frustrated Buffalo's receivers all evening
The New England Patriots have one of the deepest safety corps in the National Football League, and on Monday night, they all showed up.

Short on cornerbacks and facing a Buffalo Bills team with a plethora of speedy weapons and a dangerously mobile quarterback, Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick called on his blue liners to help out in coverage - and while it wasn't always aesthetically pleasing to the milk and cookies crowd, the football purists saw a game for the ages...

...a brutal struggle between division rivals in which the undefeated world champions dug deep - both into their guts and their depth chart - to grind out a 20-13 win over the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium and in front of a National audience who witnessed two defensive savants collide in one of the hardest hitting games of the season.

Patrick Chung is a regular at the strong safety position, playing in the box and taking on running backs and tight ends, but left those guys to seldom used fellow safety Tavon Wilson and linebacker Dont'a Hightower in favor of handling wide receivers, while reserve safeties Nate Ebner and Brandon King flexed their considerable muscles on special teams...

...and free safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon protected the deep third of the field, playing over the top of their besieged compatriots, McCourty perfectly playing a deep ball to Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy in the end zone, knocking the ball from his grip and forcing the Bills to attempt a field goal, one that Bills' kicker Dan Carpenter bounced off the upright, setting up the Patriots' offense in good field position for their first touchdown.

It wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination - what with Buffalo receiver Chris Hogan breaking free for big chunks of yardage, and Chung getting away with what appeared to be an obvious pass interference and Butler actually being flagged for one that was just as obvious - but they made enough plays to get off the field on third down, holding the Bills to an abysmal 3 of 15 on such occasions.

The New England defense came into Monday night's game riding a streak of four consecutive games holding opponents rushing games under 100 yards and holding opposing passers under 300 yards in seven out of their previous nine games - and they managed to extend both.

Buffalo's fourth ranked running game got close, gaining 94 yards - but it took 30 carries to reach that mark, and were it not for McCoy breaking loose for a 27-yard touchdown early in the second half, the Bill's output of 3.1 yards per carry would have been much worse, as Hightower, fellow linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive end Jabaal Sheard combined to keep Bills' runners between the tackles.

Bills' quarterback Tyrod Taylor finished the game 20 of 36 for 233 yards, but was just 13 of 24 for a paltry 135 yards before the Patriots went up by two scores and forced them to the air late in the game, as corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan were spectacular in coverage once again, Butler on Buffalo's top threat Sammy Watkins while Ryan concentrated on possession man Robert Woods, neither having any significant impact on the game.

Things really weren't much better for the Patriots' offense as, in fact, they missed on more opportunities than the Bills' offense did, causing the score to be not as lopsided as it could have been.

New England quarterback Tom Brady also completed 20 passes, but took 39 attempts to get there with a half dozen thrown into the turf in the general direction of a receiver and he also had a ball tipped for another red zone interception, all while taking more hits than an acid freak at a Grateful Dead concert, his one touchdown throw coming on a designed wheel route to running back James White who broke a tackle on the sideline to finish a 20 yard catch and run...

...who also scored on a six yard power blast off right tackle halfway through the third period that proved to be the winning points. In all, White averaged 7 yards per carry and 16 yards per reception in spot duty, while lead back LeGarrette Blount - after being stymied for just four yards in the first half - broke out for 52 yards in the four minute offense in the second half.

In all, the Patriots averaged four yards per carry against the Bills', something that they are going to have to increasingly rely on with the injury situation faced by New England, a situation that got incrementally worse as the game wore on.

Fragile speedster Aaron Dobson appeared to hurt his ankle on his one catch for the evening, but the bigger blow was to Amendola, who put up Edelman-like numbers for the second game in a row, but pulled up lame with what the Patriots are calling a knee injury. Amendola is scheduled for a Tuesday MRI, and while the obvious hope is that he's suffered just a sprain, the fact alone that he's even having the procedure speaks to him missing some games.

What that means to the offense remains to be seen, but if the Patriots can go forward improvising with their pass catching corps like they did with the safeties improvising as corners, they should be just fine until their fallen start to return...

In the end, however, this game was all about defense with the Patriots' criminally underrated unit battering Buffalo's Taylor into submission, sacking him twice and roughing him up on a half a dozen more occasions, a hit by Patriots' linebacker Rob Ninkovich reducing him to tossing Peyton Manning-like ducks down the field during crunch time, grimacing with each movement of his passing shoulder.

There is no reason to expect anything but a similar product this coming Sunday evening in Denver, where is will be Brock Osweiler tossing the rock while the aforementioned Manning gets treatment for his various ailments...

...and with the Patriots receiving corps eerily resembling the unit that Belichick fielded in the 2013 AFC Championship game in Denver - one that had just two healthy receivers and no tight ends of any mention - another tough-it-out game should be expected if New England is to remain undefeated and clinch the AFC East.

But this time around the Patriots have one Rob Gronkowski healthy, a decent power running game and a top rated defensive unit to fall back on if all else fails - but these are the New England Patriots, and you don't hear the word "fail" very often when considering what they can bring to the table, be it regular starters or the next man up.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Loyalists - Jake And Mike Talking Run Defense, Pass Catchers

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

The Patriots have the number one rush defense in the National Football League, allowing just 88 yards per game on average, and it has been more than a month since they surrendered more than 100 yards in a game. With Shady McCoy now fully healthy and all of Buffalo's offensive weapons together for the first time in that same time frame, will the Bills snap the Patriots' streak and rush for more than 100 yards?
You can't stop Gronk, you can only hope to contain him

Jacob: Lesean McCoy rushed for 89 yards in the week two loss against the Patriots. That was with them going down three scores very early. Rookie Karlos Williams is questionable this week, but when healthy he is a dangerous weapon. I do believe if the Bills choose to run, they could break the 100 yard mark. The smarter game plan would be to attack the Patriots 3rd and 4th corners and exploit them in the passing game. If they spend all day handing it off, they might not score enough to keep it close. 

With Jules and Dion both sidelined for the regular season, who do you think will receive the most targets this week against Buffalo? Moving forward?

Mike: I see LaFell picking up a bigger role in the offense and expect to see Amendola's touches rise as well. Those two had a fantastic playoff run together as their foes concentrated on trying to stop Gronkowski and Edelman, and left LaFell and Amendola single covered - and Brady exploited their matchups. 

I'm actually looking at Chris Harper as picking up the slack for Edelman, however, as he is similarly shifty while Keyshawn Martin takes over some of Lewis' responsibility on the screens.

Brady and the Patriots' offense hung 450 passing yards on the Bills in week two and ran for just 56 - do you anticipate a more balanced attack, considering Buffalo's run defense is merely middle of the pack in yards per carry allowed?

Jacob: Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman were both healthy and killing the Bills in week 2. With both of them on the mend I do expect the Patriots to go to Blount more often to set up the play action. I do expect more Chandler as well in the two tight end set, involved in the pass game, and in run blocking. Without Julian we will see the offense evolve to adapt. 

Stephon Gilmore has stated that the Bills have a plan to take Gronk out of the game. Is this possible and how will they attempt to do it?

Mike: Gronkowski is the pass catcher who suffers the most when the Patriots are short on weapons as teams think they can concentrate on him with double teams and making the other receivers beat them. Thing is, every team has said that they have the solution to the Gronkowski problem, yet he always seems to affect the game, particularly in the second half. 

Gilmore can talk all he wants, but Gronkowski has physics on his side, and the laws of nature can be skirted for only so long. Double him, triple him, hit him at the line, release him into a tight doesn't matter because he will eventually break open, especially if the running game gets going and Brady has the play action to set up the linebackers and safeties.

With Edelman out, the Patriots are left with pass catchers who average more than 15 yards per reception in LaFell, Gronkowski and Martin. Do you see a change in philosophy with the offense that finds Brady splitting the intermediate zone and picking up chunks of yardage or will these receivers have to scale back their routes to fill a need in the short passing game?

Jacob: I think when it comes to the offense, Tom needs that short out that he can hit quick. Whether it's the slot guy or the running back. As you said, excluding Amendola, the remaining pass catchers are averaging 15 yards or more per catch. This makes me think we will see a slight increase in down the field passing. Just by average, if Lafell is involved more, that means more passing outside the numbers.

Gronk is going to see an increase in double coverage, so I would like to see them get creative at the line of scrimmage to increase the chance of him getting open. Keyshawn Martin, once he is healthy, intrigues me in Julian's role. Of course I'm looking for James White to take a step forward as well.
All in all, I do think we will see an increase in down the field passing. Maybe we will also see more of an attempt to stay balanced with the run and pass.

Going forward, what is your take on the running back position and who will get the majority of the third down snaps?

Mike: White will continue with the third down snaps, and even though we may not see him breaking off big gainers, he has solid hands out of the backfield and, even more importantly with the offensive line still in flux, he is exceptional at picking up the blitz in pass protection.

As the line starts to get players back, I think you are going to see left guard Shaq Mason evolve into a part-time fullback, leading the power running game and opening holes for LeGarrette Blount as the lead back. The thing about Blount is that he has decent hands out of the backfield as well, and we may see him utilized a bit more in that capacity as well, even on third down as he is more of a running threat on the trap draw.

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

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Butler's Physical Play, Steady Improvement Demanding Respect

If anyone had questions about whether Malcolm Butler is a true number one cornerback, last Sunday evening's performance against Odell Beckham and the New York Giants should have answered them with a resounding "yes"...

In fact, anyone who has had any criticism at all of the sophomore phenom out of West Alabama University has had to at least soften their stance on the kid that linebacker Jamie Collins has appropriately dubbed "Strap" - a respectful moniker that suggests Butler's penchant for strapping down receivers.

In Butler's first season as a starter, Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick has not been shy about exposing his second-greatest project to the best pass catcher the opposition has to offer (Tom Brady will always be the "Project" that Belichick is best known for developing)  - and the results have not always been pretty, but his improvement has been steady and he's earning the respect of his foe, no small task for a small school cat who is three years older than a typical second year guy.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know of his heroics in the Super Bowl - but the humble Butler shook off any notion of being part of Super Bowl lore, suggesting that he didn't want his football legacy tied solely to that, rather, that his legacy would begin with his performance in the Super Bowl and evolve into whatever his destiny is.

The man who had enough respect for the history of the game that he wept openly as his name was being carved into the stone tablets of football legend, Butler accepted the key to his hometown and a wicked nice truck from quarterback Tom Brady, but once the trophy was delivered and the euphoria over a world championship mellowed into fond recollection, Butler was just a dude that played well on the biggest stage the sport has to offer, and was still essentially a first-year player with a limited sample size for a resume.

Many in the media and the Patriots' fan base questioned head ball coach Bill Belichick for not going after a top corner in the draft or free agency, instead bringing in the likes of oft-burned Bradley Fletcher and former falcon Robert McClain to offer a little resistance to Butler, but he outplayed everyone in training camp to earn the top billing.

And good thing, too, as McClain was grabbier than a teenager on a first date and Fletcher couldn't cover a body at the morgue, so the Patriots turned to former 49er and Raider Tarell Brown along with a myriad of rookies to round out their depth chart in camp, hoping that one of them would rise up and grasp the corner opposite Butler...

...but Brown hit the skids with a chronic foot injury and rookie seventh round pick Daryll Roberts broke a bone in his wrist, leaving just Butler and third-year nickle corner Logan Ryan on the outside, while having no choice but to hand the nickle job to undrafted rookie Justin Coleman, then picked up inconsistent big corner Rashaan Melvin from the Ravens to fill out the depth chart.

Of course, where the anxiety came for the media and fans was from the Patriots allowing both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to move on, with fears of the pass defense falling from a middle of the pack unit with those two aboard to one that more resembled Swiss cheese squarely on their brains - but the rankings really haven't changed.

The why's and how's are more a matter of the safety corps rounding into one of the top units in the NFL, loaded with versatility to support just about any game plan that Belichick could conjure.

The talisman for the three-safety "Big Nickle" defense is free safety Duron Harmon growing into the centerfielder's job, freeing up fellow blue-liner Devin McCourty to be the Big Nickle - or rover, if you will - rotating anywhere that needs attention on the second or third levels, which allows strong safety Patrick Chung to support the box in a like manner, covering tight ends while he's at it.

Ryan has certainly been a beneficiary of the philosophy, as Harmon increasingly tends to play strong side to Ryan's assignment, and sometimes with McCourty reducing down to take the slot. It's a plan that has been in place for a few years now, as Belichick's early round "reaches" in the defensive backfield needed only experience in his system with each other to properly jell...

...but what is making all of this easier - in fact, what is making it possible at all - is Butler's penchant for jumping in the receiver's hip pocket and staying there through the route progression. From the very beginning of the season, Belichick has left Butler on an island with the opposition's top receiving target, and while it has been trying at times, the trial-by-fire approach is starting to pay off.

Butler is a hockey player in football gear. He loves the physical play and seeing him mix it up with a receiver is more commonplace than with just about any other corner out there, the latest example being last Sunday as he stood toe-to-toe with New York Giants' star receiver Odell Beckham, each punking the other after the play, an extension of the fist fight that occurred as the two scrapped down the field.

That kind of physical play has gotten many an average cornerback in deep dutch with the refs and with their coaches, and Butler is no exception - but the flags are just another learning tool for him to incorporate into his body of work and, sooner rather than later, he will have earned the respect of the refs and the flags will become fewer and further between.

Because respect is the only currency that means anything on the playing field. It doesn't matter how much money your contract is worth, how long you've been in the league or what you feel that you deserve, either you earn the respect of your opponent and the officials or you don't - and if you don't, the flags continue to fly and the opposing quarterback continues to bait you...

...and while the opposing quarterbacks still pick on Butler, that can be chalked up to his thus-far shallow body of work, but he's gotten the attention of Beckham and the national press is starting to chime in, so it's only a matter of time before Butler is known more for building upon his epic start than the start itself.

And that was a tough act to follow.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Is Deep Ball In Play For Patriots With Edelman Out?

No, you weren't seeing things on Sunday evening, Tom Brady was airing it out. The question is, was that a knee-jerk reaction to losing his most reliable receiver, or part of the game plan against the atrocious New York Giants' secondary?

The answer is probably somewhere in between, which seems weird.

Weird, because Brady was working behind a mix-matched offensive line that is in such tatters that their starting center from last season is now their starting right tackle and a guy that was cut, resigned to the practice squad and elevated to the active roster in the space of two months is protecting Brady's 38 year old blind side...
Gronkowski is the Patriots' deep threat

Never mind that the prudent game plan was to attack a Giants' secondary ranked dead last in the league at will, the Patriots instead sought balance through three quarters of the game, a 25 to 20 mix between the pass and the run that had a net gain of just 17 points in that time span - but once the game hit crunch time in the fourth quarter, Brady let the football fly with 17 pass plays compared to only three running plays.

Losing Edelman to a broken bone in his foot took away one of the biggest parts of the Patriots' offense, something that had already been hindered by the loss of running back Dion Lewis for the season the week before: Yards after the catch.

With Lewis, the Patriots had an elusive ankle breaker who could take a screen pass or catch a ball in the flat and make people miss more times than not. With Edelman, they had an elusive space-creator who was one of the toughest short-area covers in the league, but what made them both special in this offense was their ability to create yards after the catch - and now the perception is that's all but gone.

Sure, there are other players and the Patriots have always adopted the "Next Man Up" Philosophy, but the fact of the matter is that if those players weren't the best that the Patriots had, they wouldn't have been starting, nor would they have been getting as many touches as they were.

This is to take nothing away from running backs like James White and Brandon Bolden, nor receivers like Danny Amendola or Brandon LaFell, but they are different types of players, and most likely will not enjoy the same success that Lewis and Edelman enjoyed in their roles - which means that defenses can concentrate more on their pass rush getting to Brady without having to concern themselves with that quick safety valve...

...something that we all saw was frustrating Brady on Sunday evening. The short routes that normally would have gone to Edelman or Lewis weren't available to him consistently, as the Giants went to a zone look to take advantage of not having to man-up on either of the missing warriors - causing him to hold the ball longer than he would otherwise, finally taking to lofting the ball down the field when he did get man looks over the top.
Amendola is more like Welker rather than Edelman

The results were mixed, as Brady went downtown eight times, completing one to tight end Rob Gronkowski for a 76 yard touchdown and one to LaFell, who came down with a contested 54 yard gain - but misfiring on six other balls, including one that should have been intercepted on their final drive, taking three sacks in the process - but it also opened up underneath stuff enough for Brady to target Amendola for short gainers to set up the winning score.

The deep ball really hasn't been a staple of the Patriots' offense since a guy named Randy Moss was running underneath Brady's offerings some eight years ago, relying instead on the talents of pass catchers like Wes Welker, Edelman, Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen and Lewis instead to "dink and dunk" efficiently down the field, which opened up the intermediate and deep zones to take occasional shots...

...but now without being able to count on Edelman or Lewis, is the deep ball going to become more prevalent to open up the underneath stuff instead of the other way around?

Well, as it is, on throws over 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, Brady is 23 of 47 this season - just a shade under 50%, which actually puts him right around tops in the NFL, with the majority of his deep balls going toward Gronkowski and LaFell - but it remains to be seen if that level of success continues when the defense doesn't have Edelman and Lewis to worry about.

The running game may be just as important to opening up the underneath routes, as a successful day running the ball tends to draw the linebackers and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and opens up the zone between the second and third levels - so it is more likely that the Patriots remain steadfast in their philosophy that it takes a wide open play book to be successful, which will force the opposing defense to defend the entire field.

For certain, the Patriots have a good nucleus of players that the defense has to pay attention to in Gronkowski up the seam and on crossers and LaFell outside the numbers and between the hash marks down the middle, so it's simply a matter of opening the playbook up to take advantage of what the rest of the pass catching corps offers.

Tight end Scott Chandler could become more involved, and Aaron Dobson possesses the deep speed to take the top off of a defense, but it is a trifecta of Amendola, third-year speedster Keyshawn Martin and recently promoted Chris Harper that hold the key for the continued success of the passing game.

Many look at Amendola as the obvious 'replacement" for Edelman in the Patriots' offense, but he's not that kind of player. Amendola is more along the speed of former Patriot Wes Welker who made up for lack of deep speed and short-area quickness with toughness and great hands - in fact, Amendola may have the most reliable hands on the offense - but doesn't cause enough separation at the top of his route to gain a lot of yardage on his own...

...Martin does, however, and should be the player to pick up some of the slack on the jailbreak screens that made Lewis so exciting to watch, while Harper showed in preseason that he has the fluid hips and a dancer's footwork to break open at the top of his routes and displays a determination to do something with the ball once he has it in his hands, earning the moniker "Poor man's DeSean Jackson" from opposing scouts while in college.

This is not to mean that Harper is going to explode onto the scene the way Jackson did, as he doesn't possess that level of deep speed, but he is elusive after the catch and has tremendous hands - and he even made the Patriots' initial 53 man roster out of camp after catching 15 balls for 150 yards in the preseason, but was cut after the first game and landed back on the practice squad, giving New England's corners fits in practice.

Together with the tough running of LeGarrette Blount and the bonus touches of passing back James White, it appears that New England can still field a pass catching corps that can cause the defense to have to defend the entire field, and not concentrate on just one or two players which would eventually cause the Patriots to scale back what is probably the most diverse play book in the NFL.

So, there really isn't much reason for the Patriots to change up the way they do things on offense, particularly given that Belichick is the master at desgining game plans that take advantage of his players' individual strength, and while none of these guys bring the same game that Edelman or Lewis did, they still must be reckoned with and accounted for.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Wounded Patriots Win Epic Street Fight Against Nemesis Giants

Brady fumbles here and gives the ball to the Giants deep in his own territory, but he atoned for many mistakes at the end
The New England Patriots seem to bring out the best in the New York Giants. Unfortunately for those Giants, adversity brings out the best in the Patriots.

For three quarters on Sunday evening, the Giants lived up to their hefty name and shoved the world champions all over the turf at MetLife Stadium, but when they absolutely needed it, the Patriots flexed their muscles and exerted their will, with quarterback Tom Brady atoning for a red zone interception and two fumbles by driving the offense into kicker Stephen Gostkowski's considerable range...

...Gostkowski nailing a 54 yard field goal with one second remaining as New England ran their undefeated record to 9-0 with a nail-biting, literally last-second 27-26 victory over their less-than-hospitable hosts from the NFC's eastern conference.

Brady completed 26 of 42 passes on the night for 334 yards - but in a display of both how well the Giants' defense was playing for three quarters on Sunday and also how good Brady is with the game on the line, the 16 year veteran gunslinger picked up 191 of those yards in the fourth quarter.

Not just 191 yards, however, but 191 yards behind an offensive line fresh out of tackles, and a pass catching corps missing two legitimate weapons.

Already handicapped with the loss of running back Dion Lewis for the season with a torn ACL, New England suffered a second disabling injury in as many weeks as wide receiver Julian Edelman went down with a fractured bone is his foot, but fellow pass catcher Danny Amendola stepped up with a huge, Edelman-like effort, catching 10 balls - including three on the game winning drive, one of which came on a desperation 4th and 10...

...and another a lunging nine-yarder that got the Patriots into Gostkowski's field goal range to set up the winning score - not to mention his 82 yard punt return to change field position and give New England some momentum, a level of performance that the Patriots have expected from Amendola all along, and one that they will need going forward, as Edelman will be on the shelf for the remainder of the regular season, at a minimum.

Also for the second week in a row, the Patriots went into this game with a reserve right tackle protecting Brady's blindside while center Bryan Stork took on the tackle responsibilities on the strong side as regulars Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer are all on the shelf with a variety of injuries, Solder out for the season...

...with an interior made up of an undrafted rookie at center, flanked by rookie left guard Shaq Mason and third-year reserve Josh Kline - so for those keeping score, the Patriots are currently without five starters on the offensive side of the ball, with only quality coaching and versatile players on the depth chart standing between them and disaster.

And even that sort of resiliency almost wasn't enough against the Giants.

As usual, New York was able to turn the contest with New England into an NFC East-style fist fight, summoning spectres from past victories to spark an offensive effort that would have been good enough over any other team, with quarterback Eli Manning throwing for 361 yards and two touchdowns on a 24 of 44 performance - but, as seems to be the motif with the Giants this season, they couldn't close out an opponent that they had on the ropes late in the game.

Some of that due to mistakes at critical moments, the most glaring of which at the New England 31 yard line with a six-point lead - and just after Brady lost the ball on a Jasper Brinkley strip sack - Manning took a 13 yard sack at the hands of the always clutch Rob Ninkovich, taking the Giants out of field goal range and forcing a punt. Three plays later, Brady hit tight end Rob Gronkowski up the seam, who split the coverage and rumbled 76 yards for the go ahead score.

There were other faux pas by both teams - Brady would throw a red zone interception in the Patriots next series with a chance to nail the coffin shut on the Giants, and wide receiver Odell Beckham would lose a ball control battle in the end zone to fiesty Patriots' corner Malcolm Butler following that...

...Butler stripping the ball from Beckham's grip in the end zone on a play reminiscent of one made by safety Sterling Moore in an AFC title game years ago against Baltimore, then the Patriots' defense rising to meet the Giants' challenge and keeping them out of the end zone despite having a second and goal from inside the five, a Malcom Brown sack of Manning forcing the Giants to kick a field goal that gave them a two lead with just under two minutes remaining.

Critical, as that forced the Patriots to have to drive for only a field goal, as opposed to the touchdown they would have needed had Beckham converted, a difference of driving 80 yards with no time outs versus 45 to get in Stephen Gostkowski's field goal range.

But even as good as Brady was with the game on the line and needing 35 less yards, even he needed a little luck to overcome his own mistakes.

Facing a 1st and 10 from their own 20 on the first play of the drive, Brady released a floater over the middle intended for wide receiver Aaron Dobson that ended up in the hands of rookie safety Landon Collins, but Collins lost control of the ball when he hit the ground. Had he secured the ball, the Giants would have taken over near midfield and could have taken a few knees to run down the clock.

Instead, Brady drove the Patriots down the field to win the game, the 49th time in his career that he has brought the Patriots back from the brink.

But, thruth be told, there were many heroes for the Patriots on Sunday evening, from Gronkowski and Amendola to Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan to Rob Ninkovich and fellow linebacker Eric Martin, all had plays that significantly affected the outcome of this game - Martin's crushing block that sprung Amendola for his big punt return perhaps the talisman for the comeback...

...and the Patriots needed every one of those plays. Make no mistake, if one of the aforementioned plays are not made, the Patriots don't win this ball game - it was that close and that brutal.

Both teams had late touchdowns disallowed, both lost fumbles and both capitalized on their opponent's mistakes, but in the end, New England finished when New York couldn't, and in a contest between these two teams in which the game is always on the line right down to the wire, to be able to finish is the only way to win.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New England Patriots' Midseason Forum, Part 2 - Lewis' Contribution Leaves Remaining Backs Fresh

With rookie Shaq Mason clearing the way, running back LeGarrette Blount ran through the Redskins' defense
Most fans had never heard of Dion Lewis before he emerged as the winner of the passing back role with the New England Patriots.

So how in the name of Chuck Fairbanks did the kid they call "Little Dirty" become such a be all-end all entity for the Patriots - so much so that panic buttons are being pressed all over weird little New England because the guy who most people never knew existed until two months ago was shelved for the season on Monday with a torn ACL?

When head ball coach Bill Belichick and his scouting staff commenced the team building process for 2015 before last season was even over, former Hoodie confidant (When Belichick was in Cleveland) and current Patriots "Assistant to the coaching staff" Michael Lombardi advised Belichick to sign Lewis to a Futures Contract, but the general feeling was that the Pitt product was little more than a change of pace back that was fighting for a roster spot.

At the beginning of the new league year, passing back Shane Vereen bolted for the New York Giants in free agency, leaving the passing back duties competition wide open, but with the thought that - worst case scenario - they could always go with their Plan A, which was actually putting into play the team's fourth-round draft pick from 2014, James White.

But Belichick never leaves himself without options, so he signed former New Orleans passing back Travaris Cadet to compete against White, with Lewis squarely in the background - but as OTA's concluded and training camp began, Lewis was clearly outperforming both, exploding onto the scene with such an impact that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels started inventing ways to get him the ball...

And now in the wake of Lewis' season ending injury, the Patriots' passing back duties fall back to the guy who lost the job that was his to lose in the first place, the guy that was the Patriots' Plan A, before Lewis juked him right out of the job.

James White is no slouch. Splitting time with a guy named Melvin Gordon at Wisconsin in his senior year. White earned the moniker "Sweet Feet" with an occasional reference to the great Barry Sanders with the merging connotation "Barry White", as he was the lightning to Gordon's thunder in the always insanely powerful Badgers' running attack.

What, WHAT?  Many who read this right now are going to wonder if I've ever seen a football game in my entire life, referring to the seldom-used NFL counterpart of a redshirt freshman whose name frequently appears on Belichick's inactive list by such far-reaching portrayals...

But behind Wisconsin's mammoth offensive line that featured a wall blocking scheme, White ran for an average of 6.5 yards per carry, gaining 1444 yards on the ground and caught 39 balls for 300 yards - breaking more than a few ankles along the way.

White is a different back than Lewis - in fact, he's different from most running backs in that there is very little wasted motion in his cuts. His running style is compact and centrifugal, relying on a killer stutter step and leg drive to avoid the tackle with a short-area burst rather than being overly elusive. He is a patient runner and will wait for his blockers to open holes for him in the running game, and has a powerful jump cut to get through the hole quickly, particularly when cutting against the grain to his left.

He's not as flashy as Lewis - there are few players who are - but he is the guy that the Patriots expected to win the passing back job coming into training camp, and given the same opportunities, he could fill the "Vereen Role" at least adequately enough to keep that part of the play book open...

The passing back - or third down back, if you prefer - is a vital component of the Patriots' offense, but it's been since the beginning of the dynasty that they had employed the services of such a complete back as Lewis, and while how the position is going to look in the immediate future is unclear, at least the power running game is cranked up and rounding into form.

LeGarrette Blount is just ridiculous. He's about as elusive as a freight train, but he runs with a purpose and nary a defensive back wish to cross paths with him, at least not face-to-face.

In their Week 9 matchup with the Washington Redskins, and the Patriots' offensive line the football equivalent of pot luck, Blount powered through a Redskins' front seven that was desperate to stop him, the result of a wall blocking scheme that featured budding star Shaq Mason in a role that utilizes his freakish athleticism, pulling from his left guard position to lead Blount right down the Redskins' collective throats.

Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and big Michael Williams got involved as well, each taking turns pulling into the running lanes - typically Gronkowski to the left and Williams to the right, delivering wham blocks to seal out the linebackers trying to plug the gaps. The combination of the cast of drive blockers along the line, the tight ends driving  to the second level and Blount's road grading style is an imposing thing for Patriots opponents to game plan for, and is something that is going to set them apart from their foes down the stretch.

That is important to remember moving forward, because the power running game is essential to success of the offense, particularly when facing quality defenses in the post season, and when the weather dictates a more fundamental approach to the Erhardt-Perkins scheme.

Because of the presence of Lewis, Blount is working with a fresh set of wheels, as he's carried the ball just 98 times, his roll limited to the four-minute offense - and the crazy part is that 29 of those carries came in Sunday's win over Washington, so it's fair to say that with Blount, White (14 touches) and special teams' ace Brandon Bolden (12 touches), the Patriots backfield is a devently rested and fresh group.

At present, and other than rookie power back Joey Iosefa on the practice squad, the Patriots are working with just three running backs, so it is conceivable that some sort of depth move will be made at some point, but for now, it's good policy to see what the guys on your roster can give you before making an offer to one of the many free agents available.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Lewis Done With ACL Tear; Patriots Back To "Plan A"

Well, back to "Plan A".

Before Dion Lewis burst onto the scene in Foxborough, Patriots' fans were resigned to the fact that James White was the heir-apparent to Shane Vereen's old gig as New England's passing back. Resigned, in that the seldom-used White is mostly untested, and didn't exactly light the world on fire in the chances that he did get.

That said, Ladies and Gentlemen, meet James White.

Lewis, the unexpected "Plan B", tore his ACL on Sunday afternoon as he finished off a 13-yard catch and run, and will be placed on the team's injured reserved list today, leaving White and veteran special teamer Brandon Bolden as the teams' designated passing backs.

Lewis' season ends with 36 receptions to his credit for 388 yards combined with 234 yards on 49 rushing attempts - his 622 yards from scrimmage third on the team behind tight end Rob Gronkowski (693) and receiver Julian Edelman (639) - many of his yards coming on highlight reel plays that displayed his video game-like elusiveness.

The Patriots do have many options, however.

They could decide to roll with White and Bolden to offer a change of pace for lead back LeGarrette Blount's power running style, as White has some elusiveness and has sure hands while Bolden is a bigger back with nice hands, but they could also pick up the phone and ask Travaris Cadet to come back - which makes sense given he was with the Patriots through training camp and was cut to make room for bigger needs on the roster, since the position was so well manned already.

If they decide to stand pat on what they have on the roster for backs, the Patriots could fill Lewis' roster spot with an offensive lineman from the practice squad - Chris Barker and Blaine Clausell are available - or they could activate linebacker Dane Fletcher or defensive tackle Chris Jones from the PUP list.

Still, rumors abound. This afternoon, Twitter was ablaze with pleads from fans for the team to sign former Ravens' bad boy Ray Rice, and also unconfirmed reports that former Rams and Falcons lead back Steven Jackson being spotted in Foxborough...

....and both would make sense, as the 27 year old Rice has logged 369 receptions for over 3000 yards in his six seasons in the league, while the 32 year old Jackson has 460 receptions for over 3600 yards from scrimmage - but it makes more sense to see if White steps up.

Why? He was drafted with the intent of taking over for former Patriot Shane Vereen, and spent all of last season on the active roster in preparation for taking on the role, and is more in the mold of Vereen than Lewis, with some elusiveness in the open field and some power between the tackles - but it would be a mistake for anyone to expect any of the aforementioned options to perform at the level that the explosive Lewis has.

And that's the bitch-kitty here. People are enamoured with what Lewis can do, and may be unwilling to accept and give a chance to White, but chances are excellent that Belichick will stay the course, going "back" to Plan A now that the pleasantly unexpected Plan B is down for the season...

Patriots Punk Redskins As Makeshift Offensive Line, Run Defense Dominates

The patchwork Patriots' offensive line opened up huge holes for running back LeGarrette Blount on Sunday

The New England Patriots are boring.

Well, usually they are, what with head ball coach Bill Belichick's bitchy little points of order, quarterback Tom Brady's minuscule yards per completion average and the defense's increasingly curmudgeonly behavior, but on Sunday afternoon against the overmatched Washington Redskins, the Patriots managed to throw a few curves to the home folks.

Why, Brady didn't even throw for 300 yards, and threw his first 'real' interception of the season. His favorite target, wide receiver Julian Edelman, came down with just five balls and fumbled away one of them and tight end Rob Gronkowski had the quietest game of his season.

Instead New England relied on a powerful running game to pace a balanced attack and a defense that forced two turnovers and held the Washington offense to just 250 total yards - including their second straight game holding an opponent under 40 rushing yards, and third straight under 90 - as the Patriots ran their record to 8-0 with what could turn out as a costly 27-10 victory over the Redskins at Gillette Stadium.

Costly, in that injuries continue to pile up for New England, as left tackle Sebastian Vollmer, passing back Dion Lewis, nickle safety Duron Harmon and reserve linebacker Jon Bostic all left the game in pain and did not return. Of the four, Vollmer's apparent concussion was the most critical, as the Patriots entered the game with just six healthy offensive linemen, and no reserve tackles.

But once again, the resilient Patriots managed to thrive with a patchwork offensive line that saw reserve right tackle Cam Fleming take his first snaps ever at left tackle, while just-activated center Bryan Stork manned the edge on the right.

The result? Brady completed 26 of 39 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns without being sacked, and power back LeGarrette Blount ran over, around and through the porous Redskins' front seven for 129 yard and a touchdown, running mostly behind Stork and left guard Shaq Mason pulling to the right.

For those keeping score, That's a second-year right tackle playing his first ever snaps protecting Brady's blindside, a second-year center forced into service at the strong side tackle, a rookie at the pivot and a rookie at left guard - the crusty veteran of the group being third-year swing man Josh Kline at right guard, a group that opened holes for the Patriots' backs to accumulate their best yardage total of the season and kept the franchise signal caller upright.

They had help, of course, as Gronkowski and reserve tight end Michael Williams saw time run blocking, and the backs stayed in at times to pick up blitzes, but that shouldn't take away from what the line was able to accomplish, as those things typically happen anyway.

Brandon LaFell snagged five of Brady's offerings for 102 yards, a total that equaled the production of Edelman and Gronkowski combined, though the two touchdowns through the air came courtesy of Edelman and reserve back Brandon Bolden, who took over for Lewis after the electrifying scat back strained his MCL and was lost for the game.

Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins found himself the victim of a receiving corps that developed a case of butterfingers, as seven of his throws were dropped outright, the first three of which stalled drives and allowed the New England offense to take possession and build an early lead - and with his running game being stuffed by the Patriots' stout front seven, his 26 of 37 night for 214 yards wasn't nearly enough to overcome all of the mistakes...

...which is now a trend for foes of the Patriots, as their defense is evolving into a truly elite unit of beefy gap pluggers, speedy sack artists and pretentious pass defenders who don't realize they are not supposed to be as good as they are rounding out to be.

How good? On Sunday, a full one-third of Washington's passing yardage came on their final drive of the game when the Patriots go into their three-deep "prevent" shell defense, long after the Redskins had given up hope of establishing any sort of a running game - an in-vogue tendency that has New England as the third-ranked run defense in the entire National Football League.

Which, of course, makes the Patriots even more boring.

But efficiency is boring to the casual fan - and by casual fan, that is to mean the fan that can't figure out how the Patriots keep winning regardless of sitiuation or condition, and writes it all off to them being cheaters - but for those who are true fans, the way the Patriots operate on both sides of the ball is nothing short of awe inspiring.

Some point to those dropped passes by the Redskins receivers as being a majority stockholder in the defense's overall performance - and there's no denying that they helped - but when the offense had already scored 14 points and the defense had already held the Redskins offense to one play, which resulted in a Logan Ryan interception, the game was already out of hand just ten minutes into the game, as it seemed that the Patriots made it a point to race out to a big lead and turn to the running game to offset all of the injuries along the offensive line...

...evidenced by Belichick calling for an onside kick immediately following Edelman's touchdwon reception on their first series of the game - and even though the ensuing series ended with an Edelman fumble in Redskins' territory, the aggressive nature of the play calling spoke for itself.

New England took a two score lead on their next possession, turning Ryan's fourth interception of the year into a short touchdown drive, capped off by a five yard power run by Blount, then a Stephen Gostkowski field goal put the Patriots' lead at 17-0 before the Redskins started to find their stride in their four-minute offense, putting together an almost eight minute drive with outstanding balance, but the the Patriots held in the red zone and Washington settled for a field goal to close the gap to 17-3 heading into the locker room.

The Redskins had deferred to the second half when they won the coin flip to start the game (So much for the coin flip controversy) and had a legitimate chance to double up by seizing the momentum coming out of the locker room with the first possession of the second half, driving into Patriots' territory before defensive tackle Alan Branch forced Washington running back Matt Jones to fumble at the New England 42, and the Redskins never seriously threatened after that...

...going three-and-out on their next three possessions before Belichick put the defense in their prevent shell, allowing the Redskins to put together a 12 play, 83 yard touchdown drive that effectively killed off the final four minutes of the game.

There was no official word after the game regarding the status of players that were injured, but speculation had it that Vollmer was held out as a precaution due to a possible concussion, and that Lewis was headed for an MRI, which was hoped to reveal nothing more than a sprained MCL, though some rumored reports listed him as having a "loose" ACL.

Harmon was seen tooling around the locker room with no limp after he came out of the game with what looked like a knee injury. It remains to be seen how the Patriots approach next week's clash with the hated New York Giants, who will tax and test their depleted offensive line in ways that the Redskins could not, and will put a premium on the Patriots' pass coverage against an offense superior to what Washington offered up.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Deferring To The Second Half A Powerful Tool In The Hands Of Belichick, Patriots

To defer or not to defer, that's not even a question.

At least not in New England, where Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick takes every little competitive advantage he can get into consideration, including his time-tested habit of sending his defense out on the field to start a football game nearly every single time he has had a choice in the matter.

The coin flip at the start of every football game - regardless of level, from Pop Warner all the way up to the professional game - is not only the first official act between two opposing teams, but since 2008, it has provided a way for coaches to control not only how a football game begins, but also to guide his strategy throughout the first half of those games.

Since a rule change in 2008 gave coaches the option of either receiving the ball to start the game or to defer that option to the second half, Belichick has taken the latter 59 times out of 61 opportunities - the only two times that he elected to take the opening kickoff was the ill-fated season opener in 2008 when quarterback Tom Brady got his knee-guts scrambled by Kansas City's Bernard Pollard, and in Week 5 of the 2013 season, when his Patriots were preparing to play in a torrential downpour in Cincinnati.

The advantage, of course, is something known as "Doubling Down", a tactic that in a perfect world would see his Patriots score points just as the first half expires, then receive the second half kickoff to hopefully put up more points without the opposition getting their turn with the ball in between.

It doesn't always turn out the way Belichick would envision it, but it does often enough to keep doing it.

Case in point, during the 2014 Super Bowl winning season, the Patriots won the coin toss an amazing 14 times in 19 games, going just 3-2 in the games that they lost the coin toss (each of their opponents deferred to the second half) while going 12-2 in games in which they won the coin toss, the only losses being to Miami in the season opener and to Buffalo in the season finale in which most of the starters were being rested in preparation for the playoffs.

That statistic in itself represents a most compelling argument for deferring to the second half, but simply deferring doesn't guarantee success, as the Miami Dolphins found out last Thursday night.

Winning the coin toss and electing to defer to the second half, the Dolphins saw their advantage dwindle to nothing as they had an opportunity with just over five minutes remaining in the first half to turn to what is called the "Four-minute offense", a tactic in which the goal of the offense is to convert first downs and slowly grind the clock down before scoring, leaving the opponent with little or no time to respond...

....but the Dolphins became impatient, being down 9-0 at the time, and tried to score quickly, but a first down out-route destined for receiver Rishard Matthews was picked off by Patriots' corner Logan Ryan - which Tom Brady and the Patriots offense turned into a field goal - then went three-and-out on their ensuing possession, giving the ball up to New England, who marched right down the field and scored a touchdown.

So instead of being patient and cutting into a slim Patriots' lead, the Dolphins whiffed on three straight possessions - on their last possession they tried a ridiculous looking 63 yard field goal as time expired - while New England turned a nine-point lead into an insurmountable total.

And what makes that even worse, is that the Dolphins scored a touchdown on their opening possession of the second half, and quite possibly could have taken a lead had they run their four-minute offense and not tried to push the ball downfield too quickly.

So far this season, New England has won the coin toss in five of their seven games, deferring each time and doubling down in each instance with the exception of the season opener against Pittsburgh, and scoring on their first possession of the second half each time.

The two times that they lost the coin toss? The Cowboys won the toss in Dallas and took the ball to start the game, and the Dolphins won the toss last Thursday and deferred - both times it was the Patriots that ended up doubling down, turning relatively close games into blowouts by virtue of scoring to end each first half and scoring to start the second half.

In the right hands, deferring to the second half is a powerful tool, but in the wrong hands, it's still advantage, Patriots

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Patriots Quiet At Trade Deadline, As They Should Be

The NFL's trade deadline has come and gone, and the New England Patriots stood pat on perceived areas of need, and the most physically diverse roster in the National Football League remains intact.

Sure, the Patriots could have used some depth at corner and at offensive tackle, but depth is all they were in the market for, and with the prices on the open market dictating to the desperate teams who needed starting quality talent, the deadline passed with not so much as a whisper coming out of Patriots' Place.
Belichick is obviously set with his roster

Naturally, rumor and innuendo had media types scrambling for confirmation, and a few websites took the chance that the Patriots were destined to sign Tennessee Titans' cornerback Jason McCourty, but their move to scoop the rest of the world backfired when the Titans announced that McCourty was not available.

There could have been some validity to reports that New England had offered a 4th and a 6th round pick for the brother of Patriots' safety Devin McCourty, but when all was said and done, head ball coach Bill Belichick went fishing in a pond that was stocked with talent, but came with starter-like asking prices.

But this is all just speculation - the real story here is that we simply haven't seen the best of this defense, and we all know that Belichick builds his team and brings them along in a manner that they will be playing their best ball after Thanksgiving, and he obviously sees progress in his secondary.

Logan Ryan is finally making his fabled second year jump from wet-behind-the-ears rookie to legitimate cover corner in his third season, a year after riding the pine in favor of big name players like Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner - high-priced mercenaries brought in to complete the look at corner after New England lost Aqib Talib in free agency...

...while Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler is ignoring the constant chirping from the media and fans in regard to struggling as the Patriots' number one corner, while realizing that he, like Ryan, is suffering from lack of real-time snaps last season, and is essentially playing his rookie season - and what the media is not realizing is that in just about every occurrence when he has given up a big gainer or even a score, he has been in position to make the play.

With experience, Butler will be using his knack for position and defending those throws, or picking them off.

Depth is certainly an issue at corner, with only rookie free agent Justin Coleman and Ravens' retread Rashaan Melvin on the chart behind the starters, but it should be noted that the Patriots are becoming increasingly comfortable with the Big Nickle - that is, three safeties on the field instead of three corners - made possible by the emergence of Duron Harmon as a legitimate sideline-to-sideline centerfielder, leaving McCourty and Patrick Chung to help out in coverages and in run support.

In fact, the Patriots' safety corps is one of the top units in the league, and together with one of the most fearsome front sevens in the NFL, have helped the Patriots to an overall total defensive rating of two spots higher than at any point last season, and on par with last season's point differential, which ranked number one in the NFL...

...and are two spots better than the total pass defense was all of last season. Obviously, Belichick is comfortable with these numbers, comfortable with his players and comfortable with the fact that his team is undefeated nearly halfway through the season.

Another area where it was rumored that the Patriots needed help was at offensive tackle, and while there is credence to those rumblings - given injuries to Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon - the injury to Cannon isn't considered that serious and Pro Bowl quality right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is doing yeoman's work on the left while Cannon mends.

There are injuries on the interior of the line as well, but the depth is significant between the tackles, particularly with center Bryan Stork returning, but with rookie David Andrews performing admirably in his stead, it has created somewhat of a Bledsoe-Brady type of situation in regard to whether Stork will reclaim his job coming off of the IR, or if he will be placed in a rotation where he could fit in at right guard, where he played in his freshman and sophomore seasons in college.

So despite the rumblings from the media and the fans, Belichick will prove once again that he knows what he's doing with his roster, and will be looking for his teams' annual ascension to the pinnacle of the NFL, to be completed just in time to claim home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

New England Patriots' Midseason Forum, Part 1 - Champs Dictating Terms

Brady may be playing the best football of his career
At the start of every season, New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick reminds all of us that there are 32 teams in the National Football League, and all of them have their sites set on one goal, and that all of them have the same opportunity to grasp that brass ring called the Lombardi Trophy - and in the better part of the past two decades, the Patriots have grabbed that ring more than any other team...

...and have come up with nothing but air on a couple of other attempts, but no one can deny that the Patriots are most successful team of this generation - and all because they are blessed with the best coach and a quarterback who have been in the same system together for the entire time.

Winning championships, losing championships, it doesn't matter. Their approach to each game remains the same, within the confines of the offensive and defensive philosophies.

Defensively, it's always been a matter of taking away the opponent's top couple of strengths and daring them to beat you with plan b (or plan c or even plan d), building that plan around the strengths of the athletes at his disposal - which is the same way on offense, but with a distinct difference.

You see, the offense, having been run by the same guy for the past 16 years, has become somewhat robotic, to the point that it would be boring were it not for the explosive nature of the weapons at quarterback Tom Brady's whim, and the fact that Brady is so good at his job - so efficient - many marvel at his onfield accomplishments without stopping to think as to why the Patriots' offense has become the runaway freight train that it has.

The game plan offense is part of it, as the Patriots coaches work all week long to identify the opposition's weaknesses on defense, then pare down their massive playbook to include the concepts that have the best chances to be successful in attacking the defense - then deliver the entire package to Brady and the offensive players, who work tirelessly in the film room and practice field to ensure they have it down...

...which is how things work in every professional organization, but the command that Brady has of the antiquated Erhardt-Perkins offense that Belichick is faithful to, combined with the unquestioned loyalty that his supporting cast has in him and the system and their fellow players equates to production that few defenses can contain for even one half of football, never mind an entire game.

The Erhardt-Perkins' offense stands by the mantra "Pass to score, run to win." which, in lay terms means that the offense will try to build an early lead through the passing game, then fall back on the run and the four-minute offense to grind down the clock and limit the number of possessions by the opposition.

This is not to infer that there is a set standard of balance to the play calling, rather, balance in this offense is most often achieved through taking what they want as a unit, passing first as a general rule, and usually using the running game as something that shows up just enough to keep the opposing pass rushers aware of their assignments against the run.

It's a system tested by time to be the genuine article that Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins developed as assistant coaches for the Patriots under Chuck Fairbanks in the mid-70's, and Belichick's unwavering faithfulness to the methodology is one of the core reasons why his offense always evolves into a juggernaut right around Halloween...

...the other reasons being his complex and thorough scouting system that exhausts every thread of knowledge in regard to an opposing defense, and the fact that both Belichick and Brady know the playbook like the Pope knows the bible, and are able to game plan for their opponent in such a meticulous manner means that the Patriots have the advantage over them before they even hit the field for warm ups.

Thursday night's punking of the Miami Dolphins is a perfect example.

On the first series of the game, Brady fed running back LeGarrette Blount four times for 22 yards, and completed four short passes to draw the linebackers and secondary closer to the line, then took advantage of the coverage by hitting tight end Rob Gronkowski over the middle behind the linebackers, and Gronkowski raced 47 yards for the touchdown, aided by a tremendous downfield block by wide receiver Brandon LaFell.

The Dolphins defense adjusted by coming after Brady, turning up the heat on the patchwork offensive line and forcing punts on the next four series by either causing penalties or by sacking Brady, but New England countered with their up-tempo look in the two minute drill and moved the ball strictly through the air to take a 19-0 lead into the locker room...

...turning primarily to their four-minute offense in the second half to grind down the Dolphins' defense and salt the game away with true balance.

So in the space of one game, the Patriots were able to start with a balanced attack to lure the Dolphins into making a mistake in coverages, switching to an up-tempo, downfield attack that no defense in the league has been able to stop, then turning things over to the grinders in the second half to wear down the Dolphins and strip the clock.

In other words, the Patriots offense lines up and says, "Here's what were going to do, now try to stop us.", and if the opposing defense does stop them, the Patriots simply morph into another entity and stomp them like a vat of grapes.

With the concept-driven playbook, a trustworthy group of sure-handed receivers, a dynamic "Thunder and Lightning" approach at the running back position, a young offensive line that is nearing full health (sans Nate Solder), and a veteran gunslinger who is playing the best football of his first ballot, Hall of Fame career, the Patriots' offense is as close to a juggernaut as there can be in the sport...

...and the defense, a unit missing both starting corners and a rock-solid nose tackle from last season's championship unit is starting to gel into what is statistically a better defense than what they fielded for their Super Bowl run - but all of that comes in subsequent articles in this series.

For the next week leading up to the midway point of the season with a matchup against Washington, we are going to take a look at what makes the 2015 Patriots tick on offense, defense and special teams, using Belichick's unique team building philosophies as a base from which to proceed...

First up, How Bill Belichick's philosophies mirror Sun Tsu's ancient tutorial The Art of War to build his team, and how he prepares them each week according to the master's military strategies combined with the rules and well-known strategies of the modern game of football.

New England Patriots' Midseason Forum is a nine-part series that examines the state of the Patriots at the midseason mark of each season. Part 2 looks at the team philosophies, parts 3,4 and 5 cover the state of the offense, parts 6, 7, and 8 cover the defense and part nine the importance of special teams...