Sunday, January 24, 2016

Patriots Fall Short In AFC Title Tilt; Broncos Advance

"With everyone back, even if no one was back, all the Patriots have to do is to play their game – do their job – and hold onto the football to win this game. If they lose, they will have beaten themselves." - Foxborough Free Press, January 24, 2016


The Denver Broncos are going to the Super Bowl, winning against the New England Patriots offense that didn't play their game - being taken out of their element by a relentless Broncos' pass rush, compounded by what appeared to be general malaise that was never properly addressed.

Denver's pack of speedy sack artists stomped Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady like a grape, logging four sacks and nailing him by a factor of four as he released the ball. Through three quarters, he threw two bad interceptions and overthrew receivers down the field and threw balls in the dirt on short routes, and on most that he connected on, he lead his receivers into nasty collisions.
Brady and the Patriots were handcuffed by poor play calling

It's safe to say that the Denver Broncos defense dictated terms to the Patriots' offense for 45 minutes, limiting the potent New England offense to a miserable 158 total yards through three quarters, when desperation set in on the visitors' sideline.

But maybe, just maybe, desperation dictated to the Patriots offense in a way that the Broncos' defense couldn't.

New England gained more than half of their total yardage in the game during a fourth quarter that held promise all the way to the final seconds, putting together drives of 62, 57 and 50 yards, each time reaching the Broncos red zone, and had the Patriots called on kicker Stephen Gostkowski for chip shot field goals on consecutive drives, perhaps we're talking about a scrappy bunch from Foxborough getting to Santa Clara on guts and guile...

...but on both occasions, down by eight points. the play calls instead were tries for first downs, both times failing miserably.

So there were the Patriots with the ball at midfield with 1:52 remaining, still trailing by eight instead of two if they had gone for chip shot field goals on their previous two possessions, instead needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion just to tie the game and send it into overtime - and it wouldn't have even mattered that Gostkowski had missed his first PAT in like forever, because had the Patriots taken the earlier points, a field goal sends them to the Super Bowl.

Instead, we are left to wonder what could have been.

The Patriots' defense, as it has all season long, played plenty well enough to win the game, as evidenced by holding the Broncos to 244 total yards, but after allowing the Broncos to drive the field on their opening drive, the defense allowed just another 160 yards the rest of the game, and even though the offense put them in short field situations on both Brady interceptions, the 20 points allowed should have been good enough.

Should have been. The stingy Patriots' defense forced three-and-outs on seven different drives and nine punts overall out of fourteen Broncos' possessions, and forcing Denver's offense to move backwards on five of those. But the Patriots' offense was just as helpless for long stretches, the major difference between the two squads being Brady's two picks, which resulted in 10 points for Denver.

So in the end, both defenses played well enough for their teams to win, but the Patriots couldn't overcome their own mistakes on the field and from the sidelines while the Broncos succeeded in holding on for dear life and dodging bullet after bullet that instead found the collective foot of the New England offense.

Brady vs. Manning? That's what this game was billed up to be, but what we got instead was Bill Belichick and his staff out-coaching themselves. They never compensated for their poor line play by going up tempo. They turned the ball over. They allowed the Broncos defense to dictate to their offense.

In other words, they didn't play Patriots' football and beat themselves.

Sure, the Broncos defense had a lot to do with how the Patriots' offense performed, but the Patriots themselves had just as much to do with it.

Perhaps even more.

The Loyalists - Jake and Mike Talk Up AFC Championship Stuff

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 showdown with the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game...

Former Indianapolis Colts' General Manager Bill Polian drafted Peyton Manning in 1998, using the very first pick in that draft on a player that he considered one of the best game managers he had ever seen coming out of college.

At first, that wasn't enough for Colts' fans, who had heard nothing positive about Manning's arm strength and about how he became rattled in college when faced with blitz pressure - how the hell was he going to make the Colts' better when he wilted under pressure and his passes looked like wounded ducks?

That job fell to Colts' new offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who developed an offensive system based on simplicity that ended up as the least conceptually dependent offense in the NFL over Manning's career, relying on a stout running game to set up the play action and a tight end-centric playbook that commanded the attention of defensive coordinators, allowing names like Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon to operate on the intermediate level...

...or as Chris Brown commented in his book, The Art of Smart Football, "By using a small number of personnel groups - typically either three wide receivers and a tight end or two wide receivers and two tight ends - it limited the possible responses from the defense and made it easier for Manning to diagnose it's weak spots."

In other words, Moore saw Manning as the ultimate game manager, taking what the defense gave him and giving the Colts the best chance of winning based on ball security and execution rather than forcing him into a highly conceptual offense where his arm strength and "Happy Feet" would doom him to being an average quarterback, and the Colts to being an average team.

Moore's influence and foresight helped Manning become one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, but it was Polian's twenty years of experience as a scout and personnel director mixed with Moore's track record with "Game Managers" Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O'Donnell and Mike Tomczak as the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator that made Manning's transition into the pro game a success.

This is to take nothing away from Manning, as he holds many appreciable records and has three conference championships and a world title to his credit, but with names like Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, Joseph Addai running the football, Manning had an excellent stable of backs operating behind an equally impressive offensive line in which to running the stretch - a staple of the Colts' offense that opened up the field on play action...

...and with names like the aforementioned Harrison, Wayne and Garcon along with tight ends Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark in the pattern, many doubted that he could pull off the same success when he signed with Denver prior to the 2012 season, but John Fox's offensive philosophy mixed with the style of offensive coordinator Adam Gase allowed Manning to have continued success in Denver.

All of that, however, came crashing down when Denver fired Fox and his staff and hired prodigal son Gary Kubiak to lead the Broncos, the former backup to legendary quarterback John Elway bringing with him offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who has worked in Denver before and has been with Kubiac as his offensive coordinator in Houston for three seasons before both were canned by the Texans.

Dennison is more of a down-the-field strategist who ran the show under Mike Shanahan with Jay Cutler as his quarterback in Denver and prefers to have the quarterback with a strong arm be the focus in his offense and uses more of a running back by committee approach and with speedy receivers that can take the top off of defenses.

That is not Manning's game - never has been - and that is a huge reason why he is struggling. Most of his completions this season where he looked like the Manning of old were on intermediate crossers and on comebackers or "Dig" routes, where Manning could place the ball rather than hang the ball up in the air and let his receivers go get it.

Bringing Kubiak in was Elway's manner of dumping Manning for the stronger arm of Brock Osweiller - or starting over with a young fire pisser out of the draft - so Manning's struggles have been more about the system than his declining arm strength, though both combined have the experts feeling like he is done as an NFL quarterback, regardless of success in today's AFC Championship game.
Who covers Gronkowski?

That said, here are today's questions in advance of the game:

Aqib Talib is Denver’s best cover corner, but the Broncos’ secondary will take a huge hit if number two corner Chris Harris either can’t go or is playing with just one arm due to a left shoulder injury. It is supposed that Harris will try to go, but if he is ineffective and the Broncos are forced to go with slot corner Bradley Roby on the outside, will the Patriots try to go over the top on him, or will they be patient and stick to what works for them?

Jake: I have no doubt that if Josh McDaniels feels he can take an advantage of a matchup outside , he will attempt to do so. That being said, in former match ups, even with Chris Harris healthy, Julian Edelman has been a complete terror for the Broncos in the middle of the field. This will be the same, if not worse for the Broncos, if Harris can't play or is hampered.

Roby has shown promise as a young corner for Denver, but will draw a big matchup if he is forced outside into man coverage against the Patriots. I look for Tom to know exactly where he is at all times.

What in your mind is the biggest difference for the Patriots going into the AFC championship against the Broncos compared to when they played them last?

Mike: Health.

When New England played in Denver in late November, they did so without Julian Edelman, without Danny Amendola on offense and then lost Rob Gronkowski late in the game – and the Patriots still had not taken the training wheels off of James White…

On defense, they were without Jamie Collins, then lost Dont’a Hightower in the second quarter. All together, that is a lot of veteran talent lost that the Broncos took advantage of in many different respects – and still, the Patriots had a two score lead going into the fourth quarter.

With everyone back, even if no one was back, all the Patriots have to do is to play their game – do their job – and hold onto the football to win this game. If they lose, they will have beaten themselves.

Has Peyton Manning reached the end of his career? Please elaborate…

Jake: Peyton Manning looks to have reached the end of his career physically. Mentally, especially if the Broncos lose this Sunday, I do not believe Manning is ready to walk away. I do however think this will be his last year with the Broncos, no matter what happens. His mind is a sharp as ever, and in my opinion Peyton will look to another franchise to continue his career after this season.

What does that mean to the Patriots? Well his former offensive coordinator is now the head coach down in south beach. I'm not saying... but I'm saying.

When Hightower left the game with an injury during the regular season against the Broncos his presence was immediately missed. Why is he so important to the run defense?

Mike: At 6’ 3” and 280 pounds, Hightower is the ultimate front seven hybrid. He has the size and burst to fill gaps on the interior run game like a “Mike” linebacker and the same size and burst to effectively rush the quarterback in the passing game – then he displays the speed and lateral agility to cover sideline to sideline, setting the edge with power.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, as he was kind of a swiss army knife at Alabama, playing middle linebacker, defensive end and even reducing down to the under tackle.

Where he was missed most of all was on the weak side edge where the Broncos went for seven yards a pop in the running game, compounded by the fact that strong side linebacker Jamie Collins missed the game with an illness – so folks should expect a different looking run defense from the Patriots this time around.

Manning is pretty much a stationary target for the Patriots’ pass rush, even though the Broncos’ line has done a decent job of protecting him – if Manning is getting hammered early or is ineffective at moving the ball through the air, at what point does Kubiak pull him for the more mobile and stronger-armed Osweiller?

Jake: The only scenario I can see Manning get pulled is if the interceptions start piling up. Logically we know Brock started earlier this year and got a win against the Patriots, so going to him would seem to be a smart choice. However, pulling Manning in maybe his last game, would be controversial to say the least.

In the end, coach Kubiak, if things go south, will be faced with pulling of of the all time greats. It won't be an easy decision. If I had to guess, Manning will take care of the football and it will be up to the Patriots offense to put the game away this Sunday.

With Peyton Manning not the same QB he once was how does what Bill plans this week differ from let's say the game in 2013 as it comes to defending Manning? 

Mike: In 2013, Manning went off on New England’s defense, but the methodology from two years ago still applies today.

Both John Fox, who was the coach of the Broncos in 2013, and current head coach Gary Kubiak believe deeply in the benefits that running game has on an opposing defense, regardless of its effectiveness. In the 2013 game, The Broncos running game was being stuffed initially by the Patriots but Fox kept pounding the ball and the running of Knowshon Moreno made the difference for them on their two touchdown drives, and late in the game to run out the clock.

It was an ugly game, but something that Patriots’ fans have to remember is that despite all of Manning’s numbers – he was 32 of 43 for 400 yards – the New England defense rose to the occasion four different times to stall Denver drives, holding them to field goals instead of touchdowns by forcing Denver into 3rd and long attempts, making plays in the passing game to thwart scoring chances.

And still, despite crazy numbers for the Broncos offense, the Patriots were handicapped by an offense that was missing key players, much the same as we saw this season in the Patriots overtime loss to the Broncos.

The game plan should be pretty much the same this time around: stop the run no matter how many times they run the ball, and put Manning in 3rd and long situations where he has to look down the field at moving targets, then rely on them to come back to the ball and make a play for the sticks.

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 !

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part VII - Run Defense A Product Of Health...On Both Defense And Offense

The last time the New England Patriots went to Denver the Broncos rushed for 5.6 yards per carry.

That's bad, but that number is misleading.

Rushing 32 times for 179 yards and two touchdowns is an epic performance in anyone's book, but it doesn't tell the entire story that for three quarters of football, the Patriots' defense had held the Broncos to a far more reasonable 92 yards on 23 carries, a 4.0 yards per carry.

That still isn't that good, but enough to have held the Broncos offense to just seven points - but one muffed punt later, and a tired Patriots' run defense surrendered 87 yards on just 9 carries, as the Broncos erased a 14 point lead and would eventually beat New England in overtime, with running back C. J. Anderson breaking loose for a walk-off 48 yard touchdown run in the free period.
Hightower (54) and Brown (90) should have a better outing this time around

For the game, the Patriots gave up an abysmal 12.5 yards per carry off the weak side and 6.4 off the strong side, and the press in both cities are treating those numbers as an advantage for Denver, but a closer look at the numbers tells a different story.

The Broncos had two lengthy touchdown runs, both by Anderson. The first one was a 15 yard job off the strong side immediately after Patriots' punt returner Chris Harper muffed the punt that ignited the Denver comeback, and the second was Anderson's 48 yarder in overtime. If you take away those two plays, the weak side gave up just 4.5 yards per carry and the strong side gave up just 2.6.

Obviously, the Broncos were able to run on New England, and they started tearing off yards in chunks as the game wore on. But the real factor in that loss for the Patriots was that the offense could not sustain drives, leaving their defense with precious little time for rest.

Of the fifteen possessions the Patriots had in the game, ten ended in punts with six of those being after the offense had gone three-and-out. To compound those numbers, their four scoring drives took 2:03 (four plays), 1:32 (3 plays), :17 (3 plays) and 1:09 (5 plays). In fact, the longest possession for New England on that day was a six-play, 3:08 drive that ended at midfield with a Ryan Allen punt.

As a result, the Broncos won the time of possession battle by a robust 11 minutes, wearing down the New England defense with long, time consuming drives, and were rewarded with wide open running lanes as the game went later and later.

Still the Patriots held a 21-7 lead going into the 4th quarter, and were it not for the muffed punt, this Sunday's game is played in Foxborough, not Denver.

That said, how can the Patriots prevent that same scenario from playing out this Sunday? First of all, 15 possessions for each side is too many - the offense needs to put together a better plan to sustain drives this time around, which shouldn't be that difficult given that in that last encounter, the Patriots were without wide receiver Julian Edelman and played half of the game without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who left with a knee injury.

Secondly, the team was without strong side linebacker Jamie Collins, who made his first Pro Bowl this season despite missing four games with a mysterious illness. With Collins back and teamed with Dont'a Hightower - who left the November game with a knee injury - the Patriots can run their Big Nickle package (4-2-5) to get more speed on the second level so that Anderson doesn't find those holes off tackle and around the edge.

What else can they do? They played well enough to win the first go around, even being handicapped by massive injury.

The Broncos' offense lives and dies with the run. One would think that with a name like Peyton Manning running the show on offense that wouldn't be the case, but the simple fact of the matter is that Manning hasn't been himself for the past year and a half, so the onus has been on Denver's running game and top-ranked defense to keep them in games...

...and it's been a winning formula for them to the tune of a 12-4 record and top seed in the AFC playoffs, and a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional round - but it hasn't always been that way.

Early in the season behind an offensive line missing their two starting tackles while breaking in left guard Evan Mathis and two interior linemen that had never played in an NFL game before, the Broncos rushed for just 86 yards per contest, a number that bumped up significantly once Denver head coach Gary Kubiak benched Manning in favor of young Brock Osweiller to 122 yards per game as Kubiak scaled back the offense a bit...

...increasing even more when Osweiller was benched for the final game of the regular season and the divisional round win over Pittsburgh to a whopping 146 yards per game as Kubiak sought to protect his veteran signal caller from opposing pass rushers.

Of course, part of that also has to do with the fact that the Broncos' line - Tackles Ryan Harris and Michael Schofield, guards Mathis and Louis Vasquez and center Matt Paradis - have started every game this season and have gained a large measure of chemistry together - and while the Broncos have had the most success running between Harris and Mathis all season, they have slowly been able to gain traction to the right and up the middle as well.

Running left, the Broncos go for nearly five yards a pop, with four yards a carry to the right and 3.9 up the middle - not bad at all under the circumstances.

The full benefit of that running game was on display against the Patriots in their regular season meeting and should be again on Sunday, though the Patriots are a markedly different team than they were in late November, mostly on offense, but the return to health of the skill position players on offense should hold the total possessions for each team down to a more reasonable number - say around ten...

...which, if the Patriots run their four-minute offense the way that it is designed, should afford their defenders their proper rest between series - should being the key word, as that wasn't the case against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round as New England had scoring drives of 4:37 and 5:36, but averaged less that two minutes per possession on their other seven possessions.

Fortunately for the Patriots, they were able to score on three of those brief drives to put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter, when the defense was able to go into their three-deep shell and force the Chiefs to burn time with short gains, doing so with their big nickle defense, when Pat Chung came up into the box like a weak side linebacker, covering tight ends and shedding blocks to make a statement in the running game.

There shouldn't be a lot of room up the gut against the Patriots as defensive tackle Alan Branch is finding his groove and All-Rookie team nose tackle Malcom Brown has become a force inside with Akiem Hicks flexing his muscles in a backup role. On the strong side, Rob Ninkovich is one of the better edge setters in the league and is flanked by Collins on the second level.

The issue this time, as it was in November, is the weak side. Chandler Jones has been limited in practice since tweaking a knee in the Kansas City game, and linebacker Jerod Mayo is gone for the rest of the season with a bum shoulder and should be replaced on the weakside by Dont'a Hightower, whose "Mike" spot will probably be filled by Jonathan Freeny.

If Jones can't go, talented edge setter Jaball Sheard will get the call at defensive end on the weak side.

The Patriots are indeed healthier than they were in November, and as the offense gains chemistry with all of the players coming back from injury and the defense fills the hole left by Mayo with bigger and faster personnel, they should be in much better shape to finish what they started on that Sunday night in Denver...

Monday, January 18, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part VI - Big Nickle Rules From Here On Out

The New England Patriots are the only team in the National Football League capable of running a true Big Nickle Defense - and the Patriots' fan base should thank goodness for that...

For years, New England head ball coach Bill Belichick has been stockpiling safeties in anticipation of using the Big Nickle as his base alignment because, unlike the traditional nickle alignment which sees a third cornerback come on the field in the stead of a lumbering linebacker, the Big Nickle brings in a third safety instead...

...the idea being that, with the trend in the NFL being towards bigger and more athletic tight ends and receivers, a safety could fulfill the requirements for a fifth defensive back more readily and effectively than a corner.
Chung is a scrapper whose physical style is perfect for the Big Nickle

But not just a standard brand free safety, nor your typical in-the-box strong safety. The Big Nickle calls for hybrids, free safeties that can handle sideline-to-sideline duties as the single high man, and strong safeties with coverage skills much like a cover 'backer who has the hitting ability to play the run like the linebacker they are replacing.

What makes the Patriots unique in this alignment, however, is that they employ a free safety that came into the league as a top-rated cornerback, Belichick slowly converting him to safety over a three year span, leading to his taking over at free safety full time in 2012 - which is the same season that he began his stockpiling of safeties, adding Tavon Wilson to the fold in that season's draft.

Duron Harmon was on the menu for the following season and Jordan Richards completed the deal in this past season's draft. In between, the Patriots unsuccessfully attempted to revive the career of former Arizona Cardinals' big hitter Adrian Wilson, which lead to the team re-signing wayward son Patrick Chung after a one-year hiatus from the team in Philadelphia.

The first clue that Belichick really gave to anyone regarding his actual intentions for his secondary came when he kept six safeties coming out of the preseason and kept just four corners. The Patriots have traditionally employed sure-tackling corners in what has been either a 4-2-5 alignment (four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs) or a 3-3-5, depending on the opposing personnel.

But their track record against athletic tight ends and running backs in the pattern hasn't been stellar in the recent past, and much of that has to do with the growing pains that the team experienced as Belichick tinkered with the coverages while slowly building his safety corps - which included bringing Chung back to complete the look.

Belichick even admitted earlier this season that when Chung was with the Patriots from 2009 - 2012, the defense wasn't set up to play to his strengths. When Philadelphia released him as part of wholesale changes in their secondary, Belichick immediately contacted Chung with the news that they were ready to put him in a position where he could be successful.

"After he was released, we followed back up on the conversation we had with him when he left and I said to him 'look, things are a little different here now'" Belichick explained, "and we were able to find a better place for him going forward than what we had before when he was here."

Chung plays best either close to the line in the box or on the line itself, punking tight ends and bigger slot receivers in the passing game, and adding a violent element in run support. But the Patriots were never able to do that when he was in Foxborough before, with only Brandon Merriweather to team with Chung until Belichick cross-trained McCourty.

Then along came Harmon, an obscure safety from Rutgers that didn't even warrant an invite to the combine, but that Belichick thought enough of to make him a third-round pick in 2013. Why? simply because he had the skill set to complete the safety corps as Belichick saw it.

And the way he saw it unfolding was to have Harmon and his sub-4.4 speed patrol the back end while McCourty and Chung wreaked havoc closer to the line of scrimmage.

"They are both very dependable." Belichick offered, "I'd say a lot of tackles those two guys have to make are hard tackles. I mean, there's tackles, and then there's tackles."

"There's a whole element to even getting in position to tackle that comes into play spatially that doesn't come into play on in-line tackles" Belichick continued, "but those two guys, they're very good. I'd say probably two of the better tacklers in the league at their position."

Pretty high raise coming from a man of the Dark Master's stature, but he's a man that appreciates his players, and always tries to put them in the best position to succeed - and once Harmon proved he could handle being the centerfielder, Belichick put his plan into motion, and the results have been spectacular.

No longer are the Patriots susceptible to being abused by athletic tight ends, as Chung and McCourty have been part of the solution that has held opposing tight ends to 57 catches for 596 yards, which averages out to right around three catches and 35 yards per game, hardly a major impact.

McCourty will also help in the pattern on the larger slot receivers, leaving the top two targets on the opposition's arsenal to corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, who will take turns on the opponents' number one threat with Harmon over the top, depending on how their skill sets match up, the other will take the number two threat straight up.

It is a recipe that has helped the Patriots' defense to a top 10 ranking in the league, as all of the defensive backs also bear down against the run - as evidenced by Ryan, Chung, Butler and McCourty making up four of the top six tacklers on the team, while Harmon makes his bones as a large (6' 1", 210 pounds), fast, physical presence on the blue line.

The Big Nickle alignment will be front and center against the Broncos in the AFC Championship game this coming Sunday, as everything their offense can do begins not with quarterback Peyton Manning, but with Denver's running game, an underrated unit that averages 4.2 yards per pop - a stable that includes CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, who combined this season for nearly 1600 yards and scored 12 touchdowns...

...but are also an integral part of the passing game, with 49 catches between them and with both ably picking up the blitz. This also means that the Patriots' linebackers will need to be on full alert, but with the injury status of both Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins unknown at this time, that story will have to wait for Part VII...

Chiefs Win Battles, Lose War Against AFC Title Game Bound Patriots

In order for the Kansas City Chiefs to win their Divisional round playoff game against the New England Patriots on Saturday night, they had to accomplish four things:

Win the time of possession battle to keep the Patriots' possessions to single digits, win the field position battle to make the Patriots drive the length of the field to score, keep the Patriots in third and long situations to limit their playbook and, most importantly, get to New England quarterback Tom Brady and punish him into making a mistake.

They did win the time of possession battle by nearly a ridiculous two to one ratio and kept the Patriots to just eight full possessions, They did win the field position battle when the game was still in question and they did have the Patriots in third-and-long situations seven times in those eight possessions.

What they couldn't do is get to Brady and force him into mistakes, but three out of four isn't bad, right? Well, in this case, for Kansas City it adds up to the axiom of "We won the battles, but we lost the war."

The closest that the fierce Kansas City pass rush could come to pulverizing Brady was on a frustration-induced late hit by Dezman Moss that gave the Patriots 15 yards via a roughing the passer penalty - and also on the occasions that Brady decided to take matters into his own hands on two consecutive carries at the end of the same late-first half drive...

...the first an epic, patented Brady sloth scramble for 11 yards to within inches of the goal line where he took a wicked combination punch by two Chiefs' defenders, then was driven into the ground by nose tackle Jaye Howard in the end zone after Brady scored on a quarterback sneak to make give New England a two-score lead.

The skirmish that ensued demonstrated the frustration from the Chiefs' defense, which proved to be their undoing in the second half, as they allowed three quick scoring drives in succession, which took all of six-and-a-half minutes in actual game time - in fact, the Patriots possessed the ball for just under nine minutes in the second half, 2:12 of which was spent killing the clock at the end of the game.

In all, the Patriots possessed the ball for only twenty-two minutes for the game, yet still managed to rack up 340 total yards of offense and score 27 points.

In contrast, the Chiefs possessed the ball for 38 minutes, and while they generated 380 yards of total offense, over 200 of those yards came after New England had built a 21-6 lead and went into their four-minute defense - what many would consider a prevent shell designed to limit the big play, the Patriots defense were happy to allow five and six yard gains in exchange for seconds ticking off the clock.

Kansas City coach Andy Reid's curious clock-management aside, the Patriots defense surrendered 225 yards to the Chiefs' offense after that point, but their conservative defensive game plan forced Kansas City to burn nearly 17 minutes off the clock to do so.

Granted, the Chiefs scored 14 points in that time frame, but by the time they had scored the second of the two touchdowns, the game was out of reach and the only purpose those otherwise empty points had was to make the game appear to be a closer contest than it actually was.

Brady was an efficient 28 of 42 for 302 yards, including two touchdown tosses to the not-as-injured-as-we-had-been-led-to-believe tight end Rob Gronkowski, and ten of his completions going to wayward son Julian Edelman, good for 100 yards in his first game back from missing seven weeks with a broken bone in his foot.

Edelman returned to fierce pressure from the fan base and the loathsome Boston media to prove himself to be the linchpin of the offense, and despite a couple of early drops, he did just that, and just as expected, the trickle down effect on the rest of the offense was both obvious and apparent.

But as opined in a previous blog post, the biggest effect on Edelman's return was on the Patriots' offensive line, who combined to shut out Kansas City's speedy sack artists.

In fact, for the evening, the Chiefs registered just nine "hurries" in 42 dropbacks against an offensive line that had given up 36 sacks, 47 quarterback hits and 147 hurries during the regular season, the majority of them in the second half of the season as attrition along the line and pass catching corps combined to cause a veritable perfect storm that found Brady either running for his life or being beaten like he stole something.

New England's pass rushers were similarly held in check, but only because of Chiefs' quarterback Alex Smith's snake-like elusiveness, slithering from the pocket time and again to deny the Patriots' front seven, and even rushing for 44 yards on nine carries while backs Charcandrick West and Knile Davis combined to pick up another 90 yards on 23 carries as part of the Chiefs' read option rushing attack.

That's a lot of yards to be given up, but better digested when taken in the context that after the half, New England gave up only 55 yards in 17 carries to a group that went for 80 in 15 carries in the opening half as they did a better job of  setting the edge, particularly on the right side where the Chiefs averaged seven yards per carry...

...which has been sort of the bitch-kitty for the Patriots' run defense and something that needs to be supplemented going forward to get more in line with what's happening up the gut and on the strong side, where Kansas City experienced far less success at 2.5 yards per carry.

How much of that had to do with Chandler Jones tweaking a knee or Jerod Mayo injuring his shoulder or Jamie Collins injuring his quad? Probably not that much, as the Patriots have been light on the weak side off and on all season, depending on the presence of linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safeties Devin McCourty and Pat Chung.

Against Kansas City, Chung shut down Smith's most dangerous target, tight end Travis Kelse, who caught six passes, but only for a combined 23 yards as the much smaller Chung pushed Kelse around the field like a schoolyard bully.

The opposite happened with cornerback Logan Ryan, who had a rough night on receiver Jason Avant, giving up 7 of 9 targets for almost 100 yards - also being called for a pass interference and giving up a touchdown. The rest of the coverage held their own, with Malcolm Butler and McCourty showing up positively in coverage and adding a physical element to the run support.

What all of this equals is a victory over a tough matchup for New England and the teams' 10th trip to the AFC Championship Game in the Belichick-Brady era, where they will once again take on the Broncos in Denver - only this time they have a healthy receiving corps, which as we've seen, makes everything better.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Chiefs More Beat Up On Offense Than Patriots, White Poised For Huge Game

First off, let's dispel the notion that either the Kansas City Chiefs or the New England Patriots are juggernauts heading into their Divisional round playoff game in Foxborough on Saturday.

The Patriots are limping into the post-season, losing four of their final six games as the injury bug hit them hard and reduced their offense to a trick play-laden entity that hoped that at least one of their snaps resulted in more than just a couple of yards, while the Chiefs entered the tournament winners of 10 straight, but against eight teams that didn't qualify for the playoffs and seven that were sub .500...

...losing to eventual playoff teams Denver, Cincinnati, Green Bay and Minnesota by an average of 10 points per defeat while also losing to the lowly Bears.
Look for White to have a huge day against Kansas City

Of course, this means nothing when it comes to what will transpire on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, but it does give us some context as to how these two teams have arrived at this point in time - but what is truly amazing is how many Chiefs' fans are dining off of Kansas City's blowout of the Patriots last season as a launching point for their confidence this time around...

...especially in light of the Chiefs resounding victory over the Houston Texans this past Saturday in the Wild Card round of the 2015 Playoffs - a 30-0 stomping that apparently has grown men running around shirtless and beating their chests much the same as they did after last season's week 4 pulverizing of the Patriots.

But none of that has anything to do with anything.

The Patriots have had a tough week of preparation for their showdown with Kansas City, what with the off-field distraction of defensive end Chandler Jones seeking medical attention on Sunday morning while suffering from what has been described as a synthetic marijuana-induced psychotic episode, while speculation is still running wild concerning the availability of All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski for Saturday evening.

Some local entities are reporting that the man-child checked into a Boston hospital on Thursday to have treatment on his right knee, including a cortisone injection, and is a game-time decision, while others are refuting those reports, stating that he had treatments - but no injections - and will be good to go for Saturday night.

The Patriots themselves compounded the speculation by amending their own injury report on Gronkowski by adding a back malady to the list.

That said, it was an even worse week for the Boston media - and the national media as well for believing anything coming out of the Boston rags - as the initial report on both stories were red herrings and amended with complete reversals, which turned them into savory targets for the duped National media, with one outlet speculating that the Patriots were responsible for the conflicting reports on Gronkowski in order to gain a competitive advantage over the Chiefs by giving them a false sense of security...

...while ESPN's Chris Carter further solidified his reputation as a holier-than-thou know it all in claiming that Jones was actually under the influence of standard-brand weed laced with PCP, citing his own usage of pot and cocaine early in his career and by being clued-in to "what's going on in the street."

Regardless of the Patriots' off-the-field ugliness and Kansas City's swollen egos, there is one very important thing that is being overlooked:

The Game.

Unfortunately, both teams have injury situations which could alter their fortunes. In addition to Jones' poor decision making and Gronkowski's knee-back situation, the Patriots expect to be getting back receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, offensive tackles Sebastian Vollmer and LaAdrian Waddle, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung to give them the most complete team that they have fielded in months.

The picture is not quite as rosy for Kansas City, as top offensive threat Jeremy Maclin is suffering from a high-ankle sprain and is considered a game-time decision as to his availability, which also goes for outside linebacker and leading sack-master Justin Houston, who is dealing with a bum knee. The loss of either one could have a serious trickle-down effect on the Chiefs.

But while the fate of those two are unknown, Kansas City has received distressing news regarding their offensive line as starting center Mitch Morse and starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif have been already scratched from the lineup, dealing a serious blow to the already dim fortunes of their running attack, as running back Spencer Ware is nursing a bad ankle, leaving Charcandrick West as their lone healthy runner.

That is, their lone healthy runner besides quarterback Alex Smith, who is good for an average of five carries per game at six yards a pop, but much of that due to running for his life. Those two represent well over half of the Chiefs' ground yardage this season, with the bulk of the rest of Kansas City's sixth-ranked rushing attack coming via the injured Ware and Jamaal Charles, who has spent most of his season on the IR.

They will be facing a Patriots' rush defense that is ranked ninth in the NFL

While the Patriots' offensive line gets a lot of grief from the local press in regards to giving up 36 sacks while trying to protect a largely immobile pocket passer, the Chiefs have been far worse, giving up 45 sacks while trying to protect one of the more ambulatory quarterbacks in the league - and with Morse and Duvernay-Tardif on the skids, how much more heat will Smith get, particularly right up the middle?

A lot depends on the trio of Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jaball Sheard, as they will be tasked not only with getting after Smith, but also for setting the edge so that Smith can't escape from the interior rush - and with the likelihood that the Chiefs will be forced to keep West in the backfield to pick up rouge pass rushers, the Patriots' linebackers should have the run of the joint in coming after Smith on designed "Hug" blitzes...

...or they could choose to double up on Smith's most dangerous receiving target, tight end Travis Kelse, which is standard operating procedure for any NFL team facing a good tight end - and the Patriots have been very good at shutting them down this season.

On the year, the Patriots defense has given up 51 passes to tight ends for 573 yards, which averages out to just over three catches and 35 yards per game, which is hardly a major impact for the opposition. New England is also very good at keeping the opposing passer in the pocket, as quarterbacks has tucked the ball and run just 37 times, and have kept true boot option quarterbacks under wraps.

Where things have gotten out of hand for the New England defense has been when running backs sneak out of the backfield and into the flat where they seemingly pick up first downs every time. Of the 84 passes caught by opposing backs in the screen game, an astounding 53 have gone for first downs - not quite every time, but enough to consider it an issue.

A lot of that success for other teams comes from those teams clearing the flat by either sending their pass catchers on go routes and intermediate crossers to occupy the second level defenders, or by simply allowing the Patriots to bull rush to draw them into the quarterback, who then simply dumps the ball off to his back, who is wide open and has blockers.

The Chiefs have an issue with the former, as they may not have their top threat in the pattern, but as far as the latter is concerned, the short screen game could both take advantage of the aggressiveness of the Patriots' pass rush and also mask the loss of their two starting interior linemen - so the pass rushers, particularly the outside rushers, must be disciplined enough to not get suckered in by designed screens

The Patriots run a lot of screen plays as well - in fact, during the dour stretch to end the season, the screen game and wheel routes were about all that was working for the Patriots' offense, as previously seldom used passing back James White became a featured target for Brady that will served the Patriots well, but New England can't just rely on White out of the backfield...

...which brings us to newly acquired running back Steven Jackson, who is an accomplished receiver out of the backfield. His size is intriguing at 6' 2" and 240 pounds and still runs in the low 4.5's at age 32 - so when he is in the game on early downs, don't be surprised to see a few balls tossed his way in the pattern. And they should be using him as a receiver, not only to provide balance on early downs, but also because his skill set makes him the equivalent of a move-type tight end.

And balance being the key word, as that's why Jackson was signed in the first place.

New England is top heavy when speaking of pass-to-run ratio, the aerial game ranked 5th in the NFL despite all the time missed by the Patriots' top pass catching weapons, while the ground game reduced to an afterthought at 30th in the league in both yardage and yards per attempt, and is only exasperated by the fact that they lost both of their real rushing threats to injury during the season...

...good news for the Chiefs, who are ranked 9th against the pass and 8th against the run, and have not surrendered a 300 yard passing game since back-to-back losses to the Packers and Bengals in the first quarter of the season and have held 11 out of 16 opponents under 100 yards rushing.

Obviously, defense is the Chiefs' calling card, and they live off of turnovers.

No, not the delicious. flaky, fruit-filled dessert - rather - their 22 interceptions of opposing quarterbacks and 13 forced fumbles, which are presumably just as tasty to the fans of the feathered and have also made all of the difference for the teams' offense, which ranks an anemic 27th in total yardage on the year, but 9th in scoring - and their 48 total sacks on the season rank just behind the Broncos and Patriots for the NFL lead.

The fact that Kansas City continues to win despite an offense that ranks in the bottom third of the league is a testament to both the quality of their defense and also to Smith's ability to convert those turnovers to points. Turnovers play a key role in that, as evidenced by the fact that Kansas City's average starting point on their offensive possessions is their own 34 yard line, ranking them first in the NFL in that category.

Rookie Marcus Peters has eight of the teams' 22 interceptions and has taken 2 of them back for scores, earning a Pro Bowl bid, second-team All Pro honors and named a finalist for the 2015 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. It goes to figure that Peters will cover the top receiver each team has to offer, but who is it going to be this week?

Edelman, who will be wearing custom fit orthotics in his cleats to help support his surgically repaired foot? Or will it be Rob Gronkowski who, according to multiple reports, is not close to 100% and will try to play through pain in his knee? In fact, are the Patriots so banged up on offense still that the Chiefs go zone and release their pass rush full tilt until the Patriots prove they can move the ball through the air?

If one thing is certain with the Chiefs, it is that they are going to have to account for a full load of Patriots' weapons, regardless of their level of health, and the numbers tell us that someone is going to be open no matter what the Chiefs do - and that someone will probably be running back James White, who is poised to have a gargantuan game curling out of the backfield.

In the end, both offenses are hurting, but the Chiefs are the team that has a smaller margin for error on both sides of the ball, and the Patriots can attack offensively with far more options than the Chiefs possess, and if they can hold onto the ball and achieve any sort of balance, they should come away with a berth in their 10th AFC Championship game of the Belichick era.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part V - Patriots' Offensive Line As Good As It's Going To Get

LaAdrian Waddle is a left tackle, in case you didn't know.

It kind of goes with the territory when you stand 6' 6" tall, weigh 335 pounds and have hands the size of a catcher's glove, playing at Texas Tech for Mike Leach and his "Air Raid Offense" where he was asked to protect his quarterback from the pass rushing demons that tend to populate the Big 12 Conference.

Waddle started every game of his Sophomore, Junior and Senior seasons at Texas Tech, earning first-team All Conference honors and being named a finalist for the Outland Trophy, presented annually to the best lineman in college football - so all of that said, how in the world did Waddle slip all the way through the 2013 draft without being selected?

The answer is that about 75-80% of the time, Waddle was in pass protection in the pass crazy Tech offense, meaning that his run blocking technique saw very little practical application - Still, he made the Detroit Lions as a fourth tackle after being signed as an undrafted free agent despite being raw a run blocking, eventually taking over the right tackle spot midway through his rookie season...

...a position he held all the way through the 2014 season until a torn ACL ended his season. He has surgery in January, was held out of training camp and all preseason games before being pressed into service in Week three, though he was clearly not ready to return.

Struggling mightily, the Lions waived the third-year mountain rather than retain him on the IR - piquing the interest of New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick, who put in a waiver claim on Waddle, and was awarded his services the day after he was waived.

What does Belichick see in Waddle?

"You know who, at times, we've played at tackle this season - we ended up playing Bryan Stork at tackle." Belichick told reporters during a conference call in mid-December, adding, "so this is an experienced tackle who is still young and has a lot of good football ahead of him."

Waddle was pressed into service in his first game with the team, the overtime loss to the New York Jets, when starting left tackle Sebastian Vollmer went down with a lower-body injury - then Waddle himself hit the trainer's table after injuring his shoulder later in the game.

And that, in a nutshell, is how the year has gone for the Patriots' offensive line.

Starting center Bryan Stork missed the first seven games of the season while on the IR-Designated to return list with a concussion. Starting left tackle Nate Solder went on the season ending IR after tearing a biceps muscle against the Cowboys in week 5 and greybeard guard Ryan Wendell hit the skids after injuring a knee in early November...

...and all of this occurring while the Patriots started three rookies on the interior of their line, while flipping Vollmer from his natural right tackle position to take over for Solder, the right tackle spot becoming a turnstile of mediocrity with first Marcus Cannon and then Cameron Fleming pressed into service , Stork manning the spot upon his return from the IR as the line slowly deteriorated into a macabre demolition derby the last six games of the season.

It was bad, folks. So bad that the Patriots offensive line graded out as the second-worst offensive line in terms of protecting their quarterback in the entire NFL, giving up 36 sacks, and allowing Tom Brady to get nailed an additional 48 times and hurried into his throws an astounding 147 times.

Add that up, and Brady was under duress over a third of the time that he dropped back to pass, not the kind of thing Belichick wants his 38 year old quarterback to have to deal with.

That said, there is hope on the horizon, and not a second too soon.

Waddle and Vollmer are expected back for this Saturday's divisional round matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs and their violent sack masters, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, speedy outside linebackers in coach Andy Reid's 7th ranked 3-4 defense.

It will be Hali sprinting in from Brady's blindside and Houston from the strong side, along with the likes of Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey forcing things from the interior - which is bad enough, but if the Patriots were coming into this game the same bruised and bloodied team that finished the regular season losers in four of their last six, they would have little chance of winning...

...but not only does New England get back their two best tackles, they also get back some playmakers at the so-called "Skill" positions, the injuries for whom have been the real issue with the offensive line in protecting Brady.

You see, not even the best offensive line can protect their quarterback when they are outmanned, and with the Patriots missing wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, teams have been able to load up the box against New England, overwhelming their offensive line with sheer numbers, hammering Brady and reducing the Patriots running game to the equivalent of a couple of pedestrians waiting for the light to turn.

Which is curious, since the line was originally built to run the football, with drive blockers Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson added to a line that already featured maulers in Stork and Vollmer, trading some measure of pass protection for the ability to run the football and win games with their four-minute offense - but what they gave up in pass protection could be countered with Brady's ability to get the ball out of his hand quickly.

Or at least he could with a full arsenal of weapons, but once his pass catchers and backs started dropping like flies, he lost that ability. Compounding the situation for the line is that the pass catchers that Brady had left really didn't scare anyone, so teams went man coverage - doubling and sometimes tripling tight end Rob Gronkowski - while stacking the box to stop the run...

...essentially daring Brady to beat them while sending extra rushers that overwhelmed the line - and as his linemen started to go down...well, you see the issue. It was a vicious cycle that came to a head the last couple of games of the regular season, which the Patriots ended up using as more of a live scrimmage than anything else, just to keep the players that were healthy sharp.

But now, the Patriots are back to being as healthy as they are going to get. Edelman and Amendola are back, which means that the opposition actually has to start going nickle and dime and can't load the box, which is great news for the New England running game, which has replaced Lewis and Blount with James White and Steven Jackson, respectively.

But the unit that is helped the most by health is the offensive line.

With Vollmer and Waddle practicing and scheduled to return, and with Stork, Mason and Tre Jackson having time to get their assorted bumps and bruises treated - and bolstered by the return to health of the aforementioned skill position players - the offensive line is going to be going into the Divisional playoff game as good as they are going to get.

Whether or not that's good enough remains to be seen, but just having the the pass catchers back to full strength makes everything on the offense run better.

"For instance, in the nine games that Edelman has played in this season, the Patriots offense averaged 33.6 points per game and 418 total offense on 92 rushing yards and 326 passing yards per contest with six 300 yard passing games - but in the seven games he has missed, the points per game have dipped a full ten points to 23 and total offense has fallen off by over 100 yards per game, and Brady has had just one 300 yard game.
Even more telling is on third down. Where Edelman is a first down machine and helped the Patriots to a robust 54% conversion rate on third down, without him they are an abysmal 33%, meaning that the punt team is always on alert and the defense is on the field way too often." - Foxborough Free Press, 6 January, 2016

The quick-twitch passing game that only Edelman and Amendola can do properly relieves a lot of pressure off of the line as not only can Brady get the ball out of his hand faster, but also because the opposition has to respect those two in the pattern, they can't stack the box and throw ridiculous numbers at the big uglies.

That has a two-fold effect in that there are more and bigger running lanes for Jackson, assuming he has anything left in his 32 year old legs, and even White and Brandon Bolden will get some carries - and with just the threat of the running game, the defenders will have to respect the play action, delaying their rush just a split-second, but it's an additional split second that Brady has to get the ball out of his hand.

Not to mention that the linemen will be more able to get anchored in their stance against the bull rushes that has been the bane of their existence for the past six weeks.

In the end, however, the line remains what it is, and no magical potions are available to turn them into a cohesive unit. They still don't have a true left tackle outside of the newcomer Waddle and they still have rookies lining up at both guard positions flanking a second year pivot in Stork.

But that was good enough for the first ten games of the season, so there shouldn't be any reason why it wouldn't be good enough to win a title now.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part IV - White, Jackson Integral Part Of Patriots Super Bowl Run

The New England Patriots running game has been missing in action for, well, the majority of the season, ranking 30th in yards from scrimmage and an equally pathetic 29th in yards per carry.

Compounding the issue is a combination of injuries that have ravaged the Patriots' offense down to its very core, and the fact that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has called upon the running game for the least amount of times in the 16 year dynastic run of New England under Bill Belichick, a number good for just 25th in the NFL.

None of the six teams with less carries than the Patriots even came close to making the playoffs, and only one other team - the Pittsburgh Steelers - finished the season in the bottom half of the league in rushing attempts and still made the post-season. On the flip-side, 10 of the 12 playoff teams made the top half of the league in carries, and six of the top 10 rushing teams are preparing for post-season play.

Needless to say, the Patriots and Steelers and the exception to the rule, mostly because of their prolific passing attacks - but even that has been missing lately for New England, and is perhaps the primary reason why the running game has been all but non-existent.

Even so, lead back LeGarrette Blount was actually on pace for a 900 yard season before he went down with a bum hip against the Texans in week 14, averaging a robust 4.3 yards per carry, but his numbers paled in comparison with the yards from scrimmage provided by scatback Dion Lewis, who gained 622 yards from scrimmage in just seven games before tearing his ACL against the Washington Redskins in week 9.

Of course, over half of Lewis' yardage came from the short passing game, running flat out patterns where he utilized his absurd,video game-quality elusiveness to make the first man miss in the flat in addition to perfectly executed wheel routes - and as those smarter than me are fond of saying, the Patriots short passing game is an extension of their running game and therefore Lewis was on pace for a 1400 yard season.

On paper, the Patriots had a certified one-two punch in their backfield up until Lewis went down, and still a certified juggernaut for an offense until receiver Julian Edelman suffered a broken bone in his foot the following week against the New York Giants setting off a chain of events that saw the Patriots drop four of their final six games.

Lewis is not coming back this season, but perhaps his knee injury has a silver lining for New England as his absence has made it possible for sophomore James White to blossom into a legitimate passing back.

Despite getting next to no action backing up Lewis - understandable given the electric talent of Lewis - White has established himself as the Patriots' "sub back", as Belichick calls him, gaining 354 yards from scrimmage in the passing game and scoring all six of his touchdowns since Lewis hit the skids and, in fact, is second on the team in both receptions and receiving yards to tight end Rob Gronkowski...

...somewhat amazing in that most of his snaps he's been kept in the backfield to help protect Brady by picking up the relentless blitzers, curling out into the pattern only when the blitz doesn't come and on the occasion when his number is called on the jailbreak or on the designed wheel route as the hot read - and all of this with both Edelman and Danny Amendola on the shelf, no power running game at all and an offensive line that has been overwhelmed by it all.

So just imagine what the second-year back from Wisconsin should be able to accomplish with both Edelman and Amendola making the pass catching corps complete and nasty, and now that newly acquired power back Steven Jackson has had nearly a month in the Patriots' system to pick up the play book and getting in as close to football shape as he's going to get.

The move to pick up Jackson was genius by Belichick - well part genius and part being the only team desperate enough to give the 32 year old former Ram and Falcon a roster spot - but it is just this kind of low-risk, high-reward personnel move that Belichick has made a career out of as a general manager. And the Patriots may be the only team in the NFL that could utilize everything that Jackson has left.

At 6' 2" and 240 pounds, Jackson is one of the biggest backs the Patriots have ever employed and is, in fact, the size of a "Move" type tight end, with prototypical speed for the position.

New England used their season-ending loss to Miami as an opportunity to get Jackson some work, as he hadn't played a down of football since the end of last season, had no training camp and had no preseason games. So it is a bit of a stretch to really expect him to tear it up on the field, particularly behind an offensive line that has been under siege from the injury bug since midseason.

Of course, having Edelman and Amendola back in the mix at receiver will help the power running game because it brings back Brady's ability to get the ball out of his hand quickly, the trickle down effect being two-fold: first, the defense can't stack the box and overwhelm the offensive line because they will need nickle and dime backs to cover the Patriots' weapons in the pattern...

...which means that the line will not have so many bodies to move out of the way, meaning more and bigger running lanes for Jackson. Secondly, the ability to establish the running game under such circumstances invokes the play action, which also helps the offensive linemen due to the fact that the defense will have to respect the run, and the play fake will have a greater impact on the pass rushers who will have to delay their rush for a split-second, enough for Brady to get rid of the ball.

That said, the biggest key for this offense will be to not leave themselves with third and long situations, as that makes the play calling more predictable and allows the pass rushers to pin their ears back and go after Brady - and the backs will play a huge part in that type of game plan.

That is also why having the versatile Jackson up to speed and in football shape is so essential. As mentioned, Jackson has the size and the speed of a Move-type tight end, and is an excellent pass catcher, as his 460 receptions and nearly 4700 yards over 11 years will attest so don't be surprised to see Jackson lined up in the slot or even split wide on occasion to take advantage of mismatches.

That goes for White as well, as we have already witnessed what the kid can do - and that will obviously feed into next season, when he and Lewis will form one of the scariest two-back tandems in the National Football League, Lewis with his cartoonish elusiveness and White with his north-south approach that wastes very little movement...

...but that is a discussion for another time. Right now the Patriots are gearing up for a blitzkrieg through the playoffs, and getting White, Jackson and all-purpose back Brandon Bolden involved in an offense that is nearing full health will make said offense that much more dangerous.

Next: How the offensive line will improve with health at the "skill" positions...

Friday, January 8, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part III - Patriots Passing Game Back On Track With Healthy Edelman, Amendola

The New England Patriots' offense is complex, and not every player has the capacity to absorb it, and fewer still have the wherewithal to actually put it into practical application.

How complex? Usually, it takes a player who has had some exposure to the professional game beyond simple fundamentals - rookies rarely get it, and any player with an ego larger than a roasted peanut will not succeed. It takes a player of above-average intelligence, a work ethic above and beyond simple film study and a toughness that belies normal human condition.

In fact, the last rookie that came in and excelled in the scheme was tight end Rob Gronkowski, and even he did not blossom fully into the offense until his second season, and even then his success was predicated by the underneath work of Wes Welker and the shallow crossers run by fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez...

There really are no physical requirements beyond those that dictate where a player may be successful in the formation, as one would not hope to find someone the size of wide receiver Julian Edelman on the end of the line trying to drive block a 280 pound defensive end - but in this offense, you may very well see funky things like a lumbering tight end or a power back split wide.

That is all part of what is known as a concept-driven offense, where any pass catcher can run any route from any spot in the formation - and as a side effect, each pass catcher will know where everyone else is supposed to be, setting up downfield blocking that Patriots' receivers are famed for.

That said, the entire premise of the Patriots offense is to throw short routes and to pound the ball inside with the running game to draw the defenders up to within ten yards of the line of scrimmage, freeing up the bigs - Gronkowski, Brandon LaFell and Scott Chandler - down the seam or on intermediate crossers, which is the only vertical game the Patriots have - or need...

...because the way the Patriots spread the field is horizontally with the pivot snag, short digs and flat screens which are all designed to take the defenders outside of the numbers - particularly the staple of the offense, the pivot snag, which ended up accounting for the winning points in last season's Super Bowl...

As you can see from the above video, there really isn't a more sound route against man coverage than the pivot snag, which is set up by the shallow cross and complicated when the flat screen is working - and once that pivot snag route is working, everything else falls into place for the Patriots' offense.

How does a defense defend it? Well, that simply isn't known short of stationing a safety at the sideline, but that's unrealistic in any philosophy. The quick twitch Edelman releases from the line and starts inside like he's running a short crosser, then pivots and pirouettes, heading back toward the sideline and leaving his defender grasping at air.

Another entity that is helped immeasurably by the return of Edelman is the offensive line, who will not have to deal with the defense stacking the box and overwhelming them at the point of attack, not only giving them time to anchor against the pass rush, but also giving them extra push in the running game - and Brady is better protected because his hot reads increase from one - running back James White - to multiple in, well, just about everyone.

It all has to do with match ups - and there is no better encapsulated example of how the Patriots' concept-based uses matchups to their advantage than in last February's Super Bowl.

On Brandon LaFell's touchdown catch in the first quarter, he was matched up outside the numbers against Seattle's nickle corner and he runs a hard slant when Therald Simon was expecting LaFell to go to the back of the end zone where safety Earl Thomas was waiting for him - but Brady read the coverage and motioned for LaFell to run the slant where his 6' 3" frame could shield the ball from the four-inch shorter Simon, and Thomas arrived just a shade late.

On that play, receiver Danny Amendola ran a flat out to the sidelines out of the slot to pull his mirror to the outside and out of the play, and later in the fourth quarter Brady and Amendola used that play to their advantage - in the same formation as LaFell's touchdown, LaFell ran the hard slant and Amendola started out from the slot and faked the flat out, instead going to the back of the end zone where Brady found him with Thomas again late to the play because he was expecting the ball to go to LaFell again.

These staples of the Patriots' offense have been missing for half of the 2015 season, simply because the men who make them work have been missing. Without Edelman running the pivot snag and without Amendola running the flat out, the Patriots have not been able to stretch the field horizontally, which means that LaFell, Gronkowski and the rest have had to deal with congested passing lanes and double coverages.

It also means that the running game has suffered because the passing game without those two doesn't particularly scare defensive coordinators, so they stack the box and take their chances with Brady trying to hook up with what remains - and it equally affects Gronkowski, as some teams have taken to triple-teaming him to keep him out of the play, something fare easier to do without the Graden Gnomes in the pattern.

Fully stocked, the Patriots enjoy carte blanche as far as where they can deploy Gronkowski, and frequently the defense has no choice but to match up on him with a linebacker one-on-one, and the results are predictable...

And, yes. As anyone can plainly see, the Patriots are close to unstoppable on offense when fully loaded - and as we've witnessed this season, the Patriots is severely handicapped when they are not.

It is unhealthy for an offense to rely on one player as much as they do Edelman, and while they will have every opportunity to address that deficiency in the offseason through either the draft (unlikely) or free agency, this Super Bowl run will have to get by with hoping that Edelman and Amendola are close to 100% and suffer no other set backs.

But in the midst of all of the chaos, there is one player who has blossomed in an increased role this season, an under-the-radar pass catcher that could very well run wild as a hot option in the short passing game - and we take a look at sophomore James White in part IV of this series...

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part II - Edelman's Return To Right Patriots' Listing Offense

Not too long ago, the New England Patriots were mired in an injury issue much the same as they are faced with today.

In January of 2014, the Patriots hit the playoffs so injured that they had little chance of making the Super Bowl - tight end Rob Gronkowski had been taken out by Cleveland's T.J. Ward a month earlier and was done for the season with a torn ACL. Newly acquired wide receiver Danny Amendola was severely limited with a fully torn adductor muscle with which he had already missed four regular season games...

...rookie draft pick Aaron Dobson was limited with a broken bone in his foot and fellow first-year speedster Josh Boyce was in and out of the lineup with a bum ankle, though he rarely made any sort of an impact at all, even when healthy.

But injuries didn't just impact that team during the playoffs. Amendola's groin muscle was torn in the first game of the season at Buffalo and restricted him all season. Gronkowski missed the first six games of the season recovering from multiple surgeries, and played in seven games all year. Dobson missed four games and Boyce was in and out of the lineup all season.

So the Patriots turned to a running game that ranked in the top 10 in the NFL, LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley combined accounting for nearly 1600 yards and averaged a stout 4.5 yards per carry to carry them through a treacherous playoff run that saw them blow the Indianapolis Colts out of Gillette Stadium before having to go to Denver to play the Broncos in the AFC Title game.

But by the time they got to Denver, Edelman was the only receiver who was anywhere near healthy, with Amendola out and Dobson with no speed or cutting ability, and an uninspiring tight end tandem of Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan offering little to no athletcism in the pattern - so the Broncos concentrated on stopping the Patriots' running game and dared Brady to beat them over the top.

That didn't happen, of course, and the Broncos managed a win for the right to go to Super Bowl 48 and get blown out by the Seattle Seahawks.

Point being, that the Patriots have seen this before, the only difference is that they are going to be getting healthy this time - or at least as healthy as they can be with so many players on the IR - just in time to defend the World Championship that they took from the Seahawks in 2014.

The main issue has been, of course, the loss of Julian Edelman.

The toughest cover in the National Football League, Edelman is what makes the Patriots quick-twitch, concept-based offense run. Sure, Brady is the catalyst, but without Edelman it just doesn't work the way it's supposed to.

For instance, in the nine games that Edelman has played in this season, the Patriots offense averaged 33.6 points per game and 418 total offense on 92 rushing yards and 326 passing yards per contest with six 300 yard passing games - but in the seven games he has missed, the points per game have dipped a full ten points to 23 and total offense has fallen off by over 100 yards per game, and Brady has had just one 300 yard game.

Even more telling is on third down. Where Edelman is a first down machine and helped the Patriots to a robust 54% conversion rate on third down, without him they are an abysmal 33%, meaning that the punt team is always on alert and the defense is on the field way too often.

In other words, Julian Edelman is the Most Valuable Player on this team.

Needless to say, the trickle down effect is much more than just losing his seven catches and 72 yards per game. Opposing defenses disrespected the Patriots' passing attack, even with Gronkowski at full health and Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell being part-time contributors and loaded up the box to stop what little running game offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels threw at them and dared Brady to throw over the top.

Sound familiar?

The result was Brady being relentlessly pummeled like a pinata, as the offensive line couldn't hold back the tsunami wave that defensive coordinators threw at them week after week after McDaniels invariably abandoned the run, leaving the Patriots one-dimensional and Brady a sitting duck, the line overwhelmed by sheer numbers as the secondary was able to play New England's receivers straight up, knowing the pass rush was going to get there eventually.

And why not? Giving up on the running game is an open invitation for defenses to rush the quarterback, and with as thin as the Patriots' depth chart has been at receiver, teams have been staying in their base defense or running the Big Nickle, sending delayed blitzers through gaps left by the initial wave - sometimes they get there before Brady can deliver the ball and sometimes they can't, but in both instances, Brady is punished.

That can't happen in the post-season, and Belichick has done everything that he can to make sure that it won't.

Edelman will have had two full months to recover from surgery on his foot and fellow wideout Danny Amendola will have had a full month to repair from his knee issues as Belichick has been very careful in handling his garden gnomes - because with them, he's not thin at receiver and teams can't stack the box against the Patriots' running game, which just added a fresh, savvy veteran in Steven Jackson.

The move to bring in Jackson was a brilliant one on Belichick's part, as the 32 year old former Ram and Falcon brings size (6' 2", 240 pounds), speed (a reported 4.55 in the 40) and 11 years of toting the rock almost 2800 times and caught 460 more. Even though he is most likely a five-game mercenary, he is the most complete back the Patriots have employed since Corey Dillon retired nine seasons ago.

His running style is most closely tied to Dillon's, as a matter of fact, and his receiving style is comperable to that of a "move" type tight end, so you can expect to see Jackson lined up all over the formation, though his primary duties are going to be powering through the holes that the offensive line can open for him - a monumentally easier task with the pass catching corps fully stocked.

Brandon LaFell, Keshawn Martin and Chris Harper join Edelman and Amendola at receiver, with Rob Gronkowski and the seldom-used Scott Chandler at tight end. At full strength, this is one of the best, most diverse pass catching corps in the NFL, and what makes it even better is the presence of passing back James White and the hired gun Jackson, as both have proven that they are more than competent in the pattern.

So with that quick-twitch passing game back in working order, what can we expect to see from the Patriots' offense?

Next - Part III: The Passing game

Monday, January 4, 2016

Patriots Live Scrimmage Over, Brady Promises "Different Team" In Post-Season

The New England began the 2015 season a literal juggernaut, going 10-0 and becoming the odds-on favorites to defend their World Championship - then the cruel and heartless injury bug bit them hard.

How hard? Well hard enough that that the Patriots went 2-4 in their final six games, sporting blowout wins over Houston and Tennessee sandwiched between a pair of two-game losing streaks to finish the season 12-4 and securing the second overall seed in the American Football Conference as they limp into the playoffs...

...hardly the way any team wants to enter the post-season, but as head ball coach Bill Belichick is fond of saying, you can't make it to the Super Bowl if you don't make the tournament. Besides, quarterback Tom Brady has promised us a "Much different team" in the playoffs than the one we witnessed struggling mightily down the stretch - and how do we know this is true?
Jackson needed live game snaps to acclimate himself to New England

Quite simply stated, the Patriots have been using the final two weeks of the regular season as an extended live scrimmage.

And the scary thing, is that even though they were just going through the paces - playing situational football and putting themselves in position to work on the two things that have been a bitch-kitty for the team, special teams and the running game - their defense kept them in the game long enough to take the Jets to overtime two weeks ago and to keep pace with the Dolphins on Sunday until the last few minutes of the contest.

But make no mistake, the Patriots had plenty to play for and they certainly would have liked to have won both games, but they weren't going to pull out all the stops to do so.

How else can you explain that fact that the team who had compiled an average of 393 total yards per game in the first fourteen games while clinching both the AFC East title and a first round bye and scoring 32 points per game suddenly went so far south that their averages in the final two games fell to averages of 150 yards and 17 points less?

Such a precipitous slide could not be explained any other way.

Oh sure, you could say the lack of receiving threats has handicapped this offense. You could say that the offensive line is so porous that a matador would have more success protecting Brady and you could say that the running game is more like a casual stroll through the park, and you could say that the play calling has been about as imaginative as a teen horror film script - and you would be right...

...but since when would Belichick allow such things to permeate the core of his football team without making some adjustments to the game plan throughout the course of the games?

Consider: the Patriots' lone touchdown drive against the New York Jets was a classic four-minute offensive series toward the end of the game that started with excellent field position and was promoted by big plays from tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back James White to tie the score at 20 with two minutes remaining in the game...

...and their lone touchdown against the Dolphins was the result of the increasingly shifty White taking a short pass in the flat, breaking a tackle and sprinted 68 yards to set up a two-yard touchdown run by new Patriots' running back Steven Jackson.

That's it. A touchdown by the defense and a handful of field goals is all the scoring that the Patriots have done in two weeks.

And if it appeared to you that the Patriots weren't trying or didn't care, you would be wrong. They do indeed care very much about what they are doing on the field, its just that in this particular instance, they were just getting some work in with their healthy core players, Brady taking the lead so as to not make the players on offense work with Brady's backup when they need the reps with him, particularly Jackson and White.

The media is going ape shit over the Patriots' woes, with former teammate Rodney Harrison stating that teams no longer fear playing the Patriots. His running mate, and former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy speculated that Belichick is so concerned with protecting Brady that he allowed only five pass plays to be called in Sunday's season finale, and only 21 for the entire game.

Of course, there is concern about protecting Brady, but these national media pundits are not seeing the big picture, though Harrison did get one thing right when he said that injured wide receiver Julian Edelman is more important to the function of the offense than even Gronkowski.

And THAT is something that needs to be addressed in the offseason, as no team should be so reliant on one player for their success, but in the short-term, Edelman is scheduled to be back on the field for the Patriots' divisional round playoff game after having nearly three months to recover from a fractured bone in his foot.

In fact, by the time Saturday January 16th rolls around, every player on the 53 man roster should be healed to the point that they can contribute well, and the team can return to being the juggernaut they were in the first ten games of the season.

That said, for the next two weeks, Foxborough Free Press will be previewing every position on their field and what has to happen for the Patriots to defend their title in San Francisco, the sight of Super Bowl 50 in early Frebruary.

Next up: Part 2, The offensive line...

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Loyalists - Patriots Need To Concentrate On Fundamentals, Not Trickery

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 showdown with the Miami Dolphins...

The New England Patriots are in uncharted territory.

Though it's not as if the team hasn't dealt with injuries before, and the number and frequency of players on the shelf is excessive, the Patriots aren't reacting to these injuries as they have in the past.

You see, in past seasons, the Patriots have survived and even thrived just by making sure that they were fundamentally sound with the players that they had left, the coaching staff putting these players in the best possible circumstance to succeed - but it doesn't feel like that this time.
Belichick and McDaniels need to get Brady in better position to succeed

For the past five weeks, we have witnessed a breakdown of fundamentals - and not surprisingly, the Patriots have struggled, going 2-3 in those contests. To their credit, however, they have been in each loss to the very last possession, losing twice in overtime and once after storming back from a 21 point , fourth quarter deficit to within a touchdown, only to fall short when the pass catchers suddenly developed a case of the Wes Welkers...

So it's not as if New England hasn't been competitive, but it does illustrate that with as many injuries as they are working though, there is very little margin for error - and the errors have been plentiful.

For instance, in the aforementioned loss to the Eagles where they nearly overcame a 21-point deficit, Philadelphia scored on a blocked punt, an 83-yard punt return and a 99-yard interception return. In the overtime loss to the Broncos, a muffed punt helped Denver complete a comeback and in the loss to the Jets. a breakdown in fundamental play calling on offense and poor tackling on defense was the bitch kitty.

So it's not just one area or one player or even isolated to just a particular matchup, it's something that has made its way through Gillette Stadium like a virus, and the only cure is to get back to doing the one thing that has sustained the Patriots through harsh times in the past: Reliance on being fundamentally sound.

It has to be better from top to bottom, and that includes the coaching.

I understand that this time of year and with playoff spots wrapped up, the play calling has to be vanilla in nature, but the entire Patriots' Way credo is built on the coaches taking their players' skill set and building a game plan around them - and it doesn't have to be fancy, it doesn't have to be deceptive, it just has to be fundamentally sound.

These are the New England Patriots, and you've heard it said that the only team that can beat them is themselves, and for the past month, that's exactly what they've been doing - or at least making things much harder on themselves than they should be...

This week's questions:

The Dolphins may be the worst run franchise in the National Football League.  Do you see Mike Tannenbaum still being the football czar in Miami next season given how badly he misjudged the market or will he have carte blanche yet again?

Jacob: Mike Tannenbaum and the Dolphins made a lot of risky decisions this past off season, and now they don't seem to be paying off. I however, am a big believer in allowing things to take shape and allowing people to build their program.  I feel nowadays especially, that a lot of time coaches and GMs aren't given the adequate time needed to build a successful program.  Yet when it comes to the Dolphins and Tannenbaum, they have a past of royally screwing things up. This year making a 114 million dollar decision with Ndamukong Suh.

If you allow someone that kind of power over decisions, I feel you have to at least give it a couple years to work out. The contract isn't going anywhere, so the man that wrote it up should stick around to see it through. However, the Dolphins are the Dolphins, and will most likely panic after seeing all that money go to one defensive tackle and seeing their run defense perform poorly. Ole Tannenbaum might be looking for work months after signing away the Dolphins future

With Stephen Jackson seeing his first action as a Patriot last week do you see his amount of carries increasing this week against the Dolphins? Also what would you consider the right amount of carries for Jackson moving forward?

Mike: By default, the Patriots will probably rely on Jackson for 15 touches, which is probably about right on a pre-game basis. But they need to mix it up with him, as he is an excellent pass catcher out of the backfield, which makes him the first true three-down back the Patriots have had in some time, with the exception of the small sample of work we got from Dion lewis.

At 6’ 2” and 240 pounds, Jackson is built like a “Move” tight end, and with sub 4.5 speed he needs to be in the pattern.

You see, last week wasn’t a true representation of what Jackson could be for this team. When he was in the game, the Jets loaded the box, and when he wasn’t, they went nickle. The game plan was that vanilla and predictable – now, they certainly don’t want to open up a package that they could unwrap in the post-season, but this is what Jackson could bring to the field if used properly. At least that way, teams wouldn’t be so apt to load up the box.

Injuries have forced the Patriots to abandon some of their time-honored tenets, adjusting on the fly to keep win some scrappy games – do you feel that when the Patriots take the field against the Dolphins that this trend will continue with vanilla play calling, even though many of the injured core players are ready to take the field?

Jacob: With the announcement that Edelman will miss the last game of the season, and with Vollmer also being out this week, I don't see much changing on the offensive front. I'm sure Josh will dial up similar plays from the past weeks, and hope the defense can pick up enough slack to get us a week 17 win. With it being an important game, I'm sure everybody who is healthy will be active and playing. I'm looking for another big game out of Keyshawn Martin, and for Stephan Jackson to see more playing time as well. Brady said all hands on deck... well at least the ones who can suit up.

In my opinion this week is a must win. Do you see having home field advantage through the playoff a must for the Patriots?

Mike: It is a must win.

I wrote a few days ago that the Patriots, historically, need at least a first round bye to make it to the Super Bowl, and that their odds of doing so increase exponentially with the top seed.

The loss to the Jets was a gut-punch to the organization as they missed a very tangible and very needed chance to wrap up the top seed, which would have given them the opportunity to turn the Dolphins game into nothing more than a live scrimmage for their depth chart and would have given them the chance to get all of their core players healthy and rested – but now they have to play their core players and expose them to injury in order to secure the top seed.

Is it the end of the world if they don’t beat the Dolphins? Of course not, but the odds say this is a must win – and while this is true, they shouldn’t treat it as a playoff game. All the Patriots need to do is to get back to fundamental football and execute as they are capable, and they will be fine.

Even as injured as they are, this is still a team who are their own worst nemesis.

The Jets gouged the Patriots up the middle in the running game last week, as the Patriots were forced into more players in coverage without their two starting safeties, going dime on several occasions. Are the Dolphins capable of forcing the Patriots’ hand again?

Jacob:  Last week the Patriots, for good reason, were concerned with Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. Defending these two guys while missing both of your starting safeties is no easy task. Even though they did an admirable job for the most part, both of these guys still hurt the Pats. In their attempt to cover them, they were left with some holes in the defense. The Jets took advantage of this, gouging the Patriots up the middle on certain plays.

While Jarvis Landry is the real deal, and rookie DeVante Parker is someone I think will eventually be a star in this league, neither of them will merit the attention Marshall and Decker got. Hopefully with some players returning this week, the Patriots will not allow Lamar Miller the kind of room they gave to the Jets backs. With Hightower ruled out already, this task has been made harder immensely.

The Patriots are banged up at WR and the Dolphins are poor as defending the run. Do the Patriots come with a run heavy attack this week or will Brady look to get Julian Edelman warmed up for the playoff run?

Mike: Balance, son. Balance.

Balance is the key to an offense that is as banged up as the Patriots are virtually everywhere.

Previously, you asked about Steven Jackson’s role in the offense going forward, and I eluded to the need for them to be less predictable and using Jackson in the pattern to offset the fact that their passing game isn’t what it used to be with everyone healthy – and the same goes here.

They need to get Edelman into some game action to gain back synergy with the offense, but shouldn’t go full bore with him, if at all. When sticking to fundamentals, the Patriots have plenty enough to win this game but if they try to get cute with the play calling as they have since Danny Amendola came up lame, it could be their downfall.

Cuteness doesn’t win football games. Fundamentals win football games.

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 !