Monday, May 30, 2016

Reloading The Musket, Part 1 - Goodell's Parity Plan Backfires, Belichick Loads Up Juggernaut

"Parity rubs against the spirit of competition at its fundamental roots. There is no room in football for parity. If there was, everyone would get a participation trophy and be happy with that. There wouldn't be any incentive to be any better than anyone else, there wouldn't be any reasons to dig deep, to rise above, to give every last ounce of energy, nor to willfully give up blood, sweat and occasional tears.
With Parity, what one gets is the football version of professional wrestling, a choreographed parade of marionettes with Goodell pulling strings of the 32 owners in unison, each taking turns at holding the coveted Lombardi trophy until the commissioner decides that it's someone else's turn..." - Foxborough Free Press, August 13,2015

Lewiston, Maine 6:47pm

I've been dealing with a disabling bout of writer's block for over a week now.

There have been ten causes identified for writer's block, but none of them seem to be what is causing my anguish.  The only thing that comes close occurs when an adverse circumstance has just taken place that saps all of a person's creative energy - but I don't know if graduating from college could be considered in my own psychoanalysis...

...and given that my subject is football - and the New England Patriots, to be more specific - one would think that there would be tons of stuff to write about this time of year, what with OTA's happening and new players are becoming acclimated to their new surroundings - and there is.

Perhaps where I'm going astray is trying to make sense of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's relentless insistence on bringing the Patriots back to the pack, as it were, by any means necessary and regardless of facts, science, or truth.

None of those things are on the side of the league, yet they continue to hammer New England with what the NFL Players Association calls "Their own brand of industrial justice", with Goodell as the judge, jury and executioner as both he and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals see it, not to mention the ownership and fans of the 31 other NFL franchises.

The aforementioned court has reinstated a suspension handed down by Goodell at the beginning of last season and overturned in federal court, Brady scheduled to miss the first four games of this upcoming season.  He has appealed the reinstatement and is ready to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter.

Just like Goodell also taking away the team's first round draft pick this past April, because instead of sitting around whining like the ownership and fans of the other teams would do, defacto General Manager Bill Belichick has been loading up his already talented team by signing no less than four former first-round draft picks... when one tries to imagine what the Patriots' are going to look like this season, everything instead of prognostications normally defined by fundamental practice and practical application should be considered, because the Patriots have the opportunity to exact their own brand of "industrial justice" on the poor wretches that line their schedule.

Both the why and how are readily evident, but first I have to get rid of this maddening case of creative slowdown.  In creative writing, the instructor will propose a "free write", a technique in which a prospective writer will put pen to paper - or fingers to keyboard in this instance - and just write whatever pops into his or her head...

...never stopping, not worried about punctuation, spelling errors or margins, just writing - and soon enough, they say, your momentum will carry you over the abyss of the blockage.  It doesn't matter what the subject is, just whatever gland it is in the brain that stimulates creativity conjures a random thought, then a default template takes over and before you know it, you're flying along with a choppy piece that seems more like parts of chatty letters.

Which is normal for me, so it's sound advice - but what I can't seem to get past is how to explain what the additions of tight ends Martellus Bennett and Clay Harbor means to the base philosophy of the Patriots' offense - their presence, particularly that of Bennett shifts the focus of the offense from the collection of garden gnome-sized slot receivers to a three-headed hydra that will annihilate the opposition's pass defense.

In fact, there is so much talent at the tight end position and so much depth and skill at the passing back position, that Belichick could play an entire game using nothing but a short-yardage, Jumbo package - a 23 Personnel, if you will, meaning two running backs and three tight ends.  Nothing really weird about it and a pretty easy offensive package for a defense to match up with...

...until you remember that you are playing the Patriots, who have brought out Dion Lewis and James White as their running backs and have tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Bennett split wide outside the numbers with H-back Harbor in the slot.

No wide receivers on the field, yet your secondary is doomed.  This is what happens when you mess with Bill Belichick.

This is what happens when you falsely accuse his quarterback of dark malfeasance.  This is what happens when you take away top draft capital.  This is what happens when you leave Belichick to stew in his own juices watching pick after pick come off of the draft board while waiting for his opportunity at the end of the second round.

And that was after he had made the deals to bring Bennett and Harbor aboard, and after receiving guard Jonathan Cooper as part of the compensation in the Chandler Jones deal.  You see, the NFL may have stripped Belichick of his top draft capital, but it could do nothing but sit and watch in horror while Belichick acquired multiple former-first and second round picks to turn what was already the most lethal offense in the NFL into a literal juggernaut.

The loot is breathtaking, as Cooper (7th overall, 2013), linebacker Shea McClellin ( 19th overall, 2012), defensive end Chris Long (2nd overall, 2008) and passing back Donald Brown (27th overall 2009) join the Patriots as former first round picks, while Bennett (61st overall, 2008), nose tackle Terrance Knighton (73rd overall, 2009) arrive as former second and third rounders, respectively.

Throw in Harbor (125th overall, 2010) and Belichick has added four first rounders, a second a third and a fourth, without spending more than fourth-round draft capital for any of them - all should make the team, but it is the presence of Bennett and Harbor, plus the stable of passing backs that should make this Patriots' offense impossible to defend, and open to perversions like the 23 attack.

Of course, the Jumbo package is used almost solely in short yardage or goal line situations, when the offense needs considerable heft to move the pile a yard or two, so ordinarily the two running backs would be your power back and a full back, and your tight ends would be a combination of blocking tight ends and swing tackles who must report as being eligible receivers.

Dynamic in every interpretation of the word, the 23 personnel was designed for the offense to take what they want and need by force, which is the entire philosophy of the New England Patriots' offense heading into the 2016 season - which is scary in-and-of-itself, given the twisted mind of Belichick and his young Igor, but when one adds in the big chip balanced on Belichick's shoulder...

The Dark Master is a man of few words.  Very rarely is he compelled to offer anything more than what is required to reporters, league offices and the like, and so scrutinized is he that he has to be as transparent as a plastic baggie in all of his dealings, thanks to episodes such as "Spygate" and numerous times stretching the interpretation of the rules.

Each time he is rebuffed, he rises from the canvas with the style of a mean counter-puncher and lays waste to everything in his path.  He has a very clear track record of this behavior, so it shouldn't be a surprise at all that Belichick has a very real axe to grind against the league, including the management and ownership of 31 other NFL franchises who have supported commissioner Roger Goodell in his punishments handed down to New England as the result of the stupid and wrong "Deflategate" saga.

In 2007, his response to "Spygate" was to sign freakish wide receiver Randy Moss and slot receiver Wes Welker for Brady to throw to, the result being a perfect regular season where Belichick left no doubt as to final scores, running up the tabulation with some truly impressive offensive performances.  It was stylish in many ways and serves as the high water mark for points scored in a season or the franchise.

Which is significant in that the New England Patriots own four of the eleven highest scoring seasons in the history of the National Football League.

The 518 points scored in 2010, the 513 in 2011 and the 557 in 2012 surpassed in franchise history only by the 589 scored in 2007, and that total second in NFL history to the 606 scored by the Denver Broncos in 2013 - and if we are to witness on the field the potential this 2016 offense has on paper, the Broncos record is toast.

Simply winning is not going to be enough for Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady - not after what Goodell, the media and the ownership of the other 31 NFL franchises have put them through the past 18 months, and he certainly didn't sign all of that talent just because he could...

...he's going to incorporate them all into his master plan to create a a massive inexorable force that crushes anything in its path during the 2016 NFL season, and not stop until he has a fifth trophy for the franchise - because that's the only way to exact justice for the franchise.

The one thing that Goodell can not touch is the end result on the scoreboard.  It can not be appealed to a higher court, it can not be subjected to multi-million dollar investigations and it can not be suspended or have a draft pick taken away from it - a final score is a final score, and if the Patriots are standing on that podium with the Lombardi trophy securely in hand, they win.

If they are not, they lose.  It doesn't get any more simple than that.

But back to our original thought regarding the "Jumbo"package, and how the Patriots could pervert it into a dreadful weapon - there is no question that New England could pull that off, the only question remaining is how would an opposing team defend it?

For one, they would have to play the formation pretty much straight up to account for the running game, but at the same time try to cover a trifecta of tight ends that individually are too fast for linebackers and too big for safeties to cover one-on-one, but to double team any of them means leaving the box light, which is suicide in the 23 personnel...

...and just the fact that the uniquely verbose Belichick arch-nemesis Rex Ryan has no idea how he would defend it means that the idea has merit.

"I just think it's unusual to have two guys that are like 6' 7", and can run, catch, block." Ryan mentioned at the owners meeting in Florida a couple of months back. "It's going to be a major challenge. There's no doubt about that.  They're scary when you look at them."

"Those are two huge guys.  How we're going to defend them, I don't know."

It's not like the two-tight end package that Gronkowski teamed with Aaron Hernandez to terrorize the league with back in the early part of this decade is being re-imagined or reborn, because Hernandez was, for all intents and purposes, a big slot receiver while Bennett is more a traditional up-the-seam tight end like Gronkowski.

Harbor is more along the lines of Hernandez, though his game hasn't really blossomed to this point in his career, relegated to back up duties behind Julius Thomas and Mercedes Lewis in Jacksonville the past couple of seasons because the Jaguars didn't have the weapons that the Patriots do, so Harbor's snap count suffered until Lewis was injured - then Harbor shined.

The Jaguars were genuinely shocked at his blocking ability when he got the chance filling in for Lewis, but the fact that he was still going to be the third option in Jacksonville combined with the sports hernia surgery he had after the season was over made Harbor available, and the Patriots signed him for a lot more than the veteran minimum deal he was likely to get elsewhere - which shows that Belichick already has a role picked out for him

The Jags - and the Eagles before them - used Harbor mostly as a decoy in motion to sniff out the coverages and set the strong side, which is also what he'll be doing in Foxborough, taking a linebacker with him across the formation to clear out zones for the backs wheeling into the pattern and for giving the slot receiver space to sit down and show his numbers...

...while Gronk and Bennett hold their own personal track meet up the seam, taking multiple defenders vertically.  That doesn't leave very many defenders in the box, where the Patriots' supurb collection of receivers and running backs should find plenty of room to run.

This is no joke.  If the Patriots stay relatively healthy and Belichick's evil philosophy evolves according to plan, it's going to be next to impossible to stop this offense - which we will cover as this series evolves - and given the quality of folks that they have on the other side of the ball, New England has been instilled as the odds-on favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Of course, there are some in the Boston media that are urging fans to "pump the brakes" on Bennett and the rest of the pack of tight ends, but there is really no reason to - as we will find out in the next free write...

Friday, May 20, 2016

Balance, Health Key For Patriots' Offensive Line; Thuney's Versatility Boon For Unit

Thuney is a five-position mercenary, which makes him very valuable to Scarnecchia's offensive line.
Jonathan Cooper is a young, tough guard - which makes him fit right in with the interior of the New England Patriots' offensive line.

He missed his entire rookie season after fracturing his fibula in a preseason game, suffered a knee issue in his sophomore preseason that required weekly draining of fluid, along with a painful turf toe injury which combined forced him to miss almost all of the 2014 season, making his first career start in week 14...

...which lasted all of two games until he fractured a bone in his wrist, carrying over into the 2015 season, but was able to play the first nine games of the year before the knee problem arose again and ruined the rest of the season.

So when New England pulled off the trade to get rid of defensive end Chandler Jones and his enormous cap hit, the Cardinals sweetened the deal when they packaged Cooper in with a second round draft pick, essentially giving up on the former number seven overall draft pick in 2012 after just an eleven game body of work, Arizona coach Bruce Ariens stating that Cooper was "tough and athletic, just continuing to grow" but qualifying his actions by adding, "We don't have time for growth."

Perhaps that's the reason why, in a nutshell, the Patriots find themselves perennial favorites and in championship game after championship game while other teams' fortunes have them perpetually climbing the ladder - they take other people's projects that they have no time to develop and figures out ways for them to contribute while training them to be football players.

Many players are drafted out of college who are great athletes, but weren't afforded the luxury of perfecting their craft, instead are plugged into a system, are trained to perform in that system, and find that when they arrive in the NFL, their learning curve is protracted because they were essentially pawns that lined the coffers of their respective school's athletic department, with really no regard to their future other than, of course, the college degree they earn out of it.

Many NFL teams behave in that manner as well, especially the ones whose owners put tremendous amount of pressure on their coaching staffs to win now, so they draft the kids like Cooper who fit a particular style in college but struggled in the pros and were given up on because teams don't have the time to develop an imperfect being.

That trail of thought ends at the lighthouse.

This is what separates the Patriots from all other teams and Bill Belichick from all other general managers, the philosophy that begs for ambiguity, the one that seeks to accentuate a player's strength. All teams and coaches and general managers do this to some extent, but there has not ever been a football person who has taken other teams' cast-offs and improved his team by integrating their talent into his collective...

...kind of like a Borg approach - for those who dig Star Trek, you know that the alien species known as the Borg are a bunch of assimilated members of many different species, and who have prosthetic, mechanical limbs and other various body parts implanted in place of their severed original members, making them part of a collective "hive", each assimilated being adding his or her unique distinctiveness as a way of improving the whole.

It's whacked for sure, but it makes sense in a communal degree.  But not even Belichick has balls big enough go full cyborg on the NFL, so what he does is pay those players and promise them that if they just trust the coaches and do their job, then they will win a lot more than they lose, and if everyone does their job, the team has as good a chance as anyone to kiss a trophy.

Could that also explain Belichick seemingly thumbing his nose at the status quo in the draft?

Yes, it could, but that is a topic for another time but right now it is important for us to understand that
Cooper has a legitimate shot at jump starting his career in New England, but first he will have to earn a roster spot on an interior offensive line that is chock-full of young talent.

Cooper's first-round draft status carried little weight in New England, so no roster spot is guaranteed, especially given that Belichick surrendered top-three draft capital to select North Carolina State behemoth Joe Thuney, adding him to an interior mix with Shaq Mason, Tre Jackson, David Andrews, Josh Kline and Bryan Stork.

Mason appears to have a death-grip on the left guard spot, displaying rare athleticism in the running game to pull and drive defenders out of the hole, but the right guard and center positions are anything but settled heading into OTA's.

The Cardinals were toying with the idea of shifting Cooper - who had previously played at right guard - over to center before they dealt him to Foxborough, and Thuney practiced extensively at center as a Senior at NC State, both of whom add intrigue to the pivot position, which was manned by Andrews as a rookie for the fist half of last season, then taken over by the incumbent Stork after he returned from the IR.

The thing is, Stork also has position flexibility, having played guard in college and even has an emergency start at right tackle on his professional resume - in fact, the only player on the interior that really doesn't have documented positional versatility is Andrews, who is purely a pivot though he received reps at guard in last summer's training camp.

That could be a disadvantage for him, but Andrews has already made it tough to cut him, given his performance during the Patriots' 10-game winning streak to start the season.

So what the Patriots have on the interior are a bunch of guys who can play either guard or center, with the only players close to be a roster lock being Mason at left guard and Stork at center with a log jam at right guard between Cooper, Jackson and Kline - while the roster locks on the ends being Nate Solder on Brady's blindside and Sebatian Vollmer on the strong side.

And unless Thuney completely bombs in camp, he could very well become the unit's default lineman - because the value to the team is in his versatility, and perhaps his rare singular talent would have saved the offensive line last season when the injuries started to mount, or at least given them more of a fighting chance.

Regardless, Thuney's selection in the third round was a boon to Belichick. Most see him as a guard in the pros but with his overall athleticism and tremendous footwork, placing him solely on the interior would be limiting what the North Carolina State product brings to the field and not receiving full value out of their high draft capital investment.

Thuney's best destiny would be as five-position mercenary of sorts, as he could ably fill in at any position on the line - and not just fill in, but do so ably, as he has shown the dexterity and intelligence to show proper technique at every position.  These types of players are rare, with a young Logan Mankins being the last player that the Patriots had with such impactful versatility.

Needless to say, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will love the kid's versatility and toughness - he played through injury most of his senior season and has that Mankins-like approach to the game.

Many feel that Scarnecchia coming out of retirement to pick up an offensive line that was seen to underachieve under Dave DeGuglielmo will be a windfall to the unit, but not even the amazing Scarnecchia can change what these guys are, which is a drive blocking, power-running unit.  In the two seasons that "Scar" was dipping his toes in the sand, Belichick brought in three of the most powerful drive blockers in the last two draft classes... Bryan Stork in 2014 and guards Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson last season.  Together with Solder, Vollmer and the heft of the tight ends on the roster, the Patriots should have been a top 10 rushing team in 2015, but due to injury and ambivalence toward the running game by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the running game scared no one, mired in the bottom three units in the entire NFL.

With a running game being a quarterback's best friend, the combination of injury and McDaniels' neglect of balance in the offense left Brady and his offensive line no friends to lean on in tough times, instead, the line was outnumbered and overwhelmed and Brady took an epic beating.

DeGuglielmo took the fall as a convenient scapegoat, the Patriots opting not to renew his contract, but the simple fact of the matter is that he had very few options in his coaching style other than trying to figure out a way to stem the onrushing tide of pressure from opposing defenses, which proved to be futile.

Scarnecchia is a team player, but is also very vocal and won't hesitate to let Belichick and McDaniels know where he and his charges stand.  He has earned that right, much like Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel did when they acted as sounding boards for Belichick at the start of his dynastic run.

They are what they are, and what the Patriots' offensive line is built for is to make the opposition respect their running game, which has a trickle-down effect of Brady's masterful play action fakes becoming a legitimate weapon again and giving the linemen a chance to anchor in their stances and to throw the first punch, both things keeping the pass rushers off of Brady in the pocket.

It really is that simple.  We already know that the Patriots have one of the most progressive offenses in football - what with the best quarterback to ever play the game playing pitch and catch with a monstrous collection of tight ends and some of the toughest covers in the league - but that means very little without balance between the running and passing.

A couple of different factors can affect how many and which offensive linemen make the roster.  First is Scarnecchia's presence and his preference for solidifying his offensive line early in the team-building process, then letting the depth players left over fight it out for a spot on the roster. Scarnecchia will have his starters set before the first preseason game and ride them through rough patches to build cohesion.

Secondly is the fact that Belichick signed Martellus Bennett and Clay Harbor to team with Rob Gronkowski to give New England the best set of tight ends in the game.  Bennett and Gronkowski may be the two most complete tight ends in the league, and having them in the game running out of 12 personnel means that the need for a swing tackle is not as critical as it has been in the past...

...solely because there is not a scenario in the play book that the team benefits from having either of those guys out of the game, so neither will be replaced by a swing tackle on short yardage as both are among the best blockers at the position.

Last, is the development of Thuney.  If he is what Belichick envisions him to be - sort of a swiss army knife - then that should open up a roster spot somewhere else.

So in Belichick's perfect world, He would have Solder and Vollmer, healthy, as his starting tackles with mid-2015 pickup LaAdrian Waddle and Thuney as swing tackles, Mason and Jackson as guards with Cooper and Thuney as reliable depth, and Stork at center backed up by Andrews - eight linemen with a possible ninth being tight end Michael Williams, who is a dual threat as drive-blocking tackle in the running game.

It's a different look for sure, and perhaps a bit early to make such a forecast - especially considering that super-sized tackle Marcus Cannon has always been a favorite of Scarnecchia's, and it's common knowledge that he loves undersized scrappers like Josh Kline and David Andrews fighting on the interior...

...but whatever happens in the team-building process, one can be reasonably certain that balance is on it's way to Foxborough. and with balance, an effective offensive line, a clean Brady lots and lots of points.

It really is that simple.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Big Nickle Dictates Patriots' Defensive Additions

Patriots' fans should get used to this sight, as Cyrus Jones has shut-down potential
The Big Nickle defense seems relatively new to most casual football fans, but in reality it is an old-school approach to defending today's offensive evolution.

The recent trend in the NFL is for teams to go big, either with tall wideouts, uber-athletic tight ends, or both, which has prompted a few different defensive approaches, from employing taller corners to offset the size advantage of the receivers to assigning hybrid "nickle"linebackers to tight ends in order to make up ground in the size-speed ratio that today's tight end typically enjoys.

The Big Nickle, however, eschews modern thinking and embraces the fundamentalist thinking of the early game, where the idea was to fuse athleticism with violent intent.

Which rubs against the grain of the kinder, gentler brand of football that the NFL promotes with their ever-restrictive rules against defenses in the passing game, rewarding teams with high-flying passing attacks and punishes defensive backs when they try to "climb the ladder" to make a play on the football in the air, against receivers that are 4-to-6 inches taller than the average cornerback.

The reason for the clearly biased-against-the-defense set of rules is to make the game "exciting" and "more palatable" to the casual fan.  After all, in a purely general aesthetic sense, what could be more exciting than a quarterback launching a ball 50 yards down the field to a lithe and speedy receiver, who hauls it in and zips cleanly into the end zone?

To football purists, however, the idea of a defender being essentially handcuffed by the rules into being little more than a rubber-necking bystander doesn't sit well - but by the same token, if the same team doesn't take advantage of the rules on the offensive side of the ball, their success rate - as well as their win-loss record - suffers.

Of course, there are teams that take that advantage to a new, unethical level.  

The "Flacco-Harbaugh Gambit" is the most well-known of these tactics, wherein Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh will call for a deep pass play, tasking quarterback Joe Flacco to loft a ball just short of where a defensive back would expect it to be, goading him into making a play for the ball while at the same time engaging in unintentional contact with the receiver for the express purpose of gaining large chunks of yardage by way of a pass interference penalty called on the corner.

To combat this, many teams have taken the stance defensively that it is better to not allow a receiver free release into his pattern in the first place.

Built into the debilitating rules is a single five-yard buffer, a razor thin zone in which defensive backs can make heavy contact with the receiver coming off of the line of scrimmage to try and disrupt the timing in a timing-based passing attack, and to keep lid-popping speedsters from tearing the top off of a defense in a vertical offense.

It is known as a five-yard "mugging zone", which frequently features the equivalent of an old fashioned street brawl, complete with haymakers, grappling and outright fist fights - and this is what Bill Belichick bases his nickle defensive package after, which explains his seeming obsession with small, gritty corners...

...and with hybrid safeties, the two combined forming the base for Belichick's version of the Big Nickle, his New England Patriots one of the few teams - if not the only team - in the NFL to be able to do it right.

The Big Nickle is actually the brain-child of former Philadelphia Eagles' defensive coach Jerry Williams who, in 1961, was desperate to stop a talented Chicago Bears rookie tight end named Mike Ditka, who was ripping opposing defenses a new one every time he stepped on the field due to his size-speed ratio and glass-chewing toughness.

Williams figured that to stop Ditka  - who at 6' 3", 230 pounds had the size advantage over most defensive backs and the speed and agility advantage over most linebackers - he had to have a player who was a cross between the two and found that in rookie safety Irv Cross.

At 6' 2" and 200 pounds, Cross had requisite size for the task and with speed believed to have been in the 4.4 range, the requisite speed - even so, the rookie would have to wait until late in the first quarter between the teams in their week eight matchup.  Ditka had just taken a short Billy Wade pass seventy-six yards for a touchdown to give the Bears a 7-3 lead over the defending World Champion Eagles...

...and after inserting Cross to shadow Ditka, the beastly tight end was shut down for the rest of the afternoon as the Eagles posted a big 16-14 win.  Teams around the league stood up and took notice, many future opponents aligning their games plans as the Eagles had, resulting in a 1-4 slide to drop the Bears out of playoff contention.

So impressed by the scheme was an assistant on the Bears' sideline, future Washington Redskins' legend George Allen, that the Big Nickle became a base defense for his Championship teams, but a more modern example of the alignment came via defensive wizard Fritz Shurmur who, while with the Cardinals in 1992, was forced to play a third safety when he ran out of linebackers, thanks to a rash of injuries.

The alignment followed him to Green Bay, where a few seasons later he used it to defeat the Bill Parcells-led Patriots team in Super Bowl 31.

Today, the Big Nickle tradition is carried on by another defensive genius in Belichick, though his vision for the alignment is inspired by the aforementioned debilitating rule changes rather than just focusing on stopping one extraordinary athlete or simply out of desperation - his plan has been meticulously groomed over the past four seasons, and last year it came to full fruition.

The 4-2-5 Big Nickle is made possible by a stable of specially skilled safeties that Belichick has been collecting via high draft capital for years, combined with aggressive corner play and the overall skill of his top two linebackers - which explains his offseason moves in free agency and his off-the-beaten-path draft board.

Up front, the alignment relies on defensive tackles who are capable of resetting the line of scrimmage two yards deep in the opponents backfield while occupying more than one offensive lineman, while the defensive ends are alert and instinctive, with the ability to both pressure the quarterback and set the edge in the running game.

In theory - as well as practical application - the tackle occupying blockers and the ends setting the edge accomplish two things: first, a double team on the nose or on a disruptive three tech means that a gap exists somewhere for a linebacker or safety to shoot through and secondly, setting the edge forces a wide play back to the inside, where the aforementioned shooting linebacker or safety is waiting.

In this system, pressuring the quarterback is nearly as good as a sack, because with the aggressiveness of the corners already detouring the receivers' routes, the quarterback may not have enough time to find his second or third reads before having to abandon the pocket, and pressure up the middle limits the space and opposing quarterback has to step into a throw.

That was the idea behind drafting Nebraska tackle Vincent Valentine, a player with a rap concerning not playing to his potential - and perhaps some of that chatter is true, though a high ankle sprain that he labored with throughout 2015 could have been a contributing factor. In any case, the highlight films on him are compelling enough to consider him a good fit in the Patriots' interior defense, especially given that the opposing offensive line has bigger fish to fry in regards to the Patriots' defensive line.

At the nose is All Rookie team member Malcom Brown, who will be part of an interior rotation with Terrence Knighton, Alan Branch, free agent pick up Markus Kuhn, so Valentine won't have to contribute immediately, nor carry the load - which is fortunate because when he's fresh, he's a difference maker with his explosiveness off the ball. An ideal scenario for the third-round selection would be as a designated pocket penetrator late in games.

But while no one is expecting Valentine to jump right in and take anyone's job away from them, the hope is that second round pick Cyrus Jones ascends the depth chart at cornerback in rapid-fire fashion.

Nicknamed "Clamp Clampington", the Patriots hope he lives up to that restrictive name and clamps down on opposing receivers off the snap - you know, like a real clamp, or as the widely accepted definition suggests, "Holds objects tightly together to prevent movement of separation through the application of inward pressure."

Jones is an aggressive hand fighter who is perfect for the mugging-style press coverage the Patriots employ in the big nickle, and who takes everything as a slight on him, so he has a perpetual chip always balanced on his shoulder - and while some take him for a third corner in the slot, Jones' best destiny is on the outside, where he has become something of an expert at pinning receivers against the sideline and using his ridiculous ball skills to deny receiver after receiver.

"They (the quarterbacks) look at him like, 'Ok, I'm gonna throw on him,'" fellow Crimson Tide corner Maurice Smith said of Jones recently, "and then he turns around and gets a pick - then that side of the field is shut down the rest of the game."

Some would say that Jones has an uphill battle for playing time, what with Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan forming a pair of solid - if unspectacular - corners, but the smart money has Jones winning the number two in camp, relegating Ryan to the slot, where he has shown a knack for huge plays.

In Belichick's defense, one will see the slot manned by either a corner or by a safety, but with the selection of Kamu Grugier-Hill in the sixth round out of Eastern Illinois, there is every possibility that the slot could be manned by a weakside linebacker in certain packages.

Said to be on the "weak" side because he typically lines up on the opposite side of the field as the opposing tight end, a weakside linebacker is responsible for keeping track of the running back, picking him up in coverage if curling into the pattern...

...while keying on setting the edge and on lateral pursuit should the back take a handoff, pitch or screen pass - which is exactly what Grugier-Hill excels at.

Film of the 6' 2', 215 pounder reveals a stunning similarity to 2015 draft selection Brandon King. Identical in size, both are lighting quick on the accelerator, demonstrating elite closing speed and arriving at their destination with ill intent. Both played the "Star" linebacker position in college - which is the Big Nickle in the pros.

The only difference between the two as far as playing style is that Grugier-Hill comes in a far more polished product and has a chance to provide immediate depth to a unit in desperate need of it and should join King as a special teams' terror.

The problem is - and the reason why Grugier-Hill wasn't a higher round draft consideration - is his weight, or lack thereof - but he' is every bit his draft profile, which uses phases such as "Ridiculous range", "Superior chase speed and burst to the ball carrier" and "has burst to become a dangerous blitzer."

Even though he was drafted as an outside linebacker, many believe a switch to strong safety and the big nickle is where he's headed - but, really, what is the difference between a strong safety and a weakside cover linebacker?

In today's NFL, the gap between the two is virtually non-existent.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Patriots Stand Pat On Running Backs In Draft, But Good Core Remains

Could the New England Patriots actually go into the 2017 season with, essentially, the same cast of running backs that produced a dismal 1404 rushing yards last season?

That 1404 rushing yards was good - or bad, depending on your dialect - for thirtieth out of thirty-two teams, but if it weren't for injuries, the Patriots' rushing numbers would certainly be a lot higher than what it was - and advanced statistics show that they weren't as bad as the initial numbers would seem to indicate.

Sparked by the video game-like elusiveness of passing back Dion Lewis and the sluggish but powerful style of the brutish LeGarrette Blount as a part-time bell-cow, the Patriots had the makings of a decent rushing game - not top of the league type stuff by any means, but enough to keep balance in the attack and have confidence closing out games.

In fact, through the first five games of the season, Lewis and Blount had amassed 486 yards on the ground, with Lewis contributing another 292 through the air as a live-wire dual threat like the franchise hadn't seen in over a decade. Lewis was held out of a week seven matchup with the Jets and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels subsequently abandoned the running game, but still managed enough offense for a narrow win...

...but after a fantastic game the following week against Miami (5 carries for 19 yards and six catches for 96), Lewis saw his season end the next week against Washington, tearing his ACL.

That was the beginning of the end for the Patriots' offense.

The following week, wide receiver Julian Edelman suffered a broken metatarsal in his left foot, the second hit in as many weeks to the Patriots' passing attack - and thus began a cruel string of injuries that left the "skill" positions smoldering ruins.

With Lewis gone for the season and Edelman on the shelf until the playoffs, receiver Danny Amendola was the next to have a seat, suffering a knee sprain the following week against the Bills, then tight end Rob Gronkowski went down the week after that in Denver - then the injury bug took a week off before returning with a vengeance, taking lead back Blount for the season with a bum hip.

That's five core "skill position" players going down in the space of six weeks, reducing the New England offense to a literal shell of itself.  So it should come as no surprise that the Patriots took a nose-dive, losing four of the final six games, Blount's injury the final straw to an offense that generated only 15 points per game down the stretch after he went down.

Edelman and Gronkowski were back for the playoffs and provided some plays, but with the running game in tatters, McDaniels crew could manage only 45 points in the playoffs as he again abandoned the ground game, this time because there just wasn't anything left to work with but untested depth and a relic free agent who hadn't seen action in nearly a year.

Attempting to run the ball just seven times in a divisional round win over Kansas City and fourteen in a loss to Denver in the AFC Championship game is testament to McDaniels' lack of confidence in both what was left of his running game, as well as his completely overwhelmed offensive line.

In short, the Patriots' offensive woes down the stretch and in the playoffs were not a matter of talent, nor lack thereof, it was simply a matter of one devastating injury after another sapping the explosiveness from the offense, leaving quarterback Tom Brady a handful of unproven depth players who, try as they might, were no match for any defense.

The only way that the Patriots could have survived that onslaught of injuries was for their depth to have performed better than they did overall, though by the time Blount was lost for the season, there wasn't a team in the NFL that was scared of the Patriots' offense, because once any semblance of a running game disappeared, all anyone had to to do was load up the pass rush to come after Brady...

...and even when Gronkowski was back, the opposition doubled him up and left the pass catching depth single covered and concentrated on getting to Brady before he had a chance to make his reads.

Many blamed the offensive line for the subsequent beatings that Brady took, but the fact of the matter is that they were overwhelmed by defenses that knew the Patriots couldn't run the ball with any authority, nor could they field a healthy passing catching corps - it was Brady behind an offensive line trying to hold back a tsunami, and the result was the worst eight game stretch in Belichick's 15 year tenure.

And still, Brady, Belichick and the Patriots came within two points of going to the Super Bowl.

Now, had the injury bug started biting any earlier than it did, New England may not have even made the playoffs - so with a harsh lesson learned, why did the Patriots not select a young bell-cow running back in the 2016 Draft?

Many Patriots' fans are either scratching or shaking their heads over this one, and Belichick's response to being questioned about not drafting a back, "You can't control what you can't control", left many with more questions than they had before.

Did that mean he had a back in mind and he was taken before he could fall to number 60 overall, where the Patriots would be making their first pick, or is he referring to the fact that his first rounder was taken away by the league and he was left without a reasonable opportunity to get the back he wanted, or was he just blowing off the reporter?

Probably, it is a combination of all of the above, but even that doesn't change the fact that Belichick added only passing back Donald Brown to the kennel in free agency - a kennel that still includes Blount and Lewis, and also James White, Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney and Joey Iosefa - then signed only former running back-turned-wide receiver D.J. Foster out of Arizona State as a priority free agent after he went undrafted.

Obviously, Belichick has trust in his current group of greyhounds, and has every reason to - given that his running game ranked second in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards, which gives a true assessment of the efficiency of a team's running game.

Lead back Blount was ranked 6th out of 50 running backs with one hundred carries or more in success rate, which is descriptive of his consistency as measured by successful running plays, success being determined as to whether he gained 40% of the team's need for a first down on first down, gaining 60% of the team's remaining yards on second down, and 100% of the remaining yards on third down...

...his 52% success rate in these situations making him a better bet to gain the yardage needed than just about any "Elite" back you could think of or name, and the fact that passing back Dion Lewis was also ranked #6 for backs with less than 100 carries speaks to the consistency of the running game, so long as it has the players to field.

As a team, the Patriots ranked second in the entire NFL in total line yards, which identifies the success rate of running plays between losing up to five yards and gaining up to five yards on each play.  The Patriots are a robust 4.18 in this category - second only to the Arizona Cardinals - a large degree of their success based upon the fact that they had the lowest "stuff" percentage in the league, with only 16% of their running plays losing yardage.

These metrics show that had the Patriots featured the running game to an acceptable balance while their backs were healthy, especially with their pass catching corps missing integral pieces, they could have dictated terms to the opposing defenses, forcing them to defend the entire field and keeping the pass rush off of Brady

Needless to say, a few things need to be addressed to ensure that the running game actually complements the passing game, instead of just making token appearances.

First and foremost, the need for a running game has never been more critical, so it is time for Josh McDaniels' Flying Circus to come back a little closer to earth.  With the best and most dangerous tight end combination in the league featuring two behemoths who can run block just as well as they can catch and run, the proper thing to do would be to run a lot of 12 or 22 Personnel as their primary package.

The 12 Personnel package (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers) should be the predominant package that will facilitate the uptempo game that New England is so good at, because with the overall skill set of the top playmakers, Brady could call a running play off tackle or right up the gut with a tight end pulling for a wham block, and if he sees a mismatch to take advantage of, he can go five wide simply by barking out one word.

The threat of a running game in this package is such that the defense would have to respect it, while making sure that they have the players on the field to ensure coverage in the patterns - same with 22 Personnel (2 backs, 2 tight ends and 1 receiver) as the Patriots have three excellent passing backs that they could rotate in and out, two of whom have had a little success running the ball out of such formations.

In other words, with health on their side, the running game needs to balance out the passing game, and while the meaning of balance to the Patriots is running the ball just enough to offset the passing game and forcing the defense to defend the entire field, they need to establish the run early and keep with it through out the game, not abandon it for fireworks in the second half - all that does is allow the opposing pass rush to load up and overwhelm the line, and we all saw how well that works.

Secondly, a token running game is worse than not having one at all.  If you are throwing 80% of the time out of the 12 or 22, you are wearing out your offensive linemen.

It takes twice as much energy for a 300-plus pound man to back peddle, anchor and then absorb the initial punch of a pass rusher than it does for him to drive forward and deliver the initial punch to the defensive lineman.  With the threat of a running game, the play action is more effective and it allows the linemen to conserve their energy by having an extra split second to anchor themselves and deliver the initial punch once the pass rusher decides the play call is a pass.

The way that McDaniels used the running game last season was a primary reason for the Patriots' lack of success on offense down the stretch, including the absolutely brutal beating Brady took - and while the performance of the running game in the playoffs had more to do with simply not having the players, he really didn't even try to establish one, either.

This has to change.  No amount of new blood infused into the backfield is going to fix the offense when the person calling the shots isn't going to use them, and we've also shown that the players that the Patriots already have are effective enough, if given that opportunity.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Brissett Perfect Fit For Patriots' Conceptual Offensive Scheme

"The staple of the Erhardt-Perkins offense is employing a quarterback whose best attribute is intelligence.  Brady has shown that you don't have to be an elite athlete to make the offense work, you just have to know the offense inside and out, know where everybody is on both sides of the line of scrimmage and to be able to deliver precision strikes in the intermediate passing game, allowing the receivers to work down the field after the catch. 
Brady does that better than anyone who ever played the game, so it's patently unfair to expect the same out of a second year man who has more nick-names than career passing attempts - but why wouldn't we expect Garoppolo to come in and show the same kind of efficiency that he showed in college and in his brief appearances in the NFL?" - Foxborough Free Press, May 13, 2015
Nearly a full calendar year has passed since we first entertained the thought of Jimmy Garoppolo under center, leading the New England Patriots through the first quarter of their season - and now, thanks to a 2-1 decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, we find ourselves pondering the same thing once again.

Last Monday, the court reinstated Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady's four-game suspension handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for his alleged involvement in whatever the sad and wrong "DeflateGate" saga is all about, with the panel of judges simultaneously confirming that the powers awarded him in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations are indeed universal, his decisions unilateral and, indeed, unfortunate.

Such power eventually leads to revolt and change, but it isn't going to happen soon enough to save Brady from having to serve the suspension.

Third-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo will take center stage for New England while Brady is out, but being void of a semblance of a body of work, we don't really know what to expect from the guy when the Sunday night lights flicker to life in Arizona against the Cardinals when the season begins - but there seems to be two schools of thought among fans and experts alike.

For the milk drinkers, the thought is that Garoppolo will be used as more of a game manager, not unlike what Matt Cassell experienced initially in 2008 when Brady tore his ACL - only this time Brady will be coming back, so we may not see a true body of work from him...

...but the whiskey crowd wants to see the young fire-pisser jump in feet first from the very first possession, staking a claim as a legitimate professional quarterback.

The latter scenario seems to be the one gaining steam, as a decent performance by Garoppolo nets the coaching staff and Patriots' fans a little more solace in moving on from Brady in a few years - either that or it gives defacto General Manager Bill Belichick a solid gold trade chip moving into Jimmy's contract season.

Either way, Garoppolo is auditioning for something, which is a win in Belichick's book, and hopefully four wins on the scoreboard.

In the wake of Belichick selecting North Carolina State quarterback Jacoby Brissett in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft, it's looking more like Garoppolo is auditioning to be a very valuable bargaining chip in the 2017 offseason, which is just about protocol for the Patriots with their quarterback depth, as they tend to select an understudy to Brady every three drafts.

Indeed, since Brady took over at quarterback a couple of games into the 2001 season, and former starter Drew Bledsoe was shipped off to Buffalo the following offseason, Belichick has selected a quarterback in the draft with regularity. In 2002 it was Rohan Davey, followed by Kliff Kingsbury the following season,..

Matt Cassel in 2005, Kevin O'Connell in 2008, Ryan Mallett in 2011 and Garoppolo in 2014 - none of whom besides Garoppolo was ever seriously considered anything more than a clipboard, though Cassel made a big enough splash taking over for an injured Brady in 2008 to earn himself a career in the NFL.

The only other signal caller who made any sort of mark in the league was Brian Hoyer who was signed as an undrafted free agent by Belichick in 2009, serving as Brady's primary backup for three seasons before being released in favor of Mallett, gaining spot starts in Arizona, Cleveland and Houston in the seasons since.

In every instance, Brady's backup became fodder for fans and media as trade bait, with Cassel going to the Chiefs for the 34th overall pick in the 2009 draft - which the Patriots used on safety Patrick Chung - and then Mallett was dealt to the Houston Texans for a late-round selection in 2014,, being replaced as the clipboard holder to Brady by Garoppolo.

Now, Garoppolo is the subject of much of the same banter in the wake of Belichick spending 3rd round draft capital on Brissett, who was initially projected as a late-round prospect.

On paper, the gap between the two seems to be enormous, with Jimmy G. a far more polished pro-style quarterback than Brissett, though the rookie out of North Carolina State has some pretty heavy names as character and professional references in former Patriots' coaches Bill Parcells and Charlie Weis, who both think the kid is going to be a star.

But not yet.  He has some bad habits that he picked up from some brutal beatings he took in college - throwing off of his back foot being the worst - while Garoppolo exhibits pristine foot work and a solid pocket presence.

Brissett has sloth-like "speed" on the run and has a tendency to vacate the pocket due to phantom pressure, but is elusive in a Brady-like manner and has an absolute rocket launcher for an arm - which doesn't translate to a successful deep ball, more often than not overthrowing his receivers by a wide margin on vertical routes if pulling out the heavy artillery...

...all of which makes Brissett sound more and more like a young Brady in a physical sense
, though it remains to be seen if the kid has the cool and calm that the Greatest of All Time has under pressure, which is something that comes with experience and not necessarily something that can be taught.

All of that said, what can we expect to see in the next twelve months with the Patriots' quarterback situation?

Certainly, Garoppolo's audition is going to go a long ways in answering that question - but make no mistake, Garoppolo has all of the tools to be successful.  Cerebral, he understands the nuances of the Erhardt-Perkins scheme and recognizes coverages well enough to put his receivers in position to gain a mismatch. He is much more physically gifted than Brady and moves well in the pocket to avoid contact, though he is light years behind the greatest of all time in feel for the pressure and instincts.

He has small hands, but a snap release unseen since Dan Marino retired, and an NFL Caliber arm that he sometimes has a little too much confidence in, as he will try to "Brady" a ball, fitting it into a tight window surrounded by bad guys - Brady has an absolute laser in the intermediate set so long as he has the pocket to step into his throws...

...while Garoppolo has a compact wrister that looks effortless but gets to the receiver in a hurry and Brissett has a full overhead motion that generates a lot of heat, but also puts great touch on bucket drops, which he has to do in order to complete the long toss.  Like Brady, you give this kid a clean pocket and room to step up, he will pick defenses apart in the short to intermediate zones and loft home run balls over the top.

He obviously has much to learn about the professional game and, in particular, the Erhardt-Perkins offense and it's conceptual base, but he couldn't have landed in a better spot to do just that.  At least for this season, he will be able to sit and learn from the masterful Brady and maybe pick up a few pointers on footwork from Garoppolo as well.

Things will probably be drastically different at this time next year, as Garoppolo may well translate into a high draft pick for the Patriots, but that essentially depends on Brissett, and whether he has the brains and the brawn to handle Belichick's complicated concepts.

But if Parcells and Weis have given the young man their seal of approval already, and with Belichick and his staff thinking highly enough of him to spend top draft capital to bring him aboard, the Brady-esque 21 year old will probably become Brady's understudy and, perhaps, eventual successor.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Napoleon Complex" Drives Feisty Corner Jones

New England Patriots players usually aren't what one would call "Flamboyant", or even talkative - at least not in public, and especially not on social media sites. About as wild as any Patriots' players get is when Rob Gronkowski posts party pics on twitter, or when Brady goes full SpongeBob on Instagram, or on the rare occasions that head ball coach Bill Belichick posts a video on "Snapface."

Anything more is frowned upon, so many Patriots' players either rarely post on their accounts, or just don't bother having one. It's much better than being called onto the carpet for having an innocent remark turn into fodder for the motivation of their opponents.
Jones' on-field attitude on full display

So then, why would Belichick spend his top draft capital in a college cornerback whose presence in Twitter is just as large and looming as his wingspan on the field?

Typical of Belichick corners, Alabama's Cyrus Jones is a press corner who is exceptional in run support and will try to physically manhandle receivers coming off the snap, getting full value out of the five yard mugging zone in an attempt to intimidate the pass catcher and take him out of his game - the bigger the receiver, the more physical the diminutive Jones becomes.

You see, Jones displays all of the classic symptoms of "Napoleon Complex" or, "Little Man's Disease" as it were: Overly aggressive, verbose, loquacious, smart as a whip, and did I mention physical?  All of which several of Jones' Crimson Tide teammates can attest to, even to the point of raising the ire of head coach Nick Saban.

"He told us not to and he still did it" fellow corner Maurice Smith testified to recently when Saban told his team not to retaliate on social media for comments being made by upcoming playoff opponent Ohio State. "I knew that he would because that's the type of person that he is. He backs it up on the field."

"He's a little hot head."

Belichick will have to make extra sure that Jones understands the team policy regarding propaganda, and perhaps try to reign him in off of the sites altogether,because he can be just as combative on Twitter with people whom he feels disrespects him or his teammates as he is in mixing it up with receivers.

There is no lack of confidence in Jones' game, but there is a lack of height, which hurt him outside of the numbers early in his college career until he learned to use the sideline as a second defender and his incredibly long arms as his leverage - an aggressive challenger to force his mirror to make the spectacular catch, either over his head or tap-dancing on the chalk.

But first, they have to beat him off the snap which, if his college tape is any indication, is like trying to climb out of a mosh pit full of anger-crazed punks who are bent of keeping people in the pit, so that they can distribute proper beatings.

In other words, he frustrates receivers. It's kind of his calling card.

Many have Jones pigeon-holed as a slot corner in the NFL, and lord knows he has the makings of a fine one - but to not consider him for the outside is limiting the full expression of his skill set, as his exceptionally long arms, fundamentally sound technique and a vicious streak a mile wide could have quite an impact on vertical threats and slot receivers alike.

Generously listed as 5' 10 and a svelt 198 pounds, Jones had plenty of takers among opposing quarterbacks tested him with taller receivers - but as time wore on, those opposing players learned what coach Saban and his Alabama teammates already knew. "It's not like all of a sudden he became a good player" Saban said of Jones before last season's National Championship Game, "He's always been a good player for us."

Saban also has successfully used Jones as a punt returner, watching him shred opposing kick coverage to the tune of 12.6 yards per touch and four touchdowns, but it is his skill as a cornerback that has his coach and teammates raving.

"I really can't remember many balls Cyrus has given up this time of year." said Marlon Humphries, Jones' mirror on the weak side of the defense, "Most of the time, the shots were thrown at me that were completed. I know he's a great corner but sometimes he gets overlooked because of his size."

Smith expounded on Humphries' statement, adding, "They (the quarterbacks) look at him like, 'Ok, I'm going to throw on him', and then he turns around and gets a pick - then that side of the field is shut down the rest of the game.

Shut down? Those are words that were not often heard around Foxborough until names like Revis came and went and names like Butler appreared on the scene from practically nowhere, so Jones will have to understand that it's going to take the fine folks of New England a little time and a full body of work to come around to the thought that a rookie they've never heard of could provide such things...

...but it shouldn't take too long for opposing receivers and quarterbacks to understand why Belichick taking a virtual unknown was sheer genius, especially considering the success that Pro Bowl corner Malcolm Butler has enjoyed - as they will find out when they have corners on both sides beating up their skill players.

There are some who feel that Jones' physical style will draw plenty of holding and illegal contact flags on the tightly-called professional level, and that may be true - but once he works through the nuances of the professional game, it will be the receivers drawing the flags for such things as offensive pass interference and unsportsman like conduct, because that's what happens when a feisty corner with a huge chip on his shoulder gets under their skin.

Just don't look for him to be boasting about it on Twitter any longer.  Belichick prefers that his players do their talking with their skill on the gridiron - and Jones does that, too.