Friday, December 29, 2017

Harrison In New England To Intimidate On The Edge - Nothing More, Nothing Less

There is a curious phenomenon that occurs in the sports fan when their team loses a favored player to another team, and it's symptoms lie along the lines of the jilted lover syndrome - only in the case of linebacker James Harrison and the fans of his former employers, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the syndrome cuts both ways...

The Steelers released Harrison from his contract on Saturday afternoon, he cleared waivers on Sunday and then signed with New England on Tuesday, in a natural progression of the waivers process - especially at this point of the season with just one regular season game remaining, with the only teams a 39-year-old outside linebacker could possibly help busy building their vacation itineraries.

Despite this, he allegedly had other suitors - per Harrison himself - but he chose to change his business address to Foxborough.

Why? Only Harrison knows for certain - but we can guess, and the first thing that comes to mind is that Harrison has always been a hyper-competitive person with a mean streak a mile-wide. That said, he spoke of the Patriots in less than glowing terms throughout his career, consistently labeling them as cheaters, claiming that they knew Pittsburgh's defensive signals in the 2004 AFC Championship Game and, as a result, denied him a trophy...

...more recently climbing aboard the so-called DeflateGate bandwagon, claiming via Twitter that he was"gonna show TB what deflated balls are all about" before their week one matchup in 2015 - and trolling Belichick saying that it would be "tough to win a Super Bowl without knowing the other team's plays" after the Patriots lost to Denver in the 2013 AFC Championship Game.

But all of that apparently goes out the window when the team he'd been loyal to since making their 53-man roster in 2004 (after a stint with the Rhein Fire of the World League as a loaner from the Baltimore Ravens) lied to him about playing time, then unceremoniously dumped him with one game left this season, giving the entire situation the feel of a jilted lover seeking revenge.

It's no secret that the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room is a soap opera more suited for daytime television, as coach Mike Tomlin's grip on his players is notoriously loose-fisted, as they regularly throw each other under the bus, so to hear them trash Harrison was to be expected - but in doing so they made Harrison look like the victim and Tomlin look like a modern-day Snidley Whiplash.

A common theme coming out of the Steelers' camp is that Harrison went to the Steelers' coaching staff three separate times and asked for his release, citing lack of playing time, and was rebuffed three separate times, being told that they had a role for him on the team and to just stay ready. But when that role continued to include being given "lip sevice" and riding the pine anyway, Harrison approached Steelers' head coach Mike Tomlin a fourth time.

"I'd have to be absolutely crazy to release you if something happened with injuries" Harrison quoted Tomlin in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, recanting a conversation that took place immediately after the Steelers' loss to the Patriots in Week 15, a game in which Harrison had no role.

Apparently, Tomlin changed his mind and released Harrison in a roster spot swap, giving offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was coming off suspension, the vacated roster spot.  What went into Tomlin's decision to tweak his roster as he did is inconsequential, however, and anything said here would be nothing more than weak speculation.

Many on the team and even more of the Pittsburgh fan base are painting Harrison as the bad guy in this scenario, but the information as it has been presented tells a different story.

Both center Maurkice Pouncey and linebacker Bud Dupree have been very vocal about Harrison's departure, with Pouncey going so far as to claim that Harrison has "Erased his legacy" with the Steelers, and the majority of fan comments on various sites calling Harrison a traitor - but it's also true that both Pouncey and Dupree confirmed that Harrison had asked for his release several times throughout the season.

And the one thing that no one can deny is that the timing by Tomlin is curious at best, and disastrous at worst since Harrison has signed on in a place that sincerely needs what he brings to the field as a pass rusher and edge setter, which brings up two very important points: First, with all of the noise coming out of the Steelers' locker room, it is clear that Tomlin still doesn't have control of his team, and if he does, he is incredibly childish for allowing his players to backbite Harrison...

...and second, had Harrison signed with anyone except the Patriots, this wouldn't even be a story.

But since he did sign with New England, and since it is a story, the question begs: What does Harrison bring to the Patriots' defense? Harrison doesn't seem the mentoring type, and that's not what he is in Foxborough for - instead, Harrison is one of those rare athletes who takes his fitness and workout routines to the extreme, perhaps in response to being shunned by the NFL coming out of Kent State.

This after teaming up with his Mother to pay his way through college because his track record in high school told a story of an elite athlete with a quick temper and a sadistic approach to football - playing to inflict pain and humiliation upon others as a result of continually being slighted for his short frame (barely six feet tall) and skin color (he was one of the first black student athletes at his high school), he was suspended twice for retaliating to racial taunts during road games.

Routinely, Harrison would approach the opposing team during warm ups before games and stare them down - then when he had their full attention, he told them matter-of-factly that they were going to die that day, such is the manner in which he intimidates his foes.

A poor academic record combined with the suspensions found Harrison with no scholarship offers and few universities willing to accept him as a student, so he walked on at Kent State which was close enough to home for his mother to keep tabs on him, and when she received the poor grades for his freshman year she came to the school looking to take him home, saying that she wasn't paying for him to flunk out of school.

But he promised her that he would do better and with the help of head coach Dean Pees, whom Patriots fans will remember as their defensive coordinator a decade ago, he made the Dean's list and finished school only to be snubbed during the 2002 NFL draft, but being invited to the Pittsburgh Steelers' training camp.

Cut and resigned to the practice squad three times in two season, Harrison accepted an invitation from the Baltimore Ravens to travel to Germany and play for the Rhein Fire of the now-defunct World League, but hated Germany so much that the Ravens eventually cut him and he ended up back with Pittsburgh where he toiled in anonymity until Joey Porter retired and Harrison seized the opportunity to fill his spot.

The rest is history - or his legacy.

As mean-tempered and intimidating as he is on the field, he can be just as mild-mannered off of it. He dotes on his son, makes regular visits to children's hospitals on his own, and is generous to the schools that gave him the opportunity to play, making several large donations to each.

But the one thing about Harrison that takes people aback is that he decompresses after long days at the office by watching hours of cartoons in the evenings.

"I think he's in such a violent, violent scenario, that it gives him peace." said former Coventry High School offensive coordinator Gary Hutt, who befriended the young Harrison around the turn of the century, adding, "That's his place to get away from it all. I'm not kidding you, he'll sit there and watch cartoons for hours. He's a teddy bear."

Not many people would describe Harrison as a teddy bear, though he certainly has a softer, caring side. But that's not why the Patriots picked him up off the scrap heap earlier this week. No, they brought him in to add a level of intimidation and aggressiveness to a defense that really doesn't scare anyone, though their brand of the bend-but-don't-break philosophy has worked well for them so far this season.

New England gives up a ton of yards to opposing offenses, and can't set the edge in the running and screen games to save their lives - but they don't allow a lot of points, which means that they clamp down on opposing offenses in the red zone where the field shrinks and the Patriots' big nickel alignment allows them to be more aggressive on the edges and in their pass rush.

What Harrison has come in for is to help between the twenties - to help set a solid edge and not allow rushers to get outside, and also to provide spot duty as a pass rusher. He's fresh for sure, having only played 40 total snaps in five games this season, so asking the 39 year old to wreak havoc on the edge for 15 to 20 plays per game isn't asking a hell of a lot...

...especially given that New England has one regular season game remaining, then has two weeks off before starting their post-season, then, maybe, another couple of weeks off between championship Sunday and the Super Bowl, where Harrison will be seeking his third ring.

That's a lot of time off to rest his weary old bones, time off to spend with his son, to continue his legendary sunrise workouts and to dig on some cartoons - and to let the events of the past year build up a substantial amount of anger, because Patriots' fans don't want to see his teddy bear side, they want to see the violent and unremorseful villain side of Harrison...

...only, they want to see him dish it out on opponents instead of on their team - and if they get to play the Steelers in the AFC Championship game, they want to see him take it all out on them. He won't need to stare them down during pregame warmups, nor tell them that they are going to die that day.

The Steelers already know what's coming, which makes Tomlin's decision to release Harrison when he did even more curious.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Game Plan, Play Calling come Into Question Following Patriots' Ugly Loss To Dolphins

As the saying goes, one bad apple doesn't spoil the whole bunch, but if one were to pluck the New England Patriots' Monday night bad apple from their season's tree, they would have immediately tossed it into the slop bucket.

No need to slice it open, because this one was marred with bruises and pock-marked with ugly worm holes.
Brady throwing gingerly off his back foot

For sure, the Patriots' 27-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins before a stunned National Television audience was enough to cause the team's many detractors to sing with glee their song of the Patriots' demise - but just like in the bad apple analogy, one bad game doesn't spoil their whole season.

It was ugly, make no mistake about that, and Patriots' fans everywhere are either desperately searching for reasons or excuses why their offense managed just 248 yards of total offense, or simply channeling their inner-Bill Belichick and muttering "We're on to Pittsburgh" - while Dolphins' fans are beating their chests and running amok in a frenzy, bellowing at the top of their lungs and spitting beer on tourists.

Because at 6-7, this game is probably going to be the highlight of their season - the Dolphins' Super Bowl, you might say - and anytime you can beat the defending champs so thoroughly and dominate them in every facet of the game, no one is going to blame you for whooping it up afterwards.

But while the Dolphins and their fans will have to settle for the elation of beating New England to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, the Patriots have much loftier thoughts, such as their upcoming heavyweight matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday which suddenly presents ominous consequences for them should they fall in the Steel City.

It was roundly expected that New England and Pittsburgh would meet at Heinz Field with identical 11-2 records in what was being billed as a winner-take-all fight for the top seed in the American Football Conference playoffs - but instead the Patriots limp into the contest at 10-3, and even though a win over the Steelers would again cause a tie atop the conference and a significant tie-breaker for New England, there is suddenly another team to be concerned about.

The Jacksonville Jaguars have suddenly emerged as a legitimate threat to break into the top two teams in the AFC with a record of 9-4 and a much easier schedule than either the Patriots or Steelers.

A loss by either team would put the Jags squarely in contention for one of the top two seeds, along with the resultant first round playoff bye and homefield advantage in the divisional round and perhaps beyond. A Patriots' loss to Pittsburgh and a Jacksonville win over Houston would give the Jaguars possession of the second seed in the conference, based on a better conference record (9-2 vs 7-3)...

...while a loss by the Steelers would put the Jaguars right on their doorstep with an identical conference record, but with Pittsburgh holding a razor-thin edge in the strength of victory tie-breaker, but with a proverbial cupcake schedule (at Houston, vs. Cleveland).

So, any way you slice it, the Patriots loss at Miami was rotten to the core and could have a tremendous impact on their season yield, particularly if quarterback Tom Brady's putrid performance was based more on health than on missing his main target in the passing game in tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Granted, without having to account for Gronkowski, the Dolphins' defenders were able to concentrate on manning-up against Brady's slim receiver depth chart and were able to take wide outs Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan completely out of the game on precision coverages by Xavien Howard and Bobby McCain, who both had capable safety help over the top since neither had to worry about Gronkowski...

...while linebackers Kiko Alonzo and Alterraun Verner focused on limiting the Patriots' fine stable of running backs - the result of which was an abysmal 24 of 43 performance by the obviously laterally-limited Brady for just 233 yards and two interceptions - both by Howard covering Cooks - and just one score, a three-yard out-flat to running back James White.

Obviously, those numbers are season-lows from Brady, but what really hurt the offensive effort was the lack of a ground game, as offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called just ten running plays all game, resulting in only 25 yards, both season-lows.

Defensively, the Patriots struggled against the Dolphins' game plan, which was as vanilla and mundane as one could expect - yet given the losses to injury coupled with sheer exhaustion due to New England's offense's inability to sustain drives to give the defense their proper rest, it was as effective as anyone's.

Miami's full complement of speedy wide receivers and tight end Julius Thomas kept New England's secondary on their toes all night, leaving the decimated linebacking corps to deal with running back Kenyan Drake - who ran around the Patriots' defensive front and made the likes of interior run-stuffers Elandon Roberts and Jonathan Freeney have to chase Drake sideline to sideline...

...and in the passing game splitting Drake out wide and isolated on Roberts, who was like a stick in the mud against the speed of the the second year breakout candidate - and the results were predictable.

Touching the ball 30 times, Drake ran for 114 yards on 25 carries, but did most of his damage in the passing game, picking up 79 yards in just five receptions. Key weapon Jarvis Landry came in second to Drake totaling just 46 yards, but scoring two of Miami's three touchdowns.

In contrast, no Patriots' pass catcher topped 50 yards with the exception of Danny Amendola, who along with Cooks, padded his stats against Miami's two-deep zone once the Dolphins figured they had the game in hand.

But perhaps the worst slice of apple to come out of this debacle was the health status of Brady, who was beaten like he stole something - which wasn't entirely the fault of the offensive line, but more a combination of excellent coverage down the field by the Dolphins and Brady's gimpiness in the pocket, not sliding around and buying time like he normally does...

...and when he did release a ball, doing so almost chopping down on his front foot instead of stepping into his throws, causing many balls to drop sharply towards the turf and landing at the feet of his receivers. This was perhaps a combination of many factors, perhaps including a sore right Achilles tendon, which seemed to affect his ability to plant and step up, the physics of which suggest he would drive the ball into the turf short of his target.

If that is the case, then that could be what was responsible for both of his interceptions by Howard - not to mention that Howard was all over Cooks in a fantastic display of coverage skill - but it would also explain how even his trademark accuracy on intermediate an long throws  was replaced by short ducks that left his receivers with no chance.

But what hurt the Patriots the most was the fact that McDaniels abandoned the option of running the ball for the most part, and completely ignored it in the second half, even in situations where running the ball made the most sense - case in point being on a first-and-goal at the Miami one-yard line with a minute and a half remaining in a 10-point game, throwing three straight times and suffering two penalties which not only burned time off the clock, but forced them to settle for a field goal.

Not to mention that once the Patriots got some offensive momentum early in the fourth quarter and a comeback appeared to be tangible, Brady dropped back to throw on 21 consecutive plays over five fourth quarter possessions, when his exhausted defense dug deep and gave the ball back to the offense time and again.

All said and done, this loss lies on the coaching staff, who appeared to come into the game with a game plan custom-suited to play right into the strength of the Dolphins, then topped it off with questionable decisions in the play-calling area - particularly on offense.

Belichick has long said that players win games but coaches lose them - and on this particular night, his game plan had most everything to do with losing the game.

And now that his team has been backed into a corner and must have a win against Pittsburgh on Sunday, we will get to see if Monday night was just a fluke and an error in judgment, or if the Patriots lack the intestinal fortitude to go into a hostile environment and take what they want.

If they don't, they may find themselves on the outside looking in at Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, and hosting a wildcard game instead of getting that all-important late-season rest on a bye week.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Running Game, Defense Dominate In Patriots' Punking Of Buffalo

The Buffalo Bills came into their week thirteen contest against the New England Patriots averaging four yards per carry on offense, and giving up 4.1 yards per carry on defense, while the Patriots came in averaging that same 4.1 yards per carry but yielding an NFL worst 4.9 yards per run...

...obviously, both teams expected to be able to run the ball and both expected to give up some runs on defense - and both teams did just that.

The difference between winning and losing fell on the shoulders of each team's quarterback play - and when Tom Brady is in that mix, one can pretty much guess how Sunday's matchup at New Era Field turned out for both sides, everything else being equal.

Dion Lewis ran for 92 yards on fifteen carries and Rex Burkhead chipped in 78 yards on 12 carries to pace the New England's ground attack while Shady McCoy ground out 93 yards on 15 carries and three Bills' quarterbacks logged another 68 yards on seven scrambles to counter the Patriots' runners...

...but after a slow start, Brady put up 258 yards on 22 completions - nine going to tight end Rob Gronkowski for 147 yards - as the Patriots pulled away from Buffalo in the second half for their eighth straight victory, a 23-3 final score leaving the Bills teetering on the edge of playoff relevancy and pushing New England closer to an inevitable division title.

Overall, the Patriots totaled 191 yards on 35 carries while the Bills backs romped for 183 yards on 26 carries - a virtual wash which left the game in the hands of Brady and Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor, which just isn't fair.

Taylor has perhaps the worst pass catching corps in the National Football League, which helps explain his 9 for 18 performance for just 65 yards - and even a quarterback change in the fourth quarter didn't help, as rookie Nathan Peterman fared even worse, going 6 for 15 for 50 yards, but leading a late drive that nearly resulted in points, were it not for former Bills' cornerback Stephon Gilmore putting in his best performance as a Patriot...

...perfectly playing the ball on three Peterman passes, two of which were lofts into the end zone that Gilmore knocked harmlessly to the ground. How bad was it for Buffalo's maligned pass catching corps? Their leading receiver on the day was rookie Zay Jones, who caught just two of seven targets, for a miserable 22 yards.

Brady, on the other hand, has one of the best stables of pass catchers in the league, even with wide receivers Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan on the shelf - but he had a tough time connecting with them on Sunday as Buffalo's two-deep zone proved to be a brick wall outside the numbers during the first half of the game, holding the sure first-ballot Hall of Famer to just eight of fourteen for 98 yards.

But the Patriots rectified that by going to Gronkowski, who came out of the room at halftime like a lobsterman off the Calendar Islands, snaring passes from Brady for fifty of the Patriots seventy yards on New England's first touchdown drive, which would have been even more had he not been called for a sketchy offensive pass interference early in the drive.

Burkhead finished off that drive with a short power shot to give New England a two-score lead, then got loose on the second level for a 14 yard score on the next possession, set up by a Gronkowski 30-yard 50-50 jump ball over Buffalo's TreDavious White on a play that epitomized the massive man-child's athletic superiority over any defender he squares off against...

...and which may have precipitated an ugly incident at the end of the game where White was grappling with Gronkowski in the pattern, then gave him a shove as the ball was in the air, intercepting the ball with ease - but then had his bell rung on a cheap shot by a frustrated Gronkowski who gave White his own rendition of a WWE-style elbow to his head while he was prone on the sidelines.

The incident left a black stain on what was otherwise an outstanding half of football for Gronkowski and has resulted in a one-game suspension, but it may bring into focus the constant mugging that Gronkowski has to endure from defensive backs and linebackers, which could ultimately change the way that referees officiate and give him a little more latitude in the pattern.

Then again, maybe not, but the fact remains that Gronkowski's momentary lack of discipline stemmed from the frustration of having to fight off defenders just to get his hands on the football. "I felt like he pushed me and made the play, I just didn't understand why there wasn't a flag." Gronkowski said after the game, adding, "it was a couple of times in the game, and they're calling me for the craziest stuff ever. And it's crazy, like, what am I supposed to do?"

Well, the first thing he needs to do is meet with the league commissioner on Tuesday morning to appeal his one-game suspension handed down by the NFL on Monday afternoon, and plead his case.

His frustration is understandable, if not tolerated, and it makes one wonder if there are different rules for different players - but don't say that to the Patriots' defenders, who had a banner day covering Buffalo's receivers and, with sack yardage deducted, held the Bills' passing game to a putrid 89 net yards...

...all while holding their eighth consecutive opponent to less than 17 points, the lone field goal surrendered dropping their points per game average during their winning streak to 11.8 and elevates them to a top ten scoring defense at the same time.

Not bad for a defense that started the year being pummeled in their first four games to the tune of 32 points per game, which has now dropped to a season-low mark of 18.5.

Stephon Gilmore earned high praise for his coverage, allowing just two catches over six targets and notching tow passes defended - but he wasn't alone in the encouraging play as combined with Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones, the Bills' quarterbacks were 6 of 17 for 56 yards and a dismal passer rating of 54.2...

...while New England's pass rushers abused the Bills' offensive line, getting to Taylor for four sacks, former Buffalo practice squader Eric Lee in on the action for a sack-and-a-half , logged four tackles and picked off Taylor in the red zone to squelch an early Bills' scoring opportunity - and to add insult to injury, former Buffalo defensive tackle Alan Branch drove his mirror into Taylor as he released that ball, leading to the errant throw that Lee gathered in.

Ah, teamwork. Bill Belichick calls it complementary football, and combined with another instance of excellent special teams play, the Patriots are nearing their pinnacle of execution for the season - meaning that what we see now is what we get for the remainder of the season.

And with the running game dominating, opening up the play action for the passing game and the defense playing out of their minds, this 2017 version of the New England Patriots look like they are primed for yet another deep run in the postseason - and they can wrap up a ninth consecutive division title - and their 15th out of 17 with Brady at the helm - with a win at Miami next Monday night...

Friday, December 1, 2017

Dion Lewis Is Football's Version of Hockey's "Little Ball Of Hate"

Dion Lewis runs angry.

How else to you describe how a running back with the stature of a standard garden gnome averages over five yards per carry against some of the most ferocious front sevens in professional football, and especially when most of his carries go right into the teeth of the defense?

At 5' 8" tall (which may be a generous altitude) and 195 pounds, Lewis may be small in stature, but is hardly as fragile as the aforementioned garden gnome - his injury history has all been non-contact - as he possesses a powerfully built lower body which aids him in breaking arm tackles, as evidenced by his performance against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, when he ran right through the tall trees a season-high fifteen times for a career-high 112 yards.

Used sparingly in the first four games of the season while the Patriots gave newcomer Mike Gillislee every opportunity to take the lead back role for himself, Lewis has effectively supplanted the power runner from Buffalo, his video-game like elusiveness combined with powerful getaway sticks providing New England with 5.1 yards per carry in the past seven games as their lead back.

But his success goes beyond simple statistics.

The folks at Football Outsiders provide an insanely complicated formula for expressing the value of a running back to their team called Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) that tells tale of what would happen to a team's carries and rushing yards should the player be absent, however that occurs - not from how his replacement would fare, but how the league average for replacement players hold up against the absent running back.

Madness, all of it, but it paints a picture that may shock football fans as Lewis is rated as the fourth-best "lead back" in the National Football League - trailing only the Saints' Mark Ingram, the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and Chicago's Jordan Howard - as it is estimated that for the season, the Patriots would have lost nearly 15% of their ground yardage without Lewis.

That's some rarefied air, but it gets better.

The same folks that provide the formula for DYAR also generate a formula to measure the effectiveness of a back based on several variables - like success rate in the red zone, down and distance and quality of opponent - that they call Defensive-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), again the average being the average of all NFL running backs...

...of which Lewis rates an astounding 29.5% above all of his peers, with Ingram and Tennessee's Derrick Henry coming in second and third, respectively, lagging more that ten percentage points behind.

So, what is behind these statistics that label Lewis the best runner in the game? Patriots' safety Devin McCourty thinks he knows. "Man, it's tough." McCourty exclaimed when asked how challenging it is to face Lewis in practices, "We try to get as many players as we can around him, but he runs with such confidence and and runs with anger."

"It's football, you know?" Lewis said of what provocates his attitude when running the ball. "Football is an emotional game. It's a physical game. You put your all into this, so of course you're going to get some chippiness, but it's part of the game."

Kind of sounds like hockey player there, doesn't he? And with his stature married with his anger, Lewis could be considered football's version of a "Little Ball of Hate" - and he's in the right area to carry that moniker, as the Boston Bruins' Brad Marchand carries that title on the ice.

So Lewis doesn't deny that he runs with anger, but that is to be expected from a guy who has always been the shortest guy on the team no matter where he's been, be it at Pitt in college or in Philadelphia, Cleveland or Foxborough in the pros - so he can be excused for letting a thing called the Napoleon Syndrome emote while carrying the football. Or blocking in pass protection. Or in the pattern, or even in the return game...

...there is no limit to how far a chip on the shoulder can take a guy, so long as he is disciplined in how he uses it and projects it. "My job is to protect the ball and to make plays" Lewis says, bypassing the self-promotion that one might hear elsewhere, adding, "That's my job in the offense and it's what I try to do every game. Just protect the ball and try to make plays when I get the opportunity."

And his opportunities have increased incrementally with each game during the Patriots seven-game winning streak, but is still only averaging 13 carries per game in that time period - the rest going to Rex Burkhead who, because of injury, doesn't have enough carries to qualify for the list - with passing back James White thrown into the mix every now and then.

But it is Lewis that makes the running game go, which makes the play action work, which helps keep quarterback Tom Brady upright, which gives the pass catchers time to break into their routes, which...well, you get the picture.

"It's a part of the running game to help us out with play action" gushed a naturally upbeat tight end Rob Gronkowksi after the win over Miami, "When you get open like that, it's set up previously. We were running the ball super good today."

The Patriots are a pass-first team - and why not, with Brady calling the shots? But Lewis and the other backs provide the type of balance that Brady needs to force the defense to defend the entire field - and when they are forced to do that, someone is going to be open or someone is going to have a running lane...

...but even if the lane is not there, Lewis can make his own, as his absurd 4.47 yards per carry after contact will attest, ranking him first in the NFL by a considerable margin.

But, what else would you expect from a guy who is football's version of the Little Ball of Hate?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Brady Playing His Best Ball As A Quadragenarian, But He's Not Doing It All By Himself

Clearly, Tom Brady has escorted all of us in to the surreal.

The New England Patriots' quarterback continued his Old Geezer Tour by not only throwing for four touchdowns, nor just leading his team to their seventh-straight victory, but is doing so playing perhaps the best football of his career, delivering a standard-brand, workman-like thrashing of his old rival Miami Dolphins on Sunday afternoon... fact, the 35-17 victory at Gillette Stadium was unremarkable with the exception of the fact that for the first time in Brady's 17 seasons at the helm, the Patriots' offense is truly balanced - but not balanced in the way that one would logically expect, because in New England, balance on offense means something different than it does elsewhere.

Traditionally, balance on offense in football is measured by the difference between running plays and passing plays, and in that respect, the New England Patriots could be considered anything but balanced, as they are decidedly pass heavy - but to understand the Patriot Way as it refers to roster building and game planning, all one has to do is look at the way Brady and his cohorts undressed the Dolphins' defense.

The Patriots ran sixty-six plays on offense against Miami, totaling 423 yards of offensive production - with the backs accounting for 33 carries and six targets in the passing game, ending the day with sixty percent of the total touches and 181 yards between them, accounting for 43% of New England's total offense and two touchdowns...

...receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Rob Gronkowski accounting the majority of the rest along with three of the scores - Gronkowski hauling in two short scoring passes in the left flat and Cooks taking a shuffle pass that looked more like a jet sweep and following the massive man-child into the end zone - not bad considering that names such as Edelman and, more recently, Hogan have been on the shelf.

And, why not? After all, the Patriots' offense is lead by the greatest quarterback that ever lived, who is enjoying a supporting cast of pass catchers that buys into the concept-based offense that requires them to run whatever route necessary from whatever position along the line of scrimmage - and that doesn't just apply to wide receivers, as the tight end depth chart and stable of running backs are held to the same standard.

The result is what we've been witnessing since Halloween, and that should be scaring the rest of the National Football League in a way that zombies, vampires and unicorns can't.

The balance that the Patriots are enjoying comes in the form of total touches. This season, the Patriots have run 743 plays on offense, and when breaking those down between designated receivers, tight ends and backs, the numbers confirm the tremendous balance that Brady is succeeding with.

Of those 743 plays, the Patriots' running backs have handled the ball on 412 of those snaps, which is a full 56%. The tight ends have handled the rock 105 times (14%), which leaves a meager 30% of the offensive snaps actually targeting the wide receivers. Of course, the total yardage is skewed as the backs are not going to be picking up yardage at the pace the speedy wideouts are going to...

...but thanks to the efforts of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead, the actual running game is now averaging a potent 4.1 yards per carry, which means that Brady can more forcefully sell the play action, which, in theory, gives him more time in the pocket to go through his progressions without being stomped like a grape.

Which happened against Miami anyway, as Brady took several nasty shots as he was releasing the ball, mostly because the Dolphins' pass rushers took advantage of backups playing at center and at right tackle, but as he dropped back to pass just 28 times - completing eighteen for 227 yards and four scores - they were able to limit the amount of abuse he was subjected to.

Contrarily, the left side of the offensive line has really stepped things up with Nate Solder and Joe Thuney limiting the pressure to Brady's blind side to just two hurries. After missing two weeks with altitude-related flu-like symptoms, regular center David Andrews is due back against Buffalo, leaving only the right tackle spot manned by depth.

And that's important to remember going forward. The quadragenarian is on the cusp on uncharted territory, and his vow to play until he's 45 would be a lot more tangible were he to not take beatings like the one he took on Sunday, even in moderation. That's where the Patriots' adaptation of balance comes into focus.

Brady is playing the best ball of his career in large part to head ball coach Bill Belichick surrounding him with the best, most diverse set of weapons he's had in his career, providing the best balance he's had to work with and behind a line that has taken a while to gel, but has surrendered "only" eleven sacks during the seven-game winning streak - a stark contrast to the 13 they gave up in the first four games of the season.

It also helps if the offense gets off to a fast start and plays with the lead.

During their current seven-game winning streak, the Patriots have scored first in five of those contests - not surprisingly, the ones they didn't pull the early lead in against New York and the Los Angeles Chargers were games that they struggled in - and have not trailed in a game since the Chargers took a seven-point lead on them in the first quarter of a game played a month ago.

Do the math, and you will find that New England has not trailed in a game in what amounts to 225 minutes and counting - which means that the since New England came off of their week nine bye, they have posted three consecutive blowouts, outscoring the Broncos, Raiders and Dolphins by a combined 109-41, and 65-19 in the first half.

Of course, not all of that came from the effort of the offense, as the Patriots' defense has also figured into the balance equation by not only holding teams to just 12 points per game during their winning streak, but in doing so in tandem with superior special teams play that satisfies Belichick's insistence on complementary football.

But that is for another piece at another time.

Right now, we are celebrating the fact that Brady has broken a record that has been held since Warren Moon threw for 25 touchdowns in 1997, and equaled by Brett Favre in 2009, his 26 touchdown passes the most ever thrown by a 40 year old quarterback - a number that is sure to grow since the scoring strikes by Moon and Favre came in full 16-game seasons, while Brady has five games yet to play...

...and while that record is merely an incident of incongruous juxtapositions among a very limited field of athletes, it nevertheless conjures yet another example of why Brady is the greatest quarterback that ever played the game, and has now become the gold standard of passers playing into their forties.

Brady is at the point in his career that he is going to be breaking records virtually every time that he takes a snap from center - lost in all of this, however, is that it takes skill of the players surrounding him to do their jobs and a constant array of individual game-planning to put Brady in position to do all of these wonderful things.

It is a team effort, after all, and football is a team game. There is zero doubt, however, even among his most ardent critics that Brady is the greatest of all time and that the Patriots likely would not have enjoyed their current dynastic run of success were he not under center - so that wisdom cuts both ways.

Let's just say that Brady and his teammates play complementary football, and leave it at that.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Belichick The General Manager Excelled At Building Roster For Belichick The Head Coach

With the release of defensive end Cassius Marsh on Tuesday, a renewed debate has surfaced about the quality of New England Patriots' offseason and early season roster moves.

On one hand you have the glass-half-empty, told ya so crowd that contends, aloud, that Bill Belichick the general manager screwed Bill Belichick the head ball coach by missing badly in free agency, on the trade block and along the waiver wire, while on the other hand you have the glass-half-full crowd gang who feel that Belichick the G.M. set Belichick the H.C. up for late-season success.

Of course, Belichick complained bitterly that he was two-weeks behind every other team in terms of getting a start on the 2017 season, by virtue of that annoying Super Bowl victory over Atlanta, but he made up those couple of weeks quickly when the 2017 league year started, trading a fourth round selection in April's draft to Indianapolis for tight end Dwayne Allen...

...then a first-rounder to New Orleans for that Brandin Cooks guy and a second-rounder to Carolina for defensive end Kony Ealy and the Panthers' third round selection - in between, signing Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore and re-signing centerfielder Duron Harmon to free agent deals.

As busy as he's ever been in free agency, Belichick then turned his sites on Ravens' five-tech Lawrence Guy and Cincinnati runner Rex Burkhead, then resigned a slew of his own free agents including linebacker Dont'a Hightower, running back Brandon Bolden, defensive end Alan Branch and swing tackle Cam Fleming - a week later signing Bills' restricted free agent runner Mike Gillislee.

A couple of weeks later, he filled out his camp roster with a gaggle of undrafted free agents, with defensive tackle Adam Butler, offensive guard Cole Croston, tight end Jacob Hollister and linebacker Harvey Langi eventually making the 53-man roster while wide receiver Cody Hollister, and defensive back David Jones reverting to the practice squad.

Rob Ninkovich retired halfway through camp, sparking a bevy of moves in the linebacker corps, Belichick signing former Jet David Harris, trading a seventh-rounder to the Bengals for Marquis Flowers and a seventh and fifth-rounder to Seattle for Cassius Marsh - also trading a seventh-rounder to Detroit for corner Johnson Bademosi and swapping quarterback Jacoby Brissett for the Colts' wide receiver Phillip Dorsett.

Ealy was released in that flurry of activity, and was picked up by the New York Jets, as he was badly outplayed by fourth-round pick and reportedly developed an attitude, ala Jamie Collins, and quickly felt Belichick's boot as he was shown the door.

The big shocker of the season came at the trade deadline, however, as Belichick dealt off quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers for their 2018 second-round pick, the filled his spot behind starter Tom Brady with former Patriots and well-traveled Brian Hoyer - then brought us up to date by signing defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, putting in a waiver claim on tight end Martellus Bennett and the releasing Marsh and filling his roster spot with Buffalo taxi-squader Eric Lee.

All told, Belichick made nine trades, signed eight veteran free agents, claimed one player off of the waiver wire,  re-signed six of his own free agents and kept eight undrafted free agents - and out of those 31 transactions, 23 are on the active roster, two are on the practice squad, two are on the injured list, and two became future draft picks, meaning that only two players - Ealy and Marsh - have been released.

The rest have contributed to the Patriots' 8-2 record thus far - some more, some less - but it goes without saying that Belichick's track record with personnel as a general manager is far from screwing Belichick the head ball coach - and has, in fact, rounded out the 2018 draft selections as outlined below:

2018 draft picks

1st round
2nd round (from San Francisco for Garoppolo)
3rd round
4th round (projected comp for Jabaal Sheard)
4th round (projected comp for Martellus Bennett)
6th round
7th round
7th round (projected comp for LeGarrette Blount)

The Patriots' original 4th rounder belongs to Philly for the completion of the Eric Rowe trade, who would have cost New England a third rounder had he played 50% of the defensive snaps this season, but who has missed all but three games in 2017 because of injury.

Hell, even with misfortune, Belichick comes out smelling like a rose...

Monday, November 20, 2017

Patriots Ride Opportunistic Defense, Vertical Offense To Hammer Raiders

The New England Patriots are averaging a far and way league-high twenty-five first downs per game, which is testament to their move-the-chains, small-ball philosophy that has helped them win five Super Bowls in the Bill Belichick era.

On Sunday afternoon against the Oakland Raiders, the Patriots offense matched their season average in first downs. In every other way that counts, they were decidedly above average.

Quarterback Tom Brady threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns and the New England defense continued their renaissance tour with another strong outing as the Patriots collectively took the Oakland Raiders behind the woodshed for a nationally televised stomping before a bi-partisan crowd in Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, the 33-8 final score telling the entire story.

Well, almost.

The performance was classic Patriots: Brady shuffling around in the pocket to avoid pressure before finding his third or fourth read, running back Dion Lewis leading the team in touches and breaking ankles, and the defense giving up yard after yard after yard, but always making a play to deny their opponent in the red zone.

In fact, the New England defense solidified their spot among the top scoring defenses in the league, their 12.3 points per game average over the Patriots' six -game winning streak being the best mark in the National Football league over that time, legitimizing an amazing turnaround from the first four games of the season when they were the worst scoring defense in the league...

...while also lending credence to the apparent fact that the offense has rediscovered their scoring touch, topping thirty points for the second week in a row after entering their bye week on a four-game skid in which they averaged just 21 points per game.

Brady and the offense have been next to impossible to stop since the break, following up a win over their arch-nemesis Denver Broncos in which they scored on seven of ten possessions by scoring on seven of nine possessions against the Raiders, balancing their mode of operations between the aforementioned move-the-chains, traditionally methodical scheme and a suddenly potent quick-strike, vertical attack.

Both were on full display against the hapless Raiders' defense on Sunday.

Brady took his time in the leading the Patriots down the field for a touchdown on their first possession of the game, a 15-play, 87-yard job that took up half of the first quarter and sucked the will right out of the Oakland defense, then channeled his inner Daryl Lamonica "mad bomber" mode in connecting with Brandin Cooks for 52 yards to set up a second quarter score...

...following that up with a perfect 64-yard strike to Cooks to start the third quarter, this time the speed merchant easily outrunning double coverage to paydirt, effectively putting the game out of reach with nearly a full half of football left to play.

On the day, Cooks caught six balls for 149 yards and the touchdown for his best statistical day as a Patriot while Lewis handled the heavy lifting, running right into the heart of the Raiders' front seven for six yards a pop while also snagging four balls in the pattern for another twenty-eight.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski even got in on the long-range, high-wire act by nailing a 62-yard field goal as time expired in the first half, breaking his own franchise record of 58 yards, then adding kicks of 51, 40 and 29 to slowly bury the Raiders.

Lewis and receiver Danny Amendola also caught scoring passes from Brady, Lewis taking a ball in the right flat and pirouetting to the inside and juking through heavy traffic for the first score of the game while Amendola got loose at the back of the end zone for the second score of the game.

Conversely, Oakland's Derek Carr suffered through a miserable afternoon of watching his throws bounce off of his receivers like so many pinballs, completing just 28 of his 49 offerings for 237 yards, the fourth straight game in which the Patriots' defense has held the opposing quarterback under 300 passing yards.

The one down side to the defense's day was their continued sieve-like run defense, as Marshawn Lynch rumbled for almost seven-yards per carry before Oakland fell behind by three scores and was forced to abandon the running game and turn to the unpredictable passing game to try and catch up in a hurry - and they did manage to move the ball, but drops, a Duron Harmon interception and a Marquis Flowers forced fumble ended each drive...

...only a sole garbage-time touchdown saving the Raiders from being shutout. In fact, if one were to eliminate the garbage-time scores against the Patriots' defense during the team's six-game winning streak, they would find that New England has yielded just eight points per game with the contest still in doubt.

That, combined with Brady's mastery of the offense has New England sitting pretty at 8-2, tied for the best record in the conference and extending their lead in the AFC East to three games over their fading division rivals - and while five of their last six games of the season come against division foes, including two a piece against both Buffalo and Miami, the Patriots seem destined for their ninth consecutive division title and are favorites to play in their seventh straight conference title game.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Patriots Rounding Into Form; Special Teams Literally Special In Punking Of Broncos In Denver

The Denver Broncos should have known from the very start that they were in for a long night.

Well, from almost the very start - because, you see, the Broncos' defense started the game exactly as their fans (and, sadly, New England Patriots' fans as well) have come to expect and count on, forcing the visiting Patriots into a three-and-out on their first possession and into a punting situation just a minute-and-a-half into their nationally televised showdown in Denver.
Dion Lewis evades tacklers on his way to a kick return for touchdown

But from the point that the football left the foot of Patriots' punter Ryan Allen, the Broncos fortunes plummeted into the toilet, finding yet another creative way to victimize themselves and their fans, sinking further into the abyss of football despair by dropping their fifth straight game, a 41-16 thrashing at the hands of their arch-nemesis.

When Allen's punt reached it's nadir and spiraled down 46 yards later, Broncos' return man Isaiah McKenzie let it slip between his hands and to the turf, Patriots' gunner Jonathan Jones taking him out of the play and trailer Jacob Hollister falling cleanly on the ball to give the ball right back to Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady on the Denver 24 yard line...

...Brady finding running back Rex Burkhead twice in the pattern, the second throw covering the final 14 yards to paydirt and an early lead the Patriots would never relinquish.

New England head ball coach Bill Belichick employs an inordinate number of players on his roster who play primarily on special teams, Jones and Hollister among them, and who make the wholly ignored phase of the game a vital bridge between the offense and defense - often choosing to go against conventional wisdom in order to gain an advantage over every team he faces.

On Sunday night, that advantage came in the form of a dagger.

Leading by seven after the gift from his special teams - and after the Patriots defense did what they always do, giving up almost every inch there is between the twenties then shutting down the Broncos' offense to force them to settle for a field goal - Denver kicker Brandon McManus sent the subsequent kickoff three yards deep into the Patriots end zone...

...fifteen seconds and 103 yards later, Dion Lewis was celebrating with his teammates in the Broncos' end zone after skirting the home team's sideline and dodging weak efforts to shove him out of bounds, the second of three impact special teams plays giving the Patriots a 14-3 lead.

The third special teams standout effort came via a blocked punt four minutes into the second quarter, courtesy of running back Rex Burkhead who exploded between two Broncos blockers like he was shot out of a canon and easily got to Denver punter Riley Dixon, who fell on the ball at the Denver thirty, preventing a gaggle of Patriot rushers from picking up the ball and running it into the end zone.

As it was, the Patriots turned that gaffe into a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, essentially putting the game out of reach.

But the Patriots were far from finished putting points on the board, as tight end Dwayne Allen hauled in a tough grab for his first catch and first touchdown in New England, followed by Lewis displaying his super-human strength in dragging two Broncos into the end zone from seven yards out, culminating with fellow running back James White getting in on the fun, catching a quick out from Brady that left his mirror frozen on the turf.

Denver's offense pretty much had their way with New England's defense between the twenties in the first half, but drives of 58, 64 and 63 yards stalled short of paydirt, forcing the Broncos to settle for three McManus field goals - but quarterback Brock Osweiler led the Broncos down the field on their first possession of the second half, hitting receiver Demaryius Thomas from seven yards out to give Denver a brief spark of hope...

...though that lasted all of three-and-a-half minutes as Brady responded with a big play drive, hitting both Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski with 25 yard heaters to get New England into Denver's red area, then handed the ball to Lewis three straight times to end any hope Denver had of climbing back into the game.

Brady was an ever-efficient 25 of 34 for 266 yards and three scores as his offensive line - despite missing regular right tackle Marcus Cannon - kept him upright nearly the entire game, allowing just one sack on a safety blitz that White matador'd on. In fact, the Broncos' vaunted pass rush got close just a handful of times, under pressure just six times all evening...

...and Brady, as he usually does, made the Broncos pay for generating extra pressure, completing all six throws for 89 yards and the touchdown to Allen for a perfect rating of 158.3.

Despite having just three outside-the-numbers receivers healthy, Brady targeted Cooks, Phillip Dorsett and Danny Amendola on exactly half of his throws, completing 12 of those 17 passes for 126 yards and completing 13 of 17 to his backs and tight ends for 140 yards and all three scores. Cooks led all Patriots pass catchers with six catches on 11 targets, most of them with Denver corner Chris Harris hanging all over him.

Gronkowski led the tight ends with four, first down-producing grabs while the newly-reacquired Martellus Bennett snagged three passes in playing just five snaps. Burkhead and White split the six targets that went to the backs.

Osweiler was 18 of 33 for 221 yards with the touchdown to Thomas and an interception by Patriots' safety Patrick Chung, who had his best game of the season, allowing three catches on four targets for just 14 yards. Most of the damage that Denver did on offense came via Osweiler targeting  receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who caught six of eleven targets for a game-high 137 yards, all but 23 of those yards coming against Patriots' corner Malcolm Butler, who Sanders screwed into the ground repeatedly while running some nifty patterns.

Thomas' touchdown catch and a defensive holding call were the only sore spots on the resume of cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who returned to action after a three week hiatus on the shelf to essentially lock down the 6' 3", 230 pounder to just 44 yards on five catches.

Denver's ground game proved potent, particularly with C.J. Anderson toting the rock for 5.4 yards per shot, but the Broncos were forced to abandon their running game as they fell behind by three scores and went to the air.

Overall, it was a solid effort from a Patriots' team that is starting to round into form and looking every bit the contender they were expected to be after a rocky start to the season, having now won five straight and in a deadlock with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the best record in the conference.

The Patriots will remain in Colorado for the bulk of this week before heading south of the border to take on the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City this coming Sunday.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Corruption? Collusion? Bennett Saga Has All The Makings Of A Made-For-TV Court Drama

In the film A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise portrayed a Navy Lawyer who is defending two Marines against Murder charges, a fellow Marine dying from the effects of lactic acidosis brought upon him by their actions in delivering was is known in the military as a "Code Red", the act of a Marine's shipmates employing disciplinary measures to correct ill behavior.

They tied up a Private Santiago, stuffed a rag in his mouth and sealed it with duct tape, claiming that they were given an order to deliver this brand of military training by shaving his head - but the aforementioned acidosis caused his lungs to bleed from lack of oxygen and he died within minutes.

When Cruise interrogated the physician in charge of the hospital on the base where the event occurred, Dr. Stone - played by Christopher Guess of This is Spinal Tap fame - claimed that the defendants treated the rag with a toxin, not a serious heart condition, that caused the acidosis to accelerate, leading to the Private's death, claiming that Santiago was given a clean bill of health... which Cruise replied, "And that's why it had to be poison, right, Commander? Because Lord knows that if you put a man with a serious coronary condition back on duty with a clean bill of health and that man died from a heart-related incident, you'd have a lot to answer for, wouldn't you, doctor?"

The film was centered upon the corruption of a Marine Colonel who eventually incriminated himself on the stand - but stuff like that never happens in real life right? Particularly in something as insignificant as a football injury?

The weirdness surrounding the Martellus Bennett saga this past week has enough layers to make a drama lasagna, but it depends on what side of the table you sit on as to whether it is savory, or if it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

If on the Green Bay Packers' side, you sit slack-jawed in wonder at the speed in which Bennett went from a struggling and ill-fitting free agent signing to a locker room cancer that needed to be expressed and removed, while on the side of the New England Patriots, you're sitting pretty with a ready-made solution to the lack of viable depth at the tight end position.

At issue is a shoulder injury to the garrulous and candid tight end, the effusion of which caused a contentious rift between him and the Green Bay Packers, ultimately leading the team severing ties with Bennett, which in turn spurred many bad feelings, culminating in hand-wringing impromptu press conferences by Packers' coach Mike McCarthy and twitter bombs filled with color metaphors from Bennett himself.

The Packers released Bennett on Wednesday, claiming that he failed to report an injury to the team - a claim that Bennett vigorously denies, and makes clear on his multi-tweet twitter rant that effectively trashes the Packers' organization as being nothing more than tight-fisted misers who went for a public cash-grab in the wake of Bennett pondering retirement from the game after this season.

While that's really between Bennett and the Packers, the Patriots are bound to become entangled in the drama off the field as's Ian Rappaport cites sources that the injury in question is actually the same injury that he suffered in the Patriots' week twelve contest last season against the New York Jets, and was listed on the team's injury report as part of a laundry list of maladies that Bennett eventually played through.

The Packers claim, through their failure to disclose designation, that Bennett's injury was a pre-existing condition and that the mercurial tight end failed to disclose it to team doctors during his physical, which he obviously passed and then signed his three-year, $21 million deal.

Unless Green Bay's management has some information that could solidly refute Rappaport's tome, this entire debacle makes the Packers' organization look like bumbling fools.

First, since Bennett's shoulder injury with the Patriots was well documented through weekly reports to the league, one would think that the Packers' team physicians would have taken extra care to scrutinize the joint - but they gave Bennett a clean bill of health which logically would place the onus on the Packers.

One has to think that there is more to this story than Bennett calling the Packers' organization a bunch of liars and the Packers acting like like jilted lovers - there has to be right?

However, on the surface, that's exactly what it is, and neither side of the argument escapes without a significant hit to their position, and it's hard to distinguish which one looks worse. As for Bennett, he appears as a grass-isn't-always-greener fence-hopper, shutting it down when Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered what may be a season-ending fractured clavicle...

...while the Packers appear to be involved in some sort of preternatural damage control scheme, trying to save face for a bad free agency fit by blaming everything on the player when there is clear evidence that Bennett's injury, while indeed preexisting -  was well-documented.

While that documentation appears to be an albatross around the necks of the Packers' organization, there is still the matter of Bennett quitting on his team when the going got tough - a blueprint that was fresh off the presses from 2014 when running back LeGarrette Blount walked out on the Pittsburgh Steelers and eventually ended up back in Foxborough.

Blount took some heat for the way he walked out on his teammates and Bennett has already raised the ire of Rodgers and several other Packers for his portrayal of the team physician as a corrupt, blamestorming quack that is a pulling a "Commander Stone", the doctor claiming that Bennett didn't reveal his existing injury during his initial physical before signing on.

So no one in this filthy drama is innocent, and while the Packers seek to recoup their signing bonus from Bennett, of which he has been payed $2.1 million of a guaranteed $6.3 million, Bennett is reportedly set to suit up for the Patriots as they face the Broncos in Denver on Sunday night.

To many, the fact that Bennett is back in New England where he won a title last season with the Patriots seems like a case of dark malfeasance on the part of the Patriots' organization, perhaps even collusion, as this is the second such incident in three years. But unlike what happened with Blount, whom the Patriots waited on the clear waivers before approaching him with an offer, New England submitted a claim to the league office on Bennett, and was awarded the player when no other team stepped forward.

Obviously, this has nothing to do with the Patriots, other than they are set to reap the windfall of having Bennett back in the lineup.

This controversy is far from over, and probably will not be settled by anything less than an official investigation and a formal arbiter - and probably not until the offseason. But in this case, if you will pardon the pun, this is exactly what the doctor ordered for New England's offense.

Patriots' Lack Of Outside-The-Numbers Receivers A Concern Against Broncos' "No Fly Zone"

The New England Patriots are at a distinct disadvantage going into their matchup with the Broncos in Denver on Sunday night, and until this past Thursday afternoon, it was something that they could do little about.

The Denver Broncos, as usual, sport one of the best defensive units in the National Football League, ranking fourth in the league in pass defense and are fifth against the run - and when one adds in the fact that the Patriots have traditional had a difficult time generating offense in the Mile High City, all of the signs point to a stagnation of what is a potential juggernaut.

Adding to the Patriots' woes is the fact that they have only two wide receivers that are fully healthy and just three that are going to suit up for the game, a circumstance that plays right into the strength of the Broncos' defense: their secondary.

Known as the "No-Fly Zone", Denver's secondary has given Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady a rough go in the recent past, holding the greatest of all time to 177 passing yards in their last encounter, a hard-fought 16-3 Patriots victory last season - and that was with Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell in the lineup, three cats that won't be in uniform on Sunday night.

What they do have, however, may be enough to keep the Broncos' secondary busy, but in a different way.

That is mainly because one pass catcher who did miss that last contest and that will be dressed and ready for this year's battle is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who can change the complexion of a game single-handedly - and when combined with recently reacquired tight end Martellus Bennett, they give the Patriots a way to put stress on Denver's safeties and linebackers in manner that they weren't able to last season.

Bennett actually played in that game in Denver, but like everyone else not named Edelman, he struggled to get open, catching just two balls for 35 yards - though his real impact came in the running game, as his powerful pulling and blocking helped running back Dion Lewis pick up 5.3 yards per carry as the sole difference maker on the stat sheet.

That win actually seems like a precursor to what is going on with the Patriots' offense in the last four games of this season, red zone struggles leading to leaving points on the field, New England settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns - but things should be a little different this time around, especially if Bennett, who made the trip to Denver with the team and is a game-time decision, suits up and plays.

How effective he would be remains to be seen, but there should be a sense of optimism with Patriots' fans in regard to his readiness to play, as he is coming off three-weeks of R&R and has likely retained the Patriots' offensive playbook with intimate clarity - but if he doesn't play, New England is up against it against the Broncos' pass defense, as they will likely load up the pass rush and come after Brady with gusto.

And why not? The only healthy receivers on the depth chart are speedy vertical targets in Brandin Cooks and the seldom targeted Phillip Dorsett, and slot man Danny Amendola is going to try and play through a bum knee. Gronkowski is the only tight end worth note, and the lack of outside-the-numbers targets for New England could help the Broncos keep him penned up with linebacker-safety double teams...

...while the potent Denver pass rush could be compounded by rogue blitzers that could negate any potential contribution from the Patriots' backs, forcing them to remain in the pocket to help protect Brady.

Either way, there is no easy solution to what the Broncos are on defense, which is built in such a way that they can stop the run (second in the NFL by allowing just 3.4 yards per carry) and force the ball to the air, and with New England being so short outside of the numbers, that could make for a long evening - and don't be fooled by the fact that they are ranked 25th in the league in scoring defense, as their ranking has fallen precipitously by their injury-driven collapse in the past two games.

They gave up 29 points to a potent Chiefs offense two weeks ago and the Eagles offensive juggernaut hung a fifty-burger on them last week, but those teams are far healthier on offense than the Patriots are now, plus New England's well-known struggles in the red zone may very well come into play. The only solution is for New England to grind it out with the run, move the chains and take well-timed shots downfield.

The Patriots' defense and special teams play a major role in this scenario, as the way to beat any team in the National Football League is to make it as difficult as possible for the opposing offense to reach paydirt.

In the last four games, punter Ryan Allen, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and the New England coverage teams have managed to flip field position on their opponents with regularity, ranking second in the NFL in opponent's starting position, which forces the opposing offense to have to go further to get into scoring position - which is a good thing, since the defense has been giving up nearly forty yards per drive.

Of course, the Broncos' offense has been a middle-of-the-pack entity all season, but have taken a nose dive in the past four games - all four of them recorded as losses - failing to break the 200 passing yards plateau and being held short of seventy yards rushing in three of those games, and averaging a minute 13 points per game...

...which is almost exactly what the Patriots' defense has given up in that time span (12.5), though Denver can take solace in the fact that New England remains last in the league in total yardage surrendered, and that Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has been holding his secondary together with duct tape and prayers.

They are dead last in total defense, in passing yards yielded and in yards per carry in the running game - which is mitigated to a large degree by the fact that New England stiffens the deeper the opponent gets into their territory, ranking fifth in the league in red zone defense - a stat line that justifies their bend-but-don't-break philosophy.

So what does all of this mean?

Absolutely nothing, as when these two teams get together it always seems to turn into a barn-burner, an instant classic with plenty of defense and usually the team that has the football last tends to win the game - but if the Patriots can somehow find a way to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense, as tall task either way, they could cruise to an easy win...

...but if not, they could struggle mightily and turn a simple sweep and clear of a downward-trending Broncos team into a street fight that comes down to the last possession.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

New England Patriots Midseason Forum - Part 4: Tight End Stable Gets Major Boost By Re-Signing The "Black Unicorn"

"I could run all day. I'm kind of like a black unicorn out there. It's amazing to watch. You go out there and see a big black guy running down the field, it's usually me." - Martellus Bennett

One would think that some team - any team - would have claimed tight end Martellus Bennett off waivers from the Green Bay Packers just to keep his former employer, the New England Patriots, from doing so.

But no one did except those crafty Patriots, who pulled a LeGarrett Blount-style mid-season dumpster dive to pick up a legitimate tried and true weapon that won't take much time getting up to speed since Bennett is only nine months removed from being an integral part of a Patriots' offense that won a World Championship in February.

The self-proclaimed "Black Unicorn" played in all sixteen regular season games for New England in 2016, toughing out shoulder, knee and ankle injuries to put together the third-best statistical season of his career, his 55 catches for 701 yards and seven touchdowns eclipsed only by his first two years in Chicago, where he earned Pro Bowl honors in 2014.

In addition, Bennett was a force in the post-season, catching five balls in the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh, then five more in the Super Bowl against the Atlanta Falcons, as well as drawing a pass interference call in the end zone against the Falcons' De'Vondre Campbell to set up James White's two yard touchdown run that sealed the title.

He was dismissed by the Packers for failing to advise the team of a shoulder injury, and while that is the official story, it could be speculated that Bennett wore out his welcome with his infamous rants, especially recent ones in which he told the press that he was considering retirement at the end of the season.

Whatever the case, Bennett's return to Foxborough couldn't have come at more fortuitous juncture, as the Patriots have more pass catchers on the shelf than they do on the field.

In addition to losing top receiver Julian Edelman for the season, both Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola are battling injuries, with Hogan expected to be on the shelf for a couple of weeks - that leaves just Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett - two players that weren't on the roster last season - as the only healthy options among wide receivers for quarterback Tom Brady to target.

The good news is that Bennett joins All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski and a backfield full of versatile playmakers to form what has become the most unique collection of weapons in the league.

The best part to the waiver claim is that the Patriots now control the final two years left on his Packers' contract, with the only stipulation being a $2 million roster bonus due at the start of the 2018 league year, which is essentially a team option. The only guarantees on his contract were a series of prorated signing bonus payments totaling $6.3 million, $4.2 million of which the Packers had to eat as a dead money hit.

The irony here is, of course, that the Patriots had reportedly offered Bennett a contract extension upon acquiring him from the Bears last season, similar to the one that the Patriots absorb in picking up the Packers' contract, his cap hit for 2018 - one that includes the aforementioned roster bonus - is $6.45 million and then $6.5 million in 2019.

Those are affordable numbers, as is the remainder of his 2017 salary of just $724k, not only for the insurance that the durable Bennett provides at the position, but also for the serious 1-2 punch that New England can unleash upon their foes in tandem with Gronkowski.

How serious? Well, when you consider that in the five games that the two played together last season in which Gronkowski wasn't under any snap count restrictions, they combined for 47 catches for 786 yards and six touchdowns - that averages out to nine receptions for 157 yards and one score per game...

...and if you spread that over a full season, you get a completely ridiculous stat line of 150 receptions for 2,512 yards and 19 touchdowns.

It's not tangible to expect that kind of production from the two tight end set - even though the Gronkowski-Hernandez tandem gave the team a similar stat line in 2012 - but Bennett's range and blocking prowess is a part of the total package that goes unnoticed by the casual fan and adds to the intrigue.

Both Gronkowski and Bennett - as well as free-agent pickup Dwayne Allen - are devastating blockers in the running game and are able on the edge in pass protection, adding a layer of versatility that is rare in professional football, and along with their well-documented skill in the pattern makes them almost a requirement as the Patriots will certainly turn to more 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) looks... alignment that will now require defenses to dedicate safeties and linebackers to coverage which, in theory, will lighten the box against the running game and force single high safety formations that will strap the coverage on the vertical game.

Bennett's presence will certainly cut into Allen's snap count (not to mention send rookie Jacob Hollister to the practice squad), but will also allow him to operate in the background, which may jump start his production in the passing game and also make Jumbo sets (two backs and three tight ends) so versatile that it would be nearly impossible to stop in short yardage and in the red zone, as defenses would have to keep the box light in the event Gronkowski and/or Bennett peel off the edge and into the pattern.

Make no mistake, if Bennett is motivated and reasonably healthy, the Patriots' waiver claim on him could be the piece to the puzzle that gets the offensive juggernaut rolling.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

New England Patriots Midseason Forum - Part 3: Lewis Goes From "Bridge" To "Destination" For Patriots' Running Game

Finally, Dion Lewis is being used for what he is.

To be fair, no team that he has been with on the professional level has been able to take full advantage of his natural skill set, which falls in line with what is known in football as a "lead" back, a running back that can run into a vortex of very large humans twenty-plus times per game to make the opposition respect the running game.

That's what the diminutive Lewis did in college at the University of Pittsburgh, where he broke the freshman rushing record held by a guy named Tony Dorsett in 2009 and was named Big East Freshman of the Year and second-team All-American, plus was referred to by the Sporting News as the "most complete runner" in college football...

...then after a sophomore year in which his rushing yardage decreased but he still managed to keep his average per carry up in the stratosphere, Lewis declared himself for the NFL Draft, thinking that his work at Pitt would lead to an explosive NFL career.

But the Philadelphia Eagles buried him on their deep bench after selecting him in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, rushing just 36 times and catching three balls in two years, which goes to figure since the Eagles top two runners were All Pro LeSean McCoy and dynamic quarterback Michael Vick - but despite the low number of touches for Lewis, Cleveland General Manager Mike Lombardi knew enough of Lewis to trade for him before the 2013 season.

"He was the best back on the team" Lombardi said of Lewis during the Browns' training camp, "We brought him in to be our lead back." But before Lewis could officially take the reigns from eventual-bust Trent Richardson, he broke his fibula in a preseason game.

Lewis was out of football when Lombardi left and the Browns cut him in the 2014 preseason and after a brief stint on the Indianapolis Colts practice squad, reappearing on the football radar when Lombardi landed in New England as an advisor to head ball coach Bill Belichick, Lombardi suggesting to Belichick that he needed Lewis to complete his backfield.

Lewis and his agent, RJ Rickert, pondered futures contact offers from both the Patriots and Giants at the end of the 2014 season, eventually choosing New England because as Rickart put it, "The Patriots find a role for guys. They define a clear role."

His role, as it turned out was to provide a bridge between bruising power back LeGarrette Blount and rookie runner James White - because his skill set provided the best of both in one compact package.

When Blount was in the game, chances were very good that the Patriots would be running the ball, and with White in the game, the chances were excellent that New England was going to throw the ball - Lewis provided both power running between the tackles and ankle shredding linebackers in the passing game.

With Lewis in the game, the Patriots' offense was more dynamic and forced the opposition to defend the entire field, having to respect his running pedigree as well as his skill and elusiveness in the open field in the passing game - but a torn ACL against the Washington Redskins ruined his season midway through it, and a setback in his recovery doomed his 2016 campaign, though he did end up contributing when all was said and done.

But his injury opened the door for White to display his wares, and all White did with that opportunity was to become one of the best passing backs in the league as it stands today, and come within a whisker on quarterback Tom Brady's unshorn face of becoming the Super Bowl 51 Most Valuable Player.

Blount is gone - which is unfortunate, as Lewis is healthy once again and could provide the same bridge as he did in 2015 - replaced by former Buffalo Bills' runner Mike Gillislee, who has faded into the background in trying to replace what Blount did with the team, so Lewis has taken over the lead back role, a role he was born to fill.

Used sparingly to start the season as it was rumored that Belichick wanted to limit his exposure and ease him into the lineup slowly, Lewis has seen his ground touches increase incrementally the past four games, and is poised to take over twenty-plus carries per game.

Lewis has responded by posting a 4.9 yards per carry average in that time frame on 46 carries, and is averaging 4.7 yards per carry on the season - but hasn't been called on in the passing game as much, though his prowess in the open flat still forces teams to defend the field horizontally. The passing game touches have instead gone to White, who leads the team in receptions.

But despite his heroics in the Super Bowl and obvious skill in running the ball, White has been excluded from the ground game, where he still has posted an impressive 4.7 yards per carry in the second quarter of the season, mostly on trap draws with Brady in the shotgun.

Taking some of his snaps for the past couple of games has been Rex Burkhead, who returned from injury just before the rematch with the Atlanta Falcons and has run for 4.6 yards per carry and has caught eight balls for 80 yards in the two contests since.

All combined, these three backs have run for 479 yards in just 107 carries in the past four games for 4.5 yards per carry average, and even though Gillislee has seen his role reduced to the team's part-time four-minute back, he has run for nearly four-yards per carry in the same time frame - so the stable of running backs is producing and their individual roles are starting to come into focus...

...yet the pass-to-run ratio for the offense is heavily in favor of the passing game - 61% to 39% - and there seems to be no rhyme nor reason for such a disparity, it just is.

Which is neither here nor there, as that particular statistic is deceiving since New England's running backs account for half of the overall touches on offense and it has been a long-standing tactic of Belichick's to use the short passing game as an extension of the running game. But it's tough to get past the fact that Brady is taking a beating when he drops back to pass, because the lack of touches in the actual ground game isn't lending itself to the play action...

...and since these backs are all required for blitz pickup when needed, a defense with a good pass rush can eliminate the running backs' effectiveness in the passing game by forcing them to stay in the pocket to protect Brady.

That is how the Chiefs, Texans and Panthers managed to limit the backs' ability and availability in the passing game, by flooding the backfield with excellent pass rushers coupled with well-timed blitzes - and the only way to take that advantage back is by making their opponent respect the run which forces them into a heavy box and initializes the play action.

Brady is the master at the play action, and when the running game is going well, the play action causes a split-second pause in the pass rush, which allows the offensive linemen to anchor themselves against the bull rush and to set their edge against the speed rush, which in turn gives Brady that extra split second to survey the field to find a receiver that he otherwise wouldn't have had time to see.

It's a domino effect for sure, and one that breaks down if a team - any team - cannot or does not use their running game to it's full advantage, since everything in football begins and ends with the running game.

The Patriots are on a four-game winning streak - and while winning is all that matters and New England has won in previous seasons with a large void between their passing and ground games, in the here and now these Patriots are doing it with smoke and mirrors, but the magic act is exposed the closer they get to the end zone as the field shrinks and the opposing defenders can use boundaries to hem in the New England pass catchers.

Not only that, but also since the field shrinks the closer an offense gets to the end zone, defenders can get creative and exotic in their fronts to limit the running game as well. That said and true, it is in the red area where the Patriots need the aforementioned effect that the running game provides. This is not to say that New England doesn't run the ball in the red zone, just that if they want it to work so close to the end zone, they need to incorporate it more while driving down the field.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

New England Patriots Midseason Forum - Part 2: Passing Game Revisiting 2015, But Has The Tools To Overcome Issues

When is the last time you saw a running back leading the New England Patriots offense in receptions?

The answer to that is 1977, when fullback Sam Cunningham caught 42 balls out of the backfield on a 9-5 team that missed the playoffs, barely eclipsing wide receiver Darryl Stingley for the team lead - and it makes sense, given that the play calling was run heavy by design, as it was a year before the NFL made rule changes that benefited the passing game to the point that it changed the face of the league.

Cunningham also eclipsed the thousand-yard plateau on the ground. But the thing is, back then running backs were expected to be heavily involved in the passing game, as it was far easier for a back to run a delayed pattern out of the backfield than it was for wide receivers and even tight ends to fight their way through cornerbacks and linebackers who could lay heavy contact on them without much notice from the referees.

Now, one could argue that it is far easier for receivers to break off the line and into their patterns, as corners, linebackers and safeties draw flags from the officials if they look at the receiver in the wrong tone past five yards down the field - not to mention that we see offensive pass interference calls at an alarming rate, congruent to those called on defenders.

For example, it seems that a game doesn't become official until tight end Rob Gronkowski is called for pass interference, and pick plays that used to be called rub routes before the wimpification of the National Football League often result in big plays being nullified.

In 1977, it was a fist fight between a receiver and a cornerback to gain separation, while today it's a dance contest and God help you if you touch a player on the opposing team more than five yards down the field - so there is significant risk in targeting receivers down the field...

...but it seems particularly risky for Patriots' receivers because when they lost Julian Edelman to a knee injury, they lost a throwback type player who wasn't afraid to mix it up and gained separation by being tougher than the defender.

That is one of the reasons for the recent trend in the league to bring draft and develop bigger receivers who can be more physical with cornerbacks, but even then when a ball falls incomplete, more often than not we will see a receiver do a fancy pirouette with his arms extended and palms facing towards the sky, barking at the officials because the defender make contact with him, no matter how significant the contact is.

The truth is the rules in the NFL, well-meaning as they are in trying to protect players from head injury while attempting to make the game faster and more exciting for the fans, have actually made the game slower and, honestly, more frustrating to watch - and it has gotten to the point that we will look to the bottom of our TV screens to make sure a yellow box with the word "flag" hasn't appeared to impact the play.

But while the rules have turned each passing play into an episode of Dancing With The Stars, many teams have mitigated that effect by turning to their running backs to compensate.

The Patriots have a deeper problem than a perceived lack of toughness, however.

Edelman is considered one of the toughest covers in the league, and his absence only serves to confirm that, as the Patriots' offense has struggled more and more as the season wears on and opposing defensive coordinators are seeing more and more film on what the Patriots have left in their outside arsenal.

Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola define toughness in their playing style, yet they lack the quick twitch / explosiveness combination to immediately separate in their routes the way Edelman does. Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett have speed to burn, and play their best ball outside the numbers where their speed can compensate for their lack of physicality...

...while tight end Rob Gronkowski suffers from constant double teams and sometimes labors to get open while being mugged downfield - all of this assuming Brady has enough time to go through his progressions.

So what they have is not as important as what they don't have, which is Edelman's ability to gain immediate separation in his routes and provide quarterback Tom Brady the option to target Edelman on the "bang-bang" play that enabled Brady to get rid of the ball more quickly than anyone else in the league - and even more crucial than that is that the defense can concentrate more on the intermediate zone and make Brady hold the ball longer.

The same phenomenon occurred midway through 2015 when Edelman was lost for seven weeks with a broken bone in his foot. In those games, which covered the final seven of the regular season, the passing yards dipped by 90 yards per game and Brady took a nasty beating, but what really sent the offense into a tailspin from which they never recovered, was the loss of LeGarrette Blount with four games left to play.

Without the running game to have to defend, New England's opponents were able to concentrate solely on defending the passing game, which produced less than 200 yards per game. The Patriots were resilient enough to salvage two wins in that span, but with no running game in the playoffs, their defense carried them to the AFC Championship game and nearly to the Super Bowl.

The thing that prevented them from going to the Super Bowl? A lack of trust in the offense that caused curious play calling, going for it on fourth down deep in Denver Broncos' territory instead of kicking field goals late in the game, as Belichick admitted afterwards that he was trying to take the pressure off of his offense by going all four downs, not trusting that they had the gumption or the time to get down in the red area again to score any more points.

But in those games, Belichick and Brady didn't have a Cooks or a Hogan or a Lewis, nor a running game - all they had was a hobbled Amendola and an equally limited Gronkowski along with a recently activated Edelman and some street-signings, and ended up losing by two points.

It was during this stretch that Brady started targeting White, who has since turned into a major weapon in the passing game, last season breaking Kevin Faulk's team record for receptions and turned in a performance for the ages in the Super Bowl...

...a trend that has continued to flourish in 2017 as White is on pace for unprecedented numbers as the safety valve that Brady is missing in Edelman, with his target and reception numbers nearing what Edelman's have been, while the rest of the group are all languishing in mediocrity compared to their past production.

This is not to say that the effort is not there, just that the way the receiving corps is constructed limits their effectiveness, particularly in the red zone, when their skill sets married with coordinator Josh McDaniels' curious non-usage of what has to be one of the best running back situations in the league has led to meager point outputs in the last four games.

So the Patriots are more or less revisiting the 2015 season on offense, but with better personnel to work through losing Edelman with, and a great set of running backs that could take a lot of the heat off of Brady and the receivers if Belichick and McDaniels would just use them in the running game, which has been limited to just 39% of the offensive snaps this season.

Sadly, they haven't learned that lesson from two years ago, but Belichick is taking field goals when he has the chance to do so, and in doing so has been able to scratch out four consecutive wins - ugly wins, but victories nevertheless.

They have the tools and the talent to overcome their lack of quick-twitch ability in the pattern, and have four running backs who are versatile enough to take over some of Edelman's function, particularly White and Lewis, though a healthy Rex Burkhead may be they key to getting this passing game back on track, as he helps form an imposing trio of passing backs that could well start forcing defense to defend the entire field.

That would open up the intermediate zones enough to help Cooks, Amendola and Dorsett more of a factor down the field and also open up the seam for Gronkowski...