Saturday, September 30, 2017

Patriots Defense: A Case Of Playing Not To Lose Rather Than Playing To Win

What is the difference between playing not to lose and playing to win?

According to sports psychologists, players, coaches and even entire teams perform differently when they view an opponent in two distinctly different ways. First, when a team views the opposition as a threat, they tense up and more times than not, the choke - but when they view their opposition as a challenge, they are much more likely to achieve their goals.

That said, despite the team's 2-1 record after three weeks, the New England Patriots' defense has been playing not to lose.
After a rough start, Marsh has started to have an impact

A study of soccer players who were facing a scenario of having to make a penalty kick to tie a game choked 40% of the time, while the same players who faced making the same kick with the score tied and his team could win with a made shot made the shot 92% of the time - the difference? The pressure of possibly losing the game can be overwhelming, and cause players to do things that they normally wouldn't do.

A similar study looked at basketball players who will consistently shoot above their career average from the free throw line during a tie game vice being up a point or down a point when they shoot well below their average.

"The point is that when athletes are challenged to rise to the occasion, they perform better than when they are threatened not to blow it." says John O'Sullivan of the Changing The Game Project, "Challenged athletes tend to focus on the prize for success, while threatened athletes focus on the consequences of failure."

Could it be that the New England Patriots' defense is struggling to start the 2017 season because they are playing not to lose?

It would make sense, given the number of new players they are trying to incorporate into a unit that is also missing key members to injury - in other words, they are hanging by a thread until reinforcements arrive in the form of patched up wounded and the newbies demonstrate a working knowledge of the philosophies and playbook.

The latter will take some time, but the new guys are integrating and are becoming more of a factor each week - especially the pass rushers, rookie Deatrich Wise and former-Seahawk Cassius Marsh - but the former could come true on Sunday when the Patriots host the Carolina Panthers, as linebacker Dont'a Hightower and corner Eric Rowe are expected to return to the lineup.

Whatever the case and in the interim, the Patriots are playing like they are in a prevent defense - not from lack of interest or effort, but from design, and when that happens - when a team is playing not to lose - they yield too many yards and too many points unnecessarily, and it has a trickle down effect on the entire team.

Now, the Patriots have never been an aggressive defensive team. They are disciplined to do the one or two tasks that they are assigned to them as one of 11 pieces in a jigsaw puzzle - and when the other ten players do likewise, the result is a stout unit that plays the run and the pass equally well, because each player is complementing the others with their discipline.

For instance, on the interior of the defensive line, the job of the nose tackle is to take on double teams, which serves to keep a guard from climbing to the second level to harass linebackers and open up options for a running back, should he slip through the containment, but also allows said linebacker to fill the gap created by the double team...

...while on the edges, the ends are supposed to set a barrier for backs to discourage them from trying to gain the corner, funneling them back toward the interior, where the aforementioned tackles and linebackers are working in tandem to prevent positive gain.

But with Hightower out and former-Jet David Harris seeing no playing time for reasons yet to be unearthed - and in addition to youngsters Elandon Roberts and Harvey Langi logging time on the trainers' table (not to mention strong-side linebacker Shea McClellin on the IR), the linebacking duties have fallen to Kyle Van Noy and whomever is healthy enough to join him at any given moment.

Hell, the Patriots even tried out safety Jordan Richards as a linebacker in the season opener, but his poor angles and sloppy tackling nixed the idea moving forward.

Ordinarily, the Patriots defense aligns in what is known as the Big Nickel, in which a linebacker is sacrificed in order to get a third safety on the field - which is centerfielder Duron Harmon, who seems to be the only player on the defense that hasn't been affected by the youth and injury. When Harmon comes on, strong safety Patrick Chung will reduce down into the box, effectively becoming a coverage linebacker.

This is where things get tricky, as Chung has been horrific in coverage on tight ends - but luckily for him and the rest of the defense, Carolina's Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen is out of the lineup and on the IR, leaving only Ed Dickson and his hands of stone at the tight end position, leaving the pass catching duties to tight end-sized wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin (6' 5", 245) and Devin Funchess (6' 4", 230)...

...and also to the rookie garden gnome-sized Swiss army knife Christian McCaffrey, who presents a clear and present danger to secondaries around the league with his elusiveness and sure hands. Listed as a running back, he has been solely a receiver thus far, but one that the Panthers can move around to take advantage of mismatches on linebackers.

Assuredly, the Patriots are not going to give McCaffrey a chance to work against one of the precious few linebackers, so look for cornerback Malcolm Butler to mirror the dynamic rookie, in a move that may prove that Butler is of more value to defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and head ball coach Bill Belichick as a Big Nickel-type coverage safety than as a traditional corner.

Benjamin and Funchess will be dealt with by taller corners Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe, while Harmon and fellow safety Devin McCourty patrol the blue line.

The Patriots can afford to be a little more aggressive against the Panthers offense, especially if Hightower does return, because quarterback Cam Newton is playing hurt and has been wildly inaccurate, tossing four interceptions and not completing more than 20 passes in a game so far this season. What's more, he's been sacked ten times in three games, which brings his net passing yardage down to a meager 188 yards per game.

Clearly, the Patriots defense has an opportunity to get right against the Panthers offense, and that means against the running game as well McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart have combined for 3.6 yards per carry behind an offensive line that, much like the Patriots, are struggling at the tackle position but strong on the interior - even though the Panthers will be missing starting pivot Matt Kalil.

While this defense is hanging on by a thread, in-wait for the positive influx that maturation of newbies and the return of the wounded bring, it has to be remembered that playing not to lose is the only option that Belichick and Patricia have to work with, as being too aggressive without the proper personnel in place could prove even more disastrous than what they are experiencing now.

With Hightower returning, the Patriots should be able to plug the gaps created by the defensive line, while the rotation of Flowers, Wise and Marsh abuse the struggling bookends and egt to Newton, who is hurting and not a mobile as in the past - and while it's unrealistic to assume that Butler will take over for Chung in tight end coverages, this is the type of contest that should give a little less responsibility and maybe allow him to build a little confidence...

...and maybe, just maybe, New England's defense can get untracked and put together a solid game. The effort has been there, as has the will and the desire to play the game to win, and with things getting better on the injury front and with new players becoming more and more acclimated to their roles on the team, perhaps we'll have seen the last of them playing not to lose.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Patriots Top-Rated Offense Needs Backs Involved To Clash With Panthers Blue-Chip Defense

For the Carolina Panthers, like with the rest of the teams in the National Football League, stats only tell part of their story.

Ranked the third worst offense in the league, the Panthers nevertheless match up very well against a Patriots' defense that has the worst statistical unit in the NFL, as one might imagine when considering the numbers - while Carolina's top-ranked defense has demonstrated that they have what it takes to counter anything New England's top-rated offense can throw at them.

On paper, the odds look to be stacked in Carolina's favor to not only come into Foxborough this coming Sunday and pull out a win, but to do so in a convincing manner.
Lewis, Gillislee and White (l to r) ,must become more involved

And why not? The Panthers move the ball well on offense, but have become victims of their own design, turning the ball over deep in their own territory three times last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, who scored 17 points off of those miscues - which were part of the reason why their defense suffered just 213 yards to Drew Brees and the Saints' passing game.

New Orleans played from a short field most of the game - and when that happens, there's only so many yards to be had, but Brees took advantage of every one of them.

So in reality, the Panthers' defensive numbers do tell most of their story, especially in the passing game where they are allowing a meager 162 yards per game and have yielded just three scores through the air, all of them by Brees - and though some credence has to be given to the fact that their first two opponents were not exactly offensive juggernauts, those are still very impressive numbers.

Against the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener, the Panthers allowed only 166 passing yards and 217 yards overall - and then against the offensively challenged Buffalo Bills, they were even more stingy, allowing 176 total yards and just 107 through the air. Those are elite numbers to be sure, but the Patriots' offense is in a different class.

New England's passing game is tops in the league, averaging an absurd 340 yards per game, helping them to a 33 point per game average despite injury-induced limitations in their personnel and every bit as dangerous as the Saints through the air - but while many in Patriots Nation believe that head ball coach Bill Belichick has changed his offensive philosophy to a more vertical attack, it is the exact opposite that works against Carolina's defense.

In three games, opposing offenses have attempted only 12 passes of twenty yards or more, completing three for a 25% completion rate - in contrast, the opposition has completed 60 of 77 passes for a 79% completion rate when targeting their pass catchers underneath, with backs and tight ends doing the majority of the damage.

It's not as if the Panthers' secondary is anything special, it's just that their front seven is so good at pressuring the opposing quarterback that they rarely have time to wait for a downfield receiver to go through the progression in their patterns.

Cornerbacks Daryl Worley and James Bradbury give lots of cushion in off-man coverages that are designed to prevent the big play. They are both big corners - same size as Patriots' Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore - but Bradbury is looking to rebound from a horrible game against the Saints where he was burned by Michael Thomas in coverage and lost contain against the run several times...

...while Worley busted up his shoulder in run support and is out against New England - and with the nickle back being the aging Captain Munnerlyn and with second-year man Kevon Seymour taking Worley's spot on the outside, the prospects for the Patriots' passing game look favorable, so long as the offensive line can keep Brady relatively clean in the pocket.

And that's the rub.  How do the Patriots give Brady enough time go through his progression, but also keep him loaded up with route options?

Simply put, just play Patriots' football.

For years, the Patriots have dined on "small ball", stretching the field horizontally by spreading their tight ends and backs out wide and drawing their speedy little wideouts into the slot - in essence turning the opposing defense inside-out and forcing the corners into run support and the linebackers and safeties into boundary coverage.

They haven't been able to do much of that this season because their first three opponents have loaded up their pass rush, abusing the Patriots' tackles and coming after Brady like he insulted their mothers. In response, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has had to keep at least one option in-line to either chip the outside rusher or pick up rogue blitzers.

That exacerbates the issue even further as it leaves Brady with one less target in the pattern.

The solution is, as we've mentioned for three weeks straight, is to use the pass rusher's aggressiveness against them by getting their backs involved in the offense on trap draws and the screen game. In both play calls, the tackles yield ground to the outside rushers until they take themselves out of their lanes, and then it's an easy flip to the back in the flat or in the bubble on the screen - or a quick handoff into the "B" gap.

Either would eventually draw the pass rush off of Brady, as would establishing a running game, which the Patriots have succeeded in doing early in ball games, only to abandon it in favor of gambling on chunk plays.

Which is a shame, as the running game is little more than a novelty at this point, averaging 3.5 yards per carry mostly because New England is one-dimensional with their backs, which completely defies the promise of diversity that came with the signing of Rex Burkhead, the contract extension for Super Bowl hero James White and the return to full health for Dion Lewis.

The thought was that any of the three could break the Patriots' playbook wide open, given that they all have proven to be effective in the running game and approaching elite status in the passing game, but due to the aforementioned ineffectiveness of the offensive tackles and McDaniels' general malaise in regard to mixing the run and pass, that part of the New England arsenal has not manifested as yet.

Burkhead has been injured as well, and though he practiced on Friday, it would be a surprise if he were active for the Panthers' game - but that still leaves Lewis and White, and then power back Mike Gillislee to tote the rock.

Teams have been successful running the ball on the Panthers, as San Francisco's Carlos Hyde picked up 45 yards on 9 carries (five yards per carry) in week one and the trio of Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara picked up 115 yards on 25 carries (4.6 YPC) last week - so it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Patriots could maintain an effective ground game themselves.

Because the running backs haven't been used in the manner in which breeds success - usually being called upon for several plays in a row until the defense stones them, then tossed aside in favor of the deep passing game - their combined 3.5 yards per carry doesn't really scare anyone, but their potential should. If the running game ever really gets rolling, the trickle-down effect on the rest of the offense could be catastrophic for opposing defenses.

Also, even though New England has been successful on those vertical chunk plays, they have to think of their obligation to the other two entities of the team, defense and special teams, and the impact that quick scores or quick outs has on them - for the special teams it could mean punting from deep in their own territory if a couple of those throws go errant, and for the defense, it means that they don't get their proper rest.

Ordinarily that wouldn't have the same impact as it does now, but with the injury bug taking down defenders like bowling pins, the defense just doesn't have the rotation to keep their front seven fresh.

The screen game and the trap draws also offer another benefit to the offense, as they can act in tandem with the running game to keep the defense off-guard, and put the play action in effect - and with New England and Brady being perhaps the best play action-selling unit in the league, bringing that back into the fold will eventually open up the vertical game in select spots.

In short, the Patriots have to get back to playing Patriots' football - methodically moving the ball down the field, eating chain and clock and wearing down the opposing defense, dictating the pace until they can do anything they want on offense, which is a scary thing to think about.

Just because the Patriots have the weapons to go vertical doesn't mean that they are somehow obligated to do so. It's fun to watch, but not practical in the grand scheme of things. The best way for McDaniels to approach his offensive game plan would be to run the ball and stick with it, spreading the field horizontally and getting his backs involved in the pattern...

...because if they can do that, the vertical game will come naturally in the flow of the game, which makes the entire offense that much more lethal.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Complementary Football Critical To Helping Patriots' Defense

"...quarterbacks have the capacity to control a football game in all three disciplines, and they do this by playing the field position game-within-a-game, and by controlling the clock - and while it is true that Brady doesn't play defense, it is equally true that he is the best there is at putting his defensive teammates in position to have the best chance at being successful." - Foxborough Free Press, July 4, 2017
Statistically, the New England Patriots' offense and defense are polar opposites.

Despite not being fully loaded due to injury and chemistry issues, the Patriots offense leads the NFL in total offense and in just about every passing statistic you could come up with, while the defense ranks last in total defense and in just about every passing statistic you could come up with.
Cooks and Brady have what it takes to help out the defense

Offensively, quarterback Tom Brady is playing out of his mind, and is on pace for 5,800 passing yards and 43 touchdowns - that is unless he gets killed before then, his offensive tackles playing a game of revolving doors with defensive ends that could see him sacked over 50 times this season.

His pass catchers could all have career numbers if things continue to play out, with wide receiver Brandin Cooks on pace for a 53 catch, 1365 yard season, while tight end Rob Gronkowski (85, 1269), the ever-clutch Danny Amendola (74, 1100), Chris Hogan (53, 821), and James White (64, 702) are all trending towards monster years...

...all the while, the defense is trying different combinations of personnel and alignments in order to mitigate the double-whammy of breaking in new players on top of injury and/or attitude among key incumbents.

Along the way, they have made opposing quarterbacks look like world beaters and made opposing defenses look they are running in circles - and the scary thing is, they are nowhere close to being where they want to be on either side of the ball. But the offense is closer and in a much better position to control the dynamics of a football game.

For example, back in July we opined on NBA Superstar Lebron James' remarks that he couldn't consider Tom Brady the greatest athlete in the world because he doesn't affect both sides of the ball by stating that, in essence, offenses in general and quarterbacks in particular have the ability to affect the defensive side of the ball more than most people realize.

Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick calls it "Complmentary Football", where if the team is running at full efficiency, it is because the defense feeds off the field position afforded them by the offense and special teams, and vice-versa, but while the defense is largely reactionary by nature, the offense seeks to control defenses by forcing them to react to various stimuli.

When an offense goes into a spread formation, the defense counters by sending it's corners to all points of contact, and if the formation calls for an empty backfield, the box between the hash marks is lightened up because the possibility of a running play decreases exponentially - conversely, if the offense goes into a "Jumbo" package with two tight ends and a fullback, the defense would normally stack the aforementioned box with plenty of big bodies to stem the likelihood of a running play.

The offense can also control things like how much time rolls off the clock, which is the main point.

The Patriots have had 37 offensive possessions in the first three games of the season, scoring on 17 of those (45%), but out of those scoring drives, ten of them came in at under 3:00 per possession and of those, eight came in at under two minutes - and on possessions where the Patriots did not score, 18 of those came in at under three minutes and thirteen of those eighteen came in at under two minutes.

The proof of how time of possession affects the team shows in breaking down the individual games. Against New Orleans in the second game of the season, New England  averaged a whopping 4:00 per possession and scoring seven times while limiting the number of possessions for each team to ten for the game...

...but in games against the Chiefs and the Texans, the Patriots averaged 2:07 and 2:00 per possession, respectively, allowing each team 14 and 13 possessions.

How much difference did those extra seven possessions make in the outcome of each game? It can only be speculated, but it goes to figure that the less opportunities a team has to score, the less of a chance they have to score - but it also goes to figure that a defense that has four minutes on the sidelines as opposed to two will be fresher and more rested and, therefore, better able to resist the opposing offense's whim.

Now, the offense isn't responsible for chunk plays given up by the defense, of which there has been a bundle - in fact, the offense isn't responsible for any of the miscues, communications errors or poor tackling by the defense, but they can help mitigate their effect by limiting the number of times the opposing offense has the ball, and can put their special teams in good spots to flip field position to expand the field.

Of course, this means that the Patriots would have the ball less often as well, but given the rate at which they score, that could still translate (and has translated) to over 30 points a game, particularly when winning the coin toss and deferring to the second half where they could potentially gain one extra possession.

It is also to be remembered that this defense is dealing with the aforementioned two-headed albatross in that they are dealing with injuries to core players and are breaking in new players - something that sometimes works on the fly, but most times not - whatever the case, those things are important to remember when breaking down the defense.

The front seven is most assuredly a work in progress, but it isn't as far away from being a finished product as most people fear.

The pass rush is getting to the opposing quarterback, as fellow Arkansas Hogs Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise have proven a handful for opposing tackles, Flowers leading the team with three sacks in as many outings and Wise notching two in as many games - and early-season addition Cassius Marsh is now playing as advertised and registering a sack and a couple of quarterback hits after a rough start.

There is no way to properly address the horrific run defense except to point out that of the 391 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry that the Patriots' opponents have posted against them, other than the usage of personnel on the second level has been, shall we say, curious?

Indeed,  Star linebacker Dont'a Hightower has been missing since a little more than halfway through the season opener, and in his stead have been the odd couple mix of Kyle Van Noy and whomever is healthy enough to pair with him. Veteran David Harris hasn't been used at all and fellow run-stuffers Elandon Roberts and Harvey Langi have been used sparingly while the Patriots have chosen to go light in the box in order to get enough coverage on their opponent's pass catchers - so there are certainly resources available, especially if Hightower returns to the lineup.

The injury situation at linebacker has taken the most toll on the defense, opposing quarterbacks toasting the underneath coverages as over half of the total targets on the year have gone for 469 yards and six of the ten touchdown allowed by the defense thus far. At first, safety Jordan Richards was tried at weakside linebacker, which proved disastrous, and the Big Nickel isn't as effective as in years past as Patrick Chung appears to have lost a step in coverage.

That said, the secondary has been the real head-scratcher, as the Patriots sport the worst pass defense in the league, statistically, despite having one of the strongest lineups in the league on paper.

Having Eric Rowe missing for the past game and a half has stung, but Jonathan Jones has filled in admirably, and newly-minted top corner Stephon Gilmore has recovered from a rough season opener to post consecutive solid games. Malcolm Butler has been off his game as either communication or attitude have retarded his growth and chemistry - though he put in a solid performance against the Texans.

Obviously, both Jordan and Chung are seen as liabilities in coverage, leaving free safety Devin McCourty hanging out to dry a couple of different times on chunk plays that make up a great deal of the passing yardage.

That's an easy fix.

As mentioned in previous articles, Butler plays like a linebacker in a corner's body and could tremendously impact the underneath coverages by assuming the role of the Big Nickel "Star" linebacker that Jordan and Chung are struggling with, turning the biggest issue on the defense into a positive as Butler's speed and feistiness fit right into the job description of a coverage hybrid.

Something that isn't get enough airplay is the fact that punter Ryan Allen is struggling mightily, netting just 37 yards per punt attempt, most of his kicks flipping end over end. Punters are weird, like pitchers in baseball, and get into grooves where they struggle with aim and consistency, so it's likely that Allen has just reached a dry spot and needs to get off a couple of boomers to get back to his old self, who is a field position-flipping weapon.

The good news is that the Patriots are 2-1 and the injured defensive players are expected back sooner rather than later, but it is obvious that the offense and special teams are going to have to help out the defense until things start coming together for them - and the offense could start by getting their backs more involved, while Allen gets back to his normal production.

The problems on defense are not insurmountable, and with all three elements of the team improving each week, getting healthier each week and playing complementary football each week, the Patriots can be the complete juggernaut they need to be to get back to the Super Bowl.

If they can't do these things, it's bound to be a long, anxiety-filled season with no guarantees at the end...

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

"Bill Of Accommodations", Not Anything Tangible, To Blame For NFL Flap

"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than the absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."  - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Penned from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King's reply to fellow clergy posed to him in correspondence in regards to his protests in that town was a visceral beatdown of the the leaders of the churches who found the protests to be ill-timed, and that he should be content to let time bring about change.

King's response to the clergy, who were predominantly Caucasian, meant that while he appreciated their concern for his well being, as men of the cloth they should have a greater understanding of the premise behind the protests - which had become convoluted by the fact that he was considered an outside agitator by a loud majority of the residents, who cared neither for King nor his message...

...a message that became lost not only amid the hateful diatribe of the ill-meaning gentry, but also the well-meaning but insensitive pleading of the white clergy.

To King, it was more frustrating that the people who preached love and understanding had very little understanding that time had cured little in the struggle for civil rights - and that he had more patience for people whom he knew opposed him with hatred.

Why? Simply because he knew the agenda of the opposition, but wasn't so sure he could count on the people he should be able to. In other words, at least he could count on the the people who hated his message to be consistent in their hatred, and to understand his message, even though they didn't agree with it.

This same attitude has come into question with me as I watched NFL Players and owners display varying degrees of amplitude in their reply to inappropriate statements made by President Donald Trump in Huntsville, a straight hour-and-a-half iron shot north of Birmingham, during a rally for republican senate candidate Luther Strange.

Trump is a hated man for many, and is seen as an agitator to many, but the similarities to Dr. King begin and end right there. His statements seem to bring out the hatred in those who oppose him just as fiercely as those who opposed King, yet there seems to be no rhyme nor reason nor any direction to the loose cannon in the White House, where King's message was always pointed and consistent.

His statement regarding players who "disrespect the flag" by kneeling during the national anthem should be fired by the teams that employ them was uneven, detatched and unrealistic - and in turn caused a response that would have warmed King's heart because he understood the intent, but would have caused him to be frustrated with them.

The message has become lost, and the protests are now inspired by hatred for a man who is almost criminally loquacious rather than being inspired by racial inequality.

When Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the anthem on the sidelines of the San Francisco 49ers, his message was that he couldn't stand to pay homage to a flag and anthem of a nation that oppressed people of color, and one that subjected them to more forceful punishments - sometimes completely unwarranted - than what white folks would receive.

For that, Kaepernick divided a nation of football fans, and at the same time spurred protests that spiraled into the maw of ambiguity - because Kaepernick himself is no leader.  People who start movements are guided by people who have staunch beliefs and a clear message, not by a person who preaches civil rights then parades around in garb edifying persons who were some of the most violent civil rights violators in history.

Kaepernick is confused, as is Trump.  They both head off on tangents that stir the coals of unrest, yet their message is inconsistent and dangerous.

The movement that Kaepernick no doubt feels very strongly about is based on the shallow understanding of people who agree with his message, while his opposition is based on people with the same shallow understanding.  Both grasp at straws and use the words of leaders past for their own agenda, but the truth of the matter is that neither the movement nor the opposition have the leadership to further the cause.

So disjointed is the cause that every NFL team this past weekend hurriedly prepared statements denouncing Trump's impromptu and off-the-cuff remarks, then held protests either before or after the national anthem to show that the players and management of their organizations were unified in their resolve - but the unification came as a response to Trump, not to the original message.

That is a vital point that all of us are failing to understand, or at least have a shallow understanding of.

We want our citizens to be able to protest, but we set conditions on what is acceptable and what is not. We want our President to be clear-headed and impartial, but we set conditions on what those things mean.  We want everyone to have rights as stated in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but lawyers and politicians have diluted the interpretation of those rights to the point where we have a Bill of Accommodations instead.

To many, football is a sacred institution.

The game has evolved with the times, but never since President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban the game due to it's violent nature and seeming disregard for human life has it faced a crisis in which it is engaged today.

On Sunday, we all witnessed a coming together of a group of athletes to demonstrate unity in the wake of remarks made by current President Donald Trump regarding the practice of kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem - their response to his comments igniting a firestorm of visceral opinion among fans.

Which is fine on one hand, as it gave people a reason to regurgitate their feelings towards the President, but is wrong on the other hand because it is impacting the purity of a sport with political subterfuge.

The place for protest isn't on the sidelines of an NFL game.  The place for protest isn't on the stage at the Emmy's or Grammy's.  It isn't on stage at a popular Broadway musical and it's not at rally's for political candidates - or maybe it is, and an outside entity makes us have to tolerate it as part of the subculture.

Even that isn't clear.  The impetus for any of these things are fear and the hate that fear produces. But that fear is exasperated by a media that can't get enough of either, because both sell magazines, newspapers and ad space - and it's all must-read and must-see until it involves you, then it's fodder for protest and anger.

Like Stephen King once said, It stops being funny when it starts being you.

All of us have faced or will face an issue in our lives that we feel strongly about. There is no doubt that people who take the time to protest are motivated to do so - but where that motivation comes from is where we run into problems like the one dividing the nation today.

As a veteran, I served my country not because I felt an obligation as an American, and not because I'm any more patriotic than anyone else and not because my father served - I did so because a TV ad told me that I could be all I could be. I'm proud of my service, but I had an agenda, an agenda to make a better life for myself.

Is that the agenda that Kaepernick has? To make a better life for himself and for people of color, or did he just get a wild hair one day, got caught on TV and then improvised himself into a great divider? Did Trump run for President because he wanted a better life for all Americans, or did he pull a publicity stunt that gained steam until he found himself as a serious contender for the office?

As always, there's two sides of the story and the truth is probably in the middle somewhere - but it doesn't matter because all these two have done is politicize things that should have been left well enough alone, and forced their agendas onto our national consciousness.

I would never disrespect the flag, nor would I kneel during the national anthem - I don't feel strongly enough about that either way to really care if anyone else does - but what I do care about is that we live in a country that I feel is the land of opportunity for everyone, but that had been diluted by special interests that the aforementioned "Bill of Accommodations" has usurped what our forefathers intended for our rights to be.

Everyone wants more than the next guy.  When one group wins special treatment, the next group wonders why they don't get the same, and then the next group, and then the next, and before you know it, fights and protests break out and people start hating each other because they haven't been accommodated to the extent of others.

And that is the issue. It's not a President that can't keep his hands off his twitter handle. It's not a football quarterback that contradicts himself and confuses people. It's because people want what you have, and if they don't get it, they protest, which causes people to take sides, which causes turmoil, which causes people to get all bent out of shape, which causes hate.

I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't want what other people have, I'm simply suggesting that if one feels that strongly about it, they live in a country that affords everyone that opportunity through hard work and dedication, that they can be all they can be if they dedicate themselves to be so. To earn something is what we are given the opportunity for, and there's really no better feeling in the world.

And if that's what people are protesting by kneeling during the national anthem, then we have identified what exactly is wrong with the country today.

If someone else doesn't want you to have what they have, then you know their agenda. They can't stop you from striving for what they have, though they have demonstrated their misunderstanding from ill will, in which case, at least you know where you stand with them.

But as Dr. King said in his letter from decades ago, frustration comes from the shallow understanding of the issue at hand, and that's what has happened with the Country in the wake of this past weekend's war of words - the message has gotten lost - or at least diluted. It's now about politics, and there's no room for that.

The NFL teams may be united in their stance, but this has nothing to do with racial equality. The NFL and it's employees are united against someone calling them "Sons of bitches" - and very few of these players or owners cared enough to kneel before Trump opened his mouth...

...nor until the media egged them on.

Since when did football players get such thin skin, anyway?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Texans Win The Battles, But Patriots Win The War In Classic Shootout

For sure, the New England Patriots had been in bigger holes than they faced with time running down on them on Sunday afternoon.

The Houston Texans' defense had dominated the Patriots for the entire second half at Gillette Stadium, forcing three New England punts and surrendering just seven points and 131 total yards to what was supposed to be the most prolific scoring offense in modern history, and after being sacked six times, hit five more and fumbling twice, Tom Brady walked out onto the turf an Gillette Stadium needing 75 yards and a touchdown to beat the determined and violent Texans.

But after a holding call made the task a little taller, Brady did what Brady does and has done so many times in his storied career, pulling an eight-play drive out of his magic helmet, turning a five point deficit into a 36-33 Patriots victory that may just be a defining moment for the struggling Minutemen from Foxborough.

Ordinarily, one wouldn't call an offense that averages thirty-three points per game a struggling unit, but coming into the game, Brady had yet to develop a chemistry with newly-acquired wide receiver Brandin Cooks, and the rest of his pass catchers had been dealing with a variety of maladies that had been holding the New England offense far below their potential efficiency...

...but Brady found Cooks twice on the final drive, including the 25-yard gamer with 23 seconds left to go and the Patriots' much-maligned defense made it hold up as safety Duron Harmon emerged with the ball from a scrum in the New England end zone after a last-gasp Hail Mary from Houston rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson just missed it's mark.

Just the fact that New England is not purring along on offense and still averaging 33 points per game is both scary and ridiculous at the same time, but it becomes downright terrifying when it is considered that the line hasn't gelled as yet and the backs are spending more time picking up rogue blitzers than handling the football.

That is a trend that continued on Sunday, as James White and Dion Lewis had just four receptions between them, a direct result of the revolving door style of the offensive tackles needing two of the Patriots' most dynamic skill players to chip pass rushers coming off the edge so that the tackles can catch up to them.

That takes a critical element out of the Patriots' offense, holding it back from realizing it's potential, and the opposition knows it - but the alternative is subjecting Brady to undue physical abuse, and besides, Brady has started to develop a bond with Cooks, for which the blocking of the backs has a direct impact.

Cooks' breakout performance combined with the standard fare from fellow wide receiver Chris Hogan (4 catches for 68 yards and two touchdowns) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (8/89/1) helped the Patriots score 36 points for the second straight week - his five-catch, 131 yard performance doubling his production for the season and his two scoring grabs represented the first and second of his short career in New England...

...while Danny Amendola continues to show up in the most critical of moments to move the chains, hauling in four balls for 48 yards, none bigger than a tough 25-yard snag over the middle on third-and-eighteen to set up Cooks' gamer one play later.

A see-saw affair in which the team combined to use every inch of the new carpeting at Gillette, the contest between the two familiar rivals was an entertaining and physical main event that saw two heavyweights batter each other with haymakers, staggering each other but each unable to put the other away.

Watson was fantastic in just his second start as a professional, the zip he put on his throws when he stepped up in the pocket equaled only by his amazing Houdini-like escapability that had the New England defense on their heels all game and frustrated the pass rushers who had their hands on him several times, but ended up with nothing but thin air.

"That dude is a slippery quarterback" defensive tackle Alan Branch mused after the game, "It was really frustrating as a defensive front just seeing that we had him right our grasp and not quite being able to finish him off."

The Texans scored in combinations to keep the Patriots on the ropes most of the contest, New England scoring off the ropes like mean counter-punchers - and just like in boxing, when the hungry young fighter gives the gnarled old veteran a sliver of an opening, the veteran landed the fatal blow late in the match.

The Patriots opened the game like they usually do, marching right down the field to take the early lead on a Brady shot to tight end Rob Gronkowski, but then Houston gained control with a Fairbairn field goal and a Deshaun Watson laser to Bruce Ellington at the goal line to take a 10-7 lead in the first quarter - then after Chris Hogan found the corner of the end zone to give the Patriots the lead in the second, the Texans countered with fury...

...a Jadeveon Clowney fumble recovery for a touchdown followed another Fairbairn field goal gave the lead back to the Texans before another Hogan touchdown reception from 47 yards out gave the Patriots a one-point lead going into the room.

New England seemed to give themselves a little breathing room when Brady hit Cooks on a 42-yard deep crosser, who then engaged his thrusters to easily outdistance the coverage, but Houston's rookie quarterback took control of the game pulling Patriots' defenders to the weak side time and again and throwing across his body to complete the improbable pass.

His ability to extend drives coupled with the burden he put on both the pass rushers to chase him down and the secondary to hold contain on his receivers took it's toll in the second half, as he led drives that ate up at least three-and-a-half minutes on each, resulting in a scoring toss to tight end Ryan Griffin in the back of the end zone and two more Fairbairn field goals to put New England in the position of needing Brady to come through at the last second.

In contrast, and as much to the detriment of the defense as Watson's magic act, the Patriots' offense generated drives of more than three minutes just once in the game, more often than not holding the ball for less than two minutes, putting the defense back on the field without much of a rest.

"We (the offense) didn't do much there in the fourth quarter." Brady admitted in his post-game presser, "the defense kept holding them to a field goal and gave us just enough time."

So it is to the defense's credit that they found the intestinal fortitude to stop Texans' running back Lamar Miller short of the line to gain on the New England 18 - against a three-receiver set, no less - to force a field goal and give the ball back to Brady and the offense with a little over two minutes to play and with one time out remaining - and Brady rewarded them with a drive for the ages.

No need to elaborate further, as the old gunslinger converted on third-and-long twice to extend the final drive, eventually hitting Cooks for the toe-tapping gamer with an absolute rocket to fit the ball into the tightest of windows...

...and what great Patriots' comeback would be complete without Harmon coming down with a game-sealing interception in the end zone?

Brady channeled his inner John Lennon after the game stating, "I believe that love is the greatest thing we have. It overcomes a lot." - and so does practicing and focusing on situational football, because it was that which helped the Patriots to overcome the upstart Texans, who with sheer talent and a slippery quarterback won a lot of individual battles, but eventually lost the war.

Because, it's Tom Brady and he loves his teammates.

And because he's pretty good at what he does.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Patriots Must Dictate Terms To Houston's Rugged Defense

The Houston Texans' defense is an aggressive bunch...

...what with perhaps the most talented front seven in the game, a group of speedy sack artists and run-plugging brutes combined with an up-and-coming secondary, there is no reason to doubt that they will give the New England Patriots' offense all they can handle this coming Sunday, so it will be how the Patriots counter that aggressiveness that will be the difference between victory and defeat.

The last time these teams met when the games meant something, the Patriots beat Houston in Foxborough on a chilly January evening in the divisional round of the 2016 playoffs - but it wasn't easy, and many believe that if the Texans would have had any semblance of an efficient offense at all, it would have been Houston advancing to the AFC title game.

But all they could muster was a touchdown and a handful of field goals, never able to take advantage of the Patriots offense practically handing the Texans' defense the ball in a much-closer-than-the-score-indicates 34-16 win that ended the Texans' season and finished quarterback Brock Osweiler in Houston.

The Texans' defense, despite being down several impact players, gave up only 27 of those points, as New England got a nifty 69-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Dion Lewis and took advantage of three Osweiler interceptions - forever to be known as the "Rutgers Trifecta", as former college teammates Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon picked off three Osweiler offerings...

...turning them into two field goals and a short touchdown drive to turn what was tight game into a Patriots win going away, as New England produced just two sustained drives on the evening - one extended by a long pass interference penalty - mostly due to the Texans' aggression on defense that pulled Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady off his mark several times and harassed him all night long.

All of that, mind you, without All World defensive end JJ Watt as the Texans employed a deception-heavy scheme that had the offensive line and Brady with their heads on a swivel, wondering where the pass rush was going to come from time after time.

But this time, Watt is healthy and ready to lead the most talented squad of pass rushing greyhounds in the league against a Patriots' offense whose receiving corps has been ravaged by injury and whose offensive line has featured a pair of matadors on the edges, forcing Brady to climb the pocket to be able to step into throws - sometimes letting them go off his back foot as the pocket collapses around him.

Not all is lost for the Patriots, though, as the backfield has performed as expected and the interior offensive line has held fast.

Injuries have piled up for New England, however, as pass catchers Chris Hogan, Philip Dorsett and Rob Gronkowski, right tackle Marcus Cannon and runner Rex Burkhead all suffered lower-body injuries last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints - but while Cannon and Burkhead appear to be destined for the shelf this Sunday, Hogan, Dorsett and most importantly Gronkowski all figure to participate in some capacity.

New England should also be welcoming back receiver Danny Amendola, who should provide a boost to Brady's arsenal, provided Brady stays on his feet long enough to get the ball to him.

Houston defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel moves his front seven around in a sort of chaotic jumble, at times bringing defensive ends and linebackers straight up the middle in three or four man rush packages while dropping them into coverage on others.  There is no way to predict where the rush is coming from, but there is a way to mitigate their impact.

It's called using your running backs.

In James White and Dion Lewis, the Patriots have dual mismatch threats that, if used in tandem, should be able to dictate to the Texans how they approach their pass rushing scheme.  Both are excellent receivers and fine runners, but it is their skill in picking up rogue linebackers on the blitz that up their value to New England, particularly against the heavy pressure that Houston can bring.

Both give up half a foot in height and seventy pounds in weight, on average, to the Texans' pass rushers, but are equal to them in size of heart, willingly putting their bodies between Brady and those human flying projectiles to achieve the greater good - which against Houston means giving Brady an extra half-second to go through his progression...

...which is going to be important given that right tackle Cannon is most likely a no-go and the powerful yet far-from-limber Cam Fleming is his understudy - which is bad in and of itself, but it becomes a waking nightmare when facing Watt on the edge.

Things don't get much better on the other side with Nate Solder's lateral agility in question after revolving door performances in the first two contests, leaving the interior of the Patriots line as the strength of the unit - center David Andrews and guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney forming a tupperware-like seal up the middle that has allowed just two pressures and one sack, combined.

They have not faced pass-rushing talent like Houston's this season, but the memory of being abused by them in the playoffs last January is probably still thick in their minds.

Of course, while the offense starts with the offensive line, they are just one piece of the whole puzzle that last January saw the Patriots lean heavily on now-injured and unavailable wide receiver Julian Edelman, who accounted for 13 of the 22 Brady targets to receivers, and half of the team's receiving yards.

But New England shouldn't be looking to repeat that performance from eight months ago, as without timely penalties on the Texans' defense and ineptitude displayed by their offense, that would have been a losing effort.  The Patriots played the "Take what they give us" game then, and the same mindset in this game could have disastrous results.

The key with the Texans' defense is to force the issue to get them out of their game, to dictate to them what formations they can run, what personnel can play and to wear them down to take advantage of them late in the game.

The most fundamental of these tasks is to use their aggressiveness against them in establishing a running game while maintaining their ability to spread the field horizontally - and the best way to do that, particularly in light of the injury issues among the pass catchers, is to use dual backs in White and Lewis, moving them around in a pre-snap cadence to identify who's rushing and who's covering and to adjust accordingly.

Of course, the best way to get that moving is through the no-huddle offense - not a two-minute, hurry up, but with a four-minute clock-killing approach that keeps the defense in their stances for a protracted amount of time while Brady scans the field to identify mismatches.

The purpose of this approach is two-fold. With that much time at the line of scrimmage - and all the while Brady barking out cadence - the Texans are likely to tip their hand in coverages, especially if they are worn down by the Patriots' no-huddle tactics, which includes the energy-sapping ploy of holding the pass rushers in their stances.

After the effects of this course of action take hold, Brady can start mixing up both the cadence and the timing to gain even more advantage.

Look, all of this is basic, fundamental football. The Patriots' offense is predicated on misdirection along the offensive line to give the appearance that the play call is a run when in fact it is a pass and vice-versa.  New England uses their guards - in particular right guard Mason - as a pulling lead blocker in the running game, but also will pull him to draw the defense to the strong side, catching them light on the weak side...

...where a back or one of Brady's speedy little pass catchers will be waiting in the flat or up the sidelines on a wheel route, or even going over the top if the safeties bite hard and crash down to provide run support.

A defense really takes their chances on the play action against New England, as the Patriots do this as well as anyone, and with the ability of their backs to run between the tackles, pick up the blitz and catch the ball out of the backfield, they are the most versatile players on the turf and will be keyed on by defenses to sniff out plays. But just because the Patriots would be in a two-back set doesn't mean that their playbook is limited, because both White and Lewis are capable of lining up anywhere in the formation.

Which means, of course, that in a concerted effort with Hogan, Gronkowski, Amendola, Cooks and perhaps Dorsett, the Patriots can still spread the Texans' thin both horizontally and vertically.

It's called dictating to the defense, not just taking what the defense gives you.  It's the Patriot way.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Gap Integrity, Edge-Setting Key For Patriots Defense Against Texans

The Houston Texans are an enigma.

On defense, they possess perhaps one of the best front sevens in the National Football League, yet they can't stop the run when opposing offenses spread them out. They sport a secondary that is so injured that they are being held together with duct tape and prayers, yet they are a top five pass defense unit.

Offensively, their passing game is just plain offensive, ranking dead last in the league and averaging 104 yards per game, being barely outgained by their running game, which would also be in the toilet were it not for a nifty, long touchdown run by their quarterback last week against the Bengals.

So on paper, the New England Patriots' defense should be able to put the beatdown on the Texans in Foxborough this coming Sunday.
Wise (91) and Flowers should be able to get to Watson this Sunday

Hell, they should be able to punch them in the mouth, take their lunch money and stick bubble gum in their hair for good measure - but only if the Patriots play their game, dictating to the Texans' offense instead of falling for the inevitable trickery and unconventional approach that coach Bill O'Brien will try to cook up in order to go blow-for-blow with the powerful Patriots' offense.

Because despite their abysmal play in 2017, the Texans are built to compete against the likes of New England, and the things that they can still do well on both sides of the ball feed directly into what the Patriots struggle with both offensively and defensively.

For example, the Patriots traditionally struggle defending against mobile quarterbacks (Hello, Alex Smith) and give up a frustratingly significant number of first downs to such - and the Texans' just happen to employ a fellow by the name of Deshaun Watson, a rookie who feels pressure in the pocket whether it's there or not, and will tuck the ball and run like a like a pooch that just stole a hot dog at a bar-b-que.

His success ratio after being flushed out of the pocket is hit or miss, but he showed how elusive he can be against Cincinnati last Sunday, weaving through their secondary for a 49 yard touchdown scramble - but he's also been sacked seven times in six quarters of play.  In fact, Texans' quarterbacks have been sacked 13 times in two games, and given the fact that three of their starting offensive linemen have been out of the lineup, that's not too surprising.

New England's top two pass rushers, former Arkansas teammates Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise, have to be salivating at the prospect of facing such a depleted line, especially given that against the Bengals, the Texans played predominantly with a six-offensive lineman set, sacrificing their tight end play (They were down to a fourth-string tight end anyway) for an extra blocker to try and keep Cincinnati's monstrous pass rush off of Watson, but to no avail as the rookie took several mean shots and is listed as questionable on the Texan's injury report.

But when Watson did find time in the pocket, he was single-minded in targeting DeAndre Hopkins on over half of his throws and used running back Lamar Miller as his safety valve.  Houston was hoping to get wide receiver Will Fuller, who has been inactive due to a broken collarbone, back this week - and he has returned to practice but has already been ruled out for Sunday's game...

...which means that Watson's targets will consist of Hopkins, Miller, tight end Ryan Griffin and wide receivers Bruce Ellington and Braxton Miller - not exactly a Murder's Row of downfield threats, though Griffin returning from the concussion protocol could spell trouble for New England's Patrick Chung, who appears to have lost a step in coverage.

While it shouldn't be a difficult task to generate pressure on Watson, the edge rushers will have to be alert to the Texans' tackles powder-puffing them, allowing them to rush upfield around the pocket, leaving the flat open for both the screen and for Watson to scamper off into.  Like they would against any mobile quarterback, the Patriots will try to keep him in the middle of the field...

...where the Patriots defense could counter by mixing things up a little in their coverages, perhaps playing in their Big Nickel alignment but with cornerback Malcolm Butler playing in the stead of Chung as an impromptu "strong safety".

Butler has benefitted in the past by teams picking on a weaker set of corners opposite him, but now that the team employs bigger corners in Stephon Gilmore and the up-and-coming Eric Rowe, Butler is being exposed by teams that have the edge in mismatches, particularly underneath where he is not always able to fight through pick plays.

Butler brings the wood against the run, is great at sniffing out screens and has elite closing burst, plus he matches up well in size with running backs and has the speed advantage over tight ends - he seems to be more in his element when he sees the play unfold in front of him, and with Jonathan Jones making a case to take over in the slot, it's going to take some finagling to get Butler involved, perhaps at the expense of Chung.

One ploy we could see from the Texans is coach Bill O'Brien taking a page from the Kansas City Chiefs' bag-o-tricks, implementing a series of shuffle passes to get the ball to receivers crossing the face of Watson, which the Chiefs were moderately successful doing.  The Texans don't have the overall talent like Kansas City does, but they will have Allen back this week and Braxton Miller could be a candidate for a little trickery...

...Ellington as well, though those are some mighty big trees for the 5' 9" speedster to have to navigate through, especially coming off of injury.  Ellington is pure smooth hell on the bubble and counter screens, however, which feeds right into the game plan that the Texans will have to employ to have any chance of generating enough points to make a game out of it.

The Texans switched from veteran quarterback and stationary target Tom Savage midway through their season opening loss to Jacksonville and inserted the mobile rookie in hopes of being able to generate offense, but it has been a work in progress, with the progress being marked with baby steps.

Given the injury situation in Houston and the likelihood that New England comes into the game relatively healthy on defense, holding the Texans down like both Jacksonville and Cincinnati did could be a big morale booster for a defensive unit that has it's doubters.

Much of that doubt comes from the communications issues the secondary had against the Chiefs that resulted in three chunk plays that turned a tight game into a laugher that Kansas City took advantage of - and even though that same secondary gave up 350 yards to Drew Brees and the Saints last Sunday, the majority of those yards came in the second half with New England leading comfortably.

So, in a nut shell, Houston must attack the Patriots' defense by establishing a running game, which would bring Chung (or whoever is playing the Big Nickel) up into the box, then targeting Miller and rookie back D'Onta Foreman in the short passing game to both spread the field horizontally and keep the heat off of Watson - then they can use the play action to pick and choose their shots downfield.

Part of the game plan should include some of the aforementioned shuffle passes, though with an emphasis on the running game being a given, having seldom-used veteran run stuffer David Harris in the middle of the defense may mitigate that type of play with his instincts and experience.

The key is for the Patriots to stay in their gaps up front, don't fall for the powder-puff approach from the tackles and keep Watson inside the hashmarks.

It goes without saying that this will be a game where the Texans' defense will have to hold the Patriots well below their 31.5 points per game average to have any chance of winning, and we'll cover that in the next piece...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Patriots Discover That The More Things Change, The More They (Must) Stay The Same

"We always try to play well early. Whether we're home or away, we always try to get off to a fast start. We did things well early in the game, so we were able to get that going." - Bill Belichick

There is no better example of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy in play than what we saw from the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon in New Orleans.

The Erhardt-Perkins offense sparked the mantra "Pass to score, run to win" to accommodate the changing world of professional football in the mid-to-late 1970's, when the league started changing things up to spark an uptick in the popularity of the sport.

For example, in 1972 through the 1977 NFL seasons, the NFL instituted rules that were supposed to make the game more exciting by playing with the location of the hash marks more towards the middle of the field so that since the rules already stated that the ball was to be placed between the hash marks, it theoretically would open up the outsides so receivers could have more room to separate from the ball placement...

...but what ended up happening is that it instead helped defensive coordinators disguise coverages more efficiently and opened up the middle of the field for the running game, so it took a strong running game to force the defense to commit to stopping the run before the passing game could work effectively.

The Patriots were one of the best at taking advantage of the rule changes, as they had an elite running game led by the likes of Sam Cunningham, Andy Johnson and Don Calhoun, the Patriots owned the middle of the field - because not only were those backs great runners, but they also represented three of the top four receiving threats on the team.

But things started to change in 1978 when the league implemented the Illegal Contact rules that freed up receivers and made trying to disguise coverages an exercise in futility.  The impact was immediate as receivers Stanley Morgan (25.1 yards per reception), Harold Jackson (20.1) and tight end Russ Francis (13.9) proved so dangerous outside the hash marks that they had to be double-covered, opening up the Patriots' punishing ground game to set an NFL rushing record that still stands today.

They passed the ball to score early, usually on long chunk plays, then ran the ball to move the chains and kill the clock.  It worked so well that quarterback Steve Grogan went from throwing for 1900 yards in 1976 to 2800 yards in 1978, finding enough room underneath to contribute over 500 yards on the ground as well.

Now, Tom Brady is never going to contribute 500 yards rushing in a season - he has gained just 950 yards in seventeen seasons - but he still runs the offense as if Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins were calling the shots.

In both 2017 contests thus far, Brady has come out flinging the ball all over the place, but the approaches have been different.

Against the Chiefs, head ball coach Bill Belichick seemed to want to test Kansas City's run defense, as they finished last season among the bottom four teams in the league in that department and did little in the offseason to repair it - but after some initial success with James White carrying the load, he found out the hard way that if the Chiefs were expecting a run, they played it well.

Twice on fourth and less than one yard to go, power back Mike Gillislee was stoned for no gain, and White was held short of the line to gain on a third and short - and it just so happened that those plays turned out to be pivotal points that gave advantage to their opposition - but against New Orleans, the Patriots attained proper balance by sticking to the tenets of their offensive philosophy, and it gained them the typical results.

Those aforementioned tenets produced a 30-13 halftime lead for the Patriots, who scored on five of their six first half possession while racking up 300 of their 447 passing yards, then switched gears in the second half to eat clock, picking up 59 of their 119 rushing yards as all four of their second half drives ate up at least 3:35 off the game clock.

Pass to score, run to win.

It has been effective enough to make the Patriots the top offense in the National Football League after two weeks, averaging 342 yards per game through the air and 462 total yards per game, and have them sitting at sixth in scoring despite putting up just 16 second half points - a typical disparity of the Erhardt-Perkins scheme where the offense is looking more to move the chains and chew up clock than anything else.

The defense? They rank next to last in both passing yards and total yards yielded, and 29th in points surrendered.

None of these numbers mean very much after just two weeks of play, as evidenced by Oakland, Denver, Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams being the top four scoring offenses after being middle-of-the-road entities in 2016 and Carolina and Buffalo being atop the football world on defense despite being two of the worst units in the league last season...

...but it does mean that the Patriots have played one game where they didn't play complementary football - that would be against the Chiefs when in the second half and up by six points, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels forgot his scheme and tried going vertical against a team built to defend such a thing.

The results were predictable, as the Patriots "vertical" offense produced just two drives out of eight that were over two minutes in length, putting their defense back on the field against an offense with ridiculous speed and a powerful running game.

That was corrected against the Saints as the Patriots went back to their bread-and-butter short passing game while spreading the field horizontally, moving the chains methodically and chewing up both yardage and clock on drives of 8, 9, 9 and 7 plays for nearly eighteen minutes - which produced the also-predictable results of a victory pulling away from their opponents in the second half.  In response, the New England defense had to be on the field for just five second half possessions totaling 12:40 of game clock.

So, the Patriots got back on track against the Saints after whatever that was that they were experimenting with against the Chiefs - and if they continue to play their game, they should be able to settle into the kind of football that has made them successful for going on two-decades now...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Patriots Return To Bread-And-Butter Offense, Pound Saints

That was more like it.

Coming off of a season-opening loss in which the New England Patriots scored enough points to win, but had issues sustaining drives, they had no such trouble against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, dominating the time of possession in a not-as-close-as-the-score-would-indicate 36-20 win at the Super Dome.

In the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on opening night, the Patriots managed drives totaling over three minutes on just two of the fourteen possessions, punting six times and turning the ball over on downs twice while splitting the time of possession with the Chiefs - but against the Saints, seven of New England's ten possessions topped the three-minute mark, and they punted just three times...
Chris Hogan wide open of those a "mercy rule" punt from the Saints twenty-five yard line late in the fourth quarter as the Patriots held the ball ten minutes longer than New Orleans with a balanced attack that featured their tight ends and running backs to compensate for their lack of healthy wide receivers.

How much of a disparity was there in touches between the wide receivers and the rest of the "skill" position players? of the 70 plays run by the Patriots' offense, only 16 went to wide receivers as the heavy lifters carried the load for New England, accounting for almost 80% of the workload.

Of course, the Patriots came into Sunday's game with just three healthy wide receivers, which was perhaps a blessing in disguise as it forced offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to go to his bread-and-butter offense, moving the chains with the short passing game with Mike Gillislee power runs sprinkled in to keep the Saints' defense honest.

The result was an attack that shredded the Saints for 555 total yards and produced four touchdowns and three Stephen Gostkowski field goals.

The efficiency of the New England offense proved a boon to the Patriots' defense, who faced no short fields and were able to get proper rest between Saints possessions, something that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick would call complementary football.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees got his typical 300-plus yards, but did so by going an ordinary 27 of 45 and only one touchdown pass when the game was still in question, throwing a second scoring toss in garbage time with the Patriots in prevent mode - most of his big plays coming at the expense of Patriots' safety Patrick Chung, whom Brees picked on mercilessly...

...getting big plays from wide receiver Brandon Coleman, tight end Colby Fleener and running back Alvin Kamara with the veteran strong safety in coverage as defensive coordinator Matt Patricia mixed up underneath coverages and alternating slot responsibilities between Chung and emerging cornerback Jonathan Jones.

The efficiency of the Patriots' offense also affected the Saints running game, putting New Orleans in an early hole and limiting the touches for backs Melvin Ingram and Adrian Peterson, which is fortunate as they averaged nearly five yards a pop in their sixteen combined carries against a Patriots' defense that was clearly playing to stop the Saints passing game.

Brady scoring tosses of 19 yards to running back Rex Burkhead and 53 yards to tight end Rob Gronkowski and 13 yards to wide receiver Chris Hogan staked New England to a 20-3 lead after one quarter, then a short Gillislee run and a Gostkowski field goal gave the Patriots a 30-13 going into the room at the half...

..and even though the Patriots' offense scored only twice more on field goals in the second half, they never varied from their aforementioned bread-and-butter approach, content to move the chains and limit Brees' time on the field.

And that is a huge departure from the previous week, when they scrapped their offensive philosophy in favor of testing the Chiefs vertically, resulting in short fields and many points for the Kansas City offense.

Was the Patriots' offensive approach really a return to that short passing game, move the chains approach that has been so successful for them for going on two decades now, or was it merely from lacking the weapons to spread the field vertically?  Whatever it was, it should have sent a message to the powers that be on the New England sideline.

The message? Never forget and never stray from what has produced eleven conference championship appearances, seven Super Bowls and five Lombardi Trophies in seventeen years.

Friday, September 8, 2017

UnPatriots-Like Patriots Hammered In Opener

Who were those guys?

For brief spurts in the first half of the New England Patriots' season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots looked like the champions of old, but for most of the rest of the game, they resembled a rag-tag bunch of kids on the playground, picked by a captain who thought they were bigger, faster and smarter than the other kids.
A dejected Brady leaves the field

Then they proceeded to do what kids do, chucking the football around seemingly indiscriminately, throwing the ball deep like fantasy stars when the better call would have been to throw underneath, drawing up plays in the dirt with all of the pass catchers yelling, "I'm open deep, throw it to me!"

These were not the New England Patriots.

The New England Patriots play move-the-chains, ball control offense and sturdy, limit-the-big-play defense.  The New England Patriots are disciplined in their blocking assignments and in playing their gaps.  The New England Patriots show up and play their best in the biggest of moments.

But these New England Patriots chose the "Fantasy Star" route on offense, were overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage when they needed just inches to gain and fell into a mundane rotation of play calling, all the while the defense fell for Kansas City's offense lulling them into a false sense of security, then striking at just the right moment.

In other words, the Kansas City Chiefs played their game and stuck to it while the Patriots played right into their hands - and in the end, the defending world champions left the field with bubble gum stuck in their hair and their lunch money taken.

And that includes the coaching staff, as the game plan on both sides of the ball was decidedly unpatriotic, as they seemed to want to try and surprise the Chiefs with trickery and general tomfoolery instead of playing the game of football the way it was meant to be played, and the 42-27 final score was their punishment from the football Gods.

Many will look at quarterback Tom Brady's 16 of 36 stat line and automatically think that the game has passed him by.  They will look at the 3.5 average yards gained per rush and think that head ball coach and general manager Bill Belichick made a mistake in bringing in all of these redundant talents in the backfield.  They will look at the secondary and the defense as a whole and wonder why Belichick brought in free agents instead of paying the players he already had.

But the real problem had nothing to do with any of that.

Sure, Brady looked like recently-traded Jacoby Brissett at times, throwing too deep for his receivers to get to and the running game at times looked like a reincarnation of the 2015 squad that couldn't gain a yard to save their lives in the playoffs, and the defense collectively resembled a punch-drunk boxer that was seeing three opponents and lunging at one of the apparitions...

...but this game was dictated by the poor play calling on the part of the Patriots' coaching staff, who apparently thought that they could just take the field and have Brady heave the ball down the field and let Randy Moss just float underneath the ball and they would score 48 points.

Of Brady's 20 incompletions on the evening, thirteen were deep balls - and of those, just one, a 57 yard strike to Brandon Cooks, was a completion. The rest were badly overthrown.  In contrast, on balls thrown by Brady in the conventional Patriots' design, he was 15 of 23 for 210 yards.  With the offense properly balanced, the running game accounted for a stat line of 23 carries for 119 yards, but when they really needed just inches, they were 7 for five yards.

Before the season started, the fans' expectations of the team had to be tempered as visions of Randy Moss danced in their heads - but even those who had those tempered expectations had to be disappointed with the way the weapons on offense were used.

The biggest and most disappointing example was how the backs were used in the passing game. Normally a staple of any Patriots' offense, the four backs combined accounted for just four receptions on eight targets, with just two of the four backs ever becoming involved.  Mike Gillislee, the closest thing the Patriots have to a lead back in their "By-committee" approach wasn't targeted in the passing game at all, nor was human joy stick Dion Lewis, who barely saw the field on offense.

This was the fundamental flaw in New England's offensive game plan.  This is a team that gets the ball to their backs and receivers in space in the short passing game, allowing them to make yardage after the catch - and it has been a staple of the success of the team for going on two decades, but when the Chiefs dropped eight into the coverage, the Patriots abandoned that plan and went over the top, with disastrous results.

As a result, all the Chiefs' defense really had to do was to play a standard nickel defense and let the Patriots' game plan play to their favor.

On defense, the Patriots played a curious style in which they had four safeties on the field for much of the evening, seemingly overly-concerned about Chiefs' tight end Travis Kelse, whom they shut down for the most part, but in exchange Kansas City took advantage of the alignment to sucker the New England defense into playing a box-heavy game, then pinned them inside and went all Brady-to-Moss on the Patriots.

Despite the relatively poor play from the Patriots, the still led 17-14 six minutes into the third quarter when Chiefs' quarterback Alex Smith hit a wide open Tyreek Hill in stride for a 75 yard score to give Kansas City their first lead, but the Patriots responded with ten straight points to retake the lead 27-21 in one of the brief glimpses of Patriot' football on the night...

...but then in one felled swoop, the Chiefs doubled their point total on the night on a New England defense that completely collapsed down the stretch.

Kansas City took the lead for good on a 75 yard bomb to rookie running back Kareem Hunt, taking advantage of the box-heavy Patriots who were suddenly without their "Jack" linebacker Dont'a Hightower who was rolled up on from behind and sprained his MCL, leaving him a spectator to the horror unfolding before his eyes.

Both long touchdown pass plays resulted from fundamental breakdowns in pass coverage, and then when New England compensated to limit the big pass play, the Chiefs rubbed their faces in the dirt with two consecutive speed runs around the the left corner, Hunt taking one 58 yards to the New England 21 yard line, where fellow running back Charcandrick West finished them off with the same play for an easy score.

To make matters even worse, after the Chiefs had taken an eight-point lead and knowing that Brady had no choice but to go deep where he had been inaccurate all night, they unleashed their heretofore docile pass rush and beat Brady to a pulp, ending any hopes of a miraculous comeback.

All of this said and true, the Patriots lost this game by trying to be something that they are not.  New England is not a vertical entity on offense no matter how much speed they possess on the outside, and they are not a team with enough depth on defense to allow the opposition to pin them inside the box and rely on a fourth safety instead of an edge-setting linebacker.

It's only one game - a game against an opponent that they regularly struggle against.  But the game calling suggested that the Patriots are trying to find themselves, which shouldn't be that hard to do - they just have to be what they've always been in the Belichick era, with a move-the-chains, ball control offense and a conservative, bend-but-don't-break defense.

On Thursday night they were neither against a good opponent, and they got their butts handed to them.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Opening Night: Patriots Hold Numerous Advantages Over Depth-Thin Chiefs

On initial inspection, the Kansas City Chiefs' defense is a train wreck.

After all, their defensive line lost one of the better nose tackles in the league and their best pass rushing five-tech is coming off of offseason surgery on his pecs - but unfortunately for the New England Patriots, the positives that the Chiefs do possess on defense could play into matching up with the defending world champions - with some luck on the injury front.
Harmon (30) and McCourty (32) will have hands full against Chiefs

Their two starting defensive ends, Chris Jones and Allen Bailey were recently activated after undergoing offseason knee and pec surgery, respectively, and their starting nose tackle, Bennie Logan, is a slight downgrade from a dominating force in Dontari Poe, who defected to Atlanta.

Their linebacking corps feature an aging Derrick Johnson, who has torn the Achilles tendon in both legs since 2014, and some ambiguity surrounding Tamba Hali, who has been replaced as a weak side starter by fifth-year rusher Dee Ford, and Justin Houston, who claims to be healthy after two years of dealing with bum knees.

But where the Chiefs potentially match up well with New England is in their secondary, where they have the personnel to run an effective nickel, using either a third corner in a conventional sub-package, or even a "Big Nickel", that will utilize a third safety.

The problem for them, however, is what will be the problem for every team on New England's schedule this season.

The Patriots can play the game any way you want.  They can force the issue and aggressively pound you into submission with their move-the-chains methodology or they can sit back and take whatever the defense gives them.  But New England biggest advantage on offense is that they can spread the field both vertically and horizontally at the same time, which will leave the middle of the field a virtual playground for quarterback Tom Brady to rule over like a bully.

There has never been a pass-catching depth chart in the history of the National Football League that comes close to what the Patriots are about to unleash - and so stacked are they in that department that teams will never be able to cover all of the weapons.

It all starts with Rob Gronkowski, who is both the Patriots primary weapon and ultimate decoy in the passing game, and perhaps the best blocking tight end in the game in the running game - he rarely comes out of the lineup and must be accounted for on each snap.

As mentioned, on paper the Chiefs are well-stocked in their secondary to account for the Patriots' pass catchers, but they have taken several hits on the injury front and may not actually have the personnel to pull off a coverage-heavy approach.

It is common knowledge that cornerback Steven Nelson has been placed on IR, leaving the second corner spot to Cowboys' retread Terrence Mitchell, which in turn leaves the slot to Phillip Gaines, who has dealt with chronic knee issues since entering the league - and to make matters worse, free safety Ron Parker is dealing with an ankle injury which has been limiting his participation in practice.

This has to be an issue for them coming into a game against the stacked Patriots.  Their linebacker depth doesn't exactly scream "coverage", with only Houston and Ford really capable of any sort of pass defense in the pattern - and if the Patriots spread them out thin running 12 personnel packages (one tight end, two running backs, two receivers), there will be no second level to back up in run support.

So the only way the Chiefs' defense is going to be able to mitigate New England's passing attack it to do exactly as Houston said earlier this week: Get to Brady.

That means sending extra rushers after Brady at the expense of doubling up Gronkowski, Hogan, Cooks, etc., but it's the only chance they have - and the Patriots can counter with the aforementioned 12 personnel, or even a 22 personnel package to pick up the extra blitzers and to move the chains with the short, timing-based passing game...

...and once the Chiefs get tired of giving up first down after first down and being on the field for 14 plays at a time, Brady can wait for his opportunity to hit one of his speedy wide outs for a big play - because, make no mistake, this feeds right into the Patriots' persona on offense.  They are a move-the-chains entity despite all of the speed and talent at their disposal.

The reason why is because methodically moving the chains is the most fundamental tactic in football.
The Patriots follow the mantra of the Erhardt-Perkins offense to the letter, in that they "Pass to score, then run to win.", meaning that the offense reaches it's optimum performance level when they are playing with the lead, though don't try to sell that to the Atlanta Falcons or their fans.  The proof of this is in the results.  Of the 19 games the Patriots played last season, they took the early lead in 14 of those contests...

...and did so the old fashioned way of methodically moving down the field with long, time consuming drives that sapped the energy out of the opposing defense.

The big question is, can the Patriots run the ball well enough to keep the Chiefs honest?  They should be able to, given that Kansas City's defense ranked 26th in run defense last season, and did nothing to improve the number.

On the opposite side of the ball, the Chiefs have an explosive offense, but unless rookie running back Kareem Hunt can move the chains for them in short yardage, the explosiveness of the offense can be assuaged simply by New England corralling the Chiefs' top two weapons in All Pro tight end Travis Kelse and All-everything wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

Both players have elite get-off and separation skills, so the Patriots will most likely bracket them more often than not with Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon playing double-high safeties, leaving the coverages to strong safety Pat Chung on Kelse and either Malcom Butler or Stephon Gilmore tight on Hill..

...though it would not be a stretch to see Gilmore or fellow corner Eric Rowe take on Kelse, as they are both tall and play the ball well in the air.  If Rowe is not on Kelse, he most likely would be assigned to cover the 6' 3" wide receiver Chris Conley.

In the running game, the Chiefs run primarily to the right, where they have as solid a set of strong-side blockers as anyone else in the league in guard Laurent Duverney-Tardiff and Mitchell Schwartz, anchored by up-and-coming center Mitch Morse.  The same can not be said about the left side, as undrafted free agent Brian Witzmann mans the left guard spot while colossal first-round bust Eric Fisher handles the blind side as left tackle.

That said, look for New England to load up on the blind side in the pass rush while shading to the strong side with a linebacker to guard against the run.  The one thing that New England defenders have to be acutely aware of is in over-pursuit in the pass rush, as the Chiefs like to let the opposition rush upfield, then dump the ball into the flat to one of their backs and to Hill, who lines up in the backfield on occasion.

All told, this looks like a winnable game for New England, if they move the chains and control the clock on offense to limit the possessions for the Chiefs.

Prediction: New England 42, Kansas City 24