Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Garoppolo Turns In His Clipboard For A Starting Gig In San Francisco

Jimmy Clipboard is gone.

In his place, no one can be sure except Bill Belichick and his collection of operatives, but the picture is much more clear in San Francisco, where Jimmy Garoppolo has ascended from Prince-in-waiting status with the Patriots to Top Cat with the 49ers as their starting quarterback - at least through the end of this season.

Garoppolo was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a 2018 second round draft pick on Monday evening, leaving a void in the Patriots' quarterback room and on their depth chart, as Belichick will briefly be without a backup to legendary signal caller Tom Brady.

Reaction in New England has been a mixed bag of Halloween candy - some liking the move as a way to get something for Grop before he hits free agency while others were running around like chicken little, wondering when the sky will start falling - the common thread being curiosity, not as to why he was dealt, but why now?

There were unsubstantiated rumors during the offseason and approaching the 2017 Draft that the Cleveland Browns had made Belichick a "Corleone" offer for the Eastern Illinois product - and apparently there was some sort of an offer, but reportedly not an offer he couldn't refuse - so Belichick decided to hold onto Garoppolo.

At the time, I first mused that if Belichick was going to deal Garoppolo before the season, that "The smart money has Garoppolo going to San Francisco for a second round draft pick and a myriad of mid-round picks." - but also that if Belichick didn't deal him then, that he was holding out until the trade deadline, hoping that some quarterback-needy team with a shot at the playoffs would emerge with a ridiculous offer.

As it turns out the team was a winless 49ers team with an eye towards the future and plenty of cap space, for the aforementioned second round pick.

Garoppolo is a perfect player to build a team around. He has spent three-plus seasons honing his craft under the tutelage of the greatest quarterback that has ever played the game - with two Super Bowl rings as Brady's understudy as proof of the mastery of his tutor - and is a somewhat proven commodity, having started two games last season filling in for Brady.

He is everything that you could want in a quarterback. He stands tall in the pocket and seems to have a sixth-sense in feeling pressure in the pocket without taking his eyes off of his progression of targets - he's still young, has very little mileage on his body and offers the poise and experience that is seldom found in quarterbacks coming out of college, no matter their draft position.

But what makes Garoppolo a perfect fit for San Francisco's offense is that his eyes are tied to his feet.

Garoppolo has the footwork of a much more experienced quarterback, and was regarded to have the best mechanics coming out of college since Dan Marino came out of Pitt in 1983: his arm always cocked, his feet are always balanced underneath him,  and he moves them in tandem with his eyes so that there is very little wasted movement.

His stance is compact and streamlined, so that when he catches one of his reads open, he can fire quickly - all of these things commenting on the fact that he has the quickest release in the game, following the tenets that made Marino great which his father called "Up and Out", which means to be stand tall in the pocket, have your arm cocked, then when you see your target bring the ball up and fire it out in one motion.

He's no Marino, but he's mobile, young and is movie star handsome - he has the features of a young Christopher Reeve and has been called "Prince Ali" by those who liken his looks to the main character in Disney's classic animated feature Aladdin - all perfect to lead the return of the 49er's franchise to the top of the football world.

And his departure from New England does not come without some regrets within the organization that they couldn't hang onto him for the long run.

"We probably had, in my opinion, the best quarterback situation in the league for the last - let's call it two-and-a-half years." Belichick said on Tuesday morning, "It's just not sustainable give the way things are set up. It's definitely not something we wanted to walk away from and I felt we rode it out as long as we could."

Continuing his soliloquy, Belichick hinted at the cause of the separation, which feeds into the notion that Garoppolo wanted to be a starter in the league now, and would not be pacified with any amount of money to wait for Brady to retire.

"We, over a period of time, explored every option possible to try and sustain it, but just at this point felt like we had to make a decision. It's a very complex situation on multiple levels and this is really the last window that we had and we did what we felt like was best for the team."

So "Jimmy Clipboard" finally becomes "Jimmy Football", and there's not many Patriots' fans that would disagree that the San Francisco 49ers are getting a quality signal caller.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Patriots' Running backs Taking Over Despite Lack Of Ground Work

At the midway point of the 2017 season, the New England Patriots have a logjam among their pass catchers, with four players within three receptions of each other - but the receiver that has distinguished himself as the go-to player in the absence of Julien Edelman is not a receiver at all.

Running Back James White has caught 43 balls on the season, twelve more than Danny Amendola, ten more than both Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan and nine more than Rob Gronkowski, and is on pace to obliterate every existing team record for a running back in the passing game - not only that, but his total is good for a seventh-place tie atop the NFL...

...tied with Detroit wide receiver Golden Tate and Philadelphia tight end Zach Ertz, and just six behind Carolina rookie Christian McCaffrey for the most catches by a running back.

There is reason to believe that White would be on this pace regardless of Edelman's season-ending knee injury in the preseason, as in 2016 he grasped quarterback Tom Brady's trust with a season for the ages, breaking Kevin Faulk's team records for receptions and receiving yards in a season, then stamped his name in football lore with an MVP-worthy performance in the Super Bowl.

If White stayed on this current course, he would catch 86 balls for 730 yards and a couple of touchdowns, and should also contribute in the running game with 56 carries for 240 yards and a 4.3 yards per carry average.

In that light, the running back corps are naturally the most dynamic of all of the skill positions on offense, and have collectively handled the football in exactly half of the Patriots snaps this season - yet there is a disparity in plays called between the passing game and the running game, something that head ball coach Bill Belichick lamented in his weekly conference call following his team's win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

"We've got to do a better job of running the ball, period." the Dark Master emphasized, sternly. "That's coaching the running game, designing the running game, blocking the running game, running the ball and other things associated with it."

Belichick  paused for dramatic effect, then offered, "We need to have more production than what we had yesterday or, I'd say, what we had overall over a period of time. We need to get more out of it."

Belichick's lengthy monologue was in response to a question about how teams defend the Patriots offense by dropping a strong safety into the box 90% of the time, specifically mentioning that teams routinely put a player in the six-technique over the tight end while everyone else is in a one-gap, gap-control alignment, which puts the running game at a disadvantage...

...which shows the respect that the opposition has for the Patriots' backs, an alignment that limits the backs in the ground game to four yards per carry on the season.

Which isn't bad, but certainly not elite - and that's not what the Patriots are about anyway.  Routinely, the short passing game has been used in New England as an extension of the running game, which would account for the aforementioned 50-50 split in touches between the passing game and the running game, and if one looks at these numbers from that angle, the Patriots' offense features tremendous balance.

The problem with taking that angle, however, is that it masks the fact that the offense is pass-heavy, which causes the opposing defenses to load up the box with a strong safety at the six-technique to harass Gronkowski while the designated pass rushers go full-throttle after Brady, who doesn't necessarily have the play action to fall back on simply because the defense doesn't respect the run.

Yet some reporters queried Belichick on the "extended" usage of the running game against the Chargers, and what made him stick with the run even though it was clearly not working against one of the worst run defenses in the league, even though the pass-to-run ratio was a typical 60-40 split.

"You've got a ball carrier and you've got a quarterback, so that's nine against eleven." Belichick huffed, "So you can't get a hat on every hat on the field, but you can get a hat on a hat at the point of attack in the running game. In the end, you have to block them, and at some point, a good back needs to gain some yards on his own and break a tackle or make somebody miss on a player that's not blocked."

As usual, it's tough to decipher exactly what Belichick means by his ranting soliloquies, but if taken at face value, one could conjure that he was unhappy with the run blocking against the Chargers, and leveled a bit of criticism at his stable of backs for perhaps not doing enough to elude tacklers that are not blocked.

Regardless, the Patriots' backfield is a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust entity, but the criticism appeared to be leveled at Gillislee, who ran for exactly three yards per carry, but offers next to nothing in the passing game, rendering him a one-dimensional player whom the opposition can key on when he is in the game - which may be the reason why he has lost snaps to Lewis and Burkhead, who are far more dynamic.

Perhaps Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels expected the Gillislee would produce more towards his 2016 numbers when he subbed-in for Shady McCoy in Buffalo, averaging an absurd 5.71 yards per carry, 3.34 of which came after contact.

Absurd to think it, let alone expect it? Well, considering that Lewis is averaging 3.91 yards after contact for the 2017 season, it's not too hard to guess why the diminutive yet powerful Lewis has usurped Gillislee as the Patriots' lead back, as Gillislee's 2.6 yards after first contact isn't even in the same area code as Lewis, nor Gillislee's numbers in Buffalo.

One would think it was a scheme thing, and maybe it is as Lewis is accumulating that yardage behind an offensive line built more for a sliding zone blocking scheme rather than Buffalo's drive blocking scheme that Gillislee's skill set is more attuned to, while Lewis thrives in the zone scheme where a back must cut and explode through cutback lanes.

White is another back that is used to playing behind drive blocking units in college at Wisconsin, but has found his niche as a "draw" back, a passing down back that accumulates 5.5 yards after the catch and averages 4.3 yards per carry, as does combo-back Rex Burkhead, whose wares were on full display last Sunday against the Chargers.

With Lewis clearly on the fast track, White ingrained as the draw back and Burkhead finding his footing in the Patriots' backfield as a change-of-pace, all-purpose back, it seems that Gillislee's impact on the offense will be as the four-minute back, though Lewis has seen time in that capacity as well.

There may not be another team in the NFL that gets as much balance out of their backfield, and certainly not one that has four backs contributing consistently, but the bottom line is that even though the Patriots' runners handle the ball on half of the offensive snaps, true balance cannot be attained until the running game mirrors the passing game...

...as only then will the opposition respect the Patriots' ground game, which will force the defense to defend the entire field because the play action can be invoked properly.  Until then, Brady will get the ball to his playmaking backs any way that he can and hope for the best.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Patriots Grind Out Another Close Win, Top Chargers 21-13

The New England Patriots can do anything they want against any defense in the National Football League - anything, that is, except consistently finish drives.

Case in point, on Sunday afternoon the Patriots' offense completely dominated a very good Los Angeles Chargers' defense, running 82 plays for 414 yards in total offense and controlled the game clock to the tune of an almost two-to-one advantage - and with those kinds of numbers one might expect that they blew the Chargers right out of Gillette Stadium...

...except that the New England offense stalled in the Chargers' quarter of the field on five consecutive drives and six drives overall, settling for field goal attempts and in the end scoring just twenty-one points, which is their second-lowest point output of the season.
White led all receivers in Patriots' win over Chargers

Fortunately for them, the Patriots' defense rose to occasion once again, continuing their upward trend from the worst defense in the league at the start of the season to one of the best at the midway point as New England won their fourth straight game to go into their bye week at 6-2, the best record in the American Football Conference.

The Chargers came into Sunday's contest as the best sub-.500 team in the National Football League, and if it weren't for a handful of bad breaks, they might have come out the best .500 team in the NFL.

After losing four straight to start the season, the Chargers had won three in a row and were poised to make a huge statement in the AFC West, where they trailed the Denver Broncos by just a half a game and division leading Kansas City by two games - three of their four losses were by two points or less and two of their three wins have been by five points or less - only a fourteen point loss to Kansas City and a 21 point shutout of the Broncos last Sunday, bucking the nail-biting trend.

So it shouldn't have come as a shock to anyone that the score was as close as it was, though the Patriots missed several opportunities to put the Chargers away throughout the second half.

New England was just one-of-four in the red zone on Sunday, their only conversion a short Tom Brady toss to tight end Rob Gronkowski on a drive that answered a quick Chargers' score and knotted the score at seven a piece.

A superb special teams play on a poor decision by Chargers' punt returner Travis Benjamin resulted in a safety for the Patriots that gave them a lead they wouldn't relinquish, but the ensuing New England possession stalled at the Los Angeles six and the first of six Stephen Gostkowski field goal attempts split the uprights to make the score 12-7.

The next Patriots' possession also stalled in the red zone, forcing Gostokowski onto the field to make the lead eight points going into the room at halftime, then Gostkowski missed an opportunity to increase the point total by three from 43 yards after Dion Lewis returned the opening kickoff of the second half 75 yards to the Los Angeles 25 yard line...

...though Gostkowski came through from the same distance on the next Patriots' possession to make the lead eleven, then hit on a 26-yarder in the fourth quarter to provide the final score after another Patriots' red zone appearance stalled, this one inside the 10-yard line.

Both Chargers' scores were quick-six big plays, the first was a Melvin Gordon 87 yard touchdown romp to give Los Angeles a quick early lead and their second score was a 24 yard strike from quarterback Phillip Rivers to Benjamin - and they nearly had two others.

One was a 42-yard bomb hauled in by receiver Ty Williams, who was called for an illegal touching of the ball after being forced out of bounds by Patriots' cornerback Johnson Bademosi, then coming back inbounds to be the first player to touch the ball - and the second one also involved both players, as Williams set an illegal pick on Bademosi that freed up Benjamin for a 41-yard catch and run.

But while the Patriots were having a tough time converting in the red zone, the Chargers were having an ever tougher time getting inside the New England twenty - the closest they came was the Patriots' 23-yard line on the final play of the game, when a Rivers' offering into the end zone was picked off by cornerback Jonathan Jones to end a potential game-tying scoring threat.

Rivers was 17 of 30 for only 212 yards and was sacked once, a costly twenty-yarder that was actually just Rivers falling on a fumbled ball - but Brady was sacked three times in his fifty dropbacks, completing 32 of the 47 balls that left his hand for 333 yards and the touchdown to Gronkowski.

But it was the Patriots' running backs that were the keys to the victory, as the quartet of Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee combined for 258 of New England's 414 total yards.

White and Burkhead lead all pass catchers in receiving yardage with 85 and 68 yards a piece as Brady checked down frequently to attack the Chargers linebackers, while Lewis and Gillislee paced the New England ground attack with 44 and 34 yards, respectively. Gronkowski and Chris Hogan were to only other factors in the passing game, each catching five balls for the Patriots.

Gordon gained 132 yards on 14 carries, but aside from his 87-yard scamper for the game's first score, New England's defense shut him and the rest of the Chargers' backs down for just 70 yards on 20 carries, a 3.5 yard per carry effort that did Los Angeles no favors, while Benjamin and fellow-speedster Keenan Allen were held to five catches a piece for 64 and 61 yards, respectfully.

As one might suppose, the Patriots' offense and defense are trending in different directions heading into the second half of the season.

As mentioned, the defense started the season being the worst defense in the league over the first four games, but have turned that around to become one of the best units in the league - slowly climbing out of a big hole dug when they allowed 457 yards per game to their opponents by allowing just 377 yards per game in their last four...

...and have become one of the best scoring defenses in the NFL by allowing a meager 12.75 points per game over their last four games, a huge 20-point per game improvement over their first four, when they were a sieve-like in allowing 32 points per game.

The offense? They have remained steady in total yardage at just over 410 yards per game, but their point production has taken a precipitous nose-dive, going from 32 points per game to just shy of twenty-two.

When asked about the offense and whether he prefers the low-scoring, grind-it-out style that has become the Patriots' hallmark during their current four-game winning streak, head ball coach Bill Belichick minced no words.

"I prefer to win." he said, matter-of-factly.

Winning is what his Patriots are doing, though it has rarely been easy - but that could be an advantage to his team, as they have won six games by an average of one touchdown per game, displaying the intestinal fortitude required to win games in December and January.

And, hopefully, February.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Patriots' Return To Fundamental Football Keys Punking Of Falcons

"To borrow a simile from the football field, we believe that men must play fair, but that there must be no shirking, and that success can only come to the play that hits the line hard." - Teddy Roosevelt
Running the football is one of the most fundamental of all tenets of the sport. Along with blocking and tackling, Walter Camp devised rules to separate the fledgling American sport of football from the international sport of rugby. Since that period in the latter half of the 19th century, Roosevelt stepped in to institute measures to make the game safer to play, paving the way for innovators like Glenn "Pop" Warner to introduce many of the novelties that football fans today take for granted as part of the appeal of the modern game.
Dion Lewis finds lots of running room vs Falcons

In between, rules have been added that make the game safer and that make the game more fan friendly - more exciting to the casual viewer, hence the popularity of the sport on many levels, from Pop Warner leagues to high school and college conferences to the professional game - but the fundamentals of running the football, blocking and tackling have endured the test of time...

...and it is the teams that implement all components of the modern game with the tenets of the genesis of the sport that are ultimately the most successful.

On a cool, mid-October Sunday evening in Massachusetts on a football field enveloped in a dense fog right out of a dream, the New England Patriots defeated an Atlanta Falcons team by honoring the roots of their game. A display of fundamental football missing all too often in favor of the allure that the exciting vertical passing game provides.

But for football purists, Sunday night's game before a packed house at Gillette Stadium and a national television audience of millions more, the Patriots' dominating 23-7 victory was simply a matter of the team with the best collection of talent in the game using that talent in the way that the fundamentals tell us they should be used.

Against a team like the Falcons who have successfully victimized many-a-defense with their vertical passing game to score quickly and frequently at a torrid pace, the cure is to limit the number of opportunities they have to do so, and to dictate how and when they are able to, working in tandem with the offense to play a complementary style of ball.

Executing an offensive game plan that called for a rotation of their excellent kennel of young runners, the Patriots methodically moved the ball on offense by finding a balance between the running and passing games, the backs running for 157 yards on 31 carries and quarterback Tom Brady throwing 29 times and completing 21 of those attempts for 249 yards and two scores...

...as a result winning the time of possession battle by a wide margin and limiting the opportunities that the Falcons had to operate on offense to just seven possessions for the entire game, including an absurd three possessions in the second half.

New England scored touchdowns on drives of 74 and 53 yards - each taking seven plays to accomplish - but the real damage done to the Falcons' defense came on drives that resulted in just field goals being scored, where taking time off the clock was paramount to points.

The Patriots took a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter on a drive that went 64 yards in 14 plays and ate up 6:37, then after a James White scoring reception brought the Falcons' defenders to their knees just before halftime, Brady stepped on their throats by leading drives of 71 and 74 yards on their first two possessions of the second half, chewing up 6:23 and 5:17 respectively...

...bringing the score to 23-0 by the time that Atlanta finally got a fourth quarter possession, at which time the New England defense had retreated into a three-deep shell and forced the Falcons to kill over five minutes of clock before scoring a meaningless touchdown with just four minutes remaining in the game.

The fundamental approach is a good look for a Patriots' team that has been struggling to find an identity.

New England's offense is stacked with playmakers who do what they do on different levels, but have had to perhaps scale back their own expectations for the good of the team. For example, receiver Brandin Cooks has Olympic-class sprinter speed, but on a team that has been a move-the-chains, chew-the-clock entity for going on two decades, the vertical element he brings to the offense has helped the team as a threat more than a realization.

Yet, despite playing in a more conservative offense than he was used to in New Orleans before migrating north at the behest of Bill Belichick, he is on pace to destroy nearly every one of his career marks, including receiving yards, yards per reception and yards per game - and all of this while being on pace for a career low in targets and receptions.

In fact, Cooks has become just one of the guys, his 28 receptions tied for third on the team with Chris Hogan, which is just one behind the duo of Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski and a full ten behind running back James White.

That's called balance, and it's something that also filtered into the running game on Sunday night, as the Patriots used four backs, with Dion Lewis assuming lead back duties and rushing for 76 yards on 13 carries (5.84ypc), White continuing his vital passing back role and handling the ball nine times for 47 combined yards, and easing previously injured Rex Burkhead back into the mix (seven combined touches for 41 yards)...

...saving power back Mike Gillislee for the four-minute offense in which he picked up 31 yards on eight tough carries. Brady taking a knee cut their combined average down, but if you factor in only what the backs accomplished on the ground, they ran for over five yards a pop in what was by far their largest contributions of the season.

The defense has been seeking something to hang their hats on as well, and have discovered in the past three games that with all of the role players that they employ, sticking to the most elementary disciplines of staying in their rush lanes and and using their excellent stable of safeties as buffers against big plays has enabled their linebackers to flow more freely to the ball and their pass rushers move the opposing quarterback off their mark.

Though they still are mired at the bottom of the league in yards surrendered, they have managed to climb out of the abyss as far as scoring defense, having given up only 38 points in that three-week span, an average of 12.7 points per game.

It's not like they've done anything differently other than having an intense focus on fundamentals and employing the three-safety element into their nickel and dime packages as their base defense, rushing just three and keeping two linebackers on the second level, enabling them to work a heavier concentration of their safety corps into supporting roles all over the formation.

Known as a "Giant Dime", the Patriots used free safety Devin McCourty and Big Nickel centerfielder Duron Harmon as twin deep safeties in support of a cornerback corps that featured Malcolm Butler in his usual chess piece role, and also second-year nickleback Jonathan Jones and recent addition Johnson Bademosi, a sixth-year, career special teamer - and all former undrafted free agents....

...while dropping strong safety Patrick Chung into the box, forming a 2-2-2 (heretofore known as the "triple-double") stack that forces quarterbacks to the perimeter and optimizes support for the run defense.

The result was pretty much just how Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia drew it up, the Falcons' vertical passing game nullified by the physicality of the New England coverage - eight targets of more than 15 yards downfield with only two connections totaling 35 yards - while keeping Atlanta's vaunted running game in the background by consistently forcing the Falcons into long-yardage situations.

The only real bitch-kitty for the Patriots' defense was keeping Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan in the pocket consistently, as he escaped three times for 37 yards and three first downs to extend drives and made their rushing average look a lot better than it actually was.

New England took a 17-0 lead into the room at halftime on the strength of a Cooks 11-yard jet sweep / shuffle pass touchdown, a 29-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal and White's two yard slant, then built the lead to 23-0 on two more Gostkowski field goals after the thick blanket of fog settled in over the field, then settled in for a little clock killing to close out the game.

Cooks' touchdown was set up by a heavy dose of Lewis gashing the Atlanta defense right up the middle and a roughing the passer penalty on Atlanta that nullified a bad Brady interception in the end zone - the speedster crossing the shallow formation and taking the short flip from Brady, turning on the jets to gain the corner and following the blocking of Gronkowski into paydirt.

Belichick admitted in his Monday morning conference call with reporters that the exchange between Brady and Cooks on the play ad-libbed on the fly to take advantage of Cooks' speed. "I mean, it could have been a handoff," Belichick said, "we felt like that was the best way to run that play. We just ended up doing it that way."

Gronkowski said he heard Cooks coming up on him, felt him tug in his jersey at about the two-yard line. "He was kind of hiding behind me, and he was like 'Go, Rob, go!' I had the little block and he made it into the end zone."

White's touchdown just before the half wasn't as colorful or flashy, but good for six nevertheless - and was set up by a poor decision by the Falcon's offensive coordinator who called for a pass play on 4th and six from the Patriots' 47 yard line against the triple-double stack, which Ryan airmailed out of bounds.

Three White runs up the gut and the same number of opportunistic pass plays later and White was celebrating in the end zone and Patriots' fans were celebrating the best half of football they've seen from their team all season.

"Bill said it best this week" McCourty said after the game. "He said it was about time that we played complementary football for four quarters. He said at times, we play really well on offense and at other times we play really well on defense. At times, we play really well on special teams, but we haven't gotten it all together. I think tonight we did a good job of that."

McCourty won't hear any contrasting opinions on that.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Lewis Leads A Talented Backfield That Can Balance Patriots' Offense

The quarterback takes the snap, pivots at a ninety degree angle and holds the ball out and down, so as to place it squarely into the breadbasket of his demure running back.

The back secures the ball and jump-cuts to the spot on the line where the run is designed to go, but he finds several three-hundred pound bodies blocking the gap, so he instinctively spins away from the scrum just out of the reach of gigantic hands attached to those large bodies, plants his left foot in the turf and sprints toward the sidelines.

Defenders give chase, some trying to catch him from behind while others attempt to calculate the proper angle to head him off at the pass, as it were - but when the back clears his offensive line and gains the flat, he finds that at full speed he has beaten both the trailers and the anglers to the edge, where he again plants his foot and bursts upfield for an eleven yard gain.

Finally tackled out of bounds by a safety, the back quickly regains his feet and wags a finger in the direction of the tacklers, as if signaling that there is no way that they can stop him...

That happened on Sunday, when Dion Lewis bounced off a scrum that had clogged all of the interior running lanes, then quickly gained the edge and ran hard for a first down in the third quarter, part of a drive that ended in a Rob Gronkowski catch and run for a 33-yard touchdown that gave the New England Patriots their first lead of the afternoon against their most hated rival New York Jets.

Unremarkable, really, when one considers that when an offense effectively mixes the run in with the pass, good things usually happen - but when considering the Patriots' offense this season, those types of balanced drives have been few and far between.

The Patriots have a wonderful stable of running backs, and the more work they get, the more their roles are becoming defined. Lewis is rounding into what should be a lead back-type role, twenty-two of his thirty carries and 105 of his 153 yards on the season coming in the last two games after four games of seeing a very limited work load...

...and while Lewis has pretty much lived on the injured list since entering the league as a fifth-round pick of the Eagles in 2011, he handled bell cow duties at the University of Pittsburgh for two years, breaking Tony Dorsett's freshman rushing record and being named second-team All-American while he was at it.

For the first time in four years, Lewis appears to be completely healthy and is running like he did in college, which makes it easier for head ball coach Bill Belichick to lean on him as a lead back, which is also a job that a finally-healthy Rex Burkhead also had in college at Nebraska. Burkhead's body of work is minimal, but seems a natural change of pace back with excellent hands in the passing game.

Power back Mike Gillislee seems destined for the heavy bag work in the four minute offense, which is the manner in which he was used in the fourth quarter against the Jets, an 11 play, 63-yard clock sucker that ended with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal and a two score lead for New England - Gillislee handling the ball five times for 21 yards and three first downs.

Passing back James White has pitched in as he normally does, leading the team in targets and receptions in his already clearly defined role, carrying the ball on mostly trap draws out of the shotgun that are a staple of the New England offense, and he has developed a nice punch to stone the blitzer in pass protection.

The problem is that for what they are capable of, the scenario scripted above is an anomaly for the 2017 version of the Patriots, as they seldom find a rhythm that allows them to be what they have been for two decades running, a methodical, chain-moving machine that both lulls a defense to sleep and forces them to defend the entire field at the same time.

But considering that the Patriots come up with a balanced drive about once per game, one has to realize that it's the play calling mixed with circumstance that is to blame. In the first game of the season, power back Mike Gillislee was the featured back, and he was racking up carries, yards and touchdowns until the Chiefs started racking up chunk plays, forcing New England to the air.

That was their most well-balanced game of the season as Gillislee and James White hauled most of the load and producing the team's high yardage total of the season, followed closely by their week two performance in a win at New Orleans - but the running game has taken a back seat to the passing game ever since.

In those two openers, the balance was a very Patriots-like 54/46 pass-to-run ratio - keeping in mind that with Brady, the Patriots are a pass-first entity - but in the four contests since, the ratios has been an absurd 65/35 split in favor of the passing game. Curiously, the production has been about the same, which makes the play calling favoring the passing game by a large margin make even less sense.

It's a shame that there is such imbalance happening this season, when they have the perfect personnel all over the offense to be able to impose their will on opposing defenses - but if they want to start making a habit it, they have an excellent opportunity to do so when New England hosts the Atlanta Falcons this coming Sunday night.

Excellent in pass defense due to an amazing amount of speed throughout their roster, the Falcons give up a miserly 210 yards per game through the air and just over 100 yards per game on the ground, but those rush numbers are skewed by the fact that when the Falcons faced two teams without a certifiable lead back, they gave up an average of just 65 yards per contest, but when facing three teams with established running games, that number escalates to 127.

In all three of those games, the opposing offense threw for under 200 yards - yet Atlanta lost two of those three, both at home and both against New England's AFC East rivals.

The problem is with the Falcons' offense falling off the map in the second half of games, able to generate only eight points per contest after halftime, not just because the opposing defenses are able to adjust, but also because the opposing offense that could feature a four-minute offense, did so. This is evidenced by the Falcons ranking dead last in the league in second half time of possession, averaging just 12 minutes per game.

In their opener, Chicago was able to run on them all game, but panicked when they fell behind by ten early in the fourth quarter and went to Mike Glennon to throw 26 consecutive passes against Atlanta's excellent secondary, losing the game by six points. Green Bay was next and abandoned their running game in favor of Aaron Rodger's arm when they fell behind 31-7 early in the second half and the next week Detroit abandoned their running game after falling behind just a touchdown early in the fourth.

The Falcons were 3-0 after that stretch where all three NFC North teams panicked in the face of a Falcon's lead in the second half, coming home to face AFC East teams on consecutive Sundays - but unlike the first three teams, the Bills and Dolphins set up shop in the trenches and dictated to the Atlanta defense...

...the Bills loading up a preposterously balanced nineteen play, 82-yard drive that chewed up nearly an entire quarter of play to take a seven point lead in the fourth quarter, then laid in wait for the Falcons to start throwing the ball, picking off two Matt Ryan passes to seal the deal - then the Dolphins learned from the other's mistakes and didn't panic despite falling behind 17-0 at halftime, sticking with their running game to create enough balance to dominate time of possession, their defense then picking off Ryan to seal a win.

The lessons are clear: maintain balance in your offense by running the football, sticking to your game plan against a Falcon's squad that starts fast, but fades down the stretch.

Where have we seen that before?

The Falcons are vulnerable on the edges, as they give up 5.25 yards per carry when teams run to the left and 4.76 when teams run to the right - even a decent push up the middle will gain nearly four yards per carry, so there is no reason not to establish a consistent running game against them...

...but it must be maintained because as Denzel Washington said as coach Herman Boone in the film Remember The Titans, the running game against the Falcons is "just like novocaine; give it time, it always works."

The Bears, Packers and Lions panicked and went to their passing game when they fell behind and they all ended up losing, while the Bills and Dolphins stuck to their game plan and came out victorious. Patriots' fans should have intimate knowledge that the way to beat the Falcons is to have patience to ride out the initial blitzkrieg, avoid panic and stick to your game plan.

That game plan needs to include the young greyhounds in the running back kennel, with Lewis providing the initial spark, White spelling him on passing downs and with Burkhead providing spot duty all over the formation, and then with Gillislee hammering it home in the four-minute offense.

That's the running game, how it's supposed to work. Hopefully the Patriots get back to using this collection of amazing runners in balance with Brady and the passing game, as they naturally complement each other - and the more balance achieved, the easier it is to score...

...which is, by the way, the entire purpose of the offense.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

No Paper Tigers, These Patriots Are Mean Counter-Punchers

"In the animal kingdom, the rule is eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined." - Dr Thomas Szasz
The noted Psychologist Thomas Szasz stated that little ditty in response to critics of his postulation of the quick and the dead. "The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself." the doctor was quoted in The Columbia Law Review in 1958, "In the typical western, two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground. Whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives, his adversary is shot and dies."

"In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words. Whoever first defines the situation is the victor; his adversary, the victim."
Lewis has been under-used in Patriots' offense

That said, in the never-ending struggle for the media and fans to define the New England Patriots, they have instead defined themselves, and it's nothing like what anyone was expecting.

The New England Patriots' secondary was considered among the best in football coming into the 2017 National Football League season.

And why not? After all, defacto General Manager and head ball coach Bill Belichick signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore away from Buffalo to go along with Pro Bowl corner Malcolm Butler and up-and-coming winger Eric Rowe - and when combined with the best, most versatile safety corps in the league, the optimism was hard to argue with.

But now, a full one-third of the way into the season, the Patriots are ranked dead-last in the league in both passing yards yielded and in total defense, yet they stand atop the AFC East with a 4-2 record.

The Patriots skill positions on offense had fans and foes alike thinking juggernaut, but after an initial four-game spread that saw them scoring over 32 points per game, they have been held to a measly 21 points per game in their last two - yet they stand atop the AFC East with a 4-2 record.

How this is possible is testament to a coaching staff that has scrambled to minimize the impact of injury, and to a group of players that are true Patriots all the way down to their spleens: toiling in the trenches, stuffing the run when they absolutely have to, scoring when they need it the most, most of their games coming down to the last possession...

...and were it not for a missed assignment here and a missed tackle there, this rag-tag team, warts and all, would be undefeated - but by the same token, were they not so fortunate on a couple of occasions, they would be winless and talk of the Patriots' dynasty being done would be factual.

But 4-2 is where the team stands after Sunday's gut-check against the Jets at MetLife Stadium, a game that's script has become all too familiar to Patriots' fans - but a rough draft that will pay dividends down the road, should this year's version of the New England Patriots ever put the entire thing together and play like the paper version of themselves indicate they should be.

Paper tigers? So far this season they have yet to live up to the media-generated hype surrounding the roster, and instead have reset to their default settings to get them through, a state of being ruled by Belichickian mystique and fundamentalist philosophy that dictates that no matter how lousy the team plays through bulk of the game, they almost always in a position to punch through the crust when winning time arrives.

It's not pretty, but that's their identity. They have been defined as a team full of Keystone Kops that magically and collectively transform into a battlefield juggernaut, seemingly oblivious to their maladroit antics that allow their foes to have the upper hand for much of the battle, their brazen and pretentious efficiency at the most opportune of times laying waste to any clumsiness beforehand.

It's as if they are somehow piggy-backing off of their epic comeback in Super Bowl 51 to introduce Patriots' fans to their new persona: fall behind, often on plays that display a lack of discipline not seen in Foxborough in decades, then staging mind-boggling comebacks where they briefly look like the team everyone expects them to be...

...as if the entire act is purposeful, toying with their prey until that Darwinian time comes to eat or be eaten; for a brief moment rising above their status as paper tigers of which they have been defined just long enough to put a crooked number in the win column.

For certain, it leaves their fan base reaching for xanax and whatever blood pressure medicine they have been prescribed, washing it down with ice cold beer while muttering epitaphs of rude discontent - and if that's the way things are going to be in Foxborough this season, their fans should seriously consider auto-refill at their pharmacy of choice.

For instance, the Patriots victories in the past two weeks have been scandalous - a 19-14 victory over Tampa Bay which was decided for them by the Buccaneers' kicker who missed three field goals that would have provided the winning points, and Sunday's 24-17 adventure that was essentially decided by the referees invoking an obscure rule to nullify a New York Jets' touchdown.

Patriots' fans can take solace in the notion that even if Tampa's Nick Folk would have nailed his field goal attempts and had Jets' tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins not bobbled the football while falling out of bounds across the goal line to cause a touchback, the aforementioned mystique coupled with the Dawninian-inspired flipping of the switch would likely have been plenty enough to save the day, regardless.

So, that's their identity - and it could be worse.

It could be a hell of a lot worse. But no matter what is going on with injury and illness, this team has the veteran leadership with just the right infusion of youth to keep pulling off this magic act until they either run out of fairy dust or bring home another trophy - and we've seen enough from the Patriots in the first six weeks of the season to be able to make that kind of claim.

They haven't improved, they've just adjusted and have learned how to work around their shortcomings. On defense, that means that they are leaning heavily on fundamentals and playing a basic, vanilla type of ball that has seen them collect six sacks, pick off two balls, force three fumbles hold their opponent to just 13 of 30 on third down and have allowed just 3.7 yards per carry in the running game for the past two weeks.

None of those are elite numbers, but they are adequate - adequate to the point that they have surrendered an average of just 15 points in those games - which is a good thing since the offense has taken a nose dive in point production over that same span, scoring just twenty points per contest after averaging 32 in their first four contests.

That is a huge decline against middle-of-the-pack defenses that featured sincere matchup advantages for New England that the offense failed to take advantage of.

Despite having three quality running backs, all of whom are capable in the pattern, the offense has targeted them in the passing game just 49 times for the season, 42 of those going to James White, who leads the team in both categories - while human joystick Dion Lewis has been targeted only seven times and Mike Gillislee none - accounting for only 21% of the team's production through the air.

That is the same percentage of passing attempts to the backs as last season, when Julian Edelman was busy hogging up close to one-third of the team's total targets in the pattern. Just that number alone should give one an idea of just how dependent this offense was - and still is - on Edelman.

Part of the reason that the backs haven't been able to assuage the loss of Edelman is the fact that opposing defenses rightly viewed Edelman as quarterback Tom Brady's security blanket, and now that he's no longer in the picture, they smell blood in the water and are being aggressive in both coming after Brady in the pocket as well as trying to punk his receivers coming off the line.

This causes an interesting phenomenon called having to keep your backs in to pick up blitzers, which limits their opportunity in the pattern. Still, the Patriots lead the league in passing yardage and in total yardage and in red zone scoring opportunities - and that's where the wheels seem to fall off.

The Patriots have been in the opponent's red zone 25 times this season, converting that into just 12 touchdowns - and if one couples that number with turnovers within Stephen Gostkowski's field goal range, New England has left an alarming 62 points on the field this season, missing out on a little over ten points per game.

Now, to expect the Patriots to score a touchdown on each possession is unrealistic, and to say that the offense is experiencing a bit of a slump is missing the point. This team is riding a wave of expectancy, which has turned them from the aggressors they were in the past to mean counter-punchers in the present, with the ability to land a finishing shot to end what has become bloody trench warfare...

...going toe-to-toe with the Chiefs until they got stuffed on a fourth-and-one at midfield, setting off a Kansas City blitzkrieg, and then grinding the Saints in oblivion before trending into the pugilists that we are currently witnessing.

They answered thirteen straight points from the Texans with a last minute touchdown dime from Brady to newcomer Brandin Cooks, erased a fourteen point deficit with two touchdowns in four-and-a-half minutes to knot the score with the Panthers before losing on a last-second field goal, converting field goals that Tampa Bay could not and then gutting out a still-controversial win over the Jets on the strength of two second half scores.

In that respect, this team resembles the 2011 squad that finished the season one play short of the Lombardi trophy, losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl - reaching the big game despite being next-to-last in the league in total defense.

The job that the coaching staff pulled off in 2011 was perhaps the finest in Bill Belichick's tenure as head coach, doing just enough on offense to pull games out despite Brady being sacked 32 times and despite being decimated in their secondary and linebacking corps - people should remember the biggest defensive play of the season being unknown safety Sterling Moore stipping the ball out of the hands of Baltimore's Lee Evans int he end zone...

...which was a sure touchdown otherwise, then being the beneficiaries of kicker Billy Cundiff pulling the subsequent 32-yard field goal wide left with eleven seconds remaining in the game.

The point being that if the Patriots play their hearts out and leave it all on the field, they are going to be in every game, and with Brady being Brady, they are going to win the majority of those close games.

It almost makes things like missed field goals and nullified touchdowns seem almost karmic in nature, but while you can't live on luck every week, the Patriots always seem to do enough to put themselves in position to win - and if that's the way New England is defined, fans should stock up on the heartburn and blood pressure meds, but always with the thought that their Patriots are playing hard and doing their jobs.

It's not pretty, but football isn't supposed to be.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

McDaniels Has To Become Mix-Master For Patriots' Offense To Realize Their Potential

After dropping their first two games of the 2017 NFL season, the New York Jets have won three straight heading into their matchup with the New England Patriots this Sunday.

How they are winning is a mystery, however.

In the bottom third of the league in just about any stat you could come up with, the Jets seem to be winning using smoke and mirrors, slight of hand and the constant rubbing of rabbits feet, because there is no other explanation.
Using Gillislee Properly can only help Brady

On defense, they give up 143 yards per game on the ground and a yield of 4.6 yards per carry and through the air they cough up two touchdowns per game to their opponent despite posting a relatively miserly 211 yards per game in that category - while on offense, they go for 111 on the ground and 189 through the air respectively.

Not exactly a juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination, yet they are somehow tied for the AFC East division lead with New England and Buffalo, each with a record of  3-2.

Of course, their three wins have come against the offensively challenged Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns while their two losses came at the hands of the aformentioned Bills and the Oakland Raiders - but each contest has been about game planning and optimizing the talent that they do have, and it's worked pretty well for them so far.

For instance, in their win over Miami, they concentrated on stopping Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins' running game and dared Jay Cutler to beat them - the result being 18 yards on 11 carries for Ajayi and a typically dismal day for Cutler. Against the Jaguars, they concentrated on getting to Blake Bortles and let rookie running back Leonard Fournette have his yardage, and Bortles' game was just as dismal as Cutler's while Fournette carried 24 times for 84 yards...

...and against the Browns, they concentrated on nailing rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, beating him so badly that he was replaced under center by Kevin Hogan, who fared better, but it wasn't enough.

The final score in two of those games were relatively close, but the one thing that they all had in common is that their opponents each scored last-second touchdowns, or got scores from their defense to make the score seem closer than it really was - as evidenced by the thirteen points per game they've surrendered during their winning streak, which reduces down to seven points per game if one were to eliminate defensive and garbage-time scores.

On the other side of the ball is a Patriots offense that is really in no condition to challenge the Jets' Defense.

After all, despite success on the ground, the Patriots inexplicably don't try to optimize the talent they have in the backfield, instead putting quarterback Tom Brady in harm's way by making him drop back to pass on a full two-thirds of New England's offensive snaps - which feeds right into what New York does best on defense.

Brady's forty pass attempts per game put him on pace to set a career high, which currently stands at 637 in 2012, and to top last season's number by more than 200 attempts, which is also partially due to Brady serving a four-game suspension - but still five more attempts per game.

The need to reduce Brady's exposure to abuse should be paramount, given his age and the fact that he's already had to peel himself off the turf more in the first five games of 2017 than in all of last season. To be fair though, the total sacks for all of 2016 is actually 24, and when considering that nine of those came with fleet-of-foot Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett under center in a total of four games, the numbers from the present season don't seem particularly out of line thus far.

Curiously, the running game has been virtually ignored at times when it should be foremost in the mind of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

After all, McDaniels used the running game to protect his young quarterbacks while they were filling in for Brady at the start of last season, protecting them while his young offensive line sought cohesiveness and chemistry - balancing out the offense to the point that the Patriots could have actually been considered run-heavy, even when Brady returned in week five...

...yet despite Garoppolo and Brissett being far more mobile than Brady, they still took ten sacks to start the season, and lost Jimmy Clipboard when he took a nasty hit from Miami linebacker Kiki Alonso and Brissett tore ligaments in the thumb of his throwing hand in the following game against Houston, rending him and the Patriots' offense inert the week after that in a shutout loss to Buffalo.

No matter which way you look at it, the song remains the same. Had the Patriots the same imbalance last season as they have this season, the number of sacks suffered by the quarterbacks would be virtually identical - one sack every 12.3 snaps in 2017 compared to once every 12.2 last season. But what's missing and what people are forgetting is that the line allowed fourteen more sacks the rest of 2016, and another nine sacks in three post-season games.

That means that in the 15 games Brady played in last season, he went down in the grasp of a defender twenty-five times and hit times-three.

So the line is just about where it was last season, considering the disparity between running plays and passing plays, which brings us to the eternal question of how to keep Brady upright so that he can survive the season and to give the offense a chance to realize it's full potential - not to mention matching up well with the New York Jets this Sunday - and the answer is as clear as a bell:

Run the damn ball.

Running the ball cures many ills, not the least of which is the fact that all Brady has to do is to turn and hand the ball off and become a spectator. Theoretically, mixing the run with the pass forced the defense to defend the entire field and paves the way for an effective play action sell that mitigates an aggressive pass rush to a certain degree...

...but having a 66/33 split between pass and run, respectively, causes the defense to focus on getting to Brady and dares the offense to beat them on the ground - but the Patriots are handicapped even more by the way McDaniels calls running plays when he decides to use the ground game.

Given the fact that power back Mike Gillislee has not been targeted in the passing game at all, it goes to figure that with him in the game, the opposition is going to stack the box against him - yet he still manages to break into the second level. Where things go south for him is when three or four running plays are called in succession as McDaniels seems to like to go with something until the defense stops it, then moves on.

New England has more success with James White or Dion Lewis in the backfield because they are used in both facets of the game, so teams have to account for them in both the running and passing games.

Gillislee hasn't been used a lot in the passing game, but he has great hands and once the play calling starts targeting him in the passing game, it will eventually force defenses to respect him as a receiving threat and open up wider running lanes - instead what is happening is that the play call will go to fullback James Develin out of a two back set, with Gillislee remaining in to block.

All of this said and true, what will it take for the Patriots' offense to get untracked against a decent Jets' defense?

Simply, they are going to have to mix up the run and the pass, distributing the play calls in a manner that doesn't scream the obvious, because running the ball twenty times in a game by lumping the runs into a condensed time span does the offense no good. Against the Jets, an offense must establish the run to keep the play action relavent, which keeps their pass rushers on their heels...

...though every team the Jets have faced thus far in 2017 have done exactly that, yet there isn't a 300 yard passer among them - in fact, New York has held two of their opponents under 200 passing yards per game.

But the Jets haven't faced a quarterback like Brady yet - Oakland's Derek Carr is the only thrower the Jets have faced in five games who is anywhere close to a true franchise passer, and the Raiders torched New York for 45 points in a lopsided win - so that streak of holding opposing passers under 300 yards may be in jeopardy.

But then again, if the Patriots find a true mix of run and pass, they won't need a big day out of Brady, as the Jets have allowed opposing offenses to rush for more than 140 yards in four of their first five games - if they can't find that mix, however, New York could win their fourth straight by forcing the Patriots to become one-dimensional, abusing Brady along the way.

It's all in the hands of Josh McDaniels.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Vanilla Patriots Survive Buccaneers In Early Season, Old-School Gut Check

According to the dictionary people at Merriam-Webster, a Gut Check is a "test or assessment of courage, character or determination" - and if they needed a reference as to what one looked like, all they had to do was watch the New England Patriots' defense on Thursday night.

Well, at least for the first three quarters, as the unit that had previously been yielding over 450 yards per game in total offense to their opposition gave up just 200 yards in the first forty-five minutes and held the potentially dangerous Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense to a meager seven points - then surviving a furious Buc's rally to help eek out a 19-14 victory in Tampa.
Defensive captain Duron Harmon showed plenty of scrap in win over Bucs

Eventually, the Buccaneers' offense did get untracked in the final frame, more than doubling their total yardage output and scoring another touchdown as New England's defense went into a three-deep shell to try and protect a two-score lead, which would have backfired on them had it not been for Tampa's kicking game going sideways on them, place kicker Nick Folk missing two fourth quarter tries that would have won the game for them.

So it wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is something for head ball coach Bill Belichick to hang his hat on as his Patriots head into a ten-day stretch to build upon what they have discovered about themselves through this particular sixty-minutes of play.

What became increasingly obvious as the game wore on is exactly what we've suspected all along - the philosophies have changed on both sides of the ball and Belichick is attempting to implement them on the fly, which is either incredibly arrogant or amazingly bold, or both, even for the Dark Master.

We saw this first when the defense went as basic and vanilla as you will ever see in a regular season game, playing a 3-3-5 Big Nickel version of a hybrid match-up zone where in each defensive back matched up in man coverage against any receiver that came into their area of responsibility - and the results were encouraging, particularly in light of Stephon Gilmore's confession that he is much more motivated as a press-man cover corner...

...an admission that makes a ton of sense, given the communications problems that the defense has been experiencing in the secondary, and also that it plays to the strength of the safety-heavy alignment that also utilizes linebackers to patrol the gaps between quarter zones, with Gilmore matched up on Bucs' wide out Mike Evans.

A brilliant scheme from Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, designed to keep the chunk plays that the Buccaneers' offense is built for down to a minimum, but also to keep the board clean, as it were, to give the Patriots' coaches an uncluttered view of how their players performed, on a fundamental level.

What they discovered isn't necessarily what they wanted to see, but it gives them an idea of how to proceed.

In addition to Gilmore essentially shutting down Evans (five catches on eight targets for a pedestrian 49 yards), strong safety Pat Chung showed that his skill set hadn't necessarily completely eroded, as he demonstrated excellent technique in covering tight end Cameron Brate when going across the middle - though he also showed that covering on seam routes, ie, with his back to the quarterback, is a trend that needs to be addressed...

...while covering backs and receivers on flat, smoke and wheel routes continue to be an issue with the entire unit, regardless of the fact that the Patriots entered the game on reset to their default, fundamental settings, most of the time playing in that three-deep zone to keep from giving up the chunk plays that the Buccaneers' offense is built for, while keeping enough players in the box to defend against the run.

The latter turned out to be an issue as Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin ripped off gains of nearly six yards a pop while it also left the flats exposed as safe areas for quarterback Jameis Winston to escape and extend to when forced from the pocket, which happened a half-dozen times and resulted in some big gainers with Winston finding his improvising receivers down the field.

There appears to be no cure for that and is something that Patriots' fans are going to have to accept on the edges if the pass rush can't get to the quarterback, at least until strong side linebacker Shea McClellin returns from the IR - but there is also the fact that the scheme called for just three lone rushers most of the night, though Patricia called for blitzes at opportune times.

Still, the New England pass rushers generated enough pressure to keep Winston on his toes, but not enough to take him off his feet, as the Patriots recorded just two sacks to go along with two roughing-the-passer penalties in succession - those coming right before the half and giving Tampa the opportunity to cut into the lead, only to see kicker Nick Folks' 56-yard field goal attempt flutter harmlessly awry.

Good thing, as the Patriots offense continually shot themselves in the foot with penalties, turnovers and giving up sacks - not to mention another curiously-called game by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

Growing pains? Perhaps, and as Belichick has earned the benefit over several hundred doubts, it is wise to consider that what's happening with the erratic play calling is simply a case of growing pains as the new-look Patriots try to implement a more vertical attack, but the new philosophy paired with injury and an imbalanced attack that sees quarterback Tom Brady drop back to pass twice as often as he turns to hand the ball to a back is flirting with disaster.

It happened again on Thursday night despite tremendous early success with the ground game.

Power back Mike Gillislee (4.3 yards per carry) hit the hole with purpose while Dion Lewis (7.6) displayed a level of explosiveness that has been missing from his game since he tore an ACL almost two years ago, yet there were only nineteen carries between them in a game that screamed for thirty.

In contrast, Brady dropped back forty times and completed thirty passes, hit hard as he released the ball seven different times, was sacked three more and pressured half-a-dozen more along the way, throwing his first interception on the season and losing a fumble on a third quarter strip sack - and all of that arcane punishment netted them less than twenty points.

They moved the ball, no doubt, but their finishes left sixteen points on the field and made Patriots' kicker Stephen Gostkowski a fantasy star with field goals of 27, 23, 45 and 48 to go along with one New England touchdown, a five-yard curl from Brady to Chris Hogan.

In fairness, however, New England's problems on both sides of the ball had more self-inflicted than anything the Buccaneers were doing.

On top of Brady's pressurized gaffes, drive-killing penalties on left tackle Nate Solder and receiver Brandin Cooks and the aforementioned sacks, the defense committed penalties that extended Tampa Bay drives, and while they suffered no points against on those drives, it still kept them on the field for an extra five minutes of game play.

But wait, they did win.  The Patriots collectively reached down into their souls and pulled out a game that each player knew that they absolutely had to have, the intestinal fortitude required to do so trumps anything and everything else. Despite all of the errors, all of the points left on the field and all of the chirping by the fans, the Patriots rose above it and ground out a win.

Most of all, they learned that they could. There hasn't been a pretty game among their five already played causing blood pressures to increase by a dozen or so points among Patriots' fans of all ages along with rude dissension among the younger set - but the old-school crowd, the ones who used to pray for a 9-7 season just so they could say their team had a winning record, the opening quarter of the season has been a trip down memory lane...

...only this team has a chance to be much better than .500, but just like back in the days before Brady and Belichick, this team grinds, and those old-time fans know that the tribulations the team is going through right now are just going to make them more resilient as time moves on, and will make them incredibly dangerous come January.

Because they now know how to win. They beat the Houston Texans two weeks ago with an electric comeback and lost to Carolina last Sunday in similar fashion. They were competitive in both games but needed impact plays and last-minute heroics by the offense to get close in the end - but on Thursday night, they played with a slim lead - and while the offense struggled to score points, the defense made the lead hold up.

That's progress.

It's almost as if they had to learn how to lose to be able to learn how to win. And with the tough meat of their 2017 schedule approaching quickly, there couldn't have been a better time to learn that lesson.

"I know, nobody knows
Where it comes and where it goes
I know it's everybody's sin
You got to lose to know how to win" - Dream On, Aerosmith

Monday, October 2, 2017

Patriots Stuck In Time Loop, Drop Heartbreaker To Panthers

Win some, lose some.

New England Patriots' fans of the new millennium aren't used to that kind of ambiguity surrounding their team - but if every game is going to be a shoot out, maybe they should accept that reality and concentrate on finding the silver lining, if there is one.

Against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday afternoon, the only silver linings visible at first glance were to ones outlining the few clouds floating by high above Gillette Stadium as the weird playcalling on offense and the acquiescent philosophy of the defense rendered the Patriots to victims of their own personality and left them at 2-2 on the young season.

The 33-30 score has become the norm in Foxborough, as the Patriots seem to be mired in some sort of Groundhog Day-like time loop.

In the film, a Pittsburgh television weatherman played by Bill Murray is sent on assignment to nearby Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the festivities surrounding Groundhog Day, but makes obvious his contempt for the assignment and mocks the townfolk as "hicks". After the celebration Murray wants to return to Pittsburgh, but a snow storm that he predicted wouldn't hit the area arrives in full fury, forcing Murray to stay in Punxsutawney for another night.

Upon waking, he discovers that he's reliving Groundhog Day once again, though the townspeople and his own production crew seem unaware of the phenomenon. Murray takes advantage of the situation after waking to the same song on the radio and attending the same festivities day after day, treating the locals with contempt and disdain and breaking every rule and law he doesn't feel like obeying, knowing that when he wakes up the next morning, he will simply start all over again.

Murray eventually loses his passion for the loop and becomes so depressed that he tries suicide, unsuccessfully, but then starts to embrace the good that he could do with the extra time - until he figures out that if he simply does the job he was sent to do in a professional fashion and treated the townsfolk respectfully, he can break the loop and return to his home.

The time loop that the Patriots are stuck in sees their defense give up chunk play after chunk play in allowing the opposing offense to rack up yardage and points at a clip not seen in New England in over two decades, while the offense struggles to maintain consistency, yet delivers stunning comebacks to climb back into games.

Some they win, like last week against the Houston Texans, and some they lose - like Sunday's game against the Panthers - but one thing is certain, and there's no getting around it: If the Patriots don't find a way to put a consistent, professional product on the field, every Sunday is going to be like the last.

Some may look at the Patriots' top-ranked offense and wonder how they could possibly do any more than they already do, but they miss scoring opportunities at a torrid pace and leave lots of points on the field in every game, something that the normally upbeat Rob Gronkowski addressed with reporters after the game.

"We've got to put up more points because we didn't win." Gronkowski said, matter-of-factly, adding "We want to put up points every time we have the ball. I mean, we had two great drives in the fourth quarter, but we've got to be doing that all game."

Quarterback Tom Brady echoed Gronkowski's analysis, but denied feeling the extra pressure to carry the defense.

"No, I don't feel like that." Brady bristled, "I feel like we can do a better job all the way around. We left some opportunities out there on the field and it came back to bite us."

Of course, Brady isn't the kind to throw his teammates under the bus, but it is the defense that is really struggling, going from a bend-but-don't-break entity that in years past kept the team in games long enough for Brady to pull out a miracle, to a passive, docile entity that provides seemingly little resistance to the whim of opposing offenses.

The players are accepting the blame for the poor play, but in most instances it is the philosophies and coaching that are the issues.

That might sound weird, considering that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick consistently finds ways to outsmart his counterparts, and that his base playbook is ingrained with Patriots' philosophy dating back to the era when Chuck Fairbanks, Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins haunted the sidelines in Foxborough - but this is a team that eight months ago completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history by staying on task with a philosophy that compares to novocaine: just give it time and it always works.

But somewhere along the line, Belichick seems to have sold out on that philosophy, naturally becoming enamoured with improving upon a team that has won at least 12 games in each season since 2010, playing complementary ball with an offense that always ranked in the top ten in yards gained and points scored but with a defense that typically ranked in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed, yet ranking in the top ten for points allowed.

Enamored, that is, with the idea of improvement perhaps after his team was dominated for over half of the Super Bowl last February by the speed of the Atlanta Falcons, being in his nature to be progressive and innovative

This season, the Patriots are once again at the top of the statistics on offense, but dead last in the league in both yardage and points allowed.

This with essentially the same key personnel that has taken two of the last three Lombardi trophies by playing disciplined ball on both sides, each player doing his job to the complement of the others - so it's hard to believe that the issue is with talent, and easy enough to believe that the philosophy has changed...

...something that has become increasingly obvious as we hear the defenders talk after games, with this one being particularly frustrating to team captains Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon.

"We've been putting our offense in a shootout every week" McCourty said on Sunday, "It's almost like they have to get points on every drive - they have to be frustrated with us. It's frustrating for us because we work hard in practice, but it's not showing on Sunday."

To which Harmon added while trying to shoot down the negativity towards cornerback Stephon Gilmore, "It definitely wasn't all him. I tell him that the whole time. You might have a mistake, but we all had mistakes. It takes 11 players to play great defense, and we're just not getting it done."

Gilmore is under intense scrutiny for his play and was benched to start the second half after being responsible for two big gainers in the first half, totaling 71 yards and a touchdown - his technique was better in the second half, but two sketchy penalties for illegal hands to the face and illegal contact extended two scoring drives that ultimately killed the Patriots.

The first one was on a third-and-eight from the New England 37 which the Panthers took advantage of by scoring on a 17 yard Devin Funchess reception in the third quarter, but the real killer was on third-and-seven from deep in Panthers' territory that negated a Deatrich Wise sack that would have given the Patriots excellent field position to drive for a game-winning score...

...but instead, the penalty gave the Panthers an automatic first down, then Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart took to the ground to get the Panthers to the Patriots' thirty, where kicker Graham Gano nailed the game winner with no time left on the clock.

To a man, the defenders are all rallying around Gilmore and calling the issue one of communications and not of talent or attitude, and as for Gilmore himself he's vowing to keep playing aggressively and to get the communications issue fixed - and the Patriots really have no choice but to do just that as it just won't do to have a man making eight-figures sitting on the bench, and with all of the money that's he's guaranteed, they can't just cut him.

So, the Patriots are going to have to work through the defensive struggles.

Not all things defensively were bad, as the Patriots' pass rush pressured Newton on 24 of his 33 drop backs, Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower picking up their first sacks on the season, and Malcolm Butler forcing a fumble and snagging an interception playing over the top of Gilmore. The run defense yielded 140 yards, but 44 of those came on eight Newton scrambles - a couple of them frustrating drive extenders.

The Patriots are not playing well enough on defense to be able to survive the plethora of mistakes they are making in coverage - be it by communication issues or containment error - but the front seven are starting to show signs of life, which is a start.

And now with a short week and very little practice time to get ready for a Thursday night match up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots philosophies will be on full display for a national television audience, so if there was ever a critical time for New England to magically address their issues like they have always been able to in the past, this is it.

Because being stuck in a time loop where things are going horrifically wrong isn't entertaining - it's downright frustrating.