Thursday, November 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is for another piece at another time.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 draft picks

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Patriots Ride Opportunistic Defense, Vertical Offense To Hammer Raiders

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

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

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

Well, almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does all of this mean?

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

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

Thursday, November 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

New England Patriots' Midseason Forum - Part 1: With Brady, Quarterback Situation Is Still Best In NFL

Tom Brady says that he can play until he's 45 years old, and the New England Patriots are apparently onboard with his belief.

After all, defacto general manager Bill Belichick has discarded both of Brady's understudies, for a brief period this week leaving the team without a backup quarterback, trading second-year signal caller Jacoby Brissett to Indianapolis for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett before the start of the season and then exchanging walk-year phenom Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco, recouping New England's second-round investment in him with the 49ers' 2018 selection.

In the world of high-stakes poker, that's called going all-in, and it remains to be seen if Belichick shoving all of his chips to the middle of the table was a good bet or a margin call.

Belichick mitigated the margin somewhat by bringing back former-Brady backup Brian Hoyer - he of serviceable starter fame, who took more than his share of lumps on bad 49ers, Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns teams since leaving Foxborough after being released by the team in final cuts before the 2012 season.

The gamble, of course, is that if Brady suffers an injury, the Patriots would be without the best quarterback in the the National Football League - even so at forty years old. The potential payoff is a trip to Minneapolis in early February for a chance at a big silver trophy.

The reality of it is, however, that even if Garoppolo or Brissett were still around, they were no Tom Brady. In fact, it wouldn't matter who was backing up the seventeen-year veteran, without Brady, the Patriots are screwed.

Or are they?

This particular situation brings up the chance to ponder the age-old "chicken or egg" question as to whether Brady makes New England's potent offense click or if it is the system that caters to Brady's skill set - and it also brings up the even more mystifying question why does it seem that the Patriots' offense can be so flat at times, yet when it comes to winning time, they are able to flip a switch and suddenly turn into a juggernaut?

There is a small sample of evidence that the system caters to the skill set of their signal callers, as last season Garoppolo looked almost Brady-esque in lighting up the Cardinals and then the Dolphins while subbing-in for Brady, and Brissett looked like a world-beater in filling in for both while Brady was suspended and Garoppolo was injured...

...not to mention that a decade ago, Matt Cassell filled in for an injured Brady and led the Patriots to eleven wins in 2008, winning four straight to end the season, but falling short of the division title on a tie-breaker.

But that question may be a few years from being posed and answered, as Brady is showing no discernible signs of decline.

Brady leads the National Football League in passing yards, attempts, completions, is second in the league in passer rating and touchdowns thrown and is in the top ten in just about every other statistic that one could conjure - and is probably in a dead heat with Kansas City's Alex Smith for the league's MVP award at midseason.

From a purely statistical perspective, Brady is having one of the finest seasons of his career. Current trends suggest that Brady would set career marks for passes completed, yards per attempt, yards gained per completion and will have thrown for the second most yards of his career, behind only his 2011 effort.

This despite throwing for his lowest projected touchdown percentage since '13, and is projected to be sacked the most times ever, topping even the 41 he suffered in his first year on the job.

The amazing thing - besides doing all of this at an age when most quarterbacks are pruning their gardens instead of throwing footballs - is that he is accomplishing these numbers without a true go-to receiver for the first time in a decade, as his favorite target, Julian Edelman is nursing a bum knee back to health and is lost for the season.

So what does Brady do? He spreads the ball around, pro rata.

All four of his in-line receivers - Brandon Cooks (33 catches), Chris Hogan (33), Rob Gronkowski (34) and Danny Amendola (31) - have seen the ball come their way a fairly equal number of times as Brady has been spreading the ball around when in the past the targets were heavily in favor of Edelman and, before him, Wes Welker...

...while passing back James White has more or less taken over the safety valve duties normally attributed to Edelman, leading the team in receptions (43) and in catch percentage (81.1%), putting him on pace for very Edelman-like numbers.

In addition, he doesn't have the benefit of a solid running game, which is more by flow and play calling, apparently, than it is by design - as the pass to run ratio for the season runs at 61% to 39%, which exposes Brady to more punishment than he would be in a truly balanced attack, and takes the play action - of which he is a master - out of the equation.

And that will have to be addressed if the Patriots are to improve upon their first half performance which sees them in their normal state, perched atop the AFC East with a 6-2 record - a record that on it's face doesn't tell of the trials and tribulations that team as a whole have had to endure, a record that when looked at from a deeper perspective shows a team that has the required intestinal fortitude to make yet another title run.

How long he will be able to sustain these numbers in light of the punishment he is taking and the fact that opponents are not respecting New England's ground game remains to be seen, but from what we've seen thus far in 2017, Brady is still the Top Cat among NFL quarterbacks.

"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 was quoted as saying the day after dealing Garoppolo to San Francisco, speaking of having Jimmy Clipboard around - but now that he's gone, the Dark Master can still say the same thing...

...only he'll have to amend the time frame to include the last seventeen-and-a-half years, because when you have Tom Brady taking snaps for you, you still have the best quarterback situation in the league.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Adherence To Fundamentals Transforming Patriots' Defense

It's called the "Giant Dime", and for the past four weeks in conjunction with a renewed emphasis on fundamentals, it has transformed the injury strapped New England Patriots' defense into the unit we were expecting to see all along.

In recent seasons' past, the Patriots have featured the Big Nickel alignment as their "Base" defense, the result of head ball coach Bill Belichick's methodical accumulation of safeties over the past half-decade and in response to a league-wide trend of employing uber-athletic, monstrous tight ends that have changed the way offenses approach the passing game.
Butler and Harmon are playing at Pro Bowl level

Unfortunately, with the injury bug running rampant in the Patriots' secondary - coupled with the loss of Logan Ryan to free agency, Justin Coleman to trade and Cyrus Jones to the IR - the Patriots are missing much of their trademark physicality and essential chemistry that makes them one of the toughest coverage units in the National Football League...

...which also means that the Big Nickel, tough and versatile as it is, just isn't enough, particularly given the injury status on the second level, which has left the linebacking corps lacking substance as well.

The answer may well be in an alignment known informally as the "Giant Dime" - called such due to both a need to separate it from - and visualize it larger than - the Big Nickel, and also because it originated with former New York Giants' defensive coordinator Perry Fewell - an alignment that utilizes three safeties in tandem with three cornerbacks in a dime look.

For the uninitiated, the Patriots' unofficial website lists their base defensive alignment as a 4-3 for the purposes of piecing together a depth chart, but in reality their typical formations render that a mere label as they characteristically morph into half a dozen different fronts to accommodate their Big Nickel - which as we already know is simply employing a third safety instead of a third cornerback in a five man (nickel) secondary.

As in the standard nickel, the third safety - typically a strong safety - replaces a linebacker in order to get an extra coverage player on the field. The difference between that and the standard nickel is that the strong safety reduces down into the box and positions himself like a weak side linebacker and provides more bulk to take on tight ends in coverage as well as lending a hand in run support.

The Giant Dime also utilizes a strong safety in that manner, but also brings another defensive back into the mix - either a cornerback or a safety - to provide enough players in the secondary to double team the opposition's biggest receiving threat while maintaining areas of responsibility underneath and in the flats.

And that's important because one for major issues that was absolutely killing the Patriots' defense in for first quarter of the season was running backs curling wide open into the flat and running for many yards after the catch, or gaining the edge on running plays because the receivers for the opposition were pulling the coverage out of the flats...

...leaving plenty of space for mobile quarterbacks and fleet-footed running backs to maneuver without any interference from pesky defenders.

Where the big nickel is still the Patriots go-to alignment - they have been in the configuration 83% of their defensive snaps - the past two weeks Patricia has been alternating between the Big Nickel and Giant Dime to counter what the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers have been trying to accomplish.

This particular version of the dime is more or less like a cover-six alignment, which gives teams with excellent safety depth the flexibility to shorten the coverage zones on one side of the field while maintaining press coverage on the other side to counter the opposing offense attempting to isolate a matchup advantage on the other.

A cover-six is a hybrid combination of a cover-four and a cover-two - two plus four equals six, after all - where the defense can use two deep safeties to prevent against the big plays that the Patriots' defense was giving up on a regular basis in the first quarter of the season while flooding the underneath zones with cornerbacks and linebackers to cause congestion and the resultant narrow passing lanes that require a quarterback to be extremely accurate or risk being picked off.

Since the football is almost always placed on a hashmark instead of in the center of the field according to what side of the field the previous play ended on, the placement of the ball dictates which side of the field is less exposed and in this alignment will typically run the cover-two side with one press-man cover corner and a free safety over the top...

...while side more exposed will run the cover-four, with two corners in an off-man zone with two safeties playing over the top. The Patriots are able to add their own little twist to the already twisted alignment because they have the game's best centerfielder to position as a single-high safety at the top of the alignment while two corners handle short and intermediate zones.

Because of the elite centerfielder playing deep, the Patriots can afford to still reduce their strong safety into the middle of the field like a linebacker to mitigate the effect of the tight end crossing patterns and to lend a hand in run support.

In this alignment, the defense rushes three while two linebackers and the strong safety form a rotation on the edges that, in theory, should be able to set the edge and prevent opposing running backs from gaining the flat in the passing game.

All of this is in response to the injury situation in the secondary that left Malcolm Butler as the only cornerback with any extensive experience and forced Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to utilize their dime back as their nickle back and employ a career special teamer as their dime back.

So on the cover-four side in this formation, you have seen Jonathan Jones and Johnson Bademosi stacked with Duron Harmon covering their backs over the top and strong safety Patrick Chung shortening their zones in the middle of the field while Butler worked in man-coverage on the cover-two with Devin McCourty guarding the blue line.

They still give up plenty of yardage - ranked dead last in the league in yardage yielded - but the Giant Dime the way the Patriots use it reduces the size of the zones the closer a team gets to the end zone until there is literally no room for error for a quarterback inside the twenty yard line.

The results have been startling. Not only has it made it tougher for opponents to score in the red zone, the alignment has made it tougher to even get into the red zone.

Opponents are entering the Patriots' red zone on just one of every four possessions, scoring touchdowns on just one of every four of those trips inside the red zone, leading to an average points per game surrendered at a meager 12.75, good for third in the NFL during that span - not to mention

This formation in combination with an increased emphasis on fundamentals such as tackling and gap discipline up front have transformed the Patriots' defense from the worst defense in the league, statistically speaking, to one of the best in the second quarter of the season, as evidenced by the fact that during that time frame they have caused their year-to-date points per game to drop ten points, going from 32nd to 18th overall.

The one drawback to this scheme is that it does leave just three players to rush the opposing quarterback, which has resulted in just 16 sacks on the season, an average of two per game, which is a middle-of-the-pack number, but they have been generating enough pressure that combined with the dime coverage, they have been able to force the opposing offense off the field on third downs nearly seventy percent of the time.

The major upside to the cover-six is that it plays to the professed strength of Stephon Gilmore when he is ready to return, as he can take over the cover-two side of the defense that Butler is currently holding down, playing press-man with McCourty covering his back over the top.

As usual, the Patriots have figured out how to make the most of the personnel that they have, and even make themselves better by playing to the strengths of their personnel instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, like they did at the start of the season.