Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Patriots' Offense Should Own The Middle Of The Field Against Philly's Defense

On this week's edition of Inside the NFL, analysts Ray Lewis and Brandon Marshall took great pains to emphatically declare that the New England Patriots are led by the most cerebral coach to ever roam an NFL sideline.

"New England is the most prepared team, ever!" said an animated Marshall after breaking down Danny Amendola's first touchdown in New England's thrilling victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, going on to give a surprisingly insightful soliloquy on the importance of film study, then throwing down, "Bring your PhD if you want to beat the Patriots."
Lewis holds the keys to Patriots' success

Heavy stuff and a little surreal given that Marshall had never been that complementary of anyone in his heyday - nor had Lewis, for that matter - and especially not toward Patriots' head ball coach and defacto grocery shopper Bill Belichick, who is someone that one either loves or loathes, as there is no in between, but always with a silent measure of respect and, sometimes, awe.

Known as a defensive genius upon his arrival in Foxborough at the turn of the century, Belichick has broadened his scope to master the Erhardt-Perkins offense in his own image, using a unique concept base that features 120 different route combinations for each personnel grouping - a seemingly over-complex system that is actually as efficient as any in the game for two reasons.

First, Belichick employs only skill position players who are both intelligent and versatile enough to line up anywhere in any formation, and effectively run any route from any position. What this does is give quarterback Tom Brady the ability to move his receivers around to take advantage of any mismatches identified in his pre-snap reads simply by barking out one key word.

The pre-snap process is designed to make it as difficult as possible for a defense to adjust to motion and positioning and is why one sees the Patriots' offense become stronger as the game goes on, because they run plays off of what they have gained from raw intelligence throughout the game, which is what makes them so deadly efficient towards the end of games.

It also explains the tendency for the opposition to complain that it seems like the Patriots know the signals and plays, because they put into practical application what they learn from play to play, not just game to game.

Most coaches script the first 15 - 20 offensive plays based on what they see in film study in order to build what they hope is a scoring drive on their first couple of possessions to gain a lead to work from - and Belichick is among them, but he already knows what is going to work against particular coverages, so he models his opening script as a way to expose defensive alignments in certain situations...

...jotting down the results of the plays with his mini golf pencil and scorecard to record defenses' collective reaction in order to bait them down the road -and the video with Marshall and Lewis is a perfect example of this phenomena, identifying routes that set up defenders based on the aforementioned intelligence in the form of film study and practical application.

How else does one explain how it is that the Patriots are rarely out of a game,and that no matter how invincible their opponent has looked for the first three quarters of a ball game, they end up looking ordinary-to-mediocre during that final frame? The same could be asked about why the Patriots' defense is more stout towards the end of games as well.

But do you really have to have a PhD to match up with New England?

The task is daunting indeed, but the Patriots have had their share of teams and concepts that they struggle against - and those are the teams that deal with New England's running backs in the passing game.

The strength of the Patriots is the versatility and skill of their running backs, and a full two-thirds of the offensive plays find the ball in the hands of Dion Lewis, James White or Rex Burkhead - and if you add in All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski to the mix, that makes it three of every four plays goes to one of those players.

And if you can take these players away by concentrating on them in the pass pattern, you make things very difficult for Brady and company.

The Eagles feature one of the top defenses in the National Football League, tops against the run but middle of the pack against the pass, but advanced metrics tell us how the Patriots should be able to attack them.

According to the good folks at Football Outsiders, the Eagles are ranked in the top ten in the league in defending receivers outside the numbers - seventh overall in defending the top vertical targets and tops in the league in defending intermediate possession receivers. But the news is not all good for Philadelphia, as they are merely average against all other pass catchers...

...22nd in covering slot receivers, 10th in corralling backs in the pattern and a scary (for them) 17th in dealing with tight ends - and when one considers that they are a top seven defense in covering the flats and out patterns, but a woeful 19th in covering receivers inside the numbers, we see a distinct advantage for the Patriots.

Why? Well as many-a-broadcaster have opined, the Patriots run their offense inside the numbers, which sets up a few opportunities a game to go deep outside.

In that vein, the Patriots will likely run with their 11 personnel package (1 back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers) primarily to send speed merchant Brandin Cooks deep against Ronald Darby and possession man Chris Hogan to the intermediate zone against Jalen Mills - and it is entirely possible that the Eagles keep a single high safety to even the odds...

...which leaves eight men in the box to deal with Danny Amendola coming out of the slot against Patrick Robinson and one of three excellent and speedy linebackers to cut off the flat to New England's backs, most likely Nigel Bradham, who allowed on 0.68 yards per coverage snap this season, second best mark in the NFL.

To counter the Philadelphia pass coverage, the Patriots will naturally try to generate a running game, but that's been a tough row to plow this season, with the Eagles making contact with the opposing running back in the backfield at a pace of four in every ten rush attempts, but New England possesses a back with the highest rate of broken tackles and highest average yards after contact in Lewis - but what makes Lewis even more remarkable is that he records positive yardage on over four out of ten times that he is hit behind the line of scrimmage.

That makes the Eagles' number one rush defense a little less imposing and gives Patriots' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels very good reason to stick with a running game, which will be essential against Philadelphia, because it will force their superb defensive line to hesitate just a fraction of a second on the play action fake - because what makes the task of producing a quick twitch offense needed to beat coverages, is to slow down Philadelphia's pass rush, which is the best the Patriots will have faced all season, generating pressure on an absurd 41% of opponents' passing plays.

So the offense all boils down to the offensive line. Lewis has the running covered and his backfield mates and receivers have what should be an upper hand against the Eagles' secondary, that is if the line gives Brady time to find them in the pattern.

The line is solid, and work well together, but it's going to take a combination of the running game, the resultant usage of the play action and Brady's quick release to put the pass rush back on their heels.

This is a win for the Patriots, as long as they play their game and don't allow the Eagles' defense to dictate to them. The uptempo offense is going to be key in slowing down the Philadelphia pass rush, who generate their pressure with just four linemen, rarely blitzing, which is something that Brady always takes advantage of.

So long as McDaniels sticks to the running game long enough to bring the play action into play - regardless of initial success or failure - the Patriots should enjoy the advantage.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Patriots' Defense A Collection Of Mean Counter-Punchers

The New England Patriots posterized the Jacksonville Jaguars twice on Sunday afternoon in the AFC Championship - and both occurred in the waning moments of the tight contest.

First, Danny Amendola summoned his inner Gregory Hines for a proper tap dance in the back of the end zone that gave the Patriots their first lead of the game, and then cornerback Stephon Gilmore did his best Bobby Orr impersonation to knock away a desperation fourth-and-fifteen rocket from Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles destined for rookie wideout Dede Westbrook to preserve Amendola's heroics.

In that very instant, every Patriots' fan on the planet realized why general manager Bill Belichick went out and grabbed Gilmore in free agency. But it should have been apparent way before that.

After a tough start to his season, Gilmore has been the shutdown corner that Belichick envisioned and finished the season as one of Pro Football Focus's hottest corners (ranked 14th among 124 corners in the NFL - not bad for how poorly he played the first month of the season), and quarterbacks have been wary of targeting him of late, and for good reason: He's given up three catches on nine targets for 43 yards in the playoffs, physically breaking up four of the incompletions...

...the best being his aforementioned flying squirrel imitation on Westbrook to swat away a pretty deep ball from Bortles - who played well all game, except when he fell apart along with the rest of the Jaguars about halfway through the fourth quarter of the Patriots' come-from-behind 24-20 win.

Of course, the Jaguars didn't just fall apart all by themselves - they had a little help from the Patriots, who insist on doing things on their own terms. The philosophy has always been to take the other team's best shot, then when they have worn themselves down, the Patriots counter-punch with such ferocity and precision that it's awe-inspiring to witness, but not everyone understands it.

However, former Patriots' linebacker Willie McGinnest - no stranger to the way head ball coach Bill Belichick builds his teams - does, and he shared his insight with folks before the game on Sunday.

When asked for his prediction on NFL Network's NFL Gameday,  McGinnest said that he picked the Jaguars to win the first half of the game and that he picked the Patriots to win the second half of the game, and to pull out the victory - and when his prediction came true, the other on air personalities on the program fetched him a king's crown, a silk cape and a scepter for his brilliance and accuracy in his prognostication...

...but he was speaking simply from his experiences as a three-time Super Bowl champion under Belichick - and also from how the Patriots' defense has trended this season.

Outside of their horrendous start to the season - sitting at .500 after four games and with the worst statistical defense in the league - finished the season ranked fifth in scoring defense at 18.3 points per game overall, and a mind-blowing 14 points per game when omitting those first four games - but it's how those points are disbursed throughout the game that tells the story that McGinnest capitalized on.

Including both playoff games, the Patriots have surrendered ten points per game in the first half of games, but just four per game in the second half. - tops in the league by a large margin in that time span - while their offense scores the majority of their points in the second and fourth quarters, which comes out to 18 of their 28 points per game.

Point being, when your offense scores twice as many points as your defense allows the bad guys, you're going to win a lot of games - that's just the nature of sports.

But lodged in between the numbers game comes the volatile nature of the defensive back. Other than the quarterback position, there is not another spot on the depth chart that is more in focus on a snap-to-snap basis as is the cornerback position - because it is always up front and apparent when a corner is having a bad day.

When Gilmore came to the Patriots, it was well-known that he does his best work when mirroring a receiver one-on-one, but it was also expected that the corner could competently play the zone game when need be - however, Gilmore struggled with lingo and boundaries and was a literal boy among men in the New England secondary, with fellow stoppers Malcolm Butler and Jonathan Jones picking up the slack.

It got so bad that Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had to abandon their signature big nickel alignment in order to keep a safety over the top and a centerfielder in order to reduce the chance of the chunk play, which had a trickle down effect on the entire defense. In those first four games, the Patriots gave up more passing yards (324 per game), more rushing yards (133 per game) and more points (32 per game) than any other team in the league.

...but since have trimmed the aforementioned fourteen points per game off the total, as well as nearly 30 full rushing yards and nearly one hundred passing yards because of one anomaly in Belichick's makeup that separates him from every other coach in the NFL.

Belichick formulated a vanilla gameplan in week five when the Patriots visited Tampa Bay on a Thursday night, then took the ten days between that game and a visit to New York to play the Jets to structure the defensive philosophy to fit the personnel that he had rather than to try and fit a square peg in a round hole by riding out the Gilmore communication experiment, and the numbers speak for themselves.

But it wasn't just Gilmore, by any means. Injury ravaged the linebacking corps, which turned Belichick's original plan to run exclusively with a three-man line to a three plus-one line, using a rotating collection of rookies and never-have-beens to populate the front seven in what can only be termed as a live audition to find an efficient lineup on a fundamental level.

The result is something out of a cheesy football movie where a group of rag tag nobodies form into a cohesive unit just in time to win a championship, starring the likes of Deatrich Wise, Eric Lee, Marquis Flowers and Adam Butler combining with veteran stalwarts Trey Flowers, Lawrence Guy and Alan Branch - the whole thing led by Kyle Van Noy.

That's not the way it was supposed to be, but when the Patriots signed outside linebacker James Harrison just before their season finale, he completed what has turned into a real nuisance for opposing offenses.

How much of a nuisance depends on several factors, but in the case of their next opponent - the Philadelphia Eagles, who have the top-rated offensive line in all of professional football - they have to be intrigued by what they see on film when the Patriots notched eight sacks against the second-rated line, employed by the Tennessee Titans...

...especially since the Eagles' grade comes primarily from their run blocking dominance that yielded 4.5 yards per carry, but allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked 35 times - a boon for the Patriots' defense because in addition to the stats mentioned earlier, this rag tag group of nobodies, many of whom couldn't crack rosters elsewhere, now sport 53 sacks on the season.

Lately, a good majority of them have been the "coverage" variety of sacks, where the quarterback can't find a target, gets skittish in the pocket and bolts right into the waiting arms of a Patriots' defender - and for at least part of that you can thank Stephon Gilmore, who has turned a season that started off as a nightmare into a dream scenario, just one game to go to earn a championship.

All because he belongs to a group of defenders that Belichick collected and assimilated into a cohesive unit, allowing their skill sets to be the guide instead of trying to fit eleven square pegs into as many round holes.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Patriots' Mystique Tops Jaguars For AFC Championship, Berth In Super Bowl LII

Jacksonville Jaguars' free safety Tashaun Gipson assured the football world that he and his teammates had the New England Patriots right where they wanted them.

And they did, they did.

But when you play the New England Patriots, you are not just playing against the Patriots, you are also playing against a mystique that carries with it an air of inevitability - the kind of resignation that comes when one knows what is about to happen to them, but they can't do anything about it.

It's like a sixth sense. The Patriots have been so successful for so long, and have consistently pulled victory from the jaws of defeat so many times that it causes a curious psychological phenomenon known as "soft determinism" in that, in the case of sports dynasties, while all empirical phenomena must occur from determining causes, human nature introduces the ability to conceive of the world of how things are supposed to be...

...and in the case of the New England Patriots, that means that their reputation precedes them and, at least subconsciously, their foes have predetermined that the Patriots will come back and win the game, regardless of how far behind they become during the course of a game.

That attitude was always prevalent in the Belichick era, but has been cemented in the wake of their victory in Super Bowl 51, when they spotted the Atlanta Falcons a twenty-five point lead, then scored 31 unanswered points to take the championship.

For certain, that would be the easy way to explain what happened to the Jacksonville Jaguars during the course of their contest with New England in the AFC Championship game on Sunday afternoon, that it was determined before the players took the field of battle, and that the only way that the Jaguars could possibly win the game is if they forced the Patriots into committing enough errors to change the predetermined outcome.

The Jaguars actually had the phenomena half-beaten, as Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady entered the contest sporting multiple stitches on the knuckle at the base of the thumb on his throwing hand, which had the potential to affect his accuracy - reinforced by a head injury suffered by his main target in the pattern, tight end Rob Gronkowski, which forced the All Pro from the game.

So there they were at halftime, the Jaguars thinking that they just may have done enough to destroy the aura surrounding the Patriots, and emerging with supreme confidence and actually building upon their lead - in essence having the Patriots right where they wanted them - but all they really did was instill themselves with false sense of confidence...

...the Patriots' defense clamping down on the Jaguars' fifth-ranked offense and the Patriots' offense finding a rhythm that hadn't existed prior to the half, scoring 14 unanswered points in the final nine minutes of the game to take the conference championship for the third time in four seasons and earning a trip to Super Bowl 52, where they will take on the Philadelphia Eagles.

The young Jaguars learned on Sunday what many clubs around the league already knew, that the veteran Patriots always seem to have two things in common when the game is on the line. First, that you can never count them out with Brady under center and secondly, someone always steps up to make the crucial play to save the day.

On Sunday afternoon, that person was Danny Amendola.

Already with the reputation as being clutch when the lights are the brightest and the stage is the largest, Amendola helped the Patriots punch their ticket to the Super Bowl simply by being open and catching the balls that Brady threw - the same player he has been throughout his career.

"Danny's such a good football player." Belichick commented after the game "If you look up 'good football player' in the dictionary, his picture is right there beside it. He's just a tremendous player, very instinctive, tough, great concentration. He had some big plays for us today."

The usually evasive Belichick stopped just short of effusive when speaking of Amendola, who hauled in seven of Brady's rockets for 84 yards and two scores, the last score a graceful toe-tapper that left Gipson's jaw on the turf in amazement, so clean that he didn't even bother trying to contest the referee's contention...

...but what really hurt Gipson and the Jaguars was a play that occurred halfway through the final frame, when the Patriots trailed by ten points and were faced with a 3rd and 18 from their own twenty-five yard line, Brady evading the Jacksonville pass rush and launching a wobbler towards a well-covered Amendola, who came down with the ball and momentum.

But anyone who watched the game knows that, and also knows that Brady soared to 290 yards on a 26 of 38 performance and that Brandin Cooks had yet another 100 yard receiving game and drew another 69 yards in pass interference penalties - but the players who deserved just as much credit as those that either blocked for them or played on the opposite side of the ball.

The Patriots' offensive line held the fearsome, top-rated Jaguars' pass rush to a meager nine pressures on Brady - and while that included three sacks, only one of those occurred in the second half. In fact, as the game wore on into the fourth quarter, the Jacksonville pass rush looked timid the more the dink-and-dunk approach by the Patriots started paying off...

...which was aided a great deal by the Jaguars inexplicably retreating into zone coverage in the fourth quarter. In fact, the entire nature of the Jacksonville game plan seemed to wane after that point as the aggressive approach by the Jaguars was replaced by complacency, and especially after they took a two-score lead midway through the third quarter.

How much of that had to do with the Patriots' mystique, only Jaguars' coach Doug Marrone knows for sure, but going into a zone defense against a veteran Patriots' receiving corps was akin to throwing meat to a starving wolf, as time after time Amendola and Cooks found holes in the coverages, and Brady exploited it.

How thorough the exploitation was can be found in the statistics. Up until the start of the fourth quarter, the Patriots had a grand total of 137 yards in total offense, and the only reason why New England wasn't behind by three scores or more was due to Cooks drawing a pass interference on A.J. Bouye...

...right after safety Barry Church drew a personal foul for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Gronkowski, the two penalties combining to give New England a first and goal with a little over a minute left in the first half and opening the door for a short James White touchdown run that turned an eleven point Jaguars lead to just four going into the room.

But once Jacksonville had gained back their two score advantage just seconds into the final frame on two field goals, they retreated into the zone look - presumably to protect against the big play, like in a prevent defense - which played right into Brady's hands.

Make no mistake, the Jaguars were dominating the Patriots on both sides of the ball until that point, and would have continued to do so had the Jacksonville coaching staff remained aggressive - but instead they concentrated on keeping the ball in front of them and New England countered by flooding the middle of the field with crossing patterns designed to open holes when the receiver moved from one zone to another.

The result is yet another Super Bowl appearance for the boys from Foxborough, who merely play their game, stay disciplined in their assignments, and wait for the other team to shrink back and commit the fatal mistakes that fundamentally sound teams always take advantage of.

One would think that after the Jaguars allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers back into their divisional round game by going zone and failing to stay aggressive, they wouldn't have made the same mistake against New England.

But that darned Patriots' mystique makes coaches and players do things that cause them to blow it when the chips are down, and to this point in football history, very few have learned that you have to keep the gas pedal mashed to the floorboard when playing the Patriots - no matter how big a lead they have or how much time is left on the clock.

Until the other 31 teams figure that out, the Patriots will just go on about winning championships.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Brady Good To Go For Title Tilt, But Patriots Are Well-Covered Just In Case

"Look at your thumb, that wondrous mechanism that separates us from other animals - the world-famous opposable thumb, that amazing device that has transported more students to college than the Boston post road, ideal for sucking, especially as a baby, and lauded in song and story as the perfect instrument for pulling out a plum...
...or in the case of the Caesers, for holding it down for the gladiator to die, or holding it up, which means 'see you later at the orgy.' My friends, for getting up and down the pike, in your pie, in your eye, I give you the thumb." - Hawkeye Pierce, M*A*S*H, season 4, episode 19

There hasn't been this much fuss over a thumb since Little Jack Horner stuck his in a Christmas pie...

Well, maybe that's pushing the envelope a bit, especially considering Hawkeye Pierce's thumb rant above, but when word broke that New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady suffered an
Hoyer (7) and Brady have remained close
undisclosed hand injury, the internet nearly broke under the weight of the sky over Massachusetts falling.

The secrecy surrounding the injury promoted a plethora of speculation, with the doomsayers taking the word of some quack in San Diego who claimed that Brady's injury could only be a dislocation of the thumb that was so pronounced that it exposed the bone, while the more conservative crowd looked to two possible scenarios.

First, that Brady would find a way to play in Sunday's AFC Championship Game even if he had to sell his soul to Old Scratch or, second, that the entire debacle was a sham created by head ball coach Bill Belichick to troll his foes, the Jacksonville Jaguars, into preparing for the Patriots' "Plan B", the "B" in this case belonging to backup quarterback Brian Hoyer.

Now, Hoyer has enjoyed some success in the league since departing the Patriots via free agency in 2012, going 16-21 as a starter for a variety of pretty bad teams, gaining most of his starting experience and a winning record with the Cleveland Browns, of all teams, and then with the Houston Texans before bottoming out with first the Bears and then the 49ers.

He went 10-6 with the Browns over two seasons, handing off to a washed up Willis McGahee and throwing to the likes of pre-suspension rookie Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron, both of whom made the Pro Bowl in 2013 with Hoyer under center but both folded in 2014 as Hoyer was forced to hold off Johnny Manziel while throwing to Taylor Gabriel and Andrew Hawkins...

...and all while trying to learn new systems under two different head coaches. In fact, in his five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, Hoyer had to learn a new offensive system in each - so the prospect of starting a game in Foxborough in a system that he knows by heart with an obscene number of potential targets to get the ball to probably doesn't sound too bad in Hoyer's world right about now.

And it shouldn't sound too bad in our world either.

Hoyer isn't Brady, but he's not Manziel, Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell, John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, Jay Cutler or C. J. Beathard either, all signal callers whom Hoyer replaced and performed better than - that is until a guy named Jimmy Garoppolo arrived in San Francisco and precipitated Hoyer's release.

Hoyer was supposed to be part of the trade when the Patriots sent Jimmy Clipboard to the 49ers, but some mention of compensatory draft picks prevented that portion of the deal to go through, so the 'Niners released Hoyer so the Patriots could pick him up.

That should tell everyone how Hoyer is viewed in the locker room and how much confidence the coaching staff has in him.

But, alas, that darned Brady seems to be good to go for the title game, as it has been revealed that the savior is dealing with a few stitches to a knuckle on his throwing hand - or maybe to his index finger, as another report has leaked since I started this thing - but whatever it is, it doesn't sound as if it's nearly as bad as the internet doc in San Diego first had us believing.

But even if Brady couldn't make a go of it, the Patriots have his position covered pretty well.

Jaguars Have An Offense, Too...

Guess what? The Jacksonville Jaguars have an offense as well as a defense.

Just wanted to make sure that everyone was aware of that.

And not just any offense, as it may surprise many that they have the fifth-ranked offense in the National Football League, featuring the top rushing offense in all of professional football - yet all anyone wants to talk about is the Jaguars' defense.

Maybe that was where the Pittsburgh Steelers went wrong.
Bortles is dangerous with his feet

Let's put to rest the idea that the Pittsburgh Steelers were "looking past" the Jaguars and were instead pining for a rematch with the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, because the Steelers' advanced scouting department and the coaching staff had a proper game plan in place but, as is typical for Mike Tomlin and his staff, they fell apart when things started going wrong for them...

...which started with their inability to stop the run, then mixed in a few turnovers and some really poor play calling - all of which gave the Jaguars excellent field position. And because they lost the game, no one really cares that they put together four touchdown drives of 75 yards or more to climb back into the game.

The aforementioned inability to stop the Jaguars running game was the real bitch-kitty for the Steelers, because just when it appeared that they were going to turn the tides and perhaps even tie the game midway through the final frame, the Jaguars put the game away with a five minute drive highlighted by quarterback Blaine Bortles working the play action and consistently burning the Steelers pass defense using his running backs in the pattern.

No, the Steelers were not looking past the Jaguars - they did something even worse: They simply did not respect Jacksonville's offense.

Bortles has one less 300 yard passing games than Tom Brady - 4 to 5 - and the reason he doesn't have more than that is that the Jaguars are so numerically balanced that they don't need him to - not when Bortles can use the second best starting position in the entire league thanks to a larcenist defense and very good special teams, not to mention the fact that he can turn and hand the ball to Leonard Fournette.

On offense, the Jaguars ran 527 passing plays and 527 running plays. They don't turn the ball over. They are second in the league in red zone scoring. All of these things make them very dangerous, yet all you hear from players on other teams is that Bortles isn't fit to be an NFL quarterback.

"He's trash" the Texans' Jadeveon Clowney stated after Bortles and the Jags mopped the floor with Houston in a week 15 matchup, which was a week after Seattle safety Earl Thomas referred to Bortles as a "sub par quarterback" in the wake of the Seahawks' season-killing loss to the Jaguars the week before. Both players mouthed off as they dejectedly sat in front of their lockers, trying to make sense of how they allowed the trashy, sub par quarterback to beat them, and to do it soundly.

A lot of people would look at the Jaguars' schedule and and have their "A-ha" moment as they played one of the easiest schedules in the league, some may simply say that Jacksonville's defense bailed them out time and again and still others would chalk it all up to a mediocre quarterback hitting a rare hot streak...

...and all of those things may be true, but it is no reason to dismiss and disrespect Bortles and, as a result, feel that the Jacksonville offense isn't a reason to explain how they have gotten to the AFC Championship Game. As Pittsburgh found out last week, you get what you deserve when you do that.

We all know that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick would never allow his coaches and players to lapse into that trap - hell, if the Patriots were facing Foxborough High he'd build up their team to be the greatest thing in football since his Giants' defenses in the mid-90's and the turn of the century Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf".

What the Jaguars do best is to run the ball, so concentrating on stopping the run, setting the edge and shadowing Bortles - who has proven that his best attribute may be his athleticism, and who was targeted in the 2014 Draft but didn't drop to the second round - is most assuredly the game plan.

Isn't that always the game plan in New England?  It worked like a charm against the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round, and the Jaguars present a similar structure.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Patriots' Concept-Based Offense Renders Advanced Metrics, Jaguars' Defense Inert

There are some advanced metrics floating through inner space regarding the best way to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense, in particular their pass defense - and the story that these statistics tell are a carbon copy of what the New England Patriots' offense is all about.

That said, we don't need to get into some plagiaristic tome with charts and graphs - all we need to do is look at how the Patriots offense is constructed, because they are perfectly designed to take advantage of the weaknesses of the Jaguars defense.
Gronkowski is an issue for any defense

And that is regardless of the status of quarterback Tom Brady's throwing hand, which has been the subject of much speculation and even some accusation of subterfuge among the more light-hearted of Patriots' fans, claiming that the Brady injury is simply a matter of head ball coach Bill Belichick climbing inside the heads of the Jaguars' and their coaching staff.

And, why not? Belichick resides in the frontal lobe of just about every coach who ever lived, and he savors his reputation as a "cheater", as it is the chisel that breaks through their skulls and into whatever gland that causes paranoid delusions touched off by such things as towel hampers and hearing static in headsets, or hearing nothing at all.

Hell, Belichick is such a sick bastard that he made sure that some poor slob on the field crew installed half a dozen temperature gauges - at eye level - on the bulkhead from where the visiting New York Jets' players would be emerging from their nice overly-warm locker room and onto the frozen turf at Gillette Stadium, just to reinforce the notion that they were preparing to play in the midst of an arctic cold snap...

...and then hung 147 rushing yards on them in 38 bone-chilling carries, building upon the nearly 200-yard rushing performance the week before against a desperate Buffalo Bills' squad - then hammering the Tennessee Titans with 101 yards on 27 carries in the divisional round of the playoffs.

You see, while production in the running game is important, it's not nearly as important as just running the ball. Those 27 carries against the Titans and the 38 against the Jets yielded only what amounts to three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, but the effect on their respective defenses was colossal in that both units were exhausted midway through the third quarter, and that's when Brady had his way with them.

Sometimes, you get the five yards a carry like they did in 38 carries against Buffalo, when instead of Brady going off in the second half, he turned and handed the ball to Dion Lewis and had a chat with the referee.

The point is that New England doesn't need to see these advanced metrics - because they are the advanced metrics.

The stats tell us that teams that run with an "11 Personnel" package - one running back, one tight end and three receivers - are doomed against the Jaguars top shelf secondary, and there is a certain obvious logic to that in that for most teams that means playing right into the Jaguars hands - but not for New England.

The Patriots could come out in "32 Personnel" package - three backs and two tight ends - and still run most of the same concepts as if they were in an "11 Personnel", because the Patriots' offense requires all of it's skill position players to know the entire route tree, and to be able not just to run the routes, but to run them efficiently.

Now it goes to figure that typical vertical patterns would be fruitless without some speed to take the top off of a defense, but the Patriots make up for that with seam routes, wheel routes up the sideline and jailbreak screens where someone like Lewis or James White end up with the ball in the flat with a big ugly escort down the field.

It's not like they would do that, but the point is that could if they wanted to and that would attack the Jaguars' smallish but quick twitch linebackers and force the secondary closer to the line of scrimmage, essentially rendering them helpless bystanders.

That would be fun, but the Patriots can do that in the "11 Personnel" if they desired, with the same effect.

The trick - which really isn't a trick at all - is to dictate to the Jaguars' defense, to put them on the defensive, as it were, back on their heels and wondering where the ball is headed next. The Patriots can do that to anyone, because that's how they are built.

Brady's 337 passing yards against the Titans was just his third effort of over three hundred yards over the course of the 2017 season, and his first in nearly two months - which is a testament to the balance that the Patriots' offense enjoys. What that doesn't tell you is that between the running backs and tight ends, a full seventy percent of the Patriots' offense flows through them.

Seventy percent. No other team in the league can boast numbers like that, so maybe it's time to look at the Patriots offense as an issue for the Jacksonville defense instead of just being concerned that the Jaguars' defense will be an issue for the Patriots' offense.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sneaky Good Amendola Clutch As Usual In Playoff Setting, But Has Been That Way All Season

The quarterback rolled to his right, escaping the collapsing pocket through a large gap created by his linemen who escorted the strong-side pass rush up and over the imaginary protective bubble, headed towards the line of scrimmage, where just beyond his receiver was engaged in a hand fight with the opposing cornerback...

...the receiver locking eyes with the quarterback as he pump-faked the ball once to cause the corner to react and break discipline on the receiver, who took advantage of the fake and sprinted towards the opposite sideline, raising his hand to give the quarterback a target over the big bodies converging on him...
Amendola, Gronk and Hogan celebrate a touchdown vs. Titans

And, yes.

When New England Patriots' wide receiver Danny Amendola saw Tom Brady breaking the pocket and chugging into the flat, he locked eyes with Brady who, by sheer familiarity with Amendola knew that he was going to sprint to the open flat on the opposite side. Brady stopped just short of the line of scrimmage, set his feet and fell backwards, lofting the ball over the outstretched arms of three defenders...

...delivering a perfect bucket throw that gained a first down and kept the Patriots' final scoring drive alive. Not that they needed more points, but once you get locked into a serious point scoring groove, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

Amendola had other receptions in the 35-14 victory over the Titans - eleven to be exact - but that was most highlight reel worthy play of the bunch. That's because Amendola is anything but flashy - he doesn't possess elite speed, has all the size of a standard garden gnome and an injury history that reads like a human anatomy quiz...

...but it's worth noting that of those eleven receptions, seven went for first downs and five of those converted third downs - and you wouldn't know it unless you looked at the box scores the next morning.

Something else you probably wouldn't know is that including the performance against the Titans, Amendola is the second-leading receiver on the entire Patriots' roster with 72, behind only tight end Rob Gronkowski's 75 - of course, Gronkowski has a huge edge in yardage gained, but that's not the point.

The point is that Danny Amendola had a solid season. In fact, Amendola has the third most receptions in the league among teams remaining in the tournament, behind only Philly's Zach Ertz and Gronkowski.

Known for being especially clutch in the postseason and an afterthought during the regular season, Amendola teams with Gronkowski and running backs James White, Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis to form the most formidable short game in the league, built particularly to take advantage of linebackers and safeties in isolation.

The versatility of the backs in particular make things challenging for opposing defensive coordinators - even for Todd Wash, the defensive coordinator for the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars who has guided his charges to being recognized as one of the top set of stoppers in the league and lead all of professional football in passing yards allowed.

That number is skewed some, however, when one considers that the Jaguars were thrown against only 509 times this season, which was fourth lowest mark in the league - why? Simply because their opponents had such success in rushing against them (4.3 yards per carry), so why test that excellent secondary?

With the backs that New England employs, defenses must be aware of the threat of the run, even on obvious passing downs, which gives the Patriots the advantage of fully calling upon their play action, led by the master of the play fake in Brady, whose wizardry and slight of hand can stagger a pass rusher and freeze a linebacker...

...and whose skill at looking off defenders only to burn them is unmatched, which can only help against the Jaguars' secondary, who are playoff neophytes despite their successes and regular season experience.

They get to deal with the likes of Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Kenny Britt - not to mention Gronkowski up the seam - who will rotate in and out of the lineup like a hockey line changing out, taking turns running corners down the field and just plain running them down. And if Brady is on with the uptempo game, the trend has been that he can toy with an exhausted defense for the entire second half.

And when a defense allows a quarterback like Brady artistic expression, the entire world gets to see Brady playing like he's drawing up plays in the dirt - a true men among boys, as it were.

And that's where Amendola makes his bones, hauling in the tough circus catch or a laser beam to the sidelines like he did in the overtime session of last February's Super Bowl to extend the game-winning drive - that notion, married to his performance in last Saturday's victory over Tennessee, causing Gronkowski to label him Danny "Playoff" Amendola for his penchant for heroics when the lights are the brightest and the stage is the largest.

But it's really just Danny Amendola - or "Dola", if you prefer - because he's just as clutch in the regular season. Just no one really notices.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Prelude To A Title, Part III: Patriots' Defense Belongs In Elite Class With Jags, Vikes And Eagles

The New England Patriots' defense allowed 202 total yards and two touchdowns combined in the first and fourth quarters to the Tennessee Titans in Saturday night's divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium.

In between, the Patriots shut them down and shut them out.

Once they spotted the Titans a seven-point lead to close out the opening frame on an eleven-play, ninety-five yard drive, Tennessee's offense ran just one meaningful play in Patriots' territory for the rest of the game, were forced into six three-and-outs and allowed quarterback Marcus Mariota to be sacked eight times as New England cruised to their seventh straight conference championship game berth...
Early season addition Marquis Flowers embodies Patriots' philosophy

...their 35-14 victory setting up a meeting with the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars for the right to advance to Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis early next month.

In many ways, the game played out in anything but typical fashion for these Patriots. Usually, their script sees New England on offense driving down the field to take an early lead, looking increasingly complacent in bogging down twice or thrice before catching their footing and timing midway through the second quarter and scoring points in bunches...

...while on defense the Patriots usually allow plenty of yardage between the twenties and clamping down once they allow the opposition entrance to the red zone.

But on Saturday, both the offense and the defense came out flat, with only punter Ryan Allen and the special teams seeming on track, pinning the Titans inside their own ten yard line twice after two fruitless possessions on offense - but the second time Mariota led Tennessee on an eleven-play, 95 yard touchdown drive to take the early lead.

But that was the last time the Titans would even get within sniffing distance of Patriots' territory until garbage time.

From the end of the first quarter until there was less than four minutes left in the game, the Titans had seven possessions to work with, but managed only 35 total yards in that span and actually lost yardage on five of those, thanks to a persistent Patriots' pass rush that pummeled Mariota mercilessly - as the third-year signal caller was dealing with three major issues.

First was the fact that New England head ball coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia were obviously keying on limiting feed-bag runner Derrick Henry's effectiveness in the ground game, as they held him to just 28 yards on 12 carries for a 2.3 yards per carry average - then Mariota tweaked his quad at some point in the opening quarter which affected his mobility.

Third, and most importantly, was that linebacker Kyle Van Noy was assigned to mirror the shifty Mariota and not let him step up and run to the sticks nor escape and extend into the flat. Once Van Noy had him under wraps, the Titans' offense went into early hibernation while Tom Brady and the New England offense shifted into overdrive scoring, 35 unanswered points to send the game Titans back to Tennessee.

The eight sacks - a record for a Patriots' team in the postseason - epitomized the defensive success, as there was a sack of Mariota in every one of their second half possessions, leading to dismal yardage totals on drives with -2, -7, -6 and 14 yards, in order, before their garbage time drive that went 80 yards in fifteen plays against a three-deep prevent shell for a meaningless score.

It's no secret that the Patriots' defensive philosophy always seems to turn out being more of a bend-but-don't-break entity, but there is something very special about the way this particular defense has evolved.

For instance, in holding Mariota to 256 passing yards, the Patriots extended their streak of not allowing a 300 yard passer to eleven games, and have collected a mind-blowing 18 sacks in their last three games, and have won twelve of thirteen games since their horrific four-game drunken stagger to start the season...

...and they are doing it with a patchwork linebacking corps, a solid-and-improving-by-the-game secondary, and with what has evolved into one of the best defensive line rotation schemes in the league.

They knew what their shortcomings were and, with some deft personnel poachings by Belichick and some serious coaching up, they built a unit based on fundamental soundness and hustle rather than notoriety or experience and the result has been - and is - another AFC Championship berth featuring one of the best defenses in the league, and the very best where it really counts.

And where it really counts is on the scoreboard where, since the beginning of October, they have had the top scoring defense in the league, averaging just 14 points per game.

In contrast, the Minnesota Vikings are second at 14.66 points per game allowed, the Jacksonville Jaguars are at 16.16 and the Philadelphia Eagles are at 16.91 - good marks all, and a major reason why all of these teams are still alive closing in on Championship Sunday.

Sure, the Patriots allow plenty more yards both through the air and on the ground, and there is no rhyme nor reason to it, it just is, and the way the philosophy is addressed - playing their best ball after Thanksgiving on an annual basis - it could and should be expected that the defense is right now playing championship level ball, and have the players and planners to beat any team left in the tournament.

All of this despite the fact that if you were to ask a fan from another team to name three players on the New England defensive unit, chances are they'd have to google it - but what this team lacks in star-power they more than make up for in work ethic, intelligence and effort, and for the last seven years and for twelve of Belichick's seventeen years in dynasty mode, it's been enough to compete for a conference title...

...and for seven of those twelve seasons, it has been good enough to play for a world championship - and if history tells us anything, the Patriots have a better shot than anyone of hoisting another Lombardi Trophy three weeks from now.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Prelude To A Championship, Part II: Setting The Edge Paramount To Patriots' Run Defense Success

When Training camp started, Patriots' Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia welcomed what he thought was a defensive line bordering on the elite.

And, why not?  After all, In addition to bringing back stalwarts in nose tackle Malcom Brown, three-tech tackles Alan Branch and Vincent Valentine - and complimented by defensive end Trey Flowers - then added five-techs Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler through free agency, traded for defensive end Kony Ealy then drafted Arkansas defensive end Deatrich Wise and hybrid Derek Rivers.
Harrison was the perfect pickup for a team needing edge help

But things started going south almost immediately as Branch showed up out of shape, Valentine and Rivers hit the IR with knee injuries and Ealy was a bust in the system and was released. Suddenly, the Patriots were thin on the defensive line and with their linebackers dropping like flies as well, they entered the season with a front seven that had plenty of holes and no dirt to fill them in.

What was a compelling story line heading into camp - that being the structure appearing to be changing to a more flexible alignment to bring the linebackers' athleticism more into play - was suddenly a question of survival with a protracted earning curve that manifested as one of the worst stretches of defense that Foxborough has seen under head ball coach Bill Belichick.

The first month of the season was harrowing indeed, but with time and a concerted effort to play the most rudimentary style of defense in an effort to bring out the skill set of each player, and that has paid off in spades, and may be the best job of coaching in Belichick's tenure.

Bringing in Guy, Ealy and Butler signaled that the Patriots were in the final stages of building a defensive front that would resemble the old New York Giants 3-4 plus one which means an offset three man line playing odd spacing with a "Jack" linebacker being the fourth rusher, that position manned by a rotation of players on the second level.

That alignment was part of a defensive philosophy invoked by an obscure Giants' defensive coordinator named Bill Belichick, who had one of the most fearsome front sevens the game has known, with the likes of nose tackle Jim Burt flanked by five-tech ends Leonard Marshall and George Martin...

...backed by interior linebackers Gary Reasons and Harry Carson and outside 'backers Carl Banks and Lawrence Taylor. Taylor, who is widely considered to be the best outside linebacker to play the game, was usually the "Plus One" who combined with the three down lineman to put a four-man rush on the quarterback.

No need to go into the legacy of Taylor, nor the Giants in general, because there isn't a Taylor, nor Reasons, nor Carson, nor Banks to be had, only previously obscure youth on the second level playing behind a proven defensive line in a scheme tailor-made to the skill set of each player - and it's worked out pretty well so far.

How well? Considering that once the dark first month of the season is eliminated, the Patriots' defense has allowed a miserly 14 points per game, which is tops in the National Football League and a far cry from the 32 points per game they surrendered in the first four weeks of the season - while finishing the season in the middle-of-the-pack in total defense... well as third down conversions per game, net time of possession allowed, and eighth in sacks - but the only real issue with the defense the entire season was setting the hard edge

In the running game that means taking away the lanes outside of the tackle box and forcing the running back inside, where big bodies awaited to make the stop, and in the passing game it requires covering the backs coming out of the backfield and into the flat on passing downs, as well as boxing in uber-ambulatory quarterbacks whose game depends on escaping pocket pressure and extending the play to the flats.

All told, the Patriots faced five teams whose quarterbacks thrive outside of the pocket and who game planned for New England with called bootlegs to take advantage of their weakness on the edges - and those teams, Kansas City, Houston, Carolina, Atlanta and Buffalo, combined for seven yards per carry from their quarterbacks and an astounding 28 first downs.

Running backs didn't have quite the absurd success that scrambling quarterbacks did, but frequently exposed the strong side of the Patriots' defense for 5.5 yards per carry, though they have gotten better during the past two weeks of the regular season. The reasons? well, ten sacks in two games will get you there, as well as limiting some fairly substantial running games to a measly 62 yards per game.

But in preparing for their divisional round matchup with the Tennessee Titans, the Patriots are facing an offense that gets it done on the ground from both the backs and the signal caller positions, working behind perhaps the best offensive line in the league.

Against  Kansas City in the wild card round, Eddie George / Marion Butts hybrid runner Derrick Henry punished the Chiefs from all angles, hammering home 96 yards in just 15 carries (6.4 ypc) right into the teeth of the Kansas City run defense, then showed off his wheels on the edges, turning the corner four times for 38 yards (9.5 ypc)...

...while quarterback Marcus Mariota broke the pocket - not to mention the Chiefs' hearts - five times, gaining 52 yards (10.4 ypc) and picking up four crucial first downs in the process, including a desperation 3rd and eight from the Titan 38 that kept alive the game winning drive.

The scariest part of the Titans' win over the Chiefs was how their line dominated a fairly stout front seven, enabling Henry to run for two first downs and bleeding Kansas City's time outs in a smashmouth display of the four-minute offense. They were able to wear down the Chiefs' defense by winning the time of possession battle and forcing them to be on the field for seventy offensive snaps... that by the time Mariota started feeding the raging Henry on his downhill surge late in the game, the Chiefs had nothing left in the tank.

Henry wore them down, which is to be expected of a 247 pound running back who is not what one would call "creative" in his running style, which is a little like a bull in a china shop where he seems unaware of anything except his initial read, a running style that often leads to a trail of bodies in his wake of carnage - and it looks as if he's not even trying.

His offensive line has more to do with that than his style, however, as he's not the kind of back that can make something out of nothing, and generally gets what's blocked for him - so the best way for the Patriots to limit the damage that Henry can do is by setting the edge and by being disciplined in their individual gap assignments. That should help the Patriots win on first and second down and then get off the field on third down, which the Titans have accommodated this season to the tune of a 25th ranked 35% conversion rate.

The problem there is that the Patriots only hold their opponents to a 39% conversion rate - but that's the Patriots, they play the bend-but-don't-break scheme as well as anyone ever has, giving up most of their yardage between the twenties but clamping down in the red zone, allowing only 43.75% of their opponent's red zone visits to result in touchdowns, good for fourth-best in the NFL.

Those number explain how New England's defense can be one of the worst in terms of yardage allowed, yet in the top five in points allowed.

One thing we probably will not be seeing much of is Henry in the pattern, as he's been targeted just eleven times all season, so the Patriots will most likely run with a standard 3-4 plus one, with Eric Lee, James Harrison and Trey Flowers taking turns at that "Jack" position, a spot that the newbie Harrison showed in the season finale that he is plenty capable of handling, so his workload should increase, allowing for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to utilize Lee and Flowers to scheme with.

The Titans can run the ball. Their smashmouth style appeals to old-school football fans and elicits respect from their opposition and should have Patriots' fans looking forward to seeing how their defense holds up against a true feed bag bell cow with a mean streak, and how they plan to contain a quarterback who plays the same legacy-brand of ball that is a perfect compliment to Tennessee's downhill approach.

New England has allowed just 124 rushing yards in the last two games combined against teams who are run-first entities, for a per-rush average of just 2.6 yards - and while it seems that holding the Titans to that standard may be a pipe dream, the Patriots have certainly shown they are capable of it - so if they can set the edge, filtering Henry inside and containing Mariota in the pocket where he'll be forced to throw, they'd have to feel pretty good about their chances to win the game.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Patriots' Turmoil: Artistic License, Constitutional Protections Drive Stories As Truth Becomes Speculation

"What a vile little thing is Evil Little Bill. The way he treated Wes Welker is disgraceful. Man has absolutely no loyalty to anyone. Watch and see, when Tom Brady's talents start to fade - and they will, it happens to all of them - Evil Little Bill will ship him out as well." - George R.R. Martin
Quite obviously, Martin - the author of the novel series A Song of Fire and Ice, which spawned the HBO series Game of Thrones - is not a Bill Belichick fan, but one has to wonder if he would be had the Dark Master remained with Martin's beloved New York Jets as their head coach rather than opting out with a cocktail napkin.

No one knows for certain if Martin would have been singing a different tune, and only he knows if he had any admiration for Belichick when he was helping Bill Parcells win Super Bowls in the 1980's as the Tuna's defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, for whom the author shares the same affection as he does the Jets, but it is clear that he is less than enamored.

In fact, when the Giants ruined the Patriots' quest for a perfect season in 2007, Martin immortalized the occasion in his sequel, A Dance With Dragons, with a the passage, "The galley was also where the ship's books were kept - the fourth a final volume of the life of Triarch Belicho, a famous Volantene patriot whose unbroken succession of conquests and triumphs ended rather abruptly when he was eaten by giants."

Eaten by giants, eh? Martin loathes Belichick to the point that he pulled a Dante Alighieri and named a character - at least in passing - as a past nemeses who got what he deserved. Of course, Dante's victims were scattered all over hell while Belichick was merely an appetizer, but the course is the same in that Martin, like Dante, was apparently obsessed with seeing his enemies suffer.

The thing about writing is that artistic license affords one to create whatever inspires you, and in the case of Martin and the fantasy novels that he publishes, there are no facts to distort and the only sources that are needed are an imagination, a thesaurus and a laptop - but when writing about reality, accuracy is paramount and artistic license is generally frowned upon.

Of course, there are ways around accuracy - rather, there are ways of telling a story without having to take responsibility for said accuracy - and this through what has become known as "Reporter's privilege", a reporter's protection under constitutional and statutory law from being compelled to disclose his sources."

It's a different kind of artistic license wherein anyone can make up anything about anyone, no matter how malicious and damning it may be, and all that person has to claim is that their knowledge came from an anonymous source, and absolve themselves of responsibility for anything they write that may or may not be true.

Anonymity leads to ambiguity which leaves the reader with no choice but to believe it or not. That is where responsibility to readers comes into play, as readers tend to eventually gravitate to writers who demonstrate a level of journalistic integrity...

...which brings us back to Belichick and the way in which the media interprets his legacy.

There is news coming out of Foxborough during the New England Patriots' bye week that paints a picture of a fractured relationship between Belichick, his certain Hall of Fame quarterback, Tom Brady, and the owner of the team, Bob Kraft - but this isn't the first that any of us have heard those kinds of rumors, and the fact that the recent DeflateGate episode has left such a bad taste in the mouths of New Englanders, that they are loathe to believe the media.

If  ESPN's Seth Wickerstam is to be believed, the Patriots have devolved into a high school team where Brady is the star quarterback who bends team rules when it comes to fitness, Belichick the rule-crazed principal who thinks the star quarterback has gotten too big for his britches, and Bob Kraft the President of the Alumni Association whose meddling has turned Brady and Belichick against each other.

And why not? After all, Patriots' fans will remember a contentious relationship that Kraft had with Bill Parcells, one that came to a head in the 1996 draft, when Parcells wanted to use their first round pick to select defensive end Tony Brackens, but was trumped by Kraft who issued a unilateral decision to draft wide receiver Terry Glenn instead.

Parcells coached the Patriots to the Super Bowl that season and came within a Desmond Howard kickoff return for a touchdown of defeating the Green Bay Packers for New England's first world title, but left immediately after the Super Bowl uttering, "If they want you to cook, they at least ought to let you shop for some of the groceries."

When Parcells left, Kraft interviewed Belichick but ultimately hired Pete Carroll to succeed Parcells, allegedly telling Belichick to work on his people skills and his interaction with the media, which, Kraft noted, was contentious to the point of being hostile when Belchick was coaching the Cleveland Browns. Eventually Kraft fired Carroll and turned to Belichick, who had just accepted the head coaching job for the New York Jets.

And the manner in which Belichick resigned as the "HC of the NYJ" - submitted to Jets' ownership on a cocktail napkin - alienated him from the fan base in New York and caused a firestorm of negativity and hate in the media. And when he signed on with New England just hours later, well, you can pretty much take the story from there as to why the New England / New York rivalry is so vicious.

There is more - lots more, in fact - but what has already been presented is more than enough evidence to support the fact that the media would be inspired to start a rumor about the Patriots in general and Belichick specifically. But the question must be posed: to what gain is there for anyone concerning this story?

The answer to that is, simply, to trash the Patriots' organization in an attempt to kick them while they are "down", to use alleged squabbling between the parties to cause yet another postseason distraction for a team that has the market cornered on that subject. Consider:

Back in 2002, Bill Belichick traded quarterback Drew Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills, which made an enemy out of some in the Boston media (Ron Borges, specifically), and the next season he released safety Lawyer Milloy, who signed with the Bills just as training camp was breaking - and the word coming out of the media on both occasions was that "Belichick has lost the locker room" and that the players hated him...

...then in 2007, the Patriots were caught taping defensive signals from the wrong area of what is now MetLife Stadium and it was rumored that team owner Robert Kraft was tiring of Belichick's antics, and then the players hated him again after he traded off defensive tackle Richard Seymour before the 2009 season, and again when he gave Wes Welker the heave ho in 2013...

...not to mention the Aaron Hernandez saga, when the media was quick to bury the Patriots for allegedly knowing about his criminal activity, but then cutting him loose when things went sideways.

The National media is well aware that the Patriots' success elicits negative emotional response from the fan bases of the other 31 NFL franchises, and sees anything that paints them in a a position of turmoil - be it by internal strife or dark malfeasance - as instant clickbait to bring millions of readers to their websites.

DeflateGate was a perfect example of the power that the media has over our lives, and how they work to form our opinions, and also how powerful enterprises such as the National Football League can publicize their agendas by feeding us what they want us to know - and with reporters empowered with artistic license by the constitution, they are able to take what the entity tells them and expound upon it without fear of reprisal.

This recent story involving Belichick, Brady and Kraft is simply another example of artistic license making the media immune from responsibility - and since these are the Patriots, the author knows that because of their past "transgressions", anything they say about the Patriots will be accepted as fact by the majority of their readers, thus giving them license to publish either fact or fiction with equal confidence.

So what, exactly, is happening with the Patriots, internally?

Probably, there is some truth to the report, but the anonymous sources cannot be confirmed, so all we have is a couple of old stories being resurrected and pieced together by a plagiaristic hack at ESPN, who knows that the fan base of 31 other NFL franchises are going to take the ball and run with it, spreading the hate and causing distraction to the defending champs.

None of us a privy to what goes on behind the Gillette Stadium doors, so for a reporter to quote so many anonymous sources causes one to question the legitimacy of his tale, as being an example of he said-she said, circumstantial evidence that wouldn't hold up in court, nor does it hold up to those who think for themselves.

And that's what this is all about. Reporters have a job to record history, and as such also have a responsibility to history to ensure that what they are reporting is accurate - and if they are allowed to go about their jobs unchecked by the truth, will history hold them to their words, or will they be excused with the fallacy of being fed bad information and therefore are blameless?

The media has a responsibility to record history, not to make it up as they go along - and with stories like this buoyed by evidence that cannot be substantiated without breaking the law concerning anonymous sources, one has to wonder if artistic license has had a hand in making up the history books as we know them today?

After all, embellishing the truth is now the national pastime.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Prelude To A Championship, Part I: Patriots' Defensive Transformation A Product Of Rudimentary "Belichickianism"

It has been said that defense wins championships - and if this is true, then the New England Patriots are well on their way to a sixth Lombardi trophy.

Ludicrous? Delusional? Not so fast...

The month of September seems so long ago, it's volatility barely a shade in the deep freeze of late December, the uncertainty of the New England Patriots being able to defend their championship has given way to another division title, another first-round bye and another home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

In reality, the month of September and half of October was a protracted, six-week long panic attack, a waking nightmare that saw the Patriots come out firing with their world-class offense having their way with opposing defenses, while their own defense was giving up just as many yards and almost as many points - leaving them at 2-2 with a quarter of the season gone and little hope on the horizon for a defense that was giving up a whopping 32 points per game.

The defensive line was getting no push in the pass rush, the linebackers were free-lancing in an attempt to mitigate the line's woes and the secondary was moth-eaten blanket that belonged stashed in Matt Patricia's attic - but there were legitimate reasons why Patricia's defense was so bad, and it is a testament to the resiliency of the coaching staff that they enter the 2017 post-season as one of the hottest stoppers in football.

For a moment, let's pretend that the first month of the season was just a bad dream and didn't exist, and the schedule was condensed from 16 games down to twelve - the Patriots would have one of the top defenses in the National Football League.

Since the horrors of the first quarter of the season, the Patriots' defense has surrendered just 12.8 points per game - tops in the NFL during that time span - have given up a miserly 201 passing yards per game (5th in the NFL) and 114 yards per game on the ground (11th) - a far cry from the 32 points per game, 324 passing yards and 132 rushing yards that they yielded in the first four games, all of those numbers dead last in the league.

So pronounced was the improvement in such a short length of time that it was as if someone went into the Patriots defensive meeting room and flipped a switch between games four and five, but in reality the improvement was classically Belichickian, as head ball coach Bill Belichick and Patricia revitalized the defense simply by taking it back to it's default settings.

The turning point came on a Thursday night in early October when the Patriots were forced to go into Tampa to play a Buccaneers' team that many felt was on the cusp of greatness.  Coming off of a demoralizing loss to the Carolina Panthers and in danger of falling below .500 with just three days to prepare for the Bucs, Belichick and Patricia were forced to fall back on preseason mode, when fundamentals were stressed above all else...

...which meant taking inventory of what they had in personnel and grooming the game plan to take advantage of what each player's skill set afforded them.

Every team that plays on a Thursday night is forced into their game with mere hours to prepare, and most every team looks to simply survive and don't put a hell of a lot of critique into their performance when their game plan has to be that vanilla, but the Patriots came into that game hungry to regress to basic fundamentals of the game, and it turned their season around.

Most notable was the transformation of the secondary in that game, whom Patricia put in press-man coverage to feed into the strengths of his cornerbacks and trust that his front seven, who to that point hadn't cause any sort of disruption, would be able to control the line of scrimmage by staying disciplined and remaining in their rush lanes.

Good thing, too, as injury has taken it's toll on the defense since and without a straight rudimentary core, the players that Belichick has signed to fill the void would have been useless until they learned the calls.

New England doesn't use exotic coverage looks, and the only disguising they do comes in the form of window dressing with the big nickel, which has become their "Base" alignment - which is also fortunate because Patricia has been able to mitigate the thin depth at linebacker somewhat because in that alignment, the strong safety drops into the box and becomes, essentially, a weak side linebacker.

And linebacker is where the issue in the defense has lied all season long, what with strong-sider Shea McClellin landing on the IR in preseason, with rookie hybrid Derek Rivers, promising weak-sider Harvey Langi and captain Dont'a Hightower following him to the shelf at various points, leaving a core of do-everything 'backer Kyle Van Noy and one-dimensional run-stuffers David Harris and Elandon Roberts.

Conspicuously missing was anyone who could set the edge or cover a back breaking into the flat, and Belichick eventually addressed that by inserting Marquis Flowers (acquired from Cincinnati for a seventh round pick) on the weak side and then poaching Buffalo's practice squad for Eric Lee, who has quickly become a cult figure on the strong side.

But the edge was still not secure and opposing offenses were running off tackle for huge chunks of yardage, so Belichick went out a got him an experienced edge setter, signing former Steeler James Harrison - and judging from his performance against the New York Jets in Sunday's season finale, it would seem that the second level is now well cared for.

It took the entire season, but the Patriots were able to evolve from a cast of individuals to a cohesive unit that now boasts some of the best numbers in the NFL. Usually, the team is what it is going to be by Thanksgiving, but because of the slow start and in-season retooling, that was extended out until Christmas.

It's still not perfect - in fact, a quick look at the depth chart provides the fact that there are eleven players (out of 25) on the defense that were not with the team last season, and only four of those guys had any significant professional playing time before landing in Foxborough...

...yet they sport a pass rush that finished the season tied for sixth in sacks with 42, ranked fourth in the NFL in red zone defense, and second in rushing touchdowns allowed despite being at or near the bottom of just about every other major statistical category - most of that damage done in the first month of the season, and was so pronounced that, residually, they had no chance of recovery.

That said, all that matters is how a team ends the season, and the Patriots' defense has ended the regular season as one of the top units in the league since that fateful first month - and with axiom "Defense wins championships" true, it looks like the Patriots are in good shape to defend their title.

Publisher's note: This is the first in a multi-part series focused on the evolution of the New England Patriots from training camp to the post-season, with a particular focus on the roster and how the current team got to where they are now. Part II will cover the transformation of the defensive line...