Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Patriots' Adherence To Fundamentals Fuels Tough Victory Over Talented Browns

28 October, 2019
Jonathan Jones has world-class speed, and apparently carries a wicked overhand right.
He's not a track star nor is he a prize fighter - just a little nickel cornerback for the New England Patriots who on Sunday afternoon saved his team's bacon by combining both skills to chase down Cleveland Browns' running back Nick Chubb, then punch the ball out of his grasp...
...the fumble deep in New England territory preventing a sure Browns' touchdown and, most importantly, deflecting a huge momentum shift in Cleveland's favor had Chubb found the end zone.
That was part of a first quarter drive-by punking of the Browns that saw the Patriots' defense force two fumbles and one weird interception on three consecutive Cleveland offensive snaps, the 10 points scored off of those turnovers putting the Browns in an early hole that they would never recover from.
Not that they would have anyway, regardless of when the Patriots scored on offense, because that three-play sequence took the Browns out of their game plan, a fantastic game plan that could have – should have – helped Cleveland hand New England their first loss of the season.
Jonathan Jones forcing Chubb's fumble
After all, had Jones and his 4.33 speed not caught up with Chubb, who had also coughed up the ball to Hightower on their previous offensive snap, had Jones not tomahawked the ball out of Chubb's grip and had safety Devin McCourty not recovered the loose ball deep in New England territory, the Browns would have been down by just three points...
...and had Chubb not been stripped of the ball by his own offensive lineman on the previous play, and had Dont'a Hightower picked it up on the fly and floated into the end zone with it, the Browns would have been up by four and feeling like world-beaters.
Hypotheticals aside, those things did happen – and in such rapid sequence that a guy could have gone outside for a smoke with the Patriots up by three with six minutes remaining in the first quarter, and come back in five minutes later to find New England up by seventeen and commentator Tony Romo sputtering platitudes about the dominant defensive performance he was witnessing.
Two plays after doomed kicker Mike Nugent put the Patriots up 3-0 with 6:38 left in the first quarter, New England linebacker Kyle Van Noy upended Giants' right tackle Chris Hubbard to set a hard edge against Chubb who was attempting to climb to the corner, Hubbard's flailing foot kicking the football free and Hightower scooped the ball off the turf and followed a six-player-strong escort to paydirt.
Punter Jake Bailey sent the ensuing kickoff into the Browns' bench to give Cleveland a short field to work with, and quarterback Baker Mayfield went right to Chubb on another strong-side edge run, but this time he cut back to the inside, juked the entire Patriots' defense out of their socks and turned on the afterburners at the left hash with nothing but the light tower in sight – but Jones, who had been planted by a Browns' tackle Chris Hubbard about 15 yards up the field, got up and started sprinting diagonally to try and catch Cleveland's marvelous sophomore back...
...going to warp and closing the gap on Chubb with freakish speed, catching him just inside the red zone, securing Chubb with his left arm and then punching the ball out with his right – the McCourty twins diving for the loose ball with Devin coming out of the scrum in possession.
Chubb was noticeably distraught, but gained a measure of solace when the Browns' stoppers pulled the plug on the Patriots' next possession – that relief lasted all of one play, as defensive tackle Lawrence Guy split a double team to wreck a Mayfield forward pitch intended for Jarvis Landry on the first play, the ball landing right in Guy's hands to complete what should now been known as a “Browns' Hat trick”.
The Patriots did score after Guy's interception, Julian Edelman taking a Tom Brady offering eight yards for what proved to be the winning points. After that the game slipped into a punt-fest as both offenses bogged down in the face of two pretty good defenses – the main difference between the two offenses being New England's almost fanatical adherence to fundamentals and Cleveland's panic-driven abandonment of them.
Which goes to figure, right? After all, when a game is tightly contested, the advantage goes to the team that sticks to their game plan, and New England's offense is so entrenched in the details that at times their methodical approach is about as exciting as watching products being put together on an assembly line...
...while the Browns seem so erratic under pressure that the fundamentals are eschewed in favor of expediency.
That is all coaching and experience, which the Patriots have over every other team in football with Brady and head ball coach Bill Belichick calling the shots - and which was on full display in the second half, when New England trudged along and wore down the Browns' defenders while Cleveland abandoned what they do best on offense – and the results were what one might expect.
Trailing by ten points at the half, the Browns took the second half kickoff and drove down the field only to be denied deep in Patriots' territory, settling for a field goal to make it a one-score game, but Brady responded by leading a seven-play drive capped off by Edelman's second touchdown reception of the night to build the Patriots' lead to fourteen.
Fundamentally, the Browns are a run-first entity despite all of the receiving talent they possess, and for three quarters their ground game actually had the advantage over the Patriots' run defense – but as the clock ticked down to the fourth quarter, Cleveland head coach Freddie Kitchens panicked and abandoned his running game and put his hopes on the arm of Mayfield...
...taking the ball out of hands of Chubb, who had rebounded spectacularly from his dismal two-fumble start to the game and ended up with 131 yards on just 20 carries – but only three of that total coming in the final frame on just one carry.
Putting the game on Mayfield's shoulders played right into what New England's defense does best, the Patriots drawing two offensive pass interference calls on deep balls and sacking the second-year quarterback twice in the fourth quarter, one of those an Adam Butler sack on fourth down from the Cleveland 19-yard line that effectively salted the game away.
Yardage-wise, New England's 27-13 victory at Gillette Stadium was their defense's poorest performance of the season. Realistically, however, the Patriots' vaunted stoppers collected five sacks and forced those three first-quarter turnovers to counter the 318 yards of total offense collected by the Browns...
...consistently coming up with stops when the chips were down, dominating on third-down and getting off the field, holding the Browns' potent offense to just three conversions in twelve attempts while the Browns fell apart, collecting thirteen penalties for 85-yards in the process.
That's what the Patriots do to everyone, and in the end, ugly or not, they always seem to make the crucial plays on both sides of the ball to come out on top.
Most teams would consider holding their opponent to barely three-hundred yards of offense a good effort, but Patriots' fans have been conditioned to expect their defense to be far stingier. Fair or not, the Boogeyman defense drives those expectations from their domination of opposing offenses through the first half of the season against a schedule that featured a less-than-imposing list of foes...
...but if Sunday's victory over a talented Cleveland offense teaches us anything, it is that New England dominates through adherence to the fundamentals, staying the course through adversity and dictating play – and that, more than anything else, makes the Patriots almost impossible to beat.

Rested Browns Next Course For Surging Patriots

25 October, 2019
The New England Patriots' 2019 schedule reads like a fine dining menu.
The first part of the season has been a seven-course appetizer, with the next six games a meaty main course and the last three a delectable selection of desserts.
We've been to this restaurant many times in the past two decades, but rarely have we been looking forward to the main course like we are this time around - because as the season wears on, the meat looks easier to chew than what it appeared to be when the menu came out earlier in the offseason.
The Patriots devoured the appetizers, suffering little heartburn in victories over a selection of savory delicacies in preparation for what had promised to be a complex combination of beef and fowl; a selection of regional favorites from places like Texas, the east coast and the midwest promising to stick to their ribs...
...the teams they are preparing to face having been tenderized by the first half of their collective schedules.
Up first, a Cleveland Browns' team that stands at 2-5 on the season after being touted by friend and foe alike as the next-big-thing in professional football, but now resemble a pack of surly waiters stuck in a dead-end jobs and in need of a collective cigarette break.
That break came last week as the Browns took their scheduled bye week and hope to come back refreshed.
But anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows that waiters are treacherous and opinionated drama queens who can flip on the charm in front of the public, but back in the kitchen cause turmoil and eat french fries off of your plate before delivering it to the table.
Certainly the Browns' vocal chords are in fine shape. Receiver Jarvis Landry was asked by a reported from a local Cleveland rag what he expected from his team coming out of the bye week, to which Landry replied, “We're going to Foxborough to win.”. Of course, the Boston media took that and ran with it, openly wondering why Landry would say anything to incite the Patriots.
The rest of the Browns are being very complementary of the Patriots, perhaps knowing that they are walking into a meat grinder with little chance to emerge with anything more than table scraps to feed their Dawg Pound.
The main reason for that is a player that the Browns released this past offseason who became the final piece of a Patriots' defense dubbed “The Boogeyman” that has terrorized opposing quarterbacks and smothered their pass catchers with such ferocity that they lead the National Football League in so many categories that it's conceivable that they could possibly be the best unit of stoppers that football has ever seen...
...the caveat to that statement being that the offenses the Boogeyman have faced thus far aren't exactly a murderer's row of firepower, featuring young and inexperienced quarterbacks who wilt like fresh spinach under the intense heat of the Patriots' shape-shifting pass rush.
Linebacker Jamie Collins, the Browns' leading tackler last season and a former Patriot before that, has returned to Foxborough as an integral part of a defense that causes so much chaos along the offensive line that those inexperienced quarterbacks have no choice but to either deliver quick throws or become pancakes.
The proof is in the pudding, as it were, as Collins leads their pack of swift and violent pass rushers who are on pace to collect sixty sacks – and if the quarterback does happen to get rid of the ball, they still take punishment, being hit anyway and reducing them to skittish turnover machines who have collectively thrown 18 interceptions.
And even when their opponents try to catch them off guard by attempting to run the football, Collins and strong-side linebacker Kyle Van Noy set such a hard edge that the defense as a whole have collected fifty tackles for a loss, as they turn the running backs back inside where folks like Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Danny Shelton are waiting to obliterate them.
The secret ingredient is what is known as a cover-zero package, wherein the Patriots' excellent group of defensive backs cover pass catchers in press-man without a safety over the top – a scheme wrought with danger if the quarterback has time to make his reads and deliver a strike, as one broken tackle can turn a short throw into a long touchdown run.
That has happened just once in seven games, as the combination of the intense pressure and tight man coverage turn opposing receivers into impromptu pigs in a blanket – such an overwhelming percentage of success that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick, who calls his group of stoppers an “Amoeba”, can disguise his coverages to the point that their foes can't tell who is rushing the quarterback and who is dropping into coverage.
Hard cheese for young quarterbacks to swallow, but it remains to be seen if Cleveland's Baker Mayfield, a second-year signal caller, will be able to decipher it in time to get the ball out to his top-shelf group of receivers.
Under normal circumstances, those pass catchers comprise one of the most dangerous downfield threats in the league, but given the relentlessness of the Patriots' pass rush, Baker's big arm and gunslinger mentality should be rendered inert, or taken advantage of in other ways, so the Browns would be wise to become a more methodical, move-the-chains attack, with short throws and trap draws to the running backs.
The Patriots' defense dictates to opposing offenses what they can be – and usually when a defense is that dominating, the offenses simply take what the defense gives them, which can work to their advantage. But this Patriots' defense gives absolutely nothing to those offenses, so there's nothing to take.
Further complicating matters, the Patriots' offense is already the aforementioned methodical, sometimes plodding entity that will lull defenses to sleep with possessions that feature double-digit snap counts and eat game clock like a starving man would a free cheeseburger, both wearing them down and setting them up for a sporadic big gainer.
And the whole time this is happening, that vicious Patriots' defense is sitting on the sidelines resting up, staying fresh and plotting their next assault on the poor geeks charged with trying to move the ball against them.
In the past, Patriots' fans reached for the Xanax when watching teams drive the field on the defense, but also with the knowledge that Belichick's designs made them a bend-but-don't-break entity, hoping that the defense would surrender only a field goal attempt...
...but now the stressor is in hoping that this defense can pitch a shutout, something that they've done three times already this season (if you count their first meeting with the New York Jets, when the Jets' defense and special teams tallied touchdowns), and have allowed only three touchdowns in total.
The Browns represent the best collection of talent that the Patriots will have faced all season long, and are coming off of their bye week, so they should be fresh and ready to give New England their best shot – and whether that best shot will be good enough to net them anything more than a purple heart is doubtful.
And should the Patriots be able to keep Mayfield and his All Pro receivers in check, perhaps their pundits will start to acknowledge that perhaps this is the best, most complete team in the history of the game – but anything less and the naysayers will continue to hammer on New England, saying that they still haven't played anyone.
Not that it matters to Belichick or his players, because either way, the chances are very good that the Patriots will run their record to 8-0, topping off the first half of their 2019 season with whipped cream and a cherry.

Gordon Placed On Shelf; Time In New England Deemed Over

24 October, 2019
At present, Gordon is nursing a bum knee and Harry is back practicing after spending the first part of the season on the injured/reserved list with a bad hammy. Harry can be activated to the roster in early November, and while there is no established time table for Gordon's return, the smart money has him returning to the field this coming Sunday to face his former team, the Cleveland Browns.
Foxborough Free Press, 22 October, 2019
New England Patriots' first round draft pick N'Keal Harry will most likely be activated in early November, but Josh Gordon will not be returning to face his former team this Sunday.
Up until Wednesday afternoon, Gordon had been spotted participating in team drills in preparation for the Cleveland Browns, but a couple of hours later, the Patriots placed the mercurial receiver on their injured/reserved list, ending his season and, most likely, his career in Foxborough - and once again we learn that the smart money isn't always the best bet on the board.
The state of the New England Patriots' receiving corps this season has been subject to much conjecture among the working press, most feeling that defacto general manager Bill Belichick needed to address what was viewed as a group lacking the ability to spread the field vertically...
...which wasn't really true as Phillip Dorsett possesses world-class speed and fly paper for hands, and Gordon, while not particularly fast, was a natural playmaker who won at the top of the route and battled valiantly for 50/50 balls down the seam and on deep back-shoulder throws, and was generally successful at both.
Then on Monday, word broke that Belichick had traded a 2020 second-round draft pick to the Atlanta Falcons for big possession receiver Mohamed Sanu, who is fearless on crossing routes and knows how to find the line to gain, joining Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman and an up-and-coming Jakobi Meyers to make up a suddenly potent entity that could play it anyway you wanted.
Things were looking up but he Boston media were not satisfied, calling Sanu and "Poor man's Josh Gordon" - and that, now obvious and apparent, seems to be the whole point.
Since being activated from suspension late in the preseason, Gordon seemed to be laboring in the pattern and after the catch, not displaying the same sharp moves to gain separation from the defensive backs, and easily being caught from behind once he made the catch. Some attributed this to lack of interest and effort, but still the speculation was that he was out of shape and/or disinterested as he frequently signaled to the sideline to be pulled from the game to catch a blow.
To be fair, he made some tough catches and showed a lot of toughness by returning to action after suffering hand and leg injuries, but the combination of lack of burst in the pattern and injury made Gordon appear ordinary and not the explosive playmaker that caused Belichick to reserve their rights to him through the aforementioned indefinite suspension.
The final straw came when Gordon was injured trying to stop New York Giants linebacker Markus Golden from scoring after scooping up a Tom Brady fumble, as replays showed that he seemed hesitant to engage Golden at the goal line and was subsequently caught in the scrum, was bent backwards and trapping his left leg awkwardly beneath him as he fell to the turf.
After being examined by the training staff on the field, he left under his own power and Patriots' fans breathed a collective sigh of relief, thinking that Gordon had escaped serious injury.
That was two weeks ago and, as it always is with the secretive Patriots, there had been no word on Gordon's status, other than he was limited with a lower body injury. Fans were hopeful of Gordon's return, as he hadn't been placed on the I/R and, as mentioned, was seen on the practice field. But now it is apparent that we should have seen this coming.
So now with the trade deadline looming on Tuesday, the question is, does Belichick dip into the trade market to obtain another receiver?
Most likely, that answer would be “no”, especially with Harry set to be activated during the Patriots' bye week – but that comes with a caveat. Harry is a rookie who was on the field for a handful of plays in the preseason and has never experienced playing in a regular season game. Harry isn't exactly considered a deep threat, but is a perimeter threat, his 6' 4”, 215 pound frame and mad hops perfect for plucking balls out of the air on those 50/50 and back-shoulder balls.
Reports from NFL insiders indicate that Gordon will be released from the I/R once deemed healthy, and for his part, Gordon expressed shock and disappointment and tweeted out that he hopes to play for another team this season.
That may be, as there are many teams out there in need of an experienced playmaker in the pattern, even an out of shape and injured one – but his time in New England is over.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Rich Get Richer: Patriots Acquire Sanu From Falcons

The New England Patriots had a couple of holes to fill on offense, what with their offensive line starting two backups, losing all of their tight ends, having no fullback and with their receiving corps missing a big downfield target - and in the wake of their blowout win over the New York Jets on Monday night, it appears they've addressed three of the four.

During the game, newly re-signed tight end Ben Watson performed as he did when he was a Patriot years ago, and run-plugging linebacker Elandon Roberts filled in admirably as a lead blocker for Sony Michel - and while help is on the way for the offensive line as left tackle Isaiah Wynn prepares to be activated from the IR, the solution for a big downfield target is already here.

Just hours after the Patriots humiliated the Jets before a national television audience, several sources reported that head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick pulled off a stunning trade, sending a 2020 second-round draft pick to the Atlanta Falcons for wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.
A homecoming of sorts for Sanu, he joins three former Rutgers University teammates on the Patriots' roster - his now-former Falcons' teammates posting congratulatory tweets on social media, the common sentiment urging Sanu to "Go get yourself a ring."

That, more than anything else, provides a look at how the Patriots are viewed among his contemporaries.

Sanu is a classic possession receiver who operates best on intermediate routes - ten to twenty yards down the field - and fights for the football on the 50/50 balls and back-shoulder throws that are a staple of the Patriots' offense, and he joins a banged up receiving corps that are about to get healthy enough to run roughshod over opposing defenses...

...and just in time, too, as New England is about to leave their seven-course appetizer to start the season and enter the meat of their schedule that features four consecutive games against 2018 playoff teams and two other teams that should have been.

Sanu, at 6' 2" and 220 pounds, joins a Patriots' pass catching unit that, when completely healthy, features a solid mix of big possession types with Josh Gordon (6' 3", 225) and rookie first round pick N'Keal Harry (6' 4", 215), and shiftier chain movers in Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett and undrafted free agent find Jakobi Meyers...

...not to mention the best passing back in the league in James White and the wiley veteran Watson (6' 3", 250) at tight end.

At present, Gordon is nursing a bum knee and Harry is back practicing after spending the first part of the season on the injured/reserved list with a bad hammy. Harry can be activated to the roster in early November, and while there is no established time table for Gordon's return, the smart money has him returing to the field this coming Sunday to face his former team, the Cleveland Browns.

It may seem unfair that the best team in the NFL is getting even better, but the move for Sanu is typically Patriots, as is Belichick's patience with the process.

It is reported that Belichick tried to acquire Sanu in advance of last April's draft, but was rebuffed by the Falcons as they felt they could contend for the NFC South division title, but with Atlanta fading and now in 2020 season mode, they finally relented and started their rebuilding process by obtaining New England's second-round pick.

Considered a third-down and red zone threat, Sanu now emerges from the large shadow of All Pro receiver Julio Jones and lands in a spot where he can ply his trade on his own terms, as Belichick is renowned for opening his playbook to accommodate a player's skill set rather than forcing that player to acclimate to a set standard.

So now quarterback Tom Brady has yet another weapon to target. May God have mercy on the rest of the teams in the NFL, because they will not find any mercy from the juggernaut Patriots.

Defense Dominates Yet Again As Patriots Annihilate Jets

Sam Darnold claimed that he was seeing ghosts on Monday night while his New York Jets were hosting the New England Patriots and their bedlam-based defense.
Actually, Sam, you weren't seeing Ghosts; you were seeing Boogeymen..
The Patriots' self-dubbed "Boogeyman" defense had the second-year signal caller so wide-eyed and rattled, that he looked like a teenager in a bad slasher flick, forced into making the type of fatal decisions that cause the audience to grip their arm rests in suspense, knowing that the poor geek was doomed.
No matter how fast he ran, he knew the Boogeyman was going to catch him - and in true thriller fashion, the New England defense terrorized the young quarterback, wearing him down psychologically to the point that his throwing mechanics broke down and he started throwing off his back foot and floating balls to where he thought his receivers would be...
Devin McCourty returning an interception
...but no one except Patriots defenders were there, picking him off four times enroute to their second shutout of the season, a 33-0 blowout that elevated New England to 7-0 on the season and caused Jets' fans to flee MetLife Stadium in horror.
A common term for when a quarterback starts feeling so pressured by the pass rush that he sees targets that aren't really there, "Seeing ghosts" is the only explanation for why the second-year signal caller was throwing passes to places on the field where there was not a receiver in sight.
Hallucinatory episode aside, Darnold simply suffered the same fate of every other quarterback thus far on the Patriots' schedule. Pressured by a relentless, shape-shifting pass rush that was in his face all night long, Darnold completed only eleven of his thirty-two pass attempts, four of those misses ending up in the hands of New England defenders, who have now logged 18 thefts on the season.
The superlatives being tossed around about the Patriots' defense – and deservedly so – have clouded from most folk's view that the offense has its stake in their success.
When quarterback Tom Brady entered the field of play after the Patriots received the opening kickoff, he didn't leave it until nearly nine minutes of game time had elapsed 16 plays later and with a the eventual winning points on the board.
The Jets were doomed after that, their defense already exhausted. But Brady and the Patriots' offense continued to pour it on, with a huge assist from the defense.
Once the Jets' offense finally saw the field, their first possession lasted a whole two plays as Darnold saw his first ghost and was picked off by safety Devin McCourty, who returned the ball deep into the red zone. That possession resulted in only a field goal but the Jets' defense had little time to rest and recover, now on the field for 10 minutes and only twelve minutes into the contest.
By the time the second quarter rolled around, New England already had a 17-0 lead when two plays in, linebacker John Simon strip-sacked Darnold, and fellow 'backer Kyle Van Noy recovered at the New York 38 – but rather than going for the quick strike, Brady opted for keeping the Jets' defense on the field for another five minutes, eventually taking a 24-point lead on a Sony Michel one-yard blast.
In the end, New England held the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game, their grinding, move-the-chains style a perfect complement to the manic defensive entity – and if the offense does bog down, which it did after taking a three-score lead, there's always Jake Bailey and the Stormtrooper punt coverage team, who routinely pin the opposing offense deep in their own territory, forcing them to cover the length of the field to obtain any points at all.
That's not happening for the opposition – and if the other guys happen to cause a turnover to get great field position, the Boogeymen shift into high gear and drive them backwards.
It's now a familiar refrain in New England, but there is much work left to do, particularly on the offense, which leads the league in points scored, but tend to bog down for long stretches. At issue is the 30th ranked ground game of the Patriots, which is collectively gaining just just 3.3 yards per carry...
...which sucks, but the main culprit is Michel's get-only-what's-blocked-for-him style, which also is an indictment of the play of the offensive line, a unit that isn't getting push when Michel is in the backfield because the opposition stacks the box due to his one-dimensional opportunities – and dropping a screen pass that had touchdown written all over it doesn’t help how defenses perceive him.
That's a topic that needs a little more attention, because it happened again on Monday night, as after the Patriots had taken that 24-0 lead midway through the second quarter, the Jets' defense rose to the occasion and forced seven punts and one interception of Brady the rest of the way...
...mostly due to the Patriots attempting to dictate to the Jets in the four-minute offense against the aforementioned stacked box - the only glitch in their effort another clock eating drive by the Patriots that resulted in Michel's third rushing touchdown of the game and the final points of the game.
Good Stuff:
1. Jakobi Meyers blocking ability: Meyers is tall and thin, but certainly not frail, nor afraid to take on defenders while blocking down the field. Twice on Monday night Meyers exhibited excellent technique in opening the edge on screen plays, solidifying his status of an up-and-coming talent, especially in light of the fact that he catches everything thrown at him and appears to have Brady's confidence. This rookie looks to be another great bottom-of-the-barrel find by Belichick.
2. Patriots may have found a new "Fullback": Or maybe three or four, as linebacker Elandon Roberts, reserve lineman James Ferentz and tight ends Ben Watson and Eric Tomlinson all had turns at lead blocking from the fullback position. Roberts offered up the best audition tape, as on the last of Sony Michel's three touchdown runs, Roberts leveled two defenders, taking them high and low and clearing a path for Michel. Belichick may choose to use a by-committee approach for the position, but for the moment, Roberts appears to be the best option.
3. Ben Watson's seamless debut: After Watson caught a third-down chain mover on a slant route, he rose from the turf with an “I told you so” scowl on his face, perhaps sending a message to Belichick that he should never have cut him in the first place. We'll probably never know if there was a message to be had for anyone, but Watson looked both pissed off and redeemed at the same instant. Regardless, New England now has a legitimate NFL tight end again.
4. A Damien Harris Sighting: Finally. It was in garbage time – well, the game was in garbage time after the Patriots' initial drive, but you get it – and the kid ran with purpose. A third-round draft pick out of Alabama, the Patriots have the luxury of bringing him along slowly, and that's exactly what they are doing. That said, he needs real-game reps, so let's hope that Monday night's appearance isn't an anomaly.
1. Why do the officials continue to pick on J.C. Jackson? In last season's AFC Championship game, Jackson was flagged three times on one drive, leading to a Kansas City touchdown. On Monday night, Jackson was again flagged three times on one drive, but the Patriots' defense emerged unscathed when safety Duron Harmon intercepted Jets' quarterback Sam Darnold at the one-yard line. Just as last year, the penalties seemed a bit ticky-tack, or even downright wrong. No harm, no foul I suppose.
Bad Juju:
1. Sony Michel still bogged down: He scored three touchdowns, but only averaged 2.2 yards per carry and dropped a screen pass that probably would have gone for a touchdown, given the wall of blockers that were set up to escort him into the end zone. He broke off a couple of tough runs, but continues to get only what's blocked for him.

For Good Or Ill, Patriots' Offensive Success Depends on Running Backs Becoming Wide Receivers

20 October, 2019
Bill Belichick calls them "Bonus Points".
Points unexpected, scored by the defense and by kick and punt coverage teams, are not rare, but occur seldom enough that they always make the short list on highlight reels and will often alter the course of a football game, for good or ill.
They are considered to be points scored off of turnovers, and Belichick's New England Patriots have been on both sides of the effect that they have on games this season - and, in fact, his Patriots lead the National Football League in points scored off of turnovers. Unfortunately, they are also dead last in the league in points surrendered off of turnovers on their own.
It's not a wash, however, as New England has scored six touchdowns in such a manner while their opponents have posted three, with two of those coming in their last meeting with the New York Jets in a game that the Patriots won 30-14 - a final score that would have been 30-0 had no bonus points been scored...
...New York scoring on a muffed punt returned for a touchdown, and then an easy pick-six. The Jets' offense was just plain bad in that game, and had been until quarterback Sam Darnold returned to the lineup last week.
So how does that translate to tonight's rematch with the Jets? It doesn't translate at all, as Belichick himself will tell you, and that whatever happened in the past has no bearing on future contests - particularly in this case as bonus points are unexpected and the Jets are a completely different entity than they were four weeks ago...
...most obviously at quarterback, where second-year starter Darnold returns after missing their last encounter at New England and gives them some spark on offense, enough to upset the heavily favored Dallas Cowboys last week for their first win of the season.
And given the state of parity that governs the NFL this season, that one win keeps the Jets in the playoff hunt, albeit by a thread, which combined with the win over Dallas, gives the Jets the motivation and confidence that their offense can match the success that their defense has enjoyed, and promises to give the Patriots all they can handle before a national television audience.
That confidence is also due in part to New England's offense being stuck in neutral since that last contest in Foxborough, as injuries have rendered the Patriots' passing game a shell of its normal self, struggling to put together any consistency at all early in games - but to their credit, have scratched and clawed their way to find just enough paydirt to pull out six wins in as many games.
Certainly, the Patriots score more than enough points on average to win any game they play, their league-leading 31.6 points per game easily outdistancing their opponents by an absurd twenty-four points – but that is a collective total. If one were to erase the Patriots' bonus points, their average drops to 24 points per contest which, given the excellence of their defense, is still plenty.
Even so, there is a decline in points scored by the offense over the last three weeks going back to their meeting with the Jets, the talisman being wide receivers Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon going down with injuries suffered in that game which has limited their effectiveness and, as a result, the effectiveness of the offense overall.
In fact, injuries have taken such a toll on the Patriots' offense that in the second half last week against the New York Giants, they had only enough pass catchers to field just one personnel grouping, featuring a gimpy-but-tough-as-nails Edelman and two undrafted rookies. That was enough to squeeze out a win in that game to remain undefeated, but it won't hold up tonight against an aggressive Jets' defense.
Gordon, who had been playing with a variety of maladies for a couple of games since that week 3 win over the Jets, has already been ruled out for Monday night with a knee injury suffered against the Giants – and if speedy Phillip Dorsett isn't able to return to the lineup after missing the last two games, the wide receiver corps may yet again have to depend on those rookies.
But Belichick has assuaged the impact of that scenario by making moves that will mask the deficiencies in the passing game, theoretically.
By signing tight ends Ben Watson and Eric Tomlinson, he adds much-needed bulk to the end of the offensive line, giving him a proven seam target in Watson and a pair of powerful inline blockers that should aid the running game. If one were to simply view these moves on the surface, it could signal that New England is prepared to go toe-to-toe with the Jets' excellent defensive line and bring the running game into prominence...
...a running game that has been bogged down all season due to attrition suffered in the offseason and exasperated exponentially by injuries that have laid waste to the offensive line and the fullback position, a staple of New England's offense.
But with Belichick's stance that the short passing game is an extension of the ground game, not to mention that he employs a stable of running backs who are collectively dangerous in the passing game, he could actually thin the box by spreading out the Jets' defense while at the same time opening room for Edelman and company to ply their trade.
The issue with their passing game is that all of the receivers that Belichick has left to work with are essentially a collection of slot receivers who are incapable of spreading the field vertically, so he could (should) spread out the field horizontally by splitting a  running back or two out wide while keeping one in the backfield. This rare personnel grouping could actually give the offense an element of the read option, dictating to the Jets' defense by forcing them to stay in their base defense and reacting instead of forcing the issue.
Of course, New York could counter this ploy by employing a third safety or by going to a mostly zone coverage look to shrink the field like it would in the red zone, which by its very nature limits the space that pass catchers have to operate. Be that as it may, New England is adept at operating in tight spaces, counting on their backs to work in the flat to move the chains.
How goofy would it seem for Belichick to line up two backs wide, Edelman in the slot, Watson on the end of the line and keep one back in the backfield? That's called “31” personnel – three backs and one tight end, which one might see as an abstract personnel package, or as an old “Wishbone” offense.
That would freak out the Jets' defensive players until they realized that they have a collection of safeties perfect for their own brand of the Big Nickel package in which to provide coverage on the backs and tight end, and they could do so by staying in their base defense, substituting a corner for a strong safety...
...or even using a corner as a deep safety and employing a two-deep zone in front of him to ensure proper run support.
Madness, all of it.
It's a ball control scheme for sure, and one that, if successful, would put a lot of pressure on the Jets' offense to be efficient, working with what should be limited possessions to score points on the Patriots' defense, something that they know from experience is tough sledding.
New England's defense leads the NFL in every major category, most importantly is the fact that they are allowing a miniscule 4.5 points per game and are larcenous repeat offenders, leading the league in forced turnovers and are on pace to shatter the NFL record for sacks in a season.
It should also be noted that Belichick's defense and special teams have outscored opposing offenses twice in their six games, and have collectively outscored those six foes 42-27, those bonus points the difference between New England being undefeated and having at least one loss, perhaps two or even three.
But as good as they have been, the Patriots cannot count on those bonus points. Darnold is a talented, albeit young, signal caller who is light years better than Luke Falk, whom the New England defense beat in their first meeting like he stole something. Darnold has a big arm, can make all the throws and is a bit more mobile...
...but should be held mostly in check by the Patriots' “Boogeyman” defense. The question is, can the offense score enough points with their limitations in the receiving corps to complement their defense and come out of MetLife Stadium still undefeated?
The odds makers in Las Vegas believe so, making the Patriots a double-digit road favorite – so as long as the Jets don't get those Bonus Points that they enjoyed in their first meeting, New England should escape with a decisive victory.

Patriots Add Bulk To Ground Game; Sign Tight Ends Watson And Tomlinson

16 October, 2019
As expected, the New England Patriots have loaded up at the tight end position in the wake of attrition paring down their power sets on offense.
Most figured that veteran Ben Watson would be re-signed at some point, but in an unexpected move, the Patriots have also signed fourth-year nomad Eric Tomlinson, a mammoth in-line blocker who played for the New York Jets last season after seeing time with the Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Texans before that.
The Texas - El Paso product entered the league as a projected tackle, but has shown enough as a safety valve in the pattern to remain a tight end. Needless to say, his forte is run blocking, and at 6' 7" and 270 pounds, he has shown an ability to engulf edge defenders and make breakfast food out of them.
Having both Tomlinson and Watson on the roster could have a reset effect on the entire offense.
Towards the end of last Thursday's victory over the New York Giants, the Patriots offense was bogged down by injury to the point that they could only field one personnel grouping, hard cheese for a unit that routinely enjoys the flexibility of multiple personnel groupings and the advantage of running a concept-based offense.
That concept base has taken some serious hits since the end of last season, particularly at the tight end position when Dwayne Allen left in free agency and Rob Gronkowski retired, and also when they whiffed on bringing in any free agents to man the positions and were forced to start the season with Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo.
Izzo has been serviceable, but LaCosse has spent more time in the training room than on the field - and when he went down once again against the Giants, head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick jumped into the free agent pool to acquire Tomlinson and to bring back Watson, who was cut last week after coming off suspension.
We all pretty much know what the Patriots are getting with Watson, but Tomlinson is a bit of a mystery other than he's a decent end-of-the-line blocker and an occasional threat in the short passing game – and that provides clues to defenses in that they will know that when Tomlinson is in the game, a run will most likely follow him.
Which Belichick doesn't mind, as his old-school bent conjures a want of just lining up and pitting his eleven against yours, which we all witnessed toward the end of last February's Super Bowl, when his charges executed the four-minute offense to perfection, blowing the Los Angeles Rams' elite defensive front right off the line of scrimmage.
But that was with Allen and Gronkowski on the edges and with fullback James Develin clearing out the drains with malicious intent. This is a different team, one without a fullback at all on the roster and without their starting left tackle and center – with that said, the signing of Tomlinson may prove to be a shrewed move by the Dark Master...
...or maybe he'll just be in town for a cup of coffee and a chat, as Tomlinson does possess some intimate knowledge of the Jets personnel and most likely wouldn't mind divulging some of that knowledge in exchange for a nice payday.
But the best case scenario for New England is that Tomlinson blocks well enough to help out Marshall Newhouse on quarterback Tom Brady's blind side and can blow through linebackers in the running game.
The Patriots don't need much more help to make a long run in the post-season, especially if Tomlinson and Watson turn out to be productive.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Boogeyman or Amoeba, Call The Patriots' Defense The Best in Football

Everyone's heard of the Boogeyman.
It means something different to just about everyone, but the classic interpretation as I know it is of a demonic nymph that stalks folks, particularly small children, and terrifies them from dark recesses. So ingrained in culture and in the written works from some truly twisted minds that there are times in everyone's lives that we have all laid paralyzed in bed and staring in horror at the closet door...
In the National Football League, the notion of the Boogeyman has the same effect on professional football players, but their nightmares happen on the field whenever they line up against the New England Patriots' defense.
Dubbed so by linebacker Jamie Collins, the Patriots' defense stalks ball carriers, and terrorizes them under stadium lights. They are not demonic and they don't hide in closets, but their methods are created by the twisted mind of Bill Belichick, and are now not only part of the NFL culture, but are constantly evolving, becoming whatever they need to be in order to scare the bejezus out of opposing offenses.
Kyle Van Noy
Because they are no longer the bend-but-don't-break entity that won in the past. These Patriots' stoppers are an aggressive, unpredictable, manic unit with no weakness - and history will show that Bill Belichick methodically built this defense over the past three years with the dark intent of a mob boss looking to take rival turf by force.
This latest incarnation of the Patriots' defense can be traced back to 2016, when defacto general manager Belichick pulled off an under-the-radar trade with Detroit to acquire the services of linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who was floundering in the Lions' stringent 4-3 alignment and losing playing time.
Van Noy is the perfect example of how Belichick views football players. While most  teams look for players to fit in to a particular scheme, Belichick prefers players whom he can build a scheme around – and he envisioned Van Noy as a guy whose skill set, self-discipline and versatility as a cornerstone of a 3-4 attack...
...playing on the strong side with superior edge-setting and pass rushing ability and the diagnostic skill and athleticism to do both at the same time – sort of a poor-man's Jamie Collins, whom the Patriots' eventually jettisoned in favor of the more disciplined Van Noy.
That same season, cornerback Jonathan Jones made the final roster as an undrafted free agent, joining sixth-round run-stuffing interior linebacker Elandon Roberts as key depth pieces – but Belichick's evil plan that now manifests as a shape-shifting “amoeba” entity wasn't evident until 2017, when he signed free agent Lawrence Guy away from Baltimore, brought in undrafted free agent Adam Butler from Vanderbilt and drafted Deatrich Wise in the fourth round out of Arkansas – defensive linemen all, but with no natural position along the front.
I called them “Five-techs” back then, wondering aloud if the Patriots were gravitating towards abandoning their four-man fronts in favor of a 3-4 look. Since then, we've seen all three playing inside and out, but true to Belichick's vision, they line up wherever they can cause the most chaos, but always with the thought of double-gapping to set up the linebackers with defined holes to fill.
That became easier with the addition of free agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore that same season, who regularly shut down the opposition's best receiving target, forcing quarterbacks to their second and third reads, giving those linemen and linebackers an extra split-second to pressure the passer.
The scheme didn't produce a lot of sacks - but in the Patriots' scheme, sacks were considered gravy for their potatoes anyway, as getting into the passing lanes and dictating where the quarterback could go with the ball were paramount.
That became incrementally more difficult for opposing offenses last season, as Belichick hit it big with another outstanding preseason, finding cornerbacks J.C. Jackson, an undrafted free agent, and veteran free agent Jason McCourty – adding them to a trio of safeties who were already in amoeba mode with what was termed as a “Big Nickel” package...
...Duron Harmon rounding into form as one of the best single-high safeties in the league, which freed up strong safety Patrick Chung and free safety Devin McCourty to help the secondary disguise their coverages by reducing down into the box and becoming part of the maw that made it difficult for the opposing offense to set their protections, not knowing for sure who was going to cover whom.
Be that as it was, the Patriots defense struggled at times as injuries decimated the linebacking corps, forcing Belichick to use more four-man fronts and only two linebackers, making them more predictable, susceptible against the run and unable to consistently cover backs and tight ends in the pattern. Fortunately, New England's defense entered the post-season relatively healthy and were able to shut down high-powered offenses on their way to a sixth world title.
Belichick didn't learn any lessons from 2018, instead staying the course and completing his defense by bringing back Collins to team with Van Noy on the edges, returning interior linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley from the injured/reserved list and drafting the manic Chase Winovich to provide versatile depth all over the front seven.
So sporting the best secondary in the league, the most disruptive linebacking corps in the game and a nomadic line made up of players that would be odd-fitting anywhere else, Belichick's defense is finally realizing it potential – and many would say that they are just scratching the surface of their collective ability, which is a scary thought, given that through six games, this 2019 unit leads the league in every major defensive category.
Some will argue that New England's initial success correlates to the fact that have played a schedule full of cupcakes, and that their true identity will be revealed when they get to the meat of their schedule in November...
...but, fundamentally, defense is defense. The opponents change from week to week, but the Patriots now have the ability to dictate to offenses, not only taking away from them what they do best, but to force those offensive units to literally take what is given to them, which isn't much.
It's pretty whether you possess that old-school mentality when defensive units were big and violent and relentless, or are more a fan of the modern-day slick athleticism – because the Patriots' defense can do both and the beauty of it is that the offense never really knows where and how the defense is going to attack.
 Belichick calls it an "amoeba", constantly shape shifting to not just take advantage of where their foes are weakest in the formation, but to dictate their will and exploit opposing offenses from many different angles and punishing anyone they come across.
Collins calls it the Boogeyman, but whatever label you wish to pin on New England's defense, the fact of the matter is that the aforementioned shape-shifting is a waking nightmare for opposing offenses – one that they can't run from and one that they can't power through, because no matter what they try, the Patriots' defense will smother the life out of them.
Not just eventually, but from the very start – and when combined with Josh McDaniels' emerging offense, New England will be very hard to beat, no matter who they face.

Early Morning Pondering Of The Patriots' Offense

2:17am, Lewiston, Maine
I stay up late when it's raining. I love the weather here, especially this time of year when we get a good rain storm a couple of times a week and the temperatures dip into the 40's at night. I sit out on the deck that during the daytime treats me to an explosion of color as the leaves turn, but tonight, nothing but the cool blackness that brings me comfort.
I just finished watching the Patriots' victory over the New York Giants for the second time and made many notes, now sitting on the deck, a canopy protecting both man and machine from the weird misty rain that is indigenous to Maine. Every week, I watch the replay twice - first to study the offense and the second to do the same with the defense.
The last three weeks have been a struggle for the Patriots' offensively, but we've seen this before.
In 2015, the New England Patriots made it to the AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos with Julian Edelman being the only healthy receiver left on the roster and with no lead back to try and take all of the pressure off of quarterback Tom Brady and the passing game.
Brady took an epic beating, yet nearly prevailed anyway on sheer determination and by riding one of the main tenents of Belichickian philosophy, that of wearing down opposing defenses with large snap counts and superior conditioning that eventually gives him the upper hand.
And that's what the Patriots are all about. How many times have we seen the offense seem like they are an 11-man mosh pit early in games and then come on like gangbusters late to overpower their foes?
The most vivid example of this was in Super Bowl 51, where the Patriots were completely dominated by the Atlanta Falcons through most of three quarters, then staged the greatest comeback in NFL post-season history - erasing a 25 point deficit in eighteen minutes of game time...
...the turning point coming at the end of a 13-play drive in the second quarter, Brady throwing an interception in the red zone that was returned by the Falcons for a touchdown - then the Patriots taking the ensuing kickoff and driving down the field again on a 12 play drive.
By the time that 25 play sequence ended on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to make the halftime score 21-3, the Falcons' defense was so gassed that they just couldn't keep up with the relentless Patriots' offense in the second half, scoring at will after Atlanta had taken a 28-3 lead coming out of the room at halftime - to the point that when the Patriots won the coin flip to start the overtime period, there was no doubt that they would drive the length of the field and win the game.
The same thing happened during last year's AFC Championship game, when New England wore down the Kansas City defense to keep pace with the powerful Chiefs' offense, then scored easily in overtime to advance to Super Bowl 53, where they used the same ploy to wear down the Los Angeles Rams' helter-skelter attack to eventually pull out another title.
It has worked so well for so long that head ball coach Bill Belichick always builds his teams with superior depth on both sides of the ball so he is able to rotate players in and out of the lineup to keep them fresh, maintaining his game plans throughout with the knowledge that his well-conditioned and fresh players will eventually gain the upper hand and crush their opponents into submission in the latter stages.
Other than Brady, the Patriots feature no superstars, just a collection of players who buy into Belichick's philosophy, knowing that if they just continue to stay the course during games, that they will have a chance to win, no matter the opponent - and that's exactly what we are witnessing six games into this 2019 season...
...the main difference between those teams of the recent past and this years' incarnation is that Belichick has finally built a defense that will not allow the Patriots to fall behind, no matter how incongruous the offense looks - and knowing that sticking with their offensive game plan will eventually cause the opposing defense to wear down enough for the aging Brady to work his late-game magic.
That said, the start to this season is the personification of this Belichickian philosophy.
Three yards and a cloud of dust is not just the calling card for the running game, but applies to the offense as a whole. For all of Belichick's tenure, he has stated matter-of-factly that the short passing game is simply an extension of the running game, and he employs running backs who can produce in both facets.
With one notable exception, his receivers have always been of the variety that finds the sticks and make good use of the field between the hashes - his longest gainers usually down the seam, but those are shots taken just a few times per contest, and normally only after Brady has lulled the defense to sleep with his methodical, incessant approach.
The results stemming from this approach usually has the Patriots' offense at or near the top of the league in both plays run and time of possession. You see where this is going.
For example, in last Thursday's match up with the New York Giants, New England ran a whopping 75 offensive snaps, compared to 46 for New York, and the time of possession was fully double that of the Giants. New York played admirably, but deep in their hearts they knew it was for naught...
...that Brady, for as docile and ordinary as he looked, was just setting them up for the kill by running 44 plays in the first half, then finishing them off with an absurd 16 play, sixty yard drive in their only third-quarter possession that kept the Redskins' defense on the field for nearly ten minutes.
That drive resulted in a missed field goal attempt, but the damage was done and the purpose well taken.
That's what New England does to people. That's what they did to Denver in that AFC title tilt in '15 and to Atlanta in Super Bowl 51 and to the Rams last February - and what they have done to every single opponent so far this season, and what they will continue to do to the rest of the teams on their schedule.
And good thing, too, as injuries have dictated to the Patriots' offense in much the same fashion that they did in 2015. In fact, the hurts have left the Patriots' pass catching corps so thin that in the second half against the Redskins, they were left with only one personnel package featuring Edelman and rookies Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olswezski - not to mention that they were trying to function with only one healthy tight end and no fullback, both staples of the offense.
Even Belichick will have a tough time grinding out yardage and scores with such a bare cupboard, but with ten days off before their Monday night showdown with the hated New York Jets, he has time to develop a game plan to attack a decent Jets' defense.
Time is also on the side of receiver Josh Gordon, who suffered what was apparently an MCL sprain to his left knee on Thursday night - or even work out a pass catcher or two, or maybe even swing a trade for a veteran receiver on another team as Belichick has plenty of capital to barter with, but not a lot of cap dollars to spend.
There is also the presence of rookie wide out N'Keal Harry on the I/R with a bad hammy, who has a designation to return and can do so this week should the team choose to activate him - and there's really no reason not to bring him back to the active roster, unless the hamstring hasn't healed. If it has, he gives the offense a large perimeter target with the skill to haul down those back-shoulder throws that Brady loves.
If nothing else, he's a physically imposing target who specializes in fighting for the ball in the air, with the size and wingspan to collect a good percentage of 50/50 balls - and once he establishes himself as a legitimate threat, just his presence will free up more room for Edelman, Gordon, Meyers and passing back James White to operate in.
It also helps the running game by forcing defenses to eliminate a linebacker in favor of a fifth defensive back, making one less big body for the patchwork offensive line to deal with - and with left tackle Isaiah Wynn eligible to be activated off the IR as well, the protection of Brady's backside and run blocking on the edge would become a strength rather than the weakness that it is now.
Some even want the Patriots to bring back troubled Antonio Brown, citing the fact that New England owes the mercurial receiver a lot of money, so they may as well bring him back and make him earn it. For Brown's part, he has requested that the NFL hurry up and make a decision in regard to punishment for alleged sexual abuse allegations so that he can continue his career without that storm cloud hanging over his head.
Will it happen? Who knows? Certainly none of  us know what goes on behind the closed doors at One Patriots' Place, but the odds are in favor of Belichick running with what he has, using superb running backs James White and Rex Burkhead as wide receivers, which will most likely give the Jets all kinds of knots to untie.
But what they have now should do fine against the Jets, particularly given that the offense shouldn't have to score an exorbitant number of points with their "Boogeyman" defense suffocating opposing offenses.
But that is a topic for another night...