Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Brady Frustrated Over Lack Of Offensive Production; Calls Out McDaniels?

18 November, 2019
Tom Brady is less than enthused about the New England Patriots' win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday evening.
Bill Belichick was thrilled - as are all of the Brady detractors in the Boston-area media, but for very different reasons. Many are trashing the certain Hall of Fame quarterback for not only his performance against the Eagles, but for his dour attitude in both his post-game presser and on his weekly radio show appearance on Monday morning.
Belichick, the eternal grouch, positively beamed as he stood on the podium following the game, joking around about Julian Edelman's passer rating and discussing the merits of ice cubes on sore shoulders after the receiver's scoring pass for the Patriots' lone touchdown.
But Brady, the glass-half-full, politically-correct optimist, slouched in his stylish parka at the lectern, his beard bordering on standard depression trim and with rummy-looking red eyes that translated his emotions without him having to utter a word - which is what nearly happened anyway, as Brady uttered one sentence replies to media questions.
The student, it appears, has become the master.
At issue, is his apparent displeasure with both the ultra-conservative play calling from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the pass catching weapons that he's been given to mete out the aforementioned play calling.
Who really knows? Not me, but I know that I was frustrated with the play calling on Sunday. I mean, how many times can you call a screen play that the other team has sniffed out every time before you realize that another plan of attack is needed? How many times will you lose yardage on toss sweeps before you realize that the bad guys are defending the edges like a pack of rabid badgers?
Those two things are related, don't you know. The Eagles' defensive game plan was apparently to ground New England's screen game, which meant dedicating resources to the edge, which is why when the Patriots ran that toss sweep, there were plenty of green shirts waiting for the runner.
The majority of Brady's passes were sent outside of the hashes - again, where the Eagles were concentrating. So it's no wonder that when Brady went over the middle, he found guys open and hit on a decent play or two.
In the red zone offense, the Patriots threw the ball on three consecutive plays when presented with a goal line situation instead of trying to mix it up with a power run or two, and ended up with a field goal. This also speaks to an apparent lack of trust in the running game, when the only way to build that trust is by practical application.
The thing that is really baffling is why Brady was sent on bootleg rollouts to the right. Talk about telegraphing. Brady has all the athleticism of a sloth, so putting him on the run to the flat puts him and the entire offense at a distinct disadvantage, and the Eagles know that. They know he isn't going to tuck the ball and run with it.
They know that running to the right hash reduces the space that his receivers have to operate in, and it limits Brady's options. So the Eagles stuck with their assignments and covered everything, knowing that there was only one thing that is going to happen once Brady is out in space in the flat.
Sure, I get that they were probably doing that to protect Brady against left tackle Marshall Newhouse's turnstile act, but that's what's called being dictated to by the opposing defense. And when that happens, seventeen points (or fewer) is what you get.
On the bright side and illuminated by the rays of sunshine emanating from Belichick, the Patriots' defense recovered nicely from a slow start, made their adjustments on the fly, and shut down the Eagles' offense for three full quarters.
And Belichick should be happy about that. And so should Brady.
But here's the thing: I know from being a chef for more than three decades that there are times that even when you create a successful dish, you can still be upset with the manner in which it was produced, and want to make changes in the process. The result will still be a phenomenal product, but you feel better about how efficiently it was created.
Maybe that's what's going on here. I don't know, but listening to Brady talk Sunday night and Monday morning, that's the feeling I get when invariably reading between the lines. Of course he likes the win, but he didn't care for the way they got it. Brady made this very clear on his radio show appearance, saying that they need to figure out how to generate more offense.
This is a departure for Brady, as he rarely if ever calls out anyone in the organization, and is usually upbeat and can find a silver lining in just about anything. His silver lining in this scenario is also an indictment on the performance of the offense, that is, his offense is now forced to ride the coattails of the Patriots' excellent defense.
That's hard cheese for Brady to swallow, as for most of his stellar career he and his offense has had at least an equal stake in the team's overall success. But now he feels that his offense is simply taking what the opposing defenses are giving them instead of pressing the issue and forcing the defense to actually defend.
Being dictated to is the exact opposite of being aggressive, and Brady has the offensive structure to be aggressive, but the play calling is not allowing for that.
For years, McDaniels has been built up as an offensive genius, solid play caller and is viewed around the league as an attractive head coaching candidate with gonads the size of coconuts but something happened to him along the way, and Brady doesn't like it.
Those who have followed this blog over the years know that I am hardly a fan of Josh McDaniels, and may feel that my interpretation of Brady's disgust is influenced by it and perhaps that is true in small measure, but now it seems that when faced with problems, McDaniels is folding like a cheap tent and allowing defensive coordinators to dictate to him how his offense performs...
...and reducing Brady to no more than a game manager, which is a level far below his pay grade and a waste of such rich talent.
Get used to Brady being demure and grouchy, because his countenance is not going to change until he is allowed to be aggressive and take the game to the opposition. It may be that Sunday's win over Philadelphia is just one of those anomalous instances where McDaniels comes up with a stinker of a game plan.
It has happened before, and the team usually rebounds the next game and McDaniels is back to being Boy Wonder but Brady's reaction to this particular game plan indicates that he feels that it may not be one of those rarities, rather, that he sees no easy solution or that his hands have been tied.
The Patriots have won titles with less talent than they have now. They are getting as healthy as they can be and are primed to run the table as far as Brady can take them he just needs to be turned loose and not tied down by conservative game planning and taking what he wants and needs by force.
That is the Patriot Way, after all.

Patriots Top Eagles In Punt-Fest; Brady, Offense Seeking Answers

18 November, 2019
The typical method of operation for the New England Patriots this season is to survive their opponent's best shot early, make the necessary in-game adjustments on the fly, then simply outclass them at winning time.
Never has this m.o. been more stark and obvious as it was against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday evening.
The Patriots spotted the Eagles a ten point lead in the first quarter, then the New England defense made their in-game adjustments and shut down Philadelphia's offense the rest of the game. The only thing missing from the equation is the part where the Patriots' offense was supposed to outclass their opponent...
...relying on three Nick Folk field goals and a trick play for a touchdown to take an early third-quarter lead over the Eagles, the Patriots' defense and special teams making that lead hold up to take home a 17-10 victory in a brutal slugfest at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Perhaps "slugfest" isn't the proper term for what occurred between the Patriots and Eagles. Instead, given the number of punts between the two, perhaps "snoozefest" would actually be a more appropriate moniker to lay on the CBS Game of the Week, a three-hour sleeping pill prescribed for the national television audience.
It was like watching a bad prizefight, featuring a series of horrible beatings to start the matchup, followed by a few jabs and a lot of clinching in the corners in the late rounds with the good guys hanging on to win on points.
The jabs came courtesy of the Patriots' defense, which sacked Eagles' quarterback Carson Wentz five times and forced two turnovers; The clinching on the ropes courtesy of punters Jake Bailey for New England and Cameron Johnston for Philadelphia, pinning down their opponents in their own territory in a field position battle.
Neither offense came close to even sniffing the end zone after Julian Edelman connected with Phillip Dorsett early in the third quarter on a double pass play for a touchdown - in fact, crossing midfield after that point became cause for celebration before Wentz nearly connected with Nelson Agholor in the back of the end zone on a final-play desperation throw from the New England 35-yard line that would have potentially sent the game into overtime...
...which likely would have been more of the same three-and-out. flipping of field position struggle that plagued both offenses almost the entire second half – so, perhaps mercifully for the bleary-eyed television audience, the desperation heave went incomplete.
How bad was it? Bad enough to make Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady look and sound like someone had just killed his dog before the post-game press conference, his countenance clearly despondent after completing just fifty-five percent of his passes, the longest pass play of the night a dump-off to running back Rex Burkhead that went for 30 yards – not to mention that the lone touchdown pass of the evening came off of the arm of Edelman.
Brady had plenty to be dissatisfied with, from the play calling to the execution – but the player he should be most disappointed in is himself.
While it is true that Brady took more hits than Rocky Balboa while running for his life against the Eagles' monstrous pass rush, it is also true that his game regressed as the contest wore on, choosing to try and fit fastballs into tight windows, including a couple that should have been picked off as he ignored open receivers on intermediate routes and continually dumped off throws to his backs...
...which netted him close to nothing as the Eagles' defensive game plan obviously was to take away the screen game that is a staple of the Patriots' offense and forcing Brady to target receivers that he wasn't fully comfortable with.
He again saw little help from his running game as Sony Michel averaged a dismal 2.3 yards per carry and dropped two passes in the flat. James White had the hot feet for the runners, averaging four yards a pop and also converting a two-point conversion on the ground, yet White only saw five carries for the entire game.
Burkhead didn't fare any better on the ground than Michel did, but also fell victim to the play calling, as McDaniels called numerous pitch plays to the left corner, which fell right into the laps of the Eagles' game planners and gained no yards at all.
Yet the Patriots still found a way to win the game and improve their league-best record to 9-1, good for a one-game lead over the surging Baltimore Ravens for the top seed in the AFC, who hold the tie-breaker over New England in light of their win over the Patriots two weeks ago.
The win over the Eagles followed a similar pattern to their loss against the Ravens in that they spotted each team double-digit early leads, then fought back to gain all of the momentum – the difference being that New England didn't give up the ball on turnovers against the Eagles, nor did they make the mental errors that crushed them in Baltimore.
The bottom line is that with a date against the Dallas Cowboys looming next Sunday night that opens a three-game stretch against some of the best the rest of the NFL has to offer, Brady needs to find a comfort zone with his entire pass catching corps or they could lose their top spot in the conference to the Ravens, who look unbeatable in Baltimore.
The good news is that neither the Cowboys, the Houston Texans nor the Kansas City Chiefs have defenses good enough to cause the amount of uncertainty that caused Brady to become skittish in the pocket against Philadelphia – not to mention that on the other side of the ball, New England sports the best defense in the league.
Can the Patriots ride that defense to another title? Probably so, but the offense needs to contribute as well, and with the offensive line being close to being incrementally better with left tackle Isaiah Wynn set to return against the Cowboys, perhaps Brady will find time in the pocket and the runner will find creases to run through.
Perhaps. But with head coach Bill Belichick living by the axiom that his teams build up across the first few months of the season to become what they are around Thanksgiving, the Patriots are a spooky good defense protecting an offense that is still trying to find an identity – and if they can't find that continuity and chemistry on offense, one can only expect more ugly games like the last two...
...and that probably won't make the nut.
Good Stuff:
1.      Jake Bailey's right foot: Bailey punted eight times for an average of 47.6 yards on each – not bad, but what that average doesn't tell you is that he pinned the Eagles inside their 20-yard line six times, once just outside the twenty and once more inside the twenty after a personal foul penalty on the Eagles that took the ball half the distance to the goal line. If there is a game ball to be had, Bailey was clearly the best weapon on the field for New England.
2.      Boogeyman Defense: After giving up 103 yards and ten points on the first three series of the game, the New England defense yielded only 148 total yards the rest of the way, forcing eight punts – including 4 three-and-outs -  forced a fumble and held Wentz to an abysmal 11 of 28 for 149 yards, all but 40 yards of that coming on the final two drives against the Patriots' two-deep zone designed to prevent any big plays. Take away sack yardage, and Wentz threw for only 174 net passing yards for the game.
3.      Danny Shelton goes beast mode: The big boy is quietly having the best season of his career, and against the Eagles, he had his finest game as a professional, and did so loudly. Shelton had seven tackles, one sack, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble. He was instrumental in the Patriots' performance against the run, limiting the normally potent Philadelphia running game to 3.8 yards per carry.
1.      What was up with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels rolling Brady out into the right flat multiple times during the game? Brady is never better on the rollout than he is standing tall in the pocket, as rolling out into the flat eliminates half of the field and causes his receivers to try and gain separation in a phone booth. To be fair to McDaniels, he most likely had that in his game plan to keep the Eagles' blind-side edge rushers from getting to Brady before he had time to set in the pocket, as left tackle Marshall Newhouse played as a matador for most of the night. That said, there is hope on the horizon as starting tackle Isaiah Wynn is eligible for return off the IR against Dallas.
Bad Juju:
1.      Brady's trust issue with his receivers: Brady has always been distrustful with pass catchers that are new to him, particularly rookies, so it's not an anomaly that his targets went primarily to Edelman and his backs – but once the Eagles proved they could take away New England's screen game, he left himself  no options other than trying to fit rockets into tight coverages to Edelman. Only six of his 47 passes went to rookies N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, both of whom Brady seemed to ignore though they appeared open in the pattern.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Patriots' Midseason Forum: Time Is Now For White, Harris To Stabilize Running Game

6 November, 2019
James White is the most talented and dependable player on the New England Patriots' offensive roster.
There is no caveat, no disclaimers. White is as steady and consistent a player that coach Bill Belichick has at any skill position. He can do it all. He'll run the ball right up the gut or try the edge. He is a dangerous open field runner when receiving in the flat and he wins against safeties and linebackers when split out wide. He is a willing pass protector, putting himself between quarterback Tom Brady and rouge linebackers on the blitz.
He's always available and has never once put the ball on the carpet in five-plus seasons.  He is subtly elusive, wasting no movements, his signature move a wicked toe drag, using it like a rudder to change direction on a dime. He doesn't outrun many people, but he gets every inch there is to be had.
So why isn't he the Patriots' lead back? The truth is that in the Patriots' complex concept-based offense, he has been the lead back for quite some time.
Not classically, mind you, but he gets lead back snap counts as a dual-threat runner/receiver and is always toward the top of the list for both targets and catches. He is so valuable in that role that players like Sony Michel do most of the heavy lifting on early downs, leaving the precision work to White on the later downs.
But even that seems to be shifting towards White and Rex Burkhead, as Michel has seen his snap count reduced exponentially with each game. Michel appears to be mired in a Sophomore slump after a terrific rookie season – and while there are many factors to consider as to why, the most disturbing part of it seems to be a lack of intestinal fortitude on his part.
From opening night on, when he can't find the same creases to run through that he enjoyed during the second half of last season, his body language suggests frustration-induced indifference – even pouty. He has been replaced by either Burkhead or White during critical stretches in each contest, and while they are not getting much more than Michel on the ground, their countenance hasn't been affected.
It is true that injuries along the offensive line have decimated the Patriots' running game template. It is also true that not having Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen and James Develin to ply their trade is a major issue as well – but while Michel is typically getting only what's blocked for him, Burkhead and White and even Brandon Bolden still manage yards after contact.
Another issue is that while Michel has shown an ability to work in the pattern as a receiver, his targets have been non-existent after a bad drop on a perfectly designed screen play against the New York Jets three weeks ago, with nothing but white jersies and green turf between him and the end zone.
It was a concentration drop that all players commit at various times, but that drop combined with his dour attitude seemed to be enough for head coach Bill Belichick to pull him in favor of a combination of White and Bolden.
Since, White has gotten the lion's share of the snap counts.
We all know what White is capable of. Known by his twitter handle “Sweet Feet”, White is as close to a big play back that the Patriots have, and is as clutch as they come in got-to-have-it situations. Hell, in Super Bowl 51 against the Atlanta Falcons, he was perhaps the best player on the field, and came within a whisker of being named the game's Most Valuable Player.
But while White is fully capable of handling a greater role as a runner, Belichick uses him sparingly in the running game, preferring to spare him the beating that runners take between the tackles that could potentially negatively impact his performance in the role he has shown an overwhelming aptitude for, that being as a passing back.
Same thing with Burkhead, though his usage is limited due to the fact that he's fragile, missing three games already this season with a variety of ailments after missing significant time last season for the same reason.
So with Michel a basket case and White and Burkhead not wired for the heavy lifting – not to mention Bolden being a special teams standout that the team cannot afford to lose by injury – the time has never been better for Belichick to look to rookie third-rounder Damien Harris as his between-the-tackles, early down back.
Harris has four carries in the two games that he's been assigned to the 45-man game day roster, and that was in garbage time. While exactly the same size as Michel at 5' 11” and 215 pounds, their running styles couldn't be any different, as Harris is a rough-and-tumble power back while Michel is a floater.
Obviously, both styles work in the NFL, but floaters like Michel need vision and patience, while brutes like Harris just need the ball and a head of steam – and with the issues along the offensive line in opening big holes, the choice of style is critical for the success of the running game.
It's time for Harris to enter the fray.

Patriots' Midseason Forum: Best Secondary In NFL Allows Belichick To Employ Multiple Schemes

14 November, 2019
When Bill Belichick lucked into Rob Gronkowski in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft, and then Aaron Hernandez two rounds later, he not only unleashed the most terrorizing tight end-centric offense that the league has ever seen, but they also showed the entire  football world how to combat it as well...
...as he spent many high draft picks in search of hybrid safeties with enough speed and size to hold their own against what Belichick imagined would a growing trend in the league.
The point being that Belichick is so far ahead of the curve, that he is the curve. Any move he makes either in personnel or in-game expands the vacuum that exists between the Patriots and every other team. He dictates to the other teams in the AFC East, to an extent, as to how they view their draft boards, because as the old axiom goes, you build your team to compete with the teams within your division.
That goes for game planning as well. But the monstrous tight end fad never really got off the ground, leaving the Patriots with an enormous number of safeties on their roster and very few quality tight ends to cover. So the Patriots did what they always do: Morph into whatever they need to be to compete and win.
New England typically had employed three safeties as part of their Big Nickel package, reducing two of them down into the tackle box to help with coverages underneath and up the seam, leaving their fastest safety, Duron Harmon, to patrol the back end as the single high safety...
...his combination of speed, instincts and geometric knowledge and implementation of pursuit angles allowing Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty to take on tight ends and running backs at the line of scrimmage. And the Big Nickel is still a staple of the Patriots' defense, but is now integrated into the amoeba looks.
The only thing that opposing quarterbacks know for sure on the amoeba packages is that if they see Harmon 15 yards or more off the ball, at least he won't be coming on the pass rush.
But then there's that Cover-Zero package, wherein the corners – usually Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty – the safeties and one linebacker are all in man coverage, with no single-high safety at all. The idea being that the defense bringing six pass rushers will force the receivers to cut their routes short in order to show their numbers to the quarterback before he gets killed.
An offense like what the Patriots possess wouldn't be as affected by the Cover Zero as most others would, simply because New England employs a timing-based ball-control philosophy that sees the ball come out of Tom Brady's hand quickly, and his receivers running abbreviated crossers, out and return routes that move the ball in increments on an average of about six-yards per completion, plus they have perhaps the best passing back in the league who excels in the screen game...
...while offenses like Dallas, Houston and Kansas City employ are based on the vertical quick-strike philosophy, and would have to make major adjustments on the fly – though all possess mobile quarterbacks as well, the shadowing of which evens the odds in pass protection.
Against those teams, the amoeba or big nickel packages would be more apt to result in success, as the amoeba would cause confusion in protection package and the big nickel would provide natural shadow coverage in case Dak Prescott, DeShaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes decided to the tuck and run.
But that's for Belichick to figure out.
Whatever he decides to do, he has tremendous depth in his secondary to go along with perhaps the best starting four in the league.
Jonathan Jones is a hybrid that can play corner or safety. Terrence Brooks may be the heir-apparent at strong safety to the aging Chung. Undrafted corner J.C. Jackson and 2019 third-round selection Joejuan Williams are players that could be seeing a lot of playing time – perhaps even starting – on other teams.
Covering receivers has been the least of New England's few problems this campaign, and there is no reason to believe that is going to change anytime soon.

Patriots' Midseason Forum: Aggressive And Talented Defensive Line Key To Second-Half Success

13 November, 2019
Lawrence Guy is everywhere, seemingly impacting every play - and if he keeps it up, there may be some Pro Bowl consideration in store, maybe even a spot with The Avengers...
The ninth-year defensive tackle out of Arizona State is in his third season with the New England Patriots, and his arrival via free agency before the 2017 season was the first sign that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick was shifting his defensive philosophy to more of a 3-4 look - but the Arizona State product turned out to be such a load in the running game that he now spearheads what the Dark Master calls an "Amoeba" formation...
...which isn't really a formation at all, rather, it is a free-floating, shape-shifting entity designed to win before the snap of the ball, causing much indecision on the part of the opposing quarterback and center in trying to figure out blocking and protection schemes.
Often, the alignment will find just one down defensive lineman with the other ten Patriots' defenders buzzing all around him like fruit flies around an apple core, bobbing and weaving within five yards of the line of scrimmage, giving the quarterback the impression that the Patriots are bringing upwards of seven pass rushers.
Sometimes they do, in what is commonly known as a "Cover Zero" package, and sometimes they don't, but the quarterback can never know for sure until either the pass rush is on him or the safeties and linebackers fall back into zone coverage. Either way, the quarterback is forced to process the chaos in front of him in a split-second, often times with negative results.
And the one constant along the line is Guy. Stout enough to double-gap against the run and quick enough to penetrate the pocket before the double-team can converge, the 6' 4", 315 pound Guy is the key. He doesn't have amazing stats - just one sack and two quarterback hits to go along with two runners thrown for loss - but his job is to disrupt the interior of the offensive line to cause gaps for his teammates on the second level to fill.
The Disrupter. Kind of a cool name for a super hero, which would please the hard-core fan of the Marvel Universe who has seen every Avenger movie there is and will talk your ear off about them, given the opportunity. In fact, on the rare occasion that he appears on radio shows, the content of the interview usually evolves into a conversation about the Marvel brand.
When pressed, Guy will tell you that his favorite Avenger is Thor, the hammer-wielding demi God whose main nemesis is his brother, Loki, the God of Mischief - a perfect foil for the wise-yet-naive Thor, whose quiet countenance and humble persistence is the glue that holds the super hero clan together.
The Patriots are no collection of super heroes, but Guy is the glue that holds their defensive line together, and as a unit, they usually triumph over their foes.
A lot of what New England does defensively is simply misdirection and sleight of hand, their smoke-and-mirrors approach confusing their opposition into mistakes that have the opportunistic unit leading the National Football League in takeaways and near the top in sacks and in pass defense.
But teams have started to figure out how to neutralize the aggression inherent in the amoeba, spreading the formation thin by lining up speedy receivers out wide and leaving Guy and his defensive line companions Adam Butler, Danny Shelton and Deatrich Wise to hold the fort against the run with little backup.
That has been an issue, as the Patriots rank in the bottom three of the league in yards per carry yielded - but with their pass defense leading the NFL in yards per attempt, interceptions and touchdowns allowed, they have been able to get away with their foes' success in the running game.
That didn't hold true against the Baltimore Ravens before the bye and it won't hold true against upcoming opponents, all of whom have the speed on the outside and quality, multi-tool runners in the backfield - but it will be easier to defend the run against teams like Dallas, Houston and Buffalo than it was against the Ravens, who run a perverted version of the veer, a philosophy that perfectly counters the amoeba.
All of that said, the Patriots' second half opponents run offenses that could potentially still give the defensive line all it can handle. Dallas has Dak Prescott running the show, either handing the ball to the best runner in the league in Zeke Elliott, keeping it himself or throwing to a dangerous group of vertical receivers. Houston has Deshaun Watson and a resilient group of skill position players and Buffalo a devastating ground attack...
...while Philadelphia has tremendous weapons but an offensive line besieged by injury and Kansas City, though a tough match with league MVP Patrick Mahomes working his magic, a team that the Patriots seem to have their number.
But all the line can do is exhibit fundamental football, the interior taking on double teams to make gaps for the linebackers to plug and the edge defenders setting a hard edge to keep both runners and passers between the tackles.
The Ravens used the Patriots' aggressive scheme against them, but the real issue in that game was the mental mistakes made by the New England stoppers – giving life to three different Ravens' drives that were initially stopped on third downs, but penalties extended those drives and resulted in Baltimore touchdowns.
The mental errors are easy to correct – and if the Patriots can eliminate them, their aggressive defense, known as the “Boogeyman”, should be able to dictate their will against their remaining opponents.
The key is a defensive line that also includes edge-setters in Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, disruptors all, and when free to play to their talent, can shut down any opposing offense – and when married to an offense that seems to be finding their stride with a key acquisition and several players returning from injury, there is no reason to believe that New England can't compete as a front-runner for yet another Lombardi Trophy.

Patriots' Midseason Forum: “Limited” The Keyword For Success Along Offensive Line

13 November, 2019
Lewiston, Maine 1:59am
I've been sitting here for two hours staring at my computer screen, at a loss for anything comprehensible to write about the New England Patriots' situation along the offensive line, especially in light of the fact that they seem to be counting on a second-year player with all of six quarters of real-time professional experience to stabilize the unit.
Isaiah Wynn is a fine player, and showed in those six quarters that he really may be a legitimate left tackle when his lack of height had most scouting departments projecting him as a guard coming out of the University of  Georgia – but as of now, he isn't anything, spending the majority of his first year-and-a-half as a professional on the shelf with a variety of ailments.
Anyone who follows football knows that success on offense starts with the big uglies up front that opens holes for backs in the running game and provides protection for the quarterback in the passing game - and it's not like they are mindless neandrathals that just aimlessly trudge through folks and knock them on their carcasses.
Blocking schemes are just as complicated as any other part of a game plan, and the linemen not only have to know where all the other players on their team are supposed to be, but also have knowledge of their foes' defensive alignments, and the individual skill sets of any player they may have to mirror.
So in a way, offensive linemen have to be the smartest and most aware players on the football field,with the possible exception of the quarterback - but the signal caller doesn't have to engage in a sixty-minute street fight with very large human beings that are dead set on killing the people they are blocking for.
Like most teams in the National Football League, the Patriots employ a zone blocking scheme. The linemen have to be intelligent, athletic and possess a mean streak to be successful in what amounts to a turf war - but also graceful. It's almost like a ballet, all moving in tandem. A offenisve line coach is mostly like a choreographer. For that very reason, an offensive line must develop a working chemistry before it can be effective.
For the Patriots, injuries have interupted that chemistry.
It's one thing to have to replace one lineman, which New England had to do when center David Andrews developed blood clots in his lungs in the preseason, and they were fortunate to have an in-house solution to the most critical position along the line at the pivot in third-year reserve Ted Karras.
Karras's insertion appeared to be seamless, aside from some shotgun snaps that looked like big brown moths fluttering back to quarterback Tom Brady that have impacted the timing of a couple of plays, and they got by when right tackle Marcus Cannon went down with a shoulder injury in the same game...
...but since the apparently fragile Wynn hobbled off the field against the Dolphins in week 2 with what turned out to be a case of turf toe, newly-signed swing tackle Marshall Newhouse has struggled in pass protection, the nine-year veteran giving up multiple  quarterback hits and sacks.
Newhouse was a college teammate of Cannon's at TCU and, like Cannon, was known as a road-grading run blocker and played on the right while Cannon started on the left. But in Foxborough, the script has been flipped.
Cannon is a mainstay at right tackle, is just a couple of years removed from an All Pro selection and is still considered one of the best strong side blockers in the league,  while Newhouse, who won a Super Bowl with Green Bay, is on his fourth team as a limited swing tackle...
...limited because his lateral movement against speed rushers is sub-par, which has been evident since Wynn went down. To compound the issue, the Patriots have had to keep a potential pass catcher in to help Newhouse on the edge, limiting Brady's options in the pattern.
This is a situation in which the Patriots really miss having retired tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field, who was a load to handle in the running game and was an expert at chipping defensive ends and wheeling into the short flat in the passing game - though current tight end Ben Watson has shown the same abilities, but not at the level that Gronkowski performed.
But now Wynn appears to be ready to return to the lineup, which if his limited film justifies what he is, he represents a major upgrade on the blind-side edge which, given his limited body of work, tells just how bad Newhouse has been – and his mediocracy at the position doesn't just affect the edge, it filters over to the rest of the line.
Joe Thuney has been a warrior at left guard, helping out both Newhouse and Karras in pass protection where he can act as a second layer, but nothing can help them in the running game, where Newhouse's lack of mobility and Karras's inexperience at the pivot has resulted in clogged running lanes.
On the right, guard Shaq Mason is having his worst season as a professional, limited by injury and exasberated by injury to Cannon and the absence of a decent blocking tight end. The tight end situation is what it is, and will not be addressed this season, assuming that Gronkowski remains retired. Same with the fullback position, where the Patriots have lost both James Develin and Jakob Johnson for the season and have resorted to employing linebacker Elandon Roberts as an impromptu battering ram in the short-yardage ground game.
That's quite a puzzle for line coach Dante Scarnecchia to try and complete – impossible even, with a couple of pieces missing.
But Wynn's return and an upgrade in the pass catching ranks will help, though it remains to be seen just how much.

Patriots' Midseason Forum: Receiving Corps Adding Layers To Eliminate Red Zone Struggles

12 November, 2019
Lewiston, Maine, 1:23am
In all of my years watching the New England Patriots, I don't ever remember a newly-signed wide receiver fit so quickly into the offensive flow as did Mohamed Sanu on Sunday night.
The man absolutely floats when crossing the middle of the field, and has a fine feel for the dead spots in zone coverages, gets big, snatches the ball out of the air and immediately turns upfield. In other words, the man is a fundamentally sound professional a far cry from what the Patriots have waiting in the wings, should he have not be traded for a couple of weeks ago.
Not that there's not talent in waiting, but the combination of rookies N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers have a grand total of four catches on the season, all of them by Meyers as Harry was placed on the shelf with a bad hammy before the season even started but in  practices and in the lone preseason game he played in, Harry appeared to have come as advertised.
It's a really small body of work to glean from when assessing what Harry could contribute when he finally sees the field against the Philadelphia Eagles this coming Sunday, so if Patriots' fans need a little scouting report on the rookie from Arizona State, all they had to do is watch the Seattle Seahawks and their terrific first-year receiver D.K. Metcalf beat the formerly undefeated San Francisco 49ers on Monday night.
Metcalf is similar in size, route finesse and leaping ability, both specialize in spectacular catches on the perimeter, back-shoulder and 50/50 balls. Both were projected late first-rounders and while Harry squeaked onto the first night stage, Metcalf had to wait until the next night to be taken in the second round.
About the only thing that either one really has as an advantage over the other, it is the fact that Metcalf has been playing like a veteran and Harry hasn't played at all - but he will be counted on to complete a pass-catching corps that has survived an amount of turmoil that would cripple a lesser squad, and it may turn out to be one of the better units that head ball coach Bill Belcihick has ever fielded.
Not going to argue apples and oranges; I realize that he's given quarterback Tom Brady some pretty good squads to work with in the past, but this is the first time since 2009 that he knew that he absolutely had to  give Brady legitimate weapons on all three levels and for one magnificent week in September, he had just that, and the makings of a seriously scary receiving corps.
But Antonio Brown turned out to be a megalo-maniacal sex fiend and serial drive-by tweeter, and was run out of Foxborough on a rail, and then Josh Gordon flamed out. It got so bad that at one point they could field only Julian Edelman and his cracked ribs, and a couple of undrafted rookie free agents. It all turned out ok, though, as running back James White and tight end Ben Watson chipped in.
White is a staple in the passing game out of the backfield and is second only to Edelman in both targets and receptions, while Watson has a history with Brady and the Patriots, even though it had been years since they had competed on the same team. The familiarity of both with Brady and the Patriots' offensive system giving the offense just enough of an advantage to get by on...
...but that wouldn't be enough once New England reached the meat of their schedule in November, and with Harry languishing on the IR, Belichick knew he needed something else to bring his offense at least close enough to the level of the defense to survive a six-game stretch against legitimate playoff teams.
That something turned out to be Sanu.
Working alongside All Pro wide out Julio Jones in Atlanta, Sanu earned a reputation as a natural possession receiver that complimented the speedy, big-play Jones, and gave the Falcons tremendous layers on the deep two-thirds of the field but with the Patriots, who are a more ball control entity, Sanu becomes a middle-of-the-field chain mover that compliments New England's horizontal attack.
The offensive philosophies between the two teams couldn't be more different, but Sanu's skill set fits into any attack which would explain why Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick was so high on him coming out of Rutgers eight years ago with a reputation for finding the sticks on third down and paydirt in the red zone...
...an area of the field that New England has struggled in during the first half of the season, as they have lacked the size in their receiving corps to win battles on fades and end-line throws but with Belichick sending a second-round draft pick to Atlanta for Sanu and then activating Harry off of the IR, he suddenly has a red zone attack that provides layers in short-areas.
New England's passing game isn't explosive as it's drawn up, but relies on their receivers and backs to win off the line of scrimmage and show Brady their numbers within a couple of seconds of the snap, then making the first defender miss to find the line to gain.
White does that on screens and wheel routes with regularity. Edelman does so on return routes, and now Sanu does it over the middle. Now if Harry turns out to be anything close to Metcalf, they will be able to do so on the perimeter, which opens up everything else.
Harry is as close to a vertical threat that the Patriots' possess, though he doesn't have vertical speed. He is a plodder with an insane wing-span and Spider-Man like hands, which means that his skill set is perfect for their philosophy.
In fact, all of New England's pass catchers are plodders, with the exception of Phillip Dorsett, but are all crisp route-runners and tough as nails after the catch and with Sanu and Harry added to the mix, the red zone and perimeter shouldn't be such a struggle any longer.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Ravens Capitalize On Patriots' Errors To Hand New England Their First Loss Of The Season

4 November, 2019
"The offense takes the opposing defense on long rides, keeping them on the field and on their heels for nearly four minutes per possession and are averaging well over six plays per drive. On scoring drives, that number increases to nearly nine plays per drive. The Patriots' offense is not a quick-strike entity. They prefer to move the sticks in a methodical fashion, wearing down the defense with sheer repetition."
It doesn't take an elite football mind to figure out how the Baltimore Ravens beat the New England Patriots on Sunday night, nor did it take one to come up with a game plan to do so.
In fact, the Ravens' game plan was so simple that it bordered on genius: Keep mistakes to a minimum and move the chains while forcing the opposition into mistakes at critical times. In other words, play Patriots' football.
Of course, it didn't hurt that Baltimore runs the professional football equivalent of the old Veer Offense - two backs flanking the quarterback, who decides where the ball is going based on what he reads in the defense - but the premise is the same: take the defense on long rides with power running and the short passing game to move the chains and chew up clock.
With that in mind, consider that the Ravens' offense in no way resembles that of the Patriots. Baltimore is a run-first entity that averages an almost lurid 200 yards per game, mixing in short-to-intermediate passes to keep opposing defenses honest, while New England relies on those same routes to move the chains, sprinkling in running plays here and there.
So given the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, win-the-time-of-possession personalities of both offensive units, it should have come as a surprise that the teams entered the game sporting the top two scoring offenses in the National Football League, both averaging over thirty points per game...
...but only the Ravens reached that plateau on Sunday night, punking the Patriots by a score of 37-20 in a contest that was a polar role reversal so stark in nature that there could only be one explanation why it happened:
The Ravens beat the Patriots at their own game, mostly by winning the time of possession battle by a two-to-one margin.
That said, the Patriots mostly beat themselves by committing the same type of errors on defense that they usually force their opposition into, giving life to Ravens' drives that would have otherwise resulted in sending out one of the kicking teams, accounting for the time of possession disparity...
...all while shooting themselves in the foot on offense with costly mistakes or just plain bad luck. As a result, Baltimore was able to dictate to the Patriots' defense and force them into a read-and-react entity rather than the aggressive dictatorial unit that lead New England to their 8-0 start.
The Ravens ran right up the gut to start the game, gaining over 10-yards per pop - a number skewed somewhat by a Lamar Jackson scamper for 18-yards, Mark Ingram's 53 yard gainer and a Gus Edwards 12 yard touchdown run, all in the first quarter, though Lawrence Guy recorded a sack of Jackson and a stuff for a loss on Edwards.
From that point, however, New England figured it out, the interior of the defensive line holding the Ravens to just 39 yards on 13 carries, an average of just three yards per carry - though by that time the Patriots were already in a 17-point hole - and Guy pounced on a loose ball to give New England's offense excellent field position deep in Baltimore territory, which they converted into a touchdown to stem the Ravens' tidal wave.
In all, the Ravens veer-style juggernaut produced an astounding 178 total yards in the first quarter to take the quick three-score lead, but once the defense figured it out, they allowed just 194 total yards the rest of the way, most of that total through the air on short and intermediate routes.
As noted, the biggest problem on defense turned out to be the mental errors that the Patriots avoided like the plague in their first eight games – to wit, penalties on three third down stops extending Baltimore drives.
The first penalty occurred on third and goal from the Patriots' six-yard line, Guy stuffing Edwards for a loss of one to prompt Ravens' coach John Harbaugh to send out his field goal unit, but defensive end Shalique Calhoun encroached the neutral zone and the resulting first down giving Baltimore a first and goal, a four point swing to start the game...
...but the killer came on the Ravens' final drive with Baltimore leading by ten with almost thirteen minutes remaining in the game, a 14-play, 62-yard turf-eater aided by two Patriots' penalties, giving Baltimore new life after it appeared the Patriots had stopped them on third down.
The Patriots appeared to have forced a three-and-out with just one minute elapsed on the possession, but linebacker Dont'a Hightower jumped offside to extend the drive. Six plays later, cornerback Jason McCourty got a little handsy on a third-and-seven stop with almost eight minutes remaining, the illegal use of hands penalty carrying an automatic first down - and seven plays after that, Jackson ran the ball in from the one for the final tally, leaving the Patriots down by 17 with just three minutes to play.
Had the Patriots not committed those penalties, they would have won the time of possession battle and not have dug themselves such a massive hole to try and climb out of.
In all, mental errors helped account for only an additional 41 yards of offense for the Ravens but, more importantly, 14 points and nine minutes of game clock. That is a recipe for disaster, and when combined with the Patriots' offense turning the ball over twice deep in Baltimore territory - including a 70-yard fumble return for a touchdown - New England errors accounted for 21 of the Ravens' 37 points.
And even if Edelman still fumbled and even if Brady still threw an interception to kill two scoring chances, they still scored enough points to win the game.
Do the math any which way you want, but had the Patriots been more disciplined on defense and little less loose with the ball on offense, chances are New England is still undefeated.
The Patriots can take solace in the fact that their offense moved the ball effectively after a slow start, and their defense was able to make in-game adjustments to neutralize the effects of the veer – and it wasn't too late to produce a win, had the mental errors not occurred. - but the Patriots are not into silver linings and are certainly not in to cup-half-full positivity...
...they pride themselves of discipline on both sides of the ball, and one can be sure that since Belichick abhors error-repeating, they will spend their long bye-week break working on the fundamentals that brought them to the best record in the AFC.
The chip on the Patriots' collective shoulders has grown exponentially in the shadow of the loss to the Ravens, but that chip was self-induced – so in essence, New England is in a fight with themselves to be more disciplined.
Fortunately, they possess the intestinal fortitude to correct their mistakes going forward, to worry about performing in a fundamentally sound manner – and if they do that, the remaining teams on their schedule are in serious trouble, because there is nothing more dangerous than a group of men pissed off at themselves.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Patriots' Performance In Loss To Ravens Likely To Humble, Motivate Team Going Forward

4 November, 2019
Football Sundays are looked forward to in my house like seventeen mini-Christmases, the excitement building all week, football pools filled out like a wish list and a menu produced that would shame any sports pub...
At the top of the wish list is always a shiny New England Patriots' victory, which we receive often enough that perhaps we take it for granted - but there is always a bad Christmas or two when, like in the movie Scrooged, a young boy is expecting a choo-choo train but gets instead a five-pound package of veal.
The parents justify the gift by pointing out that the veal is far more expensive than the train, but it still sucks, and in the end it winds up being consumed in disappointment and eventually flushed down the toilet.
The Patriots entered their Sunday night contest with the Baltimore Ravens on an eight-game choo-choo ride, with a defense that it was assumed could carry them to a win over any team - but that same defense was ground into hamburger by the best offense in football before a national television audience and force-fed to the Patriots' fan base...
...the 37-20 loss a reversal of fortune that tasted like we scooped it out of the aforementioned toilet, threw it on a bun and called it a shit burger.
But as poorly as the defense played in spotting the Ravens' offense a 17-point lead in the first quarter, the Patriots' offense found its groove in the second quarter, trimming that deficit to just four-points by halftime with the knowledge of getting the ball first in the second half dancing in their head like so many sugar plums.
For that brief moment it appeared that New England's offense had taken full control of the contest, driving the field at will and mauling the Ravens defenders into submission, poised to grasp the lead from Baltimore - but the normally reliable Julian Edelman coughed up the ball on the Ravens' thirty-yard line, the ball scooped up and returned for a score the other way.
Down eleven points instead of being up by three, quarterback Tom Brady and his offensive unit responded like champions and cut the lead to four again, the exhausted Ravens' defense looking incapable of stopping the Patriots' freight train - but then a series of unlikely errors killed all the momentum gained by the defending champions, allowing Baltimore to regain that initial seventeen-point advantage and sending the Patriots home with a big bag of cold, half-eaten leftovers.
The turning point was obviously the 14-point swing precipitated by Edelman's fumble, but the real culprit, as it has been all season long, was the Patriots' offense's inability to finish drives in the red zone, settling for short field goals and leaving points on the field.
Even so, it is fair to state that the Patriots' appeared to have taken and survived Baltimore's best shot and were poised to take over the lead and stomp the game Ravens into the turf at M&T Bank Stadium with their relentless chain moving style, but the offense's failure to find paydirt early in the contest proved to be too much to overcome.
Look, we all knew that there would come a point in the 2019 season that the offense would have to carry the defense, as the level of dominance displayed by that group of stoppers over the first eight games of the season was realistically unsustainable for a full 16-game schedule, and that there would eventually be an opponent that would figure them out...
...the concern then being that the Patriots' offense's struggles to find the end zone would end up costing them, and that all came to fruition on Sunday night.
Forget the stats. The Patriots' "Historic" defense gave up four touchdowns, that one-game total matching what they had surrendered in their first eight games combined, blowing them out of the conversation for the best defense in the history of professional football - but even the best defenses will eventually lay an egg. The real test will come in two weeks when New England travels to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles.
How they respond to this performance will tell us what this defense is truly made of. The offense, despite their season-long red zone struggles, appears to be rounding into the entity that we've been conditioned to seeing in years past, but the defense had raised our expectations into something we've never witnessed before - and now that we've seen them at their worst, perhaps the unrealistic expectation we had for this unit will be tempered somewhat.
In reality, the Patriots' defense lies somewhere between what we witnessed through the first eight games and the shit-show that we saw last night -and perhaps all of us needed to suffer a performance like New England laid out on Sunday night, and that includes the Patriots themselves.
After all, we've seen this before, New England being blown out on national television, causing all of the so-called experts to back the meat wagon up to the door at One Patriots Place, most recently a few years back when the Kansas City Chiefs routed them and caused head ball coach Bill Belichick to be even more contrite in his post-game presser than usual, claiming that his team was "On to Cincinnati" and laughing off questions regarding Brady's future.
Well, now his team is on to Philadelphia with questions abounding in regard to his defense, with the egg nog-and-cookies crowd in a panic and predicting doom - but the whiskey drinkers know that if a few bad plays against Baltimore had gone the other way, they would be looking at a still-undefeated Patriots' team that had shown the mettle of a champion in a tight game against a quality opponent.
Unfortunately, the Patriots are entering their bye week, giving those cookie eaters in the media two weeks to spew their negative bile to the public, claiming that they told us that this performance is what the Patriots actually are - but if history holds true, Belichick, Brady and the Boogeyman defense will rebound and hammer the Eagles, setting off a streak that will eventually find them in the AFC Championship game for the ninth consecutive year...
...and if they happen to face this same Ravens' team on the way to another trip to the Super Bowl, the smart money will be on the Patriots to come up with an answer to what plagued them last night.
Because we have seen this before, and not only survived, but flourished.
So despite the bad taste left in our mouths, we can be assured that Belichick has flushed this performance down the toilet and is starting the digestion process all over again - preparing his now-humbled defense to feed on the Eagles like they were so many holiday turkeys.
That said, it figures to be a tough week in the five weird little states that comprise the New England region; the fans, already upset by the loss being egged on by the local media with their doomsayer attitudes, useless opinion and ridiculous poll questions, ready to jump off the bandwagon...
...but not in Foxborough, where the players most likely already took accountability for their gaffes before they arrived at the terminal after what had to be a somber, reflective flight home, and will emerge from their two-week break with their hair on fire and with some serious motivation to lay on not only the Eagles, but also the Cowboys, Texans and Chiefs after them.
Hopefully, Belichick won't have to mutter his dour “On to Cincinnati” tripe after that list of formidable foes – but if history has taught us anything, it is that the Patriots always play with a chip on their shoulder, and now that the chip has grown to the size of the proverbial elephant-in-the-room, it would surprise no one if they returned to their dominant ways and ran the table.
Because, if nothing else, this loss has given them a pretty clear understanding of who they are and what they need to work on going forward.
Sometimes it takes failing to know how to win – and if that's the case, perhaps all this incarnation of the New England Patriots need in one hiccup to get back on track, because despite the loss, the Patriots know that they had a realistic chance to win, and it was their own mental errors that prevented that from happening.