Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Patriots’ New Offensive Philosophy Isn’t New, It’s Just Evolving

Bill Belichick is a freaking wizard, and once again we are about to witness his magic.

In fact, the 2020 NFL season will come to be known as Belichick’s finest hour, as it were – not so much tied to success on the field, but for finally being able to build his New England Patriots in his own gruff image.

I’ve always enjoyed watching Belichick build his team from the ground up each summer, but not as much as I’ve enjoyed this year’s effort thus far. He had a difficult – some say insurmountable – number of obstacles to navigate even before the pandemic swept across the country, and the resultant social distancing mandates made his task ten-times more daunting.

But “difficult” and “daunting” are challenges that fall right into Belichick’s wheelhouse.

We got our first look at his mindset during the draft, a fascinating, eclectic class of rookies whose selections seemed right on point with what he needed to propagate the theory that he’s been building towards this moment for the past four seasons…

…and although his method caused quarterback Tom Brady to go berserk and probably caused last-year’s late season collapse as well, there’s no doubt that this season’s incarnation of the New England Patriots will offer up a far better product than if he had not been building towards life without Brady.

The evidence is compelling, particularly along the offensive line. Starting with Shaq Mason and David Andrews in 2015, Belichick has assembled a group of linemen who are better a plowing the row than pass blocking – but to be fair, the aforementioned Mason and Andrews, along with 2016 third-round pick Joe Thuney and 2018 top pick Isaiah Wynn, have gradually improved in pass blocking…

…perhaps not consistently enough to protect a statue in the pocket, but plenty good enough to scheme around the talents of Cam Newton, who is now the favorite to win the starting quarterback job (as if he wasn’t the moment he signed his contract).

Initially, the line was being gradually constructed to meld with the skill set of Jimmy Garoppolo, whom the Patriots drafted in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft as the heir apparent to Brady. Garoppolo is much more ambulatory than Brady and, as such, required an offensive line that is more athletic than stout.

You know, guards that can pull into the flat on a designed roll out, or who can slip onto the second level and neutralize a linebacker, and tackles who have the ability to chip defensive ends and drift out to lead the screen plays that are a staple of Belichick’s method of operation.

But when Brady (Kraft?) forced Garoppolo out of the building in 2017 - right in the middle of the building process - it forced Belichick’s hand. His choices were to either scrap his philosophy and cater to Brady’s insistence that he was determined to play into his mid-forties, or to continue along the path he had designed for Garoppolo.

Of course, it went against conventional wisdom that Brady would still be playing at a high level three years later, so Belichick maintained course and heading, knowing that his personnel acquisition was moving the offense away from Brady’s strengths in favor of a hopefully seamless transition to a quarterback that embodies the latest trends in the league, that being a renaissance of sorts to the old-school, smashmouth ways of yesteryear.

Some are speculating a return to the early seasons of the millennium, a power-based running attack to open up play action and to clear defined passing lanes, and while that is the hope on my end, Newton’s presence adds another dynamic

And since any philosophy in football is built from the inside out, Belichick has stocked the offensive line with smaller, lighter linemen with quick feet, excellent football acumen, and a mean streak a mile wide.

Of all the starters along the offensive line, left guard Joe Thuney is the tallest at 6’ 5”, followed by (presumptive) right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor at 6’ 4”, center David Andrews at 6’ 3”, left tackle Isaiah Wynn at 6’ 2” and right guard Shaq Mason at 6’ 1” – with only Eluemunor checking in at over 310 pounds. 

The NFL average for an offensive lineman is 315 pounds, the average height, 6’ 4”.
Again, only Eluemunor checks in at or above the size of the average NFL Lineman, and he wasn’t drafted by New England, brought in on a trade with Baltimore to help assuage the massive injuries that befell the Patriots last season.

All of that said and true, it is no coincidence that Belichick has assembled the smallest, yet most athletic offensive line in football – and all he needed was a quarterback to surround with it.

That’s when Cameron Jerrell Newton fell right into his lap.

Newton isn’t just a mobile quarterback. In fact, he was the gold standard for mobile quarterbacks when he entered the league in 2011, initiating a trend towards more option-based offenses that have swept through the league in the past decade.

But the real indication of Belichick’s commitment to a more diverse, power-based attack came with the drafting of two tight ends, both of whom should step right into vital roles all over the formation and will complete the blocking scheme.

The health of the line as a whole combined with the drafting of the versatile tight ends and the presence of Newton suggests that the product that Belichick is going to field will be different from what we’ve witnessed in the past couple of decades under his rule – but not so different that it will be unrecognizable.

The same concepts will be in play, but this time Belichick will be building his roster from the ground up in his own image instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes in order to appease Brady, because now the hole is square and all of the personnel moves that he has made in the past few years should fit beautifully.

After all, that’s what the Dark Master has had up his sleeve the entire time…

Friday, August 14, 2020

Patriots Sign Lamar Miller; Reaffirm Dedication To Running The Football

The reclamation projects just never stop in Foxborough.

On Sunday, the New England Patriots signed veteran journeyman(?) Lamar Miller and his surgically-repaired ACL to a one year contract – a surprise move given the strength and quality of the Patriots’ running back kennel, leaving all of us to wonder if the signing is a sign of trouble with third-year “lead” back Sony Michel.

Michel, of course, was placed on the team’s PUP list last week as he rehabs from foot surgery in the offseason, but we all assumed that second-year redshirt Damien Harris would be picking up Michel’s slack, with Rex Burkhead and James White providing a change of pace – and that most likely still is the case, despite Miller’s signing.

In fact, Miller may just be camp fodder unless he clearly out-performs one of the incumbents on the roster, with another option being placed on the injured-reserved list if he shows promise but isn’t quite ready to compete.

At his best, Miller is a crisp cutback runner between the tackles and has a second gear to get around the corner – and then has an extra gear once he breaks into the open field. The fastest back that came out of the 2012 NFL Draft, speed is his calling card. If his knee has fully healed and he regains his ability to cut against the grain, he offers more in the running game than Michel.

In fact, assuming Miller makes the 53-man roster, the Patriots are in better shape in the backfield than they were a week ago, and even then they were pretty stacked.

It is universally thought that the Patriots had one of the best running back depth charts in the league to begin with - even with Michel on the shelf – but now they have three similarly sized backs with decidedly different styles, plus the most effective passing back in the league, meaning that New England can now play the running game anyway you like it.

You want a slasher with elite speed, a threat to take it to the house on any touch? That’s Miller. You want a grinder who punishes linebackers and always gets the extra yard? That’s Harris. How about a guy who does a little of both? Yup, Burkhead – and even though all three are capable in the pattern, James White is dependable as they come wheeling out of the backfield.

Add all of that to the fact that they will be running behind one of the best zone-blocking schemes in the league and with a dual-threat quarterback running the entire show, what you get is a commitment to run the ball.

Of course, Newton is the catalyst with a skill set not seen in New England before. Let’s face it, Tom Brady was glued to the ground, but had decent elusiveness in the pocket - but more and more in the past couple of years, when the pass rush was closing in, he would simply take a seat and live to see another play…

…while Newton is an apparition, with the start and stop ability to leave would-be tacklers grasping at air. On reputation alone, defenders will have to account for Newton’s running ability on every play, his repertoire including RPO experience and a knack for scrambling out of trouble. But where his presence affects the running game is on the outside zone plays that Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels loves.

Newton is in his element In the outside zone. Where Brady would simply turn and hand off to his backs, Newton can and will employ elements of the double and triple options, so the need for a cutback runner with speed became paramount the moment Newton signed his Patriots’ contract – and that’s the reason Lamar Miller and his sub-4.4 speed now resides in Foxborough.

Actually, there is a lot to like about this year’s incarnation of the Patriots’ offense. Sure, there are a lot of variables in play – health and replacing players who have opted-out at the forefront – but if the universe unfolds in their favor, we could witness a renaissance of sorts, back to the days when the Patriots featured a powerful running game that sets up the passing game.

With head coach Bill Belichick being a rooted in the fundamentals of the game, I can’t wait to see how he shapes his offense when in his element – because there’s nothing more fundamental in football than running the football.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Belichick Will Have To Get Creative To Help Patriots’ Defense Survive Devastating Loss Of Talent

Eight different members of the New England Patriots have opted out of the 2020 NFL season for reasons related to the ongoing pandemic, and while three of them were counted on to be integral components, their loss opens the door for some talented players waiting in the wings…

…but now, thanks to those players opting out, the Patriots also have almost $35 million in cap space that they could potentially use to bring in a seasoned veteran or two to stem the tide of departures from the depth chart.

Under normal Belichickian standards, those aforementioned young and talented players would essentially go through a “Redshirt” season, seeing minimal action while they watch and learn from the veterans ahead of them on the depth chart, but head coach Bill Belichick appears to have lost the luxury of bringing his newbies along slowly.
Both Chung (23) and Hightower (54) have opted-out of 2020 season

Fortunately, of the players on the list of opt-outs, only the loss of linebacker Dont’a Hightower and right tackle Marcus Cannon are considered problematic, as there is no proven talent behind them on the depth chart – but especially Hightower, as his decision robs the Patriots of not only their play-calling defensive captain, it also leaves the linebacking corps looking more like a Senior Bowl lineup…

…going from a “Who’s who” pack of speedy sack masters to a “Who’s that?” group of rookies and journeyman part-timers that, from the outside, looks like a serious degradation of the talent level.

But these are the New England Patriots, and Belichick is the quintessential boy scout who is always prepared – and while some (most) believe that he was unprepared last season to deal with all of the injuries that crippled his team, the simple fact of the matter is that he was preparing his team for life beyond the dynasty in hopes of creating a new one.

Replacing Hightower And Chung

This is likely to be a game-to-game scenario, which is how Belichick operates anyway.

Belichick is the master game-planner who builds his teams with the Patriots’ schedule in mind. It is said that coaches build their teams to match up with teams in their division, which makes sense on the surface, given that they play each team twice – but in reality, that means that each team plays only six of their sixteen regular season games in-division, leaving ten games against non-division foes…

…so their success or failure in making the post-season lies mainly on how they fare against the ten other teams on their schedule, and somehow, someway, Belichick seems to be able to game plan for every single team, every single week – and he uses his entire roster, even if it’s just in one or two plays throughout the season.

Situational football is what Belichick lives for, and the options that he has for covering the “Will” linebacker spot that Hightower has vacated are actually quite plentiful, if not traditional.

For the past two seasons, Belichick has employed strong safety Patrick Chung in the position at times, and though Chung has also opted out, some the players that they have brought in through free agency and the draft to eventually replace the aging box safety are looking more and more fortuitous as time goes on…

…and the draft also produced a couple of off-the-ball linebackers who possesses the skill set to contribute in the multiple-layer infusion to replace the volume of talent the Patriots lost not only when Hightower opted out, but also the loss of Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts in free agency.

It makes sense for Belichick to look at veteran journeyman Brandon Copeland to provide some snaps in Hightower’s stead, but there’s a reason why the Penn product has bounced around the league since entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2014.

He is a man without a true position, initially entering the league as a 265 pound defensive end with impressive speed for the position, but with suspect lateral agility in the pass rush and found himself out of the league for a couple of seasons – then reinvented himself as an outside linebacker for the 2015 veteran combine, shedding twenty pounds and, as a result, trimming two-tenths of a second off of his forty…

…and while that improved his straight-line speed, it did little to improve his agility. At his best, Copeland, who’s weight now stands at 255, is a strong-side, edge-setting linebacker who willingly takes on tight ends on the edge, but also gets regularly swallowed up in the maw, leaving an inside track for runners.

As a result, he found himself as a rotational player for both the Lions and Jets, his greatest contribution being on special teams. With his lack of lateral agility, I can’t see him as a regular part of the lineup, especially if the rookies on the roster can make an immediate impact in camp.

Michigan’s Josh Uche is the favorite to take on the “Will” role vacated by Hightower due to his “tweener” skill set. Though he won many battles as an edge rusher in college, his size could work against him against offensive tackles and tight ends in the pros unless he is schemed as an interior linebacker in a 3-4 defensive alignment, where he could roll to the edge in run defense and attack interior gaps as a blitzer in pass defense.

He possess more speed than Hightower and is fluid in underneath coverages, and the fact that he models his game after the late Sean Taylor, those box safety-like instincts and versatility has to have Belichick salivating at the possibilities of deploying Uche in the middle of his “Amoeba” defense.

As anyone who knows football is familiar with, the difference between the aforementioned box safety and a coverage linebacker is in name only, and since Belichick likes to employ his strong safeties as coverage linebackers, Uche fits that bill – but he’s not the only player on the roster who does.

Belichick’s top pick in the 2020 draft, safety Kyle Dugger, possesses the most versatility of any player on the Patriots’ defense and, as such, he could fill a different role in just about any alignment. A violent striker in space with the speed to handle the back end as well.

Dugger’s coaches at the Senior Bowl tried him at the single high safety position and as a hybrid linebacker who fills well in run support and excels at underneath coverages. He has the size to hold his own at the “Will” spot, where, as mentioned, Belichick used Chung at times to handle the better tight ends in the league.

Former Los Angeles Chargers’ safety Adrian Phillips was signed by Belichick in free agency, most likely to make him more comfortable in facilitating a trade with the Detroit Lions that sent Big Nickel safety Duron Harmon packing in a salary cap move. Phillips is also capable of reducing down into the box, but his presence only adds fuel to the speculation that Dugger will play a major role – something we will get into in a later article.

But with both Phillips and Dugger on the roster, Belichick should be able to continue fielding three safeties in both his Big Nickel and Amoeba packages, especially the latter, which is defined by no definition, a “formation” that is constantly shifting shape during the offensive cadence, making it close to impossible for the quarterback to set his protection at the line because he has no idea where the pressure will be coming from.

And that is important to remember about this defense. In the Amoeba, all of the defenders are juking and shifting as if they are rushing the quarterback, then at the snap, some defenders rush while others fall back into coverage so it is imperative that Belichick have as many versatile athletes on the field…

…and while the Amoeba is geared more towards late-down, long-yardage situations, the presence of players like Uche, Dugger and Phillips, along with young breakout candidates in linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Chase Winovich, he could employ the tactic on early downs as well, albeit with a tweak or two.

All of that said, there is no guarantee with the newbies on the roster, but the versatility in their individual skill sets actually gives Belichick more options both in coverages and in run support than he had with more traditionally-skilled defenders in Hightower and Chung – but that doesn’t mean those players won’t be missed, it simply means that Belichick will have to open up his playbook a little wider, which isn’t a bad thing…