Digesting the Patriots

Happy Friday, friends.  It’s time to Digest the New England Patriots.  This isn’t the same Patriots team that we’re used to, and the Broncos obviously aren’t the same Broncos team that Tom Brady and company are used to losing to, so it should be very interesting.

Off the top, it’s interesting that the Patriots are seven-point favorites on the road against a team that has won six straight games.  I almost never talk about betting lines, because I don’t believe in betting on sports, but this is an interesting bit of narrative psychology to me.  The media has set a narrative around the Broncos such that Joe Six-pack is led to believe that there was some magic happening, and a plucky QB who loves his Jesus was behind it, but just wait until the Tebows play the Bradys.  The Tebows will come back to Earth.  People are betting heavy for the Patriots, obviously, I think because they think in terms of media narratives.

Of course, I think conflating a whole team with its QB is completely stupid.  There’s so much happening on a football field on any play that it’s silly to just focus on who’s throwing the ball.  As always, today, we’re going to explore the rest of the story.

Patriots Defense

a.  How can I put this?  This Patriots defense is terrible - really, shockingly terrible.  They have some dudes with some ball skills, so if a QB isn’t on his game, he can get some taken away, but the Patriots have nobody who can cover anybody.  The lousiness of this defense is lightly mentioned, because the offense is really good and the Patriots usually outscore their opponents. But if they get in a game where their offense is slowed down, they can get in trouble.

The Patriots shifted to a predominantly base 4-3 alignment this season because they felt like they had more good defensive linemen than they did linebackers.  This was an astute observation, but the fact is that their linemen tend to be big two-gap players, and their LBs tend to be big, downhill gap pluggers.  So, as I mentioned a long time ago, The Patriots are basically playing the same scheme they always did, but instead of Andre Carter being a standup OLB, he’s a DE with his hand on the ground.  Otherwise, the other three linemen are two-gapping, and the three LBs are reading and reacting, and trying to plug gaps downhill. 

As Bill Belichick correctly stated, the whole thing was a stupid “media fabrication.”  If media people knew how to listen, and had any football vocabulary or knowledge, they’d learn a lot from Belichick, rather than their actual impression that he never gives up anything, which is accompanied by the smug thought that they’re the best reporters in the world, and if Belichick can evade them, nobody can get anything out of him.  Please.  He thinks you’re stupid and that talking to you is a waste of his time, so he’s just trying to get through it and return to doing value-adding work with people who know their ass from their elbow.

b.  Here’s the participation data for the Patriots defense.  They’ve used 37 different players on defense this season, which is too many for my template to handle, so I got lazy and combined some into an “Others” category.  Among the others at DB are WRs Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman, who have been playing safety and nickelback lately.

Pos # Name Snaps % of Total
DL 75 Vince Wilfork 807 88%
DL 93 Andre Carter 733 80%
DL 74 Kyle Love 446 49%
DL 95 Mark Anderson 317 35%
DL 94 Shaun Ellis 277 30%
DL 98 Gerard Warren 197 21%
DL 71 Brandon Deaderick 183 20%
DL 97 Ron Brace 48 5%
DL - Others 118 13%
LB 50 Rob Ninkovich 777 85%
LB 51 Jerod Mayo 710 77%
LB 59 Gary Guyton 393 43%
LB 55 Brandon Spikes 346 38%
LB 58 Tracy White 200 22%
LB 52 Dane Fletcher 147 16%
LB 90 Niko Koutouvides 33 4%
LB 53 Jeff Tarpinian 22 2%
LB 90 A.J. Edds 10 1%
DB 24 Kyle Arrington 812 89%
DB 32 Devin McCourty 724 79%
DB 44 James Iheidgbo 605 66%
DB 25 Patrick Chung 481 52%
DB 31 Sergio Brown 254 28%
DB 27 Antwaun Molden 248 27%
DB 23 Leigh Bodden 222 24%
DB 30 Josh Barrett 221 24%
DB 31 Sterling Moore 211 23%
DB 26 Phillip Adams 180 20%
DB - Others 368 40%
    Average DL 3.41  
    Average LB 2.88  
    Average DB 4.72  
    Total Defensive Snaps 917  

c.  On the defensive line, the good players are Carter, DT Vince Wilfork, and situational pass rusher Mark Anderson.  Shaun Ellis isn’t having a very good year, and the rest of the players are pretty below average.  This group gets pushed backward a good bit in the running game.

d.  Among the LBs, the starters are WLB Jerod Mayo, MLB Brandon Spikes, and SLB Rob Ninkovich.  All three are solid players, with Mayo being overrated, and the other two being underrated.  None is very fast sideline-to-sideline, though, and that’s why Washington wore out the toss/outside zone play to great effect last week.  Spikes and Mr. Tebow are very close from their days at Florida, incidentally, as they were the key team leaders on defense and offense.  The story goes that Spikes, who is from the Charlotte area, met Tebow at an all-star game when they were both in high school, and he announced that he was going to college wherever Tim was, and then did so.  Not much else to see in the Patriots LB corps, other than noticing that old friend Niko Koutouvides has gotten some snaps lately.  (Yes, really.)

e.  The secondary has had a lot of draft resources used on it in recent years, and it’s still somehow atrocious.  The best player is Kyle Arrington, who is a typical Patriots CB.  He’s not the greatest in coverage, but he can catch the football and has seven INTs this season.  He’ll be there until somebody wants to give him an Asante Samuel-type deal, and then they’ll plug in another guy just like him.  The other CB Devin McCourty undeservedly made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year and is having a pretty bad second season.  WR Julian Edelman has been playing some as a nickelback lately, and he’s struggled at it.  The alternative is Nate Jones (HAHA).

The starting Safeties are currently WR Matthew Slater and James Ihedigbo, provided Patrick Chung can’t go, which looks likely.  Slater actually hasn’t done a half-bad job, but Ihedigbo is pretty sorry.  The downfield passing game works pretty well against the Patriots.  So, too, for that matter, does the underneath passing game, and the running game.

f.  The following shows where the pass rush vs. coverage breakouts come from on the Patriots defense.  As you see, there’s a lot less blitzing from DBs this year than there was in the past, and most of the pressure is coming from the front four.  Ninkovich rushes a lot when the Patriots play a 3-3 nickel look, but other than that, the LBs are primarily coverage players.  Too bad they suck in zone coverage.

Pos # Name Rush Coverage % Rush % Coverage
DL 75 Vince Wilfork 504 2 99.6% 0.4%
DL 93 Andre Carter 441 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 74 Kyle Love 262 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 95 Mark Anderson 229 4 98.3% 1.7%
DL 94 Shaun Ellis 147 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 98 Gerard Warren 126 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 71 Brandon Deaderick 107 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 97 Ron Brace 21 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL - Others 73 3 96.1% 3.9%
LB 50 Rob Ninkovich 309 178 63.4% 36.6%
LB 51 Jerod Mayo 46 412 10.0% 90.0%
LB 59 Gary Guyton 21 232 8.3% 91.7%
LB 55 Brandon Spikes 30 165 15.4% 84.6%
LB 58 Tracy White 12 147 7.5% 92.5%
LB 52 Dane Fletcher 14 85 14.1% 85.9%
LB 90 Niko Koutouvides 1 13 7.1% 92.9%
LB 53 Jeff Tarpinian 0 10 0.0% 100.0%
LB 90 AJ Edds 1 6 14.3% 85.7%
DB 24 Kyle Arrington 12 514 2.3% 97.7%
DB 32 Devin McCourty 5 445 1.1% 98.9%
DB 44 James Iheidgbo 19 359 5.0% 95.0%
DB 25 Patrick Chung 3 307 1.0% 99.0%
DB 31 Sergio Brown 2 185 1.1% 98.9%
DB 27 Antwaun Molden 0 173 0.0% 100.0%
DB 23 Leigh Bodden 0 169 0.0% 100.0%
DB 30 Josh Barrett 3 142 2.1% 97.9%
DB 31 Sterling Moore 0 144 0.0% 100.0%
DB 26 Phillip Adams 8 125 6.0% 94.0%
DB - Others 2 226 0.9% 99.1%
    Average DL 3.26 0.02 99.5% 0.5%
    Average LB 0.74 2.13 25.8% 74.2%
    Average DB 0.09 4.76 1.9% 98.1%
    Total 4.09 6.90    
    Pass Plays 586      

Patriots Offense

a.  Schematically, the Patriots offense is very similar to the Broncos offense.  (No, that doesn’t mean the Patriots run the option, because the fact that the Broncos use a couple of option series at times doesn’t make them an option offense.)  Both teams employ an Erhardt-Perkins scheme, and the Patriots version has changed a lot over the years, from run-heavy in the Corey Dillon era, to pass-happy with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and now to being very TE-oriented, after completely ignoring throwing the ball to TEs for years.  The Patriots are probably the least balanced team in the NFL, but they’re really good at throwing the ball, and it really kind of turns the whole “you have to be balanced” argument on its head.

b.  It all starts with Tom Brady, obviously, and he’s outstanding.  He does do worse when he’s pressured, but not when he’s blitzed heavily.  He spots those blitzes, and he’s great at throwing the ball to where the defense just blitzed from.  The Patriots do a lot of sight-adjustment stuff, and Welker and Deion Branch are very good at making the same read as Brady and breaking off their routes to be where he expects them to be.  Brady is the best QB sneaker in the NFL, and it should always be assumed that he’s going to line up no-huddle on 3rd- or 4th-and-1, quick snap it, and sneak it.  He practically never misses, like Tebow running for two-point conversions.

c.  The RB group is a bunch of average guys who play slightly different roles and who have each had moments of excellent play at times this year.  The primary ballcarrier is BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and he’s joined by Danny Woodhead (who’s Welkah-tough), and Stevan Ridley.  Woodhead is dangerous as a receiver, and Ridley is the most threatening natural runner, in my opinion.  Old reliable Kevin Faulk and rookie Shane Vereen also play at times.  The Patriots have no Fullback, and when they want to use one, they put LB Dane Fletcher in on offense.

d.  The Patriots don’t play a lot of WRs these days, as you can see in this participation data table:

Pos # Name Snaps % of Total
WR 83 Wes Welker 810 88%
WR 84 Deion Branch 750 81%
WR 85 Chad Ochocinco 222 24%
WR 11 Julian Edelman 114 12%
WR 10 Tiquan Underwood 45 5%
WR 18 Matt Slater 40 8%
WR 17 Taylor Price 18 4%
TE 87 Rob Gronkowski 885 96%
TE 81 Aaron Hernandez 645 70%
TE 82 Dan Gronkowski 56 6%
TE 66 Thomas Welch 42 5%
TE 0 Various Linemen 103 11%
TE       0%
RB 42 BenJarvus Green-Ellis 357 39%
RB 39 Danny Woodhead 316 34%
RB 22 Stevan Ridley 105 11%
RB 33 Kevin Faulk 72 8%
RB 34 Shane Vereen 26 5%
RB 64 Donald Thomas 11 2%
RB 52 Dane Fletcher 3 1%
    Average WR 2.16  
    Average TE 1.87  
    Average RB 0.96  
    Offensive Snaps 924  

They’re a 12 personnel offense, and the starting WRs are Welker and Branch, with Chad Ochocinco and Julian Edelman as the primary backups.  That tends to keep defenses in base personnel, which is really interesting in a time when most offensive thinkers want to sub-package defenses to death.  Welker is having his best year as a pro, but he’s been shut down by top-notch CBs.  He really works best as a dude who can murder a third CB while the top guy is worried about somebody else.  He catches some balls against good CBs because he and Brady are very good, but if you can tackle Welker, you can limit the damage. 

Branch isn’t very threatening at all, and is really just what I’d call a solid pro who executes his assignments.  He’s basically equivalent to Jabar Gaffney – a good man who helps his offense win, but nobody to lose sleep over as a defensive coordinator.  Ochocinco doesn’t see the field a lot, but he’s been hit for a few big plays this season when he has.  Edelman can hurt you a little bit, and he’s kind of a poor man’s Welker, but he only has seven catches this year.

e.  The TE position is where the Patriots are so tough.  Most people are well aware that Rob Gronkowski is good, and many realize that Aaron Hernandez is good too, but few realize just how good they are.  Gronkowski is 6-6, 275 pounds, and ridiculously agile and fast for that size.  He blocks as well as he catches, and he’s a nightmare to tackle.  He’s the best all-around TE in the NFL, and it isn’t even close.  Hernandez is another one of these really unique matchup problem guys that Urban Meyer loved at Florida, like Percy Harvin.  He’s not tall, or a particularly good blocker, but he runs routes like a WR and has the run skills of a 215-pound RB.  He’s even more dangerous after the catch than Gronkowski is.  These two guys are the playmakers of the Patriots offense, and it was highway robbery getting them in the second and fourth rounds of the 2010 Draft, respectively.  Everybody knew they were first-round talents, and they fell due to stupid reasons.  Of course, Belichick is the guy who’s going to ignore those reasons, take the talent, and figure it out later.

f.  The offensive line for the Patriots is pretty good at every position.  I think that’s the preferable way to be in the modern era, where it’s hard to be elite at all five spots.  They have three of the probably 25 best pass-protecting Tackles in the NFL, from a pure skill set perspective, with all three falling between about 15 and 25.  The best player of the three, RT Sebastian Vollmer, is hurt and unlikely to play, so expect the Patriots to start Matt Light and Nate Solder.  Solder is a big-time talent, but he’s been up and down as a rookie.  Light is a veteran who does a lot of work on knowledge, even as his physical ability declines a bit.

The starting guards are the overpaid LG Logan Mankins and the underpaid RG Brian Waters.  Waters has been outstanding this season, and Mankins has been kind of hit or miss, despite his reputation.  The starting Center Dan Connolly is pretty meh and is a dropoff from the IR’d Dan Koppen.  The whole group is excellent in the screen game, but they can be had by good pass rushers.  Speaking of protection, peep this data:

Pos # Name Pattern Protection Snaps % of Total
WR 83 Wes Welker 514 1 515 93%
WR 84 Deion Branch 483 0 483 87%
WR 85 Chad Ochocinco 164 0 164 29%
WR 11 Julian Edelman 59 0 59 11%
WR 10 Tiquan Underwood 24 0 24 4%
WR 18 Matt Slater 21 0 21 4%
WR 17 Taylor Price 6 0 6 1%
TE 87 Rob Gronkowski 470 61 531 96%
TE 81 Aaron Hernandez 387 10 397 71%
TE 82 Dan Gronkowski 6 21 27 5%
TE 66 Thomas Welch 0 13 13 2%
TE 0 Various Linemen 0 37 37 7%
TE         0 0%
RB 42 BenJarvus Green-Ellis 116 53 169 30%
RB 39 Danny Woodhead 189 41 230 41%
RB 22 Stevan Ridley 40 5 45 8%
RB 33 Kevin Faulk 45 6 51 9%
RB 34 Shane Vereen 4 2 6 1%
RB 64 Donald Thomas 0 2 2 0%
RB 52 Dane Fletcher 0 0 0 0%
    Average WR 2.29 0.00 2.29  
    Average TE 1.55 0.26 1.81  
    Average RB 0.71 0.20 0.90  
    Total 4.55 0.45 5.00  
    Pass Plays     556  

As you can see, the Patriots tend to minimum protect a lot, because they like to get their RBs and TEs into the pattern.  They count on their OL group and Brady to keep the sacks to a minimum, and it mostly works.

Beating the Patriots Defense

a.  There are a lot of ways to do this.  Let’s start by running the ball to the edges.  It’s best to stay away from Wilfork inside - and with slowish LBs, non-physical CBs, and no particularly good box safeties, the edge is open for business for a strong running game.

b.  The Patriots play a lot of zone, and they’re bad at it.  Rex Grossman lit them up last week in the seams, and the Broncos can do the same thing.  With big WRs like Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, if Tebow is decisive with his reads and on time with his throws, the Broncos can have a big passing day.

c.  The key thing is to be more aggressive against New England, because you know their offense is really good.  The Broncos should be going for it on 4th and 1 and throwing the ball downfield against the suspect Patriots defense.  It’s not time for cloud-of-dust football on Sunday.  If the Broncos prevent turnovers, there’s absolutely no reason they can’t score enough to win this game.

Stopping the Patriots Offense

a.  This is the harder part.  Let’s start with coverage.  I feel good about Champ Bailey on Welker and Andre’ Goodman on Branch.  Neither of those matchups gives me much reason to worry.  I want to double Gronkowski with D.J. Williams and Brian Dawkins, and if they tackle him, I think the Broncos will be okay there, more or less.  What to do with Hernandez, though?  This leads me to thinking about a change in the base 11 for this game.  I think that Robert Ayers and Joe Mays don’t need to play that much, and that they should be replaced by Chris Harris and Wesley Woodyard as primary players.  Ayers can rotate with the DTs, and Mays should only play in obvious run situations.  So here’s my lineup in Cover-1, as I play nickel against the Patriots' base 12 personnel offense, because they don’t run the ball that much, or that well.

Pos Player Assignment
DE Von Miller Pass Rush
DT Brodrick Bunkley Pass Rush
DT Marcus Thomas Pass Rush
DE Elvis Dumervil Pass Rush
LB D.J. Williams Cover Gronkowski (double)
LB Wesley Woodyard Cover the RB, or Hernandez if there's a 3rd WR
CB Champ Bailey Cover Welker
CB Andre' Goodman Cover Branch
CB Chris Harris Cover Hernandez, or the 3rd WR if there is one
FS Qunton Carter Single high centerfielder
SS Brian Dawkins Cover Gronkowski (double)

That’s how the Broncos can do it.  I think they have the players to have a good shot at getting it done, even if it won’t be easy.  I’m asking a lot of Harris and Carter, but they’ve mostly played pretty big as rookies, and you ride or die with them at this point.  Up front, I need my four to beat their five, and that’s a reasonable thing to expect.  Miller should dominate against Solder, and I don’t think that Light can handle Dumervil consistently either.  If you can pressure Brady with four men, and your other seven can cover, you have a pretty good shot against New England.

I’m picking the Broncos, because I’ve decided to ride with them till they lose one.  I fully realize that this one has the potential to get away from them in an ugly fashion, and that top to bottom, the Patriots are clearly the more talented team.  I just like how the Broncos' defensive strengths (pass rush, coverage versatility) match up with the Patriots' strengths, and I think it’s a tougher matchup for them than people realize.  We’ll see Sunday.  What say you?

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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