Thursday Morning 3rd and Long: Inaugural Edition

[Editor's Note: Please join me in welcoming Austin to Pats Pulpit as a contributing writer!  Austin already writes on the SB Nation MMA Blog, HeadKickLegend.com and will now be contributing featured articles for the Pulpit as well. - Greg]

The 2011 offseason has been fast, furious, and LARGE for the New England Patriots- with their primary signings coming on both sides of the line, it's fair to say the Patriots have acquired their share of "beef" to help dominate the point of scrimmage. While in the past the Patriots have made saavy, unheralded signings that leave many scratching their heads, this year the objective is clear: load the team with as much talent as possible.

A hyper-shortened offseason might not be the best time to completely overhaul a defense, but that fact has not seemed to slow Belichick down. The 3-4 defense for which he has been a longtime proponent is undergoing a major shift, but all we've heard from Bill is that 4-3 and 3-4 are numbers and schemes hyperbolized by the media. Well, crap. There's no way that I'll ever know as much about football as Bill, and I need these numbers- to debate, to daydream, to write about. I understand that there are sub packages and strange formations- but I still need something concrete to describe my front seven. So for all intents and purposes, I'm going to go forward with the now commonly held assumption that we're shifting our identity and going to a base 4-3 defense.

I was perplexed by the decision at first, but then became excited of the potential- it provides an instant fix to the Patriots' pass rush deficiencies and gives the team an immediate chance for a Super Bowl. Bill recognizes that there is a short window open for his star quarterback to gather more jewelry, and abrupt moves were necessary instead of allowing his young defense to mature through repetitions and more hard losses. I think that Brady will play out the rest of his contract, and then probably retire to a life filled with long locks, awkward dancing, and Gisele's hijinks. As a monstrous fan of #12, I need to see him win a 4th Lombardi Trophy so I can have the "best quarterback of all time" trump card long after our era of prosperity has ended, and the Hooded One and Mr. Brady's winning symbiosis is only spoken of in the past tense.

It's been obvious to most that Bill has been structuring his drafts to accumulate depth and talent, and make sure he gets to the Super Bowl (or comes close) until the end of Tom's contract. I'm not sure that the process was working fast enough, with two crushing postseason losses in two years- the latter coming after a prolific 14-2 season in which Brady had a staggering 9-1 touchdown to interception ratio and led New England's offense to eight straight games of thirty or more points to finish the regular season.  One possible reason I've heard discussed for the shift is that acquiring elite talent at the outside linebacker is becoming increasingly more difficult as more teams implement the defense, especially in Belichick's system where an OLB needs to have the size to set the edge against the run and also the athleticism to drop into coverage.  

Being as Belichick is such a closed book, I have to imagine (and possibly fabricate) a majority of his rationale, thoughts, and decisions to myself. It comes with the territory, and even though I wouldn't want another coach at the helm of my Patriots it is incredibly frustrating to have so little communication from your fearless leader. I NEED him to articulate how crushing those losses in the past few years have been, to empathize with the plight of a Patriot devotee.

Since that whole "articulation" thing isn't realistic, I'm left with my imagination. And I picture Hoodie sitting and watching tape for weeks on end, forgetting to shave and spending days in his movie theater a la Howard Hughes. Obsessing. Over. Every. Detail.

At some point, Belichick realized his defense was just too much of a liability. Much like the 2007 Super Bowl loss to the Giants, or our own victory over the Rams way back when they were labeled "The Greatest Show on Turf," it didn't matter how prolific our offense HAD been- the 2011 squash mash against the Jets showed that you needed to be solid on both sides of the ball. Our offense picked the absolutely worst time to stutter, and our defense could not make the necessary plays to get us back in the game.

Normally there is a brief catharsis after a football season punctuated with a devastating loss- free agency would come, later the draft, and there would be renewed hope for the season. Fans this year instead had to wait through the exhausting mess of a lockout in the offseason before we could see Belichick become a mechanic for his team- dissecting it, analyzing the working parts, and deciding which parts could be used moving forward, which to discard, and what needed to be purchased. 

Somewhere in that mix, Bill decided that he wanted a Hemi.

Bill Belichick is known for getting the best out of people. Whether it be an undrafted free agent, a stud prospect, a proven veteran, or an unknown commodity, the longtime New England Patriots head coach has a knack for putting his players in positions where they can succeed.

We've been known in recent seasons as a team that had a few stud players, and a lot of role players that fit our system. I guess you could say the same might be true for this year's Patriots- until you see the astounding accumulation of talent on our defensive side.

 

We have a STAGGERING amount of high draft picks set to make contributions to our defense next year- try 14 players either drafted in the first or second round. Don't believe me? Here's the breakdown:

Defensive Line:
Shaun Ellis- 2000 1st (12th overall)
Andre Carter- 2001 1st (7th overall)
Vince Wilfork- 2004 1st (21st overall)
Albert Haynesworth- 2002 1st (15th overall)
Ron Brace- 2009 2nd (40th overall)
Gerard Warren- 2001 1st (3rd overall)
Jermaine Cunningham- 2010 2nd (53 overall)

Linebackers:
Jerod Mayo- 2008 1st (10th overall)
Brandon Spikes- 2010 2nd (62nd overall)
Safeties:

Pat Chung- 2009 2nd (34th overall)
Brandon Meriweather- 2007 1st( 24th overall)

Cornerbacks:
Devin McCourty- 2010 1st (27th overall)
Ras-I Dowling- 2011 2nd (33rd overall)
Darius Butler- 2009 2nd (41st overall)

I know what a lot of you are saying- just because a person is drafted high, it doesn't always signal or accurately indicate their level of career production. You're saying Darius Butler hasn't proven himself, Brandon Spikes is still an unknown commodity, Brandon Meriweather is over-hyped and under-productive, and Jermaine Cunningham and Ron Brace have done nothing noteworthy in their early careers. Like it or not, Meriweather IS a 2-time pro bowler that brings an intense physical presence to our secondary. Spikes had some fantastic stretches last season, and showed great promise alongside Jerod Mayo. Darius Butler, though incredibly inconsistent, had still shown great potential in his first season only to struggle as a sophomore. As a rookie Jermaine Cunningham started 11 of 15 games played last year, but has disappointed with his camp so far- maybe he's pressing because of the our of obsessive prognostications over our (lack of a) pass rush this summer? Ron Brace doesn't have a highlight reel or gaudy statistics, but he is another strong and solid interior presence to give our line depth.

I think in your quick nature to be a contrarian, you left out the cream of the crop- the fact that our defensive line has a potential starting combination of Shaun Ellis, Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, and Andre Carter. Are you kidding me? I understand that Ellis and Carter are in the twilight of their career, but let's be honest: they don't have to be Julius Peppers or Jared Allen at this point. Big Vince and Bigger Al are close to 700 pounds of double-team-requiring rhinos. If healthy, these guys are going to carve holes in opposing offensive lines and make a lot of our opposition in the AFC East reexamine their life insurance policies. These athletes are absolute studs, and we wouldn't even need the best supporting cast to fill out the line for them to be a fearsome duo- but oh yeah, let's add 2 ferocious pass rushing defensive ends to the mix, and a variety of skilled backups to flesh out the depth chart. Then take one of the premier young linebackers in the league, a second year cornerback who was voted to the pro bowl in his first year, and a duo of savage safeties- I think it's safe to say our team is getting edgy. Oh yeah, and that's just the first and second round talents I'm talking about.

Is it a relief that Belichick has decided to go toward the 4-3? I believe so, because the Patriots have been among the best in the NFL the last few seasons, and those all ended in disappointment. Our team would always fall short when the moment couldn't be more crucial, and often it was the defense to fault. This potential shift to the 4-3 is exactly what I think the team needs, for a few reasons: first, because our team lacked consistency. When your team is bend-but-don't-break but does breaks, it becomes very frustrating. Our third down conversion rate given up last year showed how successful our team was getting to third down, only to fracture in coverage and give up a new 1st down. Second, I think that having the strength and veteran presence on the line will help nurture our young linebackers. The 2010 Steelers Super Bowl starting group of linebackers had more than 30 years of combined experience, whereas the Patriots starting group throughout most of last season had less than 10. We have great players- especially Jerod Mayo- but they were pressing in the big moments and coming up short. There was too much being demanded of the them; too much history and comparison to live up to for the young group.

The Patriots now have a line stocked with poundage and experience, comprised of players who may be beyond their prime but are still considerable talents with a fantastic amount to contribute to a Super Bowl contender like the 2011 Patriots. Our defensive line, the steadfast play of Jerod Mayo, and a healthy core of talented secondary players will hopefully give our offense more time to work next year.

The additions to our defensive line in the offseason are nothing short of spectacular to me. I know many are hesitant to speak about the promise of our team, but our defense has the potential to dominate our opponents next year. Think about it- the Patriots have lost none of the core players that had major contributions in 2010, a year in which the defense amassed the highest amount of both interceptions and total takeaways in the NFL. Despite giving up massive chunks of passing yardage, the 2010 Patriots defense had as many interceptions as it gave up passing touchdowns. Our group were playmakers last year, giving up gaudy stats but limiting the amount of points the opposing teams scored. That same group of playmakers are back in 2011-this time with three big new contributors, who have recorded 168.5 career sacks between themselves.

Shalise Manza Young has an excellent article that details some of our new defensive acquisitions, including Carter, Ellis, and Haynesworth. She quotes Andre Carter on what he feels his role will be in 2011:

"When we did talk . . . it was just simple - you put your hand in the dirt and go,'' Carter said of his early discussions with Belichick. "Now, granted, you've got to be smart and do your job but as far as that we were on the same [wavelength] as far as communication.''

She then quotes Belichick on Carter:

"He's had a lot of production throughout his career,'' Belichick said of Andre. "Last year when Washington went to the 3-4 defense, it wasn't a good fit for him evidently in that system. But we feel like what we'll be asking him to do this year - relative to what he was asked to do last year, what we've seen him do in the first nine years of his career - that we can use his ability on the edge and he can be effective.''

From this, it's quite obvious what Carter's projected role will be in the Patriots' defense this year- attack the quarterback, and force him to make mistakes. If necessary, set the edge and make sure that teams are not able to run away from the strength of our defensive tackles. In his last season in the 4-3 base defense, Carter racked up 11 sacks. At a prime athletic age of 32, and returning to a more natural fit, hopefully he can revert back to his 2009 form.

On the other hand, Shaun Ellis fits Coach Belichick's scheme perfectly because of his positional flexibility- he can play any area on the defensive line and can also be a heavy fill-in at outside linebacker should the Patriots revert back to a 3-4 at any point. Mike Reiss quotes Eric Mangini on his opinion of Ellis' adaptability:

"He has versatility, he even played some outside linebacker for us when we wanted to get really big," Mangini said. "We'd stand him up over the tight end and he can kill guys. I don't know if that's something Bill [Belichick] will do, but he can do it and do it well. He can drop into coverage; he has that type of athleticism in the base [defense]... He can play down, inside, outside, which adds another layer of versatility," Mangini said. "He's a good pass-rusher, a physical guy."

Ellis only had 4.5 sacks last year, so it's hard to get one's hopes up too much. But the diversity of his skill set will bring a lot to our defense this year- if anything adding a fierce competitor and veteran locker room presence who will hopefully rub off on Jermaine Cunningham and Markell Carter. Also, let us not forget that signing Ellis away from the Jets is also eliminating a menacing threat from our division rivals.  

The only concern I have entering this season is injury- a little before I began writing this, I saw that the Lions' 2011 2nd rounder Mikel Leshoure was lost for the season due to an achilles tear- but I think that if our team is relatively injury- free throughout the season, we have a great chance to be an elite defense this year.

I know what you're asking yourself- yes, you have just read over 2000 words of a 2011 Patriots preseason article without any mention of Chad Ochocinco. Have patience, I'm getting there.

One priority in the offseason this year was to gather pieces for a better pash rush; another was to fill the holes on our offensive line, to keep the 2010 NFL and New England Patriots MVP Tom Brady on his feet. Mission accomplished as the Patriots found the cap space to not only resign Matt Light for two years, but also ink a seemingly happy camper in Logan Mankins, last year's holdout of a half season, to a six year contract. New England used a 2011 first round pick on the man-child Nate Solder, the future complement to Sebastian Vollmer. If you haven't heard, Solder is 6'8" and has a vertical of 32 inches. Wait, what? Did Belichick mistakenly pick up someone on the Celtics' draft board?

Given the fact that our projected starting offensive line is the same that lead us to a 14-2 record, acquired a prodigious talent like Solder (not to mention Marcus Cannon, if he is able to return to full health) and was already ranked best in the NFL last year, I would say that we have a significant edge going into the season over some teams who may not have the stability New England possesses.

The Patriots' offensive unit's production last year dwarfed most of the competition- ranking first in total points by an incredible 77 point margin, fumbles lost, interceptions, and 8th in total yardage- and this was before we signed the affable Chad Ochocinco. I hope opposing defensive coordinators have advanced mathematic assistants this year, because the Patriots offense is going to be a problem that no team can solve.

Think about the glut of talent we have on the offensive side of the ball: tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who combined for over 1100 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2010; wide receivers Deion Branch and Wes Welker, who combined for over 1550 yards and 12 touchdowns; and a running back tandem in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, who gathered 2000 total yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns. 

Only two of the players I mentioned were with the team in 2009, and yet the unit came together for an eruption of scoring last season. Now we add the former Cincinnati Bengal to the explosive mixture; an athlete who is a 6-time pro bowler, 2-time First Team All-Pro, and a 10,000 yard career receiver. I've heard that Ochocinco's on the downslope of his career, and yes it's possible that his best years are in the rearview-however, realize that Chad had only 17 less yards receiving than Wes Welker last year (831 to 848), and in one less game. People also seem to be convinced that "85" is here to fill the deep threat spot once occupied by Randy Moss, forgetting that Ochocinco has been considered an explosive and hard-working route-runner most of his career, not a prolific deep threat.

These seven players bring so much diversity to our attack that Brady will be able to exploit any possible match up he wants. Let's examine other potential threats our offense brings into game day:

Taylor Price:

I'm most excited about the potential that Taylor Price brings to our offense, but he is still an unknown quantity. We saw glimpses of his potential last year in the last regular season game, snatching three passes from Brian Hoyer in the only live-game action he saw in 2010. The folks at PatsPulpit have been "high on Price" for quite some time, and he definitely has the measurables: running a 4.40 40 yard dash, with a 9 and a half foot broad jump and 37 inch vertical. Taylor has the speed and athleticism to be successful, and all reports from camp say that he has good physicality for the position. Also, I can't help but think that competing against our solid secondary day in and day out will help him to succeed.

Mark Farinella had a great article detailing Price's commitment to hard work in this brief offseason:

"The lockout definitely helped," he said. "I was in my playbook a lot, learning all the audibles and all the different formations, all that. I want to come out here and be ready, to be ready to take over a spot and have no mess-ups, and not have any errors or slipups."

Jeff Howe quotes the "Hooded One" on what Belichick views is different about Price this year as compared to the last offseason:

"Everything," Belichick replied. "He knows the offense better. ... His conditioning, his experience in the system last year. Of course, the offense that we run is quite a bit different than what he ran in college, so there's a lot of learning and technique work there. I think he's definitely way ahead of where he was last year."

While Taylor likely won't see a good chunk of field time this year, it's great to know that the possible future of our wide receiver position has gotten to work with and learn from Randy Moss, Chad Ochocinco, Deion Branch, and Wes Welker through his 2 preseason camps.

Brandon Tate:

The opinion on Tate's future in New England seems to be mixed, especially with the depth the Patriots now have at receiver and the new kickoff rules having an impact on the value of a wideout who is primarily known for his return skills. That being said, Tate still managed over 1,000 return yards last year, and had some electrifying moments on the field. If anything, he possesses value due to his time in our system and his unbelievable speed.

Lee Smith:

Smith is seemingly the replacement for Alge Crumpler- a physical tight end who is primarily known for his blocking skills rather than the receiving part of his game. I can't find a transcript of the exact conversation, but Patriot legend Troy Brown was on WEEI the other day and had some very interesting comments on Lee: Troy said that Smith was hard nosed and physical, a tight end that loves to hit and take on linebackers- though Mike Reiss has said that Smith has been making great plays in red zone work during Rob Gronkowski's brief absence from practice . Sounds very similar to Crumpler, who was a valuable piece of the 2010 team but was one of the main reasons the Patriots fell short in the playoffs. Smith gives the Patriots the same versatility Crumpler contributed, only at a younger age.

Will Yeatman:

I'm not sure if Yeatman will be able to contribute to a tight end position where the Patriots already have a three headed monster, but check out this article which draws comparisons between Yeatman's lacrosse/ tight end collegiate career and Belichick, who was himself the captain of the Wesleyan University lacrosse team and a tight end for their football squad.

Stevan Ridley:

Mike Reiss reported that Stevan Ridley, our 2011 3rd rounder, is making the most of his added reps in practice in the absence of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Sammy Morris, and Kevin FaulkJeff Howe added:

"Ridley has been one of the Patriots' brightest performers through the first week of training camp. Known as a bulldozing runner between the tackles, Ridley has also displayed good hands in the passing game and some speed on the outside. He was very good in one-on-one blocking drills against linebackers, too."

Ridley is a thick 5'11" and 225 pounds who was projected as a north-south runner and possible replacement for Sammy Morris in the fullback/short yardage role going into this year. I've read that he holds an advantage in general athleticism over Green-Ellis too, so it's possible that he may be the replacement-in-waiting. One advantage that BenJarvus holds over Stevan at this point is his familiarity with our system, and Ridley's lack of experience in blocking, an integral part of consistently being in the Patriots' backfield.

Though the shortened offseason is no doubt going to effect New England's precision on the field, I have nothing but optimism for the upcoming season because of the sheer amount of talent we have on the offensive side of the ball. While some teams will rely on a stud running back, or transcendent wideouts to achieve victory, the Patriots have (in)arguably the greatest quarterback of our era with a variety of versatile pieces to stretch across the chess board. Referring back the the "math problem" that I had spoken about- how is the weekly opposition going to be able to handle the sheer amount of formations that the Patriots' offense can bring to the table? No two players on our team are alike, and all have special skillsets that will drive Defensive Coordinators crazy.

 

What to watch for against the Jacksonville JaguarsJaguarsBlog.com has a great breakdown of what Jags fans should be looking at from their perspective: most obviously, rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, a University of Missouri product competing with David Garrard for the starting position entering the year.  Also running back Rashad Jennings, who averaged a stout 5.5 yards/carry last year but still has the unfortunate position of backing up Maurice Jones-Drew.

For the Patriots, I'm most interested in how our defense looks, and which of our skill players is pulling out the stops for a roster space on our stacked team.  I'm hoping to see a lot of Taylor Price and Chad Ochocinco.  Bill Belichick has hinted that players who are not practicing are likely not going to see action, so don't expect to see Albert Haynesworth or Shaun Ellis on the field.

Next Week: 

I'll be providing my thoughts on how we fared against the Jaguars, and also breaking down our next matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  I'm also going to try to find out more about the new game day HGH testing policy, and report back on what I learn.  You probably also noticed that Albert Haynesworth was not mentioned much in this weeks' article- hopefully he'll begin to practice more this upcoming week and I'll have more to report.

 

Have any suggestions on what you'd like in next weeks Thursday Morning 3rd and Long?  Feel free to leave them in our comment section!

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