Thursday Morning 3rd and Long: Abbreviated Edition

The theme for the 2011 New England Patriots preseason seems to be pressure: the pressure on the Patriots' highest profile offensive free agent signing since Randy Moss, and the pressure of New England's new-look 4-3 defensive front against opposing quarterbacks.

New England got after it last Thursday, attacking the inept Buccaneers offense with such fervor that Patriots fans watching could often not believe their eyes. At one point, Tampa Bay's left tackle tried "boxing out" Andre Carter as if they were battling for a rebound in a pickup basketball game. Gerard Warren pulled off a "swim" move so textbook it looked like he was doing laps in a local pool, not going head to head against NFL caliber offensive linemen. Gerald McCoy's post-game comments solidified to me that Tampa Bay was simply not taking the game seriously. One of the defensive leaders of a previously 10-6 team was mocking his own team's effort in a first half that amounted to four scoring drives in six attempts for the first string New England offense.

Chad Ochocinco, who seems to be placing a lot of undue pressure upon himself, had a relatively quiet game that climaxed with a pretty touchdown from a trip tight end set where he was pretty much uncovered. Ochocinco recovered from a nasty helmet to helmet hit on his first play in a Patriots uniform, but showed no ill effects from the contact and even offered to pay LB Mason Foster's fine. The hit looked scary, but Chad is a hard nosed receiver and that sort of contact won't stop him from crossing the middle of the field.

From examining the targets on Thursday night, it's pretty clear that Aaron Hernandez will be a significant part of the New England offense if he is able to remain fumble-free. Hernandez caught a beautiful touchdown pass to cap the Patriots' first offensive drive and had several other receptions throughout the first half. New England recently brought in Garrett Mills, a smaller tight end in a similar vein to an Aaron Hernandez or Dallas Clark type whose primarily skills are receiving.

It seems that the Patriots are developing an offensive scheme that is completely unlike what most of us have seen in the NFL (at least recently). They have acquired a large stock of diverse tight ends that will open up the running game to complement Tom Brady's passing attack. Having heavy formations that feature double or triple tight ends will allow the offense to run more effective play actions as well as aid BenJarvus Green-Ellis's north-south style. Rob Gronkowski had a bad game in terms of targets and receptions, but he was able to utilize his other asset in strong blocking and even notably muscle a defensive end to the ground.

Gronkowski and Hernandez are locks for the roster at this point, but the competition between Will Yeatman and Lee Smith is fierce. Both have looked excellent in blocking, but Yeatman has been the better asset in receiving. Barring an injury, there's little hope that Carson Butler will make the roster, and Garrett Mills also seems to be a long shot at this point. I think the decision will hinge on what Bill Belichick views as the greatest strength the backup tight ends bring to the Patriots roster. With Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, and Stevan Ridley looking fantastic in our running game (putting up 200 yards against Tampa Bay), Belichick might decide to keep a blocking-first tight end.

One NFC official commented after the second preseason game that "[Bill] Belichick is through screwing around,'' said the NFC executive. "What we saw tonight, if that's the way they continue to go into the season, is a complete departure from what we saw last season. They're not reacting. They're dictating.'' The Patriots had the offense last year to get ahead of the opposition quickly; the defense would often tire itself out trying to hold against offenses that would come out pass-happy in the second half and exploit New England's weak pass rush. Belichick' 3-4 style of defense was excellent at stopping the run, but when the time came to generate pressure on the quarterback and force negative plays and three-and-outs, the Patriots simply did not have the personnel to undertake the task and as a result had the one of the worst passing defenses in in the NFL.

Bill doesn't want to mess around with holding leads anymore; that much is clear. The focus on New England's defensive line in the offseason has produced three fantastic 4-front packages that will probably be used in constant rotation to keep everyone and on fresh legs throughout the season.  For the sake of the argument that Albert Haynesworth has only started practicing recently, I will push him to our second rotation for now. Consider these lines:

 

1. DE Shaun Ellis, DT Kyle Love, DT Vince Wilfork, DE Andre Carter
2. DE Eric Moore, DT Gerard Warren, DT Albert Haynesworth, DE Mark Anderson
3. DE Jermaine Cunningham, DT Myron Pryor, DT Darryl Richard, DE/LB Rob Ninkovich
4. SUB Landon Cohen
5. PUP Ron Brace, PUP Brandon Deaderick

If you'll notice, Mike Wright isn't making this team in my opinion. I think that his inability to practice and the fact that the Patriots can no longer put him on PUP to start the season might mean the end for Wright's time in New England. I could certainly be wrong about this, but this is what I'm taking into consideration: first, that concussions and their after effects are incredibly hard to gauge in terms of how long the recovery will take.  Second, I think that Pyror, Richard, and Cohen have performed well enough to warrant serious consideration for a roster spot.  These are players that will absolutely not make it to our practice squad if they're released as a roster cut. If Wright was healthy and practicing, I think he'd easily make the team.  Unfortunately, because of the uncertain timetable for his return New England will have to make the choice to release him or possibly put him on IR.  If Mike feels that he can make it back in the season, I'm not sure that he'd be open to going on injured reserve. It's also strange to think that Jermaine Cunningham will be relegated this season from a starting role to one of the depth players, but I think that's just a sign of how talented the Patriots have become with their defensive line.

I enjoyed the Love/Wilfork combination of starting defensive tackles, because I think that they both have the ability to push the pocket on rushing situations while also taking on multiple blockers if necessary. As they both have experience in being a 2-gap nose tackle, they'll be able to constantly switch assignments and enable Belichick to dial up various shifts and gapping schemes. If Haynesworth comes back healthy, he's obviously a starting caliber defensive tackle; it seems to me that he'd be better as a fresh pass rusher in third down situations.

Gerard Warren is insurance for either Vince Wilfork or Kyle Love, but we have to remember that for a large man Vince actually plays a majority of the defensive snaps in any given game. Most likely, he will be close to a three down lineman (he played 69.8 % of defensive snaps in 2010) and the defense will rotate in at the defensive tackle position opposite him for passing situations. If New England decides to go heavy at defensive lineman, I wouldn't even doubt seeing Wilfork at end opposite a Shaun Ellis- versatile players that are equally effective against the run as they are against the pass- with two of Love, Warren, and Haynesworth being the tackles.

Tedy Bruschi had something very interesting to say about a change that's occurring:

"One of the things that stands out to me with the new 4-3 defense is that you don't have such a big philosophical shift between your base defense and subpackages, where you're trying to generate pressure with a four-man front. When the 3-4 was the Patriots' base defense, it's a two-gapping scheme that didn't produce many negative plays. When offenses brought out regular personnel, as a defender in the 3-4 you're thinking, "I have to be stout, physical and two-gap." Then, when the offense brings out more receivers, you're shifting to more of a penetrating player.
Now, with a shift to a 4-3, it's the same mentality for the players in the front seven regardless of whether you're in the base or subpackages. You don't have two different concepts to worry about during the game."

If you haven't read last week's "Bruschi on Tap," it's a must read.

Hell on Earth?

In the current Twitterverse of our Blogosphere, I'm fairly surprised to see that more hasn't been made of the Brandon Spikes' twitter situation. Jeff Howe mentioned Spikes' "tweets" on Wednesday, and also his injury situation. To break it down for those who have not seen his twitter page- First, Brandon lists his location as "hell on earth." That certainly isn't a promising start. I've located at least two more tweets that I feel are "un-Belichickian": He references that he only has two more years of something, and that he can't deal with so many rules (the reference to the two years left would definitely indicate his contract, which ends in 2013). Brandon is young, and has already had some negative press in the pass with a certain video on the internet. I'm not sure how he feels about playing for the Patriots, but these three negative references along with his extended absence from practice aren't good indicators of his status with the team. Players that are not practicing don't speak to the media, and it's possible that Coach Belichick might be keeping Spikes away from prodding journalists that would like the former Florida Gator to expound on his plight, and create negative publicity for what has been a good preseason thus far for New England.

I'm already in the camp of people that didn't believe Spikes was the Patriots' starting option entering the season, and this more or less solidifies my thoughts. The two obvious starters at this point are Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich, who has looked fantastic as both linebacker and a defensive end in rushing situations. Ninkovich was an invaluable member of our linebacking corps last year, and seems to have continued his progression- last game he ranked 2nd in 1st half snaps played with 26 behind Mayo's 31 of 31. Despite Jerod's recent quotes that allude to him having some uncertainty about being on the final roster, there is no doubt that Mayo will continue his ascension as one of the premier linebackers in the game. The second preseason game against the Buccaneers showed just how versatile the defensive caption is- he can drop back into the flat and disrupt passes, line up in the middle and stop the run, and show a variety of blitzes. While I've heard that Belichick's defensive scheme was less vanilla than it would normally be for a second preseason game, I've also read that he did not really mess around with assignments and often just let his lineman go one-on-one with the offensive line, also dialing up pretty standard blitz packages. As the weeks go by, and the amount of repetitions in practice increase, there's no doubt that we'll see a great amount of scheming to utilize Mayo and Ninkovich.

Unfortunately for Patriots fans, Dane Fletcher injured his thumb on the second play against Tampa Bay and the injury is at least serious enough to warrant a cast. While I doubt any hand injury would keep Dane out for an extended period of time, it's at least a damper on what has been a stellar preseason for Dane to this point. Dane will probably be held out of practice for this week, but if he is able to come back next week and start getting 1st team reps again I would bet that the starting linebacker lineup going into week one will be Mayo, Fletcher, and Ninkovich. Gary Guyton is a decent backup, but he is not starting material at this point (even though it was assumed early into camp that the starting rotation might be Guyton, Mayo, and Spikes).

This Week In Albert Haynesworth

Sometimes, we have internal dilemmas when we see our favorite athletes or athletes from our favorite teams commit crimes or something of a similar manner. If you had asked any Patriots fan about two months ago what they're opinion of Albert Haynesworth was, I doubt you would get more than one positive response out of a thousand people surveyed. And I would have been one of his detractors.

I still am.

I don't like rooting for a man that has reached a plea bargain for a misdemeanor sexual assault charge. I don't like seeing a person whose reckless driving has caused paralysis in another human being. As a lesser of the three evils, I don't like seeing a man who literally laid down on his former teammates now donning the Flying Elvis helmet.

As excited as I am for the potential our defense possesses with Albert in the lineup, I don't think I'll ever be able to root for HIS success- just the success he possibly brings the Patriots. Unfortunately, the two may be linked.

Coincidentally or not, Albert is back on the practice field after a few weeks absence since he was given 18 months probation, a fine, and community service hours stemming from the aforementioned sexual abuse case. As is often the case in our society, the success of an athlete often contributes to a "redemption story"- as we've seen recently with Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger. If these guys faded into oblivion, their legacy may not be so positive; since they fill up our fantasy stat totals, the court of public opinion seems to overturn their sentence. I suspect the same will come of Albert Haynesworth.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh my!

Or maybe just Lions.  The Patriots next preseason game is against a Detroit team that is on the verge of a breakthrough this year.  Luckily for New England, Kyle Vanden Bosch is not playing, so the offensive line will be able to scheme our protection towards keeping Ndamukong Suh off of Tom Brady.  Suh will most likely be lined up against Dan Connolly because of Dan's struggles in protection, and also because Connolly will be much easier to push around than Logan Mankins.  Ndamukong is a fierce talent, and unbelievably strong; I doubt that the Patriots are going to be able to keep him from reaching Brady throughout the first half, but I hope that our offensive line will live up to it's reputation.

I'll really be interested to see if Albert Haynesworth and Shane Vereen will see playing time this week.  Both players have been in practice for the days where the gameplan is formulated and most of the plays that Bill Belichick wants run during the game are practiced, so they have great shots at actually playing.  

Next Week

I'll be breaking down the game against the Lions and also our next matchup, against the secondary-depleted New York Giants.  Because I'll be moving next week, my last preseason TM3NL will most likely be as "short" as this one. When the season kicks into gear, expect the length of my articles to rise. Sorry to those that don't have the attention span for long articles, but that's my style and I'm sticking to it.

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