Patriots Advance — Again

With Jacksonville’s victory last Sunday, the NFL’s final four this year include three Cinderella teams.  The Jaguars were 3-13 last year – their sixth consecutive losing season.  This team hadn’t made the playoffs since 2007 and has never played in a Super Bowl.

The two teams that will battle it out for the NFC crown have also never won Super Bowls, although both the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles have at least made it that far (the Vikings are 0-4 in the big game, the Eagles 0-2).  Those two teams have made it to the verge of the Super Bowl behind backup quarterbacks who have been lightly regarded and largely given up on.

The fourth team is the shark in the tank.  While this season of upheaval has seen most of the old guard falling by the wayside, even this monumental shift in the balance of power can’t unseat the New England Patriots.  Sunday, they will play in their seventh consecutive conference championship game.

Same Old Patriots?

The 2017-18 version of the Patriots are an intriguing blend of the expected and the mostly un-suspected.

On the expected side is quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and a prolific offense.  In last Saturday’s 35-14 elimination of Tennessee (gamebook), the Titans thought to take the big play out of the Patriot arsenal and force them to drive the length of the field five yards at a time.  To a degree, they succeeded.  Of New England’s 80 offensive plays, only four gained 20 or more yards – and only one of those gained more than thirty.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is that the Patriots exhibited no trouble at all grinding up and down the field.  New England put together two drives that lasted more than five minutes – both consisting of 15 or more plays. Four times they scored touchdowns on drives that exceeded 50 yards (two of those traveling 90 yards or more).  They converted 6 of 9 third downs in the first half, and followed that by converting 5 of 8 in the second half.  That first half featured Brady throwing 7 times to the exceedingly quick Danny Amendola.  Danny caught all 7 passes for 62 yards – none of them longer than 15 yards.

New England scored touchdowns in all five red zone possessions.

Relentless, precise, methodical – everyone who faces the Patriots understands that they will have to find some way of coping with this elite offense.

Don’t Overlook the New England Defense

Less recognized are the week-in, week-out contributions of the Patriot defensive unit.  As opposed to the offense, there are no splash players here.  No one from the Patriot defense was named to the Pro Bowl – even as replacements for injured players (by comparison, three members of the offense and one from the Patriot special teams were named).  But as the 2017 season reaches its critical juncture, the Patriot defense is playing as well as any unit still playing – especially against the run.

In one of the most impressive displays of Wildcard weekend, The Tennessee Titans brutalized the Kansas City Chiefs with their running game (that game is discussed in some detail here).  With battering ram running back Derrick Henry pounding the center of the KC defense and quarterback Marcus Mariota sprinting around the ends, Tennessee amassed 202 rushing yards – 156 of them from Henry.

This ground dominance ended abruptly in New England.  Henry finished the game with 28 yards on 12 carries (a 2.3 average) with no run exceeding four yards.  Tennessee finished with just 65 rushing yards for the evening.

Brown and Flowers

At the center of the impenetrable defense was nose tackle Malcom Brown.  Listed at 6-2 and 319 pounds (modest measurements by NFL standards), Brown isn’t an imposing figure in the Vince Wilfork mold.  But the Patriots’ first-round pick in the 2015 draft has developed into an excellent technician in the middle.  All evening, he repeatedly got under the pads of Tennessee center Ben Jones (who was one of the heroes against KC).  Henry never had the middle of the field open for him as Jones was constantly being pushed back in his face.  Similarly, Trey Flowers – a rangy presence at defensive tackle/end – kept the Tennessee linemen that he faced in place, collapsing all of the running lanes.

Neither Brown nor Flowers are marquee names.  Flowers led the team with a modest total of 6.5 sacks.  But as the pieces have come together for the Patriots as they come down the stretch, Brown, Flowers and the rest of the role players in Bill Belichik’s (and Matt Patricia’s) defense commit to the inglorious work of taking on blocks, closing running lanes, and making sure tackles.

They were great.  But if I were to pick two running plays to illustrate what has made this New England run defense so tough, it would be the two times that Henry tried to get around the end.

Big Stops

There is 4:31 left in the first quarter, with the game still scoreless.  Tennessee faces first-and-ten on New England’s 45-yard line.  Mariota tosses to Henry, trying to race around left end.

Charged with sealing the edge is tight end Delanie Walker, but Flowers is having none of it.  He rides Walker right down the line, stringing out the sweep.  Wide receivers Eric Decker and Corey Davis were charged with clearing out defensive backs Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler. Both failed, leaving both defensive backs free to meet Henry as he tried to turn the corner.  But most impressive on this play was safety/linebacker Patrick Chung.

The play called for much decorated tackle Taylor Lewan to peel away from the formation and head downfield to throw a key block against a smaller defensive back.  Chung never gave him the chance.

Listed at just 5-11 and 207 pounds, Chung would seem to be the kind of smaller back that Lewan would gobble up.  But Chung diagnosed the intent of the play immediately and flew into Lewan at top speed before he could get untracked, further stripping away Henry’s blocking on the play.   Derrick managed to pick-up three yards before McCourty and Butler halted his progress.

Chung Strikes Again

Now there is only 25 seconds left in the first half.  By this time the Patriots had opened up a 21-7 lead. The Titans sat on the Patriot 46-yard line, but faced a fourth-and-one.  Their decision to go for it would prove to be one of the turning points of the game.

Again Derrick Henry would test the left edge.  This time Decker lined up across from defensive end Kyle Van Noy, but lost that confrontation immediately.  At the snap, Van Noy pushed through Decker deep into the Titans’ backfield, allowing first Butler and finally Stephon Gilmore un-abated access to the ball carrier.  Tight end Jonnu Smith lined up just behind the tackle on that side, positioned where they thought he could double-team Van Noy.  But Kyle was through Decker before Jonnu could arrive.

But the compelling thing about this play was that it wasn’t designed to go around the end.

Supposing that Decker and Smith could push Van Noy wide, and that tight end Luke Stocker could seal Flowers inside, the Titans thought they could open a crease just off tackle.  Figuring that a defensive back would flow down to fill the gap, Tennessee pulled guard Josh Kline and sent him through the hole first to clean it out.  But Kline met with the same fate that Lewan had a quarter earlier.

Flying in at top speed, Patrick Chung met Kline in the hole and closed it immediately, leaving Henry with no escape route.  Derrick and the Titans lost five yards on the play.

Is Anyone Taking Notice?

Taking 300-pound linemen head on isn’t usually in the job description of 200-pound defensive backs.  Rare is the defensive back who will even try to take on a lineman.  Mostly, when they find themselves isolated against a lineman, you will see the defensive back try to find some way to slip around them.  Chung is a rare article.  He’s a defensive back who takes on linemen – and wins.

From a statistical standpoint, Chung probably ranks in the lowest tier of defensive backs.  He intercepted just one pass during the season, and never recorded a sack.  But Chung, I think, has quietly become the soul of this defense.  To a not-inconsiderable degree, the rest of the Patriot defense feeds off his fearlessness.  Chung, Brown and Flowers are the leaders of a workman-like defense – a defense that adheres to Belichick’s motto of “do your job” even when the job is less than glamourous.  Running the ball consistently against this defense will be a challenge.

Why Run Defense Matters

And this is a more significant development than many fans realize.  All of the other teams left standing are heavily run-dependent on offense.  In Blake Bortles, Nick Foles and Case Keenum, none of the other teams has a quarterback they can send out there with the mandate to win the game.  If Jacksonville finishes with 65 rushing yards on Sunday, they will lose the game.  The emergence of the Patriot run defense is a huge deal, indeed.

The other pressure weighing on opposing running games is the New England offense.  Trailing 21-7 at the half, the Titans closed down their running game.  Henry took one handoff (a 4-yard dive up the middle) after halftime.  Toss in a scramble from Mariota, and the Tennessee running game accounted for 10 second half yards on two attempts.  There is a significant onus on Jacksonville’s defense to keep the score close enough Sunday for the Jaguars to keep running the ball.

That matchup – for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl – has suddenly gained several new layers of intrigue as injuries to Tom Brady’s wrist and thumb have been in all the headlines.  If the Patriots are forced to compete without Brady – or perhaps with a compromised Brady – it will significantly improve Jacksonville’s chances.

And ratchet up the pressure on the New England defense.

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