We have transitioned from the high-tempo football season to the slow-paced offseason. That means more forward-looking speculation on the Patriots' potential moves as they look to improve the roster headed into 2014.
There are a lot of decisions to be made, from who will be signed as a free agent to who will be added in the draft to who could be released before the start of next season. The Patriots also have 11 unrestricted free agents they must either re-sign or replace.
Unfortunately, there's not enough money to keep everyone, so there are some tough decisions to be made; however, the Patriots could make some moves to free up money. We began the offseason outlook in last week's mailbag, and we'll continue it here. Let's get right to it.
Isaac, the best candidates I can think of are right guard Dan Connolly and defensive tackles Isaac Sopoaga and Tommy Kelly.
Connolly is set to count $4,083,333 against the 2014 salary cap, which is quite a rich contract for a right guard, but the Patriots don't have a great backup option on the roster; they would probably have to move right tackle Marcus Cannon to right guard if that were to be the case, but he has filled in all over the line and played admirably at right tackle after Sebastian Vollmer broke his leg, ending his season. He even filled in for Connolly at one point, when the right guard left the Patriots' Week 6 game against the New Orleans Saints with a concussion.
Sopoaga will count $3.5 million against the cap, which is the 17th-highest cap hit for a defensive tackle headed into 2014; They could, however, save $2.5 million by cutting him, since his contract only carries $1 million in dead money. The Patriots didn't give up much in the midseason trade that brought him in from the Philadelphia Eagles, trading down from the fifth to the sixth round in the 2014 draft. Sopoaga played 120 snaps in six games with the Patriots, and was inactive for the final two games of the regular season and the Patriots' two playoff games.
Kelly will count $3 million against the cap, but like Sopoaga, the Patriots could save $2.5 million by cutting him. The only difference: Kelly was one of the Patriots' starting defensive tackles when healthy, but he is 33 years old and attempting to come back from a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season in Week 5. If the Patriots don't cut Kelly outright, they may ask him to sign a different "ultimatum" contract.
The Patriots also have young backups Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Armond Armstead (more on him later) as well as practice squadders Cory Grissom and Marcus Forston all coming back. There's plenty of youth to fill in for the loss of those veterans, if that's the route the Patriots choose to go.
@ErikFrenz you think the pats make a play for arthur jones whos a rfa this year— Matt (@SlimRickins) January 30, 2014
Matt, Arthur Jones would definitely make sense, given the question marks at defensive tackle. The only potential hangup is his scheme fit; the Baltimore Ravens run a 3-4 defense, where Jones has thrived, but the Patriots would be asking him to primarily line up as a 1- or 3-technique defensive tackle in their four-man front. Jones may be a little out of the price range under ordinary circumstances, but the aforementioned moves at defensive tackle could free up the money necessary to bring him in.
I would estimate Jones being paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million to $5 million per year on average, but the question then becomes whether the Patriots feel comfortable investing that much with Vince Wilfork's deal set to count for $11.6 million against the cap. They could still try to restructure Wilfork's contract, but the Patriots need to get serious about the contingency plans for life without him at some point.
Until Armstead sees the football field, my expectations for him do not exist. He was placed on the reserve/NFI list with the mysterious infection, and did not return. Same goes for Mark Harrison and his foot injury that landed him on the PUP list from which he never returned.
Harrison may have similar athleticism and size to what Aaron Hernandez had, and blocking is becoming less and less important for certain kinds of "tight ends" these days. Still, even those tight ends that are more like receivers (the Saints' Jimmy Graham and others) have some experience blocking, and Harrison has next to none; He may also need to add another 15 pounds — at least — to his 230-pound frame to ever be effective in that role. If he can add that bulk without subtracting from his athleticism, the Patriots could try it out, but it would be a project to say the least.
I don't know if that's what they were thinking when they made the pick, but that certainly looks like the way it's worked out. They drafted Jamie Collins as a piece they felt could add a lacking level of athleticism to the linebacking corps, but his presence makes the transition into the post-Brandon Spikes era.
Outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower could slide inside to Spikes' spot at middle linebacker, with Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins sharing the duties as weak- and strong-side linebackers and acting as the primary options when the team goes to its nickel defense.
@ErikFrenz If the Pats re-sign Blount, is there a possibility Ridley gets moved at some point?— Arjuna Ramgopal (@ArjunaRamgopal) January 30, 2014
Arjuna, that's a tough call. The Patriots currently have just north of $3 million tied up in running backs in 2013, and re-signing LeGarrette Blount probably won't be cheap. Stevan Ridley is set to hit the open market after the 2014 season, so if the Patriots are going to get anything for him, this has to be the year.
However, the Patriots have shown year after year that they favor the multi-pronged approach in the backfield, and that they do not value the position enough to place a high price tag on it. They let Danny Woodhead walk for a contract that averaged $1.75 million per year, and the Patriots didn't bring back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who signed a three-year, $9 million deal with the Bengals in 2012.
Unless Blount plans on taking a big discount, it would be a surprise to see him back in a Patriots uniform next year. That being said, if the Patriots bring back Blount, it would probably be a sign that Ridley won't be brought back after the 2014 season. They still shouldn't trade him, though; he's been a good back for them, despite his fumbling issues, and those running backs will be valuable next year on a team that could once again be short on weapons in the passing game.
It's hard to build for the post-Tom Brady era because that could be three or four years down the line. The Patriots may not be building for "life after Brady" in as many words, but they are always building for the long-term future of the team, which is a principle that will inherently build the team to remain successful after Brady retires.
At some point, the Patriots will have to get serious about the post-Brady plan, though. Backup quarterback Ryan Mallett is set to be a free agent following the 2014 season, so the Patriots will have to make a decision on him one way or another in the next 13 months. Not only does his contract expire, but they could also trade him; Greg Bedard reported that multiple teams had inquired about Mallett prior to the 2013 draft.
Even if he could prove himself to be a viable No. 2 during the offseason, he's not going to prove himself to be the successor until he's given that opportunity, and he has not improved dramatically over the past two years. He hasn't seen the field outside of preseason action, but that just means those reps become even more important as he tries to prove himself beyond a backup role.
This could be a big training camp and preseason for him, and for the Patriots, with regard to their long-term future at quarterback.
The Patriots will be right up against the $126.3 million salary cap next year, so they may need to consider restructuring Wilfork's contract.
Should the Patriots expect Wilfork, at his age, to be back at 100 percent of his old self? Should Wilfork? If anyone can make a full recovery from such a devastating injury, it's him, but is that a risk the Patriots will be willing to take? The answer to all of the above: Probably not.
That doesn't mean Wilfork will be ready and willing to accept a restructured contract, but there's a way to get it done that could work for everyone involved. The Patriots did it with quarterback Tom Brady just last year.
So, I asked Michael Ginnitti of Spotrac.com, a website that tracks the contracts of every athlete in every major sport, for his take on what a restructured contract might look like. He provided me the chart seen here, which he constructed in the image of Brady's contract extension of last season.
The goal, most likely, will be to keep Wilfork's average in the top five defensive tackles in the NFL, and right now, that's at least $8.45 million, so over five years you're looking at $42.25 million. Even though he is 32, extending four additional years would create five years in signing bonus pro-ration (the maximum allowed). The $3.6 million signing bonus from the current contract must stay in 2014. If we use Brady's new base salaries exactly, we can tack on a $10 million signing bonus, and a roster or workout bonus of $1 million each year, with an added $250,000 in the third year (midpoint of the contract escalator), we're right at the $42.25 million.
The $7.6 million cap figure for 2014 clears $4 million, and puts $12 million in cash in Wilfork's hand. The only debatable point from there would be guaranteed years for base salaries. I'd recommend fully guaranteeing 2014-15, and making 2016 for injury only (maybe).
By getting Wilfork his full $12 million in 2014, the Patriots could make the third year of the contract voidable to build in some insurance for themselves. By that point, Wilfork still will have made all the money he would have made on his current contract.
The problem, however, is that in order for these restructures to work, there has to be some good faith. The last time Wilfork's contract ran up (2010 offseason), the team placed the franchise tag on him before giving him a new contract. Wilfork never got to taste free agency, and he made his feelings known to the media about the matter, saying it would be a "slap in the face" and "insulting" to be hit with the franchise tag.
"I want a long-term deal or I want to be free. Point blank. That's how I'm looking at it, that's how my family is looking at it," Wilfork said on WEEI at the time. "There's a short window of opportunity for me to make the kind of money I want to make. I'm not selling my family short and I'm definitely not selling myself short just to stay back and to win and to be part of a great organization."
The Patriots were able to get a deal done with Wilfork, and gave him the richest contract ever for a nose tackle, but the amount of time it took to get there (the Patriots made Wilfork wait through the entirety of his six-year rookie contract before signing him to the big-money contract) may have created some animosity.
If they can't restructure his deal, the Patriots may have no choice but to cut him outright; doing so would provide the Patriots $8 million in cap relief. They could try to just rip up his old deal and sign him to a new one. Either way, restructuring seems like a stretch.
"The Patriots have leverage now, so an ultimatum offer is more likely," Ginnitti said, "probably to the tune of the three-year, $8 million contract Cullen Jenkins recently signed with the Giants — plus the $3.6 million in dead money Wilfork's current contract carries."
However, the parameters are in place for a restructured contract that could work for both sides. Such a move could make sure Wilfork gets what he's owed, while providing the Patriots some much-needed relief in a tight salary cap situation.
Once again, one of the New England Patriots' top offseason storylines will be the impending free-agency of a slot receiver, and their top pass-catcher from the year before, but this time it will be Julian Edelman.
The Patriots' biggest concern last year was the loss of Tom Brady's favorite target, Wes Welker. If they want to avoid another year of facing the exact same questions about losing Brady's most reliable receiver, they cannot afford to let Edelman leave.
Their recent undervaluing of Welker may serve as a red flag to their perception of the slot receiver position, but there are plenty of reasons they could hold Edelman in higher regard. For starters, the relationship between Welker and head coach Bill Belichick had become strained by the end of Welker's time in New England, but the next time Belichick shows any ill will toward Edelman will be the first time.
There's also far more tread on the tires of a 27-year-old Edelman than there were on a 31-year-old Welker. The elder of the two had handled the ball 1,211 times prior to this year, where the younger one has done so just 321 times.
The Patriots learned first-hand this year how important it is for Brady to have trust in who he's throwing to. By the end of the season, Edelman was the only player that truly fit that description. He led the team in targets in nine of their 18 total games, seven of their last eight games, and all five games after Rob Gronkowski went down with a season-ending knee injury.
In year's past, Welker was the one that bore the burden of the offense as the wheels fell off the bus. This year, Brady set his GPS in Edelman's direction and hardly ever veered off his path.
"I mean, he was one guy that was so consistent and dependable for us. I'm just proud of him because of his mental toughness and maturity and his work ethic," Brady said Monday of Edelman on WEEI, adding, "I love him, he’s one of my best pals, I spent a lot of time with him. I'm just proud of him for everything that he's accomplished. He deserves the best."
Edelman went out of his way to improve his chemistry with Brady, and earned "pal" status by moving out to Los Angeles, Calif. to work out with Brady in the offseason. It's safe to say the work paid off.
His value is enhanced further by his ability on punt returns. He averages 12.3 yards per punt return, the best among active players and seventh-best all-time. The 2013 season was his first year without a punt return touchdown since 2009, having logged one each year from 2010-2012.
Belichick may be hesitant to spend big on another free agent after dishing out a five-year, $28.5 million contract to Danny Amendola, who was supposed to be the heir to the slot for Welker. Amendola and Edelman are similar players — so similar that the two earned the nickname "Edelmandola." They are both better suited in the slot, although Edelman lined up on the outside about half the time in 2013. Amendola's contract is only guaranteed through next season, so the Patriots could choose to part ways at that point, if things still haven't worked out.
If the Patriots need to justify spending a few extra dollars on Edelman, they can look at the bargain-basement rate they spent on him this past season. He made $1.015 million for his 105 catches ($9,666.67 per catch), 1,056 yards ($961.17 per yard) and six touchdowns ($169,166.67 per touchdown). For context, the Houston Texans spent $14.675 million on Andre Johnson, who put up 109 catches ($134,633.03 per catch), 1,407 yards ($10,429.99 per yard) and five touchdowns ($2.935 million per touchdown).
Those numbers don't tell the whole story of these two receivers, but they are an accurate summary of Edelman's value to the team in 2013, and beyond. He is obviously not the physically gifted athlete that Johnson is. He's not going to command double-teams and put stress on a defense vertically, and he doesn't have basketball-like leaping ability, but he has something that's proven more important than any of those physical gifts: chemistry with Brady.
He was the best value on the Patriots — and possibly even the NFL — in 2013, and is the most trusted target at Brady's disposal not named Gronkowski. Those two factors alone make him the most important free-agent on the Patriots' docket this year.
The only constant is change.
The New England Patriots in 2013 had one of their most eventful offseasons in recent memory. This year could be no different — except, hopefully, without a murder trial. There are just as many big questions facing the Patriots this offseason as ever before, and once again, their top target from the year prior is set to become a free agent.
Fans will always want the team to go to whatever lengths are necessary to bring in the most talented players possible, but it's not always that easy.
Let's answer of the questions on the minds of the fans, as we look forward to the long offseason ahead.
@ErikFrenz what's a bigger need via the draft, OL or DL?— Jordan Boss (@JBoss_) January 23, 2014
Jordan, I think it's on the offensive line. The Patriots have a pair of starters with questionable long-term futures in New England.
Center Ryan Wendell is set to hit free agency, and right guard Dan Connolly is set to make $4.083 million in 2014, so the Patriots will have to decide whether to keep them or move on. They don't have a lot of depth at those positions, so they may look to restructure Connolly, but you can't rule out that they could look to upgrade the spot. Connolly was below average much of the year.
The offensive line is an immediate need, whereas the defensive line is a long-term/depth need. Defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich played more snaps than any other defensive ends in the NFL; the Patriots can't expect them to repeat that performance, so a rotational end would help. If Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly both come back at 100 percent in 2014, the Patriots' need at defensive tackle diminishes greatly. Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones would be much better suited for supplemental roles than they were as load-bearers on the inside. More depth would help, though, as Wilfork (32 years old) and Kelly (33) both get up there in age, and coming back from a torn Achilles is far from a sure thing. He's a 325-pound linemen, absorbing blocks from other 300-plus-pound linemen. He may still have some good football left in him, but the Patriots would be wise to be on the lookout for his eventual heir.
@ErikFrenz How important is it to resign Blount? Or a featured WR?— Jeremie Jordan (@StarDogCh4mpion) January 23, 2014
Jeremie, in my free agency preview on Bleacher Report, I looked at each of New England's upcoming free agents and assigned them a value grade. I gave LeGarrette Blount a B- for a few reasons.
Blount's lack of versatility was on display for the world to see in the AFC Championship game. Every time he was in the backfield, the Denver Broncos loaded up the box. He caught two passes in 2013, and played a total of 109 snaps on passing downs, by far the fewest of any Patriots' running back.
The Patriots have options with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. They haven't put any value on the running back position in free agency over the past few years, allowing both BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead to walk away.
There are simply too many other needs to justify spending big money on a running back, where they already have several options and could supplement the position through the draft. The money, in my opinion, would be better spent on a wide receiver.
@ErikFrenz here's one (more of a request): please tell me they'll bring in some else to add to the WR corps (and Edelman). Andre Johnson?— TraderX (@FantasyTrade411) January 23, 2014
This ties in perfectly with the previous question, because I think the money they save by not re-signing Blount would be well-spent to keep Julian Edelman.
My Friday column will go deeper on Edelman's value to the team, but in my opinion, there are no free-agents more valuable this offseason than Edelman. If we learned two things this year, it's that 1) Tom Brady isn't going to be an elite quarterback forever and 2) he needs to have weapons on the field that he trusts. Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and others are still working to develop that chemistry.
At minimum, the Patriots should re-sign Edelman; ideally, they should stay on the search for an X-receiver.
One of the big questions about this offseason will be what lengths the Patriots go to provide Brady a more complete arsenal of weapons. As a result of the resources they've invested at receiver lately, I'm thinking they wouldn't be in the market for a guy like Andre Johnson, who will likely command top dollar on the open market.
Several names have already been floated around: Broncos receiver Eric Decker (6-foot-3, 214 pounds) and Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks (6-foot-1, 208 pounds) fit the mold of a big-bodied boundary receiver that can run, jump and win one-on-one matchups. Both have problems with drops, though, and both have benefited from other talented receivers helping to keep the coverage away from them.
However, if the Patriots want to go into the market for a receiver that fits what they need, either of those two would be a good place to start looking.
@ErikFrenz sure. How much should we hope for Dobson/KT, vs hope for an outside WR signing?— Andy Ellis (@csoandy) January 23, 2014
This also ties in perfectly to the last question. It's like a string of questions that were meant to be asked one after another!
I have my doubts as to whether the Patriots will invest big in wide receivers this offseason. I know a lot of Patriots fans have their hopes for a 2007-style pillaging of the NFL's top receiver talent, but consider what they've invested in the position recently.
Last year, the Patriots gave a five-year, $28.5 million contract to Amendola, and used a second- and fourth-round pick on Dobson and Josh Boyce, respectively. Factor the impending free agency of Edelman, who I think should be their top priority, and that could potentially be a lot of money tied up in one position.
They could look for cheaper options, especially if there are questions or concerns about the development of the rookies — have they hit their ceiling, or can we expect further improvement out of them? Perhaps they go back to the draft if they have their doubts about Dobson, Thompkins and/or Boyce.
Bill Belichick is always trying to improve his team, and doesn't really care about parting ways with a recent free-agent signee or high draft pick, but Amendola remains uncuttable until 2015 at the earliest — it would cost more to release him ($6.8 million) than keep him ($4.7 million). Unless they can find someone willing to trade for him, which seems unlikely given his checkered injury history, the Patriots are better off hoping for a healthy season from Amendola.
Beyond all that, this goes back to what I mentioned earlier: the trust factor. Bringing in more receivers could not only stunt the growth of other receivers, but could also be a step in the wrong direction, if Brady has to go through the getting-to-know-you phase again with more receivers.
@ErikFrenz what is the most important positional need for the Patriots this offseason?— Ryan McCann (@WRyanMcCann) January 23, 2014
After all that talk about receivers, it looks to me like the Patriots have four primary needs (in order from highest to lowest priority): interior offensive line (center/guard), defensive tackle, tight end, wide receiver.
We've already touched on offensive and defensive line, so we'll jump to the other two spots.
The Patriots' backup plan at tight end went down the tubes the minute Aaron Hernandez allegedly pulled the trigger, and when Rob Gronkowski went down, third-string tight end Michael Hoomanawanui became the starter. They could look for a backup to Gronkowski, or an H-back/utility/"Joker"/"move" tight end like Hernandez that acts more as a receiver but can contribute in a small role as a blocker.
Receiver is a need, but with a caveat: as mentioned earlier, the Patriots spent a bit at the position lately, so their "need" needs to be solved from within. Part of that will come from players being healthy, but part of it also has to come from development.
@ErikFrenz Could Mankins be a cap-casualty? Getting old, been injury-prone lately, and has a high-cap number.— Arjuna Ramgopal (@ArjunaRamgopal) January 23, 2014
I doubt they'd cut him. He has a cap hit of $10.5 million in 2014, but he's still one of the best guards in the league and it would cost more than $10.5 million to cut him.
I think about the possibility of them restructuring his deal, but it's never without remembering the long, drawn-out contract battle and the war of words in the media between Logan Mankins and Robert Kraft. That makes me a bit more skeptical that Mankins would be immediately receptive to restructuring.
This could be a slippery slope, and the Patriots may be better off swallowing the cap hit this year and approaching the subject after the 2014 season.
Some observations on some hot topics from the New England Patriots' 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game on Sunday.
Broncos sold out to stop LeGarrette Blount, running game
Running back LeGarrette Blount rolled over every defense the Patriots faced for a month, but he came away with just six yards on five carries against the Broncos.
The Patriots didn't do a very good job of hiding their tendencies when he was on the field. His five carries all came from an offensive formation with either two backs or two tight ends.
Any time the Broncos spotted him in the backfield, the defense crept up to the line of scrimmage. They would often have eight or more defenders in the box. This way, they had more defenders than gaps, which helped them plug up the running lanes.
Who could blame them? Blount had 26 snaps against the Colts, and had 24 carries. When he's on the field, it's pretty close to certain he's getting the ball.
Above is his first carry of the game against the Broncos. The Patriots wanted to run a weak-side zone, but the numbers were never in their favor. Three blockers on the right were supposed to account for four defenders. Even with the offensive line blocking down to their right, they were still inadequately suited to block the run.
Above is a power run on 1st-and-10 at 7:20 in the second quarter. Blount was supposed to follow the lead block of fullback James Develin, but Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan did a fine job of absorbing the block, shrugging it off and making the arm-tackle.
The trend continued throughout the game, and as expected, it presented the Patriots some opportunities.
The Broncos' aggressive tendencies nearly caught up to them, on 1st-and-10 at 3:06 in the first quarter. The Patriots ran a play-action pass, with receivers Julian Edelman (11, circled in blue) and Aaron Dobson (17) running vertical routes. Tom Brady faked the hand-off to Stevan Ridley, and the offensive line made it look like a run as they geared up to block downhill.
The entire defensive front seven bit on the run fake. The group of biters included safety Mike Adams (20), who came up hard and left the left side of the field open. That just happened to be where Edelman was headed, and the receiver blew right past the coverage of the deep safety, Duke Ihenacho (33), who assumed Adams would get back in position.
Following the play fake, Brady waited just barely over one second before releasing the ball. He likely got anxious and put too much under the throw. No one was near him, with the entire front seven focused on the run. If he had waited another split-second and set his feet, he might have hit this throw.
The running game can still have an impact, even when it's not as effective as possible. Even though the running game fizzled out in the key moment, the balanced approach on offense should continue to be the approach in 2014.
Brady's lack of weapons at the forefront once again
In the past, it would have been lunacy to suggest that a defense should focus on stopping the Patriots' running game. With Brady at quarterback, the passing game has always been the bigger threat.
These days? Not when the first four passes are thrown to Edelman, Austin Collie, Matthew Mulligan and Matt Slater. Of course, some of their lack of weaponry was due to attrition — Rob Gronkowski could have had a big impact in this game — but this offense still lacks the same thing it's lacked for years: a consistent vertical threat.
On Sunday, Brady went deeper than 20 yard downfield five times, and hit just one. Three of them were open throws that Brady missed, to Edelman, Collie and Slater. One was to a double-covered Dobson.
The lone completion was on a deep curl where Dobson (circled in blue) stopped his route near the left hash mark, capitalizing on two defensive backs who expected him to run vertical.
You could make a chicken-or-the-egg argument of this, though. Does Brady struggle to get the ball downfield because of his targets, or do his targets struggle because he can't get the ball downfield? I think, at this point, the Patriots need to treat Brady like a mix of Peyton Manning and John Elway toward the end of their careers. Brady should benefit from a balanced offense, and he still has the arm to go downfield sometimes, but that's not a big part of his game anymore. He's still one of the game's most cerebral quarterbacks; his brain is just as powerful of a weapon as his arm.
That being said, more weapons are necessary. Big, tall, fast receivers are valuable no matter the quarterback, as the Manning brothers have taught us in two of the past three postseasons.
The development of Dobson hit a snag when he injured his foot, but after just his first season, he's not yet hit his ceiling. Kenbrell Thompkins was slowed to a halt by a hip injury, but was inconsistent throughout the season, and is far from a sure thing; Danny Amendola tore his groin in Week 1 and was never the same, but he should be able to make a full recovery and be fully effective again in 2014. All the uncertainty makes retaining Edelman that much higher a priority. If we learned nothing else about the Patriots this season, it's that the Patriots need to put more value on two traits at receiver: dependability and chemistry with Brady.
For all the injuries the Patriots suffered this year, the loss of Aaron Hernandez has been vastly underrated. If the Patriots still had him when Gronkowski went down, Brady wouldn't have been throwing passes to Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui. The difference in the offense was night and day for the Patriots when Gronkowski was in and out of the lineup. They scored 7.5 more points per game and converted on 25 percent more possessions in the red zone. Gronkowski hasn't finished a season healthy since 2010; finding an insurance policy for their All-Pro tight end should also be a high priority this offseason.
Ryan Wendell and Logan Mankins struggled with Terrance Knighton
The Patriots offensive line has been one of its main keys to success in recent weeks, but seemed to have some of its worst moments in the biggest spots in 2013, and over the past several years, those worst moments and biggest spots have led to early exits from the playoffs.
The main culprit behind many of New England's failed runs was center Ryan Wendell, who was beaten handily by Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton on several occasions on Sunday.
Blount's final carry of the game came at 4:57 in the second quarter, and was stuffed for no gain by Knighton (94). This was the only run by Blount in which the Broncos' defense didn't have eight men in the box.
It didn't matter, because Knighton won his matchup with Wendell (62, circled in blue) at the snap of the ball, with perfect bull-rush technique by getting his hands inside Wendell's shoulders and keeping him at arm's length, then tossing him to the side and making the arm tackle.
Wendell wasn't the only one that struggled with Knighton. On the biggest play of the game, it was the Patriots' best offensive linemen, Logan Mankins, who was on the wrong end of the play.
The Patriots lined up in the 11 personnel — one tight end, one running back and three wide receiver — and sent all five out into a pattern. That left the five offensive linemen to block four defensive linemen. You wouldn't expect a linemen with the nickname "Pot Roast" to use this kind of juke move to get past his blocker, but Knighton faked to Mankins' (70, circled in blue) left, and then burst to the right with a swim move, his right shoulder rotating over Mankins' head.
The Broncos had good coverage on the play, but Brady might have found Dobson coming open on the in-route 10 yards downfield, or he might have seen Vereen in the flat out of the backfield as a checkdown, if he had the time.
It's hard to hold Mankins and Wendell at too much fault; Knighton graded out as one of Pro Football Focus' best interior defensive linemen all season, and had one of his best games of the entire year against the Patriots. Still, these interior trench battles had a big impact on the Patriots' inability to move the ball, whether running or passing.
Aqib Talib trickle down effect
As I wrote shortly after the game, losing Aqib Talib in a second straight AFC Championship game once again had a major ripple effect on the secondary. The film study held up my original assessment.
Demaryius Thomas had one reception on two targets when Talib was in the game, and had six receptions on eight targets after he left. Alfonzo Dennard did the best he could, and there were a couple of ridiculous catches by Thomas and perfect throws by Manning.
Thomas just seemed to do a good job of fighting through Dennard's phsyicality. It's not surprising, considering he's 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds. Toss in Manning's supreme accuracy, and life was tough for Dennard on Sunday. He gave up five receptions to Thomas for 90 yards and a touchdown.
Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan won his matchup with wide receiver Eric Decker in Week 12, but Ryan had a bull's eye on his back on Sunday, and was targeted seven times, allowing five receptions, including three receptions for 47 yards to Decker.
Talib's value was on display without him even being on the field. The Patriots secondary is a different group with him than they are without him. The good news for them is, his lengthy injury history could lower his price tag. The bad news for them is, they'd be investing in a player with a lengthy injury history.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There's no love lost between Bill Belichick and Wes Welker. If it wasn't apparent in the bitter ending to Welker's tenure with the Patriots, it was blatantly obvious on Monday.
The tension was palpable in the media workroom during Belichick's end-of-season press conference, as the Patriots head coach addressed a hit by Welker on Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib.
The hit came on 2nd-and-9 with 13:36 remaining in the second quarter, with Welker and Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas running drag routes in the same direction. Talib shadowed Thomas across the field, and Welker collided with Talib while the ball was in the air.
"I think it was a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib," Belichick said of the hit. "[He made] no attempt to get open. I'll let the league handle the discipline on that play; it's not for me to decide, but it's one of the worst plays I've seen."
There was no flag on the play, although the league could review the hit to determine if they want to take disciplinary action on Welker after the fact. A decision on a fine or other discipline would come down on Friday.
It's far from obvious, in real time, whether it was a penalty one way or the other. At the time, it was viewed as a judgment call, and was not penalized. This is the rule on offensive pass interference, according to the NFL's official rulebook:
"If the contact occurs as ball is being touched, there is no offensive pass interference. When it happens all at the same time -- the ball being touched and contact elsewhere -- it is not a foul. The contact has to be clearly before the ball is touched for it to draw a flag."
Review shows that the contact, indeed, came before the ball arrived.
It's hard to fault the officials for making the call they did. At the same time, it's easy to see why Belichick is upset. The hit came before the ball. By the letter of the law, the hit was not legal.
Even if Welker was just trying to throw a block, it was still illegal.
"Blocking more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage by an offensive player prior to a pass being thrown is offensive pass interference. Note: It is also pass interference by the offense to block a defender beyond the line while the pass is in the air, if the block occurs in the vicinity of the player to whom the pass is thrown."
It looks like Welker was gearing up to block Talib before the ball arrived. The violence was a product of their velocities. The timing of the contact, though -- not the intent -- is the judgment call.
"It looked like it was intentional," said Patriots defensive end Andre Carter. "But the NFL will review it and, hopefully, Talib will just heal and get ready for the following season. ... People will say it was dirty and people will say it was nasty. I can't really say it was uncalled for, but the play was unacceptable."
In addition to the final result, just file the hit and injury as another thing that didn't go the Patriots' way on Sunday.
Years ago, Colts general manager Bill Polian made a case to have defensive illegal contact and defensive holding more strictly enforced after the Patriots pushed the boundaries of the rules to help shut down Peyton Manning and the Colts offense.
Maybe this offseason, Belichick can be the one who makes a case to the rules committee to more aggressively throw flags on offensive pass interference after Manning's Broncos utilized pick-routes and rub-routes to their advantage on their way to the Super Bowl.
The New England Patriots lost to a better team.
How long has it been since the Patriots could honestly say that in a postseason loss?
The case could be made that the Patriots lost to the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets and New York Giants in playoff games they should have won from 2009-2012.
No one was singing the "just happy to be here" song leading up to the AFC Championship game, but now that they handily lost to the Denver Broncos, 26-16 in a game that wasn't even close until the final minutes, it's easier to realize what an accomplishment it would have been for this team to make it to the Super Bowl, and possibly even win it all.
Who knows how far the Patriots could have gone with Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski, Tommy Kelly and Sebastian Vollmer in the fold, but you can say that the Patriots got as far as they should have, given the circumstances.
"I'm proud of our team and the way we fought," said quarterback Tom Brady. "We've got a lot to be proud of, and we'll be back at it next year."
They fought that way all season long, and even as the margin of error grew slimmer and slimmer, a comeback always seemed possible. That says a great deal about this coach and quarterback.
Thinking about the missed opportunity as a result of injuries will inevitably sting, but every team deals with injuries. The Patriots, it just so happened, were ill equipped to deal with injuries to three former All-Pro players among others.
The Broncos dealt with injuries of their own, to left tackle Ryan Clady, linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. and safety Rahim Moore (two former All-Pros in Clady and Miller). Yet, their edge was considered slightly better than home-field advantage at four points, and even that proved to be generous in the final outcome.
They were favored for a reason. The Broncos were just the better team.
"They've got a lot of good players," said head coach Bill Belichick. "[They're a] tough team to match up against with all the good skill players they have -- backs, tight ends, receivers -- so they have obviously a good football team, good offensive system, good quarterback."
Rest assured, the Patriots will be right back in it next year. They are still the best team in the AFC East, and if all else fails -- as this year proved to us -- Brady and Belichick are still good for 10-plus wins on their own.
This season had already been one of the finest coaching jobs of Belichick's career as Patriots head coach. To cap it off with a trip to the Super Bowl would have bordered on the miraculous.
Their best bet to get back to the big game -- and win it -- is to make sure they don't have to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders as they try to sneak through that window before it shuts.
The New England Patriots have adjusted on the fly to one big injury after another.
On Sunday against the Denver Broncos, they met their match.
Cornerback Aqib Talib went down with a
rib knee injury, marking the second straight year he did not play to the end of an AFC Championship game. The source of his injury was a less-than-legal low hit by Broncos receiver Wes Welker.
The result of his injury was a seismic shift in the secondary that left cracks in the foundation of the Patriots defense.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick wouldn't comment on whether the hit should have been flagged, saying only, "It was a key play in the game." From the inflection of his voice, though, he not sound pleased.
It's hard enough to match up with the Broncos offense at full strength. To do so at less than 100 percent is nearly impossible. They simply have too many weapons.
"They've got a lot of good players," said Belichick. "[They're a] tough team to match up against with all the good skill players they have -- backs, tight ends, receivers -- so they have obviously a good football team, good offensive system, good quarterback."
Instead of Talib covering Demaryius Thomas, it was Alfonzo Dennard; instead of Dennard covering Eric Decker, it was Logan Ryan. As a result, both players were exposed.
Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen had some interesting observations on what got Dennard beat by Thomas:
Thomas was too strong for Dennard on the release, showed the ability run through the jam and also create separation within the route stem on the post, the slant, fade, etc. ... Dennard couldn’t hang with the size/power of Thomas at the line of scrimmage or down the field at the point of attack. And when Manning identified that matchup he wanted, the veteran quarterback went after Dennard to take advantage of the Patriots man-coverage schemes while punching a ticket to the Super Bowl in New York.
Things looked good before Talib went down. The Broncos offense didn't look too hot to start the game, punting on their first possession for only the fourth time this year. It wasn't until Talib left that the matchups started to unfold in an unfavorable fashion for the Patriots.
To be fair, Dennard was not the only one on the wrong end of a few big plays. Ryan consistently found himself out of position, particularly in coverage of Decker.
The in-game ramifications were obvious. The long-term ramifications will not be.
Those long-term ramifications pertain to Talib's future status with the team. On one hand, he was a key component to the Patriots' defense at nearly every successful point in the season. On the other hand, he has missed time due to injury in each of the past two seasons.
The Patriots will likely be weighing all of this internally in the coming weeks prior to free-agency, because that's not an injury you can game-plan for. As you get further down the depth chart, there simply aren't enough big-bodied cornerbacks to run and cover Denver's talented receivers man-to-man.
"If I could be out there, I would have been out there, man," Talib said after the game.
That was apparent in his continued efforts to get back in the game. The cornerback went back-and-forth between the locker room and the field. He could have been the key ingredient to containing the Broncos' offense. Instead, he had to watch helplessly from the sideline. No one wants to be in that position.
Whether it's his teammates, his coaches or himself, Talib's injury couldn't have come at a worse time for anyone involved.
Patriots postgame winners and losers vs. Broncos: Injury thrusts Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard into spotlight
Next man up reached the end of the line.
The New England Patriots were simply outmanned as they lost the AFC Championship, 26-16 to the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday.
When cornerback Aqib Talib went down with a knee injury in the first half, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick called it "a key play in the game." That injury caused a seismic shift in the secondary that thrust Alfonzo Dennard into coverage of Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas, and Logan Ryan into coverage on Eric Decker.
Here's a look at the players who gave the Patriots a chance to win, and others who brought the team down on their road to the Super Bowl.
Julian Edelman: Finished the game with 10 catches, the only Patriots receiver to have over five catches on the game, and it could have been more if Brady hadn't overthrown him on a deep pass in the first quarter. Edelman enters free agency this offseason, and is one of the key Patriots players whose contract is running up.
Ryan Allen: Had punts of 60, 55 and 32 yards in the first half -- all three landing the Broncos inside the 20-yard line -- that helped keep the Broncos at bay, if only temporarily. There were questions as to whether Allen would even be ready, but his performance was a big reason why this game didn't get out of hand.
Jamie Collins: Once again made plays all over the field, with seven total tackles (six solo, one assist), a tackle for loss and a pass-defensed, and also had the Patriots' only quarterback hit of the game. The linebacker was victimized on one big gain by Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, but his athleticism showed up in spots, and the Patriots have clearly found a building block for their defense.
Logan Ryan/Alfonzo Dennard: Ryan was picked on continually when Talib came out of the game, primarily when in coverage on Decker. Likewise, Dennard was victimized when covering Demaryius Thomas. The ripple effect of the injury to Talib was easily spotted on Sunday.
LeGarrette Blount: The Patriots's running game has been a huge part of their success of late, led mainly by Blount, but the bruiser picked up just six yards on five carries over the course of the game, and the Patriots picked up just 64 yards rushing on 16 carries (4.0 YPA).
Defensive line: Although the Patriots were often rushing just three defenders, the Patriots hardly generated any pressure on Manning. The Patriots got just one hit on Manning the entire game, and didn't get a single sack. The defensive line has been hit hard with injuries this year, and their lack of depth -- and talent -- showed up all day on Sunday.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the most intriguing, and important, matchups in the AFC Championship game will be between Broncos tight end Julius Thomas and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins. Interesting, then, that Thomas didn't play and Collins was minimally involved (23/90 snaps).
Two 250-pound athletes -- one 6-foot-5 (Thomas), the other 6-foot-3 (Collins) -- will be running into each other frequently, whether it's in the running game or the passing game. Their battles through the air, however, will likely be the focal point of the matchup.
Thomas has been key to the Broncos' success all season. Collins has recently emerged into a bigger role in the Patriots' defense with the loss of Brandon Spikes. If Collins finds himself covering Thomas on Sunday, it would be the most difficult matchup he's faced thus far.
"He's a dynamic football player," safety Steve Gregory said of Thomas, "and they move him around, they put him in a lot of different positions. He can create mismatches. He’s big, he’s physical, he’s fast, he runs good routes, has good hands, he can block in the run game, so it’s not like when he’s in there, it’s only a pass. You know, he can do multiple things, and at a high level."
Thomas has been nearly equal parts pass-catcher and blocker. He ran a pass pattern on 485 of his 993 snaps, and was either pass-protecting or run-blocking on the other 508 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Collins -- and the Patriots defense as a whole -- will have to be ready for all of it, but the spotlight on Thomas may shine brighter in the biggest moments.
"He's been a big target for them in the red area with his size and his catching ability, his athleticism," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. "He's a hard guy to match up with."
In the regular season, Thomas had 14 receptions and eight touchdowns in the red zone, both of which were good for third-best on the team, only narrowly edged out by wide receivers Wes Welker (19 catches, 10 touchdowns) and Eric Decker (15 catches, nine touchdowns). Thomas' background in basketball -- he played power forward at Portland State -- makes him an even bigger threat in smaller spaces.
Collins could be responsible for covering Thomas all over the field, though. Quarterback Peyton Manning does a great job of getting Thomas involved at all levels of the defense, but primarily not deeper than 20 yards downfield. According to Pro Football Focus, he has caught 21 passes outside the left numbers, 30 passes over the middle and 20 passes outside the right numbers.
But, as we saw from Collins against Colts tight end Coby Fleener on Saturday, he is more than capable of coverage outside and over the middle.
Few defensive backs could have defended this fade route much better than Collins. His hips turned with impressive quickness, and he never lost a step on the tight end, despite being locked in on him in press coverage.
From there, his ball-hawking skills were clear as day; he located the ball in the air, and put his hands up. With another inch or two on his leap, he could have intercepted the pass. Instead, his hands got in the way of Fleener's and the ball fell incomplete.
Collins' experience as a defensive back makes him uniquely qualified to cover a pass-catching threat like Thomas. Even with all that working in Collins' favor, Thomas is more athletic than Fleener. Collins is quite the athlete himself, though, according to his teammates.
"He's probably one of the most athletic guys on the team," linebacker Dont'a Hightower said, "and it didn't take him long to kind of get a grasp on what was going on and for him to make plays like that everybody else might be surprised, but we see it every day and for him to come out and have the game that he did, I wasn't surprised at all."
He recorded a 4.62-second 40-yard dash, a 41.5-inch vertical jump, a 139-inch broad jump, and a 7.1-second three-cone drill, all of which ranked among the top five linebackers at the combine. With that in mind, should anyone have really been surprised by Collins' athleticism?
In every sense, Collins had his coming-out party against the Colts. He hardly played earlier in the season, but has become more involved in the defense in recent weeks. He didn't play more than 45 percent of the defensive snaps in a single game until Week 14, but has been involved in at least that many snaps in each game since then.
This was the first time Collins' impact was truly felt, and they'll need Saturday to be the second time if he's to be matched up with Thomas.
Answering some questions headed into Sunday's AFC Championship game, pitting the New England Patriots against the Denver Broncos, with help from our friend and Boston.com sports columnist, Obnoxious Boston Fan (Twitter: @realOBF).
How can the Patriots beat the Broncos?
Erik Frenz: On defense, it's going to take a sound game plan, and near-flawless execution of that game plan. In the passing game, the Patriots had success in the previous meeting by getting physical with the Broncos receivers. Jamming them at the line of scrimmage and disrupting their timing was part of the reason Peyton Manning completed a season-low 52.8 percent of his throws when the two teams met in Week 12. The Patriots secondary is healthier than it’s been in a long time, which is a good thing because the Patriots could need all hands on deck if guys start running out of breath in the thin Denver air. Beyond that, the Patriots will probably spend the entire game in their nickel defense – not only because the Broncos run primarily three-receiver sets, but also because by going light up front, the Patriots will be inviting the run. The more Manning hands it off, as opposed to dropping back to throw, the better off they'll be.
On offense, the Patriots are going to have to keep a balanced approach. The Broncos are 2-3 this year and 3-6 over the past two years when their opponent runs the ball 30 times or more. The Patriots have averaged 29.7 rushing attempts per game over the final six games of the season. That being said, sticking with the ground game won't work if the Broncos are ahead and the Patriots need to put up points. They must be successful running the ball and put together long scoring drives. It's the old formula: the best defense against Manning is a good offense that keeps Manning off the field.
Obnoxious Boston Fan: Defensively, the Patriots’ fate will be determined by how well their defensive front – see the likes of ex-Bronco/Seahawk/49er Sealver Siliga – and defensive backs if they dare to blitz – can pressure Manning. While Manning is always good for a clutch interception, anything the Patriots can do to force him to move from the pocket will disrupt his rhythm. Here’s a tip for Bill Belichick – check out the film of Manning’s 3rd and 17 conversion late in the fourth quarter against the Chargers. It was the most-clutch pass of his career since the waning moments of the 2006 AFC championship game. The 21-yard completion to Julius Thomas split the Chargers’ linebacker and corner coverage and was nearly impossible to defend.
Last week, the mantra for New England was to “run, run and run some more, then pass once in a while.” This week, I suspect the Patriots will change things up and Brady will be unleashed. The Patriots have morphed into a running team to reach the AFC title game, but they’ll have to be more of passing team to reach the Super Bowl.
And if none of that works, there’s always this:
EF: Put up points and put the pressure on the Patriots to score. The Patriots offense has taken on many different forms this season, but the most recent one features a heavy dose of the running game and a balanced approach. The last time these two teams met, Tom Brady attempted 50 passes, but that was with Rob Gronkowski still in the lineup. The running game remains a threat, but Julian Edelman is the only pass-catcher that has been a consistent threat to defenses in the passing game. They may not have the firepower to hang around in a shootout. The Patriots have only scored more than 30 points in two games where they forced less than three turnovers. The Broncos can take the Patriots out of their comfort zone by taking care of the football and making sure their drives finish with points.
Defensively, there are two keys: the running game and Edelman. The numbers say the Broncos have been very good against the run this year, but they've also been playing from ahead and have abandoned the run. The Patriots are 3-4 this year when rushing for fewer than 115 yards in a game. If they can take away the run, that really only leaves Edelman. Brady has targeted Edelman on 50 of his 129 pass attempts (38.8 percent) over the past four games; that's twice as many as Danny Amendola, who has the second most with 25 targets in the past four games. If the Broncos take away Edelman, they can force Brady to go elsewhere and make life difficult for the Patriots offense.
OBF: Well, there’s this:
A company called Voodoo Doughnut held a grand opening for a new Denver location Wednesday. This Brady doughnut was one of the offerings. It caught the eye of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock:
If those funky doughnuts don’t work, there’s always this:
One thing that scares you most about the Broncos?
EF: Manning. It may be cliche to say it at this point, but the man is just so cerebral. If there is a weak link in the Patriots defense, Manning will find it. He's hard to intercept, hard to sack, and generally hard to stop. The Patriots may just have to weather the storm, but hopefully for their sake, they're not down 24 points at halftime again.
OBF: That Manning might be as good as advertised. When the Patriots and Broncos played in November, Belichick’s mind-bending mastery of the Dark Side took Manning out of the game by luring him into trying to run through the Patriots in the cold and wind of Foxborough. Belichick even took the wind over the ball in overtime, double-dog daring Manning to beat the Patriots. Manning flinched and lost. The weather on Sunday is supposed to be sunny and in the mid-50s. Manning the Broncos are filled with regret over their offensive choices in their last meeting with New England. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
One thing that scares you most about the Patriots?
EF: Their aforementioned lack of firepower in the passing game. Take away Edelman and I'm not sure who else Brady fully trusts. Shane Vereen has been nearly a nonfactor lately, with just nine catches in the past four games, and Amendola's 16 receptions aren't even half Edelman's total of 35 catches in that span. The Patriots offense has been barely average in creating explosive passing plays, with just 49 passes of 20 yards or more, tied for 15th in the league. If this turns into a high-scoring affair, the Patriots may have a hard time playing keep-up.
OBF: Turnovers. You still squirm whenever Stevan Ridley carries the ball, even though he hasn’t fumbled since … the last time the Patriots played the Broncos. Belichick said last month "there's no statistic that correlates more to winning than turnovers.” Aside from points scored vs. points allowed, he’s right.
One thing that gives you confidence in the Patriots?
EF: Belichick always comes with a good game plan for Manning and the Broncos, and there's no reason to expect this game to be any different. It may involve doing the same things as last time: inviting the run, jamming the receivers and disguising coverages. It may be completely different. There's no cookie cutter formula to shutting down Manning, and ultimately, it's up to the players to execute, but Belichick has built a reputation for taking away an opponent's best weapon, and he'll have plenty of weapons to account for on Sunday.
OBF: Darth Vader vs. Chewbacca. Edge: Vader (at least this week).
Person to watch not named Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for each team
EF: I went with Jamie Collins the last time around – and boy, did he make me look like a genius. I'll go with Collins again here, because he could be vital to covering Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, who was not in the lineup in the Week 12 meeting between the two teams. Thomas is 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Collins stands 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds. Belichick described Collins' performance against the Broncos as "active," which holds up when considering he contributed to 10 tackles (6 solo, 4 assist) on 23 snaps. He made a huge impact in a wire-to-wire effort against the Colts last week, and could be asked to work a similar schedule against the Broncos.
For the Broncos, Wes Welker is the obviously player everyone will have their eye on. He made an inauspicious impact on the previous game with a pair of drops, as well as his role in the muffed punt that gave the Patriots their opportunity to win the game in overtime. Patriots fans will be waiting with baited breath for him to drop a pass in a key situation, or he could really "stick it in Bill's face" by making a positive impact on the outcome. Either way, I have a feeling we'll be talking about Welker on our way out of this game.
OBF: Can I change my vote from last week to Collins?
For the Patriots, whomever ends up punting the ball. Ryan Allen injured his shoulder trying to do something with the ball after an errant snap against Indianapolis that eventually became a safety. Allen’s ability to handle a high snap could be hindered by his ailing shoulder. Against Denver, one bad long snap or blocked punt could prove catastrophic.
For the Broncos, it’s the secondary: ex-Patriot Marquice Cole, Champ Bailey, Quentin Jammer, Kayvon Webster and/or Tony Carter. They’ll all likely try to fill the role held by Chris Harris Jr. The team’s top cornerback, Harris tore his left ACL during the third quarter of Sunday’s win over the Chargers. San Diego exploited his absence and rallied back against Denver, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter. Brady is no doubt eager to test Denver’s frayed corners.
Some observations on some hot topics from the New England Patriots' 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday.
Offensive line remains the constant in Patriots offense
So much has changed about the Patriots offense from last year to this year -- and even from the beginning of this year to now -- but one constant has been the offensive line. There have been some lapses in pass protection, with the Patriots allowing Brady to be sacked 40 times this year, the second-most of his career, but they've been mostly solid there, and have been dominant in the ground game.
For the second straight game, the offensive line played a key role in springing the Patriots running backs loose on long gains. Their work in pass protection was equally commendable, although not as necessary as years past; Brady only dropped back to pass 27 times compared to 46 rush attempts for the Patriots as a team.
This is a power run to the right, with right guard Dan Connolly (63) and right tackle Marcus Cannon (61) double-teaming the defensive tackle off the snap; Cannon would come off the double-team to get downfield on a linebacker.
Left guard Logan Mankins (70) pulled to the right side to clear out linebacker Jerrell Freeman (50), who scraping down behind outside linebacker Robert Mathis (98), who rushed inside and was eventually blocked to the ground by tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (47).
Four impressive, and key, blocks on the play.
This is around the time Landry knew he was toast.
He was the last line of defense, and he may have been able to make a play, but he took a poor angle and Blount took a nice angle. Blount cut directly behind Hoomanawanui and Cannon, narrowing the angle he would then have to cut to elude Landry in the open field.
It also helps to have backs that can improvise and make something out of nothing.
On this play, for example, running back Shane Vereen was able to get eight yards despite early penetration from nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois. Center Ryan Wendell lunged at Francois, but the young defensive tackle was ready, and never fully engaged the blocker.
Vereen was able to sidestep him, though, and continued to follow the blocks of Mankins and left tackle Nate Solder before putting his head down and covering the ball as he fell forward.
An offensive line works as a unit, and while a whiffed block can ruin a play, solid blocks can save a play.
The Patriots will need to make plenty of plays on the ground against the Denver Broncos, in a game where they will most likely need to control the clock and try their best to keep quarterback Peyton Manning off the field. The Broncos lost the time of possession battle in two of their three losses this year, so an efficient running game and long drives may be a key in the AFC Championship game.
You can't run the whole game, though -- at some point, you have to throw it down the field.
Of course, as it usually does, the run sets up the pass, and the play-action pass specifically.
On this play at 9:59 in the third quarter, the Patriots had just six blockers and four receivers running routes (if you include the running back leaking into the flat off the play-action fake). That meant there was added stress on the offensive line to hold their blocks to give Brady time to carry out the fake and then find an open receiver.
Brady might have been able to hit wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins on the in-cut, but instead, he saw safety LaRon Landry (circled in black) trip over his own two feet as he bit on the run fake, then tried to change direction too quickly, allowing wide receiver Danny Amendola (yellow) to get behind him on the seam route.
This was as easy a decision as Brady has ever made, and it was all thanks to the Patriots' previous success on the ground.
In the past three games, Brady has been pressured on just 24 of his 80 dropbacks (30 percent) and the Patriots have run the ball 123 times for 643 yards (5.23 YPA) and 10 touchdowns. With the offensive line playing this well, there's little opponents can do to slow down the offense.
Defense gets picky, four interceptions on Andrew Luck
The Patriots have long been known as an opportunistic defense, and they intercepted four passes off Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on Saturday, the most by them in a single game all season.
These were achieved a number of ways, whether it was sticky man coverage, a good read on a route, an athletic play, a poorly thrown ball, or a tip-drill.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard got the party started with his first-quarter interception on Luck's second pass attempt of the game. Colts wide receiver LaVon Brazill was running a slant route on the outside, but Dennard did a fantastic job of getting a jam on Brazill at the line of scrimmage, not allowing him to get into his route.
Luck stared down the receiver, having decided he was going there before the snap of the ball. Brazill never got open, with Dennard winning inside leverage immediately off the jam. That allowed him to wrestle the ball away for the interception.
One of the keys to slowing down the Broncos offense is to jam the receivers at the line to disrupt the timing element of their offense. The Patriots will need sticky coverage like this from Dennard and all their corners in the AFC Championship game.
They could also use a few balls bouncing their way.
That's exactly what happened when linebacker Dont'a Hightower earned his first career interception. Fullback Spencer Havili, the intended target on the pass, came out of the backfield after making sure there were no extra rushers to block. As Luck looked downfield and found no one open, Havili became the obvious choice as he ran from right to left with Hightower in trail technique.
The pass, however, was thrown a bit too far behind Havili, bouncing off his shoulder and up in the air. Hightower didn't have to do much more than put his hands out for this one, although his ability to stay with Havili step-for-step was what ultimately allowed him to make the play. Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good, but it's always best to be both.
The Patriots may not get that lucky against the Broncos, but if they do, they have to capitalize.
The final two interceptions were on forced throws by Luck, as he tried to lead another thrilling fourth-quarter comeback, but both were still great plays on the ball, especially linebacker Jamie Collins's first career interception.
Fleener ran a post route over the middle of the field, which was supposed to get behind the coverage of Collins. The Patriots were in Cover 4 with both safeties and outside corners dropping into deep zones. The extra help over the top allowed Collins to aggressively play the routes over the middle.
Initially, Collins wasn't in position to defend the route; he had to do a 180 to stay with Fleener. Luck saw Collins facing the wrong way, and one of two thoughts went through his head: either he thought he could fit the ball in to Fleener before Collins could get his head around, or he thought Collins wasn't going to drop as deep as he did.
Instead, the athletic linebacker flipped his hips quickly enough to stay with Fleener in stride.
It would be hard to blame Luck, whether he forced the throw or simply misread the coverage. Collins was near the line of scrimmage at the snap, giving no indication that he'd be dropping so deep into coverage.
He saw Luck's eyes locked on Fleener down the seam, and simply shadowed the tight end from that point. The ball was thrown directly into his chest.
Luck's final interception was nothing more than a last-minute desperation play.
He took a chance on a backshoulder throw down the sideline, but Dennard was able to get his head around in an instant and tracked the ball in flight. Brazill barely even tried to make a play on the ball; instead, he just kept running downfield.
Manning isn't going to serve up many easy ones like this, and the Patriots probably won't finish with four interceptions again, but they will probably still need at least one or two to come away with a victory.
The old rivalry feels new again.
This is the 15th installment of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, but only the third time the two have met with Manning quarterbacking the Denver Broncos, and the first time in the AFC Championship game. Brady-Manning was once a time-honored tradition in the postseason -- the two squared off three times, with Brady winning two -- but the two quarterbacks have not met in the playoffs since 2006.
Of course, the game will be decided by more than just two players -- usually, the key plays in the game are made by players other than Brady and Manning. With that, here's a look at what to look for from the Broncos.
Record: 14-3 (1-0 in the playoffs)
How they got here: The Broncos went 13-3 in the regular season, earning themselves a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They beat the San Diego Chargers, 24-17, in the divisional round on Sunday to advance to the AFC Championship, their first trip to the conference title game since 2005.
Key cog, offense -- Demaryius Thomas, WR: Manning spread the ball to all his receivers over the course of the season, but Thomas led the team in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. Against the Chargers, he caught eight of the 10 passes thrown his way for 54 yards and a touchdown.
The Patriots are intimately familiar with Thomas, who was drafted in the first round of the 2010 draft by then-head coach Josh McDaniels. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds with elite straight-line speed, Thomas is the prototype boundary receiver. He is a threat whether running vertically on long routes or catching short passes and turning upfield for long gains. He was 20 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage on 21.7 percent of all passes thrown his way, the 12th-highest percentage in the NFL; he also led the NFL with 697 yards after catch, and ranked fifth with 7.6 yards after catch per reception. Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib did a good job of containing Thomas in the previous meeting, allowing three catches on six targets for 30 yards and a touchdown, while also adding a pass-defensed.
Key cog, defense -- Shaun Phillips, DE: With linebacker Von Miller on injured reserve, Shaun Phillips is by far the team's best pass-rusher in the front seven. At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, Phillips may be considered a little smaller than other 4-3 defensive ends, which makes sense because he played 3-4 outside linebacker for eight years with the Chargers. Phillips has thrived in his new role, and logged 10 sacks in 2013 -- the most in a single season for him since 2010.
He rushes primarily from the offense's right side, which means he'll be matched up primarily with right tackle Marcus Cannon, who is much bigger than Phillips at 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds. Phillips is not overly explosive, but he still has some burst in him, and his upper body strength strength makes him solid when bull-rushing and setting the edge in run defense.
X factor -- Julius Thomas, TE: The rookie tight end has emerged as one of the key components of the Broncos offense, but he was out of the lineup with a knee injury the last time these two teams met. Thomas is part of the new wave of athletic receiving tight ends with a background in basketball. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Thomas is hard to cover simply for his size, but he has above-average speed and quickness running routes down the seam and over the middle. He caught six of the seven passes thrown his way against the Chargers, but dropped an easy one and had a fumble. Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins has the size and athleticism to be a tough matchup for Thomas. Collins was up to the challenge in coverage on Colts tight end Coby Fleener, but Thomas could prove to be an even bigger challenge this weekend, especially considering the quarterback throwing him the ball.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: Cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. (knee, ankle) left the game against the Chargers and did not return. He is set for an MRI on Monday, according to USA Today. Harris is a vital piece of the Broncos' secondary, and played the most snaps of any defensive player on the team with 1,059, according to Pro Football Focus. Von Miller (knee) and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson (hip) were in the lineup when the two teams met in November, but Vickerson suffered his injury against the Patriots and Miller went down in late December; each was placed on injured reserve shortly thereafter.
- On the flip side of the injury coin, cornerback Champ Bailey has returned to the lineup from his foot injury, but he has played more in the slot than years past (31.3 percent of his plays in coverage). He could find himself matched up with Julian Edelman (49.5 percent of his routes run from the slot).
- The Broncos scored a touchdown on 37.9 percent of their offensive possessions, the highest in the league by 9.1 percent more than the New Orleans Saints. The Broncos also punted on just 34.2 percent of their offensive possessions, the lowest in the league.
- Brady has owned Jack Del Rio defenses over the course of his career; he is 171-of-235 (72.8 percent) for 1,774 yards (7.5 YPA), 17 touchdowns and a 118.3 passer rating when squaring off against a Del Rio defense.
- Third downs have been difficult for the Patriots all season -- they gave up conversions on 42.1 percent of opponents third downs, which ranks 26th in the NFL -- but they could be a nightmare against a Broncos offense that converts 46.3 percent of its third downs, the second-best rate in the league. Of their 96 third-down conversions in the regular season, 79 of them came via pass, and 17 on the ground.
- One more area the Patriots must excel if they want to win: turnovers. The Broncos had 26 total turnovers in 2013 (10 interceptions, league-leading 16 lost fumbles). The Broncos committed three or more turnovers in four games this year, but lost just two -- against the Colts and Patriots. The Patriots have long been known for capitalizing on an opponent's mistakes, as the Colts learned the hard way in the divisional round with four turnovers, but in the last seven games, the Patriots have forced four turnovers as many times as they've forced zero turnovers (three apiece).
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Next man up.
Those three words have echoed through the halls of Gillette Stadium all year, like the voice of a nagging mother reminding you to do your homework, brush your teeth or finish your vegetables.
Those words returned when linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee, tardiness) was placed on injured reserve on Monday. Usually, the sound of those words has induced similar eye rolls. On Saturday, Patriots fans were probably wide-eyed at the sight of rookie linebacker Jamie Collins delivering one big play after another in what was clearly his breakout performance of the year.
That it was a postseason game? That just makes it that much sweeter.
"It was kind of a difference but like I said, every game is the same to me," Collins said. "Just go out there, do what you have to do, and hopefully it comes out on the positive end."
Collins came out more on the positive end on Saturday than any game this season, with six total tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits, a pass-defensed and an interception, but Collins was making plays even when they weren't showing up on the stat sheet.
He got pressure on quarterback Andrew Luck to help force an interception, and had nice coverage on tight end Coby Fleener on three incomplete passes -- two down the sideline and one in the end zone.
"As you saw today, he's out there on split out tight end covering them on fade patterns and he's blitzing up the middle and he's making tackles in line," Belichick said. "I think he's pretty comfortable wherever he is whether he's out in space and covering a guy 20 yards downfield or one-on-one coverage with no help or whether he's in line taking on blockers or blitzing or covering tight ends from in close. He's a very versatile athlete that's smart, works hard, really has a great team attitude. I love having him on our team."
Patriots players love having him on their team, too.
"Jamie is an unbelievable talent, athlete," said teammate Rob Ninkovich. "I mean, the guy can run, he can cover, he's fast and explosive, he can get up and rush. You see a guy like that, and he's one of those guys that's got that wow factor -- you see him play the cut, spin on the ground and still make the tackle. His future in the NFL is very bright, so I'm happy that he's on our defense and he's playing well now."
Collins couldn't have picked a better time to have the best game of his young NFL career -- with the loss of Spikes and the playoff atmosphere -- and another performance like this in the AFC Championship Game will go a long way in making the Patriots' Super Bowl dreams a reality.
Both the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers feature athletic tight ends with great skills in the receiving game. Whether it's the Broncos' Julius Thomas or the Chargers' Antonio Gates, Collins will have a big challenge ahead of him in coverage.
As we learned on Saturday, though, coverage is just one of many things Collins can do at a high level. It's a good thing, because the Patriots will need all of it, regardless of their next opponent.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Remember when this game was close? That was the beginning of the fourth quarter, with the New England Patriots seemingly clinging to a 29-22 lead as the Indianapolis Colts clawed their way back into the game.
It was all downhill for the Colts from there, as the Patriots scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to give themselves a 21-point lead that they would not relinquish, as they went on to win 43-22 in a game that was a bit closer than the final score indicates.
Now that the Patriots have advanced to the AFC Championship Game -- their third in as many years -- it's time to look back on the Patriots' winners and losers from the game.
LeGarrette Blount: Blount got off to a great start in his first postseason game, with three touchdown carries in the first half alone. His fourth touchdown carry -- a 73-yarder in the fourth quarter -- set a new Patriots single-game record, and his 166 rushing yards tied a Patriots postseason record. If the Patriots are going to make a deep run in the playoffs, they would love to get more production like that from Blount.
Alfonzo Dennard: Set the tone with an early interception of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, returning it down to the two-yard line. Also had a pair of pass-break-ups in the first half. He was on the wrong end of a 38-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver LaVon Brazill, but Dennard was in position on the play, and was otherwise solid in coverage and delivered big plays.
Jamie Collins: With linebacker Brandon Spikes out of the lineup, Collins' performance was a point of focus, and he delivered in an increased role. He was in coverage on Colts tight end Coby Fleener and held his own on a throw down the sideline and another in the end zone. He had a key sack on second down in the third quarter, and had pressure on one of Luck's two interceptions. He capped off his big game with an interception of Luck in the fourth quarter, returning it 20 yards and setting the Patriots up in the red zone.
Stephen Gostkowski: Things could have spiraled out of control when punter Ryan Allen was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury, but Gostkowski came in and punted incredibly well in relief duty, with five punts and a 41.8 net average, including two punts downed inside the 20-yard line and just one that went for a touchback. The Patriots should be hopeful that they don't have to count on Gostkowski's leg for more than one job, but he really saved the Patriots a lot of grief with his performance in that role.
Danny Aiken: Being a long snapper is tough business because your good plays will go unnoticed and your bad plays will get magnified. Aiken botched a long snap on a punt that went over punter Allen's head and resulted in a safety.
Kyle Arrington: Was on the wrong end of a pair of big receptions on third downs in the first quarter, both in coverage of Colts receiver Griff Whalen. Arrington was not spotted on the field very much in the second half.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It just doesn't feel the same.
The rivalry between the Patriots and Colts was just so much juicier when it was Peyton Manning as the quarterback in the offensive huddle for Indianapolis instead of Andrew Luck. The logos on the side of the helmet and the colors of the jerseys are the same, but it was the names on the back of the jerseys that made this rivalry great.
Tight end Dallas Clark, wide receiver Reggie Wayne (on injured reserve), defensive end Dwight Freeney, linebacker Gary Brackett, running back Joseph Addai and of course, former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri all played a key role in the rivalry.
The Patriots have had changes of their own, but two prominent figures -- Tom Brady and Bill Belichick -- are still around to make this old rivalry feel a little less new.
This could be the beginning of a new chapter in the rivalry, but right now, it doesn't feel like a rivalry. It just feels like a game with two really good quarterbacks in Brady and Luck.
This game will have good matchups of its own -- the Patriots' success in the passing game will hinge upon how offensive tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon handle veteran Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis; instead of Lawyer Milloy worrying about Marvin Harrison running free through the secondary, Devin McCourty will be keeping his eyes on T.Y. Hilton.
But unless we see a much less decisive victory than New England's 59-24 pantsing of Indianapolis in 2012, this rivalry won't be seen as much of a rivalry at all. The real rivalry matchup -- with Manning -- could take place next week, but before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's get to some questions from readers/followers.
The Patriots need to turn to the running game if they want to fully take advantage of the Colts' weaknesses in the front seven, but a balanced approach is probably the best approach.
Brady has dropped back to pass on 59 percent of the Patriots' offensive plays, which is the 10th-lowest percentage in the league. The Patriots have been one of the more balanced offenses in the league all season; there's no reason to think they'd get away from that now.
That being said, once they've established the running game, they'd be foolish not to turn to the play-action passing game. Brady has utilized play-action on 24.6 percent of his pass attempts, the ninth-highest percentage in the league. Colts safeties LaRon Landry and Antoine Bethea are known for their aggressive style of play. What better way to take advantage of that than with a fake to the running back?
It all starts with establishing the run.
Interestingly phrased question, Harry. I'm not sure how I would rate his season, but I know how I'd describe it: he had a slow start, and just when it looked like he was catching on, his momentum was stopped by an injury.
It's tough to get a good read on his development because we didn't see him for the full season, but he and Brady appeared to finally be getting on the same page from Weeks 6 through 11. In that five-game stretch, Dobson had 22 catches on 36 targets (61.1 percent catch rate) for 325 yards (14.8 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. Extrapolate those five-game numbers over the course of a 16-game season and he would have around 70 receptions for 1,040 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Dobson showed an ability to get open all over the field, particularly on short and intermediate routes. His work on slant routes and curl routes made him a security blanket for Brady at times, as he learned to use his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame to box out defenders.
I would like to see more from Dobson in the red zone and in the vertical passing game. He only had four catches in the red zone and two catches on balls traveling 20 yards or more through the air. Those are two areas that an outside-the-numbers receiver ("X-receiver") like Dobson should thrive.
Jovie, the weather forecast for Saturday is 55 degrees, 22 mph winds and a 100 percent chance of rain. This could be another sloppy game.
The Colts have not run the ball much this year -- Luck has dropped back to throw on 65 percent of the Colts' offensive plays this year, the fifth-highest percentage in the league. They have also not been very effective, averaging just 4.4 yards per carry (25th in the NFL).
The Patriots, however, have obviously had their struggles against the run, yielding 4.5 yards per carry (24th) and 134.1 yards per game (30th) on the ground. The Colts might try running the ball against the Patriots, but based on their own lack of success this year, it would be surprising to see the running game suddenly take over.
@ErikFrenz How vulnerable are the Patriots against the run with Spikes out? Siliga seemed to help...and Trent Richardson 3yd average ofc!— Jan Bergmann (@jpbergmann) January 9, 2014
Brandon Spikes is the only Patriots linebacker with more snaps in run defense than pass defense this year, according to Pro Football Focus. His presence there will be missed, but Spikes' injury was reducing his effectiveness -- and by result, his playing time. Linebacker Jamie Collins playing more snaps than Spikes in three of the team's last four games.
Sealver Siliga has helped plug up the holes in the middle. The Patriots coaching staff seems to agree, as he has played over 64 percent of the snaps in each of the past four games. Siliga may not be a name many are familiar with, but the Patriots could sorely use a defensive tackle who can effectively control the gaps on either side of the blocker.
It's never a good time to lose a good player, but the Patriots couldn't have lost Spikes at a better time. The Colts may try to run the ball, but as you alluded, their running game is not much to write home about. With an average of 2.9 yards per carry since joining the Colts, it's hard to call the trade for Trent Richardson anything but an abject failure at this point.
@ErikFrenz Haha ok, is Brandon Spikes done in NE?— Tim Howland (@TimHowland) January 9, 2014
Tim, something tells me that unless Spikes is willing to take a home town discount, he has played his last snap for the Patriots. Spikes played just under 60 percent of the defensive snaps in 2013, and still has value as a run defender. There are, however, a few things to consider.
First, the Patriots have a lot of talent at linebacker to begin with. They drafted Collins in the second round in April, and they will be getting Jerod Mayo back on the field next year, likely in time for Week 1 of the 2014 season. The Patriots could feature Mayo as the weakside linebacker, Collins as the strongside linebacker and Dont'a Hightower as their trio in the base 4-3.
Spikes has missed time in each of his four seasons in the league, another factor to take into account when considering what kind of contract the Patriots would offer him.
At the same time, there are plenty of teams that are in search of talent at middle linebacker, and one of them would probably be willing to give Spikes a shot.
Jared, I have my doubts. Ben McAdoo has earned valuable experience working under Mike McCarthy for the past decade, but he has never been a coordinator at any level.
He was the tight ends coach for the Packers before being promoted to the quarterback coach in Joe Philbin's last year in Green Bay. McAdoo's biggest claim to fame at this point may be the development of tight end Jermichael Finley.
Maybe there's more to like about McAdoo than meets the eye. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that the Cleveland Browns were scheduled to interview him for their vacant head coaching job.
Philbin seems to really like surrounding himself with familiar faces, and I don't know that it's necessarily a good thing. Familiarity was what drove him to hire Mike Sherman, who he just had to fire. That familiarity could help or hurt the Dolphins as they try to maximize the talents of their developing quarterback, Ryan Tannehill.
All of it.
Seriously, it depends. If it's a sandwich, I'm going either American or Swiss. If it's crackers, I'm going either sharp cheddar or Gouda. I love me some mozzarella sticks, too. I didn't used to like bleu cheese, but now I have it on burgers and salads.
Every cheese has its purpose, and I love them all.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots lose in the postseason, it's sometimes a result of their lack of commitment to the running game. If they have done their homework on the Indianapolis Colts, that should not be an issue on Saturday as they try to advance to their third AFC Championship Game in as many years.
There's one simple way for the Patriots to make sure that they beat the Colts -- and to also make sure they don't beat themselves: run the football.
Whether it's LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen or Brandon Bolden, an effective running game could set the tempo for the game, and even break the will of the Colts' defense.
"It wears and tears on a defense," said Blount. "They get tired of hitting backs like me, like Rid, like Bolden, and they get tired of chasing Shane around. So, I feel like if you do that to them for a while, sooner or later they’re going to crack."
They will likely all get a chance to make the Colts crack, and with so many backs capable of different things, preparing for all of them isn't easy.
"It's a heck of a challenge," said Colts head coach Chuck Pagano of the Patriots running game. "What LeGarrette is doing and Ridley and certainly with Shane coming in, and Bolden is no slouch. I mean, they've got a stable of guys that are all more than capable, and you look at the one-two punch LeGarrette and Rid have been, and you look at almost identical numbers across the board, it's a huge challenge."
The challenge has grown in recent weeks, while the scales have tipped with regards to the "one" and the "two" in that one-two punch.
Blount has led the charge with 59 carries over the past four games. Ridley has been sprinkled into the mix with 43 carries in that time, but has taken a back seat as he recovers from fumblitis. As has been the case all season, Vereen has played a bigger role in the passing game than the running game, with nine carries and 19 receptions over the past four weeks.
It would be a surprise to see them get away from that formula now, with it working so well. The Patriots averaged 122.8 yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush attempt as a team in the first 12 games of the season, and 148 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per rush attempt over the final four games of the season.
On the surface, this is a game for Blount and Ridley. The Colts spent a majority of their time in nickel packages with two linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs. The 2-4-5 is a front that can be exposed by the running game because there are fewer defensive linemen, a weakness which has been compounded with linebackers that have struggled heavily in run defense this year.
To make matters worse for the Colts, inside linebacker Pat Angerer (knee) was placed on injured reserve early in December. Now, backups Kavell Conner, Kelvin Sheppard and undrafted rookie Josh McNary will be asked to fill in the lost production.
The Patriots need to run effectively in order to set up the play action passing game for Tom Brady, who attempted 24.6 percent of his passes off play action in 2013, with a 99.8 passer rating on those throws.
Besides being a great way to attack the Colts' defense, a solid running game -- and a ball control game plan -- could also attack the Colts' offense. In their heart of hearts, the Colts want to throw the football and put up a lot of points; they don't want to get into a slugfest where they have to rely on running backs Trent Richardson and Donald Brown to move the ball on the ground.
If the Patriots are running the ball effectively and wearing down the Colts' defense, they may be forced into that situation just to give their defense a rest.
The Patriots can take the Colts out of their game on both offense and defense by running the ball effectively.
Maybe the Patriots' offensive balance in 2013 was a byproduct of their struggles in the passing game, but if so, it has prepared them well for what lies ahead in the playoffs.
Answering some questions headed into the New England Patriots divisional round showdown with the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, with help from our friend and Boston.com sports columnist, Obnoxious Boston Fan (Twitter: @realOBF).
How can the Colts beat the Patriots?
Erik Frenz: It's going to be up to second-year quarterback and rising star Andrew Luck to find the open receivers, and they most likely won't be named T.Y. Hilton. Bill Belichick has earned a reputation for taking away a team's best option, and Hilton is it. The young quarterback will be looking for tight end Coby Fleener in favorable matchups against the Patriots linebackers, but that's not going to be enough. The Colts haven't committed to the running game much this year, but they'll need to get the backs involved if they want to take advantage of the Patriots' depleted defensive line.
The Colts defense is going to have to find a way to make the Patriots one-dimensional throwing the ball. The Patriots offense has been at its best when balanced this year, and has especially found its groove in the running game over the past several weeks. Digging in against the run will force the Patriots to air it out, and if the Colts can find a way to take away Julian Edelman, the Patriots may have a hard time finding their groove through the air.
Obnoxious Boston Fan: Well, if Deion Branch kept his iPad, they might have a shot. It's unlikely he'll play much, if at all. But if Branch can make a catch early, that might throw the Patriots' off their game. This starts and ends with Luck and luck. The quarterback will have to play flawless, or at least come close producing the numbers (29-for-45, 443 yards and 4 TDs) he posted against the Chiefs, minus the three interceptions. This game could quickly evolve into an offensive shootout. This could favor the Colts if Hilton manages to win those matchups the Hoodie has been trying to create all week with the help of his vast network of spies and mastery of the Dark Arts.
How can the Patriots beat the Colts?
EF: Shutting down the Colts offense starts with taking away Hilton. The Patriots have several options when it comes to covering him, but with cornerbacks Aqib Talib (hip), Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) all injured, it may come down to who is healthiest. Whoever it is, expect the Patriots to double Hilton with a deep safety.
The Patriots offense should have success running the ball against a light Colts front seven. That includes outside linebacker Robert Mathis, who is not a stout edge defender at 6-foot-2 and 246 pounds, but is an explosive threat when rushing the passer. If offensive tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon can neutralize Mathis in the passing game, they should have success throwing the ball and keeping Tom Brady upright. From there, Brady should look to exploit matchups against the Colts' third and fourth cornerbacks, and with Shane Vereen out of the backfield on the Colts' linebackers.
OBF: Run the ball. A lot. Brady and the passing game have become the second option of choice. Don't expect LeGarrette Blount to carry the ball 24 times for 189 yards like he did against Buffalo. But the trio of Blount, Vereen and Stevan Ridley might combine for, let's say, 35 carries and 200 yards. If New England can compile numbers like that on the ground, Brady will be able to pick apart the Colts linebackers and secondary with play-action at will. The Patriots should view the Colts much like the way teams once viewed the Patriots circa 2007 -- a serious, high-scoring offensive threat. The best way to beat the Colts is to keep Luck away from the ball.
One thing that scares you the most about the Colts
EF: Safety LaRon Landry coming downhill on anyone carrying the football for the Patriots -- particularly Ridley. Landry is known as a heavy hitter, and does some of his best work in run defense. He hasn't forced a single fumble this season, but had four forced fumbles for the New York Jets in 2013. Seems to me like he might be due for one, but that's only if he passes concussion protocol after being taken out of the Chiefs game.
OBF: The fact that Roger Goodell may be drooling over a Peyton Manning-Luck match up in the AFC title game. That and the possibility of Deion Branch still has Tom Brady's internet password.
Rebuttal from EF: Interestingly enough, the ol' Ginger Hammer will be in the house for this game.
One thing that scares you the most about the Patriots
EF: The lack of options in the passing game. Edelman has come through for the Patriots all season, but at what point do the Patriots need to have reliable second, third and fourth options that they can go to in a pinch? Hilton may not be enough to beat the Patriots on his own, but Edelman may not be enough to beat the Colts, either. The Colts would be foolish to let Edelmania run wild. Brady is going to have to look to other receivers.
OBF: Getting burned on big plays. New England's defense as a collective entity has never recovered from the Giants' game-clinching drive in Super Bowl XLII. That one knock -- the defense can’t close out big games -- has yet to be fully dispatched. It probably won’t be until/if/when the Patriots win another Super Bowl.
One thing that gives you confidence about the Patriots
EF: The Patriots running game. They have been a balanced offense all year, but the running game has done well regardless of the situation, without any of the "gimmicks" of a fast-count hurry-up offense. They've been playing even better lately; over the past eight games, they're averaging 137.5 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per attempt. It's thanks in large part to dominant play from the offensive line, and they should match up very well against a Colts front seven that has had trouble getting off blocks and plugging up holes in the running game.
OBF: The running game. Well, since that one was taken, I'll go with the old "intangibles." In this case, that means the weather, the fact that they're at home and the fact that Belichick and Brady are producing something special in Foxborough this season and having it end on Saturday just doesn't fit the script.
Person to watch not named Tom Brady and Andrew Luck for each team
EF: For the Colts, it has to be Donald Brown. The Colts' trade of a first-round pick for running back Trent Richardson could only be described as an abject failure to this point, and Brown has been quietly productive all season long. He's also versatile, with 537 yards on the ground and 5.3 yards per carry to go with 27 receptions for 214 yards.
For the Patriots, my eyes are fixated on Jamie Collins. The rookie linebacker has earned an increased workload down the stretch, playing 59 percent of the snaps over the final four weeks of the season. Now, with Brandon Spikes (knee) on injured reserve, Collins' playing time may go up even more. Collins is the better player in pass coverage, which should benefit the Patriots against a tight end like Fleener, and he could be asked to carry a bigger load in run defense, which was Spikes' primary role.
OBF: Adam Vinatieri for the Colts. Tuesday, Belichick said Vinatieri is "a Hall of Fame kicker if there ever was one." Hopefully, Vinatieri won't get booed again this week in Foxborough until at least he does something worthy of Patriots' fan contempt. He's perfect on extra points this season (34 for 34) but has actually missed five field goal attempts. Only one of those misses came under 40 yards. At 41, Vinatieri will be both the oldest player on the field Saturday and the player with the most Super Bowl rings (four). The Colts will be counting on him not to miss.
In contrast to the likes of Vinatieri, the Patriots have 17 players expected to be in Saturday's lineup (including 14 rookies), who have never appeared in a playoff game. That’s a surprisingly high number for a franchise that has appeared in five of the past 12 Super Bowls. With all those Playoff Virgins on the field, one might think there has to be one dumb penalty or catastrophic turnover just waiting to happen. Hopefully, the "Patriot Way" -- the good "Patriot Way," in this case -- will infect these Newbies and there won’t be any costly "rookie mistakes." Another name to watch among rookies is cornerback Logan Ryan, who was a third-round pick out of, drum roll please, Rutgers. Ryan will be targeted throughout the game by Luck and Chuck Pagano. Ryan led the Patriots with five interceptions during the season and may have another one this week to drop on the Colts.
The primary objective for the New England Patriots defense is clear: shut down dynamic wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. The person responsible for completing that objective, however, remains a mystery.
Fortunately, the Patriots have options in cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan. Unfortunately, three of the four players I just listed are dealing with injuries: Talib (hip), Dennard (knee) and Arrington (groin) were all listed on the injury report prior to the regular season finale against the Buffalo Bills.
The bye week may have helped them get back to full health, but when it comes to covering a small (5-foot-9, 178 pounds), speedy (4.34-second 40-yard dash) receiver like Hilton, there are certain matchups that are more favorable for the Patriots.
Hilton does a lot of his damage after the catch; his 391 yards after catch were the 19th-most in the league, although he averaged just 4.4 YAC per reception. The Colts like to get him involved all over the field -- short, intermediate and deep; from the slot and lined up on the perimeter; over the middle or near the sideline.
He is a speedster with the ability to take the top off of a defense.
The Kansas City Chiefs learned that the hard way on his 64-yard touchdown catch in the final minutes of the Colts' thrilling 45-44 comeback win.
"Before we broke the huddle coming off the sideline, coach (Chuck) Pagano told me, 'Go win the game for us,'" Hilton recalled after the game, according to The Star Press. "We got in the huddle. Me and Andrew started talking. He called the play and said, 'Man, just run. Just run.'"
Those two words accurately describe what Hilton did on that play.
He ran the post route through the secondary, getting past the cornerback and splitting the two safeties as he ran over the middle of the field and leaving the cornerback in his tracks. He ran straight downfield, giving the illusion of a go route, but he broke slightly toward the middle of the field when the safety got turned around.
"He's a dynamic football player," said safety Steve Gregory, "he's fast, he's quick, he has good hands, he makes a lot of things happen after the catch, so he's a guy that we're just going to have to understand where he's at on the field [and] how they're trying to get him the ball."
The Patriots have to be mindful of the long ball, so expect them to double him with a safety regardless. That being said, Hilton does a majority of his damage on intermediate routes over the middle of the field.
One route the Colts love to use Hilton on is the drag route. It was comical watching against the Jaguars. On the Colts' first drive of the second half, they went to Hilton on this route on two third downs and coverted both times -- once for 41 yards, and this one for 19 yards.
He lined up in the slot and ran from right to left across the formation, underneath the belly of the zone coverage from the two linebackers over the middle. Tight end Coby Fleener ran a 10-yard curl route to clear out the coverage over the middle, and receiver Griff Whalen ran a deep pattern to take the cornerback out of the picture.
The above screen grab is the point at which Hilton caught the pass. Notice the three receivers, all running routes that are far away from Hilton, which creates enough space for him to catch the ball in stride and easily turn upfield to pick up extra yards.
He can be just as much of a threat underneath as deep.
We know the Patriots will bracket Hilton with a safety when he goes deep; we know they'll need to be able to handle his quickness and lateral speed as much as his vertical speed. Now, the question is, who is most up to the task?
Although Talib would normally draw a team's No. 1 receiver, this is not necessarily right in his wheelhouse. He has done well against bigger receivers that play a physical game, but he was already exposed this year in matchups with similar receivers in the Eagles' DeSean Jackson and the Panthers' Steve Smith -- one had Talib's number in the preseason, the other in the regular season.
"They run different routes," Talib said about receivers like Hilton. "They get different balls thrown to them. Big guys get 50-50 balls, they get balls just thrown up to them. Guys like him run over routes and crossing routes and routes where he can use his speed to run away from guys."
The Patriots could try putting Talib on Hilton at the start, and if that doesn't work -- whether it's a bad matchup or if Talib's hip isn't healthy enough to take the challenge -- they could switch to Dennard, or possibly even Ryan.
Dennard was having a solid season of his own, before the knee injury slowed him down and kept him out of three of the team's last seven games. Ryan has held held his own in coverage all season, allowing a completion rate of just 50.9 percent according to Pro Football Focus. He is physical for a player of his size -- a modest 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame that is still much bigger than Hilton -- and he certainly has the lateral quickness to handle him on crossing patterns, as well.
Ryan is also a sure tackler, which will be important in minimizing Hilton's abilities after the catch.
Also, one way or another, Hilton will most likely end up matched up against Arrington, who is the team's primary slot cornerback.
T.Y. Hilton caught 76.7% of his targets in the slot, second highest in the league. His 2.20 yards/route run in the slot ranked third— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 4, 2014
Arrington has the speed to keep up with Hilton in a footrace and a quickness matchup, and although routes downfield aren't necessarily his strength, he will have the help of the safeties over the top.
There are different ways he can hurt a defense, but it depends on where he lines up.
"I think you need to know where he’s at," said safety Devin McCourty. "That's the key. It all starts with knowing where he's at, then trying to have an understanding of how he can hurt you from each different position he's out there. I think they do a good job of using him in different ways, because teams are keying in on him and want to know where he's at. They’re doing a great job of putting him in positions to be successful."
The Patriots must not only find him, but once they do, they must understand what he can do to them when he gets there. It may be one guy, or a mix of guys, but the game plan starts with slowing Hilton down by any means necessary.
The Indianapolis Colts have one of the best young quarterbacks in the league in Andrew Luck, but there may be no better matchup for the New England Patriots in the AFC playoffs. When it comes to beating one-dimensional teams, there may be no better head coach in the league than Bill Belichick. As it turns out, the Colts are one-dimensional on both sides of the ball.
Luck of the draw.
The last time these two teams met, the Patriots beat the tar out of the Colts in a 59-24 decision that featured as many Luck interceptions as Tom Brady touchdowns -- three apiece. That was Aqib Talib's first game in a Patriots uniform, and he showed up big with a pick-six that gave the Patriots their first lead of the day in the second quarter.
This game may not be quite the blowout it was last time, but on paper, the Patriots should win. Things don't always work out that way, but here's an early look at what the Colts bring to the table.
Record: 12-5 (1-0 in the playoffs)
How they got here: The Colts won their division, earning a home playoff game in the Wild Card round. After falling behind 38-10 in the third quarter against the Chiefs, Luck authored the second-biggest comeback in postseason history for a 45-44 win, and earned his first playoff victory in the process.
Key cog, offense -- T.Y. Hilton, WR: With veteran receiver Reggie Wayne out of the picture, Hilton has emerged into one of the brightest young receivers in the league. He has carried the Colts' passing game with over 27 percent of their total receiving yards, and accounted for 224 of the team's 436 yards through the air against the Chiefs. Hilton's elite speed makes him a threat on deep patterns, as the Chiefs learned on the go-ahead 64-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
At 5-foot-9 and 178 pounds, Hilton is the kind of small, speedy, shifty receiver that often gives Talib problems -- Hilton had a 43-yard touchdown reception on Talib when the two met last year. If Talib struggles, the Patriots could call on Alfonzo Dennard to cover Hilton, but either way, expect the Patriots to double Hilton deep with a safety.
Key cog, defense -- Robert Mathis, OLB: The former Pro Bowl defensive end has made the switch to outside linebacker in Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense, and has been very successful in that role. The Colts flipped Mathis between the left and right side, but he was effective regardless. He finished the season with a league-high 19.5 sacks this season, and forced nine fumbles on those sacks.
At 6-foot-2 and 246 pounds, Mathis gives up a lot of size to Patriots offensive tackles Nate Solder (6-foot-8, 320 pounds) and Marcus Cannon (6-foot-5, 335 pounds), but even at 32 years old, Mathis still has elite burst off the snap. With 11 years of experience, he has veteran savvy as a pass-rusher, and is effective using a variety of moves. He's also lower to the ground, which could help him get leverage on the much taller offensive tackles.
X factor -- Coby Fleener, TE: The Patriots have struggled covering tight ends this year, and Fleener has been one of the top targets for Luck. Fleener doesn't overwhelm defenders with his speed, but his 6-foot-6, 251-pound frame helps him get open in tight quarters. His production has been up and down dramatically this year; he's had five games with five or more receptions, and six games with two catches or fewer.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: Several Colts players went down with injuries during the playoff game. Safety LaRon Landry (concussion), wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring) and cornerback Greg Toler (groin) did not return after leaving with their respective injuries. In addition to Wayne, the Colts have lost several other players for the season, including tight end Dwayne Allen (hip), guard Donald Thomas (quad) and linebacker Pat Angerer (knee).
- One thing that stands out about the Colts on the stat sheet is their turnovers -- or lack thereof. They had just 14 turnovers on offense all year, the fewest in the league. They managed to win against the Chiefs despite turning it over four times (three interceptions, one fumble). The Patriots have often thrived off turnovers, but have struggled in recent weeks in that area, behind held without a turnover in three of the final seven games this year, after a string of 36 straight games with at least one turnover.
- The Patriots have had their share of unlikely comebacks this year -- five fourth-quarter comebacks, to be exact -- but Luck has already built a reputation for late-game heroics in his young career. His eight fourth-quarter comebacks are the most for any quarterback in the first two years of his career. As mentioned earlier, the Colts' 28-point comeback against the Chiefs was the second biggest comeback in playoff history.
- One big reason the Colts have been so successful with the art of the comeback has been their performance in the third quarter. They score 7.5 points per game in the third quarter, the second-most in the league behind the Denver Broncos' 8.1 points per game. New England has struggled in the third quarter at times this year, but has thoroughly dominated in the fourth quarter with an average of 11.1 points per game on offense and 6.0 points per game on defense.
- If there's one area the Patriots should look to exploit the Colts defense, it's in the running game. The Colts' run defense was in the 25th percentile across the board; they allowed 4.5 yards per carry and 125.1 yards per game. The Patriots were a solid running team all year, and finished in the top 10 in every category that matters. They got even better over the final eight games of the season, when they averaged 4.6 yards per carry and 137.5 yards per game. The Patriots could look to set up the play-action passing game with a heavy early dose of the running game.
- The Colts have utilized 346 unique lineup combinations on offense, the third-most for any one team in the league this year. Defensively, their 304 unique lineup combinations are the eighth-most in the league.
- The Colts don't do a great job of pass protecting for Luck. They allow him to be pressured on 37.5 percent of his dropbacks according to Pro Football Focus, the 10th-highest percentage in the league. He was only sacked 32 times, though, as he was able to use his legs to escape pressure. On Saturday against the Chiefs, he ran seven times for 45 yards. The Patriots will have to be mindful of their rush lanes and stay disciplined in containing Luck in the pocket.
The coaching carousel has already begun to spin, with former Patriots offensive coordinator and Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien headed to the Houston Texans. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have already hired former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith.
On Saturday, the Cleveland Browns will interview Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for their vacant head coaching job, according to ESPN. Will he take it?
We get to that and more -- including the Patriots' on-again off-again relationship with Austin Collie, the trade-ability (if that's a word) of running back Stevan Ridley, and a few other questions around the AFC East -- in this week's mailbag.
Matt, it's no sure thing that he'd leave. How could he feel safe knowing that the Browns just fired Rob Chudzinski after one season? The two are represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), so it wouldn't be a surprise if he were advised against taking the job.
McDaniels was considered a candidate for the job in 2013, before the Browns hired Chudzinski. He was not interested at the time, and said, "I'm happy here. My family is happy here." It seemed like he would want to stay in New England with his family, but he's at least open to the idea now. He grew up in Barberton, Ohio, and his wife is also from Ohio according to Albert Breer of NFL Network.
That being said, while it may not seem like it on the surface, I bet the Cleveland job would be attractive to McDaniels, at least on some levels.
The defense is already loaded with talent. There are several holes on offense -- including quarterback, running back and several spots on the offensive line -- but the Browns have two first-round picks, including the fourth overall pick, and could address some of those needs in short order. Plus, the Browns have one of the best young receivers in the league in Josh Gordon.
One of the problems McDaniels encountered in his stint as head coach of the Denver Broncos was in his personnel decisions, but he wouldn't have to carry the full weight of that burden in Cleveland; he would be joining another former Bill Belichick buddy, general manager Michael Lombardi.
McDaniels may prefer to go somewhere with a talented quarterback already in place, but those positions don't become available easily, and this may be the best and most sensible offer that will be available to him in some time. Still, I think he stays.
@ErikFrenz With the success of Blount does it make Ridley possible trade bait?— Kevin (@KevinGust) January 2, 2014
Kevin, the Patriots know the value of a deep stable of talented running backs, and LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley both bring different things to the table. Injuries have the potential to put a big dent in the Patriots depth at the position, as we saw with Shane Vereen's injury in Week 1.
The Patriots haven't completely given up on Ridley, as he continues to get opportunities in various scenarios, even being asked to carry the ball in the fourth quarter as the Patriots tried to milk the clock for their win over the Ravens.
Hope is not lost for Ridley. The Patriots should continue to feed Blount if he remains the hot hand, but Ridley could get another chance to earn back his spot as the feature back in training camp next year.
Interesting question, but position coaches rarely win the award. Dante Scarnecchia has done a good job with the line this year. They allowed more sacks than usual, yielding 40 for the first time since 2008, but Brady was only pressured on 32.6 percent of his drop-backs. The offensive line was opening up holes in the running game, as well, and they averaged 4.4 YPA, the ninth-highest in the NFL.
They accomplished that, even while dealing with some injuries. The Patriots have been without right tackle Sebastian Vollmer since Week 8, thrusting capable backup Marcus Cannon into the starting role. Cannon went down, and Will Svitek was forced to start a couple games, as well. They were without Nate Solder for their game against the Baltimore Ravens. With Logan Mankins at left tackle and Josh Kline in the starting left guard spot, the Patriots offensive line had one of its best games of the season against a stout front seven on the road.
Personally, my hat goes off to defensive line coach Patrick Graham. He's obviously been the position coach dealt the shortest hand this year, with injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly unexpectedly thrusting backups into the mix. Rookie undrafted free-agent Joe Vellano and waiver wire pickup Chris Jones were the first ones up, and the Patriots later traded for Isaac Sopoaga and added Sealver Siliga to their group. He's also played a role in the emergence of Chandler Jones into a solid young pass-rusher. It hasn't been pretty, but Graham's work this season is the most noteworthy by a long shot.
There are three that come to mind: cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Brandon Spikes.
In terms of their "irreplaceability," since I'm creating words apparently, I'd go with Talib. The Patriots haven't been able to find a solid No. 1 cornerback since Asante Samuel. The Patriots have a wealth of linebackers in Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and the return of Jerod Mayo. If they bring back Dane Fletcher, they'll still have some depth at the position. As for Edelman, while he's been the most consistent and consistently available receiver on the roster, the Patriots have proven that the slot receiver spot is plug-and-play in their offense.
@ErikFrenz why do we keep breaking up and getting back together with Austin Collie? It's like a middle school relationship.— Alison Frenz (@AlisonFrenz) January 2, 2014
Well put, Alison. I was never in a relationship like that in middle school, though I guess for that to happen, I would have had to be in a relationship in middle school.
Anyway, the Patriots seem to have one of these "bad relationships" every year. In 2011, it was safety Ross Ventrone, who was on and off the Patriots roster with around 18 roster transactions on the season.
This year, Collie has been tabbed for a few returns as a result of some injuries at the receiver spot. When players like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins go down with an injury, the Patriots like to have someone they can bring in that knows the playbook. That's Collie.
Ideally, the Patriots would be healthy enough at the receiver spot to where they wouldn't have to keep bringing Collie back. However, they placed Josh Boyce on injured reserve on Thursday, so they had an opening they needed to fill. There are also questions about whether Dobson will be available and/or effective in the postseason due to his nagging foot injury.
@ErikFrenz How much will Austin Collie be involved in the Pats' receiving game with Boyce & Dobson injured?— Matt Monitto (@LGelevator) January 2, 2014
Matt, it truly depends on Dobson's health. Even if Dobson is not good to go, Collie would still be staring up the depth chart at Danny Amendola, Edelman and Thompkins.
Collie hasn't made many plays this year, but he's come up in spots, specifically with two big catches on the Patriots' last-minute touchdown drive at the end of their win over the Saints. The Patriots probably wouldn't ask Collie to be one of their top targets in the passing game.
@ErikFrenz numerically, how awesome was the saints game vs broncos game?— Michael Talarski (@MikeET86) January 2, 2014
Tough question, Mike. I had to ask a few friends for help, but I came to a conclusion.
I'm going with the Broncos game on a few counts. The hype headed into the game was unparalleled, with Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning in prime time. I spent all week writing about that game, because it was all readers wanted to talk about. Then, of course, the game itself was an instant classic. Both games featured thrilling finishes, but it was much more remarkable that it even reached that point in the Broncos game. The 24-point comeback is the biggest in Patriots history.
You asked me to compare them numerically, so I'll assume you meant on a scale of 1-10; in that vain, I'll give the Broncos game a 9 and the Saints game an 8.5. They were both pretty incredible. I was truly fortunate to see so many exciting games in my first season covering the team from Gillette Stadium.
@ErikFrenz except pouncey do the fins have anyone on the o line worth keeping?— Darren (@Bannsiders) January 2, 2014
I don't think it's a stretch to say the Dolphins should be in the market for at least three new offensive linemen. Sam Brenner emerged when given the opportunity, but the Dolphins shouldn't feel comfortable with the situation. John Jerry is a below average starter, and will always be limited in what he can do. The Bryant McKinnie trade didn't work out like the Dolphins hoped. Right tackle Tyson Clabo finished out the season strong, so the Dolphins could be justified in re-signing him, but at 32 years old, they might be better off looking for a younger option.
@ErikFrenz Any insight you have into Jets FA targets at WR would be cool.— Spyder 2 Y Banana (@gambit1154) January 2, 2014
A few names come to mind. Here's a look at all the available free-agent wide receivers. Who knows which of those receivers will and won't be signed, but in terms of what the Jets need, some good targets would be Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, Eric Decker and Jeremy Maclin. The Jets need a receiver with some size and speed who can play outside the numbers. The Stephen Hill experiment has been an abject disappointment through two seasons, and it may be time to seriously consider moving on from the former second-round pick.
@erikfrenz Chud to Buffalo? Close to Marrone. QB coach maybe?— Garth Blakely (@gblakely14) January 2, 2014
You know, I hadn't thought about this until just now. But now that I think about it, I really like it.
As you alluded, the Bills have sort of an opening with regards to the quarterback coach. Right now, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett carries both hats, but they might be in the market for a consultant of sorts.
As offensive coordinator of the Panthers from 2011 to 2012, Chudzinski had a hand in working with Cam Newton in his first two years in the league. Perhaps he is uniquely qualified to help the Bills get the most out of their own high draft pick, their own mobile quarterback in EJ Manuel.
The question is whether Chudzinski would even accept a job as a quarterback coach after getting a tats of being a head coach with the Cleveland Browns.
@ErikFrenz What are the worst New Years drink you've ever had?— JudeBlockedMe (@Oliverrez) January 2, 2014
I don't think it's a New Year's drink, necessarily, but the worst drink I ever had was a T-Bone, which is a shot of Jim Beam and A-1. Yeah, it was as gross as it sounds.
Some observations on some hot topics from the New England Patriots' 34-20 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
Running game hits stride behind dominant offensive line
LeGarrette Blount should consider buying his offensive line a nice steak dinner. Take nothing away from Blount, who set a career-high for rushing yards in a game with 189, but the men up front were the key behind that achievement.
The offensive line gashed the Bills' defensive front by paving big holes at the line of scrimmage, and if that trend continues into the playoffs, the running game could be the Patriots' not-so-secret weapon in the most important games of the season.
Blount made his share of nice cuts, and churned out his share of yards after contact, but the holes were there all day long. His 36-yard touchdown run at 12:22 in the second quarter was a clinic by Nate Solder (77), Logan Mankins (70) and Ryan Wendell (62).
Solder and Wendell did a fine job of holding their blocks at the point, walling off the defenders to allow Blount to get moving; Mankins quickly got out to the second level of the defense and got a block to spring Blount free.
Of course, his cut back across the formation was as nice a move as you'll ever see from a 6-foot, 250-pound running back.
Those holes were available, regardless of the running back on the field. Stevan Ridley had a 29-yard run, his longest of the season, thanks to a pair of great blocks by Dan Connolly (63) and Marcus Cannon (61). With fullback James Develin clearing the way through the hole, Ridley was able to put his foot on the gas and didn't look back until he had plowed over safety Jairus Byrd.
Cannon was flagged for a hold in the third quarter, but other than that, he had the best game of any Patriots offensive linemen, particularly in the running game.
In the fourth quarter, Blount had a seven-yard carry off the right side that wasn't even supposed to go that way. It was thanks to some nice blocks by Cannon that Blount didn't end up being tackled behind the line of scrimmage. He initially ran toward the offense's left, but defensive tackle Kyle Williams was in the backfield and ready to make a play. Instead, Blount shifted gears and cut back to the right.
Cannon was blocking defensive end Mario Williams initially, but slipped off him to get the linebacker. Blount was able to get past Williams, and Cannon's block at the second level allowed him to get the yards he needed.
Even when Cannon didn't think he would be clearing the way, he cleared the way, and was effective doing it.
There are some soft run defenses in the AFC playoffs, including the Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers. Not every run defense is going to be as easy to move around as the Bills, who finished the season ranked 23rd in yards allowed per rush attempt (4.4 YPA), but the Patriots may have to call on their offensive line to open up some holes in a couple more front sevens if they are going to make it to the Super Bowl.
One other interesting note on the running game: we saw the Patriots use a unique formation a couple times, in which they had three players (two backs and one tight end) lined up behind the quarterback, one behind the other. Both times, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (47) would motion out of the backfield. This was a formation the Patriots used twice when they were in the no-huddle. On one occasion, Hoomanawanui was flagged for an illegal motion, but it wasn't really his fault. The flag was for "moving forward at the time of the snap," according to the ever-eloquent Ed Hochuli, but it wouldn't have been a penalty if Tom Brady had waited for Hoomanawanui to get set.
Milestone day for Julian Edelman not without its cautions
One hundred catches, just the third player in Patriots history to accomplish that feat. One thousand receiving yards, just the 10th Patriot to ever hit that mark.
Those are remarkable accomplishments for Julian Edelman -- as is the fact that he was the only receiver to suit up for every game this year, and the only one to even play more than 12 games.
Caution lies in all those numbers.
There are other receivers on the roster -- Danny Amendola is a nice No. 2, and Kenbrell Thompkins saw his first playing time since injuring his hip in Week 13 -- but Shane Vereen has been marginally productive over the past few weeks, and the Patriots lost yet another vital piece of their offense when Aaron Dobson left the game with a foot injury and didn't return.
The offense is turning into a one-man show. Over the past two weeks, Edelman has been the target on 22 of Brady's 50 pass attempts. Edelman has been the Patriots most consistent, and most consistently available receiver, but that's not going to be enough in the playoffs. The Patriots need to figure out how to throw the ball to someone besides Edelman if they're going to go far in the postseason.
Sealing up the defensive tackle spot with Sealver Siliga
For months, the Patriots have searched for the right mix at defensive tackle in the wake of injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
Andre Neblett and Isaac Sopoaga have tried, but Sealver Siliga has the most potential of any defensive tackle on the roster.
Siliga has played 205 of a possible 287 snaps (71.4 percent) over the past four weeks, and has immediately become the best run-stopping defensive tackle in the lineup. He registered eight stuffed runs this week and logged his third sack in as many games.
His contributions in the running game jumped out the most because they were consistent, and because the Patriots have been missing exactly the presence that Siliga brings.
He showed great technique when asked to be a two-gap defender, holding strong at the point of attack to make sure he didn't give up either of his lanes. On this play, running back Fred Jackson ran straight ahead through the A-gap on the left side of the center.
Siliga was able to fight through the block using solid hand technique, swiping the guard's hands away so that he could attack the ballcarrier when he hit the line of scrimmage. That's exactly what happened, and Siliga was in position to make the play.
He was a key in keeping Jackson bottled up on a one-yard carry at 2:16 in the first quarter. This play is yet another example of a player doing his job despite the play not initially being designed to head their direction. Once again, Siliga was asked to contain two gaps, but this time, Jackson was running away from Siliga's side of the line.
The defensive tackle stayed patient; he didn't move out of his spot to attack the running back in the backfield and try to make a play. Instead, he simply took care of his blocker, winning leverage at the point of attack, and the play came to him when Jackson tried to cut it back across the formation.
Dont'a Hightower joined in, and the result was a tackle for a gain of just one yard.
Siliga isn't going to fix the Patriots run defense all by himself, but he is a good place to start. The Patriots had some questions about their depth at defensive tackle, but they may have found their answer in a player who wasn't even on the roster when those questions arose.