Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, let's ask around the league to see what defensive coaches are doing to prepare for the Patriots' two-headed tight end monster ...
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ASK THE LEAGUE: How do you stop the Patriots' two tight ends?
After watching Tom Brady completely shred the Cleveland Browns to the tune of 406 passing yards and three touchdowns in a little more than three quarters of work, opposing defensive coordinators have to be shaking in their boots at the sight of the revamped Patriots offense with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett as focal points. With the dynamic duo combining to rack up 11 receptions for 178 yards and three scores last Sunday, I thought it was the perfect time to reach out to a few coaches and personnel men for their thoughts on this matchup nightmare. Here's what I asked and their reactions:
AFC defensive coordinator: "They give you a tough matchup when those guys are on the field. They are creating the mismatches on the inside instead of the outside and that makes it hard to double or take one of those guys out of the mix. You have to hope that your 'bigs' [linebackers] can hold up when you match up. Otherwise, you're screwed."
AFC secondary coach: "That's a tough one because they have two legit tight ends on the field. If there was only one tight end, I would have my guys beat him up at the line before he gets to the safety to disrupt the timing of the passing game and force the quarterback to go else. With two guys, you can't really do that. ... You also have to account for [Julian] Edelman. If you don't have a plan for him, he will kill you with the nickel-and-dime stuff."
AFC assistant general manager: "That's one heck of a challenge. With No. 12 [Brady], the presence of two big tight ends puts him back in his comfort zone. We saw what kind of success he had before [with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez] -- you knew they were going to get back to that. I would hate to have to come up with a plan to slow them down now."
NFC assistant pro scouting director: "You can't stop them. They have the two best blocking tight ends in the game, so they can mash you if you play your little guys [nickel and dime defensive backs]. If you trot out the big boys [base personnel], they will spread you out and shred you. Bill [Belichick] is the master of creating mismatches and he holds all of the cards with those two guys on the field."
AFC pro personnel director: "Whew! That's a tough one. I don't know how you really match up with them. You can hope that No. 12 has a bad day, but that rarely happens."
AFC assistant director of pro personnel: "It's hard. I don't know how you can slow them down when both guys are healthy. ... You better hope that you can find some guys in the draft that can contain them. That's really the only option."
New England's offense has always been a nightmare to defend with Brady at the helm, but Belichick has made it an unstoppable force by surrounding the best quarterback in the game with two of the best tight ends in football. Gronkowski and Bennett possess rare skills as big-bodied, hoopster-like tight ends with exceptional athleticism, ball skills and blocking ability. They force defensive coordinators to account for their whereabouts in every formation because each player can win a one-on-one matchup against a linebacker or defensive back in the passing game or annihilate defenders in run blocking. In fact, their collective skills as road graders make the Patriots' current version of their "12" package (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) far more difficult to defend than the explosive unit anchored by Hernandez and Gronkowski a few years ago.
After talking to several coaches and personnel people around the league, I'm still at a loss for how to stop this personnel package. The Pats have assembled a nice set of complementary weapons (Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and a stable of versatile running backs) that provide the team with a solution for every conceivable defensive tactic. If the defense attempts to stay in "base" -- with regular personnel on the field -- the Patriots simply spread them out in 2x2, 3x1 or empty formations and allow Brady to pick the coverage apart with an assortment of quick-rhythm throws to his favorite mismatch on the perimeter. If the defense runs a sub-package (nickel or dime) onto the field, the Patriots will batten down the hatches and pummel the opponent with runs from a variety of "heavy" formations -- with the tight ends essentially creating a wall on the edges. With LeGarrette Blount serving as the designated hammerhead in those sets, New England can relentlessly pound the ball between the tackles until the defense waves the white flag.
Considering all of the options available to the defense, I would suggest mixing in some "big nickel" packages with safeties filling roles as slot defenders or linebackers to account for the Patriots' spread formations. Although this unit would be a little vulnerable against the ground game, I would dare New England to run the ball down my throat rather than allow Brady to pick my defense apart with a 400-yard passing day. Sure, this thinking runs counter to the traditional philosophy that most defensive coordinators subscribe to, but I believe the only way to knock off the Pats is to neutralize their best player (Brady) and force other guys to make plays. By baiting the Patriots into a "three yards and a cloud of dust" game, you might be able to keep the score down and find a way to steal it at the end. It's not the best strategy, but based on my conversations with others, we are all grasping at straws here.