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09 Sep 2015

Film Room: Chandler and Easley

by Cian Fahey

The New England Patriots are forever evolving.

Having won the Super Bowl with an expensive secondary in 2014, head coach Bill Belichick took the complete opposite approach to building his roster for the 2015 season. Safety Devin McCourty was re-signed to a very team-friendly deal, but the Patriots did not pick up an expensive option year on Darrelle Revis. Revis and McCourty were the defense's two most important pieces last year. Brandon Browner was a vital matchup-specific option, but with the departure of Revis suggesting a scheme change in New England, the Patriots cut him too. Then nickelback Kyle Arrington, who played more than 600 snaps last season, was cut as well. Browner is now in New Orleans and Arrington is in Baltimore. Logan Ryan, a cornerback who played the fourth-most snaps of any defensive back last season, remains on the roster but has seemingly fallen out of favor.

From the outside looking in, most NFL decision-makers appear to have specific approaches to building success. Head coaches tend to prefer specific schemes while general managers remain committed to certain principles of roster construction. Belichick is part of the minority that understands football games can be won in different ways. He was never going to overpay for Revis, McCourty, or Browner simply because he had enjoyed success with them in the past. Instead, he focused on finding value on the defensive back market while growing the expectations for his front seven. Adding Malcom Brown, Jabaal Sheard, Geneo Grissom, and Trey Flowers to his defensive line rotation, combined with the expected return of Jerod Mayo, should elevate the overall quality of the defensive front.

The Patriots defense will no longer be able to rely on Revis and McCourty to dictate schemes to the offense. This year, the Patriots will be more adaptable to react to whatever opponents attempt to do to them.

This year's defense should look a lot more like last year's offense. The Patriots offense constantly adapts to the opposition to exploit specific weaknesses. This was no more evident than during the playoffs. In the divisional round against the Ravens, the Patriots targeted Rashaan Melvin over and over again. They threw the ball more than 50 times and scored 35 points in the process. Just a week later, they faced the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots had previously run through the Colts in the regular season with Jonas Gray. Gray only had four carries this time around, but LeGarrette Blount had 30 and ran for 148 yards with three touchdowns. The Patriots scored 45 points while bludgeoning the Colts' defensive front.

Such is the nature of this approach that the names of important players are constantly changing. Tom Brady, McCourty, and a handful of other top players remain, but as Brandon LaFell showcased last year, previously overlooked players will get opportunities to become impact stars. Two to keep an eye on entering this season are tight end Scott Chandler and defensive lineman Dominique Easley.

The 30-year-old Chandler was a free-agent addition this offseason. Chandler spent time with the Chargers, Giants, and Cowboys without ever catching a pass, then gained 182 receptions for 2,120 yards and 17 touchdowns in four-plus seasons with the Buffalo Bills. Chandler was one of Buffalo's most talented receiving options over the years, but he never played with a quarterback capable of consistently getting him the ball. The Patriots brought in a number of tight ends this offseason, but Chandler was always the favorite to be Rob Gronkowski's complement.

Injury prevented Chandler from playing through training camp and the early stages of the preseason, but once healthy he showed why the Patriots signed him to a two-year, $5.3 million contract.

Chandler isn't as versatile a player as Aaron Hernandez used to be, but he is the most talented receiving complement that the Patriots have put alongside Gronkowski since Hernandez's incarceration. Chandler has the size and fluid athleticism to beat defensive backs in different ways. He can line up in the slot or tight to the formation to run a variety of routes to different areas of the field. In the above GIF, the tight end lines up in the slot and works a deep in route that puts him just in front of the arriving safety, Tre Boston. Chandler's route wasn't good enough to create a pocket of space, but he could use his sheer size and strength to fend off Boston and absorb his hit before securing the first-down reception.

That was a traditional type of tight end play, working the middle of the field and relying on size to essentially box out a defender for a rebound. In this preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, Chandler showed off his comfort working in space as well.

This is a relatively simple play, but a valuable one that is executed perfectly -- at least, perfectly after the ball is snapped, because Chandler was fortunate not to be flagged for not being set at the snap after motioning across the formation. It's easy to see how comfortable Chandler is accelerating towards the sideline and making a hands catch away from his body before seamlessly turning downfield. What is more subtle is the early movement in his route that slowed down linebacker Luke Kuechly. Chandler hesitated early instead of simply running directly towards the sideline. By squaring his shoulders and looking directly at the linebacker, Chandler forced Kuechly to take a backstep before he broke towards the sideline. This backstep prevented Kuechly from being aggressive with his athleticism, and that allowed Chandler to eventually turn upfield.

It's a simple quick throw to the flat for a 6-yard gain, but this is the type of play on which the Patriots build their offense. An easy 6-yard throw can be completed consistently, setting up second-and-4 over and over again -- in other words, putting the offense in more manageable situations.

Making the simple plays will make Chandler a valuable piece in the Patriots offense, but as teams focus on covering Gronkowski and Julian Edelman while still aligning against the running game, he should also find himself with preferable matchups to work deep downfield. In the above play, Chandler caps off the drive with a long touchdown reception on a sideline route against Thomas Davis, one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL. Therefore, even though he doesn't create huge separation against the linebacker and he is reliant on a perfect throw, it is still an impressive play for the tight end to make. If Chandler executes like this against your typical NFL linebacker, he will be comfortably open downfield for an easier reception.

For all of the different amalgamations the Patriots' game plan went through last season, they didn't heavily feature a second tight end in the passing game very often. Tim Wright was the second most productive tight end behind Gronkowski. He scored six touchdown passes, but caught only 26 passes on the year for 259 yards. Wright had just three games of significant consequence and didn't register a reception during the playoffs. Chandler should be more consistently prominent in the offense from the very start of this season. That is because he is a more talented player than Wright, but also because there are major questions about the team's receivers. Brandon LaFell will be inactive on the PUP list for a while and Julian Edelman is available but appears to have a lingering ailment from the injury that sidelined him during the preseason. Aaron Dobson didn't have a good camp, but is in line to be the third receiver on the field if Edelman is healthy.

While Chandler is a new face who should be pushed into a prominent role, Easley is a carryover from last season. He was the team's first-round pick of the 2014 draft. Although first-round picks are often not heavily involved as rookies, the Patriots knew that they were likely going to be waiting for at least one year before they could get the most out of Easley. That is because the former Florida defensive tackle was coming off the second torn ACL injury of his career. The Patriots were still willing to invest a first-round pick in Easley despite those injuries because of his special talent.

Easley isn't Vince Wilfork. He's a lighter defensive tackle who is more of a penetrating presence than a nose tackle. That is why he spent some time as a defensive end last season. With Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, and Trey Flowers available to play outside, there is no reason to think Easley will be moved to the edge this year. That should allow him to prosper. His ability to disrupt the pocket from the interior will be hugely valuable because it's so difficult to find defensive tackles who can explode off the line of scrimmage the way he can.

In college, Easley was regularly the first defensive lineman off the ball. He was consistently able to engage offensive linemen or get into their gaps before they had even fully left their stances. His burst was so rare that it was likely unique. On a few occasions, Easley had been so quick off the snap that he had pushed offensive linemen backwards so that he was level with both edge defenders as they engaged the tackles outside. The edge defenders had got to the same point unopposed as Easley had working through contact. The Patriots were banking on that burst returning after his second ACL surgery, one on each leg. During his rookie season he dealt with swelling and pain that shortened his season, and when he was on the field there wasn't any real reason for optimism.

During the preseason this year, that all changed.

Easley might not be an every-down defensive tackle, but the Patriots won't need him to be this season. Both he and this year's first-round pick, Malcom Brown, are outstanding penetrators who will provide huge value on passing downs. Easley can also be effective against the run as he can easily penetrate against zone-blocking schemes with his burst off the snap, and he has the strength to manhandle blockers against power runs. He won't be eating up two gaps, but the Patriots should not need him to in their 4-3 front.

The below GIF highlights the kind of play the Patriots are going to expect to get from Easley this year.

Easley lines up over the center at the snap. He is isolated against the center and uses his hands to violently knock him backwards as he explodes through him. Although Easley doesn't touch Cam Newton on the play, his penetration through the middle of the pocket disrupts the quarterback and opens a lane for Jamie Collins to run through. The backside of this play offers up an example of what the Patriots are expecting this year. Their defensive back is beaten on an out route by Ted Ginn. Ginn may be in position to reach forward for a first down, but Newton misses him because of the pressure he's working under in the pocket. When people talk about the pass rush making the coverage better, this is the type of play they are highlighting.

Being overly reliant on the front to create pressure can be a dangerous strategy for any defense. On plays where the front can't disrupt the pocket, the secondary is left susceptible to consistent completions and big plays downfield. While McCourty at free safety has limitations as an individual player, he can play a major role in preventing big plays. What a free safety can do for others at this level is often overstated, but McCourty is the second-best free safety in the NFL, a player who can take on tough assignments and execute them comfortably with his range and intelligence. With McCourty on the back end, a strong set of starting linebackers and their talented rotation on the defensive line, the Patriots should be able to alleviate the pressure on their cornerbacks to perform.

That is essentially the inverse of the philosophy on which the Patriots defense was built last season. Belichick understood back then that he was getting adequate value from the players in whom he invested. Whether he will get the same from his investments this year is still unclear, but on paper it at least looks like his team is set up for another successful season.

Belichick gets a lot of credit for his years of success. There are very few aspects of his career that aren't celebrated. But his willingness to adapt and understanding that it's not about what you do but rather how well you do it is something that deserves consistent praise. It is at the core of his Hall-of-Fame career.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 09 Sep 2015

18 comments, Last at 10 Sep 2015, 12:55pm by Rich A

Comments

1
by amin purshottam :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 12:25pm

Cue the patriots are cheaters comments .....
Amin purshottam

2
by michdi :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 12:41pm

certainly fair game

Michael

6
by jtr :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 1:59pm

Woah now, the Patriots aren't relying on Scott Chandler this year because they're cheaters. They're doing it because they're murderers.

7
by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 3:00pm

Just because Scott Chandler is replacing Aaron Hernandez doesn't mean he's going to drive Danny Amendola to a deserted industrial park and double tap him in the head.

8
by Anon Ymous :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 3:14pm

LOL! Keep your cell phone handy, I suspect OTL will be in touch soon. :)

14
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 6:31pm

You're remarkably thin skinned for a troll.

18
by Rich A :: Thu, 09/10/2015 - 12:55pm

Amin, you may be confused. This isn't ESPN or NFL.com. People here stay on topic unless they're prodded. Stop prodding others and stay on topic. You make Patriot fans look like arse's. If you have something on point, then by all means add it but you're not adding anything by being defensive.

As to the article; will comment after I get some work done in a separate post.

3
by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 1:27pm

Isn't Belichick moving McCourty back to corner? I saw some article about that in preseason, and that McCourty wasn't happy with it. I know I probably say this every year, but the Pats seem vulnerable. They're relying on a 38 year quarterback to post enough points with great tight ends but mediocre receivers to cover for a defense weak at corner and possibly unable to stop the run when necessary. At least Brady hasn't shown any signs of falling apart, unlike Peyton.

4
by Anon Ymous :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 1:36pm

No, that was contingency planning. McCourty has only been with the safeties since the Saints preseason game.

5
by PirateFreedom :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 1:46pm

Pats just have more safeties than corners on the roster. If, heaven forbid, McCourty plays CB it will mean a run of injuries at corner occurred. As Anon said the CB time was an exception to what McCourty has normally been asked to do.

9
by PaddyPat :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 3:59pm

McCourty brings a lot more value at Safety at this point. As far as the team looking vulnerable, there is an old military adage--to win, you don't need to be good, you need merely to be better than your opponent. I don't see many teams in the AFC that are likely to perform better or more consistently than the Patriots. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are possibilities, as is Denver, and maybe San Diego, though I have doubts. Indianapolis is a media darling for some reason this season, but I see no reason why teams won't just run over their defensive front. Even more so than last year, theirs is a defense built with edge rushers who don't set the edge against the run... It's hard to imagine the Jets or Dolphins in their current states out-performing New England over the course of a season. I'm not sure about Buffalo, but without a legitimate passing game?

10
by PatsFan :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 5:01pm

NE center Bryan Stork was placed on the designated-to-return IR.

Can't say this bodes well for his career. Had at least one had-to-miss-games concussion last year, missed a bunch of preseason with a concussion, finally got back to practice and apparently got concussed in the final practice before the last preseason game, and now is on the short-term IR.

12
by MJK :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 5:06pm

Ouch. Reportedly, undrafted rookie center Andrews has looked competent, but playing with an aging QB whose mobility may be on the decline, and starting potentially 3 rookies on the interior offensive line (one of whom is undrafted) can't possibly be an optimal plan. And it's even worse that, if it's not working out, Plan B involves Josh Kline...

15
by ClavisRa :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 8:32pm

The Pats have become very wise handling injuries the last few years. They err strongly on the side of sitting players until they are 100%, and try to have the roster at maximum health for the playoffs. The other benefit of this is they value depth and developing their full roster; you need a experienced backup linemen, why not let them get experience now early in the season while Stork is borderline? I wouldn't read too much into this re Stork himself.

11
by MJK :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 5:04pm

Here's what Pats fans (or at least this Pats fan) are excited and scared about this season.

Excited:
* A rangy receiving TE to compliment Gronk and give "the Boston TE party" a second chance (preferably without the murder this time).
* An exciting front 7 with three good edge rushers, potentially two good penetrating interior tackles, and 3 good-to-great off the line LBs. In other words, the ability to stop runs for a loss and actually pressure the QB.

Scared:
* Terrible play by the CB's, either due to injuries or youngsters (Butler, Ryan) not progressing or Tarrell Brown or the other free agents being Duane Starks 2.0.
* Bad play by the young guards allowing the pocket to collapse frequently and hastening Brady's decline.
* A major injury to Brady, Gronk, Edelman. A major injury to Collins would hurt, too.

I'm not scared about Brady's decline as some--he never relied as much on his physical talents as some, and when he suddenly stops being able to be mobile or throw a 25 yard cross, then I have no doubt that Belichick will not be swayed by sentimentality but will bench Brady for Jimmy G, as he did in Cleveland and with Brady/Bledsoe in NE. I think Garappolo is a step down from Brady (at the moment), but he looked starting calibur in the pre-season, and certainly better than, say, Matt Cassel, whom Belichick managed to get 11 wins out of (granted with a soft schedule and a lot of other offensive talent).

13
by Dr. Mooch :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 6:11pm

Gosh, I've wanted to see an analysis of Chandler's play for years now. After a while I just came to the conclusion that it would never happen, what with FO's policy prohibiting writers from spending any significant time or energy on Buffalo Bills. But hey, now he plays for the Patriots, so this isn't the last we'll see about him.

16
by alan frankel :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 10:23pm

The end of the Brady era is def scary. I hope belicheck goes Bill Walsh on us and alternates him and garrapolo all year with cryptic explanations to the media maybe even a mentioning of Brady's perpetual shoulder injuries. Just to Coax Brady into going Rocky training mode for one more ring

17
by Rich A :: Thu, 09/10/2015 - 11:00am

Specifically on the article:

Chandler:
I think one of the things that also makes Chandler and Gronk a ridiculous combination is Chandler's height. I particularly remember him destroying the Patriots several times from 10-15 yrds from the goal line as it's really hard to cover someone that's 6'7". Now imagine having to cover a 6'6" Gronk and another reciever who's even taller and nearly as agile (albeit not as violent or skilled - I think Chandler doesn't do quite as well in traffic inside - he's usually better towards the outside and underneath, not so much on crosser from my recollection). He's absolutely terrible in the Mobile Madden game though so stay away from him on there.

Easley:
I think I remember reading that his explosion is also what gives him his knee struggles. Certainly makes sense. Hopefully NE has great sports science doctors, who know how they compare to the ones at Florida. Maybe Belichick has picked some things up from Kelly but doesn't publicize them. I also recall reading here that interior pressure can be some of the most difficult for a QB to deal with (blind side pressure bringing an element of fear but not actually interfering with the throw unless it actually reaches). I wonder if his snaps will be managed.

Belichick schemes:
Why don't coaches realize that you build your scheme to your available talent, not jettison great talent when it doesn't fit what you're trying to do schematically? It's like they purposely get hyper focused on one idea and can't realize there's many ways to get to your ultimate goal, which is winning games. Interesting to think about McDaniel's next stop and if he'll alienate the personnel or if he'll build to the talent he has. My bet is he only goes to a position where he has the kind of personnel control and role that Belichick has. Could make for some interesting schemes. One other note, I hope Belichick finds some way to make the 46 work this year against the passing game with his front 7. The versatility of Nink, Collins, Mayo and even Chandler Jones could possibly make it work. We'll see if it ever comes out.