Check the Film: Explosive Easley key for aggressive Patriots defense
After each Patriots game, I'll be going back over the game film and posting my observations. I took a closer look at how the struggles of the offensive line prevented Tom Brady and the first team from getting into a rhthym against the Panthers. Today, I'm turning to the defensive side of the ball, where an impressive collection of front seven talent flashed their ability.
I vividly remember doing this film study piece on Easley after he was drafted in the 2014 first round and being blown away by his explosiveness and disruptive potential. There were whispers that Easley could have been a top 10 pick had he not torn his ACL in practice his senior year, and he certainly looked like that caliber of a prospect in the film I watched. The guy I saw was constantly in the backfield thanks to an unreal first step, great leverage, explosive power and a never-ending motor.
We never saw that guy last year during Easley's rookie year. Easley did play from the get-go, but was never truly healthy, as he was a regular on the team's injury reports for much of the year (reportedly due to knee soreness) before eventually landing on season-ending injured reserve. He simply didn't have the same explosiveness that jumped off the tape at Florida, as he amassed a mere 10 tackles and 1 sack in his 270 snaps.
After showing some flashes of his ability over the first two preseason games, Easley exploded Friday night in a way we haven't seen since that college film that blew me away. Simply put, he looked like the same guy whose talent was worth the considerable risk of drafting a guy with two torn ACLs on his medical records in the first round.
The first of many splash plays for Easley came on the Panthers second possession. On third down, Easley subs into the game, aligned as a "1 technique" between the center and right guard. Apparently assigned to rush upfield and open up a lane for a delayed Jamie Collins blitz, Easley stuns center Bryan Folkerts with a quick club move to his outside shoulder, which enables him to cross his face and attack his left side. Folkerts is forced to give up a lot of ground as he scrambles to compensate against the hard charging Easley, who takes advantage by crossing his face again and popping Cam Newton just after he gets rid of the ball for a drive killing incompletion. It's tough to win a one-on-one matchup more decisively than that.
Easley was just getting started. Three defensive snaps later, he uses his hands well to get good leverage and puts right guard Trai Turner on roller skates, pushing him all the way back to the feet of Newton. Keep in mind that Easley is bullying a guy with over 40 pounds on him here.
The next defensive series began with a loud stuff of Jonathan Stewart for a four yard rush. Teams who attempt to run zone blocking against the Pats will have to do so at their own risk, as Easley's first step makes him a very difficult assignment to reach on such plays.
The very next play sees Easley draw extra attention on a spin move, freeing up Chandler Jones to apply some pressure on a looping two man stunt. Three snaps later, he comes bearing in on Newton once again after quickly getting to the outside shoulder of the overmatched Folkerts. Four snaps later, Easley gets on the stat sheet with a sack, using his relentless hustle and athleticism to once again beat Folkerts on a looping inside stunt. The strength he displayed in pulling Newton, one of the league's toughest QBs to bring down, to the ground with one arm was noteworthy on the play. The very next snap sees Easley fight his way to Turner's outside shoulder and get around the edge, applying enough pressure to influence a jittery Newton into taking a harmless checkdown on third and long.
Those disruptive "splash" plays are great, but another thing that sticks out with Easley is just how relentless his motor is regardless of how the play is going for him. There were multiple occasions where he didn't get to the QB with his rush but did a good job of getting his arms up in the passing lane. He also showed great effort on a Newton checkdown to Greg Olsen with 7:14 left in the first quarter, running to make sure Olsen was tagged down despite the presence of multiple members of the Pats secondary in the area. Hustle like that will certainly appeal to Bill Belichick, as the attitude and energy that Easley brought Friday night can be infectious for a defense.
With such a collection of front seven talent suddenly at their disposal, some have wondered how the Pats will carve out enough snaps for all their defensive weapons. While Friday was still a preseason game, the third game is typically the closest to the regular season with regards to game-planning and scheme installation, and there were hints throughout the first half of the multiple ways Belichick and Patricia can use all of their chess pieces up front.
The first hint of that came early, as the defense faced a third-and-short situation on their first possession of the game. They countered with a five man line, with Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich on the edge and Chandler Jones bumping inside to join Alan Branch and Malcom Brown. The play was unlikely to be successful due to stout play by the two "big tackles", but Jones made sure by using his quickness and a nice swim move to knife into the backfield and cut down Jonathan Stewart for no gain.
While it is a way to get all three of Jones, Ninkovich and Sheard on the field at the same time, Jones bumping inside is hardly a new tactic in New England. Other plays showcased how the versatility of their front seven pieces could make them a nightmare to play against when the games really count and the hounds get unleashed. Despite not being a particularly blitz-heavy defense last year, they brought a lot of pressure by getting creative with their linebackers, creating confusion for opposing offensive lines with regards to who was rushing and who was dropping into coverage. That's something you can pull off when you have three linebackers (Collins, Hightower, Mayo) who can all be individual forces on the blitz.
If Friday night's game is any indication, those misdirection techniques will continue to be a staple this year. A key to those type of plays on Friday was Ninkovich, whose past experience at linebacker makes him comfortable dropping into passing zones. I counted six separate instances in the first half where Ninkovich showed rush from a standing position on the edge only to drop back into a shallow zone, freeing the defense to send another unexpected rusher.
That tactic can also increase the confusion caused by defensive stunts, something that showed up on the third down play shown above in the first gif. On an obvious passing situation (3rd & 10), the Pats show five across their defensive front: Ninkovich and Collins standing on the edge, and Jones, Easley and Sheard all in three point stances in the middle. However, Ninkovich briefly shows rush before dropping down to the middle of the defense, possibly as a spy in case of a designed QB draw for the always dangerous Newton. Meanwhile, Collins loops inside from his edge spot and, thanks to the penetration by Easley, gets a free shot at the quarterback.
Another such play came up with 1:38 to go in the first quarter. On this one, both Ninkovich and Hightower are alligned standing on the edge, with Sheard, Sealver Siliga and Easley all lined up on the inside. This time, both Ninkovich and Hightower drop into shallow zones while the down lineman run another stunt. Sheard stretches his rush outside to replace Ninkovich on the edge, while Siliga pulls his rush out towards the left guard. That opens up a rush lane for Collins, who comes unexpectedly on a delay.
With so many capable rushers up front and most of them possessing some positional versatility, there's no limit to the possibilities Belichick and Patricia can draw up. I certainly won't envy the quarterbacks tasked with facing this front in the fall.
Belichick has always valued strong tackling and physical play from his corners in the running game. He should be happy after Friday's game, as the top trio of Butler, Bradley Fletcher and Tarell Brown all showed a willingness to mix it up physically. Fletcher particularly stood out in this department, with a rock solid tackle of hard charging Jonathan Stewart on the outside. At 6'0 and 205 pounds, Fletcher is a bigger corner whose physicality brings a different dynamic to the position. Playing him alongside Brown, long one of the league's most reliable tackling corners, and the always feisty Butler gives the Pats a rotation that won't give any ground when challenged on the edge. Robert McClain seems to have fallen behind in the competition for nickel snaps, but he also showed up with a nice, fearless tackle in run support.
Morris proves his worth
Linebacker James Morris has gotten plenty of snaps this preseason, and appears to have jumped out to the lead in the competition for a depth role behind starters Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower at linebacker. While the presence of Mayo and Hightower on the field Friday removed all doubt concerning their availability of the season opener, any injury to those top three would presumably vault Morris into a regular role.
Perhaps to test his readiness for such a situation, Morris got some second quarter run with the first team defense. He responded by doing what he's done all preseason: displaying a nose for the ball and a willingness to mix it up physically. He also came through on a would-be sack, only to have his efforts negated in the stat-sheet by offsetting penalties.
With Dane Fletcher hitting the reserve PUP list as part of the Pats cutdown to 75 players, there's room for at least one and more likely two linebackers to make the roster behind the starting trio. It's looking increasingly likely that those spots will go to Morris and Jonathan Freeny, with Morris apparently ahead of Freeny on the pecking list for defensive reps. Both Freeny and Morris should contribute on special teams regardless of their defensive involvement.
Safety competition: Wilson drops out?
Safety is another position where special teams will be a major consideration, as the Pats might have to make a tough cut with six viable competitors for roster spots. Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards all appear to be locks, leaving Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson to battle for what could be only one roster spot.
A 2012 second rounder, Wilson seemed to have a strong training camp, but those improvements haven't carried over into the games. If Friday was any indication, he could be running out of chances. Wilson only managed 8 defensive snaps, compared to 31 for Ebner, 30 for Harmon and 33 for Richards. Perhaps that's a situation where Belichick is looking to give Ebner more snaps on tape, as Wilson had 71 snaps going into the game compared to just 41 for Ebner. However, stronger performances from Wilson on the field against Green Bay and New Orleans would have gone a long way towards securing a role. He now appears to be fighting for his job going into Thursday's finale against the Giants.
Analyzing any football game without taking context into account is a fools errand, and in this case, the level of opposition has to be considered. The Panthers offensive line was already considered one of the weakest in football, and were without their best player, center Ryan Kalil, on Friday. That lead them to start Bryan Folkerts at the pivot, who spent the majority of the first half serving as a piñata for Easley and co. On the bright side, you can only beat who lines up across from you, and the Pats did what they should against a line like that: dominate.
Similar context is needed for the cornerbacks, who were going against a similarly weak Panthers receiving core. The Panthers were thin on playmakers even before losing Kelvin Benjamin for the year to an ACL tear, and were without Benjamin's penciled in replacement, second round pick Devin Funchess, on Friday. Again, you can only beat who lines up from you, but both Butler and Fletcher benefitted from the butterfingers of Corey "Philly" Brown. They'll face much tougher challenges throughout the season, starting with the Antonio Brown lead Steelers a week from Thursday.