Bruins

McDaniels hitting groove but still tweaking offense

884783.jpg

McDaniels hitting groove but still tweaking offense

Thursday night's game got so weird, so fast that the methodical beating the Pats seemed about to apply turned into a pie-in-the-face mess.

But it was clear on Thursday night that the Patriots offense - which had its moments of doubt and pain earlier in the season even as it put up points at a solid clip - is closer to becoming fully evolved.

Even without Rob Gronkowski, even with Aaron Hernandez coming back from his ankle injury (again), even on a short week, the Patriots ran some schemes against the Jets offensively that stretched New York to its breaking point. And past.

The slapstick nature of points 14 through 28 overshadowed the first 14 points the Patriots scored and the drive preceding on which Hernandez re-entered the Patriots offense with a 28-yard reception. But there were plays that showed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is understanding how all his gadgets work.

"Obviously, the more time we spend together, the more you get to learn about different phases of each receiver's game and then how they all work together collectively," McDaniels said. "Whether it's the plays or the performance we're looking for from them, it's all tied together. Really what we try to narrow it to is, hone in on what we feel are the strengths of those groups of players that are working together. Whether that's throwing the ball between Tom Brady and Brandon Lloyd. Whether that's a certain blocking combination on the edge with tight ends. Whatever it might be, we're trying to maximize the strengths of their games at the same time."

Thursday night, Shane Vereen was employed on two plays of note - a third-and-1 toss that looked like it was ripped from a high school playbook and gained 7. Vereen was also the recipient of a pass in the flat that went for 83 yards when the Patriots schemed it up perfectly to get a matchup of Bart Scott on Vereen.

In the course of asking McDaniels about getting comfortable with his weapons, I alluded to Brandon Lloyd and Tom Brady. McDaniels circled back to that tandem as being one that can still improve.

"We need to work on the weak points that maybe we're not doing as well that we need, NEED, to improve on as we go forward," said McDaniels. "I think with Brandon and Tom specifically, there's definitely some real good and then we're always going to try to find some things that we didn't hit positive as we go forward. I know that those two guys have tried extremely hard to try to get that done and hopefully we're gonna see more and more results as we go down the stretch here."

The first time the Patriots and Jets met, Lloyd was a focal point of the game plan and was targeted downfield outside the numbers. Eight throws went his way, he caught 1 for 6 yards.

Thursday, the Patriots featured the running game more and a lot of perimeter attacking based on scheming things and stretching coverage as opposed to beating guys 1-on-1. 

That, McDaniels said, is an outgrowth of the offense expanding.

"There's always things that you need to take and add to (the base offense) as you go based on the defense that you're seeing that week," McDaniels explained. "It may not be a brand new protection but maybe it's a route combination that we've never used from that protection off of a formation that we've used previously. I think those are the little things that we're sensitive to.

"You've heard the term "self scouting" before," McDaniels noted. "A lot of that has to do with looking at yourself and seeing what other teams are seeing and then go forward and either perfect things that are going well or give them something to think about as we go forward."

The Patriots will face two of the NFL's toughest defenses in the next month - the Niners and Texans. It will be interesting to see what New England hatches for them that neither team has seen on film. That will be evidence of what McDaniels is referring to.

"I don't think there's a period of time where you just come to a point in the season where you stop (adding to the offense)," he concluded. "I always think you can make yourself better by complementing some of the things you do well and hopefully that's what will continue to do for the last five weeks of the season."

Julien thankful for B's video tribute, 'happy he can move on'

Julien thankful for B's video tribute, 'happy he can move on'

BOSTON – It was the final piece of closure for former Bruins coach Claude Julien when he made his return to TD Garden for the first time as the bench boss for the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night. Julien stood on the visiting bench, watched a first period video tribute of appreciation for his 10 years guiding the Bruins and then received the warm, thankful ovation from the B’s fans that still very much appreciate his efforts that resulted in a 2011 Stanley Cup title. 

Unfortunately for him and the Canadiens he also presided over a lifeless, limp effort from his Montreal club in a 4-1 loss to the Bruins where his team simply couldn’t derive any emotion or juice from his return to Boston. Julien said in both French and English that that his Habs simply “laid an egg” on the road, and that was disappointing for him given that Montreal already has its back against the wall for a possible playoff spot. 

Instead Julien’s biggest bright spot in the game turned out to be the video tribute from the Bruins midway through the first period, for which he was greatly appreciative. 

“It’s always something that you kind of dread a little bit because it’s a little emotional, and at the same time [you’re] trying to keep your emotions intact there so you can coach a game and stuff like that. But, you know, I appreciate what they did for me,” said Julien following his second loss to the Bruins in five days. “As I said, I’ve got nothing but good things to say about this organization that gave me the opportunity to spend 10 years here. At the same time I’m kind of happy it’s over so we can move on now, but that doesn’t mean you forget what’s happened here. It’s always going to be with you. But now I’m in another chapter of my coaching career, and I’ve got to think about that.”

Julien’s counterpart, Bruce Cassidy, called the video tribute a “classy move” by the Bruins organization after the game had been settled, and there’s no doubting it was the right move for a coach that won over 400 games during his 10 years leading the Bruins. It was also the final chapter in his Bruins book as Julien now has completely moved on to his new gig guiding the Canadiens where it seems like his work is most definitely cut out for him. 

Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?

jaguars_steelers.jpg

Will the real Jaguars defense please stand up?

FOXBORO -- Are we giving the Jaguars defense too much credit?

The numbers, on the surface, paint Jacksonville's defense as one of the best the NFL has seen in years. They finished the season as the league's top passing defense in terms of yards allowed, and they were second when it came to points allowed, total yards and sacks.

MORE - Bortles earning respect from teammates, Patriots

Then there are the postseason awards that have been bestowed upon their defensive regulars. Jalen Ramsey, AJ Bouye, Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson have all been named Pro Bowlers. Ramsey and Campbell are First-Team All-Pros, while Bouye and Telvin Smith are Second-Teamers. Campbell is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. 

So why, then, is there this lingering feeling that the Jaguars defense isn't all it's cracked up to be? They allowed Ben Roethlisberger to heave his way to 42 points in the Divisional Round. In Week 16, they gave up 44 to Jimmy Garoppolo and the Niners. Hell, Blaine Gabbert and the Cardinals put up 27 and beat them in Week 12. 

Those results don't exactly scream "all-time defense." So what is Jacksonville? Overrated? Properly rated? 

One thing is for certain: The Jags played an easy schedule. The combined winning percentage of their opponents in 2017 was a league-low 44 percent. And when it comes to the defense in particular, they had the second-easiest schedule in the league, according to Football Outsiders. It didn't hurt that they were able to play the Colts with Jacoby Brissett, the Texans before Deshaun Watson became a star and after he got hurt, and the NFL's No. 23-ranked Titans offense. Twice. Each. They also got the Ravens (No. 27 offense), Jets (No. 28), Bengals (No. 32), Browns (No. 24) and Cardinals (No. 22). Add it all up and that's nine games -- more than half their schedule -- against bottom-third NFL offenses. Two more games came against a Houston offense that featured starting quarterbacks Tom Savage and TJ Yates. 

When you dig into the analytics it's harder to find ways to poke holes in Jacksonville's credibility as a top-tier defensive unit. Pro Football Focus grades the Jags as their No. 1 defense, and it's really not close. Football Outsiders calls them their No. 1 defense in terms of DVOA. Even when you factor in some of its recent performances -- like letdowns versus the Steelers and Niners -- Jacksonville is still the league's No. 4 defense in weighted DVOA, which is adjusted so that games that were played earlier in the season are gradually less important. 

At the same time, the analytics can be occasionally unkind to the Jaguars. Football Outsiders has them ranked as one of the most inconsistent defenses in the league. According to their variance statistic, Jacksonville is the fourth most inconsistent defense in football. A deeper dive into the numbers has also located an apparent soft underbelly of the Jaguars defense. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars are dominant against three-receiver sets -- No. 1 in the league, in fact -- but they're the No. 23 defense in the NFL when it comes to defending personnel groupings that feature one or two wide receivers. That would explain, in part, why the Titans (who Sharp rated as the least-likely team to employ three-receiver sets this season) and Niners (who went with more "21" and "12" personnel looks late in the season) were able to beat the Jaguars. 

The most difficult argument against the legitimacy of the Jaguars' defensive rankings is the talent they put on the field on a weekly basis. Their roster, defensively at least, stacks up with some of the most imposing defensive units in recent memory. The Seahawks had four First and Second-Team All-Pros on their defense in 2014. The Broncos defense had five Pro Bowlers in 2015. The Jaguars have five players who were named either All-Pros or Pro Bowlers or both this year, and they probably should've had a sixth in pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who recorded 12 sacks (eighth in the NFL) and a league-best six forced fumbles. 

The verdict? The Jaguars defense is loaded with blue-chip players. It will be the best unit the Patriots offense has seen this year. But they have been inconsistent, they have holes -- which we touched upon in this week's Quick Slants the Podcast with Jerod Mayo -- and there remains the very real possibility that Tom Brady and his teammates will light up the Gillette Stadium scoreboard on Sunday. 

Now, is Brady healthy? Good question. Will he have enough time to throw? We'll see. But if the answer to both of those questions is "yes" (or "enough"), then the Patriots should be headed to Minnesota. This Jaguars defense is very good, but it's far from inpenetrable.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE