Shea McClellin

Report: Patriots sign Francois, McClellin could miss season

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Report: Patriots sign Francois, McClellin could miss season

FOXBORO — According to ESPN’s Field Yates, the Patriots have signed journeyman defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois. 

The LSU product, who was MVP of the 2008 National Championship, came into the league as a seventh-round pick of the 49ers before making stops in Indianapolis, Washington and Green Bay. He signed a one-year deal to go to the Packers in the offseason, but was released for a second time this season last week.

In six games for the Packers this season, the 30-year-old had two tackles. 

The news of the Jean Francois addition comes as the Patriots are seemingly dealing with the latest blow to their defense. Not only is Dont'a Hightower officially done for the season, but Shea McClellin is not yet close to a return and could be out for the season altogether. 

The mother of re-invention: How Belichick, Patricia got creative with banged-up front

The mother of re-invention: How Belichick, Patricia got creative with banged-up front

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick finished off his postgame press conference last weekend with a comment that seemed rooted in a couple of the football virtues he espouses most. It was both "next man up" and "the more you can do . . ." all wrapped into a quick two-minute response.

The question that prompted it was simple enough. Belichick was asked about the performance of his linebackers in Dont'a Hightower's absence.

PATRIOTS MIDSEASON AWARDS:


"We were a little light on the defensive line, three tackles and three ends," Belichick explained. "We had a little bit more depth at linebacker in this game -- five plus Brandon King -- so those guys helped to supplement the front with the depth that we were missing on the defensive line."

It made sense. Without Malcom Brown (ankle) and Hightower (torn pectoral), the Patriots front seven was down two of its key pieces. In order to try to fill in the gaps, more front-seven bodies were required. And with a surplus of linebackers, that's who the Patriots turned to. 

But it was the way in which those linebackers were used that harkened back to a creative approach that we've seen before from Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. It was an approach that could potentially become a staple for a team that we know is now a) without Hightower for the rest of the season and b) expected to have Shea McClellin back soon but still short on pass-rush help. 

Three years ago, the Patriots deployed their versatile ends and talented blitzing linebackers to confuse opposing offenses. Some of the game's smartest quarterbacks had trouble identifying rushers versus coverage players against the Patriots defense in 2014: Rob Ninkovich picked off Peyton Manning in a blowout win in November of that season when Ninkovich dropped from his spot at left end; Akeem Ayers intercepted Philip Rivers in December of that year with the same kind of deception. 

Those schemes haven't been put in a box and tucked away in Ernie Adams' storage closet since then. The Patriots have broken them out on occasion, particularly when they had both Hightower and Jamie Collins at their disposal. But when the Patriots took on Rivers and the Chargers again last Sunday, they seemed more committed to those ideas than they have been all season. 

In order to mix up their front-seven personnel and supplement a relatively thin front, they employed their linebackers aggressively. At times, they brought one linebacker to give the Patriots an added body in the middle of the line of scrimmage, allowing the backside end to stay at home. At other times, the Patriots brought a linebacker up the middle and dropped an end into coverage. Every so often they brought two linebackers and had both ends drop. 

The uncertainty it created for the Chargers offensive line paid dividends in the 21-13 victory for the Patriots. 

In all, we counted 19 plays -- more than one-third of last week's total for the Patriots defense -- during which it appeared as though it was part of the design for a linebacker (or two) to attack the line of scrimmage.  Here are three of those 19 that illustrate how the Patriots were able to help their front by getting aggressive with their 'backers . . . 

FIRST QUARTER, 10:26 REMAINING, 2ND AND 15

As you can see in the image above, before the ball is snapped, Patriots middle linebacker Elandon Roberts was already moving toward the Chargers offensive line. He's an instinctive player against the run, and perhaps he noticed a Chargers tell that allowed him to get a jump. But this was so early that it seemed to be part of the design. 

The Patriots were in a diamond front here, with five players at the line of scrimmage and Lawrence Guy on the nose. This should mean one-on-one matchups across the board in the trenches. But when the tight end motioned in as a fullback, the Chargers suddenly had a six-on-five advantage. 

Which five were the Chargers blocking, though?

The Chargers may have actually seen a six-on-four advantage here. They knew they didn't care about Trey Flowers on their right because the play was going to the left. If the fullback could kick out Kyle Van Noy on the left edge, the Chargers thought they could get double-teams on Deatrich Wise and Guy in order to open running lanes. 

That's where Roberts' (No. 52) aggressiveness helped the Patriots. This early in the game -- even though Roberts had already come up the field three times in eight plays -- the Chargers weren't expecting him. And suddenly it was six-on-five again.

Los Angeles center Spencer Pulley was busy paying attention to Guy and had no time to seal off Roberts after reacting late. The result was a tackle by Roberts and a two-yard Melvin Gordon loss. 

That brought up a third-and-17, which the Chargers could not convert, and their drive eventually ended in a missed field goal. 

SECOND QUARTER, 2:10 REMAINING, 3RD AND 2

Good communication from the Patriots front-seven here. Seconds before the above shot was taken, Roberts had running back Branden Oliver outside in man-to-man coverage. Once Oliver motioned into the backfield, the back became Flowers' man. That freed-up Roberts to get up the field yet again. 

In the image above, you can see another diamond front, and you can see that Roberts isn't exactly keeping his intentions secret. He's ready to attack. 

The Chargers line saw Roberts showing blitz. But what they didn't see was Roberts' communication to Flowers before the snap for Flowers to take the back in coverage. That meant right tackle Michael Schofield still believed his focus should be on Flowers, even though Flowers wasn't rushing. 

When the play began, Roberts was picked up easily by the center. Wise was doubled after Van Noy dropped. Alan Branch was manned up by guard Kenny Wiggins.

Schofield, however, was confused.

When the ball was snapped and Flowers dropped, Schofield was blocking air. That left Oliver (5-foot-8, 208 pounds) to take on Patriots undrafted rookie defensive lineman Adam Butler (6-foot-4, 300) one-on-one. It didn't go well for Oliver. 

The matchups created by the scheme may not have resulted in a sack, but they resulted in the Patriots hurrying Rivers despite being out-manned up front six-to-four. Rivers had to get rid of the football quickly, the pass was incomplete, and the Chargers were forced to punt.

THIRD QUARTER, 12:07 REMAINING, 2ND AND 11

This time the Patriots showed a four-man front, no nose tackle, but once again Roberts made it clear before the ball was snapped: He wanted the Chargers to know he was rushing.

After Rivers made a call to his line, he received the snap, and Roberts sprinted up the field. Both Patriots ends, however, dropped into coverage. That allowed both Patriots defensive tackles, Guy and Branch, to be doubled. 

What the Patriots did next evened the odds on the interior of the line. They brought David Harris up the field to loop in behind Roberts. With Gordon staying in to pass protect, and with Roberts driving into the center, the Patriots had a 2-on-2 situation with their two 'backers matched up on the Chargers center and back. 

The running back lost his matchup with Harris -- and quickly. Harris trampled Gordon on his way to Rivers, forcing Rivers from the pocket. Rivers eventually fumbled and lost 20 yards on the play to bring up a third-and-31 situation.  

The Patriots weren't perfect when they brought their off-the-ball linebackers up the field. In fact, they used their linebackers in that fashion on two of the first three Chargers plays of the game and allowed 22 yards. But they took their chances as the game wore on, understanding that deception might help them improve their odds in a banged-up front-seven.

"There are some scheme things, creating pressure on the offense, whether you're walking those guys up pre-snap or bringing them post-snap," defensive line coach Brendan Daly said last week. "No matter how you kick it, you're just trying to create some issues for the offense to deal with."

With Hightower out for the remainder of the season, Belichick and Patricia may feel like they can continue to keep offenses guessing by mixing and matching with their linebackers and defensive linemen in the second half of the season. It's worked before. 

#FridayBag: Farewell, Jimmy G Edition

#FridayBag: Farewell, Jimmy G Edition

Each week, Tom E. Curran, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi take your Patriots questions in a joint mailbag, or #FridayBag as it’s come to be known. Giardi takes a bye during this bye week, but Curran and Perry aren’t sitting this one out. 

Got a question for the trio? Tweet it using the hashtag #FridayBag and they’ll do their best to answer it. On to this week’s edition:

TC: They wouldn’t have gotten anything. Every team would have known that Garoppolo was headed for free agency in early March. Why pay for something you can bid on later. It’s not a terrible question and maybe the Patriots could have gotten that second-rounder in February but that’s not a dice-roll worth playing, in my opinion.

TC: I don’t know where I’ve made Bill Belichick “look like a genius” in this. The Patriots had a bad hand. If they traded Garoppolo in the spring and Brady got hurt or dipped, they’d have been screwed. If they trade him now, they get a diminished return and kept him around as insurance they didn’t really need. If they auctioned him around the league, maybe they’d have gotten more but my sense on that is Belichick WANTS to see Garoppolo do well and felt he owed it to him to put him in a decent spot. Additionally, he didn’t want the attention that a “FOR SALE” sign hung on Jimmy would have attracted so he quietly sent him to SF. If they franchised him, they would have been on the hook for $25 million if/when Garoppolo signed the thing and the roster would have to be revamped in order to keep a trade chip when a QB-loaded draft was approaching. They have a bad hand because they were smart enough to draft Garoppolo and do a great job developing him but they were even smarter 18 years ago when they drafted Brady. You pay car insurance, right? If you don’t get in a crash by the time the year runs out, did you get fleeced? I mean, think of all the money you spent. Same thing.

TC: That was the perfect way to split the baby. Jimmy hates the cold though. It was a no-go.

TC: Hey Jeff, I would venture there was thought. But the level at which Brady is playing, the stickiness of trading the greatest quarterback ever while he’s still putting up numbers and the fact this team is still competing for a Super Bowl annually meant it never rose to the level of “serious thought.” Brady’s dip has been too slow in coming for the team to contemplate moving on to a promising but unknown quantity. 

PP: The Patriots are in need of defensive tackles at the moment so Vincent Valentine would be a nice addition if and when he's able to return off of IR. He is sticking around the Foxboro area during the bye week as he continues to rehab. If he returns, that might mean fewer reps for players like Lawrence Guy or Malcom Brown, who've been used extensively through the first half of the season. Valentine's presence may also allow someone like Deatrich Wise, who has played inside occasionally, to spend more time on the edge. 

As far as McClellin goes, who he replaces will depend on how the Patriots use him. If he's viewed as an additional edge piece, maybe he sees some of Cassius Marsh's workload. If he's going to play off the line, David Harris could see his recent bump in play slide back down. 

PP: It's already evolving, Steve! Bill Belichick acknowledged that because his team is thin on the defensive line, they used their linebackers to supplement that group against the Chargers. That meant more linebackers getting up the field and into the line of scrimmage. We'll have a piece on the creativity in the front-seven hitting NBCSportsBoston.com this weekend. It's interesting stuff, and it'll take you back to 2014. 

Now, just to get to all the specific players you mention . . . here are my takes, quickly: Kyle Van Noy has taken on the Hightower role as hybrid end/'backer, it seems; McClellin's return may allow him to play a similar role and could cut into some of the workloads that players such as David Harris, Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers and Trevor Reilly have seen lately; Valentine isn't guaranteed to return, remember, since he's continuing to rehab and since the Patriots could opt to bring back Malcolm Mitchell instead. That hasn't been ruled out. Teams are only allowed to bring two players back off of IR, and McClellin should be the first. 

PP: It's close. Brady was 22 and (about) eight months old when he was drafted. He would have to play through his 44-year-old season (2021) to earn the "majority of my life in the NFL" thing. Pretty impressive considering quarterbacks between 2008 and 2014 had an average career length of less than three years, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

PP: Maybe, Mason, but I don't think so. The motivation will be there for Brady as long as he knows they're looking for the next guy. Which they are. The decision to draft Garoppolo was the just the air horn signaling the search was real.

PP: Real funny, Giardi! Just kidding. Of course, it's not him. His handle is @IllmissyouforeverJimJim10. Poor fella. First pick? I'd say the Browns get it for the second straight year. Just can't see them winning more than a couple by season's end. Think the Niners have the ability to win two or three, especially since their schedule includes the one-win Giants and the Watson-less, Watt-less, Mercilus-less Texans. 

PP: If there were, now would be the time to fill them. The bye week could be a valuable catch-up period, and so the fact that none of these are already in-house makes me think they won't be. 

PP: Yes. And keep an eye on the 2019 class while you're at it, Chris.