Phil Perry

Neck-roll enthusiasts rejoice: Patriots, Chiefs prove there's still a place for the fullback

Neck-roll enthusiasts rejoice: Patriots, Chiefs prove there's still a place for the fullback

KANSAS CITY -- Anthony Sherman was certain his position should not be considered a relic of football's past. 

The Chiefs Pro Bowl fullback stepped to the podium at Arrowhead Stadium on Friday and was asked about his role and its future in a game that seems to be getting faster and more pass-happy by the year. 

"Three of the four teams left have a fullback and use them on a consistent basis," said Sherman, who graduated North Attleboro High and attended UConn. "Maybe you want to be like us. I don't know."

His numbers aren't wrong.

Sherman played 98 offensive snaps this year for the Chiefs and was the highest-graded fullback in football this season, per Pro Football Focus. New England's James Develin played 399 snaps in 2018, coming in second in terms of playing time at the position to San Francisco's do-it-all weapon Kyle Juszczyk. New Orleans deployed fullback Zach Line on 226 snaps, fourth-most among fullbacks.

Those are three of the top four offenses in football -- the Rams are the other -- and they all have room for fullbacks in their scheme. They also have creative offensive minds pulling the controls who understand when to use the fullback, and how a player at that spot can complement some of the other things they're trying to accomplish. 

What's fascinating is that it's the Patriots -- a team that re-wrote record books over a decade ago because of their passing game, a team that has been as forward-thinking offensively as any -- who have turned back the clock and used their fullback more than any other team left in the postseason. 

On 29 percent of their snaps, the Patriots went with two backs and one tight end (21 personnel) this year. That put them second in that category, behind only the Niners (41 percent), and it's up from their 21-personnel usage in 2017 (24 percent). In 2016, the Patriots used 21 personnel on 16 percent of their snaps, almost half their 2018 percentage.

Bill Belichick's team, it seems, has been building to this. In the latter portion of their schedule, it wanted to get tougher at the line of scrimmage. It wanted to prove it could run the ball when everyone in the stadium knew it would. Since New England's bye week, it's utilized "21" on 35 percent of its snaps. 

But even before that, the Patriots seemed to be willing to go heavier more often. In the offseason, they traded their No. 1 wideout for a first-round pick used on an offensive lineman. They drafted a running back with their other first-round choice. They signed their run-blocking dynamo of a right-guard to a lucrative, long-term extension. 

Did Belichick sense a market inefficiency? Did he believe that the best way to separate from the pack was to fortify his offense's running game because others treated that facet of the sport as an afterthought?  

Did he feel like defenses were getting too light as they focused on defending the pass? (If so, last weekend's Divisional Round win over over the Chargers and their defensive back-heavy alignments was a check in his favor.) 

Or did he sense that this had to happen for this particular iteration of his team? That because of the talent level of his wide-receiver and tight-end groups, the Patriots would have to move the ball on the ground if they were to get to where they wanted to go? Was keeping a 41-year-old quarterback upright with more run plays part of Belichick's thought process?

Hard to say. Could've been a combination of all of those factors. But if you look at the NFL's Final Four, the Patriots aren't the only ones who buck the league's pass-happy trends. It goes beyond fullback usage. 

Three of the four teams remaining -- New Orleans (fourth), Los Angeles (seventh) and New  England (eighth) -- were in the top eight in terms run rate in 2018. And all three ran more than they passed on first down, ranking within the league's top-nine in terms of run rate on first down.

So maybe Sherman was right. Maybe the role of the running game -- and, by extension, the fullback -- isn't dying. But Sunday's AFC title game feels like it will have a say in just how well a relatively old-school offensive attack can work in today's NFL.

Will it be Kansas City's variable passing game, its forward-thinking concepts and its young quarterbacking prototype that wins in the cold in January?

Or will it be the team that likes its two-back packages, the team that over its last four games has nearly split its number of run and pass plays (52 percent pass, 48 percent run) that moves on?

The answer could come early since the drawback of carrying the identity the Patriots do into Arrowhead Stadium is that they don't seem to have the tools necessary to create explosive pass plays through the air when thrust into obvious passing situations. They don't seem built to play from behind.

But if the tools they have -- a grind-it-out running game with a heaping helping of fullback play, a devastating play-action passing game -- are enough to get them the lead? They may never give it back.

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To press or not to press, Patriots face conundrum at line with Chiefs WR Hill

To press or not to press, Patriots face conundrum at line with Chiefs WR Hill

KANSAS CITY -- Tyreek Hill has admitted that this season that he's still growing when it comes to his mastery of the nuances of the receiver position. But the Chiefs undersized speedster doesn't need to be Jerry Rice to know what it means for him when he faces press coverage.

"I just start smiling immediately," he said Friday. "That means the ball is coming up, man. That means I'm gonna get the ball. Probably not all the time, but there's a high chance I'm gonna get the ball. That's always a good sign."

How the Patriots defend Hill in the AFC Championship Game will be one of the game-plan choices that will determine which team represents the conference in Super Bowl LIII. It's one of those unstoppable-force-meets-immovable-object conversations. 

First, consider what Hill has done when a defensive back has gone facemask-to-facemask with him at the line of scrimmage and tried to disrupt his timing off the line of scrimmage. He's averaging a league-best 4.1 yards per route run against press coverage, according to NFL NextGen Stats. His quickness off the line and his acceleration, once he's free, makes him the toughest jam in the league.

Now, consider the Patriots love to play press coverage. No team in the league plays more man-to-man in the secondary, and Patriots corners -- Stephon Gilmore, JC Jackson, Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones -- are all physical enough to mix it up at the line. Gilmore, in particular, has excelled as a press corner this year. He's allowed just one catch on 15 targets of 20 yards or more when pressing at the line. (When playing off, according to NextGen Stats, Gilmore has allowed four of eight deep targets to be completed this year.)

So what do you do if you're the Patriots?

They'll acknowledge that Hill is a special talent. Even after seeing Antonio Brown, Stefon Diggs and Davante Adams in man-to-man coverage this year -- and after locking them up -- Gilmore says Hill is unlike any other player the Patriots have seen. 

"Anytime you're fast like that, you're explosive, you can get him in space, and he can make people miss," Gilmore said earlier this week. "He's probably one of the best at it right now in space and making plays with the ball in his hands. And he's got good speed so that helps out a lot too."

Gilmore indicated he'd relish the challenge of running with Hill if it came to that. 

"I would. I would," he said. "But coach is gonna put a great game plan in and we'll see how it goes."

Whether it's Gilmore or Jackson or someone else on Hill -- we took a look at the potential matchups here -- the Patriots will have to determine how they can slow down Hill at the line while minimizing the risk that comes with an attempted jam. If you land a solid strike, that may be enough to disrupt the entire play. If you whiff, you might allow a 50-yard touchdown. 

At the very least, you'll end up on the internet featured in a GIF no defensive back wants to see on his Twitter timeline. 

The Patriots can't ratchet up the level of violence with their press technique against Hill. That might've worked in the NFL of yesteryear, but Hill is the kind of athlete who will make you pay for getting over-aggressive. 

But one way the Patriots could mitigate the risk they'd run by pressing Hill is to press him with someone who isn't assigned to the diminutive wideout in coverage. That's exactly what they did for much of their Week 6 matchup with the Chiefs in trying to slow down tight end Travis Kelce. 

Trey Flowers jammed Kelce. Dont'a Hightower jammed Kelce. Kyle Van Noy jammed Kelce. Then they'd pass him off to someone else better-suited to cover him and they'd continue up the field to get after Patrick Mahomes. 

On at least one snap in that October meeting, Flowers set up in a two-point stance near Kansas City's bunch formation -- a rarity for him -- and tried to get hands on both Kelce and Hill. 

Do the Patriots have the resources to get physical with both Kelce and Hill this way? Probably not without delaying their rush. But it's worth a shot because letting Hill get a free release off the line isn't a great option, either. 

He ended up with 142 yards and three touchdowns in Week 6, and on some of his biggest plays, he was hardly slowed at the snap. On a 27-yard gain in the second quarter, he ran past Van Noy's attempted jam and into open space in the secondary. On a 14-yard score in the third quarter, there was no jam and he had little trouble running by Devin McCourty. On his 75-yard score in the fourth, Hill had a free release and ran through New England's Cover 3 with ease. 

We're on the record here saying we feel as though the Patriots would be better off by playing even more man than they did in Week 6, as man-to-man looks helped hold the Chiefs to just nine first-half points. That could mean more opportunities to jam Hill at the line. And, yes, Hill's eyes might light up if the jammer is a defensive back. 

But if it's a bigger player -- one who might help Bill Belichick's defense reduce the risk typically associated with throwing hands at Hill -- then the Patriots might be better off than if they let him get into routes unimpeded.

 

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Tom Brady breaks out Cheshire Cat grin when asked about underdog status

Tom Brady breaks out Cheshire Cat grin when asked about underdog status

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady's smile might've told you all you needed to know. Words followed, but it was the 41-year-old quarterback's grinning reaction to a question about his team's underdog status that informed anyone watching exactly how he felt.

"Doesn't change much for us," he said after a lengthy pause. "But it just kinda shows you kinda what people think our chances are. That's about it. No more added comment to that."

Nothing more to add on Thursday at the podium, at least. 

Brady, of course, jumpstarted the underdog conversation following his team's Divisional Round win over the Chargers. It was then he told CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson that, "Everybody thinks we suck . . . "

Since then, Las Vegas only stoked the flames, making the Patriots three-point underdogs as they travel to No. 1 seed Kansas City as the No. 2. It's the first time the Patriots will be postseason underdogs since the 2013 AFC Championship Game when they traveled to face the top-seeded Broncos. It's the first time the Patriots have been underdogs since Jimmy Garoppolo opened the 2016 season in Arizona as the team's starting quarterback. 

If players aren't saying much about it in front of microphones this week, volumes have been spoken via their social media accounts. 

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Only the willingly dimwitted could say the Patriots "suck" after they blew out the Chargers last weekend, but the team has been questioned in all corners of the country -- and legitimately so -- over the course of the 2018 season. 

They've been bad on the road. They've been bad against the run, especially out of lighter personnel groupings. They've had long stretches where they haven't been consistently explosive in the passing game. They've had long stretches where they've been relatively ineffective in kick coverage.

Does that mean they "suck?" Nope. But players won't necessarily differentiate. They'll use anything they can to motivate themselves, as is their right.

Just don't expect them to come right out and say it motivates them.

"If you're not motivated this week, you got a major problem," Brady said when asked if New England's "dog" status provided him or his teammates any sort of emotional lift.

"This is the week where you shouldn't have to put any extra in. This is what it's all about. Sign me up any chance you get to play in the AFC Championship Game. I don't care where, when, time, cold, weather, rain, blood. Doesn't matter."

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