After a quarter of the way through the regular season it’s a good time to take some inventory of what we’ve seen out of the Pats through the first four games. It’s important not to overreact too much about anything, rather we just want to make sure everything is on the right track to start playing our best football as we hit Thanksgiving.
Here’s what has stood out to me so far…
It’s especially hard to get too over-analytical with the offense because really they’ve been without arguable their best weapon for more than half of the four games. While the Pats should no doubt improve once Aaron Hernandez returns, they’ve adjusted fairly well without him, especially when you look at how they were clicking in the second half against Buffalo.
I hope that Josh McDaniels is starting to find out what works for them now, and can avoid the unnecessary trickeration that he seems so fond of. As he discovers what works best he’ll be able to game plan more around that, rather than his preconceived notions of what the offense should be able to do.
There are three major areas we can touch on when it comes to the offense:
1. Brandon Lloyd - though it’s not quite Brady-Moss 2007, Lloyd and Brady have been clicking as expected. At the very least it’s clear that Brady is developing his sense of trust with Lloyd but it seems to be growing with each game. Lloyd has been able to put a true threat on the perimeter, giving defenses something to consider that they didn’t have to worry about last year.
2. The emergence of “Boldley” - okay, maybe that’s a bad nickname for Bolden and Ridley but after the performance in Buffalo it’s hard not to be excited about what these two young backs can bring. In recent history the Pats have run when they’ve needed to, but it was never a featured weapon of their offense. It was more just to open things up for Brady and the passing game, or pick up the short yardage needed for first downs. But now they have at least the threat of a legitimate ground attack that must be taken into account. Between Lloyd and the running game this is definitely not your 2010/2011 Pats offense.
3. Bravo, Dante Scarnecchia - How many teams can plug an almost entirely new offensive line in and not skip a beat? Especially for a high octane offense like the Patriots? It’s pretty much unheard of but that’s exactly what has happened. Every summer people worry about the o-line and every time, regardless of who they put in, it all works out okay. This season has been a testament to the talent of Dante Scarnecchia, especially on the inside of the line. If Sebastian Vollmer continues his current pace he could have a Pro Bowl season. I am also very interested to see if Ryan Wendell can cement himself as the long term answer at center. So far he’s been pretty solid all things considered. Connolly and Mankins just need to get fully healthy and that should continue to elevate the line. Nate Solder has been quietly solid as well, no small task for a left tackle in this league.
The offense will evolve again once Hernandez returns, but this period without him should certainly be valuable as it’s given a chance to really explore the other areas of the attack. So yet again the Pats have an elite offense, but the main concern will just come down to executing in the prime pressure moments in January and February.
The biggest word that comes to mind with the defense so far is inconsistency, and nothing sums that up more than Brandon Spikes’ performances over the first four games. At times the defense looks elite, forcing punts and turnovers, getting pressure, but too often they still resort back to the swiss cheese pass defense that has haunted them for the better part of two seasons.
After seeing what Joe Flacco did to them, it’s hard to not still wonder if they can clamp down on elite passers when it’s all on the line. Still, the pieces seem to be place now. The Pats have 14 core defenders and that’s pretty much who they roll with.
The important thing is that they’ve been able to stop the run with their new lighter 4-3 that features Ninkovich at left defensive end. That is the key to running this defense and enables them to keep more athletes on the field who are better suited to attack the pass on any given down.
They’re 22nd on third down (41%) which isn’t as bad as we’ve seen it, but it’s still not where you want to be. And after being 31st in pass yards in 2011, they’ve ascended to 20th. Though it hasn’t exactly been a gauntlet of elite QBs. Things have looked improved over last year, but they still have a lot to prove.
Many said the biggest thing the Pats D lacked recently is talent, but it looks like their plethora of high round draft picks are finally catching up with them. Now it’s a defense loaded with hand selected high round guys who rarely leave the field. This bodes extremely well for the future, short term and long term. They just need to keep this group playing together which they’ve been doing.
The biggest question area through four games remains at safety. The Pats are giving up too many long chunks of yardage. The average opponent touchdown drive this year (except for the 2 yard one by the Cardinals after the blocked punt) is 7 plays for 68 yards. That’s nearly 10 yards per play, and shows that teams are eating up the coverage down the field.
Patrick Chung is healthy and has flashed, but he still has trouble covering big tight ends. He still hasn’t proven that he can be the kind of impact strong safety Rodney Harrison was. As always I love his playing style, he just needs to start making more positive plays.
Steve Gregory was average at best until his team-worst outing against the Bills. Tavon Wilson could be headed to the starting lineup sooner than later.
Jermaine Cunningham has been slightly better than average as an interior rusher, though it will be interesting once Myron Pryor comes back. If he can emerge on the inside it could have a real positive impact on the defense.
Chandler Jones has already exceeded expectations and already looks to be a favorite of Bill Belichick. He rarely comes off the field now. Dont’a Hightower has flashed some big potential as well. The linebacker trio of him, Spikes and Mayo could develop into one of the best in the NFL in a short time.
For everyone else it’s just a matter of consistency. This is the most talent the Patriots have had on defense in a long time, but they’re still young so it’s not unexpected that they don’t always play up to their potential. That should come as they get more experience together, still the back end and interior rush remain areas to monitor where personnel changes might be necessary.
Like the defense this group has been inconsistent as well, starting with the obvious struggles of Stephen Gostkowski. Personally I’m not too worried about Gostkowski and expect him to bounce back to his usual solid self. But I will be a little more nervous than expected if the season comes down to him making a tough kick. He still needs a defining moment like that. His career has surprisingly lacked one to this point despite all the big games he’s played in.
Matthew Slater and Marquis Cole have been standouts on special teams, with especially impressive performances against the Bills. Special teamers don’t often get a lot of notice but those two guys are making an impact.
The biggest problem I have is the kick return. They did nothing to address this area in the off-season and now it looks like we’re rolling with Devin McCourty back there. He’s been slightly below average, which is about what we’ve come to expect since Brandon Tate left. It’s seriously a pleasant surprise to start beyond the 20 these days. I’d say it’s highly unlikely we’ll see a Patriot return a kick for a TD anytime soon.
The Pats are 2-2 but are a missed kick from 3-1 and another play or two from 4-0. I actually like that they’ve faced a little early season adversity for the first time in quite a few seasons and overcome it.
They’ve played two tough road games in hostile environments and been able to play well, at least for stretches, in both. They haven’t put together a full sixty minutes yet but what team has.
All in all the Pats look as primed as ever to make a run at the Lombardi, but as always it will just come down to making the critical plays at the critical times. Something they’ve failed to do since February 2005.