Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Patriots 2009 Pre-Season Preview

Another August, and another interminable NFL preseason starts tonight at 7:30. Some call them exhibition games, practice games; I call them dangerous. But you gotta start somewhere, and this preseason promises more fun than a lot of others. Why? Don't be daft. It's because Tom Brady will actually play this year! Unlike the last two preseasons, Brady has to take some snaps to get his timing back after 11 months away from non-Giselle action.

So to help you somehow get through what the NFL makes us season ticket holders pay for, here are four things I'll be keeping an eye out for in the Games of August (and one in September) this year.

Gimme Back My Quarterback!

Matt Cassel is a fine quarterback and did a great job keeping the Pats in the playoff hunt last year. But let's face it, the team went 16-0 the year before and will undoubtedly be a lot better with the 2007 league MVP under center. Assuming, that is, that he *stays* under center. But I think that's reasonably assured; the Pats would not have traded Matt Cassel if they thought Brady would miss significant time this year.

So what will I look for out of Brady in the next four games? I'd like to see how mobile he is with the injured leg and a knee brace to deal with. He was never good at running, so watch how he moves in the pocket. And feel free to start fretting if he shies away from the pass rush quickly -- a sure sign he's not looking down the field for his receivers.

The team also brought in Fred Taylor, a veteran who would be great on third down but can play any time and has seen just about all the blitz packages there are. And Sammie Morris had all of last year to learn the blocking schemes, so he shouldn't miss too many blitzers either. So no matter who is on the field, Brady should be better protected.

I also think the Patriots will run more this year, with Taylor, Morris, and Kevin Faulk the featured backs, and first-round enigma Laurence Maroney dropping down the depth chart like my retirement portfolio (wahhhh!).

Keep It Special!

The play of the special teams might be the most intriguing aspect of the Patriots season. Very few teams have won a championship with sub-par special teams, and the Patriots replaced two important cogs this year: coach Brad Seeley (now with Cleveland) and long snapper Lonie Paxton (Denver) left the Patriots with changes at those positions for the first time since 1999 and 2000, respectively.

The two were replaced by Scott O'Brien as coach and Nathan Hodel as the long snapper, and both come to the team with excellent reputations. O'Brien's kicking units produced 26 touchdowns in 17 seasons, and he sent multiple players to the Pro Bowl in his career. And Hodel handled every one of his teams long snaps for the past seven years, despite playing with injuries, and most seasons he didn't botch a single snap.

But there's more to special teams play than a good resume. The Patriots field goal unit has been among the best for a decade, with Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski putting together an impressive 83.4% field goal accuracy during that span. And it wasn't just exceptional kickers, they switched holders several times and Paxton was injured half of one year, so Seeley obviously knew what he was doing.

This preseason, I'll be on the lookout for field goals that are off-center or even wide right or left. And if they start out shaky in this area, I'll be looking for improvement as the presason goes on. If I don't see that, then it could be Seeley and Paxton were more important than we realized.

Given Hodel's reputation, I expect better kick coverage and return games. But in the preseason so many marginal players are on special teams, it'll be tough to judge that until the real games start. But the field goal unit will work in all the preseason games, so watch them for signs that Seeley and Paxton might be gone *and* forgotten.

I Second(ary) The Motion!

Everyone I know plans to watch how two cornerbacks do: Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs, both signed as veteran free agents. Not me. Bodden and Springs are the type of "value" signings the Patriots have tried over the years, as they scrambled to replace Ty Law and then Asante Samuel. But those signings have not worked out. The secondary is the one area where they haven't been able to bring in outside players to improve the position.

So I'll be watching the two second-year players who showed promise last year: Jonathan Wilhite and Terrance Wheatley. Both are listed behind Bodden and Springs on the depth chart. But if you see Wilhite and Wheatley sneaking onto the field with the starting defense, I think that bodes well for the team. It always helps to have depth, especially with the number of secondary injuries the Patriots seem to rack up year after year. But if Bodden and Springs are the starters in December, it could be a short playoff run -- if they *make* the playoffs.

Springs is pretty good, so I wouldn't mind seeing him paired with Wilhite or Wheatley. And I'll be watching the preseason defense to see which second-year player seems likely to nudge Bodden aside. Because I think that at least one of the young guys has to take a starting role if the Patriots expect to succeed when it counts -- in January 2010.

Tight Quarters

Benjamin Watson has been another first-round semi-disappointment, not taking over the position as expected. He has good hands and is an okay blocker, but he has trouble getting open over the middle and for the most part hasn't run well after the catch. Unfortunately that's left the traditional tight end duties to the slot receiver. Fortunately, the Patriots had Troy Brown and then Wes Welker -- two Pro Bowlers -- to fill that void.

But the 2009 Pats brought in a lot of tight ends to create some competition at the position and (hopefully) get some more production out of it. Neither Alex Smith nor Chris Baker burned up the league last year, but both had similar numbers to Watson despite being on teams with poor play at quarterback (no offense, Brett Favre). So in this offense I'd expect them to do better than last year, which would be an upgrade from Watson.

I didn't see Smith or Baker enough to know their blocking skills, and I expect Watson to open the season as the starter, if only because he knows the offense and Brady is comfortable with him. But Smith is versatile enough to threaten Watson's starting role, so I'll be interested to see if they play him or fourth-year Patriot David Thomas with the offensive starters in the preseason. The number of preseason snaps the new tight ends get might tell you the fate of Benjamin Watson.

There are other subplots: another year in the Tedy Bruschi saga, another season with no official offensive coordinator, how the mid-year trip to London will affect the team... stuff like that. But for this preseason, the four I listed are what I'll be watching.

That is all for now. Keep an eye out for my Blockbuster Patriots 2009 Season Preview sometime in early September. And for the time being, get outside and enjoy the rest of summer... if it ever stops raining!!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

No comments:

Post a Comment