Thursday, August 11, 2011

Patriots Pre-season Preview 2011

Welcome back after a long off-season, full of the kind of drama that only billionaires-versus-millionaires can produce.  Thank goodness *that* is over.

As is my tradition, here are four reasons to bother watching Patriots pre-season games -- hell knows just about *everyone* needs a reason, because the games themselves are pretty lame. 

(Note: as with all pre-season games, most important it to avoid injuries.  But here are other things to look for.)

Reason #1: Prince Albert and the Revamped Defense

For a decade, the Patriots built teams with discipline on the defensive line and linebackers with the speed and strength to destroy plays from the outside. But it’s been a long time since they found a free agent outside linebacker who fit that system (Mike Vrabel). So the Patriots seem to have changed philosophy a bit.

They brought in pocket-crushing defensive linemen Albert Haynesworth (via trade from Washington) and Shaun Ellis (free agent from the New York Jets). Combine those newcomers with Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and opponents face three linemen who at their best demand double-teams. So the Patriots will either disrupt the pocket up the middle or, if teams double-up inside, they will attack with speed from the outside.

Haynesworth’s attitude will be his biggest challenge. He was downright destructive to Mike Shannahan's locker room, undermining the head coach at every turn. Unsurprisingly, he claims to have turned over a new leaf; but only time will tell. During the pre-season, watch Haynesworth (#92) carefully -- does he move the pocket toward the quarterback, can he get off blocks to tackle running backs at the line, will he quit on plays that are run away from him.

Reason #2: Avoiding the Sophomore Slump

Rookies played a huge role in the 2010 Patriots surprise 14-2 record. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (16 touchdowns combined) and third-down back Danny Woodhead brought toughness and speed to the offense. And Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up, corner back Devin McCourty solidified a defensive backfield that lacked any reliable corners after an injury knocked out starter Leigh Bodden for the season.

The downside of getting great production out of rookies is that second-year players have struggled with the Patriots under Bill Belichick. Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and wide receiver Julian Edelman were surprise contributors in 2009, but both slipped in 2010 (especially Edelman). Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo got injured and was not the same player his second year. Even quarterback Tom Brady himself suffered his worst season as a pro in his second year as a starter.

Gronkowski and McCourty are key to keeping the Patriots train rolling. Only Gronkowski brings the entire package at tight end -- he can run and pass block and he punishes secondaries and creates mismatches in passing game. And even though the Patriots added some secondary talent, by the end of last year McCourty achieved legitimate shutdown status. And the entire secondary has struggled in the past when they lacked that one trusted corner.

In the pre-season, watch how Gronkowski does in the red zone, how often Brady targets him for touchdowns, and track how much the big tight end battles for balls thrown his way. And keep an eye on how often McCourty gets beaten, how many tackles he makes in the running game (he was excellent at that in 2010), and also whether or not you see secondary players blaming each other for communication breakdowns.

Reason #3: Return of the Wounded

2011 will see the return of three key players from major injuries. Bodden’s shoulder injury should not affect his speed, though it’s possible his conditioning was lax during the lockout. In the pre-season, note how often he attacks receivers at the line of scrimmage, something he wouldn’t feel comfortable doing if his shoulder wasn’t fully healed or if he was worried a lack of speed might get him beaten deep.

The injury to kicker Stephen Gostkowski got little play as a factor since the Patriots continued winning. But Gostkowski was a real weapon, ranking second in touchback percentage (35.7%) and hitting 10 of 13 field goals before the injury. This pre-season, look for the distance on kickoffs; with kickoffs moved to the 35 yard line, almost every Gostkowski boot should be in the end zone (or so high the return ends up inside the 20).

Kevin Faulk’s knee injury originally sent panic through Patriots Nation, but the emergence of Woodhead softened the blow. Even so, Faulk’s knowledge of the offense and clear size advantage over Woodhead make the veteran’s return that much more important. Faulk won’t get that many snaps in the pre-season, but when he does, watch him in pass protection -- if he dives for the knees of defenders or shies away from full-on hits, he might not be all the way back.

Reason #4: Deep Threats

For all the fanfare of the defensive additions and anticipation of watching wide receiver Chad Ochocinco on the same team with Brady, the Patriots lack any legitimate deep threat on offense. No disrepect intended to young receivers Brandon Tate and Taylor Price, but tight end Hernandez is more of a threat to catch a long pass. To add to the problem almost all the speedy free agent wide receivers have been snatched up by other teams.

The pre-season games will be telling on this issue. If Brady and/or his backup target either Tate or Price multiple times, then the team must believe that player represents their best deep threat. But if they don’t bother going deep, then the offense will be more of the move-the-chains type that was successful last year, even after their only deep threat, Randy Moss, was traded to the Minnesota Vikings.


I hope this helps you get through the next month of pre-season games. It can be tough to slog through four quarters when the games don’t count and your favorite players are on the sideline. But careful attention can tease out insights about how the regular season might unfold.

Last year, most of the media predicted the Patriots would go 8-8 or 9-7. I predicted 12-4, partially because of what Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, and Tom Brady showed in the pre-season.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In 8 years of blogging, this is my first double-posted message (it was also posted on

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Haynesworth just redid his contract, so if he stinks, they can cut him during the year and still not affect the salary cap."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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