Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Patriots 2012 Season Preview: Offense

Patriots fan in July 2012: "Look at all the new talent; this offense will be unstoppable!"

Patriots fan in September 2012: "The offensive line stinks, and the receivers... where did all the game-breakers go?"

(The truth will be somewhere in between, though leaning toward the July view.)

Welcome to the 2012 Patriots season preview, from the bestest, most accuratest (and most humblest) of all bloggers, here to slash through the hype and the hysteria and get you the straight skinny on where the Pats are headed this season.

Here is my breakdown of the offense, bearing in mind off-season activity and what we learned in the preseason.

Significant Departures: OL Matt Light, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, WR Deion Branch, C Dan Koppen, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, and tight ends coach Brian Ferentz

Significant Arrivals: WR Brandon Lloyd, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and tight ends coach George Godsey

Line in the Quicksand

No sugar-coating it folks; the offensive line is the biggest question mark entering the season.  They didn't hold up against first-string pass rushers in the preseason, and Tom Brady took some big hits.  The run looked better, but that was probably because the opponents were worried about the pass.

The problems started because the team lacked a ready replacement for Light.  Second-year player Nate Solder takes his place, but he was mediocre last year and bad in the preseason.  Note: there is no backup for Solder on the current roster.

The rest of the line has been shuffled and reshuffled.  2011 Pro Bowl surprise Brian Waters has not reported to camp, and that forced last year's center, Dan Connolly, to right guard.  Subtract longtime center Dan Koppen, who was cut, and it's quite the cascading effect.

Connolly's move to guard puts spot starter Ryan Wendell at center, and that leaves shaky Sabastian Vollmer to fill in at right tackle.  Only Logan Mankins returns to the same position, and he did not earn his big contract last year.

Summary: Once the regular season starts, the team will go more up-tempo, to hide problems on the O-line.  But expect some frustration for the first month before steady improvement as the season progresses.  Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia should have them playing well by mid-October.  And fortunately only two of the Patriots first five opponents rush the passer well (Baltimore and Buffalo).

However, in the meantime you'll probably say "I miss Matt Light" a lot more than you ever thought you would.

Better to Receive

Last year's starting backs and receivers: Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Green-Ellis.

This year's projected starting backs and receivers: Welker, Lloyd, Edelman, Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Stephan Ridley.

In other words, from three weapons to five weapons... a significant upgrade.  26 catches in 4 years made Green-Ellis a non-factor in the passing game, but Ridley is a better receiver with much better open field moves.  And the upgrade from the aging Branch to the explosive Lloyd is no contest.

Lloyd and Brady didn't get much playing time together in the preseason, and Welker missed three of the four games entirely.  However, reports are that they were in sync during practices, and you can expect very creative ways of getting them involved from coordinator McDaniels.

Note: no slight on Julian Edelman, who played pretty well this preseason.  But he's done that before, and it never translated to solid offensive performances in the regular season.

Summary: The timing of the passing game could be a work-in-progress during September.  But when that is ironed out, and when all five of these guys are on the field, defenses will be on their heels.  There are at least three guys who could legitimately require a double-team (Welker, Lloyd, and Gronkowski) -- but as former head coach Herm Edwards famously said, "You can't double-team everybody!"

Coaching 'Em Up and Down

The two biggest coaching changes represent a step forward and a step backward on offense.  On the plus side, Josh McDaniels is an upgrade from last years' offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.  On the downside, it's uncertain how the loss of tight ends coach Brian Ferentz (replaced by George Godsey) will affect Hernandez and Gronkowski.

In his previous stint with the Patriots, McDaniels work was mostly excellent.  He oversaw the record-setting 2007 offense, though he got out-coached in a Super Bowl loss that year.  But perhaps even more impressive was his stellar work in 2008, when Tom Brady was injured in the first game.  McDaniels coached up Matt Cassel and the team finished the year eighth in points scored and seventh in offensive passer rating (and the 11-5 Patriots missed the playoffs on a tie-breaker).

McDaniels also worked at two other stops since leaving the Patriots (Denver and St. Louis), where he tweaked and amplified the offense.  He also worked with Lloyd the past two years, and the receiver understands the Patriots style of offense.  So that relationship should pay off this year.

On the downside is the loss of Ferentz, which nobody seems to be talking about.  Remember that before the Patriots got Ferentz, they spent high draft picks on tight ends, only to see them flame out in New England and succeed when they left.  Ferentz turned that around, and he never received enough credit for helping Gronkowski and Hernandez become so dominant.

Time will tell if Godsey is the right man to coach the young tight ends.  And he will have McDaniels to help him, which is an upgrade from O'Brien.  But with defenses targeting both tight ends each week, and with a new coach for that position, don't be surprised if the position takes a step back this season.

Summary: McDaniels brings outside experience and an extremely creative offensive mind to the team.  No telling what Godsey brings, but if he doesn't screw up the tight ends, the offensive coaching won't be a problem this year.

1.  For the first few weeks, the up-tempo offense will mask problems along the offensive line and in the timing of the passing game.  Those facets will gel by mid-season, but those in-between weeks (3-6) could be tough.

2.  More touchdowns from the wide receivers, fewer from the tight ends.  Never underestimate the importance of coaching in the NFL.

3.  Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels will be slightly more conservative early in the year, as they break-in the offensive line and new receivers.  And unlike last year, Brady won't have to be near-perfect every week to get a "W" -- because the running game and the defense should be better.

4.  For all the changes, the offense will be about the same as last year.  Which wasn't bad, incidentally, third in the league in points scored.  The biggest difference is that they'll be better late in the season, whereas last year's squad petered out as the year wore on.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Recently departed running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 24 rushing touchdowns the last two seasons.  That ranks second in the NFL.  So long, Benny.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Never thought I'd be hoping Matt Light would come back and play."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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