Saturday, September 7, 2013

Patriots 2013 Season Primer!

“Constant change is here to stay,” Anonymous.

No word on whether or not Anonymous was an NFL fan, but clearly that saying applies to this year’s New England Patriots.  You might not expect a club that reached the AFC Championship game, and was the top scoring team in the league, to have almost 50% new starters on offense, and 14 new players on the roster.  But then you wouldn’t expect the off-season that just happened to the Patriots, either.

So here we go, your catch-up blog entry on the comings and goings, and what changes to expect with so many new faces.


Hello: RB LeGarrette Blount, RB James Develin, WR Danny Amendola, WR Kenbrell Thompkins, WR Josh Boyce, WR Aaron Dobson, TE Zach Sudfeld, and T Will Svitek.

Good-bye: RB Danny Woodhead, WR Wes Welker, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Deion Branch, and TE Aaron Hernandez.

1.  Back to the running game

The Patriots have five running backs at the moment, and it’s an impressive group.  Two-year starter Stevan Ridley is exactly what they need on first and second downs, a hard runner who stays under control through the second level and knows his pass-protection assignments cold.  And backing him up, the talented Blount can grind out the tough yardage, whether it’s third-and-short or working the clock late in games.

Shane Vereen is a clear upgrade over Woodhead, whose slack of size hurt the team in pass protection, despite his status as a fan favorite.  Vereen is a threat to go the distance on any pass or run, and his speed allows the team to attack the short/medium zones with moves and speed instead of shiftiness and deception.

And with a blocking back on the team for the first time in years (Develin), you will see even more emphasis on the run.  Not bad for a team that finished seventh in rushing yards in the NFL last season.

2.  Tight Quarters

Tight end will be a lot less productive in comparison to 2012, especially early in the year.  Reportedly Rob Gronkowski will return sometime in the first four weeks, but until then, the team will get lesser run blocking and a lot less in the passing game.  Gronkowski is a beast in the passing game and almost as dominant as a run blocker.  And no one on the current roster comes close to replacing him.

With Hernandez gone and Gronkowski missing early on, Michael Hoomanawanui (5 catches for 109 yards last year) and rookie Zack Sudfeld will hold down the fort.  And though both showed flashes of good play in the preseason, the team has no one to replace either of last year’s starters -- so tight end will suffer until Gronkowski returns; no two ways about it.

3.  Wide Open

Welker and Lloyd took 192 catches and 2265 yards with them when they left town, and it won’t be easy to replace that.  However, if the preseason is any indication, the Patriots did at least a passable job (no pun intended) bringing in replacements who could challenge those numbers.

Initial predictions on Amendola were that he would be a Welker replacement, but it appeared he would play on the outside at least as often as in the slot.  And in incumbent receiver Julian Edelman the Patriots already had a talented slot receiver, he just needs to stay healthy.  That frees Amendola to play more positions and work in motion, where he was uncoverable in the preseason.

Among rookies, Kenbrell Thompkins developed immediate chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady, and he’s already a favorite “sleeper” in many fantasy football leagues.  He showed a great understanding of the offense, fought for position and for the ball, and chose the right situational routes.  Fellow rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce showed flashes.  But expect Thompkins to border on superstardom soon, especially when Gronkowski returns and defenses load up to stop him and Amendola.

4.  Line of Risk?

The offensive line is a talented group, but there is little depth given the injuries that hampered them last year.  In 2012, guard Logan Mankins missed 6 games with various injuries, and in the last two seasons tackle Sebastian Vollmer missed 11 games (and additional time within games he played) with back problems.  Not a terrible record, but if the injuries crop up again, it could mean significant playing time for the backups.

Marcus Cannon is a decent backup at either guard position, but hasn’t shown the quickness to move outside to tackle.  And newcomer Svitek looked okay in the preaseson; however, O-line play is about getting time together, so he will make his share of mistakes if called upon too often early in the year.  Also, to show their lack of depth, Svitek is listed as the backup at three positions along the line.

Add to that the team is counting on continued good health for starters Nate Solder (tackle), Dan Connolly (guard), and Ryan Wendell (center).  Not an awful situation to have that much front-line talent.  But they have to avoid injuries if they want to keep Tom Brady upright.

5.  Speaking of Tom Brady

Expect more of the same from Brady this year -- another MVP-caliber season, even with new receivers at nearly every position.  He’s shown no signs of slowing down, rarely puts the ball in harm’s way, and with the receiving talent more evenly distributed, perhaps the receptions will be, too.  One little-discussed problem of recent years: the team had become very Welker-Gronnkowski-Hernandez-centric, and thus was much easier to defend, especially if one of them got injured.

Amendola looked terrific in August, and with Gronkowski missing only the first few weeks, the offense should be running like a top by October.  The improved running game could help Brady the same way it helped John Elway all those years ago.  You remember the back-to-back championships, right -- with some guy named Terrell Davis in the backfield…


Hello: DT Tommy Kelly, DE Michael Buchanan, DE Jake Bequette, LB Jamie Collins, CB Logan Ryan, and S Duron Harmon

Good-bye: DT Kyle Love, DT Brandon Deaderick, DE Trevor Scott, LB Niko Koutouvides, and S Patrick Chung,

1.  Backing a New ‘Backer

The biggest change on defense was one of the smallest on the field.  That little green sticker, the one that indicates which which defensive player has the radio helmet -- it no longer belongs exclusively to Jerod Mayo.  In the preseason, second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower saw significant time with the green dot.

Not only does this show enormous confidence in Hightower, but it could signal a reduced role for Mayo.  His pass-coverage deficiencies are well known to my regular readers.  And rookie Jamie Collins excelled in pass coverage in college (and was actually decent in the preseason), which could mean Mayo comes out on passing downs this year… with Hightower calling the defense in those situations.

If Mayo becomes a two-down player, that most definitely signals a sea change.  Hightower is high energy and is much bigger than Mayo, and yet still is better in pass coverage.  Mayo led the team in tackles every year in the league, but if he only plays two-thirds of the defensive snaps, that streak is in jeopardy.

2.  Meet Your 2012 Secondary -- Again!

It feels like a decade since the Patriots had a good secondary, and if 2012 was any indication, 2013 won’t be much better.  There is decent front-line talent: corners Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and slot-man Kyle Arrington, provide aggressive coverage and very good ball skills.  And Devin McCourty’s move to safety represents an unvarnished success -- pairing him with Steve Gregory solidified the back end after it got torched by Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, and even Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Unfortunately the secondary looks almost exactly the same this year.  They added rookie corner Ryan and are probably banking on better play from second-year safety Tavon Wilson (and perhaps contributions from Harmon).  But as with last year, they are one injury away from Toastmaster Marquice Cole at corner and the still unproven Tavon Wilson at safety.

If it holds together the secondary should be fine.  But if Dennard goes to prison (his hearing for parole violation is in a few weeks), or if the starters are injured for any significant time, it could cost the team several wins.  And that can be critical when the playoff runs begin in December/January.

3.  Line Set to Dominate?

After years as the lone superstar on the line, Vince Wilfork finally has some help.  Chandler Jones enters his second year with high expectations, and he looked ready to make that leap in the preseason games.  And with surprising rookie Buchanan backing him up, there shouldn’t be any sophomore slump for Jones, who hit the rookie wall hard last year (also slowed by an injury).

On the other side, Jake Bequette was here last year, but he missed almost the entire season with an injury, so it’s like his rookie campaign.  Except he played far above rookie expectations in August.  And even though Love and Deaderick are gone, Tommy Kelly will help man the inside with Wilfork, giving the Patriots a solid 635-pound wall to break through.

There isn’t much depth inside, but plenty outside, so if the two main men in the middle can tough out the season, the line should get much improved pressure on the passer without losing anything against the run -- where they ranked an impressive 6th in average yards given up per rush (3.9) last year.

Special Teams

1.  Missing Mesko

The team cut Zoltan Mesko, opting to keep rookie Ray Allen.  This is just three years after setting a rookie record for net punting average (38.4 yards), and two years after leading the AFC in net punting average (41.5).  Alas, money was the likely culprit -- here’s hoping the salary savings don’t cost them with an errant punt or a bad hold on a field goal.

2.  Washington’s Crossing

The Patriots also signed kick returner Leon Washington in the off-season, and he was cut after the last preseason game, and just resigned a few hours ago.  Washington will help the Special Teams in two ways.  First, he’s a better kickoff returner than incumbent McCourty.  And second, they need someone to take return duties away from both McCourty and punt returner Edelman.  McCourty is too important to risk on special teams, and Edelman is fragile enough without having to return punts.

Washington will act as a sort of human shield for these guys, protecting valuable (but fragile) starters, and probably improving their kickoff returns, too.

The Schedule

And here goes with my annual attempt to predict which games the Patriots will win and lose for the season.  Take it with a grain of salt -- I am usually close in the final record, but not as accurate with which games go which way.  As always, the season is broken up into quarters.

First Quarter

  • The Bills host the Pats tomorrow, and with a rookie QB and a new coaching staff, it will likely take Buffalo a while to gel.  Besides, the Patriots have beaten the Bills 18 of the last 19 times they played, and they are usually more dominant in Buffalo than at home.  Mark this one as a win.

  • The Jets come to town for a Thursday game, and frankly they are too much of a mess to give the Patriots much trouble, so it should be victory #2.

  • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit Foxboro next, and even though they are building a decent program there, I don’t think they are ready to compete with the Patriots just yet, so I see the Patriots winning a close game.

  • Next up the Pats travel to Atlanta, a team that doesn’t make critical mistakes and thrives at home.  This one will be the Patriots first loss… sorry Danielle :(

Second Quarter

  • Two reasons the Patriots win their next game, in Cincinnati: Bengals QB Andy Dalton hasn’t seen a Belichick defense yet, and the Bengals play a division road game the week before, and there is an inevitable letdown the week after.

  • The last time the Patriots played the Saints, New Orleans spanked them but good.  This time it’s outdoors and in Foxboro.  However, I see returning coach Shawn Peyton reasserting himself as an offensive guru against a sometimes vulnerable Patriots secondary.  Second loss of the season.

  • A short trip to New York should bring another victory over the Jets.

  • And then the Dolphins come to town, an intriguing team with a young QB and lots of added talent in the off-season.  However, tight end Dustin Keller is out for the year, and the Dolphins only really give the Patriots trouble in Miami, so this should be another victory.

Third Quarter

  • The Steelers come to town next, and the last time they played, Pittsburgh seemed to figure out that they had to attack the Patriots down the field (and won the game, 25-17).  Unfortunately for them, their field-stretcher, Mike Wallace, signed with Miami, so they are counting on a rookie WR.  The Patriots defense will flood the middle of the field, slowing the running game and tight ends, and will win the game.  Home field might be the key difference in this one.

  • The Pats then have two consecutive bye weeks, an actual buy and then the Panthers on a Monday night.  I’m joking, actually -- I expect QB Cam Newton to have a bounce-back year.  But with a bye to rest and prepare, expect the Patriots to be ready to win this one.

  • The next game is a tough one.  The Patriots have a short week and play the elite Broncos.  But the game is in Foxboro, and Tom Brady absolutely owns defenses run by Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.  Also, the Broncos have division games the week before and after, making this a semi-trap game.  Look for the Patriots to eke out a win, but it will be closer than you’d expect based on Brady’s history against Del Rio (i.e. 6-0 record, 137 of 185 [74%], 1430 yds, 14 TDs, 0 INTs, 121.2 QB rating, and an average score of Patriots 29-14).

  • The next week will be the letdown game, where the Texans avenge two recent beat-downs by laying the lumber on the Patriots in Houston.

(Note: not that I’m hedging, but the Patriots will lose against either the Broncos or the Texans, but not both, so if they lose to Denver, the Texans better watch out!  The Patriots simply don’t lose two in a row very often.  Trivia question: how many losing “streaks” [two or more losses in a row] have the Patriots had under Bill Belichick?  Answer below!)

Fourth Quarter

  • When the Browns come to town, expect second-year QB Brandon Weedon gets his first taste of Belichick on defense -- and this will come out as such situations usually do, with a Patriots victory.

  • At Miami is one of the intriguing games of the season.  The Dolphins are indeed developing a winning program, and they are likely to be fighting for their playoff lives by this point in the season.  But if the Patriots are healthy, Miami will have no answer for Gronkowski, and the Patriots will win by sheer force of talent.

  • It’ll be a different story in Baltimore the following week, where the Ravens are also likely to be fighting for a playoff spot.  And in addition to a great home field advantage (and a night-game to boot!), they’ve shown the ability to beat the Patriots recently, so there’s no “aura” to save the Patriots this time.  Mark it down as a loss -- the game will mean a lot more to Baltimore than New England by that point in the season.

  • The Bills stop by to put a bow on the season, and most years they fare a lot worse in the second game against the Patriots, so expect them to be mailing it in by then and lose for sure.


That makes the Patriots 12-4 again, division winners for sure, and likely competing for a playoff bye.  They could stumble early, given the number of changes on offense.  So if you are one of those “recreational bettors,” wait until October before you start committing big money.

And that is about it for now.  I don’t know if I’ll get my updates out as quickly as in the past, but here’s hoping!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

PPS.  Trivia answer: the Patriots have 9 losing “streaks” of 2-games or more since Bill Belichick took over in 2000.  And only 4 in the last 7 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment