Friday, August 1, 2008

Patriots 2008 Pre-season Preview

Well, well, well, folks, seems like only, say... five months ago that the Patriots season crashed from a possible "best team ever" to ultimate defeat in about 2:07 (the time elapsed on the Giants last scoring drive). The Pats missed five chances to end that drive and the game and go 19-0 (two of those chances on one play). Not what you'd usually expect from them, but that's two years running where they've faded down the stretch and lost by giving up last-minute scores.

So with the pre-season about to commence, the question is, what did they do to improve? As always, they brought in some players and a coach or two, and the veterans are a year older and (perhaps) wiser. But whether or not they have improved won't be answered until they play. Play real games, that is, not the ones you're about to be subjected to.

And that's where I come in. To help you slog through the seemingly endless and totally useless pre-season, here are the things I'll be watching as the Patriots prepare to defend their title -- as AFC Champions :(

Secondary Importance

As the Patriots begin camp, Asante Samuel, Randall Gay, and Eugene Wilson are all goners (along with 60-minute man Troy Brown). I've heard good things about the new veterans, Fernando Bryant and Tank Johnson -- who might find a place as a hybrid linebacker/safety. And the team drafted Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite (the battling Ws) to add some youth, and you will see them both a lot in the pre-season.

But I'm really interested to see how new secondary coach Dom Capers works out. He's been an NFL head coach twice, so who knows what made him take a job so far down the Org. Chart. But you'll know right away if he's having any impact. Last year the secondary was by far the weakest part of the team, and if you see lots of wide open opposition receivers catching long passes, it could be a long season.

My money would be on Capers at least holding the secondary play at level with last year. The past few seasons haven't seen the secondary produce the killer-INT they needed (even given multiple opportunities in the Giants last drive in the Super Bowl). So even with the departures, look for the secondary to hold steady, if not improve. If not, losing three of their four starters could turn this achilles heel into a gangrenous leg.

Rebalancing the Offense

Last year, the Patriots threw the ball and threw the ball and threw the ball. Sure, their final run/pass ratio was closer to even than you might think (55.8/44.2), but it was only that close because they threw to get ahead and late in the season ran to kill the clock toward the end of games.

But the team with the #1 passing offense *still* has never won the Super Bowl, and the inability of the Patriots to keep teams honest with the run cost them against the Giants. After all, New York couldn't have sent all those blitzers if the Pats ran successful draws to make them slow down.

The Pats rushing problems began with Sammy Morris' chest injury. He and Laurence Maroney were tearing teams apart before Morris was injured, and the combination of his punishing inside runs with Maroney's outside speed was lethal. But once Morris went down, Maroney was their only legit #1 back, so they passed more to keep him from taking the pounding of 25 carries a game.

Fast-forward to right now, and in training camp so far, Morris reportedly looks completely healed, and the Patriots added LaMont Jordan from Oakland, a runner I've always feared. He's another punishing inside guy, but he also has skills in the short passing game, so he could split time with either Morris or Kevin Faulk in case of injury.

During the pre-season, keep an eye on how well Jordan picks up blitzes and blocks in the passing game for a clue as to how much playing time he might get in the regular season. And hope that you don't see Morris down on the ground holding his knee or chest.

Ahhhh... to be Young Again

The Patriots core of players continues to get older, but this might be the year that youth is finally served. Reports are that first round pick Jerod Mayo is picking things up quickly, and that the two aforementioned cornerbacks look good in camp. Also, last year's first round pick, safety Brandon Merriweather, is apparently more vocal and involved in the defense, which is key, given that the only battle-tested safety the Patriots have is 37 year-old Rodney Harrison.

There are rumors the Patriots could sign 36 year-old John Lynch. Such a signing would make the emergence of Merriweather even more important. The Patriots defense has been banged up by the end of each of the last four seasons, and while they won a Super Bowl one of those years, the worn down defenders might have cost them a chance at the championship the other three.

Let's hope that youth is served this year. After basically blowing the last two drafts, you have to figure the odds are in favor of a bumper crop of talent this year.

See More Richard

Richard Seymour sustained a knee injury in the 2006 season, had off-season surgery that year and was not the same last year. If he returns to his Pro Bowl level of play, the Patriots could well be on their way to another deep playoff run. The D-line would be a strength even if Richard was on the bench. But with him in the game, it's a devastating crew of offense-crushers that few teams can match.

You probably won't see much of Richard in the pre-season. But when he's on the field, keep an eye on #93 -- watch his burst off the line at the snap and keep an eye on how often running plays to his side get outside the containment and down the sideline. If teams run the other way and/or double-team Seymour, it could be a big year for him... and the team.

More Richard means more pressure on the QB, more runs turned inside to the linebackers, and more double-teams that will leave other defenders free to roam and make plays. When he was healthy, he was the Patriots best defender. If he is healthy this year, watch out!

So that's what I'll be watching to keep myself from falling asleep in the pre-season. Hope you find a way not to doze off when the starters are safely on the sideline and the fans are on their way home in the third quarter.

But in any case, enjoy the beginning of football season.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

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