Monday, August 29, 2011

2011 Lions Thrash 2010 Patriots, 34-10

What would happen if the 2011 Detroit Lions played the 2010 Patriots? Well, that scenario took place in Saturday’s preseason game, and the match up quickly turned into a mismatch.  The Patriots appeared very mortal in a 34-10 loss to a thoroughly dominant and motivated Detroit Lions team. The Patriots left most of their significant 2011 additions at home for the game, and the advantage clearly went to this year’s Lions squad.

On Saturday, the Patriots started exactly
two players who were not on the roster last year: work-in-progress receiver Chad Ochocinco and part-time defensive end Mark Anderson. They did get some playing time for rookie offensive tackle Nate Solder and free agent defensive end Andre Carter. But no Albert Haynesworth or Shaun Ellis on the defensive line, no Leigh Bodden or Ras-I Dowling in the secondary, and no Stevan Ridley or Shane Vareen in the running back rotation.

And so it went that 2011 Detroit’s starters posted a decisive 27-10 beat down of the 2010 Patriots starters. Which makes it pretty clear that if Matthew Stafford had played last Thanksgiving the Lions would likely have walked off the field with a victory.

The more important question is what this game tells us about both teams. In a nutshell, here is what I learned:

Lions aren’t a 16-0 squad (sorry Ndamukong Suh), but if Stafford stays healthy, they are a legitimate playoff contender. The Lions quarterback makes great decisions and has excellent pocket presence, and with a lot of talent at wide receiver, the lack of a go-to running back should not matter in the pass happy NFL.

They are also fast and big on defense, with a head coach who oversaw the best Tennessee Titans’ defenses (Jim Schwartz) and a very talented defensive coordinator (Gunther Cunningham). Their front four, lead by Suh, created havoc on most every Patriots passing play, and most of the time Detroit’s defensive line will make up for what they lack behind them.

The Lions did not excel running the ball or stopping the run last year, and appear headed for the same short-comings in 2011. But the NFL is a quarterback’s league, so if Stafford stays upright for 16 games the Lions they should contend for a playoff berth. Their biggest problem is their division, which has both participants from the 2010 NFC Championship Game: the Bears and Packers. But the rest of the NFC divisions appear weak enough to allow one (or even two) NFC North teams in as wild card entrants.

As for the
Patriots, their talent grab on the defensive line won’t amount to much if they can’t get the secondary healthy and playing together. The Lions offense did not slow down when edge rusher Carter entered the game or when the Patriots blitzed cornerbacks to get pressure. Stafford and backup quarterback Shaun Hill simply went with short routes and quick releases to defeat the blitz.

Last Saturday’s secondary looked a lot like last year’s, with
Devin McCourty holding his own against one receiver and Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler, and Jonathan Wilhite giving up play after play. On Saturday, Stafford went 12 for 14, 200 yards, 2 touchdowns, and completed passes to 8 different receivers -- in the first half. That “bend and then break” defense probably looked too familiar (and a little frightening) to Patriots fans.

New England will likely get their pass protection schemes straightened out, and there is no indication that Bodden and McCourty won’t start the season together. Add in either Ellis or Haynesworth to an already improved defensive line, and the 2011 Patriots would have given the 2011 Lions a much tougher time.

This game wasn’t exactly a tale of two teams headed in opposite directions. But it showed that Schwartz has remade the Lions to compete with one of the league’s best teams. Pretty good progress for a team that too often used to compete for the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

- Scott

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Patriots vs. Lions -- what to watch for

If you live in Patriots country, Hurricane Irene will probably force you inside for the evening, so here are four things to watch in tonight’s preseason game against the Lions.

1.  Injuries at running back make it difficult to predict who might play, but no matter who is on the field, there will be something to watch for. Impressive rookie Stevan Ridley makes quick cuts and has excellent burst and down field moves. But if he plays, watch how he does in pass protection. If he learns his role in protecting Tom Brady well, he could be your opening day starter.

Fellow rookie Shane Vereen appears nearly recovered enough from a hamstring injury and he could play against Detroit. If he gets on the field, watch how quickly he cuts and reaches full speed, both would be problems if the hamstring isn’t ready. Also, if he plays with the starting unit, he should average over five yards a carry, because the Patriots offensive line has been tearing it up this preseason.

If Danny Woodhead gets to play, keep an eye on him in pass protection or blocking down field. After his concussion last week, he might shy away from contact instinctively, though one would not expect that, given his well-known toughness. Also, he has averaged eight yards per carry this preseason, so track that closely and you’ll know whether or not he’s a step slow.

2.  The defensive secondary has to perform well, and the Lions should be a good test. Backup quarterback Shaun Hill torched the Patriots in the first half of last year’s Thanksgiving game: 15 for 22, 126 yards, 1 touchdown, no interceptions. And this time, it will be starter Matthew Stafford under center, and both teams should play starters for most of the first half.

The main question is whether or not cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Leigh Bodden can recapture the skills of their best years with the Patriots (2010 and 2009, respectively). Both saw their first preseason action last week against the Buccaneers, and neither got beaten for anything big. However, the Patriots defensive line dominated that game, so the corners didn’t have to extend themselves much at all.

One other question in the secondary is the status of the safety position.. Beyond Patrick Chung, the competition for the second spot is wide open, with sometime starter James Sanders nursing a hamstring injury and annual disappointment Brandon Meriweather living up (or down) to his reputation. Undrafted free agent Sergio Brown got more reps a practice this week, and it might be telling who gets more time with the first team against the Lions -- since the third preseason game is often considered a warm-up for the regular season.

3. At receiver, Chad Ochocino looked lost on the field last week, and he needs to show progress, if not play perfectly. He is not as central to the Patriots success as some have said, but he has to prove he’s getting the hang of the Patriots complex passing game, or the team might not keep him around. And missing routes and then looking dumbfounded on the sideline again won’t help his cause.

Taylor Price is reportedly healthy again, and if he can duplicate his game against Jacksonville, he might get himself a roster spot in a very competitive receiver race. And that would give him the chance to show his speed and become the deep threat the Patriots really need. (Just don’t expect much of that tonight -- the Lions pass rush will probably dictate a short passing game.)

4. On the defensive line, slight injuries and typical Patriots sleight of hand make it very tough to know who will play from week to week. Expect either Albert Haynesworth and/or Shaun Ellis to make an appearance tonight, and watch specifically if they can move the line back toward the quarterback (assuming they get in the game). Also monitor the progress of Andre Carter -- do the Lions game plan specifically to contain him, or will he get single coverage again.

Perhaps the biggest problem on defensive line is the numbers game, especially for veteran Mike Wright and recent signee Ellis. Expect Albert Haynesworth to make the team, based solely on potential even if he skips the entire preseason. But if Ellis or Wright can’t get on the field, it will be tough to keep them and let Carter or Eric Moore go based on performance so far. And also expect the team to keep improving Myron Pryor and second-year pro Jermaine Cunningham.

Beyond any injuries, those are a few things I’ll be watching tonight. Enjoy the game.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Secondary Key To Patriots 2011 Defense

Despite all the high-profile moves the Patriots have made on the defensive line, improvement in the secondary remains key to their more aggressive 4-3 defense. Head coach Bill Belichick traditionally does not blitz when he doesn’t trust the secondary. And when he doesn’t blitz, the lack of pressure usually leads to no playoffs or an early playoff exit.

By now we’ve all heard the big new names on the defensive line: Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, and the apparently unstoppable Andre Carter. And with more talent on the line than at linebacker, the Patriots will play more 4-3 than 3-4. But before Belichick will throw extra players at the passer, he will have to trust his secondary; and that is not a guarantee.

Devin McCourty returns after a sensational rookie campaign that saw him named a cornerback on the Pro Bowl roster. However, as noted in a previous column, second-year players often struggle in New England. McCourty hasn’t seen much action in the preseason, but he will have to play at least 85% as well as last year if the secondary is to command the respect of the head coach.

The Patriots also return Leigh Bodden, by far the Patriots best cornerback in 2009.  Though he had only five interceptions that year, he was solid in coverage and run support, and he was expected to pair with McCourty last year. However, that plan was nixed by a shoulder injury. Bodden played reasonably well in limited action in the most recent preseason game, a win over Tampa Bay, but he needs to show more before declaring he is back to his 2009 form.

If both McCourty and Bodden are healthy, that would move often-overmatched Kyle Arrington to the nickel position, which is certainly a better fit. Arrington competes like a first-stringer, but he lacks the skills to cover the No. 1 or No. 2 NFL receivers on most teams. And given the number of spread offenses the Patriots face this year, it will help to have the experienced Arrington covering slot receivers and occasionally blitzing himself.

As for the rest, you can throw a blanket over Jonathan Wilhite and Darius Butler, though if forced to choose I would guess that Wilhite will stay and Butler might get cut. And rookie Ras-I Dowling has yet to see the field in the preseason, so there’s no way of knowing whether or not he will contribute this year.

In addition to the concerns at corner, there is also uncertainty at the safety position. Brandon Meriweather, never progressed into the play-making strong safety the Patriots envisioned when drafting him in the first round in 2007. Even last year he gave up touchdowns by taking bad angles, and he guessed wrong on run/pass too often for a fourth-year player. And with reports that undrafted Sergio Brown is getting more reps in practice, the team could be ushering Meriweather to the bench... or even the door.

Although losing Meriweather would hurt the Patriots’ depth, they are fortunate that Patrick Chung looks ready to step into the starting role. Chung is a dynamic play maker who understands the defense well enough to make secondary adjustments on the fly.  His reckless style has led to some nagging injuries; but if Chung can stay healthy, no one questions his ability -- his read-and-react skills and tackling ability are among the best on the team.

Free safety sees the return of James Sanders, a veteran with six years in the Patriots system. Sanders is a solid, if not spectacular, player who will almost never be caught out of position but will rarely make a great play in a big moment. If Chung is at the other safety spot, then Sanders is more than capable of holding down this one.

Jarrad Page and Brown would compete for a roster spot behind Sanders. Page was unimpressive in 2010, so watch out if he gets lots of playing time. The jury is still out on Brown; so his preseason performance will bear watching.

None of these questions mean the Patriots defense is in trouble, or that the new defensive linemen are irrelevant. But you won’t know for certain how the Patriots will utilize all their new linemen until the questions in the secondary are answered. In the past, Belichick has changed philosophy mid-season when injuries to the secondary necessitated it.

If you watched the preseason win over Tampa Bay, and were impressed with the attacking defense, then you’d better hope the secondary proves its worth. Because if they don’t, the 2011 defense will resemble a 4-3 version of the 2010 defense -- and that did not end well for the Patriots or their fans.

So don't wait for Asante Samuel, or Ty Law, or... gulp, Otis Smith to walk through that door. How well the young defensive backs progress is key to how often the Patriots will get after the quarterback, and that is key to much impact the new linemen will have.
Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tom Brady, Defense Shine In Patriots Victory

The New England Patriots cruised to a 31-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Thursday night, improving to 2-0 in the preseason. They also gave key starters their first action of the year, and the Patriots dominated the first half with a well-tuned offense and an attacking defense. Overall, a nice win that appeared to be mostly injury-free and provided a few clues to how the new players will integrate with 2010’s 14-2 squad.

As with last week, there will always be more good than bad when the team wins.

The Good

Quarterback Tom Brady sliced up the Tampa Bay defense with a line of 11 for 19, 118 yards, 2 easy touchdowns, and no interceptions. He was almost untouched on the first two drives, which looked like 7-on-7 drills. Brady was comfortable in the pocket and deadly accurate, and when the defense started to get some pressure he mixed in the run very effectively.

Defensive end Andre Carter tore up the Tampa Bay offensive line all night long. He consistently beat his man to the outside, either forcing the quarterback up in the pocket or into an early throw. The Buccaneers never slid more protection his way, so Carter just kept coming, and for one game he looked better around the edge than any Patriots pass rusher since, gulp... Willie McGinest. (BTW, how Carter ended up with zero tackles on the stat sheet is beyond me.)

Linebacker Jerod Mayo played inside and outside, blitzing off the edge for two sacks and some stops in the running game. He was sharp, showed the explosion and instincts of his rookie campaign, and was better in pass coverage than he’s ever been. Impressive improvement from the 2010 league leader in tackles.

Tight End Aaron Hernandez moved out of “The Bad” category from last week, scoring a touchdown on a nice route early on and catching 3l passes for 42 yards. Most important, no fumbles, despite taking a big hit on one catch.

The committee of running backs all contributed in their own style. BenJarvus Green-Ellis gave Brady a break from the increasing pressure and brought the hammer 11 times for 51 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and 2 touchdowns. Scatback Danny Woodhead ran 5 draws out of the spread formation for 63 yards, a whopping 12.5 YPC. And though Stevan Ridley played against the second string, his 14 carries for 84 yards are impressive nonetheless -- as is his continued decent job in blitz pickup.  No drop-off from the rookie so far.

Receiver Wes Welker caught 5 passes for 56 yards in the first half. And those catches included a 14 yard grab on second-and-goal from the Tampa 15 (Green-Ellis scored on the next play), a tough catch over the middle, and a third-down conversion from the Patriots 3 yard line just before the half. In other words, he picked up right where he left off last year.

Punter Zoltan Mesko finally got in 5 kicks for an average of 45.8 yards (41.4 net). And not only were his punts high and long, he held on a 44 yard field goal in the rain... and that one went right down the middle. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski will make this list again when they let him kick more than one field goal -- or when he starts kicking off again.

The entire offensive line should take a bow. Multiple running plays saw rookie Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer blocking 5 or 10 yards down field. And in pass protection, Brady had all the time he needed on the early drives, with a perfect pocket and not a Tampa Bay Buc to be found anywhere nearby. Tight end Rob Gronkowski also did a nice job of run and pass blocking.

(Note: the secondary obviously played well, given the numbers, but the small number of camera angles and lack of replays didn’t really allow for analysis of that unit.)

The Bad

Quarterback Ryan Mallett’s first interception was the worst throw by a Patriots quarterback since Scott Secules left the team. In an obvious mis-communication between him and a receiver -- who incidentally never even appeared in the television shot -- Mallett threw a duck up for grabs that was picked and returned for a touchdown. His play wasn’t all bad; he adjusted and went short after that, but the INT was a bad mistake that even a rookie should not make.

Defensive back Darius Butler makes the list again for showing up milliseconds late on at least three passes, allowing completions when he should have broken up the play. He was a little better than last week, but not good enough to escape judgment on “The Bad” list. And if rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling ever gets to play, Butler’s days on the team could well be numbered.


The defense attacked more than they have in years. Flush with talent on the front seven, they went after Tampa quarterbacks with abandon. They only got two sacks, but had the QBs on the run the entire game. This unit could be scary if defensive linemen Shaun Ellis and Albert Haynesworth are healthy enough to play when the season begins.

As for the first team offense, it was much like last year, when they led the NFL in scoring while setting a record for fewest turnovers in an NFL season. Chad Ochocinco got his first two receptions and seems to be learning the routes well enough, though with Welker and Hernandez playing well, they might not need big contributions from Ochocinco. Ridley’s excellent play continues to impress. He literally looked like a man among boys when he was running over the Tampa Bay second stringers.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mismatch: Patriots QBs vs. Jaguars Defense

Memo to fans of the New England Patriots: please take a deep breath, a step back, and two chill pills about Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallet. Last Thursday, the young Patriots players didn't do anything special against the Jacksonville Jaguars. They simply did what Patriots quarterbacks always do to Jack Del Rio's defense -- they destroyed it.

True, Tom Brady is the only other Patriots quarterback to face Jacksonville during Del Rio's tenure, and Brady is acknowledged as a pretty good signal-caller. But no matter what other personnel are on the field -- for either team -- the Patriots passing game is a puzzle the Jaguars head coach can't solve.

Even when you consider that these stats were put up by a future Hall of Fame quarterback, the numbers since Del Rio arrived are discouraging to say the least.

To put a two finer points on those numbers, Brady has never been below his career passer rating (95.2) against Jacksonville, and the Jaguars literally haven't intercepted a single Patriots pass this century. They have also allowed two of Brady's greatest statistical games ever -- back-to-back games with a combined 91% completions, 529 yards through the air, and 7 touchdowns with zero INTs.

Note that given the numbers Brady achieves against Jacksonville, the 68% completions and 109.9 passer rating of Hoyer/Mallet last Thursday seem pedestrian. Which is why Patriots fans should hold off those hotel reservations for Canton in 2031.

For all the success the Patriots had against the Jaguars, the real question is: Why? What is it about Jacksonville's defense that makes backups and rookies look like Pro Bowl quarterbacks? The answer might be simpler than you think: a complete lack of pressure.

In the games listed here, the Jaguars averaged 1 sack for 6 yards and 1 QB hit per game. And those sack numbers are trending down over time -- they had 6 sacks for 28 yards in the first two games, but just 2 sacks for 10 yards in the last three.

In every game Brady had ample time to survey the field and shred Jacksonville's soft zone -- same as Hoyer and Mallet last Thursday. And none of this would be a problem if it happened once and the Jaguars made some adjustments. But they keep trying the same thing, only to fail the same way game after game.

Of course, Jacksonville fans could just chalk it all up to Tom Brady being who he is -- at least they could until that a backup and a rookie thrashed that same defense in the preseason. Hoyer and Mallet might indeed be good NFL quarterbacks someday. One of them might even end up succeeding Brady when he retires. But their performance against Jacksonville last Thursday told you one thing and one thing only: that some things never change, regular season, post-season, and now pre-season.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ridley, Young QBs Shine In Patriots Win

Just some quick analysis of the best and worst Patriots players in the team's 47-12 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night. As you might expect, there was a lot more good than bad in the blowout win.

The Good

Running back Stevan Ridley impressed with 111 total yards (64 rushing, 47 receiving) and 3 touchdowns. He showed good balance and determination on two touchdown runs, and speed and good hands on his touchdown reception. However, the most important thing he did was blitz pickup. New running backs on pass-first teams often can't get playing time because they can't read the blitz. But Ridley picked up blitzers flawlessly twice in the game, which shows an aptitude beyond his two+ weeks with the team.

Quarterback Brian Hoyer started and played against the Jaguars first string defense. And even though the Patriots sat most of their offensive starters, Hoyer completed 15 of 21 passes for 171 yards and a 111.4 QB rating. He showed poise and a good pocket presence (zero sacks), and after the first two drives stalled, he led the Patriots on four consecutive scoring drives to finish the half.

Rookie quarterback Ryan Mallett might have been even more impressive than Hoyer. Mallett showcased a rocket arm and though some of his throws were high, he made good reads and hit several receivers in stride for long gains. His QB rating wasn't quite was Hoyer's was, but Mallet led the Patriots to four straight touchdown drives, before the kneel down to end the game.

Wide receiver Taylor Price was the surprise of the game, with 8 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. He has the speed to beat teams deep, but did most of his damage on quick slants and outs, one of which he turned up field for a 50 yard gain. He made tough catches over the middle and returned two punts. Price's 2010 rookie year didn't give much hint that he'd be the deep threat the Patriots needed; but this game made him the immediate front-runner for that role.

Offensive lineman Landon Cohen did a great job pulling around end on running plays. He got multiple blocks on three different plays. He did a credible job in pass protection, picking up stunts and clogging the middle when needed.

Linebacker Dane Fletcher was all over the place in the first half. He notched two tackles for a loss, one when he shot a gap, ran over a blocking back, and took down the runner before he got started. If he continues that level of play, he could work into the starting lineup next to Jerod Mayo.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski only did field goals and extra points. Surprisingly, he was even more accurate than he'd been in the past, grooving 46- and 43-yard field goals right down the middle, with plenty of distance to spare. His leg strength will continue to be an unkkonwn until the Patriots have him kickoff again, but this was a very encouraging start to his comeback from injury.

The Bad

Tight end Aaron Hernandez fumbled twice (one lost) in six catches. To put that in perspective, the 2010 Patriots had 9 turnovers all season long. Suffice it to say it was not the best game of his career, and he got the death-stare from head coach Bill Belichick.

Linebacker Jermaine Cunningham didn't make the kind of progress many fans hoped he would during the off-season. He ran himself out of several running plays, got pushed around by tight ends, and looked semi-lost out there. The Patriots will play more 4-3 this year, which could relieve Cunningham of pass-rushing responsibility. That might be a good thing, because it's clear he is guessing run or pass, and when he guesses wrong the play can go for a long gain.

Cornerback Darius Butler was even more disappointing, because he let up catches to third- and fourth-string players and got pushed out of several plays by guys who won't even make the Jaguars this season. It's been sad to watch his play deteriorate through the years, from part-time starter to a guy apparently fighting to stay on the team. Butler simply never got better at the position, and it appears he will never be the starter the Patriots hoped he might become.


This was only the first pre-season game, so final judgments would be premature. But it appears the Patriots hit on a few offensive weapons in the 2011 draft, and that they might have their desperately needed home run threat in Price.
With just three more games to make an impression, expect Price, Ridley, and Fletcher to see more playing time. And it wouldn't surprise me to see Butler get cut (or traded or put on the DL) before the season started.
Keep the faith,
- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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!