Tuesday, November 17, 2009

State of the Patriots

This past Sunday's loss by the Patriots to their hated rivals, the Indianapolis Colts, was painful. Despite the Patriots' 6-3 record, the warts of the team were on full display in the 4th quarter. After having some time to allow the shock of the loss to wear off and to reflect on what went wrong, I've come to the following conclusions about the three time Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots:

The Patriots are a soft team - Long gone are the smashmouth days of 2001 and 2003, where there was balance in the offensive attack and heavy hitting on defense. When I watch this team, I wonder what ever happened to the 2001 Super Bowl game style where the secondary would punish receivers on every play, whether the pass was completed or not? The Patriots have turned into the 2003 Indianapolis Colts - a pass happy team that is entertaining and can put up points, but cannot physically impose their will on a very good team.

They can't stop anyone on defense - This has been a problem since the January 2007 AFC Championship where they blew an 18 point lead to Indianapolis. The secondary is young and improving, but the defense is in a state of transition. Gone are Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Rodney Harrison. Safeties Brandon Meriweather and Brandon McGowan are trying to be big hitters, but sometimes they are out of position and miss tackles.

They cannot rush the passer - Back in the Super Bowl days, Mike Vrabel or Willie McGinest could be counted on to get a big sack. The 2009 New England Patriots are unable to get to the QB. When you put a team in a 2nd and 18 situation or 3rd and 13 via sacks, a defense has a lot more flexibility in what their next defensive call can be. The inverse here is also true in that it limits what the offense can do. This is why the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense is so good. They are always putting teams in 3rd and long situations. The 2009 Patriots are usually in a 3rd and 5 situation.

No playmakers on defense - When was the last time a Patriot defender forced a big fumble? Other than Jerod Mayo, the Patriots don't have any big time playmakers on defense. The defense is younger and faster, but they are missing the Ty Laws, Tedy Bruschis, and Rodney Harrisons they had during their Super Bowl dynasty days.

Corey Dillon, We Miss You! - Clock killin' Corey Dillon lived up to his nickname. Dillon, and to a lesser extent, Antowain Smith, could be counted on to wear down defenses and chew up the clock in the 4th quarter by moving the chains with their physical styles of running. The Patriots idea of killing the clock and moving the chains now is to throw short passes and slants. It's not the same and it doesn't work as well.

Too Pass Happy - One of the things I don't understand about Bill Belichick is how he has gotten so far away from one of the attributes that made him famous and successful - shortening the game. Tom Brady is one of the greatest QBs ever and it is generally a good idea to maximize the use of him as a weapon. However, Peyton Manning is one of the all time greats, too. Instead of getting into a shootout with the Colts, the Patriots would be better off having long sustained drives keeping Manning off the field, like the one they had in the 3rd quarter that unfortunately resulted in a Maroney fumble. The Patriots ran the football well Sunday night vs. the Colts and should've looked to do it more against the Colts' small defensive front. It is a mystery why the hard running BenJarvus Green-Ellis doesn't see more carries.

Weakness at the Offensive Tackle Position - For years, Matt Light has been the left tackle and the right tackle position has been a revolving door. Remember Greg Robinson-Randall, Tom Ashworth, and Ryan O'Callaghan? Nick Kaczur has been the starting right tackle since 2007, and not a very good one. Neither Light nor Kaczur can consistently handle speed rushers without help. The emergence of rookie Sebastian Vollmer in the wake of Light's knee injury, has easily been the most pleasant surprise of the season. Vollmer is huge, athletic and can move his feet in pass protection and is a punishing blocker in the running game. When Light comes back, the Patriots should keep Vollmer at left tackle and slide Light over to right tackle where he belongs.

Despite this list of issues, the Patriots are still a very good team. A few tweaks in the game plan and in personnel, can make a major difference. Any team that has Bill Belichick and Tom Brady is going to be in the playoff mix. However, to be a Super Bowl contender, which I believe the Patriots currently are not, changes need to be made. Those who ignore recent history are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

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