Patriots Spend Offseason With Focus On Defense
In case anyone was wondering, we can state with absolute certainty that Bill Belichick is not past his sell-by date as an NFL head coach.
Indeed, in retrospect, we believe that steering the New England Patriots into last season’s Super Bowl was an achievement that rivaled any in “The Hoodie’s” illustrious career at Foxborough, including his first Super Bowl triumph back in January of 2002. The Pats had several holes to fill last season, especially with a rebuilt defense that proved an albatross for much of the 2011 campaign, yet still finished the regular season at 13-3, cantering home to another AFC East title.
Belichick was able to X and O his way back to another championship game, and almost coaxed enough out of that suspect stop unit to win his fourth title. New England came to the brink only to run out of “D” in the final minutes last February in Indianapolis, when the Giants scored very late for a 21-17 win in Super Bowl XLVI.
After coming so close last season, Belichick figures to give it another shot this fall as the quest for an elusive fourth Super Bowl win continues. As it is, Belichick is ruing that the Giants have twice repelled the Patriots in recent Super Bowls, although all indicators suggest that Belichick isn’t done yet. Another Super Bowl win qualifies Belichick as one of the immortal coaches in NFL history, as well as putting QB Tom Brady in a very select pantheon of pro football signal-callers.
Las Vegas wagering outlets suspect Belichick ought to be right in the middle of things as usual this fall, with season win totals listed mostly at 12½ through mid-summer. The Patriots are also prohibitive 1/6 choices at most Nevada sports books again win the AFC East, and a solid 16/5 choice to win the AFC and return to the Super Bowl where they’re priced at 13/2 to win, co-favorites along with Green Bay to snare the crown.
The Don Best odds screen also has opening week NFL regular-season prices posted, and notes that most Las Vegas sports books New England favored by 6½ over the host Titans in the September 9 regular-season opener.
We’ll get to the offense in a moment; as long as Brady stays healthy, we don’t expect the strike force to cause problems except for opposing defenses fall. It’s Belichick’s own stop unit that likely determines whether the Patriots get back to the Super Bowl on February 3 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, where Belichick won his first title almost 11 years prior to the day.
Familiar Patriots stalwarts from the title teams such as Richard Seymour and Tedy Bruschi were long gone from the lineup last fall when Belichick went into a serious rebuild mode with his “D” that was trying to blood several newcomers on the fly. New England was strafed repeatedly during this adjustment phase, but fortunately had Brady and a potent offense to trade points in any shootouts.
When the smoke cleared, the Patriots ranked 31st (or second-worst) in total defense; the fact Belichick could steer his team so close to another Super Bowl win despite these handicaps still amazes. Pass defense was particularly soft, allowing an AFC-worst 294 ypg.
Maturity alone in the stop unit wasn’t enough to satisfy Belichick in the offseason, as New England practically disdained offense in last April’s NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. Belichick went defense-defense-defense-defense-defense-defense with his first six picks, even trading up (from 27th to 21st) in the first round to take Syracuse DE Chandler Jones with the Pats’ top pick.
Belichick kept adding defensive parts after nabbing Jones, with Alabama ILB Dont’a Hightower chosen four picks later in the first round, and Illinois CB Tavon Wilson grabbed with the 48th overall selection. Safe to say that Belichick was drafting for need in April.
The addition of Jones is significant because one of the key offseason losses through free agency was DE Mark Anderson, who enlisted with the division-rival Bills after recording a healthy 10 sacks a year ago. Along with Hightower, Jones has already been penciled in as one of two likely rookie starters on the Belichick defense.
Although Jones could become a fixture at DE, Belichick is likely to continue rotating other positions along the DL aside brutish DT Vince Wilfork, who was the one constant in the defensive front last season. Belichick’s multiple defensive looks switch between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments, and constant substitution became a pattern a year ago. Expect more of the same this fall.
While the defense struggled as a whole last fall, LB Jerod Mayo certainly did not, emerging as the key element of the platoon and now rewarded as such with a $50 million contract. The versatile Mayo plays on the inside in Belichick’s 3-4 versions but transitions to the “Will” role when the Pats opt for 4-3 looks instead.
Though Mayo is a constant force, Belichick has not received that sort of consistency from the rest of his LBs. In particular, 3rd-year Brandon Spikes is reaching a crossroads after having trouble staying healthy the past two years and often performing erratically when on the field. At his best, however, he dominates, which Belichick is hoping to unleash this fall.
The secondary also remains in flux, especially if 3rd-year CB Devin McCourty can’t rediscover the Pro Bowl form of his rookie season in 2010. McCourty was mostly abysmal last fall, prompting Belichick to even move him to safety at times late last season. If McCourty can’t bounce back, Belichick’s secondary will again lack a coverage leader, consequences of which could be dangerous if the Pats again rank at the bottom of AFC pass defense stats.
We have spent most of this space wondering about what might happen defensively because we have little concern about the New England strike force, even with offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien leaving Foxborough for Penn State. That’s partly because new coordinator Josh McDaniels is also the old coordinator, having served in that capacity during the Patriots’ record-breaking 2007 campaign when forging an easy working relationship with Brady.
Though McDaniels’ head coaching adventure in Denver didn’t go well – which has been the case with many Belichick disciples – and he was stuck in a tough situation last season in St. Louis, his skills seem to mesh with the role Belichick has granted him once more.
We often think it doesn’t make too much difference who is coordinating the Patriots’ offense as long as Brady is still around. Now 35, Brady has hardly given signs that he is on the downside of his career; last year Brady passed for a career-best 5,235 yards, one of the best seasons in NFL history, and added a whopping 39 TD passes. His 105.9 rating in 2011 was the third-best of his career. Hardly the numbers of a QB who might be slipping.
Physically, Brady still seems up to the task, although his fastball has lost a little bit of zip in recent years. But he has made up for that slight downgrade with experience and mechanical improvements, including a better feel for sliding within the pocket to avoid danger. Brady will never be Michael Vick, but has at least developed a better sense of avoiding pressure, if only for an extra split-second, than earlier in his career.
The most-significant issue on the attack end is what the Patriots are going to do about their ground game. Although mastering a short-pass offense that effectively took the place of an infantry diversion last fall, New England is lacking an established power back to gouge out the tough yards that departed Benjarvus Green-Ellis (who moved to the Bengals in free agency) provided a year ago. The 1-2 combo of Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead hardly provides that dimension; there are openings for a variety of fullback-types to carve out a short-yardage niche in the backfield, and sources say that ex-Navy banger Eric Kettani, released early from his service commitments, looms as an interesting alternative.
Still, Brady’s ability to throw short and accurate somewhat lessens the need for a top-notch infantry diversion. Developing great rapport with TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (employed as a H-back at times late last season, and even carrying the ball a few times in that role) became the core of last season’s prolific offense.
To wit: Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for a staggering 169 catches last fall with 24 TDs between them (17 by Gronkowski). No NFL team comes close to using the tight ends as effectively as New England.
There were some offseason distractions in the wide receiver ranks, however, as the productive Wes Welker (who led NFL receivers for the third time in five years last fall with his astounding 122 catches) was involved in a contract dispute and enters training camp in a disgruntled mood after being slapped with the franchise player tag. But the Pats enlisted WR reinforcements in the offseason, where the once-productive ex-Bronco and Ram Brandon Lloyd and ex-Redskin Jabar Gaffney were added to the receiving corps.
Contract issues also threaten to disrupt continuity on the offensive line, where starting RG Brian Waters was a no-show at the beginning of training camp and appears to be making good on his threat of a holdout. The key development up front will be to see how 2nd-year Nate Solder handles the switch from the right tackle spot to the left side, where he replaces the retired Matt Light who protected Brady’s backside for the past decade.
Interestingly, Belichick’s Patriots emerged as the NFL’s premier ‘over’ team the past couple of seasons; they’re ‘over’ a staggering 26-8 since 2010, confirming both a defensive downturn and more proficiency from Brady and the strike force.
Belichick’s team has also offered better spread value as a visitor (11-5 vs. line) the past two years than at Gillette Stadium, where the Pats have been only .500 vs. the number the past two years.
Summary: With AFC East foes in various stages of reloading, it would be a shocker if Belichick didn’t once again dominate his division and get back to what would be New England’s 10th playoff appearance in 12 seasons. Making the postseason, however, is a given with Belichick (at least as long as Brady stays healthy); success is measured in Foxborough by Super Bowls. And the Patriots have a chance to return to another one, and maybe win it all for the first time in eight years.
If, that is, they figure out their running game, and Belichick’s new defensive additions make it easier for the master to scheme his stop unit combinations as he has been able to do with his better New England defenses.