As the New England Patriots prepare to defend their AFC title and return to the Super Bowl for the sixth time during the Bill Belichick / Tom Brady era, they do so with some areas of improvement needed. With only one preseason game remainng, the clock is ticking on the Patriots' coaching staff to find the right player rotation and schemes before the games officially count. When looking at the current roster, there are a number of areas where the team should be in good standing; but others where more work is needed.
For a team that goes only as far as the healthy arm of Tom Brady can take them, the lack of solid pass blocking from the offensive line is cause for concern. Comparing the line that competed in February's Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants to the one taking the field in the preseason, the unavailability and inconsistency displayed thus far by Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder respectively make the retirement loss of Matt Light and absence of a healthy Logan Mankins even more prominent. Vollmer struggled most of last season with back and leg injuries and has yet to demonstrate that he has regained the mobility and explosiveness at the tackle position. While Vollmer continues to struggle, perennial Pro Bowl guard Mankins has begun to show signs that he is rounding into form after returning from an ACL injury but is not yet at his prior season level.
To date, former Pro bowl lineman Brian Waters has yet to appear in camp; fueling speculation over his potential return. The 13-year veteran expressed a desire to spend more time with family during the offseason, but his absence is reaching the point of concern whether he will return at all. Even is Waters does return, missing all of training camp will certainly impede his early season progress and contribute to continued offensive line consistency.
Pass blocking is just one component that is an area of uncertainty for the Patriots. The loss of Benjarvus Green-Ellis to the Cincinnati Bengals creates a void in the backfield. Although he will never be considered an elite running back, Green-Ellis protected the football better than many of the game's elite backs and gained positive yardage in most instances. While the young duo of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen have shown glimpses of preseason promise, Ridley's last season struggles holding on to the football could be an issue in 2012; while Vereen missed most of the 2011 season due to injury and was removed from Friday's game against Tampa Bay with a right foot injury. In the preseason, Ridley has looked strong, carrying the ball 34 times for 152 yards; most importantly no fumbles.
In past seasons, the Patriots could always fall back on the reliable hands of veterans like the aforementioned Green-Ellis and recently retired Kevin Faulk. This season, Bill Belichick will look to their unproven backs to carry the load; at least enough to keep defenses honest. Newly acquired rookie back Jeff Demps and holdover Danny Woodhead will also be in the mix for the season; both from the backfield and on special teams. As long as this running back tandem protects the football, the collective efforts should be more than enough to keep the chains moving for Brady and Company.
On the receiving end of things, the Patriots move on from the failed Ochocinco experiment and towards Brandon Lloyd as a new prime target for Brady to throw to. To state that Lloyd should produce more for the Patriots than his predecessor did is a tremendous understatement. Unless Lloyd suffers an injury, he should eclipse the production of the newly renamed Chad Johnson before the leaves fall from the trees. With a passing attack that is well dispersed and as deep as any time during the Brady era, New England can only benefit from an additional weapon at their disposal. Even without a marked improvement in the receiver position, the duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will be targeted early and often in the New england offense; freeing up out routes for the remaining receivers.
The Patriots made a concerted effort to incorporate youth and athletic versatility to the defensive front seven, with the drafting of Chandler Jones and Don't'a Hightower. Both players will be quickly incorporated with the strong veteran presences of Vince Wilfork and Jerrod Mayo. The presence of the rookies will help minimize the offseason departure of pass rush specialists Andre Carter and Mark Anderson. Even though the rookies has delivered in the preseason, whether they can play a full complement of snaps over a 16 game season is not yet known.
While the front seven has had a solid youth infusion, last season's defensive Achilles heel was the secondary that allowed the second most passing yards in 2011. Injuries contributed some to last season's struggles, but the regression of former Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty was of equal concern. A more versatile pass rush and a healthy secondary rotation can only help the secondary improve over their 2011 performance. Thus far in the preseason, the secondary has not demonstrated enough to instill confidence that they have turned the corner on 2011 and the team will need to firm up their rotation before their Week 1 opener against the Tennessee Titans.
With one final dress rehearsal remaining, there are still some areas that the Patriots need to work through before their season opener. The tendency in the NFL is to have starters play very little in the final game to avoid injuries. While this is normally the case, it would not come as a surprise to me to see the Patriots' starters play at least a few series in the final game as they look to establish some rhythm. The condensed schedule resulted in Brady missing one preseason game, so his appearance next week is more than likely. In a division where the Patriots stand among the elite contenders for a Super Bowl return, playing the final game and addressing the remaining questions can only enhance the team's chances to secure their fourth Lombardi trophy.
Scott Duhaime is a fan and follower of the New England Patriots for over 30 years, witnessing the team's ascent from league irrelevance to among the league's elite franchises.
Follow Scott on Twitter: @Scott_Duhaime
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