by Chris Warner
Off-season, off-season, free agents, rookies, whatchathink, whaddyaknow, blah, blah, blah.
Enough. Let’s do this …
Jones-ing For Athleticism: Before we speak of rookie Chandler Jones, a quick anecdote about last year’s defense, focusing on fan (and BSMW) favorite Rob Ninkovich. Playing against an AFC East rival, Ninkovich made two plays that defined the 2011 season defensively. On one play, he read a misdirection play, avoided the block, and ran toward the outside. Due to his lack of quickness, however, the back eluded contain and gained a first down.
On another play, he was in the perfect position to deflect a pass in the flat. He saw the ball, leapt for it, and watched it sail three inches over his hand for a first-down completion.
Ninkovich knows what he’s doing. He’s a smart, diligent guy who has gone from hopeful longsnapper to starting linebacker. But – like many Pats veterans – he lacked the athleticism to follow through on what his brain wanted him to do. We don’t know what Jones will be, but we know what he is: a 6-foot-5, 250-pound pass-rusher with the wingspan of a pterodactyl. Should prove fun to watch.
Feasting On RBs: August 20, 2009. That was the only time BenJarvus Green-Ellis fumbled the football at the NFL level, during a preseason tilt vs. Cincinnati. No one will miss The Law Firm more than BSMW, but maybe it’s time for a little more explosiveness from the offensive backfield. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen have the ability to break big runs. Let’s see how they mesh (along with Lil’ Danny Woodhead and Joseph Addai) with New England’s offensive scheme.
Screen Test: With Josh McDaniels at the offensive helm, will that mean a return to the ol’ screen pass? Let’s hope so. With opposing defenses pressing along the line of scrimmage, that could open up deeper routes, which would lead to…
Actually, It’s Ochenta Y Cinco, He’s had experience under Josh McDaniels, but how much will Brandon Lloyd (number 85 in your program) help the rhythm of the offense? Will he provide better numbers than 2011 free agent acquisition Chad Ochocinco?
HA-Ha-ha ha hah! Ahh, Ochocinco. Laughter is good. Anyhoo, look for how McDaniels utilizes Lloyd, who can get the ball deep but is also known for coming up with big catches in traffic. With a potential revisit of the aforementioned screen passes, Lloyd could have a steady, productive season as part of a prolific offense with more ways to bite opponents than Medusa’s hair.
Defensive Back-back-backfield: At some points during the 2011 season, New England’s defensive backfield proved difficult to watch, as the Patriots got torched as often as Boston in the late 1970s. (This was an issue. Look it up.) Terrible third-down percentage, passing yardage and QB completion rates added up to a series of nail-biters that should have been run-of-the-mill wins.
Most important to the improvement of this unit: how well do the free agents communicate? How quickly can the rookies adjust/contribute? Will the defense become more aggressive in coverage?
What better team to help answer these questions than the high-flying Saints in preseason?
Seeking Devin-itive Improvement: Which version of cornerback Devin McCourty shows up this year? The self-assured Pro-Bowl rookie, or the silly sophomore who consistently looked like he’d just gotten off at the wrong stop, realized it too late, and turned to chase the bus as it rode away?
McCourty has seemed positive in interviews, but a display of confidence to the media does nothing to assuage our pangs. Ellis Hobbs was confident. A bit deluded, but confident. If McCourty can simulate something closer to 2010, the unit’s off to a strong start.
End Of The Whine: Will the influx of pass-rushing defensive linemen cool the disappointment of over losing Mark Anderson in free agency? As much pressure as Anderson provided, we should remember that his first few sacks came during clean-up time. Early on, the guy swept up more garbage than a Manhattan street cleaner on January 1.
Pats pass-rushers like Trevor Scott, Jonathan Fanene and Jones all have the potential to fill the void left by Anderson and Andre Carter, though we don’t expect any one player to reach double-digit sacks this season.
Spikes In Defensive Flexibility: The addition of Dont’a Hightower gives Coach Bill Belichick more options than your grandma at the Golden Corral buffet. With players like Hightower and Brandon Spikes, who has shown his ability as a team leader/sledghammer, the coach can switch from a 3-lineman, 4-linebacker (3-4) defense to a 4-3 without changing personnel, giving opposing QBs more than enough to ponder while under center.
The Ebb And Flow Of The Tights: This off-season, tight end Rob Gronkowski has gotten so much exposure we should call him Marie Curie. The lovable knucklehead has shown no signs of it affecting him; if he’s anything like the 2011 record-setting version, all will be well in Patsland. Add Aaron Hernandez and one other to the mix (Daniel Fells? Sure, we’re not picky), and New England should meet the challenge set by 2012 defenses.
Seeking More For Wes: The insane aspect of this offense? While Gronkowski was setting tight end records and coupling with Hernandez as the most prolific TE tandem in the league, Wes Welker was catching 122 passes. Again: 122! That stat needs to check into McLean Hospital, because it is nuts.
Welker’s performance this season should determine his status next year. If he continues his remarkable run of productive seasons, free agency will take him somewhere else. If, however, the Patriots can spread the wealth (bringing his numbers down a bit), maybe his value will remain highest at Gillette.
Spencer’s Gifts: Fullback Spencer Larsen seems like a Patriots type of guy – savvy with the media and unselfish with his play. The prototypical fullback position in New England was laid to rest in 2003, after Fred McCrary got hurt. The Pats replaced him with backup running back/special teamer Patrick Pass and never looked back.
Offensive linemen, defensive linemen, tight ends and linebackers have all manned the position, and even a few actual fullbacks have gotten back there (shout-out to Larry Centers). Is it time to put the clock back 10 years? Not exactly, as Larsen can play many different roles (linebacker, special teams, pass-catching back) and his versatility could help the team. Definitely a position to keep an eye on this year.
Tom Tom Club: Ah, Tom Brady. Here we go again. Considering his age and off-season lifestyle, does Brady still have the focus and desire to competeOHMYGOD THISISSOBRUTAL WHYDOWEASKTHISEVERYSUMMER – ?
You know what? He’s fine. But we’re worried about –
A Line In The Dirt: If New England’s offensive line can’t get it together, Brady will spend his post-game talks with the somber tone of an “I Survived” interviewee. The retirement of Matt Light, the limbo status of Brian Waters and injuries to Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer have made the O-line as reliable as a Tommy Bahama beach umbrella in a high wind (seriously, that thing snapped back like Gronkowski’s head as he drove past a bikini contest).
The development of the O-line, though not as intriguing as that of the wide receivers, running backs or linebackers, will determine New England’s success in 2012. Now that should be something to watch.
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Chris Warner can be reached at email@example.com