Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

by Andy Benoit

(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)

The New England Patriots brought home three Lombardi Trophies in the first five years of the Bill Belichick era. In the seven years since, they’ve blown a big second-half lead in the 2006 AFC title game, blown an undefeated season in a 2007 Super Bowl loss to the Giants, been blown out at home in a 2009 wild-card matchup with the Ravens, blown a No. 1 seed in a 2010 divisional round home loss to the Jets and, most recently, lost another Super Bowl to the Giants.

It’s tempting to overanalyze the differences between the Part I Patriots and these Part II Patriots, but each attempt at explaining the contrasting results of playoff runs would be met with a valid rebuttal. Just for fun:

The Part I Patriots were a blue collar, no-name bunch. The Part II Patriots have more flair (See: quarterback’s supermodel wife, tight end’s myriad shirtless party photos, and the string of failed high-profile veteran pickups like Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco, Adalius Thomas, etc.)

Rebuttal: This mostly speaks to image and public perception, not reality. Plus, despite what outsiders like to proclaim from their high horses, 99 percent of the time, off-field activities really have nothing to do with what happens on the field. If they did, none of the 90's Cowboys teams would have made the playoffs.

The Part I Patriots were built around a dynamic defense and a conservative offense. The Part II Patriots are built around a dynamic offense and conservative defense.

Rebuttal: True, but that’s missing the point. The Part I Patriots played in an era when stingy defense ruled the day. But rule changes -– some of which came to fruition because of complaints made about the physical Patriots defense -– and football’s natural evolution have flipped the script. The NFL is a passing league now. So the Patriots have put themselves at the cutting edge of offense –- just as they were at the cutting edge when perplexing, multi-faceted defense first came into vogue.

This is the brilliance of Belichick. He makes sweeping strategic adjustments better than any coach in NFL history. Yes, the Part II Patriots have come up short in the postseason lately, but the Part II Patriots have also featured just about every different scheme you can imagine. The vertical Randy Moss period to today’s horizontal tight end period, the blitzing 3-4 man defenses to classic 4-3 zone schemes. It’s this malleability that keeps thrusting New England into the postseason. And it’s this malleability that makes them, once again, as big a threat as any team to take the title.


Tom Brady can be a gateway to a fascinating discussion about just how significant Super Bowls really are for a quarterback’s pedigree. Obviously, they’re significant and always will be. That’s fair. Are they overblown? Brady was 3-0 in Super Bowls over the first four years that he played; he’s 0-2 in Super Bowls over the last four years he has played. Despite that, there is no arguing that Brady has been a much better quarterback in his last four years than he was in his first four years. The default barroom rebuttal here might be, "Hey, the win-loss record speaks for itself." But no, it doesn’t -– that’s why this discussion is fascinating.

Super Bowl-losing Brady has better arm strength and accuracy than Super Bowl-winning Brady. Super Bowl-losing Brady is more poised in the pocket, having utterly mastered the often overlooked skill of subtle body deception. Brady baits the defense with small pump fakes, looks off defenders, has subtle hints of shoulder twists -– anything to make a defender guess wrong. Super Bowl-losing Brady performs as comfortably with bodies around him as anyone in the game. He never, ever seems to deliver a ball off-balance, no matter how chaotic a play gets. More importantly, he orchestrates a rich, diverse system predominantly from the line of scrimmage, controlling a game’s tempo and flow the way Peyton Manning always has. Super Bowl-winning Brady did some of these things some of the time. Super Bowl-losing Brady does all of these things all of the time. It’s not even close who the better quarterback is.

We’ll save the discussion of why the better Brady hasn’t won titles for another time. The Patriots currently have the toughest offense in the NFL to match up against. Brady’s brilliance is one reason for that; his weapons are another. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are redefining the way teams view receiving threats. The statuesque Gronkowski is arguably the best all-around tight end in the game. Despite coming off a career year, it was probably a smart move by Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio this past off-season to sign the 23-year-old to a six-year, $54 million contract before his value soared any higher. Hernandez, however, might be the more important piece.

Though Hernandez doesn’t have Gronkowski’s strength or route running prowess (the former fourth-rounder from Florida is still developing his feel for attacking zone coverage), he has more flexibility than his fellow third-year star. Hernandez can truly line up anywhere on the field. He dominated Denver in the playoffs with five carries for 61 yards and a 20-yard reception coming out of the backfield. That’s a tight end not just lining up as a running back, but moving the chains as a running back. The Patriot offense will only become more creative; Hernandez’s boundless skills will put him at the forefront of that creativity.

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The fact that both tight ends can block is what makes this system nearly impossible to stop. Their blocking compels defenses to stay in nickel rather than in dime, which means the Patriots often get to run against a smallish front seven or throw against a linebacker who’s haplessly trying to stay with either Hernandez or Gronkowski. Most linebackers are used to covering tight ends in short spurts ... which is why the Patriots design so many wide receiver-type routes for their tight ends. The freedom that the tight ends’ flexibility presents is invaluable –- that’s why the Patriots bought insurance in the form of versatile veteran tight end Daniel Fells. He’ll handle third-string duties and keep the scheme afloat should one of the stars miss a little bit of time. (Also in the mix for this role is former Viking Visanthe Shiancoe, who offers similar versatility.)

The man in charge of capitalizing on this is Josh McDaniels, who returns as offensive coordinator after a three-year learning experience in Denver and St. Louis. McDaniels is a creative designer of downfield passing, and he has brought with him a premier wideout in Brandon Lloyd. The acrobatic 10th-year pro gives this horizontal passing attack an outside vertical dimension that it did not have. If that seems unfair, well, sorry, it is.

Lloyd will replace the mostly ineffective Deion Branch on the outside. Wes Welker, obviously, will return in the slot. The likely reason New England has not rewarded Welker for his fourth 100-plus catch season with a long-term contract is they know that Welker’s production is liable to dip a bit. Thus, Welker will be cheaper next year than he is this year. The Patriots may not need him by that point. Welker is a great role player, not a great player. Much of what he does stems from the crafty structure of the offense. That makes him replaceable.

The Patriots love to spread into 3×2 empty sets, often with the two tight ends aligning on the same side. (This gave the Giants fits in Super Bowl XLVI, by the way.) The competition for the third receiver job is worth watching. Branch is the early favorite because he brings familiarity, but Jabar Gaffney is a smoother, more dynamic player. It’s just a matter of whether Gaffney is comfortable aligning two spots away from the quarterback. If he’s not, Donte Stallworth, or even wild card Julian Edelman, could get a look.

New England’s impressive depth at wide receiver is almost pure luxury, given that this offense generally prefers to keep a running back on the field. The benefit is that, in doing so, the Patriots are still technically in base personnel, which means all formations are in play, which means the defense is almost compelled to keep at least two linebackers on the field. That’s a poor way to defend this current Patriots setup.

The Patriots can spread from base personnel because their running backs are excellent receivers. Danny Woodhead is a nightmare to corral in the open field. Despite his small size, he is also an adequate pass blocker (for the non-empty sets, of course). Same with last year’s third-round pick, Stevan Ridley, who figures to get more snaps with the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ridley offers more short-area burst than Green-Ellis had, but he’s a lot less reliable overall.

Also competing for playing time will be Shane Vereen, a second-round pick last season who was only active for five games. Vereen will have to beat out Woodhead, not the more traditional rock-pounding Ridley, as Woodhead shares Vereen’s agility-based playing style.

Though they have an innovative passing offense, the Patriots aren’t averse to running the ball. They ranked 20th in attempts and 17th in yards last year. This offensive line has become a little more finesse with 2011 first-rounder Nate Solder replacing retired left tackle Matt Light, but that just means the ground game will be slightly more finesse, not slightly less relevant. Solder offers a glimpse of what tomorrow’s left tackle will look like: he’s a lithe 6-foot-8, 319-pound former tight end who has the movement to pass-block on an island or run-block in space. In other words: he’s ideal for a spread system.

At right tackle is the fourth-year pro Sebastian Vollmer, assuming his chronic back problems aren’t too much of an issue. Vollmer isn’t quite the future star everyone has proclaimed him to be, but he has very good feet for a 315-pounder. That’s the difference between him and second-year backup Marcus Cannon, who will see playing time mostly in six-offensive-linemen formations that the Patriots use fairly regularly. The top-heavy Cannon may actually be better suited for guard in the long term. Currently starting at that position on the right side is the venerable Brian Waters, who may be contemplating retirement for the umpteenth straight year. Most likely, he’ll be back. At 35, Waters is still viable in all facets.

On the left side will be All-Pro Logan Mankins –- hopefully. The sensational puller and phone booth fighter found out after the Super Bowl that he’d torn his ACL. He’s likely to begin 2012 on the PUP list, which is why the Patriots brought in ex-Raider/Seahawk Robert Gallery. Gallery, however, suddenly retired after the start of training camp. That probably leaves ex-Dolphin Donald Thomas to start the season at left guard. Thomas never seemed comfortable with his technique in Miami, and his pass blocking suffered. At center, Dan Koppen is fully back from last September’s broken ankle. The 32-year-old signed a two-year contract for what’s most likely his final hurrah, but he’ll probably finish his career as a backup as coaches liked what they saw in replacement Dan Connolly last season.


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This was a porous unit in 2011, but that was partly due to design. Knowing his offense could usually score at will, Bill Belichick had his banged-up, makeshift defense take a bend-but-don’t-break approach. Surrendering a field goal was something of a small victory, since that was probably four points less than what New England expected to score on its ensuing possession. The Patriots ranked 31st in yards allowed but just 15th in points allowed. Respectable, though far from laudable.

Knowing that an infusion of big-play potential is the best avenue to improvement, Belichick uncharacteristically traded up twice in the first round to nab Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Both will be expected to generate pressure on the quarterback –- Jones in the form of edge-rushing, Hightower via the blitz (something he was phenomenal at in Nick Saban’s 3-4). Patriot fans shouldn’t get their hopes too high, though. Neither rookie is a sure thing, and the Patriots lost a pair of 10-sack pass rushers in Mark Anderson and Andre Carter in the off-season.

It’s difficult to pinpoint specific roles for Jones and Hightower because Belichick’s defense –- which is now officially coordinated by former linebackers and safeties coach Matt Patricia –- uses a system that changes from week to week. It can be a 3-4 at one moment and a 4-3 at another. It can be a 3-4 executed with 4-3 principles (or vice versa). Players can align anywhere in any of the fronts. Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork, for example, played nose tackle in the 3-4, defensive end in the 3-4, and both tackle positions in the 4-3 last year. The Patriots defense is always seeking to do whatever it takes to hinder the offense’s top three strengths.

Wilfork is the only mainstay up front. Around him, newcomer Trevor Scott will get a chance to replace Carter on an everydown basis. The ex-Raider showed great potential in 2009 but has been unproductive the past two years. Fellow newcomer Jonathan Fanene is a fundamentally sound first- and second-down player who should push Brandon Deaderick for playing time. Deaderick moves well for his build but is nothing special. Kyle Love will get plenty of snaps, too, mostly inside. Veteran Gerard Warren is also worthy of playing time. Warren doesn’t have the stamina to go every down, but he can use his 325 pounds of force extremely well in short bursts. Rounding out the rotation is third-round rookie Jake Bequette, a one-speed edge-rusher who, coaches hope, can be a passing-down presence opposite Chandler Jones.

A constantly fresh defensive line –- and Wilfork’s presence alone –- should make the Patriots tough to run against. Then again, they had similar resources last season and still got gouged at times. Having Brandon Spikes healthy for all 16 games will be a big boon for the run defense, as he is a phenomenal downhill thumper. With Spikes manning the middle, Jerod Mayo is free to roam on the perimeters, where he’s most comfortable. Mayo will likely operate on the weak side, as Rob Ninkovich is built to set the edge, which usually occurs on the strong side. Ninkovich can be superb at times and awful at others, which is why the Patriots may groom Hightower for the outside.

Settling on a cohesive starting linebacking trio (or quartet, depending on that week’s scheme) is important, but perhaps more important is finding a linebacking duo for nickel. That’s been an unstable weak spot for years. Mayo is likely to be one of the nickel ‘backers just because he’s too talented and instinctive to come off the field. Spikes is a possibility for the other job, but his lack of open-field speed will probably be an issue. Undrafted third-year pro Dane Fletcher, whose downhill explosiveness makes for great blitzing, could have been a candidate for the role had he not torn his ACL. There are other options. Veteran Tracy White moves fairly well between the numbers, but even smoother is journeyman ex-first-round pick Bobby Carpenter, who is very good in coverage.

"Very good in coverage" is not a phrase you see often in a scouting report of the Patriots defense. Before last season, it looked as if that would change, as Devin McCourty was coming off one of the more impressive rookie campaigns in cornerbacking history. But that rookie season was followed by an even more spectacular sophomore slump. McCourty was even moved to safety in the playoffs just because teams were game-planning so ruthlessly to go after him on the outside. McCourty enjoyed the stint at safety because it allowed him to see more of the field and keep an eye on the quarterback while in coverage. All that means, however, is the Patriots will most likely look for more ways to play him as an off-coverage corner this season -- no 24-year-old first-rounder should move from corner to safety full-time.

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Opposite McCourty will hopefully be Ras-I Dowling, a talented No. 33 overall pick in 2011 who missed his entire rookie season (and entire 2010 senior year) due to injury. If Dowling can finally stay healthy, Kyle Arrington can focus solely on the slot. That’s where Arrington belongs, given how vulnerable he’s proven to be outside. Arrington led the league with seven interceptions last year, but that was partly because teams targeted him so frequently. Of course, if Arrington projected as anything special as a slot defender, we probably wouldn’t have seen wide receiver Julian Edelman play there last season. Edelman shouldn’t have to moonlight on defense this year, as former Dolphin Will Allen provides new depth, and undrafted second-year pro Sterling Moore has shown potential that’s worth further exploration. Plus, seventh-round rookie Alfonzo Dennard has early-round-type talent if he can overcome makeup issues.

In an effort to stabilize their quivering safety position, the Patriots shocked people by drafting little-known Tavon Wilson in the second round. Belichick loved what the three-year starter at Illinois showed on film. Wilson will compete with ex-Charger Steve Gregory for the starting job opposite the harsh-hitting Patrick Chung. This should be an upgrade over last year’s safety rotation, which often featured some combination of Josh Barrett (speedy but not dynamic), James Ihedigbo (steady but not at all instinctive), Sergio Brown (just a guy), and Matthew Slater (...a wide receiver).


Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is still considered one of the best in the business. Punter Zoltan Mesko hasn’t done anything to make the Patriots regret spending a fifth-round pick on him in 2010. In the return game, Danny Woodhead handles kicks serviceably, while Julian Edelman, though not explosive on his first and second step, is sufficient on punts.


The Patriots will find themselves having to outscore opponents again. Their defense, thanks to questions with the pass rush and at cornerback, will most likely remain underwhelming. You can win games as a high-flying passing team, but the only clubs that have recently won Super Bowls with this formula (New Orleans and Green Bay) had defenses that could at least generate the occasional big play. New England doesn’t have that.


77 comments, Last at 23 Aug 2012, 6:15am

1 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Someone should probably help Belichick out and tell him he's paying $9.5 million to a replaceable role player.

45 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

I thought that was what you thought. However, given that

1. Mr. Benoit said "Welker is a great role player, not a great player. Much of what he does stems from the crafty structure of the offense. That makes him replaceable."


2. I very much doubt Brady is only making $9.5m this season

I'm reasonably confident that Welker was the OP's subject.

47 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Having checked, Brady's contract is incredibly weirdly structured, but as far as I can tell he's got a base salary of $950,000 this year, plus a $10.8m "signing bonus", plus presumably some other assorted bits and bobs, plus arguably whatever parts of previous bonuses may have been pro-rated to this year for cap purposes.

57 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Well, QB is a role, isn't it? Yeah Brady's a role player, a very good role player at an important role as I think I mentioned above. But he's a system guy. I don't think he'd look nearly as good anywhere else, and I think a number of other quarterbacks could come in and fill in for him quite well (but probably nobody would do quite as well). I don't like to admit it because I'd really prefer to think that the Patriots are going to fall off a cliff when he gets too old or retires, but I just don't think that's how it'll shake out.

60 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Exactly mu thought. If the player selected by the players as the best in the league one year ago is a "role player", than there isn't a non-role player in the NFL.

I'm actually OK with saying every player in the league is a role player. It seems intuitively correct, but if Tom Brady is a role player the way that Tim Tebow, Josh Cribbs, or Long Snapper A is a role player, then we need to work on some definitions.

As for the "systems" guy argument, Aaron Rodgers wouldn't look as good in a system that called on him to hand off 40 times a game. It's a poor coach that forces his offense into a system that doesn't play to his QB's strengths. We have no idea what Brady would look like in a run- and- shoot . It's very likely he'd put in the practice time and study time to master it. I'm not clear though why he should do it as a hobby.

63 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

That's a good point about the "system quarterback" comments. Brady runs an offensive system that's tailored to his strengths, in the same way all the truly elite QBs do (Brees, Rodgers, Peyton Manning through 2010, etc.). Sure, if you put Brady on the Packers, with their line and their receivers, he wouldn't look as good. But that's also true if you were to put Rodgers on the Patriots.

However, I think what drives some of the "system" comments with regards to Brady is that they're really answering a different question: Which quarterback would you want to start from scratch with, a 24-year-old Brady or a 24-year-old Rodgers?

And that, to me, is an interesting discussion. I think Rodgers gets the nod, and causes the Brady-is-a-system-QB overreactions, because he's the more versatile of the two.

With Brady, he's never really been truly mobile. Like Peyton Manning, he's been good at moving within the pocket to avoid individual rushers, but not good at eluding total pocket breakdowns. This is because he's simply never been as athletic as Rodgers is, and that athleticism allows Rodgers to save broken plays more frequently.

There's more to it, obviously. Brady doesn't have the concussion history that Rodgers does, which is certainly a point in his favor.

65 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Brady took quite some time to mature into a truly dominant player, but he was always a very effective quarterback. His pocket elusiveness is a rare skill, though it hardly translates as true mobility. He has never had great top-end arm strength, but he makes up for it with incredibly studious form. He's not a Brett Favre side-arm thrower, just a picture perfect passer with a really fast release who seems to be able to find a way to set his feet and throw according to the book almost regardless of what's happening around him. Brady is hard to compare to Rodgers or Favre types because a lot of his greatness is in his work ethic and attention to detail.

69 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

This question is being distorted in 6 different ways. Every effective player in the nfl is good because of certain attributes they have. I don't think theres a single effective player thats putting up big stats simply because some coach has hoodwinked the league over and over. With that said, certain players play well under certain conditions and thats a given no matter the player.

I find brady a special qb to evaluate. Hes very good at things that don't immediately have to do with passing, like his pocket awareness, presnap and post snap decision making, and antigunslinger mentality(ie- he takes the safe easy yardage rather than take risky chances). However, there are severe limitations to brady's game that i feel people ignore and the scheme and system really do limit, namely, i think hes a very poor deep thrower and a suspect medium thrower. I've watched so many brady games and the only medium throws he makes successful are over the shoulder throws to gronk or hernandez, who he knows have clear matchup advantages. I rarely see him make those difficult pin point throws the way rodgers or manning does.

Of course, as brady has shown, you don't necessarily need that ability to win a superbowl. you just need a plethora of short targets and a good o line(which the pats nearly always field) and you can have a very successful offense and win a bunch of sbs.

However, the question was asked, which qb would you take if you had build from scratch-ie-unproven defense, leaky o line, no run game. This is a very difficult question to answer because its so subjective and it also biases certain attributes in favor of others. I would say, for instance, playing with a terrible cast, jay cutler is and would be more effective in these circumstances than brady. Ditto for eli. If brady were put on the bears with horrible o line and a mishmash of receivers, he would really fall apart(the way cassel has looked below average ever since he left ne). As for rodgers or brees, its more difficult to tell, but brees suffered a huge reduction in numbers the moment his run game went from 1st to worst in the nfl. Ditto for rivers whos stats nosedived when antonio gates was hobbled and the o line was a mess. The fact is, theres only been 1 qb ive seen that has put up elite stats with a team that was arguably the least talented in the nfl- peyton manning.

72 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Some very good points, though I think you're being a bit hard on Brady (and also, there's no way Manning's Colts were ever the least talented team in the league).

Subjectively, I feel you're right about the current version of Brady. I think his ability to make those amazing throws you see Rodgers make has slipped as he's gotten older; from 2004 through 2007, though, he could make those throws (and did).

But you're right that at this point in his career, Brady relies quite a bit on matchup issues his receiver cause (be it his tight ends or his super slot receiver). However, he is better than anyone else at quickly recognizing those matchup advantages and making the correct decision. He relies on his physical tools less than the other elite QBs, but is arguably the best of them at the mental aspect.

73 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

A few things:

Sorry if it feels like I'm being hard on brady. Again, im trying to say, despite whatever limitations i think he has, his other skills really make him elite anyways. Despite being a colts fan, I've defended brady many times when people take the game manager thing way overboard. No, his pre and post snap recognition, his extremely gifted ability to move around in the pocket and his uncanny knack of making the correct take the easy yardage rather than force stuff is just unbelievable.

However, i do want to add, scott kasmar did an article about brady's supposed deep throwing prowess, when he showed that basically, brady did not throw that many deep passes in 2007 or 08 or 09 or any of the recent years we associate the great brady years with. he actually topped out his deep throwing in 06, the year he had all those pathetic receivers. The reason i suspect is because not coincidentally, those were the years his short yardage gains were not so great so he had to compensate for it. And of course he was mediocre at deep then too. And again, thats fine if your the pats because they still field and unbelievably effective offense despite the near absence of deep and medium. Its a testament not just to brady though, but a clever scheme, good receivers, and a good o line.

74 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

I don't know for certain that they were the least talented team in the league outside of quarterback, but the 2010 Colts were pretty damn poor with the exception of Manning. The two truly awful teams that year were the Panthers and Cardinals, both of whom sucked in large part due to the shittiness of their quarterbacking. I think it's possible that the other 52 guys on the Colts' roster were worse than the other 52 on anyone else's.

76 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

reggie wayne was post 30 and obviously not the player he once was. Ditto for saturday although one could make the case he was still playing well enough. Dallas clark was injured most of the year as well and idk what makes you think gary brackett was anything special, especially since the day hes been cut by the colts, there hasn't been a single team out there willing to sign him. Notice how that seems pretty common with a lot of the players the colts cut- marvin harrison, bracket, addai, gonzalez, bullet, etc.

As for talent, there are many ways to define talentless, but even bad teams have a collection of good players. The vikings, for instance, have arguably the best defensive player in the league on their team along with maybe the best running back in the league, but that didn't stop them from finishing with the 4th overall pick. The colts had some good players, sure, but so much of the rest of their cast wasn't even mediocre, it was horrible. Their d tackles, strong safety, both corners(who were 2nd year players at that point), both guards, and both tackles were among the worst in the league. If that wasn't enough, the colts had to bring in practice squad players to fill in the receiver roles when tamme, garcon, and collie got hurt during the year.

I remember something cosell said when asked about manning's struggles in the middle of the year. Im paraphrasing, but it was something like- "the colts have a poor o line, no run game, and an injured receiving core to go along with a porous defense. The fact is, the only way this team moves the ball or even wins games is if manning diagnoses the defense and audibles to the right play every single time." Obviously thats a bit of an exaggeration, but it really does illustrate just how little talent the colts were reduced to at that point.

There is a reason why the 2011 colts with an identical but much healthier roster went 2-14 the following year with only a difference in qb to show for it(one could argue it was a better roster if you factor in the upgrades at left tackle). I sincerely believe that if manning had been injured in 2010, the colts with their roster and coaching staff would've gone 0-16.

2 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

This preview sounds very similar to the Colts circa 2004. Great offense, bend but don't break defense. The knock on Manning was always that he didn't win in the playoffs. Maybe now that Brady has been the focus of the Patriots offense for the past four years with the same (negative) results we can get away from the "quarterback X won this many Super Bowls and, therefore is better than quarter back Y who one 1 or less Super Bowls" argument.

3 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

It is interesting that (apart from New Orleans 2009 and Green Bay 2010) high-flying passing teams have trouble winning super bowls. It almost gives a little bit of credence to defense wins championships sort of fluff; after all, New England was just as close to losing against Baltimore as New York in 2012.

It will be interesting to see how the Patriots perform; on paper they are better than the 2011 squad, but we'll see who gets injured and how much they miss Matt Light. Brady has good pocket awareness but he can't throw outside the pocket and can't run; if he gets flushed from the blind side, well...

That's what happened on the famous interception this past winter.

23 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

It almost gives a little bit of credence to defense wins championships sort of fluff; after all, New England was just as close to losing against Baltimore as New York in 2012.

And they were as close to beating the Giants as Philadelphia in 2005.

Funny game, football.

4 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Not to be like the Bill's fan in the prior thread, but there are a lot of errors in this piece, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

"Neither rookie is a sure thing, and the Patriots lost a pair of 10-sack pass rushers in Mark Anderson and Andre Carter in the off-season."

No, neither rookie is a sure thing, but the losses of Anderson and Carter are wholly overstated. First off, they were street free agents as the start of camp last year, neither being a blip on anyone's radar. Second, even with their solid performance last year, NE's sack numbers only improved by four, up from 36 in 2010 to 40. Even the woeful 2009 group was only a half sack per game behind.

Needless to say, NE will still be around 40 sacks this year, even without Carter and Anderson.

"It’s difficult to pinpoint specific roles for Jones and Hightower because Belichick’s defense"

That might eventually be the case, but as of now Jones is always on the right side of the line and Hightower is always strong side OLB or inside.

"A constantly fresh defensive line –- and Wilfork’s presence alone –- should make the Patriots tough to run against. Then again, they had similar resources last season and still got gouged at times."

Hardly. They went into 2011 with high expectations for Pryor (who you didn't mention at all) and hopes for Hayensworth and Ellis. Pryor got hurt and neither of the other two amounted to much. This forced the team to pretty much play the same 4 DL (Wilfork, Love, Deaderick and Warren) all the time. Wilfork, in particular, played ~85% of the defensive snaps. "Constantly fresh" they were not.

Beyond that, they were missing their best inside thumper in Spikes (as you mention) and their best tackling SS, Chung (that you don't).

Obviously health could become an issue again, but NE has added at least one body to the depth of each of these positions, so they should be better equipped if it does.

"McCourty was even moved to safety in the playoffs just because teams were game-planning so ruthlessly to go after him on the outside."

This isn't even remotely accurate.

First off, Devin had started playing better over the second half of the year. Not 2010 levels, but better, since the team had gone away from the press man coverage he wasn't ready for at the outset of the season.

More importantly, though, is the reason why McCourty changed positions. He didn't switch due to failing as a CB, he switched because he was by far the best option they had at dime FS. They had options at backup CB, but the cupboard was bare on the bench at safety, so they slid Devin over and trotted Sterling Moore outside.

If it had been a true demotion, McCourty would have been at safety all game, which wasn't the case. He was the starting LCB in base and only went to safety when they went sub.

"no 24-year-old first-rounder should move from corner to safety full-time."

Good thing he didn't, then. :)

"Of course, if Arrington projected as anything special as a slot defender, we probably wouldn’t have seen wide receiver Julian Edelman play there last season."

Cause and effect are all jumbled in this. Arrington wasn't aligned on the slot because injuries and lack of depth forced him outside. And Edelman playing slot has nothing whatsoever to do with Arrington's capabilities and everything to do with Adams/Molden - the guys on NE's CB depth chart.

I don't disagree that a great defense doesn't start Kyle Arrington outside, but that statement just does correlate with reality.

One last thing, you make mention of NE's atrocious safety situation last year, but I'm surprised that you don't connect the dots between NE starting two nobodies for most of the year there and the struggles at CB. It certainly is possible that starting Matt Slater and James Ihedigbo might have something to do with the secondary's problems last year, right?

5 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

One other thing about the defense. It should be noted that, for most of the season, NE started only two players with more than a single season's experience in Belichick's defense, Mayo and Wilfork.

McCourty, Arrington, Ihedigbo, Whoever was a FS, Whoever was at MLB, Deaderick, Warren, Love, Ninkovich - all of these players were Patriot single season vets, most of which were *league* single season vets. I can't be understated how much this, in conjunction with the lockout and injuries, contributed to NE's failures on the defensive side of the ball.

I know that players don't automatically get better with experience, but more than most other system's, Bill's depends on cohesiveness and understanding. With some more experience and a full offseason to digest the materials, I suspect we'll see a tighter bunch this year.

Yes, some of this is wishful thinking, but FWIW, I was adamant in 2006 that their FO's projections were wrong since many factors unique to 2005 wouldn't exist any longer. I got one right, can I go for two?

6 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

to cut a long story short ... why is Belichick still considered a defensive mastermind when a defense which consists almost entirely of first and high second round picks continues to play like hot garbage?

Don't get me wrong ... I understand the defense was better than the stats indicated last year, but it is still very much bad.

One problem of this defense is the scheme they play, Belichick's ego to play a defense which seems to be too complicated to be efficient, Belichick's head butting with assistent coaches, whom he never seems to trust (until this year, no DC ... yes, I know Pepper vs. Matt; couldn't get along with Dean Pees, couldn't get along with Dom Capers) Last time defense was good? Huh, experienced DC who BB apparently trusted enough to get the job done.

And Belichick the talent evaluator ... I am not sure, whether the Chad jacksons were Belichick's decision, but they still draft questionable players who are a risk but could wind up into a home run (this year: Alfonso Dennard, although low risk), last year, Ras-I ("injury problems") ... I wouldn't even include Tavon Wilson here, but one high pick each year seems to be wasted on a player the 31 other teams magically seem to have missed how great he was.
It has yet to work for the Patriots.

9 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

You are misreading the situation, Red. These statements aren't accurate at all.

"Belichick's ego to play a defense which seems to be too complicated to be efficient, Belichick's head butting with assistent coaches, whom he never seems to trust"

I'll agree that Bill's defense puts a lot of weight on communication and players knowing each others' responsibilities, and that they've had gaffes because of it. That said, he did simplify things this past year in light of the lockout, and is someone who is willing to learn from just about anyone. Ego isn't the problem, it is the fact that they missed on too many draft picks from 2004-2008.

As for the second statement, it is pure fabrication, as is this:

"one high pick each year seems to be wasted on a player the 31 other teams magically seem to have missed how great he was. It has yet to work for the Patriots."

NE has more 2nd round misses the past several years simply due to having made twice as many selections as anyone else. Their hit rate is no worse than average, since 2009 when the new regime too over.

The only real surprise picks are Vollmer, Brace, McCourty and Wilson. Two successes, one failure and one too soon to call.

Not to be an ass, but you seem to have bought the propaganda regarding NE's drafting more than actually investigated it for yourself.

12 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

One other thing, I'm not sure I agree the defense was better than the numbers. When healthy, they weren't too bad. But they just weren't very healthy last year, so the poor DVOA accurately reflects what actually set foot on the field in 2011.

The team has significantly better depth this year, though, so they should be improved whether they suffer less injuries or not.

16 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

"The only real surprise picks are Vollmer, Brace, McCourty and Wilson. Two successes, one failure and one too soon to call."

I interpret this as Vollmer/McCourty: success, Brace: failure, Wilson: too soon

Well Vollmer, albeit being very capable, is always injured. How many games did he play the past two seasons? The Patriots rotated the three tackles last year like crazy. And if a player ends up to be very good, but hardly ever sees the field ... is he really that good?

McCourty is still considered a hit because of his rookie season ... well, there is plenty of CBs in the league who had one good season and never remotely achieved that kind of performance again. His rookie season was an aberration (probably as was last season, but still ... if you expect him to return to rookie season form, you probably have too high expectations for him).

Brace has been inhjured all the time.

21 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

You continue to post factual errors as rebuttals. Vollmer played in 30 of his first 32 games, so I hardly see how that is being "always injured". Do you say the same thing for every player who misses a single season after being healthy for his entire career?

Even if McCourty only returns to his season ending form, he will be a "hit", so there is every reason to believe he will.

11 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

This comment seems very dogmatic, slinging dirt instead of analyzing facts.

"Continues to play like garbage" The Patriots have had 2 bad years in a row on defense and 1 mediocre year following a string of reasonable years. Belichick has never coached defense with the perspective of working to intensely limit yards. His emphasis is on situational football--getting off the field on third downs and protecting the red zone. As we know from FO commentaries, 3d down defense tends to boomerang all over the place, and the Pats rankings in the past decade reflect that, bouncing from 7th in 03 to 21st in 04, from 12th in 09 to 32nd in 10. However, scoring defense reflects Belichick's primary defensive ethos, and in this metric, the Pats have continued to be outstanding right up until last year. Since 2000, when Belichick became coach, the Patriots have been a top 10 scoring defense 8 times out of 12 and have never ranked lower than 17th. What else is defense except preventing points scored?

"too complicated to be efficient" The Pats defense is frequently complex, but not always. Belichick has actually demonstrated great schematic flexibility, changing up what he does based on personnel. I think he has struggled somewhat to adjust his scheme to the changing rules regarding contact, but the Patriots have always adopted a policy of expanding the playbook during the course of the season, and they almost invariably close strong, becoming a more cohesive, more effective defense in the final month of the season. That demonstrates that the learning curve is not too steep for the players.

The Patriots have definitely had some personnel problems through the draft, especially at the wide receiver and defensive back positions, but what team hasn't had drafting issues at some time or another? Baltimore often has great drafts. Green Bay and the New York Giants have had some good ones, and so has Philly, but most of the teams don't do as well as New England has. 06 and 07 were problematic, although the Pats somewhat made up for that by picking up some strong players via trades. 08 landed Mayo and saw misses on Wheatley, Crable and Wilhite. 09 picked up Chung, Vollmer and Edelman, missed on Butler, and ran into injury problems with Brace and Pryor. 10 saw McCourty, Gronkowski, Spikes, Hernandez, Mesko, and the jury is still out on Cunningham. 11 saw Solder, Vereen, Ridley, Cannon, which was probably a great pick, and there still might be a lot of upside to Dowling. If you look at it longitudinally, I'd say the Pats have had a pair of very strong draft after a number of questionable ones. So, hit some miss some.

37 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Thanks for your insights - it's fun to have a football site that attracts knowledgeable homers and not just blindly loyal homers.

One thing to note about sack numbers - NE opponents' passing attempts have increased dramatically over the past few years, from 474 in 2008 to 619 in 2011 (with 512 & 611 in between). FO's sack measure, Adjusted Sack Rate, accounts for that. NE's ASR rank has ranged from 15th to 19th over the past 4 years, and their ASR has ranged from 6.0% to 6.5%, which means that New England's pass rush has probably been the most stable, most average in the NFL over that time period.

7 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

"No, neither rookie is a sure thing, but the losses of Anderson and Carter are wholly overstated. First off, they were street free agents as the start of camp last year, neither being a blip on anyone's radar. Second, even with their solid performance last year, NE's sack numbers only improved by four, up from 36 in 2010 to 40. Even the woeful 2009 group was only a half sack per game behind.

Needless to say, NE will still be around 40 sacks this year, even without Carter and Anderson."

Why is that needless to say? Anderson and Carter were castaways, but they did have 10 sacks each, becoming only the 3rd and 4th double-digit sackers on the Pats since 2005. Why are you so dismissive of their contributions?

While there are reasons to expect the pass rush to be at least as good as last season, the author is correct in his implication that the replacements for Carter and Anderson are no sure thing to replace their production, at least from a sack perspective.

8 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Simple. Because NE has been around 40 sacks whether or not they had two 10 sack guys or not. As you correctly point out, NE's most effective pass rush seasons typically didn't involve a single player in double digit sacks.

I'm not being dismissive, I'm being realistic. For as much as they offered the team last year, Carter and Anderson's 20 combined sacks only improved NE totals by 4 over the course of the season.

If anything, I suspect the rush will be superior this year by virtue of having an improved corps of interior rushers. That was what NE really lacked last year after Pryor and Wright were put on IR. On top of that, the safety and LB corps looks to have some potential to get creative with as well.

13 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Pat sack numbers move around a fair amount without reflecting any tight correlation to the strength of the defense, seemingly demonstrating Belichick's lack of emphasis on sacks. It would be interesting to look at a more comprehensive number like overall qb hurries, hits, and sacks to check this out. New England's strongest year under BB for sacks was 07 with 47, and 08 and 09 were both weak at 31. The change in the defense since 09 has been a shift toward youth and speed overall, and the sacks have gone up both years, 36 and then 40 last year. Does anyone know if younger defenses tend to accrue more sacks? Do blitz happy defenses tend to get more sacks? Are sacks a consistent statistic year to year?

18 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Using that sort of logic I could have said in 2001 that the 49ers had used different players for twenty years but always won ten or more games so they should be expected to continue to win ten or more games.

As another poster has pointed out, the Pats sack numbers actually vary.

27 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

I feel I should add a point.

In your comparison, you are talking about a team that is consistently good and assuming that will always be the case. The reason it isn't comparable is because NE has had many defensive iterations over the past decade. They weren't always good nor were they always athletic, yet they still always cracked 30 and were typically near the 40 sack mark.

30 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

No there's not. The 49ers weren't consistently good in the exact same way. They switched coaches three times, had different QBs, had different players all around the rosters. Had years where they won with great defenses carrying average to above averages offenses (1981, 1990), and years with the revers (1994, 1997).

32 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

You are all still missing the point.

There are a finite number of wins possible, unlike sacks.

There are a lot more factors that go into whether a team wins than there are that go into whether a defense makes a sack.

When you can show me that a team has a consistent number of wins whether they are good or bad, then you will have a case. This isn't a case of a team generating sacks in different ways, this a case of teams that swing in quality from top 3 to bottom 2 being consistently within a half sack per game of 40 on the season.

35 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Again, it isn't nearly the deal you guys are making it out to be in the context of my argument, nor is it even the most important part.

Feel free to nit pick, but the point still remains. Carter and Anderson were fine pickups, but they only added 4 total sacks over the course of the season over a mediocre 2010 squad. Despite losing them, the team has improved their interior rush corps and improved the overall athleticism. In conjunction with the full offseason, the team will be fine without them.

36 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

I'm not saying whether the Patriot's pass rush will be better or worse. To be honest I haven't followed their off-season nearly close enough to venture a guess. I just think you are underestimating the difference between 32 and 40 sacks.

38 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

It's 25% difference, of course it's relevant.

I am having difficulty seeing any context to your argument at all. Even if you disregard that sacks are a relatively scarce event, meaning that they will be subject to a great deal of statistical noise to the extent that it is not wise to draw any conclusions from a small data sample, then you still have not proffered any plausible causative explanation for your 'Pats get 40 sacks' theory.

39 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Again, it is very simple.

In 2008 and 2009, those defenses were lacking in athleticism and actual pass rushing ability. The 25% reduction is relevent, but insignificant relative to how much less talent they had. Frankly, the same could be said for the 2007 unit, but they had the advantage of a killer offense giving them a lot of rushing opportunities.

Then last year, they added two players totalling 20 sacks between them, yet the overall sack numbers only jumped from 36 to 40.

Despite wild swings in defensive talent, they are consistently within 25% of 40, and they aren't anywhere near the nadir when the lower edges of that 25% variation has occured. Yes, that could be rebutted with the "past performance doesn't guarantee future success" argument, but only if you are also willing to aay the same applies to things like "I won't spontaneously combust today" or "gravity will continue to exist in 2013". Those can't be proven 100% either, right?

I'd be willing to put a lot of money up that they will have at least 36 sacks this year.

40 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Last year 23 teams would lie within 25% of forty sacks. It isn't even as if they had a particularly good pass rush either, they are tied for 17th in adjusted sack rate and 14th in sacks even though their offensive success creates plenty of favourable circumstances to rush the passer.

It is perfectly possible that they could get to 40 sacks this year and clearly likely that they will end up in the +-25% region that two thirds of the league inhabits. It isn't really comparable to the existence of gravity, of which we can give a pretty advanced explanation. I would be willing to bet all of my money that gravity will continue to exist, it's been around for at least 13.7 billion years and if it stops then none of us would be around to settle the bet.

41 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

I think this mostly points out that 'sacks' is not a really reliable way of measuring the ability of a defense (ASR is better, but still, sacks are a rare enough occurrance). Getting pressure is more important. I'm not sure how good the Pats are at getting pressure. Just by observation, they seem pretty bad, seeming to convert many of their pressure plays into sacks and get pressure on plays that don't end in sacks at a average to below-average rate. This could be a wrong assesment, but whatever. It is more important to get pressure on 200 of the opponents 550 pass attempts instead of 150 then get sacks on 40 of them insteaad of 32.

Trying to say that the Patriots defense is not player dependent just because their sack totals remain relatively constant is not a fair assesment of what is really going on.

43 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Something that still boggles my mind...sack numbers are massively qb dependent...and while ASR probably does a better job in general, if a team faced 16 weeks of peyton manning, one might conclude their pass rush was abysmal. Given that, its not at all clear how informative sack totals are at all.

As far as the pats pass rush goes, I actually watched most of their games last year and I actually thought their pass rush was pretty inconsistent. They did ok against the jets and even the giants, but were absolutely horrendous against the steelers and redskins.

14 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Again, I have some issues with this article:

Wes Welker may be a system player to a degree, but there is no doubt that within this system he is highly effective and no, not easily replaceable. He reminds me of darren sproles, limited in most offenses, but absolutely deadly in the right one. I think andy is clearly confusing this subtle but important distinction.

Another problem I have is this bend but don't break concept. It might work for a year, but generally speaking, red zone defenses tends to be highly volatile and news flash, teams that are bad on defense between the 20s are usually bad on defense in the red zone as well. To once again make the assumption that this all part of the pats design is strange and really wishful thinking.

On the other hand, i really believe people who bash bellichick need to look at things in the proper perspective. This defense, especially last year, was full of cast offs and backups manning key positions in the secondary. The talent on this defense has been in freefall since the last waning moments of 2008. Still, the pats defense has managed to be competitive. Consider this, in the hands of a lesser coordinator, how bad would the pats defense have been? 2008 lions bad? 2011 vikings coverage bad?

17 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

i really believe people who bash bellichick need to look at things in the proper perspective. This defense, especially last year, was full of cast offs and backups manning key positions in the secondary. The talent on this defense has been in freefall since the last waning moments of 2008.

Perhaps Bill Belichick, Head Coach might want to have a word with William S. Belichick, General Manager about that...

26 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Absolutely. Thankfully, they apparently began discussions back in 2010 and seem to be on the verge of having something good out there.

In the NFL, you are typically viewing how the team drafted 3-5 years ago, not how they drafted recently. In NE's case, it is even more so when you consider how many guys retired or left in 2008 and 2009.

46 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

"Gonna disagree. He's clearly good, but I think hes going to walk next year, and the Patriots offense isn't going to skip a beat"

Not likely. The Pats passing game wasnt "elite" until Welker showed up. The guy has averaged 1200+ yds and 5 TDs a season (1570/9 last season). Pats fans are delusional.

It reminds me of an argument on this site last year where some pats fan was ADAMENT that Brady has a great deep ball.

55 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

It seems to me that a fair amount of this discussion hinges on what happens with Aaron Hernandez. The rumblings that Hernandez's agent is going to try to get him assessed as a Wide Receiver makes it seem unlikely that the Pats will be able to keep him past 2013. If it looks like Hernandez's last NE season will be next year, I'll wager that the Pats will work hard to get an extension worked out with Welker after 2012, especially if Welker has a good but slightly less over the top season this year, implying that he would settle for a slightly smaller contract.

19 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

"This is the brilliance of Belichick. He makes sweeping strategic adjustments better than any coach in NFL history. "

No. If Belichick has brilliance it is rooted in his tactical focus on situational football. The successful adjustments BB makes are centered on game and down, distance and clock specific.

More broadly speaking this article is the most team biased, fact free treatment of a subject I have seen on this site. Even with the upfront disclaimer.

52 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

"The successful adjustments BB makes"

False lead-in

The adjustments mentioned by Benoit have led to success, just not Super Bowl victories.

"fact free treatment of a subject I have seen on this site"

Right, but you're incapable of citing any factually correct examples.

48 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

the Pats look good because they're the only sure contender in the shitty conference, but they'd be in the second tier of NFC contenders

56 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

Given the volatility of the NFC East, this is hard to project, but Green Bay and New England are both stacked teams, New Orleans is wildly talented but may be a mess in coaching this year, New York (Giants) and Philadelphia have the potential to be in that same discussion, and even Atlanta could enter it, and Houston certainly could. I don't understand the above comment about New England as "Second tier". If the Pats have a reasonable defensive showing for a change, say on a par with their postseason performance last year, they may be the best team in the league.

58 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

New Orleans I'd agree with if it wasn't for the bounty fallout. San Francisco, no way - they're just not that good. Don't get me wrong: I fully expect them to win the NFC West, and if they catch a few breaks and get hot at the right time, they could win the Superbowl. But for me they're a good-very good team, not an elite team. Alex Smith is just too big a handicap.

67 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

yeah, everybody just ignores defense. when the Packers won their SB, they were good on both sides of the ball, not the one-dimensional team they were last season. my faith in SF is faith that Harbaugh will figure out ways to score enough. If he could get Stanford to be able to hang with USC, clearly the guy has a gift for maximizing and developing talent

70 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Patriots

The 49ers had one of the most, if not the healthiest defense in the nfl. They also put up an absurd turnover differential thats going to cut deep on both sides-ie- their offense will turn it over more and their defense will turn it over less. In addition, idc what kind of wizard harbaugh is, there are limits to what alex smith can do. A massive progression from smith at this point in his career seems highly improbable and it seems that smith is more or less at his peak, an average qb that can win with the right circumstances but will fail if asked to win over an entire season(note, he can pull some magic sometimes like the saints game, but theres more evidence to show he can't).

Those three things are a big reason why the 49ers will regress. That isn't a bias against harbaugh or the defense, which is still very talented, its just a fact. Look at ravens in 04 and 07, both years they regressed horribly despite being stellar on d and special teams the years before. Thats not an indictment on ray lewis, ed reed, suggs, ngata etc, thats just the nature of the beast. I realize 49er fans have had this cloud hang over them all offseason, but there's a reason for it. That doesn't mean its preordained, but honestly, the odds seem to favor a 49er fall in wins than a 49er stand pat or get better.