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.
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.