NEPD Staff Writer Joon Lee
Going into this season, I had absolutely no doubt that this Patriots team would be the best team that New England has seen 2007. The offense was absolutely stacked, the defense was revamped and Tom Brady was absolutely on top of his game after his fifth trip to the Superbowl.
There were even whispers that we could potentially see a perfect season with the Patriots having one of the weaker schedules in the NFL.
Instead, we’ve seen more of the same as last year. An electrifying offense and a “bend, but don’t break” defense.
Going into the bye week and at the halfway point of the season (How has the season gone by so quickly?), Tom Brady and company have the top ranked offense in the NFL led by the emergence of a running back core led by Stevan Ridley, the consistent wide receiver group of Welker, Lloyd and Gronkowski and the unstoppable number 12. The offense has not been without its flaws, however. Tight end Aaron Hernandez has had a minimal impact this season after suffering a high ankle sprain early in the season and signing a big contract extension this season. Hernandez has become a major focal point of the offense and his absence has been huge.
Remember when people were calling into talk radio claiming Welker was being phased out of the offense and was reportedly on the trade block? Welker has been absolutely outstanding after the Edelman injury during the Ravens matchup. Welker has proven himself as the most important part of the offense as a security blanket for Tom Brady and a tone setter for the offense on first and third down. Enjoy it while it lasts Patriots fans, this could be the last we see of Welker-Brady.
The offensive line has also been outstanding. The line was one of the biggest concerns going into the season with Brian Waters not reporting to camp (The daily tweets of Brian Waters not reporting to Gillette have since disappeared completely) and the line was terrible during the preseason (This is why nobody should even watch the preseason. None of the worries we have in the preseason actually carry over into the season.) Nate Solder, who was a huge concern going into the season, has been absolutely fantastic in his second year and Sebastian Vollmer has grown into a top three lineman in the league. Also remember that this unit has been without Logan Mankins, who is still recovering from his ACL tear, for most of the season. While Mankins is missed in the running game, the line has been stellar in protecting Brady so far this season. The magic of Dante Scarnecchia ladies and gentlemen.
Lets talk about the running backs as well. The emergence of Stevan Ridley has been an absolute joy to watch and has really transformed the Patriots offense. For the first time since Corey Dillon, the Patriots have a legitimate running threat who can rip off a 50 yard run downfield. Ridley isn’t hopping side to side like a Sir. Laurence Maroney, he’s running fast and hard downfield and providing an unseen dimension to the Patriots offense. BenJarvus GreenEllis was a great back, but he is nothing in comparison to Ridley. Ridley’s ability to rip off the big play has been crucial to the success of the Patriots offense.
Don’t forget the work of Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden as well. Woodhead has had his best season since “Woodhead Mania” shortly after he arrived in New England a couple of years ago. Woodhead has served as the replacement to Kevin Faulk, who recently retired. Woodhead has the dump off option for Brady when plays breakdown and has also served as one of the backs the Patriots turn to for burning time off the clock. As much as I hate watching Josh McDaniels call Danny Woodhead draw plays up the middle, they have been effective for the most part.
Bolden has been injured the last couple of weeks, but the undrafted rookie out of Ole Miss has been solid so far this season and had his best game of the season. I’m giving Shane Vereen a pass for now after ripping on his all throughout camp and the first couple of weeks. He has shown flashes of potential and looks like he can become a contributor on offense.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS?
Now that I’ve drooled all over the offense, lets talk about the defense.
Chandler Jones has been an absolute monster so far this season and has been the steal of the draft. Jones (who sings Miley Cyrus in the locker room, I witnessed this myself) has shown of flashes of JPP and has been the most consistent player on the defensive end of the football, consistently providing pressure. Jones is just a rookie, but he already looks like one of the best defensive ends in the NFL in just eight short weeks in the league. The guy is going to be a huge star in this league. If the Patriots are smart, they look to lock him up after year two like they did with Gronkowski and Hernandez.
The linebacking crew has also been extremely good this year. Brandon Spikes has emerged as one of the hardest hitters in the league, Jerod Mayo is a consistent leader on the defense and Dont’a Hightower looks like he is going to be a huge contributor. Rob Ninkovich, who struggled early in the season, has been absolutely beastly the last couple of weeks, highlighted by the walk-off fumble recovery against the Jets. This linebacking crew is one of the best in the league and is a main reason why the Patriots have the 8th best run defense in the league.
While Vince Wilfork is having a slight down year for his standards, his mere presence on the defensive line is a huge reason this defense is able to stop the run.
The major problem has been the secondary. Kyle Arrington, who has been abysmal from camp to now, has finally been benched in favor of Marquice Cole and rookie Alfonzo Dennard. Sterling Moore has been nothing more than an average cornerback. Devin McCourty has had a decent season so far, but has made some crucial mistakes. Patrick Chung has been injured and has not been good in a contract year and veteran Steve Gregory has been injured. Tavon Wilson has shown flashes, but has made a lot of mistakes as a rookie. Don’t even get me started on Ras-IR Dowling.
The Patriots secondary has been absolutely atrocious and there isn’t anyone on the market who is going to be an instant fix for this unit. It seems as if every member of the secondary has regressed this year. It is time to give the other guys, like Cole and Dennard, a chance to prove themselves because Arrington and Moore have not been deserving of getting significant playing time.
On the bright side, the special teams unit has been outstanding. Zoltan Mesko is one of the best punters in the league, Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the league (although the misses in Baltimore worry me) and the coverage unit led by Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner and Marquice Cole has been outstanding.
The Patriots have not quite met the astronomically high expectations so far this season, but expect the team to become better as the season rolls on, as is the norm for most Belichick squads. Expect to see this team playing deep into the postseason.
Don’t fret or freak out, this Patriots team is damn good.