NEPD Staff Writer: Ken Vetrano
There’s really no sugar coating the Patriots lack luster beginning to 2014, they’ve underperformed and shown a lack of execution and discipline that’s not typical of Bill Belichick coached teams. New England’s offense can’t get in rhythm, and at this point card board cut outs of last year’s offensive line would be an upgrade to the current cast being shuffled on field. Not much progression has been shown on that side of the ball, and I have a feeling things are going to get worse before they get better.
Stevan Ridley: When you’re playing the worst run defense in the league you should be able to bust off at least one run over 10 yards. In fairness, New England’s offensive line didn’t help Ridley much, but good running backs can find ways to create space on their own. The Patriots’ offense doesn’t need him to be electric or a game breaker, they just need a RB who can set up more manageable 1st and 2nd downs. Between Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden, none of them have made a significant impact running the ball this year. If they don’t start breaking tackles for more yardage, expect one of New England’s young backs to get a shot. Whether that’s James White or maybe even Jonas Gray getting called up to the 53 man roster, New England has fresh legs waiting in the wings.
Brandon LaFell: Can this guy set a pick without completely demolishing someone? A huge factor in the Patriots signing LaFell had to do with his blocking ability, and so far that has been one of his main deficiencies. James Jones might not be a complete receiver, but Oakland only paid him about a million dollars more than the Pats did LaFell this past Spring, and if I had to choose between the two of them, James would be my selection. At least he makes his presence known in the red zone. Although if picking neither was an option… I would’ve most likely spent that money elsewhere.
Jordan Devey: I’m convinced Devey doesn’t realize he’s 6’7″ 317lbs. He plays with zero power or physicality and to stand out as the worst lineman in this offense is really saying something. He was pulled in the 2nd half for Bryan Stork, and barring injury there’s no reason why he should get his job back.
In the meantime, the Patriots’ defense has become the team’s silver lining. They have shown marked improvements each week, as certain players continue to grow and develop within the system. A few players in particular have started taking that next step in their career.
Dont’a Hightower: Hightower was terrific all Sunday afternoon, and took care of his assignments from end line to end line. He showed good range, and refused to let running backs or receivers get on top of him. His poise and patience is probably what’s been most impressive about him this season. He’s not over analyzing things, and has begun to settle down. Which in return has allowed Hightower to absorb what opposing offenses are doing faster, and move on the ball after his initial read step. Hightower may be the most improved player on the team this year.
Safety Rotation: Heading into the season strong safety was a concern for New England. There was no solid answer to who would play along side Devin McCourty, and a cast of draft reaches, retreads and a rugby player were their only options. But through three games the rotation of Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson and even Nate Ebner in certain packages has worked out well. Sharing the load allows this group to take on only so much individually, and keeps them from becoming exposed in spots. They haven’t given up many explosive plays, while McCourty seems more comfortable playing center field. If the Patriots can start ratcheting up the pressure with their front seven on a more frequent basis, the ceiling for this group will become even higher.
Chandler Jones: The Patriots might be the only thing that gets in the way of Chandler Jones becoming an All Pro this year. Belichick is obsessed with moving Jones around the field, and taking him off the line of scrimmage. The best way to utilize Jones is to let him put his hand on the ground and just be an athlete. He has continued to set the edge well this season, but has also demonstrated a burst and repertoire of second moves to get around tackles. If he’s not making contact with quarterbacks, he’s usually breathing down their necks. Once the defense starts to really solidify themselves, I fully expect Belichick to dial up more blitzes, and unleash Jones on a regular basis.
A lot of people will raise the argument that this defense has yet to face a difficult passing offense, and for the most part that’s true. However, outside of Cincinnati, they don’t have to deal with an above average passing attack until Chicago in week 8. And by that time Brandon Browner will have served his suspension, and Belichick should have them firing on all cylinders.
It’s going to take an Atlas type effort for New England’s defense to carry the weight of it’s offense over the next couple weeks, but they can do it.