NEPD Staff Writer: Jason Cappell
I’ll admit it, I was wrong. Early on in the year, it appeared as though Bill Belichick’s duties as GM had put the New England Patriots’ season at risk. However, after a few shrewd moves, Belichick has the team back on track and primed for a Super Bowl run. With risk comes reward, and while the Patriots in-season moves were not guaranteed to work out, they’ve provided the team with a lift.
At the beginning of the season the Patriots were painfully thin at linebacker, and when Jerod Mayo went down in Week 6, that need bordered on crisis. However, as the Patriots have proved time and time again, it was next man up, and Dont’a Hightower rose to the challenge and hasn’t looked back.
Even with Hightower’s increased role and greater responsibilities, the Patriots still didn’t have enough depth to their liking. Yet the injuries continued to mount, and the names didn’t get any less significant.
When Chandler Jones went down in Week 7, it appeared to be catastrophic. Other than Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots didn’t have anyone to get after the quarterback. So in typical Patriot fashion, Bill Belichick nabbed an unwanted Akeem Ayers off the Titans depth chart, and gave him an opportunity to prove his worth.
Ayers was wasting away on the bench in Tennessee. He was clashing with a new coaching staff that didn’t think he could contribute on special teams and may have believed a past knee injury was hampering his development. However, Belichick saw something in the UCLA product that the Titans missed.
Ayers was acquired in a deadline deal for a sixth-rounder, and originally stepped in as a situational pass-rusher, before seeing his role expand over the past couple weeks. In his brief tenure with the Patriots, Ayers has turned back the clock and now displays the promise he showed early in his career. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound outside linebacker has three sacks, 13 tackles and 20 quarterback hurries in six games.
Ayers is not the only midseason acquisition stepping up on defense.
Jonathan Casillas was obtained in a late October trade with the Bucs and immediately thrown into the mix as a special teamer. And when a troubling shoulder injury forced Dont’a Hightower to miss the Chargers game, Casillas moved seamlessly into the starting line-up and played admirably in 51 of a possible 57 snaps. According to the Patriots coaching staff, the 27-year-old linebacker has 15 tackles on the year, four of which were on special teams.
When Sealver Siliga went down early, the Patriots were just a Vince Wilfork injury away from having perhaps the league’s worst rushing defense. However, Belichick never allowed New England’s woes to reach that point, and opted to sign 6-foot-6, 325-pound defensive lineman Alan Branch.
Branch hasn’t seen nearly as much action as Casillas and Ayers, but he’s still made a meaningful contribution and has beefed up the Patriots defensive line. With Vince Wilfork, Chris Jones, Dominique Easley and now a healthy Sealver Siliga in the fold, Branch has found a niche in New England as part of a rotation of defensive linemen up front.
The loss of Stevan Ridley also wasn’t an easy blow for the Patriots to handle. The Patriots had Shane Vereen waiting, but lacked an inside runner. But the Patriots had a contingency plan, one that no one had ever heard of, and his name was Jonas.
After a 200 yard, four touchdown performance in prime time, Jonas Gray was on his way to becoming a household name. But in typical Belichick running back roulette, that didn’t last long either. Having only one “big back” wasn’t enough for Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots so when the Steelers cut LeGarette Blount, a Foxboro reunion was inevitable.
With the way Blount has been running over the past few games, it feels almost as though he never left New England. In three games with the Patriots he has added a new dimension to the offense, and has provided some relief for the Patriots passing attack. Since coming over from Pittsburgh, Blount has scored twice and averaged nearly five yards a carry. As the weather becomes more frigid and the playoffs approach, Blount’s arrival couldn’t have been timelier. The Patriots finally have a reliable running game to turn to, and tackling a 250-pound hulking running back in the winter spells trouble for opposing defenses.
Last year was arguably Bill Belichick’s best coaching ever, and this year his duties as GM might follow suit. The Patriots have six first-round draft picks along their front seven, and the free agent signings of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and safety Patrick Chung haven’t been too shabby either.
Like it or not, the Patriots are built for a deep run, and while Belichick’s personnel decisions have been questioned in the past, this year appears to be far different.
Tags: Bill Belichick