Sighted Fish, Squished Same

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Patriots Enter The Bye Week On A High

Monday’s game was reminiscent of the “classic” Patriots road wins. Some how, some way, they did it. And not in the ways anyone could have predicted.

Who could predict that Rob Nincovich … a linebacker … would have two interceptions? Who could have predicted that Pat Chung would block two kicks and run back an interception for a touchdown? They won by 27 points and Brady only threw for 153 yards and Moss didn’t have a single catch – who could have predicted that? Danny Woodhead has only been with the team two weeks – he had a touchdown. Jarrad Page also only with the team two weeks – he had an interception.

But that’s what this team used to do. When they needed a play, they made the plays. This wasn’t happening last season. Sure, at times the defense got gashed. But it sometimes felt like they were just waiting for the chance to jump a route and pick the ball off. Like the “good old days”.

So, the Patriots go into the bye week now and then face three tough games. What do we know and what do we not know about this team?

We know they’ve found a good, young running back combination in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. I’m sure someone will come up with a nickname for this Mutt and Jeff duo, but they get the job done. “Law Firm” runs hard and with attitude. Woodhead is like an even smaller version of Welker with a running-backs build. Both are the classic Belichick types of players – hard workers, disciplined, love football, smart, tough, flexible.

We know the offense is capable of putting up buckets of points, even though they didn’t do it last night.

We know that the tight-end position is going to be the new hammer in the offensive toolbox. Between Crumpler’s blocking, and Gronkowski’s and Hernandez’s catching it’s a whole new offense. Crumpler is teaching the youngsters, and it’s paying off already – expect to see Crumpler more involved as the season goes on, and expect to see him in New England for a while too.

We knows Welker is back. Maybe 95% back, but he’s dangerous as ever.

We now know why Belichick and Kraft believed in Brandon Tate. He’s a lethal kick-returner who’s also turning into a solid #3 receiver.

We know that rookie punter Zoltan Mesko has range. We don’t know about his consistency.

We know that this team can win on the road and put together a solid sixty minutes of football. We don’t know if they can do it every week.

We know that this team still doesn’t have an answer for generating a pass-rush. What we don’t know is if it’s going to matter as much as conventional wisdom would indicate. If they can continue to cause turn-overs with the scheme they’re using, sacks may not matter.

We know that a number of players who were standouts last season – Butler and Vollmer, for instance – are hitting their second year wall and strugging a bit. We don’t know how long it will take for them to play through it.

We know that Mayo is the real deal, that Spikes still needs more time, and that the time they gave Pat Chung to really learn his job before making him a starter was the right thing to do.

We don’t as yet know how some of the rookies and second year players will fare – Brace, Cunningham, Price, and so on – but some are at least contributing some solid plays each game. And, in the Belichick system, that’s all you need to do: your job.

We know that some of the “scrubs”, cast-offs, and malcontents that Belichick and Kraft have acquired are looking pretty damn good right now – Page, Ninkovich, Woodhead, to name but three. As much as people criticize the Patriots drafting and contract style, they do find these “no name” guys – Welker was one, if you recall – so was Brady – who have “something” and can just flat out play football.

We know that the defense is capable of making big plays now. We also know that they give up a ton of yardage and, when those big plays don’t happen they give up plenty of points. We know that 3rd down is still a problem. What we don’t know is when the problems will stop. The team does appear to be growing and learning and improving every week, so by mid-season this could be a pretty special group.

We know the secondary is young and inexperienced – and other teams are picking on them. We know we’ve seen glimmers of what these kids are capable of – McCourty’s stop on 4th-and-2 is a good example. What we don’t know is when they’ll start to really transition to being NFL calibre players.

We know that the defensive line took some hits with trades and injuries. And we’re starting to see the new veterans and young players start to fill in the gaps. What we don’t know is when they’ll settle into a line-up that can consistently get the job done. Brace has played a lot better than people expected, for instance, but he’s just not quite where they need him to be yet.

We knew that Belichick was a great coach. What we saw last night is a return of the hands-on coach who we used to see in action. What we don’t know is if he can handle the work load of head coach, defensive coordinator, and offensive coordinator.

 

So, the Patriots now start the bye week tied for the lead in the AFC East. Most teams are stuck at 2-2, the Patriots are at 3-1. They get a little time off and a chance to work on some things.

Then they face the Ravens at home with a chance for payback for last year’s playoff loss. More ghosts can be exorcised with a win at home against Baltimore.

There’s a lot to do in the next two weeks, though. The offense has to really work on integrating all the weapons at Brady’s disposal. Not just the new (and old) tight ends, but Tate and Price as well. They have to find a way to keep teams from erasing Randy Moss from the equation. They need to work on their pass protection more. And they need to design a whole new running playbook for the Green-Ellis/Woodhead tandem.

On defense, they have to find a way to get more pressure on the quarterback. Some how, some way. It may have to come up the middle, but they have to find that magic combination. The secondary has to tackle and cover better – its that simple – they just give up too much yardage. Spikes needs to get back into his groove, and the supporting cast of linebackers – Guyton, McKenzie, and Crable – need to start making contributions.

Young players like Cunningham and Brace need to find a way to accelerate their development so that when they’re in, they’re in the right places and completing their assignments. These players could make a huge difference in the pass rush – they’re big, fast, and athletic.

As for Belichick, he needs to keep doing what he’s doing. It’s starting to work. The offensive coaching needs to start to open up the playbook more. They need more screens. They need a return of the reverse and direct snap. The players are starting to figure things out, so these plays should start to be folded in. Especially going up against the Ravens – you can’t stay predictable.

 

If … and it’s a big “if” … Belichick and the boys can continue to improve and come together at the pace we’ve seen, then by mid-season this could be a pretty special team. Turnovers and big special teams plays vastly change the complexion that opponents must consider when facing this team. It’s no longer just “If we stop Brady, we win.” They have to stop Brady and all those skill players, they have to not get trapped by Belichick’s defense into throwing interceptions, and they have to be careful on every kick-off, punt, and field goal.

There will likely be some tough games ahead. Some losses. The Ravens game I’m especially worried about. I don’t expect them to go 15-1; 10-6 may be as good as they can do. Maybe 11-5. But that may be enough to win the division, probably enough to get into the playoffs. And with Belichick, the team usually plays its best football starting in December – so get them into the playoffs and then anything is possible.