Thursday, August 14, 2008

Patriots Preview 2008

Maybe He Can Play on the O-Line?

With the bitter taste of Super Bowl 42 still lingering, it is time to look ahead at the upcoming 2008 NFL season. A year ago at this time many Patriots' fans were wondering how the new receiver core would mesh, would the aging line backing core hold together, what (if anything) would we see from Richard Seymour and could the Pats return to Super Bowl glory. The same number of questions exist this year with one "giant" can a team comeback from arguably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history? One would think that a team as a professional and seemingly unable to be phased by Spygate and other distractions would have little problem rebounding....but it is a fair question.Super Bowl failure aside, the Pats face some uncertainties in 2008. Brady, Moss and Welker return to an offense that rewrote the record books last season, but this off-season saw starting guard Stephen Neal undergo further surgery and starting tackle Nick Kaczur face legal troubles after being arrested for drug possession. Also facing the Patriots is the issue as to whether their maligned running attack can get going in 2008.On the opposite side of the ball the defensive line looks solid, but that is the only unit that make that claim. While the Pats drafted LB Jerod Mayo and Shawn Crable to infuse some youth into a unit that is filled with 30 year olds, one has to wonder how much of an immediate impact two rookies can have in such a complex defensive system. An even bigger question mark is a secondary that saw Asante Samuel, Eugene Wilson and Randall Gay leave via free agency. In their absence the Patriots have drafted and signed more than a half a dozen players in an attempt to retool a secondary that was exposed at times last year. Here is a quick overview of the 2008 Patriots.

QUARTERBACK:The key is simple....Tom Brady cannot get hurt. With little to no experience behind him, any long term absence of Mr. Brady would put the Patriots in a very dire situation. While none of the back ups are Tom Brady, Matt Gutierrez seems to be a more reliable back up than Matt Cassel. Kevin O'Connell is getting ready for a few riveting years of holding a clip board.

RUNNING BACK:Laurence Maroney says that he is ready to breakout this season...the Pats hope he is right. In case he isn't the Pats went out and recently signed LaMont Jordan. Jordan is a solid back who can chew up yardage and catch the ball out of the backfield. New England will also have Sammy Morris who was having a very productive season before being injured in the game against Dallas. Behind this three headed monster are Heath Evans, all purpose back Kevin Faulk and Kyle Eckel.The biggest criticism of Maroney is that he will not hit the holes hard and gain the 4 or 5 yards that are there. Instead, Maroney will dance move laterally more than north and south, very often not progressing down field beyond his blockers. With Jordan and Morris behind him though, it would seem the Pats will find production from someone on their roster.The production of this unit will be predicated as much on their abilities as New England's commitment to the running game. McDaniels and the Hoodie seemed to fall in love with the passing game last year....and why not....but the lack of a running game cost them dearly against the Giants and almost cost them in back to back games against the Ravens and Eagles.

WIDE RECEIVER:With Welker, Moss and Gaffney back, the Pats receiver core is solid with the only need to find a 4th WR. Kelley Washington, who was an outstanding special teamer last season, is expected to get a look as are speedster Chad Jackson and possibly Matt Slater (although Slater will probably fill Washington's role on the special teams). Sam Aiken was expected to also get a look before being injured and it has been reported he is done for the season.The unit is in good shape and I would expect Chad Jackson to take the 4th receiver spot, but he did not look too impressive against the Ravens and it was reported he was guilty of running the wrong route on a few occasions.

TIGHT END:Ben Watson returns for his 5th season as one of the best pass catching tight ends in the league. The Pats also hope to have David Thomas healthy after injuries limited him to one catch in 2007 and added veteran Marcus Pollard and journeyman Stephen Spach. Thomas and Pollard are very good pass catchers, but none are considered to be outstanding blocking tight ends.How this unit is used will be directly linked to how much of commitment the Pats make to the running game.

OFFENSIVE LINE:Super Bowl aside, this unit is also a concern. With the aforementioned issues concerning Neal and Kaczur, one has to wonder who will fill in to the right of Center Dan Koppen. However, the Pats have no shortage of candidates with Russ Hochstein, Billy Yates, Ryan O'Callaghan and Wesley Britt leading all candidates, however there is a reason why all are backups and not starting elsewhere. While all are capable backups, there is a concern that if Kaczur or Neal were to miss substantial time how would their replacements fair over 16 games.The Pats have won in the past with less talent on the offensive line, but regardless of the talent starting opposite Logan Mankins and Matt Light, the Pats need that unit to gel before the regular season kicks off as last season also showed that the Pats have difficulties against attacking teams that employ complex blitz packages (Ravens, Eagles and Giants), and that trend continued in the early parts of their pre-season game with the Ravens as Matt Cassel was a man under fire. Though it is early, the line does not look like the same group that kept Brady upright for most of last season.

DEFENSIVE LINE:Outside of the QB position, this is the most stable unit on the team and perhaps the most talented DL unit in the league. Richard Seymour is finally healthy and reported to camp lighter and in better shape than in years past, while Pro-Bowl NT Vince Wilfork and the underrated Ty Warren return. Jarvis Green, who filled in so well for Seymour to start last season, could start for most teams in the league but for the Pats he will again work his way into the rotation as the 4th DL. Mike Wright will also see a fair amount of snaps when Wilfork is off the field. With an inexperienced secondary and questions regarding the ILB spot, the DL needs to shine this season while things behind them get sorted out.The issues at the ILB spot could alter the face of the DL. We saw at times last year the Pats deploy a 4-3 scheme to their usual 3-4 system, although given their personnel it seems unlikely that they would run a 4-3 on a more routine basis.

LINEBACKERS:You go from stable to somewhat shaky in a hurry when you go from the DL to the LB core. The linebacking core showed its age down the stretch last season and needed an infusion of youth. They got it in the form of Shawn Crable and 1st round pick Jerod Mayo. Mayo will be the more important of the two as he is an ILB and the Pats hope that his development can lessen the number of snaps Tedy Bruschi plays. The Pats also added veteran ILB Victor Hobson to a unit that already had ILB Eric Alexander, who has shown some promise in years past but has little experience. There is also speculation that Junior Seau will sign with the Pats near the end of training camp. New England had also hoped FA Tank Williams would be able to contribute at ILB before being injured in their first pre-season game.If the Pats struggle to find someone to play next to Bruschi on the inside then Mike Vrabel would more than likely be shifted to the inside either on a permanent basis on as part of a rotation. After his play last year on the edge you would like to see him stay there opposite Adalius Thomas. Behind Thomas and Vrabel the Pats have the aforementioned Crable who has shown some promise during training camp, as well as Pierre Woods, whom BB has been very high on since mini-camps.This unit is the key to the success of the D. The best case scenario is that Seau re-signs while Mayo progresses enough where a permanent rotation of Mayo, Seau and Bruschi can develop allowing Vrabel to stay on the outside. Thomas seemed to struggle at times adapting to a new system after playing in the blitz happy defense of Rex Ryan, but expect him to rebound and have a very solid season for the Pats.

SECONDARY:This unit saw more turnover than any other on the team. In response to the losses of Wilson, Samuel and Gay, the Pats drafted corners Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, while signing CB Fernando Bryant, CB Jason Webster, CB Lewis Sanders and S/ILB Tank Williams. Meanwhile, the only returning corner who has substantial playing time under his belt, Ellis Hobbs, has been dealing with a lingering wrist ailment. The two rookies have seen time with the first unit in practice while Sanders saw substantial time in the Ravens game.The Safety spot is a bit more settled with former Pro-Bowler Rodney Harrison returning along with the young and promising James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather. Sanders has seen action in 31 games with 21 starts over the past two seasons while Meriweather saw his role expand as last season wore on. The Pats lost some depth when Tank Williams went down with a season ending knee injury.This is easily the biggest question mark on the team, but fortunately they play behind one of the better front sevens in all of the league. The key will be whether the corners can learn the system quickly enough and well enough to avoid being exposed. Getting solid safety play from Harrison, Meriweather and Sanders will help cover up inexperience at the corner spot, as it has in years past, but the idea that BB can plug anyone into the system and they will succeed is a myth. You need talent. It would appear that the final corner spot opposite Hobbs will come down to Bryant and Wheatley, while Wilhite figures to see a lot of snaps when the Pats deploy their Nickle and Dime packages. However, despite heading into his 4th season, it is hard to believe that as injury prone and inconsistent as Ellis Hobbs has been that one of the off-season acquisitions could not play their way into his starting spot. (Editor's note: John Lynch has joined this secondary as well)

SPECIAL TEAMS:The usual cast of characters return to this unit; Larry Izzo, Lonnie Paxton, Stephen Gostkowski and Chris Hanson. However, the make up of the rest of the unit will be predicated on what happens at the other positions. As mentioned, Kelley Washington is getting a look as the 4th WR and the loss of Sam Aiken would make moving Washington to the offense permanently difficult. As we saw against the Ravens, the coverage team needs some more work.The return situation will be interesting for a few reasons. First, with Hobbs being um, hobbled with injuries in each of the pass two seasons, the Pats may do best by him and not have their number one corner returning kicks. Next, I also find it hard that the Pats will want to continue to use Maroney and Welker back there returning kicks as well...although the addition of Jordan will lighten the load for Maroney as a running back and Welker is the only true punt returner on the roster. Meanwhile, Matt Slater looked unimpressive in his first NFL action while CJ Jones is getting a look in camp as a punt returner and could be used to spell Welker, Hobbs and Maroney of their return duties.

OUTLOOK: The Pats are once again Super Bowl favorites, although they are going through a bit of a transition period in a couple of areas. The line faces uncertainty while the linebackers and secondary try to incorporate several new faces. However, there is enough experience at those positions to think that this transition period will meet few bumps along the way.The biggest wild card is Josh McDaniels. He did a fabulous job of getting an entirely new receiver core and getting them mesh with an offense that became the most productive in NFL history. However, as the running began to sputter the offense also became very one-dimensional, thus predictable and susceptible to the blitzes. McDaniels failed at times to adapt....most notably in the Super Bowl.I like the Pats to get to another Super Bowl....after that is anyone's guess.
MB Ice is the Central Maine Sports Blog's newest contributor. He works solely for beer, and it must be in a brown bag.



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