(Al Tielemans/SI)
(Al Tielemans/SI)

Patriots Preview: Tom Tom Will Show You ‘The Way’

One star tight end sits in jail, charged with murder. The other remains a question mark, beset by injuries. The other top three receivers from last season have all moved on. With Brady under center, New England remains a contender

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

So, what now? The Patriots find themselves without their most valuable player not named Tom Brady, and the presumptive end of Aaron Hernandez’s career (and possibly free life) could redefine an offense that has ranked among the top three in scoring in each of the past three seasons. The popular sentiment is that owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick must get this organization back to “The Patriot Way,” an artful catchall description for how this franchise won three Super Bowls (and appeared in a fourth) with mostly blue-collar role players.

Some believe that in the nine years since New England last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy—nearly a decade, can you believe it?—the club has drifted from its roots. Yet during the supposed nine-year deterioration of The Patriot Way, the team posted an NFL-high 98 regular season wins … not to mention the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history and two more Super Bowl appearances. The Patriots aren’t a once-proud organization that must rediscover its way. They’re a well-run franchise that has been thrown an unforeseeable curveball by the Hernandez murder allegations. They did the right thing by immediately dumping him. Now they must figure out how to move on without him.

OFFENSE

WORDSTK
Though he didn’t have his most productive season, Danny Amendola’s 10.6 yards per reception were a career-high in 2012. Now one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets, the former Ram must fill the void left by Wes Welker’s departure. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

With Aaron Hernandez gone and Rob Gronkowski a question mark coming off forearm and back surgery, you might expect the Patriots to reconfigure their entire offense. Especially considering their three other receiving leaders from last year, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead, are no longer around.

Perhaps a return to the schematic Patriot Way—winning with defense and ball control—is in store. After all, this is an offense that ranked seventh in rushing last season and has the ground weapons to get even better. Stevan Ridley, with his great lateral agility and burst, is coming off a 1,263-yard Pro Bowl campaign. Behind him, fellow third-year pro Shane Vereen has deceptive speed and quickness on the outside. Newcomer LeGarrette Blount can push for short-yardage duties, though with his heavy feet and upright style, he probably won’t beat out compact downhill runner Brandon Bolden or James Develin. And don’t forget that veteran pickup Leon Washington is also in the mix.

The Hernandez Fallout

When the Phone Rings at 4 a.m. by Andrew Brandt


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'I Have Moved On' — a 3Q Interview with Tom Brady


A Glimpse Under the Hoodie by Greg Bedard


The surfeit of running backs is complemented by a potentially dominant front line. If four-time All-Pro guard Logan Mankins can stay healthy (last season he missed six games with ankle and calf injuries) and uber-athletic third-year tackle Nate Solder can keep progressing, the Pats will have the most mobile left side blocking duo in football. This, along with the reliability of center Ryan Wendell and guard Dan Connolly—two smart, fine-tuned blockers, particularly on the move—will make for a very potent front, especially on power runs. The only concern is whether skilled right tackle Sebastian Vollmer can overcome his back problems. But even if he can’t, 2011 fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon could probably step in.

So, yes, the Patriots have all the pieces to be a dominant running team. This would be sensible for an offense that just lost its dynamic tight end, and it’s the same formula the Patriots rode to three titles.

It would also be the wrong approach. The NFL has changed over the last decade. It’s a passing league now. And while the Patriots don’t have many proven receiving weapons, they still have innovative offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. And they still have Tom Brady. Wrong as it may sound, Brady is a much better quarterback now than he was during the Pats’ title years. Instead of changing their groundbreaking system, the Patriots should (and likely will) call “next man up” and lean on Brady even more.

The Patriots have the right resources to do this. Daniel Fells can become the new Aaron Hernandez. He might not have Hernandez’s natural talent, but his skill-set is similar. Jake Ballard, back from the knee injury that wiped out his 2012 season, could fill Rob Gronkowski’s role. So could undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld. (Gronk is unlikely to play in Week 1 but is expected to return soon.)

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Danny Amendola is the new Wes Welker. And if Amendola goes down with injuries, there’s always Julian Edelman. The new Brandon Lloyd is second-round rookie Aaron Dobson, a supremely gifted, strong-handed playmaker. There’s also fourth round pick Josh Boyce, undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins and special teams maven Matthew Slater. Thompkins has been very intriguing in camp and the preseason.  Taking Woodhead’s spot in single-back spread sets will either be Shane Vereen (who was tremendous in this capacity against Houston in the last season’s wild-card game) or Washington.

Just because there is a similar player stepping into these roles doesn’t mean this offense will be same. Nearly every player mentioned is a downgrade from the guy he’s replacing. And there are still serious question marks: What can Gronkowski provide? Can Amendola stay healthy? Will Ballard’s knee hold up? Can anything of substance be expected from the rookies, given that young players in the past (and even some veterans) have struggled with the copious sight adjustment and option routes of this intricate system?

There are concerns, for sure, but the Patriots don’t have to abandon their cutting-edge system. With perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, they can run the same system with less talented players. This could mean replacing some of the two-tight end sets with three-receiver sets while maintaining many of the same offensive concepts. Brady is a master at diagnosing the defense before the snap, buzzing through progressions after the snap, manipulating the defense with subtle mechanics and delivering balls with pinpoint accuracy. All of these attributes make the game easier for his receivers.

There isn’t real concern as to whether the new players are talented; it’s a matter of them learning the system well enough to run it at breakneck speed. That’s really what made this No. 1 ranked offense so special last season. The Patriots averaged just six yards per play, seventh best in the NFL. But they ran an NFL record 74 plays per game. In order for New England to keep playing fast, the new weapons must be comfortable in the system.

DEFENSE

WORDSTK
Slather on the Mayo: Linebacker Jerod Mayo will set the tone by delivering the kind of hits that sent Dennis Pitta to the turf in last year’s AFC title game. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Aside from Hernandez being cut, re-signing Aqib Talib was New England’s biggest offseason move. Though he’s viewed as a No. 1 man-to-man corner, Talib only signed a one-year deal ($4.97 million) that suggests Kraft and Belichick have reservations about the 27-year-old’s desire to improve (he mainly needs work in zone coverage). That they still brought Talib back after trading for him last season suggests they also appreciate his raw talent in an otherwise mediocre secondary.

With Talib, the Patriots can play man coverage across the board. Without him, they can’t. There’s a domino effect with the other corners. Second-year pro Alfonzo Dennard, with his fluid movement and compact strength, matches up well against most No. 2 receivers. But he’s not polished enough to compete with No. 1’s. Kyle Arrington has developed into a fine No. 3 slot corner, but is a tremendous liability as a starter on the outside. Marquice Cole is better than most No. 4 corners, but worse than many No. 3s. The same is likely true about former No. 33 overall pick Ras-I Dowling, who has been limited by injuries to just nine games over his first two years.

Playing man coverage gives Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia more freedom in deploying their safeties. Not being big on blitzes, they prefer to either play both safeties over the top (known as “two-man”) or play one over the top and the other roving underneath (generally known as “man free lurk”). If Talib is suddenly removed from the equation, the safeties would become more contained and this secondary would be compelled to go with safer zone coverages. As we saw last season, it’s easy to exploit zones. In the nine games prior to Talib’s debut in New England, the zone-oriented Patriots surrendered 7.6 yards per pass attempt. In the six games Talib played (he missed one game with a injured hip), the man-oriented Patriots surrendered 6.8 yards per attempt.

Keeping both safeties in coverage often means a conservative defensive scheme, which is antithetical to what people associate with a Belichick-coached defense. But it’s been years since Belichick used his complex concoctions of rotating hybrid coverages, 3-4 blitzes and innovative new schemes each week. Belichick caters to his personnel. When the Pats were winning Super Bowls, he had a bunch of uncommonly shrewd veterans such as Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, a precocious Richard Seymour and, later, Rodney Harrison and Asante Samuel. But in recent years, he’s had a lot of disappointing young draft picks and no-name free agents. (His fault, he’s the de facto GM.) Consequently, Belichick’s schemes have been simpler.

Expect Belichick to stick with man coverage as his foundation, and to be a little more creative with his safeties (less “two-man”, more “man-free lurk” variations). A more experienced Devin McCourty can bring good range to centerfield. This will allow veteran pickup Adrian Wilson, who is likely to start ahead of last year’s mistake-prone second-round pick, Tavon Wilson, to play in the box. That’s really the only way the elder Wilson can be effective; with age he’s become savvier near the line of scrimmage but stiffer in open space against the pass.

Wilson alone might be enough of a wild card to quench whatever thirst Belichick may have for more disguises. If so, that would allow the front seven to focus more on straightforward execution. The Patriots have enough talent here to just line up and play.

It starts with a linebacking corps that’s on the rise. Fourth-year pro Brandon Spikes is the most physical downhill run defender in the NFL. Hopefully his desire for a big free-agent contract after this season won’t distract him from the valuable work he does so well (like blowing up blocks). Spikes doesn’t have great change-of-direction speed or agility, which makes him a bit vulnerable in coverage. That said, he should be able to fend off the faster Dane Fletcher and get snaps in most nickel packages.

WORDSTK
Chandler Jones (95) and Tommy Kelly put a hurting on Eagles’ QB Nick Foles in the preseason. (Elsa/Getty Images)

As good as Spikes can be, the fact that Jamie Collins was drafted in the second round indicates the team just might be willing to let Spikes’ big payday come elsewhere. Collins is raw and may project only as a pass-rusher in the short-term, but what if he could develop into a starting Will backer, with five-tool veteran Jerod Mayo sliding to the middle? Mayo is instinctive against the run and effective against the pass (particularly in underneath zone). The hope is more of his tackles this season will be gobbled up by Dont’a Hightower, last year’s first-round pick who is progressing adequately on the strong side.

Though Belichick will likely keep his front schemes pretty basic, he’ll still use an array of different three-and four-man lines. And he’ll also play a variety of different gap concepts. But don’t expect a lot of complexity or disguises.

Belichick will, however, dial up an interior linebacker blitz a few times each game, not just because Mayo and Spikes are excellent gap-shooters, but because the Patriots don’t have a particularly explosive front four. Last year, end Rob Ninkovich’s eight sacks led the team. Commendable as his opportunistic play and steady improvement have been, there’s not a team in the league that genuinely fears Ninkovich off the edge. In fact, his strong suit is actually stopping the run as a play-side linebacker. Chandler Jones, a first-rounder last season, has the lateral strength and pliability to record double-digit sacks, but he lacks the speed to ever lead the league.

Jones could be an excellent nickel defensive tackle (a role currently played by Jermaine Cunningham), but second-year backups Jake Bequette and Justin Francis aren’t pure enough edge rushers to warrant him sliding inside. The Patriots could catch lightning in a bottle with ex-Brown Marcus Benard outside, but don’t hold your breath.

Even in the base 4-3, these ends may find themselves occasionally lining up inside given a paucity of depth at defensive tackle. At least there’s nothing to worry about with the starting defensive tackles. Wherever he lines up, Vince Wilfork remains as destructive as ever. He’s incredibly nimble for someone bigger than most Zipcars. Next to Wilfork will be ex-Raider Tommy Kelly, who still has good power and initial quickness after nine years.

SPECIAL TEAMS

No one sits around debating who the top five kickers in the NFL are, but if they did, Stephen Gostkowski’s name would almost always come up. At punter, the Patriots brought in Ryan Allen to challenge Zoltan Mesko. The fourth-year pro really struggled in 2012 but will likely wind up keeping his job. As for the return game, it’s never been a major emphasis of Belichick’s, though that could change now that he has Leon Washington. The eighth-year veteran has eight career kick return touchdowns.

BOTTOM LINE

Without question, the Patriots’ offense is significantly less talented than it was a year ago. But with Brady still under center, the coaching staff still intact and a defense destined to improve, New England remains not only heavy favorites in the AFC East, but also a contender in the AFC.

Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.

43 comments
nemome
nemome

"appeared in a 4th"


huh!   appeared in FIVE!!!

horsley1953
horsley1953

Everyone comment is wrong! The most remarkable thing about this article is that it doesn't mention Tim Tebow! :-).

mlacoste
mlacoste

Poor article, as it seems it was written about 45 days ago.  Much has transpired with the Pats this preseason, as their receiving group has evolved better than expected.  Amendola will be a younger, faster and more athletic version of Welker.  Tompkins, Dobson, Sudfeld, Edelman, Vereen, etc are going to be just fine, especially when Gronk returns in Game 7.

The Pats will finish 12-4 with a Bye and home field in the Playoffs until they face the Broncos in Denver for the AFC Championship.

Welker will drop another key pass late in the game, and Manning will get tight around the collar once again. 

The Pats will win and face the Giants in NYC in the Super Bowl.

The Patriots will be victorious this time around.

jzty
jzty

Amazing people still bring up the bogus Spygate cheating crap.  EVERY team was videotaping because it was LEGAL.  Roger Goodell sent that memo to EVERY team in the NFL, not just the Pats.  IF only the Pats were videotaping, then why did Goodell send that memo to EVERY team in the NFL?  Because EVERY team was videotaping.  People need to get a clue.  Too bad the Pats had to take the hit for every team in the NFL that was doing the exact same thing as they were.  Every team cheats to get an edge. People are delusional if they think otherwise.

southernsnowman
southernsnowman

Hope you are right, but not sure. They were 7th in the league in rushing last year, so don't see much change there.  The key will be the defense showing improvement. Must have better pass rush and communication in secondary to eliminate the long pass which killed them at critical times last year. I never worry much about an offense that is led by Brady!

pwhlax
pwhlax

Wow.  I just watched the Peter King video imbedded in this article.  Very disappointing.  Talk about lazy journalism.  According to King the rookie to watch for is Dobson.  Really?  The team's third receiver is the rookie to watch?  How about the undrafted rookie that will actually start at the outside receiver spot (Thompkins) or the rookie TE that will try to fill Hernandez' role? Both of those guys will see the field a lot more then Dobson.  It's like King and the author of the article were like "What were the story lines heading into training camp?  Let's just go with those."  Quite frankly I was looking forward to the MMQB take on the Patriots and find myself sorely disappointed.  Next time, just let Bedard do it.

bulltorch
bulltorch

Pats are going to win the super bowl... tom will be holding the Super bowl MVP in metlife this coming february..,. as a big FU to all NY

sonnymac
sonnymac

Never seen so much sour grapes in my life. What a bunch of whiny babies ! Pats will retool and be in the hunt as always.

struckanerve9
struckanerve9

Seriously, why even bother writing the article if all you're really going to say is "the Pats are the best because Brady"?   Pretty much the exact same article everyone writes about the Pats.  And here I thought this one might actually have some real critical analysis... 

Annabel
Annabel

Pats may very well win the AFC East but look at their competition.  I think it will be close because as much as the Pats and the Brady/Belechick sycophants protest to the contrary, the Hernandez debacle will have a tangible impact and ultimately trickle down to affect play on the field.  Just too much negative energy to ignore.  Lastly, we all know PK is a big Pats fan and this overly positive preview (e.g. "... There isn’t real concern as to whether the new players are talented ...", get real Andy) seems like a thinly veiled attempt by the author to keep the boss happy.

RobertSmith
RobertSmith

"The Patriot Way" was cheating.  And, yes, apparently they need to get back to it. 

randomdeletion
randomdeletion

Wow, was this written by the most delusional pat fan there ever was?  My god this could not be more unrealistic.  Hey we can just get rid of anyone and replace them with anyone as long as we have Tom.  lol

Did this guy happen to watch the game against the Lions?  You know the ONLY preseason game that matters at all?  The only way they could have been destroyed more is if the Lions scored touchdowns on every possession.  There is absolutely no way that all new receiving targets can get on the same page as Tom in one preseason.  No way.  Additionally the entire roster of targets is a major downgrade from who they had last year.  Add to that, just as everyone suspected, Amendola is already hurt.  This is going to be a LONG season for Pat fans.  That is reality.  

Put the Pats in the AFC North, South, West, NFC West, East, South, or North, and they not only don't win the division, they don't make the playoffs.  The ONLY reason they will make the playoffs is they are STILL in the worst division in the NFL.  They will lose every single game they play this year to a team that does make the playoffs.  They will rack up some wins against the terrible teams.  Same old song and dance.

OlsonKevin
OlsonKevin

I feel like this article was written by a robot.

MarkMcClure
MarkMcClure

Brady's the greatest to EVER play the game.....they will be fine. ALL HE DOES IS WIN

pwhlax
pwhlax

Was this article written before the preseason? It is very off the mark in terms of discussing personnel and how they have been used in reality. For example, Tompkins has emerged as the clear number 1 ahead of Dobson but this article treats him as an afterthought. Fells has barely been on the field but he us the replacement for Hernandez? Tip for the writer: If you r going to write about a team it helps to watch the games.

pamperofirpo
pamperofirpo

By the end of this season, the receiving corps likely will be better than last year...and perhaps the best since 2007. Has anyone watched the games the last year? Wellers has been in decline for two years. He just does not get the same separation anymore. A combination of Amendola and Edelman will be superior at the slot. Brandon Lloyd had almost 1,000 yards last year...and was invisible...virtually no yards after catch. Thompkins and/or Dobson will be far s

marino.eccher
marino.eccher

Here's what I'd like to know about the Pats when we look back on this run: How did a guy with the defensive pedigree of Bill Belichick let the defense get so bad for so many years in a row? Did he just suffer from a prolonged run of draft-day misses and bad acquisitions? Did he neglect it in trying (and succeeding) to get out ahead of the curve in the new era of high-octane passing games? Did he just lose his coaching fastball? He's clearly a gifted coach and he understands X's and O's so well he basically broke the league in 2007, so how did they become such a sieve?

Justin19
Justin19

Gostkowski is not a top 5 kicker, no way


GrahamM
GrahamM

That's some good writing. Saying the Pat's appeared in 4 Super Bowl's in the first paragraph, then say they've appeared in 5 Super Bowl's in the very next paragraph. Woot Woot. Not gunna lie, the only writing I've actually thought was worth reading on this site so far is the MMQB article each week.

NicholasLitwinetz
NicholasLitwinetz

How the hell can Daniel Fells become the new Aaron Hernandez? Hernandez was so dangerous because he created mismatches against LBs in coverage with his speed and athleticism. Fells is VERY slow and not especially athletic. Most DEs could probably cover him without being over-matched. The only TE on the roster that could potentially fill in for Hernandez would be Sudfeld. Like Hernandez he is big, fast and athletic (maybe slightly slower but also slightly bigger). However, I think the real replacement for Hernandez will be Vereen. He is a fantastic route runner who has no trouble beating a LB in coverage. He gives the Patriots similar formation flexibility to what they had with Hernandez in the lineup. I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of 2 RB sets from the Pats this year with both Vereen and Ridley lining up in the backfield with the option of splitting Vereen out wide depending on the defensive alignment (like they used to do with Hernandez).

JAEAls
JAEAls

@mlacoste im guessing youre a pats fan. im sure thats objective analysis from you

Annabel
Annabel

@jzty So the Pats didn't get the memo and that's the excuse?  Not buying either.

JAEAls
JAEAls

@struckanerve9 probably because its true. as long as you have rodgers brady or manning you are always a contender no matter whats around you

JohnSilva
JohnSilva

@randomdeletion wow people are really placing alot of importance on a stupid preseason game. What abotu other preseason games where offense marched down field effortlessly, don't matter cause its PRESEASON i got no more excited or depressed about a PRESEASON win or lose cause they don't matter.

JUSTINL
JUSTINL

@randomdeletion Your trolling is pretty decent but clearly you know absolutely nothing about NFL football.

OlsonKevin
OlsonKevin

@pwhlax I agree. This article is remarkably out-of-touch with where the Patriots are at going into week 4 of the pre-season.

Baconpizza
Baconpizza

@marino.eccher  

A couple reasons:  

1.)  The draft -- not just on defense either, but most obvious in the secondary with misses on guys like Meriweather, Darius Butler, etc.

2.) Roster turnover-- those defenses that were key during their super bowl runs lost a lot of irreplaceable talent & leadership-- Seymour, Bruschi, Harrison, etc.

3.) Spygate-- Pats fan hate this, but their defenses haven't been the same since.  If what they were doing wasn't a big deal, why was Belichick hit with the highest fine in league history?  And why was the evidence destroyed? 

Shyzaboy
Shyzaboy

@GrahamM His point was that the three SB wins and one loss were the "old way". The fifth appearance was the "new way"...

robnoxious85
robnoxious85

@sjannese @randomdeletion The only "Same old song and dance" is that the Lions destroyed the Pats in the 2011 preseason too. Didn't mean anything then, and doesn't mean anything now.

JAEAls
JAEAls

@OlsonKevin @pwhlax i think he said he wrote all of these articles before and its up to SI when they published them

John64
John64

@Baconpizza   Your #2 cancels out your #3.  Pats defenses haven't been the same since about 2009- not because of spygate- but because of all the talent they lost.  i.e. Seymour, Brusschi, Harrison, etc... 

If what they were doing (videotaping defensive signals from an unauthorized location on the sidelines) really was such a big deal, why have they won more games "since spygate" than any other NFL team?  Oh wait, I forgot, "0-2 since spygate".  Yeah, two losses by 3 and 4 points... 

Obviously the term "any given sunday" is lost on conspiracy theorists. 

marino.eccher
marino.eccher

The writing made sense, but the point did not: The 2007 Pats were much closer in style and makeup to the recent, high-flying, offense-first iterations than they were to the Super Bowl winners. They brought in flashy skill players -- Moss, Welker, Stallworth -- threw more than they ran and were far more remarkable on offense than defense. That team more or less marked the dawn of the new style Patriots.

If the Pats need to get back to anything, it's that defensive identity. Frankly, I'm surprised it's taken a guy as sharp as Belichick so long to recognize that an elite defense makes for a more reliable title contender than an elite offense.

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