November 4, 2012

Patriots Beat: Patriots set to take off, just like last season

By Mike Lowe mlowe@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

So how do you like the New England Patriots so far?

click image to enlarge

Stevan Ridley: Leads AFC with 716 rush yards

Brandon Lloyd, Josh Barrett
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Brandon Lloyd: Not the expected deep threat

ASSOCIATED PRESS

HERE WE GO AGAIN?

As frustrating as the New England Patriots have been for their fans this year, they entered their bye week with a 5-3 record and in first place in the AFC East. That's exactly where they were last year before they began their run to the Super Bowl. Here's a look at some of the more intriguing aspects of the first half season.

The Surprises

• Stevan Ridley: Bill Belichick has always liked the second-year back out of LSU and he's showing why this year. He leads the AFC in rushing with 716 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

• Chandler Jones: Eyebrows were raised when the Pats took Jones out of Syracuse with the 21st overall pick of the NFL draft. So far he's been amazing with a team-high six sacks and three forced fumbles.

• Nate Solder: The second-year left tackle has improved dramatically already this year, moving into the starting spot with the retirement of Matt Light. He'll get beat sometimes, but he's playing very well.

The disappointments

• The secondary: It was supposed to be improved, but the Patriots still allow too many opponents to run free through the secondary. Injuries have sidelined the starting safeties, Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory, but the acquisition of Aqib Talib should help.

• Brandon Lloyd: Maybe we expected too much from the dynamic receiver. But he hasn't provided the deep threat yet and he's only averaging 11.8 yards per catch, about four yards per catch below his career average.

• Aaron Hernandez: A high ankle sprain has forced him to miss four games and most of a fifth. When healthy he is a prolific playmaker, but he hasn't been healthy this year.

- Mike Lowe

Well, as frustratingly maddening they've played at times this season, you should like them.

And here's why:

With a 5-3 record, not only are they sitting atop a very weak AFC East Conference, but they have the exact record they had at this time last year.

And in 2011 they took off in the second half.

Remember?

New England won its final eight regular-season games last year, outscoring opponents by an average of 16.6 points en route to the fifth Super Bowl appearance in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era.

What's that? This team isn't the same as the 2011 team?

You're right.

It's better. And it will get better over the next eight games.

Offensively, the emergence of Stevan Ridley at running back has given the Patriots a balance they haven't enjoyed since Corey Dillon bullied his way to 1,635 yards in 2004, helping the Patriots beat Philadelphia 24-21 in Super Bowl XXXIX.

Ridley is on pace to rush for over 1,400 yards. And if he gets tired, Shane Vereen and others have shown the ability to keep the running game going.

When left guard Logan Mankins and hybrid tight end Aaron Hernandez heal from injuries that have sidelined them for much of the first half of the season, look for this offense -- already leading the NFL in total offense (440.8 yards per game) and scoring (32.8 points per game) and is on pace to shatter the record for most first downs in a season -- to become even more prolific.

Yeah, Tom Brady looks like he's struggling with the deep ball this year, again. And Brandon Lloyd hasn't been involved as much as expected, but with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Lloyd, Hernandez, Danny Woodhead out of the backfield and a healthy Julian Edelman, Brady has plenty of weapons.

If the improving offensive line can give Brady time to scan the defense, the Patriots offense is nearly unstoppable.

So that brings us to the defense. It can't get worse, can it?

The Patriots rank 23rd in total defense (369.8 yards) and 19th in points allowed (21.3) The biggest weakness, of course, is passing defense. The secondary has been, well, dreadful at times. Injuries to safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory haven't helped, but they were giving up big plays before those two were hurt.

New England is solid against the run, giving up just 88.6 yards per game. The front seven has played extremely well. Rookie Chandler Jones is a feared pass rusher already. Rob Ninkovich continues to make big plays. Vince Wilfork is, well, Vince Wilfork. Immovable.

The linebacker crew of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and rookie Dont'a Hightower has been exceptional.

If they can get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the problems in the secondary will at least be minimized.

And the secondary can get better. The addition of cornerback Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay in a trade will help immensely once he comes back in Week 11 from the four-game suspension he is serving for taking a performance-enhancing substance. His presence may allow the Patriots to keep Devin McCourty at safety, where he has looked very comfortable.

Belichick said the team would spend the bye week analyzing statistics and breaking down film to find the "common thread" that leads to success or failure.

"It's a good opportunity for us to try and look at some things that we can do better going forward," he said.

The bye, said Brady, came at a great time.

"You really have a nice sample size to see what you're doing well and what you're not doing well," Brady said last Thursday before the team's only practice of bye week. "I know that Coach (Belichick) has been hard at work here over the last couple of days trying to identify some of those things and that's a lot of what we'll go over today and in practice.

"You just don't have that much time during the regular season because you're trying to prepare for your opponent. With no opponent, you try to focus on what we need to do better."

At 5-3, the Patriots obviously have a lot of room for improvement. Given this team's second-half history -- since 2001, the Patriots are 69-16 after Thanksgiving -- you can expect a much better performance over the final eight games.

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

mlowe@pressherald.com

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

 

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