The offseason should be a time when the questions about an NFL team start to be answered and fans start to get an idea about what type of team they have. Free agents and rookies are signed to fill holes and provide depth. Position battles unfold before our very eyes during camp. The preseason games start to show what type of players a team has and how they may fit together. That being said, most teams have just as many questions coming out of the preseason as they did going into the preseason, and the Patriots are no different. If anything, we may have some new questions that we thought were answered but crept up during the preseason games. Here are the top 5 questions the Patriots must answer heading into the regular season:
1. Can the defense’s youthful athleticism overcome its youthful inexperience? The Patriots’ young defense looked good the first two weeks of the preseason but took a serious nosedive the final two weeks. Injuries have played a role in the defense’s decline but it was also exposed in coverage, mostly underneath and in the middle. The young players, many rookies or second-year players, have been thrust into starting roles. The first few weeks will likely be rough but if they can improve as the season moves on, the Pats will have a successful season. If they’re exposed all season, the Pats will be extremely lucky to even get a wild card birth.
2. Can the offensive line hold up over the course of the season? Any more injuries to the line, especially at guard, would be devastating at this point. The starting line looked solid, even without Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur, throughout the preseason. The offense has the looks of being prolific, as long as Tom Brady has the time to throw and there are holes open for the running backs. Kaczur was not placed on IR (at least not yet) and his return would further bolster the depth. Mankins, if he wishes to get credit for an accrued season, will return in Week 10 as well. Whether he sees the field or not though will be up to coach Belichick.
3. Will be the Patriots have a balanced offense? The first two preseason games saw the Patriot offense balanced for the first time since Corey Dillon was carrying the rock. The final two games saw the Pats become more pass-happy like they have been the last few seasons. The Patriots game plan changes week to week, and some games will likely be more pass-happy if they are facing a team that can’t defend the pass. However, the key to success, and the key to keeping the young defense off the field and unexposed, will be maintaining balance and running the ball effectively. If we see a return to that balanced attack, even if it means screens as extensions of the running game, it could mean the difference between playoffs or an early start to the offseason.
4. Can the new front seven get after the ball? The Patriots’ front seven look much different than they did last season. The only two regular starters in the front seven returning are Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. Gone is Jarvis Green (for now), Ty Warren (IR), Pierre Woods, Derrick Burgess, Adalius Thomas, and Gary Guyton (Guyton will likely be a back-up and play in passing situations). In are Mike Wright (now a three-down player), Gerard Warren/Ron Brace, Brandon Spikes, Tully Banta-Cain (now a three-down player), and either Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich, or Marques Murrell opposite Banta-Cain. Can they get to the ball carrier? Can they rush the passer? Quite honestly, after 4 preseason games, we don’t know for sure. There were mixed results overall, and we haven’t even seen Cunningham on the field yet. If they can’t stop the run then forget about worrying about a pass rush.
5. Can they finish games? This is quite possibly the biggest question heading into the season. The team in the second half of games last year was much different, and much worse, than the team in the first half. The offense couldn’t sustain drives and eat up the clock. The defense couldn’t hold a lead. Not being able to put teams away prevented the Pats from arguably winning four more games (at the Jets, at the Broncos, at the Colts, at the Dolphins). How different would the team have looked sitting with a 14-2 record? Finishing games was a trademark of the Patriots, and if they can return to their old form, they can win the division. Being able to run the ball and run the clock out will go a long way to padding a lead and preventing the opposing team from coming back and scoring. If I was Coach Belichick, “Finish” would be a main theme for the 2010 season.