Jan 13, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) on the field against the Houston Texans during the second half of the AFC divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots won 41-28. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots: Always Room for Improvement


Jan 13, 2013; Foxboro, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick waves to the crowd as he leaves the field after the AFC divisional round playoff game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots won 41-28. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The phrase “constructive criticism” is one which makes many subordinates in the business world cringe.  As the behind-the-scenes football programs (i.e. “Cleveland ‘95” and “A Football Life: Bill Belichick” on NFL Network) have shown, constructive criticism is likely going on in full force in the film rooms deep in the bowels of Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA as Bill Belichick and his staff review Sunday’s victory over the Houston Texans and prepare for the AFC Championship game versus the Baltimore Ravens.  Coaches and players alike are going to be dressed down each week, regardless of victory or not.  The Patriots players and staff, while no doubt pleased with their 41-28 victory over Houston, have some areas of improvement to work on this week as they ready for a Ravens team that is full of confidence after going on the road Saturday to knock off the number one seed Denver Broncos.  Here are two weaknesses the Patriots displayed (and overcame) that need to be tightened up before Sunday night if they want to get back to the Super Bowl:

SPECIAL TEAMS:
This issue jumped out on the first play of the game. Texans defensive back and kick returner Danieal Manning averaged a gaudy 54.0 yards per return, highlighted by his 94 yard scamper to the New England 12 yard line on the first play of the game. Fortunately, the defense held and limited the Texans to a field goal on the drive, although it was more to do with poor execution by Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub who missed two open receivers on 2nd and 3rd down.

Manning later added a 69 yard return early in the fourth quarter to jump-start the Texans attempted comeback from a 38-13 deficit. Although the patriots stuffed him a couple of times, he also added in a 38 yard return before halftime to give the Texans good field position at the 35 yard line on a drive that ended in a touchdown. For the Patriots special teams this season, the kickoff return coverage has been a strength all season and it was surprising to see the unit get lit up for two big returns in the playoff game.  In the regular season, the Patriots kickoff coverage ranked third in the NFL behind only Cleveland and Carolina in average yards per return, as the Patriots allowed only 20.5 yards per return average on 60 returned kickoffs.

Jan 13, 2013; Foxboro, MA, USA; Houston Texans free safety Danieal Manning (38) returns a kick against the New England Patriots during the second half of the AFC divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

This begs the question: Were these returns merely a hiccup, or a disturbing new trend for the Patriots special teams?   Last year, the Patriots special teams excelled in kick coverage as well, so it seems this is a correctable mistake that reared its head at a highly visible time. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has always emphasized special teams, and it is very likely that Patriots  special teams coach Scott O’Brien is well aware that there will be extra emphasis on kick return coverage with the dangerous returner/wide receiver Jacoby Jones of the Ravens back to return kicks this week.  Remember, Jones has already taken a kick back 108 yards this season, so Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski had better be ready to either kick the ball out the back of the end zone or else get some good hang time and hope the special teams make some tackles before Jones is running past him.

LINEBACKERS AND SAFETIES IN COVERAGE:
In defense of Patriots Linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, and Safeties Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, and Patrick Chung, if these players were specialists in covering pass catchers, the would be a playing cornerback. Instead, their skill set leads to strengths in other areas of the game, but they are still required to at times be in pass coverage against both running backs coming out of backfield and against tight ends, especially in the middle of the field.  These players play a vital role in controlling the passing game.

Jan 13, 2013; Foxboro, MA, USA; Houston Texans tight end Owen Daniels (81) breaks away from New England Patriots strong safety Steve Gregory (28) during the first half of the AFC divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Texans passing game on Sunday targeted their two tight ends 23 times: Texans tight end Owen Daniels led the way with 15 targets, 9 receptions and 81 yards; in addition, tight end James Casey had 6 targets and 3 receptions for 29 yards; finally, tight end Garrett Graham caught both his targeted passes for another 13 yards.  The Texans tight ends finished with 14 receptions for 123 yards working mostly between the linebackers and safeties of the Patriots. It can be viewed as a sign that the Texans use their tight ends a lot, or that wide receivers DeVier Posey and Kevin Walters are not very good second and third options behind star wide receiver Andre Johnson.

It can also be viewed that the Texans sniffed a mismatch, as they also had running back Arian Foster in quarterback Matt Schaub’s sights for 9 targets, 7 receptions and 63 yards and a touchdown.  Foster got the ball out of the backfield in space on multiple occasions last Sunday. The Patriots have long struggled to defend opposing tight ends in the middle of the field as they work between the zones of the safeties and linebackers.  When blitzing, as the Patriots began doing more of after acquiring cornerback Aqib Talib midway through the season, they often leave man coverage behind the blitz, with safeties Steve Gregory or Tavon Wilson matching up against the opposing tight end or running back. Depending on the call, Jerod Mayo or Dont’a Hightower have been matched-up one-on-one against a tight end or back.

For the most part, few teams other than the Patriots themselves or the Texans utilize the tight end to such an extent in the offense.  Baltimore will target their running back Ray Rice extensively in the passing game, as he has had over 60 receptions in the regular season each of the past four season. Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta topped 60 receptions this season and second tight end Ed Dickson is primarily a blocker,but has chipped in 4 receptions in the 2 postseason game so far for the Ravens.  While Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will target his top three wide receivers in the game, expect that the Patriots defense is noticing how many receptions were made to move the chains by Texans tight ends and running back last week.

Obviously, it is hard to criticize an offense that put up over 40 points on a top defense for the second time this season, and if they can put up close to that against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game on Sunday they will be in good shape. However, since their history against Baltimore tends to lean towards a hard-fought battle that comes down to the end of the game and turns on a few critical plays. By taking care of these issues from last week, they can improve the odds for victory and a trip back to the Super Bowl.

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