The anticipation is almost over. The New England Patriots will open their season this weekend at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo where they will be playing for their 10th straight season opening win. As we look forward to the 2013 season, it’s worth considering what the key factors to the Patriots success will be this season. A lot has changed with this team and with so many new pieces in place, it will be interesting to see just how long it will take the 2013 Patriots to develop their identity. Bill Belichick’s team has had great success over the past few seasons with a Super Bowl appearance in 2011 and an impressive performance in 2012 that landed them in the AFC Championship Game. Unfortunately for Belichick and the Patriots organization, they have been unable to rekindle the magic of their dynasty years and bring home that elusive fourth Lombardi trophy. Whether 2013 will be different for Brady and Belichick will largely depend on the answers to the following key questions:
1. How well will the offense adapt?
Gone is Wes Welker. Gone is Aaron Hernandez. Gone is Danny Woodhead. Gone are Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch. All-world tight end Rob Gronkowski is still recovering from multiple offseason surgeries. Of Tom Brady’s 2012 pass catchers, only Julian Edelman will be available in the season opener. In their place are an exciting group of rookies in Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, and Zach Sudfeld. Free agent acquisition Danny Amendola anchors the receiving corps having never caught a regular season pass from Tom Brady. To say there are questions about how this unit will perform is an understatement.
Throughout training camp and preseason the young receivers have impressed. Kenbrell Thompkins is poised to be an immediate contributor and will be as successful as he is reliable as Tom Brady will feed him the ball so long as he continues to catch and protect the football. The running game should take some pressure off the Patriots young receivers and the ability of Shane Vereen to emerge as a consistent pass catcher could also help. But make no mistake, the Patriots offense will sink or swim with how this unit performs. If they falter early on, look for the Patriots to scramble to acquire a veteran wide receiver quickly. If there is any quarterback that can make this work, though, it’s Tom Brady, who has shown an amazing ability throughout his career to plug and play offensive weapons. This could be his biggest challenge.
2. How much can the Patriots defense improve?
As prolific as the Patriots offense has been over the past few years, their defensive struggles have often tarnished that offensive production. What made the Patriots defense so great throughout their championship years is really what has fueled its demise recently. When Bill Belichick and company were hoisting Lombardi trophies every year, they relied on veteran defenders at nearly every defensive skill position. When these players began to depart, the organization was simply not able to fill the holes at the same pace (a few dreadful drafts contributed to this problem). Young, inexperienced players struggled with coverage schemes, were unable to generate a consistent pass rush and, as a result, the defense has often been the team’s Achilles’ heel.
The Patriots did show improvement on defense last season. They were solid at defending the run (ninth in the NFL) and showed improvements in the secondary as the season progressed. In 2013, this trend will need to continue for them to meet the expectations of the organization and fans. The most improved area is likely to be the pass rush as second-year defensive end Chandler Jones gets more comfortable with his role in the defense and veteran Tommy Kelly provides more pressure on the interior of the defensive line. But what will really define the success of the defense will be the play of the secondary. While the Pats secondary should be better with a full season of Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, the ability of the starters to stay healthy and rookies like Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon to provide reliable depth will determine how effective this unit will be.
3. Can key players on offense and defense stay healthy?
The Patriots have some solid veterans at skill positions on offense and defense, but they are also a very young football team. A key to the success of any team is whether or not its players can stay healthy, but this is even more important for a team like New England that depends on youth so much for depth. The Patriots need their veteran players with injury histories on the field if they’re going to compete for another Lombardi trophy. The three most important players for the Patriots in this regard are Rob Gronkowski, Aqib Talib, and Danny Amendola. If these three players can stay healthy, the Patriots will be in great shape. If not, they will be relying on untested rookies to get the job done and in the NFL that is frequently a recipe for disaster.
4. Can they win the big game?
The Patriots have been extremely successful over the past three seasons, but each year they have come up short when it mattered most. As both Greg Bedard and Peter King discuss in Sports Illustrated’s preview of the 2013 season, without an outside threat at receiver the Patriots have been reliant on making plays in the middle of the field – sometimes too reliant. Over the past few years, the best defenses in the league were able to game plan to this weakness and make the Patriots offense one-dimensional. We saw this in 2010 in their playoff loss to the Jets, in the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, and particularly last year in the playoff loss to the Ravens.
The Patriots think they have answers to this problem in 2013. All three rookie wide receivers (Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce) have the potential to line up at the X position and challenge defenses vertically. In addition, Danny Amendola is more of a deep threat than Wes Welker. While this all sounds good on paper, the regular season will be the proving ground for Josh McDaniels’ new offense. If these players succeed and defenses have to respect the Patriots vertically, we could see a different outcome when the Patriots match up against the premier teams in the league in games that determine championships.