It is hard to believe that only four months ago all the New England Patriots talk was about safety Adrian Wilson (now out on injured reserve for the season), Aaron Hernandez being “investigated” in the death of a known associate near his house (that did not blow up or anything into a bigger story than anyone could have believed at the time), rookie free agents T.J. Moe (injured reserve) and Zach Sudfeld (released and now a New York Jet), Russian Premier Vladimir Putin and Patriots owner Bob Kraft’s super bowl ring, and at that time it was all Tim Tebow all the time. Fortunately, all that offseason noise is behind the Patriots, and now after six weeks in the season, the focus is finally squarely on the games themselves. Dusting off the offseason “pick six” format for a quick preview of the New England Patriots and New York Jets matchup this afternoon.
1. The big news was tight end Rob Gronkowski and his traveling with the team to face the Jets. While physically cleared to play, the important factor for Gronkowski is the mental aspect of returning from injury: the first time he lands on his arm, his first time at the bottom of a pile, his first time having to lower his shoulder and take a big hit right on the forearm, and his first time taking a big hit in his surgically-repaired back.
What Gronkowski contributes first and foremost is the alluring red zone target he provides for quarterback Tom Brady. For Brady, seeing his six-foot-seven-inch target should light up his eyes like seeing wife Gisele Bundchen in lingerie. Expect Gronkowski to be his most dangerous running vertical routes in the middle of the field getting off the line and splitting the Jets linebackers and safeties.
2. Another beneficiary of Gronkowski’s return is running back Stevan Ridley. Last season, Gronkowski was rated fourth overall by ProFootballFocus.com (PFF) in run blocking at the tight end position (departed tight end Daniel Fells was sixth). With the return of Gronkowski, the run blocking should take a step forward and create more seams for Ridley. While Ridley finally looked like his 2012 version last week against New Orleans, he somehow had a great game behind some spotty blocking. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was graded -3.4 by PFF and fullback James Develin graded out at -2.0 by PFF for the game. Getting Ridley going is a way to get the passing game going with play-action.
3. A by-product of injuries on the offense is the increased role of running back Brandon Bolden in the third-down/passing back role in place of injured Shane Vereen, injured back-up Leon Washington, and departed former mainstay at the position, Danny Woodhead, who went to San Diego as a free agent in the offseason. Bolden was a breakout contributor as a rookie free agent last year providing a hard-charging change-of-pace behind Stevan Ridley. Bolden even contributed a 100+ yard game against Buffalo before landing in the doghouse after a four game PED suspension.
Running back Brandon Bolden has had huge drops against Cincinnati and New Orleans that negatively affected the game. Against the Bengals, he dropped a screen pass on a fake end-around with two blockers and one defender (already engaged by the wide receiver) in front of him. A big play went for naught. Last week against the Saints when the offense took over with 3:29 to play Bolden dropped a second-and-six screen pass that may have extended the drive right there. Instead, the team turned the ball over on downs and needed more heroics than they should have to win.
Bolden needs to get under control and make the catch before looking upfield. His inexperience in the role is evident, but in his defense he is third-string. The return of Shane Vereen will be a big boost (as Leon Washington should be to the kick return game in place of ineffective Legarrette Blount), but in the interim Bolden must eliminate mistakes and be a dependable weapon. Today, the hard-charging Jets defense will be vulnerable to screens and running backs slipping out of the backfield, and Bolden must put his drops behind him and make some big plays in the passing game.
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