For a team that has five wins and two losses, the New England Patriots have more questions than answers at this stage in the season. It’s not a familiar situation for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but it’s where they find themselves after seven weeks of regular season play. The Patriots have historically improved as seasons have progressed, but they have not historically faced as much adversity as they have in 2013. As the team prepares for its week eight matchup against the Miami Dolphins, let’s take a closer look at the major concerns Bill Belichick and the Patriots must confront if they want to realistically compete in the AFC going forward.
1. The Lack of an Offensive Identity
The travails of the Patriots young wide receivers are well documented, but the problems with the passing game go far beyond the challenge of rookies learning on the job. The Patriots have not once had the offense they hoped to feature on the field to this point in the season. The three offensive players the team hoped to rely on most in 2013 (not named Tom Brady) were Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen, and Rob Gronkowski. All have all missed significant time and they have yet to take the field together this season. As one might expect, the lack of consistent personnel on offense has crippled the team’s ability to develop an offensive identity. Not knowing who will be on the field has affected New England’s consistency in play calling. If the Patriots expect to establish anything resembling the offensive rhythm they’ve had in recent years, Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels will have to work harder to establish some consistency in play calling, regardless of who’s on the field each week. If they don’t, this offense will continue to lack identity and, more importantly, the confidence they need to be successful against NFL competition.
2. Poor Offensive Line Play
Inconsistency has not been a hallmark of Dante Scarnecchia coached offensive lines, but there’s no denying that the 2013 unit has struggled to keep their quarterback comfortable in the pocket. Against the Jets, the offensive line only seemed to be able to give Tom Brady the time he needed to find receivers when the defense only rushed three. While Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, and Sebastian Vollmer have generally contained pressure directed their way, the Patriots have not be consistent at controlling interior rushes. Both Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly have struggled thus far this season and the team can’t expect Brady and the offense to find an effective rhythm if they can’t consistently protect their quarterback. This problem is not likely to persist for New England, however, as Scarnecchia will either find a way to inspire better play out of the Patriots interior offensive lineman or look for others to make more consistent contributions in pass protection.
3. Consistency in the Running Game
Thus far, the Patriots have shied away from consistently featuring a running back, whether that’s Stevan Ridley or Brandon Bolden. In addition, Josh McDaniels and the Patriots offense seem too quick to abandon the run when trailing in games. The Patriots were actually more effective at running the football than the Jets were on Sunday (4.5 yards per carry versus 3.5 yards per carry), but it was the commitment Rex Ryan and the New York Jets showed to the run that actually made the difference in the game (only 20 carries for the Patriots versus 52 for the Jets).
Steven Ridley is too talented to only carry the ball 11 times in a game. With the passing attack struggling, the Patriots would be well suited to rely more heavily on Ridley and not be so fast to abandon the run when trailing. Against the Jets, the Patriots threw the ball 46 times compared with only 20 carries. They simply must have more balance on offense. Only then can the team expect to establish the consistency necessary for its offense to click.
4. Stopping the Run without Wilfork and Mayo
If you had to pick two players on defense that the Patriots could not afford to lose, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo would have been most people’s choices. In Wilfork and Mayo, the Patriots had two of the best and most consistent run defenders in the NFL. Unfortunately, as a result of injuries, both players have seen their last action in 2013. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have played better than many expected in Wilfork’s absence, but both players are more adept pass rushers than they are run stuffers. Brandon Spikes has been the primary beneficiary thus far in Mayo’s absence, seeing much more action with the pro-bowl linebacker out for the season. Spikes’ presence was apparent early in Sunday’s game against the Jets, but he’s not nearly as fast as Mayo and thus doesn’t come close to covering as much of the field has his injured teammate. The Jets’ Chris Ivory was able to rattle off some big runs for the Jets on Sunday and seemed to carry the ball the best when the Jets needed it most. The Jets ended up with 177 rushing yards in total and are only the first team to try and test the Patriots run defense in the absence of Wilfork and Mayo. With Mayo and Wilfork out, The Patriots will have to adapt to be more effective against the run as opponents will focus more on running to the interior of the Patriots defensive line knowing that the team is without two of its best defenders.
5. Will Tom Brady improve?
Let’s be brutally honest: this is not the hall of fame quarterback we’re used to watching. Brady is having the worst season of his career. Nearly half way through the 2013 season, Brady’s numbers are so bad that fans have started to wonder whether he will ever recapture the magic that led to multiple Super Bowl and league MVP awards. He’s completed only 55 percent of his passes, good for 29th in the league. His passes are going for an average of only 6 yards per attempt, good for 30th in the league. He is sporting a quarterback rating of 75, 26th in the league. His struggles go far beyond the introduction of new players on offense. He is forcing passes, making slower reads, and not anticipating defenses anywhere close to the level he has throughout his career. If the Patriots are to be true contenders this year, it will take a serious improvement in the play of their quarterback.
Brady’s improvement and the team’s ability to address these other areas of major concern is what will determine just how successful the Patriots are likely to be throughout the rest of the season.