The New England Patriots sit at the midpoint of the 2013 season with a better won-loss record than in 2012 when they rolled to the AFC Championship Game. Last season, the Patriots rode a strong second half on offense behind wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, tight end Rob Gronkowski (tight end Aaron Hernandez was graded 50th out of 62 NFL tight ends last season–he must have had some mysterious distractions affecting his play), and the power running of running back Stevan Ridley and receiving skills of third down back Danny Woodhead.
In 2013, despite being 6-2 compared to 5-3 at this point last season, the Patriots offense has suffered mightily: Top wide receiver Danny Amendola has struggled with injuries and only played 187 snaps over eight games; a pair of rookies (Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins) and a converted college quarterback/former seventh round draft pick (Julian Edelman) have carried the load; Tight end Rob Gronkowski has been limited to eighty-six snaps so far this season; Tight end Aaron Hernandez suits up only in a prison jumpsuit; Ridley has been limited by injuries, fumbles, and curious playing-time choices by coaches while third down back Shane Vereen has only played 57 snaps due to injury.
Without these offensive weapons, the team leaned heavily on its defense and particularly their four veterans defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, linebacker Jerod Mayo, and cornerback Aqib Talib. Unfortunately, these four have been injured and Mayo and Wilfork lost for the season. In their place, the team has leaned on a pair of undrafted defensive tackles Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and rookie cornerback Logan Ryan to pick up the slack on defense.
The defense carried the Patriots early as cornerback Aqib Talib particularly was playing at a Pro Bowl level prior to his recent hip injury sidelining him. Also in the secondary, safety Devin McCourty has quietly blossomed into New England’s best defender. Considering the disarray of the position the last few seasons, seeing McCourty as the top rated safety in the NFL to date (16.2 overall rating per ProFootballFocus.com–almost five points higher than the second ranked safety) is surprising but explains how the defense has been able to maintain its high-level performance.
In fact, playing next to McCourty has revitalized fellow safety Steve Gregory who is rated 14th tied with such well-regarded safeties like Kam Chancellor of Seattle and William Moore of Atlanta. To put in further in context, much lauded free agents of the offseason Dashon Goldson and Ed Reed rank 69th and 73rd out of 85 safeties league-wide. Add in some very good coverage skills showed by rookie safety Duron Harmon in limited play and the safety position seems to be a strength.
There was also a mid-season trade executed to boost the defense as the Patriots scooped up who they hope to be their next Keith Traylor/Ted Washington, defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, from the Philadelphia Eagles. Sopoaga gives a veteran big body to the middle of the defense that has been lacking since the team lost veteran Vince Wilfork to an achilles injury. Sopoaga allows Chris Jones and Joe Vellano to split snaps until Tommy Kelly returns. While the playing time will be good for their development, the Patriots need run stopping immediately after being run over in the first half by Miami’s anemic rushing offense.
One of the few strengths of the team has been the offensive line. Left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer have both been dominant in pass protection and run blocking this season. Unfortunately, New England lost Vollmer to a broken right leg last Sunday against Miami and his return this season is in question. On the interior of the line, the results have been less stellar. Guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have been inconsistent and center Ryan Wendell has been a sieve in pass protection. New England needs the interior linemen to step up as unproven tackle Marcus Cannon will be taking over for the foreseeable future at right tackle in Vollmer’s place.