The New England Patriots head into the bye week with a 7-2 record and a two game lead in the AFC East. With the Miami Dolphins up to their elbows in the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito hazing/bullying/extortion scandal, the Buffalo Bills desperately trying to get any quarterback to stay healthy, and the New York Jets trying to keep winning without any consistent passing offense, the Patriots are in position to fight for a top seed in the playoffs with a strong second half as their offense returns to health. The offense had best be healthy, as defenders keep getting injured at an alarming pace. With the bye week coming up, it is the perfect time for a look back at three under-the-radar key issues to date:
1. For the offense, two key weapons have been on the field for only a combined 71 snaps: third down/passing backs Shane Vereen and Leon Washington. With those two missing for most of the season and Danny Woodhead in San Diego, there is a major–often not discussed–element of the offense that is causing major problems with third down conversions: the outlet pass to the running back on third down.
With Brandon Bolden miscast in that role, he had two huge drops against the Saints and Bengals that wiped out a potential big play and a potential first down at key points of the game. While Shane Vereen was spectacular in that role in the first two games before getting injured, since he went down the Patriots have not had someone to fill that role. Leon Washington was supposed to be Vereen’s backup, but he has been injured more than Vereen and hardly contributed at all.
For all the talk of missing tight end Rob Gronkowski to injury and with wide receiver Wes Welker in Denver and with wide receiver Danny Amendola lost for an extended period to injury earlier in the season preventing a reliable option for third down, it was the third down/passing running back that was missing. Going back to the Kevin Faulk days, the running back has been a potent third down receiving option for the entire Belichick era in the offense. This more than anything has been a problem for the Patriots on third down.
2. The offensive line has had problems through nine weeks. While left tackle Nate Solder has played at a Pro Bowl level (currently ranked first by ProFootballFocus.com in the NFL for all tackles with a +19.8 rating), the team lost a big piece of the puzzle with right tackle Sebastian Vollmer out for the season. Vollmer was almost as effective as Solder, and backup Marcus Cannon has big shoes to fill on the right side.
The big problem has been the interior of the line with left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, and right guard Dan Connolly. The three of them have struggled in pass blocking, which is not a big surprise since the three have been adequate in that role and shined in run blocking. This season, however, all three have taken a big step back. While Mankins has remained a mauler in the running game, Connolly and Wendell have been below average.
While having running back Stevan Ridley injured for a bit earlier in the season, the lack of effective interior line play against strong defensive fronts has held back that aspect of the Patriots offense than anything else. While the Patriots are still tenth in the league in rushing yards per game (129.1), the team did struggle at times.
Against the Bengals with the offense at its worst, the running game only gained 82 yards with Stevan Ridley out injured. In their first matchup against the Jets (another team with a strong run defense), the Patriots only gained 54 yards rushing. In their second matchup and loss, the Patriots only mustered 90 yards on the ground. Without a consistent running game, a third down back, and their big tight end, it was no wonder the offense struggled so much in the first half of the season.
3. One player for New England’s defense who was expected to have a big season was defensive end Chandler Jones. After a promising rookie season was derailed by injuries in the second half of the season, Jones came back seemingly stronger and more explosive in training camp. However, until last week against Pittsburgh’s weakened offensive line, although picking up eight sacks in eight games, Jones was not the disruptive force everyone expected. While he still had flashes of dominance, his inability to take the step to being a premier pass rushing force has been one of the biggest disappointments of the first half of the season for New England.
Against Miami the week prior, Jones was shut down against former Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie with no sacks, quarterback hits or pressures. While going against Steelers tackles Kelvin Beachum, Marcus Gilbert, and Mike Adams, Jones finally broke out with two sacks, a hit and four quarterback hurries, making himself a menace in the Pittsburgh backfield.
With fellow end Rob Ninkovich leaving the game last week with a foot injury, it only highlighted the need for Jones to continue to come up big in the second half. Too many times this season, Jones has disappeared for extended periods of time when the defense needed a big play. For the Patriots to keep up their winning ways, the team needs to come up with some big defensive plays in the coming games against the explosive offenses of Cam Newton and Carolina and Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
Despite sitting at 7-2, the Patriots have a lot of work to do still before the playoffs start. With two tough matchups coming up in prime time after the bye week, these are just a few of the under-the-radar issues that the Patriots need to resolve to stay on track in the second half of the season. With the return of health of a key offensive weapons like running back Shane Vereen, some improved play by the interior offensive line, and some consistent disruptive play by defensive end Chandler Jones, the Patriots should be in position to take control of the AFC East and position themselves for another run in the postseason.