5 Ways the New England Patriots Can Reinvent Themselves This Year
The New England Patriots aren't likely to change their style anytime soon. Of course, there's not much reason to.
When you're coming off of a Super Bowl appearance and division title after division title, changing your style usually isn't high on the to-do list.
But there's a difference between overhauling and tweaking said style. The Patriots, at this point in the offseason, have one of the NFL's most complete rosters, which gives them the ability to add layers to their own versatility.
As far as the Patriots went last year, they didn't do so by relying on versatility. New England had a game plan and stuck with it. The Patriots were going to pass, and it was up to the opponent to stop it. If teams could, they'd win. If they couldn't, the Patriots would win. Rinse and repeat.
But there are dimensions the Patriots can add to their arsenal this season. The Patriots won't be overhauling themselves anytime soon, but there are several ways they can become more balanced.
Feature the Running Game
The Patriots shouldn't turn themselves into the Jerome Bettis-led Pittsburgh Steelers. When you have Tom Brady throwing the ball to Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd, "ground and pound," rightfully so, goes out the window, especially in this pass-happy NFL.
But the Patriots have the pieces in the running game for the ground attack to become a weapon. And contrary to his reputation, the man calling the shots on offense has a history of letting that happen.
Josh McDaniels is considered the master of the high-octane aerial assault, especially after his time at the helm of the record-breaking 2007 New England offense.
But McDaniels also called the plays for the '08 offense, which finished fourth in the NFL in rushing attempts and sixth in yards. New England was forced to turn to the ground while Matt Cassel experienced early growing pains during his filling in for Tom Brady, but regardless, McDaniels showed that he can use the pieces in the running game when he has them.
This year, he has them. The Patriots have a back for every role. Shane Vereen is good in the passing game. Stevan Ridley is a more powerful, grinding back (with, as was shown last year, surprising explosiveness). Joseph Addai, long a thorn in the Patriots' side while at Indianapolis, has been able to do a little of both. Danny Woodhead is a threat on draws and screens.
The Patriots can have a running game that is more than an afterthought. Last year, New England often seemed to give its ground attack a few token carries. This year, the Patriots can let it blend more seamlessly into the offensive system.
Come out with Run-Friendly Lines
It's one thing to call the running backs' number more often, but there's another part to featuring the ground game more.
The offensive sets have to be tailored that way as well.
The Patriots have a deep offensive line built for this purpose. They're loaded at tackle and guard, and they also have one of the best blocking tight ends in the game in Rob Gronkowski.
If the Patriots want to use their tackle depth to set up the running backs, they can do that. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer (if he's healthy) are primed for the starting tackle spots, but Marcus Cannon is a starting-caliber player looking for a role.
The Patriots could decide to set up their running game by putting three tackles on the line—possible if they put one at tight end like they did with Solder often last year. Of course, with Gronkowski lined up, making the commitment to overload on blockers sometimes isn't necessary.
Tight end sets are nothing new with the Patriots, but featuring extra linemen would be. With a quality backfield, however, such an option could reap rewards.
Develop a Pass Rush
It's been years since the Patriots had a vicious pass rush. New England's had some players with impressive statistics (Mark Anderson and Andre Carter with 10 sacks last year, Tully Banta-Cain with 10 in 2009), but it's been a while since the defense as a whole was a snarling, nasty unit.
That can change this year. New England went out and got defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower in the first round of the draft, as well as defensive end Jake Bequette in the third.
This is the most impressive rookie crop of pass-rushers the Patriots have entered the preseason with under Bill Belichick, and it's a group that joins a team that already has Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo (who'll likely have more pass-rushing opportunities with Brandon Spikes and Hightower inside) and maybe Andre Carter.
If Hightower, who has pass-rushing skills, and Jones, a more raw prospect, can cash in on their potential quickly, the Patriots could go into 2012 with their most dangerous pass-rushing crew in years. It would add a new element to this New England team, and certainly make it fun to watch when Tom Brady and Co. head to the sideline.
Groom a Tough Secondary
The Patriots' pass defense was a running joke for most of last year. The defense never became a shutdown crew, but by the playoffs, New England had found an ability to take what it had and turn it into a group that could at least get the job done.
This year, the members of the New England secondary can take the next step in their improvement, which would do a lot to alter the reputation of the defense as a whole.
The Patriots have the players needed to pull this off—or so it appears. Devin McCourty is still in the team's plans as a starting corner, as is former second-round pick Ras-I Dowling. Kyle Arrington proved himself to be a quality defensive back last year, and Sterling Moore had a few brilliant plays at corner, especially in the postseason.
The Patriots also invested draft capital—albeit with low picks—at the position, as Nate Ebner was taken in the sixth round and Alfonzo Dennard was grabbed in the seventh. Safety remains an iffy spot with Steve Gregory and second-round pick Tavon Wilson the big additions, but the secondary is clearly in a better spot than it's been in recent seasons.
If the improvement continues, the Patriots could be a tough team to pass on for the first time in years.
Get the Return Game Going
As capable as the Patriots were at scoring points and going deep into enemy territory last year, they had to rely on their offense to do the work.
That may sound like an obvious statement, but the focus is on what it doesn't say. New England, in other words, never got much help from its return game.
Sure, Julian Edelman had a punt return for a touchdown against Kansas City, but it was the proverbial flash in the pan. The Patriots were mediocre—if that—on kickoffs and punts. They were 16th in the NFL in punt return average and 29th—29th!—in kick return average.
The Patriots could gain a whole new dimension if they figure out how to make teams sweat on kickoffs. Danny Woodhead, Matthew Slater and Edelman didn't scare anyone on kick returns.
But the solution could be in house. Devin McCourty was a dangerous return man while at Rutgers, and though that was one of his biggest attributes going into the draft, the Patriots have scarcely used him in that capacity.
Perhaps, as a first-round pick, he was too valuable to throw into the dangerous world of bringing back kicks. It makes sense, especially when McCourty went on to be named All-Pro at corner in his rookie season, but with the return unit clearly looking for help, it might be time for him to show his stuff.
Who knows? If McCourty can give Brady a few drives at the 35-yard line instead of the 20, this Patriots offense could become even more lethal.