New England Patriots: 5 Questions on the Mind of Every Pats Fan in 2012

James Ermilio@jimmyermilioCorrespondent IIIAugust 9, 2012

New England Patriots: 5 Questions on the Mind of Every Pats Fan in 2012

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    Charles Kettering, inventor of the electric ignition system, once said, "High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation."

    There may not be a more apt test of his hypothesis than the 2012-13 New England Patriots' season.

    Last year, in what was arguably the greatest non-championship season in his Hall of Fame career, New England Patriots coach/GM Bill Belichick took a fundamentally-flawed team and brought them to within minutes of a Super Bowl title. 

    This offseason, Belichick strengthened his team's biggest weaknesses by signing deep-threat WR Brandon Lloyd and bolstering his defense through the draft and free agency.  Now, a team that came a few plays from the Lombardi Trophy is considered the prohibitive favorite to return to the Super Bowl. 

    Still, the road from training camp to the championship is an arduous one, and the AFC competition has improved since last year.  If the Patriots hope to cement QB Tom Brady's (and Belichick's) legacy by bringing home a fourth Super Bowl title, they will need some dominoes to fall in their favor.  

    With that in mind, take a look at five things that Pats' fans will be looking out for this season, in order for the hometown team to fulfill its lofty, Super Bowl-or-bust expectations.

1) How Will the Offensive Line Hold Up?

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    As cliche as it sounds, the Pats' offensive line has the potential to be the Achilles' heel of an otherwise unstoppable offense.

    The O-line was strong last year, but heads into the 2012 season missing four starting linemen.  LT Matt Light announced his retirement back in April, leaving a gaping hole at one of the most important offensive positions.  RT Sebastian Vollmer is currently on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform list) with a back injury. 

    Meanwhile, Pro Bowl-caliber LG Logan Mankins is still rehabbing from ACL surgery, and last year's premier free-agent pickup, RG Brian Waters, has yet to report to camp.  

    The key to the Patriots O-line is second-year Nate Solder.  Solder, a 2011 first-round draft pick, performed well at RT last season with Vollmer on the shelf, but will now be asked to cover Tom Brady's blindside at LT.  

    For the offensive line to hold up, the Pats will need Solder to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon him.  They would also benefit from Waters' return, along with a resurgence from C Dan Koppen (who spent most of last year on IR) and continued stable play from C/G Dan Connolly (who filled in admirably once Koppen went down).

    The Patriots do have an ace up their sleeve in offensive-line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Scarnecchia, who in the past turned journeymen like Russ Hochstein into serviceable starters, has a longstanding reputation as the top line coach in football.  

    Scarnecchia's ability to coach up an offensive line, coupled with Tom Brady's quick decision-making and release, should help to ensure that the Patriots' O-line issues do not become a fatal flaw. 

2) Will the Defense Improve?

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    Critics of last year's team love to harp on its 31st-ranked defense and point to the lack of a marquee signing this offseason as an indication that the Pats' defensive woes will continue.

    The strength of last year's defense was the line, and many believe that the departure of DEs Mark Anderson (10 sacks) and the decision not to re-sign Andre Carter (who also had 10 sacks) will lead to an even more vulnerable defense in 2012.  

    It's a reasonable question as to whether the Patriots did enough to address their defensive woes this offseason.  Still, Belichick dedicated most of his available resources to the defense, including six of his seven draft picks.  

    First rounders DE/OLB Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower look ready to contribute immediately (with particularly strong praise directed at Jones' advanced pass-rush moves during training camp) and third-rounder Jake Bequette could be a strong situational rusher on passing downs. Free agents Trevor Scott (he's versatile) and Jonathan Fanene (he's disruptive) will also aid the Patriots front-seven.

    The Patriots did more than improve their pass-rushing, however: by drafting safety Tavon Wilson and CB Alfonzo Dennard and acquiring Steve Gregory as their starting safety through free agency, the Pats look much deeper in the secondary.  

    If starting cornerback Devin McCourty can recover from a sophomore slump, and 2011 draft pick Ras-I Dowling can stay on the field, the Patriots will have plenty of depth and talent to counter the NFL's increasingly pass-heavy league.

3) Who Will Be the Feature Back?

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    The Pats have struggled to find a running back with the burst and consistency to carry the rushing load since Corey Dillon retired in 2006.  

    For the last few years, their offense has been perfectly adequate with RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis shouldering the burden.  Green-Ellis, who departed for a three-year deal with the Bengals this offseason, was a dependable back who rarely got caught dancing in the backfield (unlike his predecessor, Laurence Maroney) and never fumbled in his career. 

    Still, he lacked the burst to be a big-play threat in the NFL, and defenses rarely had to account for the possibility of his breaking free for a big run. 

    Now, with fellow 2011 draftees Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen on the roster, the Patriots hope to showcase a new level of explosiveness from their running backs in order to keep defensive linemen honest in their pursuit of Tom Brady.

    Ridley, who is projected to be the starting back, averaged 5.1 yards per-carry last season but lost the trust of Belichick in the playoffs when he fumbled in the divisional game against Denver.  He has good vision, a quick burst between the tackles and the strength to shake off hits, but he needs to improve his ball protection if he wants consistent touches.

    Vereen is a small back with a surprisingly proficient inside game: he hits the lane decisively and is tough to bring down.  He will likely play a bigger role this season with the return of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who values running-back screens more than the prior OC, Bill O'Brien.  Vereen's toughness and shiftiness will make him a valuable receiving threat out of the backfield.

    Undrafted free-agent Brandon Bolden is on the roster bubble and has impressed during training camp.  He can make defenders miss with his sharp jukes, but lacks the skill between the tackles required of an every-down back.

    With these three young guns and veteran RB Danny Woodhead (he's quick, tough to bring down and can catch passes out of the backfield,) the Patriots should have an improved running game, even if there is no true featured back. 

4) What Happened to Devin McCourty?

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    CB Devin McCourty's star has fallen far in a very short period of time, with little explanation as to why.

    McCourty was the best defensive back on the Patriots in 2010, earning second-team All-Pro honors.  Most observers expected him to take a step forward in 2011, with some anticipating his becoming one of the league's premier corners. 

    Instead, he took a huge step back: left without safety help against top WRs, McCourty was torched. According to Nuggetpalooza, McCourty gave up 1,115 receiving yards last year, second-most in the NFL.  

    Though he is decent at staying with his man in coverage, McCourty consistently gets burned because he hasn't developed a habit of turning his head to look for the incoming pass. He has looked bad again in training camp this year, with several of the Pats WRs beating him for big plays. 

    As sad as it is to witness the struggles of a player just one year removed from a great season, fans need to be patient with McCourty, as the Patriots try to find a way to fix his technique issues or put him in a situation where his flaws won't be exposed.

    McCourty may actually be best suited to a safety role this year. As a safety, he can play a roaming zone, with his body facing the quarterback so he can make a play on balls thrown near him. If he has to move off of the cornerback position, Pats fans must hope that CBs Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington, Will Allen and Alfonzo Dennard can pick up the slack.

5) Will Gronk Recover from Ankle Surgery?

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    "Gronk" is a physical freak, but even that won't stop fans from worrying about the state of his ankle. 

    TE Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a high ankle sprain after a tackle by Bernard Pollard in the AFC Championship Game last season, is a huge part of the Patriots' offensive scheme. Gronk set NFL records for tight ends in receiving yards (1327) and touchdown catches (17), and his elite run-blocking and pass-protection skills make him an incredibly valuable player.  He has the size and technique to maul players coming off the line, and presents a match-up nightmare in coverage, where he's too big for safeties and corners and too fast for linebackers.

    It seems, in some ways, as if the Pats relied on him too much last year.

    As we saw in Super Bowl XLVI, however, a hobbled Gronk tends to lead to a stagnant offense. If he is unable to recover from offseason ankle surgery enough to gain separation, the Patriots could be in trouble. Teams could opt to double-cover their other weapons, neutralizing Brady's quick passing attack and putting the Patriots offense in check.

    Fortunately for Pats' fans, the signing of WR Brandon Lloyd opens up the offense by forcing defenders to put a safety over the top, rather than clogging the middle to stifle Gronkowski, fellow TE Aaron Hernandez and WR Wes Welker. With an open field that keeps defenders honest, Gronk should be poised to rack up big numbers again in 2012-13. 

    That is, if his ankle stays intact.