New England Patriots: Where the Team Must Improve Following Loss to Cardinals

Drew BonifantAnalyst IISeptember 21, 2012

New England Patriots: Where the Team Must Improve Following Loss to Cardinals

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    The New England Patriots could do no wrong in the season opener. A week later, it was a different story.

    It was only a two-point loss, but it really felt like the Patriots needed work in all areas of the game following the stunning defeat at the hands of the surprisingly game Arizona Cardinals. Even though the Patriots easily could have won, the inescapable feeling was that New England took a step back across the board.

    This week's a good one to get back on track. Up next are the Baltimore Ravens, in a Sunday night prime-time tilt. The Ravens are coming off a loss themselves, but they're still an elite team. A win would say a lot about the Patriots' mental toughness and go a long way, even this early in the season, to putting them back on the right track.

    To get this win, however, the Patriots have some areas to address. There's plenty about the Ravens to be concerned about, but New England has plenty to fix in-house in order to prevent a 1-2 start that, while not damaging to any playoff hopes, would be a truly shocking development.

Interior Offensive Line

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    Hardly a surprise here. It is, however, a change from the preseason, when the Patriots tackles were criticized following poor starts and lingering health problems for Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon.

    In Week 2, the tackles held up, but the guards collapsed. Darnell Dockett's and Calais Campbell's field days were a bad sign for the Patriots, especially with All-Pro tackle Haloti Ngata up next.

    Unfortunately, the anticipated solution isn't on the way. Brian Waters isn't coming back, at least not anytime soon. The Patriots have to find a way to make it work with the group on hand. The return of Dan Connolly, who was projected as a starter at either center or guard and was active for last week's game, will help that task.

Converting 3rd Downs

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    It felt like the Gillette Stadium field was more than 100 yards long Sunday. The Patriots would get a few plays going, but never seem to get within striking distance of the end zone. They simply couldn't sustain the promising starts.

    Tom Brady never misses a chance during his press conferences to mention the importance of getting to the end zone and finishing off drives with seven points, and five attempted field goals are a telltale sign of a failure to do so.

    The Patriots went 5-of-15 on third downs against Arizona. Sustaining drives is usually a strength of this offense, and defenses are usually scrambling for ways to get it off the field. New England, however, couldn't get out of its own way until it began to rally in the fourth.

    Failing to convert on third down can turn the most proficient offense into a bumbling unit. With a defense that looks promising but is still largely untested, the Patriots will have to be better than they were last week.

Finish the Sack

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    It's as agonizing a play as you can see your team commit. The blitz works, your defense breaks through, the quarterback is dead in the water...and then he slips out, scrambles to the side and fires a strike to a receiver who used those precious seconds to get open.

    So far, it's happened in both games for New England. The worst case was during a play that will likely go down in a film of lowlights for the year, as the Patriots had Kevin Kolb wrapped up before the beleaguered quarterback slipped away and got a throw off on the run to Todd Heap.

    The play went for 43 total yards, and featured a missed sack, a roughing the passer penalty, a missed tackle by Kyle Arrington on Heap and a late hit personal foul by Steve Gregory. Also, the play occurred during a normally innocuous 2nd-and-18 situation. Ouch.

    The Patriots also let one get away, though in far less blatant fashion, against Tennessee. Jake Locker's 29-yard third-quarter touchdown pass to Nate Washington came despite the rush of impressive rookie Chandler Jones, who got a hand on the second-year starter after breaking through up the middle.

    The play spoke more to the impressive throw and vision by Locker, but still, these are the plays the Patriots can't allow. Few reversals of fortune happen so quickly and so drastically as when a quarterback evades the rush. In literally seconds, the advantage shifts from being overwhelmingly in the defense's favor to being overwhelmingly in the offense's.

    For the Patriots' sake going forward, as they try to evolve into a top-flight defense, it's got to become the rule. When you get a chance at the quarterback, you've got to make good on it.

Deep Ball Accuracy

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    Tom Brady's deep accuracy came under siege again this week after he missed Brandon Lloyd and Rob Gronkowski on a pair of deep passes, a week after he failed to connect with a wide-open Lloyd for a score against Tennessee.

    Anyone who's watched Brady over the years will say that the deep pass has never been his forte, but he used to connect at a far better rate than he has been these days.

    There are plenty of explanations for why No. 12's long bombs have been finding the ground often. One is that, until Lloyd signed on this year, no one emerged as a true deep threat following Randy Moss's departure. The Patriots stocked themselves with receivers and tight ends who instead got open and ran good routes at the sticks.

    Another could be that inaccuracy deep remains a lingering effect of his 2008 knee injury. Brady did have an easier time connecting with Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch and Moss (all pre-injury receivers) than he has with a declining Moss, Brandon Tate, Aaron Hernandez and Lloyd, his deep threats following his return.

    And of course, this could all be a rust and inexperience issue. It has, after all, been only two games since the long offseason, and Brady and Lloyd, who also have the whole chemistry issue to get down pat, could still be rounding into form.

    Whatever the case, the deep ball has to return to this offense, especially with Hernandez out of the mix for the indefinite future.

Play-Calling

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    It didn't take long for Josh McDaniels to encounter his first negative feedback in his return to New England.

    One area where the new offensive coordinator has looked spotty is his play-calling. Two calls stand out in particular, and both were third-down runs at big points in the game, with the Patriots trailing.

    The first came on New England's final drive of the third quarter, with the Patriots down 13-9. On a 3rd-and-6 from the Arizona 30-yard line, the call was a pitch right to Danny Woodhead. The play may have been meant to be a flea flicker, but it never had a chance. Woodhead was blown up by Darnell Dockett for a 9-yard loss, and a field-goal chance went out the window.

    The second came on the next series, this time with New England down 20-9. On a 3rd-and-1 at the Arizona 39, the play called for Stevan Ridley to go right on a sweep. Again, the play blew up in the Patriots' face, for a loss of four yards. Again, no points.

    That was, by a conservative estimate, at least six points up in smoke. In the end, it made a difference.

    The calls were bizarre and maddening. They seemed to be the worst ideas for the situation. The first took the situation's saving grace, field-goal range, and put it on the line. The second was a play drawn up for big yardage when the situation screamed for a more basic approach. When you need one yard, you don't start by going backward.

    These are the mistakes the Patriots won't be able to afford against Baltimore, or many other teams going forward. It's hard enough to manage an offensive game plan. The gimme calls can't be screwed up, too.