New England Patriots State of the Union: Where Do They Stand Headed into Week 5?

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IOctober 2, 2012

After a shaky start, the league's best quarterback-head coach combo picked things up and got back to .500.
After a shaky start, the league's best quarterback-head coach combo picked things up and got back to .500.Elsa/Getty Images

At some point at the end of the season, we may look back on the game against the Buffalo Bills as the "turning point" for the New England Patriots in 2012.

With their backs against a wall, down 21-7 early in the third quarter and facing a potential 1-3 start to the season, the Patriots kicked it into high gear to score 45 points in the final 23 minutes of regulation.

The Patriots' two losses were by a total of three points, while their wins have been by a total of 45 points.

What do we make of a team that has looked so dominant at times and has struggled at other times? Let's recap where things stand with a State of the Union address.


The Rhythm of Life (On Offense)

It's a powerful beat; it puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet.

That tingling sensation initially was the numbness of an offense that seemed to have lost its heartbeat when tight end Aaron Hernandez went down with an injury.

Once the Patriots started feeling the tingle in their fingers in the second half against the Bills, though, they didn't look back until they had scored 42 unanswered points, with seven consecutive scoring drives and six consecutive touchdown drives.

Talk about rhythm.

The Patriots are loaded with skill position talent, but without Hernandez, it looked like they might struggle. There were some lulls—almost the entire game against the Cardinals, in the fourth quarter against the Ravens and in the first half against the Bills—but since losing their tight end, they have found stride. Here are some notable figures.

  • The Patriots scored on six of their first eight drives against the Ravens, including two straight touchdown drives of nine and 12 plays. 
  • The Patriots scored on seven consecutive drives in the second half against the Bills, with touchdowns on six of those drives.
  • In the past three games, the Patriots have had 21 out of 39 drives last six or more plays (53.8) and have scored touchdowns on eight, kicked a field goal on six and punted on five of those drives. Two more times, they missed a field goal.

The Patriots offense is based on executing short plays all the way up the field.

That is why phasing Wes Welker out of the offense seems like such an inauspicious move.

Timing routes, underneath patterns and quick passes have been the bread and butter of this offense for years. Brady and Welker went to work against the Bills, exploiting the soft coverage in the underneath zones.

The above play picked up nine yards, as Welker was able to get to the sideline and nearly picked up the first down.

The play here went for 23 yards. For a pass that's less than five yards off the line of scrimmage, that's a pretty big return.

Both of these receptions came in the second half, as the Patriots looked to build momentum by riding quick passes and picking up yards after the catch.

He had six of his nine receptions in the second half against the Bills, which may or may not be all the evidence you need of exactly how important he is to the success of the offense.

Regardless, the fact that this offense has moved the ball so well in the absence of Hernandez, and continued to do so this week in the absence of guard Logan Mankins and wide receiver Julian Edelman, gives promise that when the unit is fully healthy, they could be one of the best in the NFL.

Oh, wait; they already are.


Questions Unanswered About Defense

The Patriots have invested a ton of resources into their defense, and through four weeks, it looks a lot better on the surface.

A look back at the 2011 defense, though, shows that this unit is not markedly improved in any statistical category except for run defense and third-down defense.

This group looks much better on the field overall, but are they really?

This is a unit which was torn to shreds by the Ravens offense (although they got a bit of help from the replacement officials), but has imposed its will on the Titans, Cardinals and (in the second half) the Bills.

The offenses the Patriots line up against in the playoffs will look more like the one they lined up against in Baltimore than any of the other three units they've faced. In fact, they may have to line up against that very same Ravens offense again.

There's still a lot of time left for this defense to improve this season, but with very few "true" tests left on the schedule, we may not find out exactly how much they have—or haven't—improved until even after that.

One spot that has come under a lot of criticism is at safety. The Patriots brought in Steve Gregory and drafted Tavon Wilson to help fix the spot, but they continue to struggle there.

Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe points out that the safety play was bad against the Bills, but not everyone deserves equal blame.

Bad angles, bad reads, bad tackling, bad coverage.just bad for far too long in this game. Thought Patrick Chung had a really rough game, but it was interesting that after Donald Jones’ 68-yard touchdown where Chung took a bad angle and Steve Gregory provided zero last-line defense, that it was Gregory that was sent to the bench for Tavon Wilson. It appeared like Gregory only played in the dime package after that. Wilson played 34 of 69 snaps while Gregory had 49. Not sure if Gregory had an injury that had to be managed—he had a quad issue in the preseason—but in my opinion, the coaches have been looking for an excuse to play Wilson more. He could be headed for a starters’ role.

It wasn't even so much about the touchdown catch by Scott Chandler, who reeled it in directly over Chung's head, but just an overall lack of fundamentals.

Take Chandler's second touchdown grab, for example.

Safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory are in deep coverage in a Cover 2 shell.

Linebacker Brandon Spikes is in coverage on Chandler, but coverage is not exactly his strong point. Given that, wouldn't it have been wiser for either Chung or Gregory to take the middle instead of sitting on the outside patterns being run by wide receivers Stevie Johnson and T.J. Graham?

Instead, there's a window big enough to drive a truck through, and despite their best efforts, neither Chung nor Gregory is able to get to the spot in time.

Of course, that's just one example of a bad play by a defense that has been a mixed bag to this point. What do we expect from here? Hard to say with certainty, but thing should get better sooner than later if the safety play improves.

Of course, this week's showdown with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos could certainly serve as a measuring stick, at least in some capacity, for what this defense is—or isn't—capable of.


Moving Forward

Of course, it's easy to get carried away with the second-half performance we witnessed against the Bills and think this team may not lose another game the rest of the season.

But what we have seen to this point indicates that this Patriots team is capable of winning big, and of completely malfunctioning.

On offense, the Patriots should be just fine, especially if they continue to get the protection they've enjoyed this season thus far.

On defense, they have work to do on the back end, but if their run defense can remain as dominant as it's been through four games, they'll be forcing teams to play one-dimensional a lot this season.

At that point, it's up to the pass defense to buckle down and capitalize.


Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.


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