5 Things New England Patriots Still Must Improve in Time for a Super Bowl Run
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The New England Patriots are no stranger to Super Bowl runs and have notched five trips since 2001. Although, the last couple of hunts for the Lombardi Trophy have left the Patriots empty handed.
Nonetheless, a new year makes for another opportunity. In order to punch a ticket to New Orleans in February 2013, New England must zero in on its deficiencies.
At 3-2 through Week 5, the Patriots are by no means a perfect team. But with some adjustments, the Pats could be good enough.
Here are five areas of the game where the Patriots must improve before the postseason arrives.
Steady Pass Protection
Pass protection is of paramount importance.
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The Patriots' offensive line has been good, bad and ugly through the first five weeks of the season. The group is working towards getting better. But it's inconsistency that has plagued the pass protection.
Here is a week-by-week prognosis of the sack issue:
From left tackle Nate Solder all the way to right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, New England's blockers have received plenty of criticism. Except the best way to respond to the adversity is to, in the words of head coach Bill Belichick, "do your job."
The Patriots currently rank a mediocre 16th in sacks allowed. But for Tom Brady to stay healthy and for the receivers to get open down the field, the pass blocking needs to be more dependable.
The Kick Return Game
Devin McCourty has been the Pats' top kick returner.
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The Patriots haven't had the benefit of a standout kick returner since Brandon Tate in 2010—a void that is still apparent.
This preseason, Olympic sprinter and former Florida Gator Jeff Demps seemed ideal to fill the role as return man, but he landed on injured reserve instead.
Now, New England ranks 25th in the NFL in terms of kick-return average with just 20 yards per return. On top of that, the Patriots' deep men have only been able to take eight kickoffs out of the end zone.
Starting cornerback Devin McCourty has been slotted as the returner, yet the results just haven't been there.
The offense has been able to make do without the help of a prominent returner. Nevertheless, having a game-breaker fielding kicks would certainly take the edge off.
Pressuring the Quarterback
The Arizona Cardinals' Kevin Kolb outlasted New England's pass-rushers in Week 2.
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The Patriots' defensive front hasn't put quarterbacks under duress at the rate necessary to slow down potent aerial attacks.
While the defense has been successful in stopping the run, the passing downs have been another story. Quarterbacks have spent far too much time in the pocket. Consequently, receivers are breaking away from New England's coverage.
Despite terrific individual efforts from lane-stuffing defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, first-round pick Chandler Jones and even defensive end Rob Ninkovich of late, the team hasn't brought the heat like elite defenses do.
Due to this discrepancy, New England ranks 19th in NFL in total sacks. As long as this is the case, inexperienced signal-callers will have no problem finding their targets.
The secondary has let up big plays.
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A year after ranking 31st in pass defense, New England's secondary is still not where it needs to be.
Yes, Devin McCourty is making strides after allowing over 1,000 yards to receivers during the 2011 campaign. Although, it still remains one step forward, two steps back-type of progression for him and the rest of the defensive backfield.
The Patriots are constantly tested deep, allowing 290 yards per contest. This rough showing has led to 12 touchdowns.
Bleacher Reports' AFC East Lead Blogger Erik Frenz pointed out via Twitter how the pass defense has stacked up against deep passes:
The Patriots have given up 27 pass plays of over 20 yards, the most in the NFL through five games. @patspropaganda— Erik Frenz (@ErikFrenz) October 9, 2012
There are many weeks left to iron things out, but the defensive back corps as a whole must right the ship.
Play All 60 Minutes
There is no time to let up.
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The Patriots have seen wins slip beneath their fingertips on several occasions over the last couple of seasons. And that painful trend won't subside until the squad plays 60 minutes of foot-on-the-gas football.
In Week 2 vs. the Arizona Cardinals, New England's lackadaisical performance put all the marbles on the leg of kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Not all the blame of that 20-18 defeat can be brandished on Gostkowski, however, as the Patriots let the game get to a point of fate. It wasn't Gostkowski who allowed the Cardinals to go up 20-9 early in the fourth quarter.
Facing the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3, the Patriots watched a 13-point first quarter lead dwindle into a 31-30 loss after Ravens' rookie kicker Justin Tucker coasted the football over the right upright. It should have never come to that, yet the Patriots were unable to control the ball when it mattered most.
When the Patriots defeated the Buffalo Bills 52-28 in Week 4, the game should have been even further out of reach when the clock struck 0:00. But that wasn't the case, since the Bills were up 14 points in the midst of the third quarter.
The Patriots can never get complacent, because slow starts and indecisive fourth quarters will come back to bite them the same way it did in Super Bowl XLII and XLVI.