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New England Patriots Progress Report: Where Do They Stand Headed into Week 7?

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New England Patriots Progress Report: Where Do They Stand Headed into Week 7?
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Well, that happened.

Those are about the only words that came to mind immediately following the Patriots collapse/choke/epic fail in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks.

There's plenty of blame to go around, and the defense has already been put in the crosshairs

But luckily for the Patriots, this season will not be defined by one game against the Seahawks.

"We're 3-3 so we've got 10 games to determine the fate of our season, and really it's a matter of us getting better," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (per MassLive.com).

"I don't think anything's decided here in the sixth week of the year, or how capable you are of winning big games. That's to be determined in January and it's only October, so we're just going to keep trying to get better."

There's plenty of time left to go in the season, but in a tight race in both the conference and the division, the Patriots can't afford too many slip-ups like what they suffered against the Seahawks.

Here is a progress report of where things stand and where things are headed going forward.

 

Stock Up

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Aaron Hernandez: In Hernandez's first week back from an ankle injury, he caught 6-of-8 passes in his direction for 30 yards and a touchdown. He wasn't able to create the usual yards after the catch, which may have been a function of some rust as well as a stingy Seahawks defense.

 

Offensive Line: After spending much of the preseason and training camp firmly in focus, the offensive line has become a non-story, which is just how they like it. The group gave up just one sack to the vaunted Seahawks front, and Brady was only pressured on 14 of his 59 drop-backs according to ProFootballFocus.com.

The unit had difficulty opening holes in the running game, but did more than its share in pass protection.

 

Stock Down

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Defense: It's not fair to put the blame for the big pass plays on exclusively the secondary or the front seven—as we explored here yesterday, both share the burden. If insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, what do we call the Patriots defense, which is doing different things and getting the same results? 

The infusion of young talent on defense has not changed the trajectory of the group from when we last saw it in 2011. It could be another long season full of long gains for this Patriots defense.

 

Tom Brady: Uncharacteristic mistakes plagued Brady's afternoon.

Just a few of them:

  • Two intentional grounding penalties, one at the end of the first half that resulted in a missed opportunity for a field goal. 
  • The entire sequence at the end of the first half, where they wasted 18 valuable seconds off the clock by not calling a timeout that Belichick clearly wanted to take (he raced down the sideline to call it).
  • A throw to wide receiver Deion Branch, who was completely covered by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.

Putting too much of the blame on Brady isn't fair, though. He is not the problem for this team; dropping back 59 times on the road, regardless of the reason, will give way to errors in the passing game. The loss is certainly not on his shoulders, and Brady's stock doesn't usually stay down very long, but it's undeniably down for now after those mistakes.

 

The Coaching Staff: The consistency with which defensive backs are being caught out of position is becoming an indictment on the coaching staff. Bill Belichick admitted that while the execution on the final touchdown play to Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice could have been better, the Patriots need to coach the players better on what to do in that scenario.

The decision to go for a touchdown at the end of the first half has become dubious, but I didn't mind it. You're the New England Patriots, the best offense in the league. Go for a touchdown there. But the poor execution on behalf of both the coaching staff and the quarterback is what will be remembered.

There was clearly a miscommunication as to what to do in that scenario, since Brady had no idea that Belichick wanted a timeout (we later saw Belichick race down the sideline to call it). The Patriots wouldn't have even been in such a tight situation were it not for that egregious error.

 

Glass Half-Empty

The Patriots have the same record as their division rivals at 3-3. Anyone who saw that coming is named Nostradamus. 

If insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, then what are the Patriots, who have done things different in terms of scheme and personnel yet are yielding the same results?

It's insanity for the fans, that's for sure.

The Patriots are struggling to close out tight games on offense and the defense can't hold onto a lead. Anything less than a blowout doesn't feel like a safe margin anymore.

 

Glass Half-Full

The Patriots are still the class of the division.

They have the advantage at the most important posts—quarterback and head coach.

Their offense is still a juggernaut, built to dominate even the better defenses in the league, and the defense always improves over the course of the season, even if it never reaches "elite" status.

If there truly are problems with the coaching staff, you can rest assured that Bill Belichick will stop at nothing until they are corrected.

If there's one thing we have learned about the Patriots, it's that they are always improving.

 

Stats to Build On

97.2: Tom Brady's passer rating, which ranks sixth in the NFL. The Patriots offense as a whole is susceptible to lapses late in games, and Brady certainly wasn't without his mistakes. His stock may be down, but if Brady plays as efficiently as he has thus far this season—and there's no reason to think he won't—the Patriots will always have a chance to win.

4.2: The Patriots yards per rush attempt. The running game ran into a brick wall in Seahawks defensive tackles Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane this week, but they must not forget what has helped them get their three wins this season. New England is 3-0 when:

  • Running back Stevan Ridley gets more than 20 carries;
  • They run the ball more than they throw it;
  • They average more than four yards per carry.

And they are 0-3 when these things do not happen. More than ever, it seems, the Patriots need productivity out of their running game if they want to win football games. It's still early to dictate this a full-on trend, but it is certainly building steam in both directions.

3.4: The Patriots defensive yards per rush attempt, which ranks fourth in the NFL.

The defense has been built to dominate against the run, and has done rather well at making its opponents one-dimensional. The problem is the Patriots haven't been able to stop that one dimension, and opponents have been all too willing to exploit it.

Asking Bill Belichick to blitz more is like asking Bill Gates to help pay off the national debt, but there's a case to be made. Once the Patriots have forced the opponent away from the run, the Patriots could take a tip from the Miami Dolphins and dial up some way to pressure the quarterback and create disruption in the passing game.

 

Stats to Improve On

7.5: The Patriots defensive net yards per pass attempt, which is the sixth-worst in the NFL. The Patriots struggles in pass defense are a function of not only the secondary, but the pass-rush, hence why I went with NY/A instead of just YPA.

The 33 pass plays allowed of 20 or more yards has gotten much of the focus, with six of those coming against Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (who previously had eight total passes of 20 or more yards on the season), but not getting enough publicity is the lack of pass rush. The Patriots have a 4.8 sack percentage on the season, the 11th-lowest in the league this year.

There's enough blame to go around.

 

52-48: The Patriots points scored in the fourth quarter vs. their points allowed. See that number? Thirty-one of New England's fourth-quarter points were scored in one game against the defensively inept Buffalo Bills, who scored just seven points. Recalibrate the scales and besides the Bills game, the Patriots have been outscored 41-21 in the final 15 minutes of regulation through five games. 

 

60: The Patriots' red-zone defense, which allows touchdowns on 60 percent of possessions inside the 20 and currently ranks 23rd in the NFL.

For years, third-down defense has been a talking point around the Patriots, with the struggles to get off the field on the key down dating all the way back to 2010. They also rank 23rd on third down, allowing conversions 42.1 percent of the time.

The Patriots have been able to overcome this problem by getting key stops with turnovers and in the red zone. They are once again near the top of the league in turnovers, but their red-zone defense is a struggle spot.

 

The Outlook

The Seahawks are not an embarrassing team to lose to, but the way in which the Patriots lost was borderline embarrassing.

That being said, the season is not over.

The Patriots are in the midst of a travel-heavy three-week stretch that saw them begin on the West Coast, and now has them back in Foxborough to host the Jets before traveling across the pond to Wembley Stadium to take on the Rams.

How many wins will the Patriots finish with this season?

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This stretch will be a test of their physical toughness, both in terms of dealing with physical opponents and in dealing with severe jet lag.

They have proven vulnerable, but if there's one team that knows how meaningless the regular season can be, it's the Patriots. The only thing that matters is making the playoffs. The Patriots are still nearly a lock to get there in an AFC that could feature 9-7 and potentially 8-8 Wild Card teams.

 

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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