New England Patriots Progress Report: Where Do They Stand Headed into Week 8?

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New England Patriots Progress Report: Where Do They Stand Headed into Week 8?
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For the third time this season, the New England Patriots are a game above .500.

The question now is, how long does it last this time? Each of the previous two times, the Patriots lost their very next game to fall back to .500.

The New England Patriots have a chance to string together consecutive wins for just the second time this season, and in order to do so, they have a lot to build on and a lot to improve on.

Here is a progress report for the team headed into Week 8.

 

Stock Up

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Rob Ninkovich: Ninkovich logged 1.5 sacks off quarterback Mark Sanchez on Sunday and came up big when it mattered most for New England, teaming up with linebacker Jermaine Cunningham for the sack-fumble-recovery trifecta that ended the game. 

The pass rush off the edges could be more consistent, but big plays from Ninkovich in key moments have helped compensate in that area.

Shane Vereen: It wasn't a huge day for Vereen, but the second-year back had more snaps on Sunday (17) than all season combined (16) prior to Sunday. He was key on the opening drive and finished the day with eight carries for 49 yards and a catch for 10 yards. 

The Patriots knew they would have an advantage with their running backs matched up against the Jets linebackers, and Vereen capitalized.

 

Stock Down

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The Secondary: Take your pick. Statistically, the six pass plays of 20 yards or more, the average of eight yards per attempt or the passer rating of 90.3 will do. Anecdotally, giving those numbers up to Mark Sanchez—he of the lowest completion percentage among starting quarterbacks and the fourth-lowest passer rating—makes that all look a lot worse.

Devin McCourty started at safety, and although Patriots head coach Bill Belichick says the deep half of the field looked more secure (and by comparison to last week's three, the Patriots didn't give up any 40-plus-yard pass plays), that didn't stop the Jets from gashing the Patriots with big plays. 

It's fair to wonder whether this pass defense, which has seen so much change in personnel yet so much consistency in their statistical output in recent years, will ever come around to be a top unit in the NFL.

Brandon Lloyd: Lloyd dropped a pair of passes and caught just one all day on seven targets against the Jets.

Lloyd had been solid up to Sunday, catching 59.6 percent of the balls thrown in his direction (37 of 54), according to ProFootballFocus.com, but with Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie effectively shutting him down, the Jets were able to play their brand of defense in the final 30 minutes of regulation, holding the Patriots to just 10 points in the second half.

 

Glass Half-Full

The Patriots finally won a close game, and in reality, are just a play or two in each of their losses away from being 7-0. 

Patriots fans have grown accustomed to watching their team roll all the way through the regular season only to sputter out in January and February, and we've all learned that a 13-3, 14-2 or even a 16-0 regular season doesn't make a champion.

The yardage totals and efficiency numbers on defense are alarming, but we've seen the defense come through with a clutch play already a few times this season. Making plays when it matters most has always been one of the hallmarks of the Patriots' bend-don't-break defense. While this unit may be bending and even breaking a lot more than we're used to seeing, as long as the offense remains this potent, the Patriots don't need a "good" defense as long as they can get by with "good enough."

 

Glass Half-Empty

These are not the Patriots we are used to. No, this group induces far more indigestion among their fanbase and doesn't roll over opponents with the ease with which they did as recently as last year.

And man alive, that pass defense is downright offensive. Those who thought it couldn't get much worse after ranking 31st in total pass defense (a bad statistic for measuring the overall quality of a unit, anyway) have been treated to the unpleasant surprise of what is easily one of the league's five worst pass defenses.

The offense has sputtered out at times, and the playcalling seems to be getting in the way of rhythm as the Patriots try to run misdirection and trick plays. 

Where we are used to talking about the Patriots as a perennial powerhouse, their above-.500 record is one of the few positives for this team seven weeks into the season.

 

Stats to Build On

1.1

That is Tom Brady's interception percentage, which leads the league among 33 qualifying passers, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

As long as Brady remains among the most efficient and error-free quarterbacks in the NFL, the Patriots will always have a chance to win games.

Of course, we could do without the late-game brain cramps, but the Patriots put together two solid drives when they needed them most. Granted, they both ended in field goals, but they ultimately resulted in the win.

 

3.3

That is the Patriots' defensive yards per rush attempt, which ranks second in the NFL.

Say what you will about the Patriots pass-rush (or lack thereof), their pass defense (or lack thereof) and their penchant for giving up big plays through the air, but their front seven is quietly establishing itself among the league's elite against the run. Of course, that would help a bit more if opponents weren't passing so much more frequently than they're running against the Patriots defense.

 

11

That's the number of fumble recoveries by the Patriots, which leads the NFL.

Some might say this is fluky and that the balls are bound to stop bouncing New England's way at some point, but the Patriots have made one heady play after another to knock the ball loose. That's good coaching and better awareness by the players.

 

Stats to Improve On

7.4

That's the Patriots' defensive net yards per pass attempt, which ranks 28th in the NFL.

Attribute it to a pass rush that ranks 21st in sack percentage, bringing down opposing quarterbacks on just 5.5 percent of drop-backs or to a pass defense that directs traffic in the passing game like an air traffic controller.

Broken record time has commenced. This is a recurring theme of this season and seasons' past for the Patriots. Could have seen Sanchez's big day coming a mile away. No matter how you slice it, there are plenty of areas that need heavy improvement in pass defense. 

 

61-55

We touched on this last week, but the subject reared its head once again and nearly cost the Patriots another late-game lead. The Patriots have been outscored by six points in the fourth quarter this season.

Doesn't look too bad, right? Take away 31 of New England's points, which were scored against the 32nd-ranked Bills defense, and the seven points scored by the Bills offense in that same game, and you're left with the Patriots being outscored by a lopsided 54-24 in the other six games.

 

Outlook

With a huge trip ahead to England to take on the St. Louis Rams, the Patriots are bringing their grueling 14-day travel schedule to a close—the schedule that saw them travel all the way to the West Coast to take on the Seahawks, followed by a trip across the country back home to Foxboro and now across the pond to England.

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What once seemed like an easy post-bye schedule still serves the Patriots a couple of softballs with home games against the Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts right out of the gate, but road contests against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins look a bit tougher than originally expected.

The Patriots usually play some of their best football in November and December, and they'll need nothing less than that if they want to have a shot at favorable seeding in the AFC playoffs.

 

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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