New England Patriots: Midseason Report Cards for Each Positional Unit
However, their good standing hasn't come without some headaches along the way.
Some positional groups have shone while others have all but fizzled out.
Here are my report card grades for each positional unit so far this season.
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Through eight games, Brady leads the league in passing yards (2,408 yards) and owns a 100.6 quarterback rating along with 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
Sure, Brady has struggled here and there closing out games. But he has also been without one of his favorite targets, Aaron Hernandez, as well as his best offensive lineman, Logan Mankins, for a handful of games.
Brady looked like the best quarterback in the NFL against a good Rams' defense over the weekend and I expect that to continue after the bye with Hernandez and Mankins likely to return to health.
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After a shaky preseason, Patriot Nation was nervous about New England's offensive line to say the least.
However, despite both starting guards missing substantial time, several players have stepped up and turned this unit into one of the best in the league.
Donald Thomas has filled in for Logan Mankins at times and seems to be a starting-caliber guard. Additionally, Nate Solder has made the transition from Matt Light virtually seamless, despite having a rocky preseason.
As a whole, this unit has protected Brady well and seems to improve each and every week. Not to mention, they are a huge reason why the Pats currently rank fifth in the league in rushing offense.
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Because of Aaron Hernandez's injury, New England has favored a three-receiver set rather than their usual two-tight end set. As a result, the tight ends are being utilized more as run-blockers than as pass-catchers and they've looked good doing so.
However, Rob Gronkowski remains one of Tom Brady's favorite targets, particularly in the end zone.
Gronk currently leads the league in touchdown receptions and has tallied 43 receptions for 580 yards.
As Field Yates of ESPNBoston points out, Gronk is currently on pace to repeat his record-setting 2011 campaign—extremely impressive considering he's been dealing with a hip injury for most of the season.
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No. 83 is also second in the league with 736 total receiving yards.
Beyond Welker, however, the production from the wide receiver corps has been so-so.
Brandon Lloyd has been up and down as a Patriot starting the year off strong then disappearing for a few games then recently returning to form with a two-touchdown performance against the Rams.
Deion Branch and Julian Edelman have had their moments.
Overall, this group has performed well, but you'd like to see more consistency outside of Welker.
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Stevan Ridley leads a Patriots' running back crew that through eight games is the fifth best rushing attack in the league.
Ridley (716 rushing yards on the season) is currently on pace to rush for 1,432 yards in just his second year—something Corey Dillon didn't accomplish until his fourth year in the league.
As it stands today, Ridley is one of the top rushers in the NFL. Throw in the rise of Brandon Bolden (234 yards), a healthy Shane Vereen (72 yards) and of course the steady shiftiness of Danny Woodhead (164 yards) and you have yourself quite a motley crew.
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The Patriots have arguably the best run defense in all of football right now and a lot of that has to do with the team's group of exceptional run-stuffing linebackers.
John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information sums up this notion nicely in a recent piece, writing:
New England has allowed a league-best 3.5 yards per rush and only one rush of at least 20 yards...The Patriots have allowed only 1.08 yards after contact per rush, the lowest in the league...Much of that can be attributed to quality play from a linebacking corps that has recorded 13 tackles for loss, fourth-most of any unit in the league.
Leading up to this season, there was a lot of excitement about the potential of a linebacker trio consisting of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and 2012 first-round draft choice Dont'a Hightower.
Despite needing to improve some in coverage, halfway through the season, they've lived up to the hype.
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New England's defensive line is just as responsible as the linebackers are for an elite run defense.
Field Yates of ESPNBoston recently opined on the subject, writing:
[Vince Wilfork] is among the finest interior linemen in all of football. He continues to dominate at the point of attack...He's joined by Kyle Love, who has been a rock in the middle as well...On the end, while Chandler Jones has made headlines for his work as a pass rusher, both he and Rob Ninkovich have excelled at setting the edge and decreasing running lanes for opposing backs. Ninkovich is particularly sturdy against the run, with good strength to take on tackles and tight ends.
While they have been outstanding against the run, you'd like to see a more consistent pass rush from this unit, especially with a suspect secondary.
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New England's safeties have really struggled this season, particularly when it comes to defending big pass plays.
The Patriots are currently giving up more passes of 20-plus yards than any other team in the league (per John Parolin of ESPN).
As the last line of defense, this embarrassing statistic falls primarily on the safeties.
While rookie Tavon Wilson seems to have good balls skills (three interceptions) and is developing nicely, he still doesn't appear to be ready for a starting role just yet.
Moving Devin McCourty to the free safety spot seems to have alleviated this big-play problem a bit in recent weeks, which keeps this unit from earning the "F" here.
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A bright light in the Pats' secondary is rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who has recently emerged as a starter.
Dennard has grabbed an interception in each of the last two games and overall looks solid in coverage.
Beyond that, the former Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year seems to play with confidence—something not many of New England's defensive backs do often.
As a whole, the cornerbacks have had their fair share of struggles this season, particularly Kyle Arrington and Sterling Moore (who, according to Field Yates of ESPNBoston, was just released from the team), but seem to be getting better.
Kick/Punt Returns: The Patriots currently rank 19th in kick returns (23.4 yards/return) and 10th in punt returns (11 yards/return). New England's kick return game hasn't been good since the beginning of the 2010 season, but maybe Devin McCourty's recent return for a touchdown is enough to give this group some confidence going forward.
Kickoff/Punt Return Coverage: Between two big legs in kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Zoltan Mesko and guys like Matthew Slater and Marquice Cole getting it done in coverage, the Pats have a pretty solid group. New England currently ranks in the top half of the league in both kickoff and punt return coverage.
Field Goals: Gostkowski had a shaky start this season but redeemed himself with two clutch kicks in the Patriots recent overtime win over the New York Jets. On the other end, the Patriots haven't blocked any field goals this season—yet.