With the opening of training camp for the New England Patriots, it's time to finally close the book on a tumultuous 2012 offseason that saw departures of popular players, arrests, and a shockingly contrite Bill Belichick press conference.
All of the moves, major and minor, have been analyzed ad nauseum, but now it's football time and the controversies no longer matter. As Bill Belichick stated at his Wednesday press conference, "It’s time for the New England Patriots to move forward."
"Moving forward consists of what it’s always been here: to build a winning football team, be a strong pillar in the community, be a team that our fans can be proud of. That’s what we’re here for."
But before we do, let's take a quick look back at three specific areas where the Patriots struggled in 2012, along with three specific plays that summed up those issues, and whether or not they did enough over the course of the chaotic offseason to address them.
1. First Down Pass Defense
In the play shown above, the Bills isolate tight end Scott Chandler on Patrick Chung. When Chung bites on a pump fake, Chandler runs past him and is easily able to go up and catch the touchdown pass.
According to Football Outsiders' 2013 almanac (subscription required), the Patriots were the second-worst defense in the NFL on first down, despite having the sixth best run defense. Teams that threw early and often on the Pats' defense were successful, and it's why the Ravens lit the Patriots up through the air on first down in the AFC Championship.
After throwing just twice on first down in the first half, the Ravens went to the air 10 times in the second half on first down, completing seven passes for 39 yards and a touchdown.
First down was especially a problem in games where they played a majority of their base defense. They were 3-3 in those games during the regular season, and gave up 50% of their passing yards against on first down alone.
The fix for this problem could come in many forms.
Dane Fletcher or Jamie Collins could earn a rotation spot alongside Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower in the base defense, perhaps even sending Spikes to the bench against throw-happy teams like Denver.
Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead could help bring more interior pressure than Kyle Love or Brandon Deaderick did.
Or Adrian Wilson could make an impact with his coverage and physicality in the box, something that could've made a difference in our example play above.
2. Third Down Pass Defense
In the play above, the Ravens bring Dennis Pitta into the backfield to match him up with Brandon Spikes. Pitta has plenty of open room once he slips out of the backfield, and easily gains the first down without Spikes coming even close to him. Embarrassing blown tackles by Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory magnified the mistake and Pitta ended up with a touchdown.
Football Outsiders' almanac had the Pats 19th in their DVOA metric on third down, and though they had their best third-down percentage since 2009 (40%), they were still ranked 20th in the NFL.
Again, it's the pass defense that needs help.
Fixing your third-down pass defense is a little more straight-forward than your first-down pass defense. The focus here is on the sub-package, especially with better pass rush out of the front four.
Jerod Mayo is likely to be the primary linebacker and his coverage will have to improve, while whoever lines up next to him will have to as well. That could be Fletcher, Hightower or Spikes in nickel, or Tavon/Adrian Wilson in dime.
Either way, Spikes must either improve or be replaced, or he'll be exploited just as he was above.
The pass rush is also a huge factor on third down, but there is no new proven veteran edge rusher; instead it's a collection of young guys the Pats drafted looking to prove something, or veterans like Marcus Benard and Jason Vega, who were under-the-radar.
On paper, it looks like the Pats will need one of their unproven defensive ends to emerge if their third down defense is to improve, though the continuity on the back end could also provide a boost.
3. Stretching the Field
In the example above, it's a third-and-long, with the Pats on the verge of closing out a game that they would eventually lose. The Seahawks don't fear any of the Pats deep threats and go man-to-man across the line, with only Gronk getting any kind of a cushion and just a single safety high. Granted, man-to-man is the Seahawks' bread and butter, and Richard Sherman is one of the best in the game. Still, most teams that could follow this model had success, even without a top shutdown corner.
Though the departure of Wes Welker was a shock to many, it became clear in the AFC Championship that the book was out on how to stop the Patriots offense, if teams had the right personnel. Their over-reliance on continued execution of 12-play drives was nearly impossible to maintain through the course of a game.
At times they were unstoppable and running plays before the defense could even get set.
But at other times, often in crunch time, they were flat and lifeless. The second half of the AFC Championship they scored zero points.
In 2010, when Randy Moss was traded away and Deion Branch was re-inserted, the Patriots moved to the "death-by-a-thousand-cuts" offense. Tom Brady, with his two all-time favorite receivers in Welker and Branch, could almost always find the short-zone holes in any defense.
But the offense lacked explosion, and with no receiver to challenge the defense deep and outside, teams began to crowd the short zones and make the receivers pay for any catch.
Now, with the departures of Welker and Branch the passing game is in full transition, and with that comes the advantage of unpredictability, but the disadvantage of inconsistency. The Pats added multiple potential X-receivers with potential to stretch the field, including veteran Michael Jenkins, and rookies Aaron Dobson and Mark Harrison.
The new-look passing game cannot be an attempt to recreate what the Pats had with Welker and Branch. It must be more balanced, and have the explosion that the '10-'12 offense lacked.
The Patriots brought in a number of players to compete at the spots where they were weakest at in 2012, but quantity doesn't always equal quality. New players will have to emerge, especially at the receiver and pass rusher spots.
If they do, the Patriots could be ready to take the final step toward raising the Lombardi Trophy once again.
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