5 Critical Takeaways from New England Patriots' Season Opener
The more things change for the New England Patriots, the more they appear to stay the same.
That was evident when the Patriots took on the Buffalo Bills in the season opener and defeated them in a come-from-behind fashion.
This year, it seemed as if Buffalo would get its chance to upset that dominance, yet New England was able to clamp down and move into Bills territory which resulted in a 35-yard, go-ahead field goal in the waning seconds to secure the victory.
A lot has changed for the Patriots this offseason. Yet for all the changes, a number of truths still remain.
Quarterback Tom Brady is still elite and can get the job done regardless of who is in his receiver corps. As a result, New England's offense will still be pass-heavy.
The defense is not as bad as some have advertised. Perhaps this defensive unit will be enough to ensure elongated shootouts do not happen.
The Patriots also have a number of good weapons on offense. Some are obvious while others are ready to break out.
On the flip side however, there are critical concerns. How will running back Stevan Ridley's inability to hold onto the ball affect his playing time? If Week 1 was any indication, Ridley's prospects are in jeopardy.
Regardless, New England is happy to come away with a win over a division rival to kick off the 2013 season. Here are five takeaways that should be considered focus points as the season continues forward.
Running Back Stevan Ridley's Fumble Problems are Critical
When he holds onto the ball, Patriots' running back Stevan Ridley is one of the better backs in the NFL.
Make note of that key element—when holding onto the ball.
In 2012, Ridley posted 1,263 rushing yards on 290 attempts and had 12 touchdowns. He also fumbled four times during the course of that season.
Adding another fumble in Week 1 of 2013 to his career total was not the way to start things for the third-year back.
During the second quarter, Buffalo safety Da'Norris Searcy picked up Ridley's fumble and ran it back for a 74-yard touchdown. What makes this particular fumble unique is the fact that Ridley went down without being touched and the ball popped out in the process.
The major problem is not that Ridley fumbles the ball—all backs do from time to time—but rather the nature of how and when these fumbles happen.
Zuri Berry of Boston.com argues this and states that Ridley's fumble problems are being blown out of proportion. Berry writes:
[Ridley's] fumbling problem is sometimes exaggerated. He recorded only four fumbles in 2012, which had him tied with full-time running backs Marshawn Lynch and Alfred Morris, both of whom ran for more than 1,500 yards. Of course, circumstances matter. His fumble in the AFC Championship game was a dagger and today's fumble was returned for a 74-yard touchdown.
It is a compelling argument. Four fumbles over the course of a full season is not all that bad. Yet the fact that these fumbles happen at inopportune times does create concern. It created enough concern to force Bill Belichick to bench Ridley in favor of fellow back Shane Vereen who ran for 101 yards on 14 attempts.
Ridley never got back onto the field.
What does this mean for him and his future with the team? There is no doubting his talent and hopefully the benching is a wake-up call for him. In addition, the Patriots realize that he needs some help, as reported by CBS Sports NFL columnist Michael Hurcomb.
If it works, expect Ridley to bounce back. If not, Vereen could be the go-to guy.
The Defense Is Pretty Good
For a team that prides itself on its offense, New England's defense cannot be overlooked.
There have been questions surrounding the pass rush. This element secured 37 sacks last season—right around the middle of the pack within the NFL. Obviously, the Patriots want to improve on that stat in 2013.
The question is whether or not they can.
New England failed to add to that stat column to start the season, yet their defense was surprisingly good at times during this game.
The Patriots gave up a total of 286 yards and held Buffalo to seven points in the second half. Although much of the Bills' offensive prowess was thwarted by penalties, it is a good sign of things to come if the defense can retain and improve upon this form.
@PatriotsNationn tweeted out a sentiment about the defense's prospects in 2013 by stating, "Patriots defense looked good versus the Bills. If they can keep doing good and when everyone is healthy on offense we will be hard to beat."
On the downside, New England needs to do a better job of preventing receivers from making plays out of the backfield.
That approach is not something typical of a Belichick-type defense, argued Doug Kyed of NESN.com. Instead, the focus is on wrapping up ball-carriers and limiting their ability to make big plays.
Big plays did happen though, especially in the backfield. Defending against them should be something the Patriots examine and look to fix in coming weeks.
Still, there are plenty of things to be happy about regarding the defense. There was good pressure on Buffalo quarterback E.J. Manuel who, despite two touchdown passes, only threw for 150 yards. The defense also forced two fumbles, both by cornerback Kyle Arrington.
After the game, Arrington stated via CBS Sports, "It's a game of opportunity. You've got to capitalize as much as possible. We were just very fortunate to come away with enough plays to win the game. It wasn't perfect."
That assessment pretty much sums up New England's defensive efforts. Those efforts were good. They could have been better. Given the results from Week 1, it looks like this trend should continue upward.
Wide Receiver Julian Edelman Is Blossoming
2013 may be the year Patriots fans start singing the praises of the former 2009 seventh-round draft pick and fifth-year veteran Julian Edelman.
In fact, Edelman may be one of the reasons why it was so easy for New England to part with Wes Welker in the offseason.
Yes, the Patriots have Danny Amendola now and Tom Brady has already developed a rapport with him. Yet Edelman seems to have a rapport of his own. Edelman totaled 79 yards receiving on 7 receptions during the game and caught both of Brady's two touchdown passes.
If this chemistry continues, opposing defenses will have a tough time shutting down both of New England's starting receivers.
Gronkowski—and tight ends in general—are special in the red zone. This is where a player like Edelman stepping up could prove to be vital. If Week 1 is any indication, Brady has shown his trust in a player with Edelman's talents and that is a sign of good things to come.
Asked whether or not he was concerned about being a favorite target, Edelman responded, "Going into it, I wasn't thinking about that. You're thinking about the game plan, coaching assignments, and trying to bring everything from the classroom to the grass."
As long as Gronkowski is out and perhaps even after he returns, Edelman should get plenty of looks from Brady and the offense.
Keep an eye on him in future weeks.
The Offense Will Miss Danny Amendola
There are two sides to the newly acquired receiver Danny Amendola.
On one hand, his acquisition makes the loss of Wes Welker that much easier to stomach. Evaluating his gutsy 10-reception, 104-yard performance in Week 1 while playing with an aggravated groin injury speaks volumes to what he can bring to the table.
On the other hand, that groin injury—and injury liability in general—are still a cause for concern.
Boston Globe writer Ben Volin cites this as a potential problem with Amendola considering he missed 20 games with the St. Louis Rams over the previous two seasons. Yet being able to tough it out after re-injuring himself is an indicator of how tough this guy is.
Even being tough has its limits.
According to multiple sources, including NFL Network writer Albert Breer, Amendola is expected to miss one, if not a few, weeks thanks to this injury.
Breer posted via Twitter that Amendola is likely to miss more than just Week 2 as the injury could plague him for longer.
With tight end Rob Gronkowski out and now Amendola, the Patriots offense will be hindered. They will miss Amendola's services in Week 2 against the New York Jets, although New York's defense is not exactly something that should cause considerable concern.
If the injury stretches out over a longer period of time, the concern could grow. New England faces the defensively-upgraded Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3 and Amendola's absence may be felt.
Yet if there is one thing true about Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, they figure out how to make things work.
New Receivers, Same Results
Last year, Patriots fans—and opposing teams for that matter—saw a lot of receivers like Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker.
Welker finished 2012 with 1,354 yards and Lloyd was close behind with 911.
Now, both are gone and a new cast of characters has entered the fray.
Enter the likes of Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman and the Patriots pick up right where they left off.
If there is one thing that should be clear, Tom Brady can make nearly any wide receiver look excellent. His targeting and patience are that good. His vision for making plays happen is apparent. Nothing about the changes at the wide receiver position suggest Brady will struggle with finding his target.
Darin Gantt of NBC Sports recaps this element and how Brady views this situation by writing:
So the Patriots put running back Shane Vereen on short-term IR yesterday, while reports circulated that Amendola is “almost certain” to not play Thursday against the Jets, and no one’s really expecting tight end Rob Gronkowski quite yet. You know who isn’t bothered by any of that? Brady. The Patriots quarterback is either using Jedi mind tricks, or he genuinely believes they’re going to be OK with their current scarcity of skill players.
Bruce Arthur, a columnist for TSN, tweeted his own doubts about the lack of receivers on offense by saying, "If Danny Amendola is hurt, Tom Brady is about one lost receiver from auditioning hobos for the spot."
So the Patriots lack elite wide receivers. Yet let us look at the statistics of Week 1. Brady completed 29 passes out of 52 attempts for 288 yards. He threw two touchdowns against one interception and spread the ball among five different receivers.
About the game, Brady stated, "I didn't have a lot of doubt. We've got a team full of fighters. There's going to be some ugly wins, but we're always going to fight until the end."
If there is any quarterback in the NFL that can overcome the apparent lack of elite talent at the receiver position, it's Brady.
New England has only one game under its belt in 2013. Granted, the sample size is too small to draw detailed conclusions just yet.
However there are certainly some things that are worth noting. In addition, there are some things that should be given continued evaluation as the season progresses.
Some of these elements were revealed in Week 1.
At any rate, the Patriots can look back at what transpired in the opening week and use it to their advantage in coming games. Many things have changed, yet many others have remained the same.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.
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