New England Patriots: 4 Burning Questions Team Must Answer in Week 3
The New England Patriots have a shot to start the season at 3-0 for the first time since 2007. However, that doesn't mean the Pats are without their flaws.
On the contrary, it seems there are more concerns about the Pats' ability to compete against elite teams this year than there have been since Tom Brady went down in 2008.
That says more about New England's ability to remain consistently competitive and continually raise expectations to sky-high levels than it does about anything else. But it does raise the question of how good these current Patriots really are.
Let's take a look at four burning questions that Pats fans have about their team's current level of play.
Can the Pats Rely on Their Rookie Receivers?
Top offensive rookie Aaron Dobson had three catches in his Week 2 debut. He also had three drops.
That's just a microcosmic look at the struggles of a unit that has been a strength of the Patriots since the 2006 season ended.
New England is trying to integrate several rookie pass-catchers into a complex and fast-paced offense, and injuries to veterans Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski have forced the Pats to accelerate that process.
Dobson and promising undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins have played prominent roles in the first two games. Both have shown flashes (including Dobson's 39-yard catch-and-run on a play-action that the whole Jets' organization bit on), but they've each gone through frustrating growing pains as well.
Thompkins has had route-running issues in each of the first two weeks, although he appears to be slowly improving on that front. Dobson, as mentioned earlier, needs a prescription for his acute case of the dropsies.
Both rookies will have to show improvement in Week 2 against a Buccaneers' secondary that held New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees to a 56 percent completion rate and picked him off twice last Sunday.
Though it's still early in the year, Week 3 will be telling with respect as to how quickly the Pats' rookies are adapting to their learning curves.
Will Stevan Ridley Regain His 2012 Form?
Stevan Ridley was a huge part of the Patriots' offense in 2012, racking up 12 TDs and 1,263 yards last season.
This year, Ridley has gotten off to an inauspicious start, coughing up the ball in Week 1 and averaging just 2.5 yards per catch in Week 2.
Following his Week 1 fumble, Ridley was benched and in jeopardy of losing his starting spot to explosive runner Shane Vereen until Vereen was injured and placed on the IR-Designated to Return list.
Now, Ridley has a chance to reclaim his spot as the Pats' workhorse (by default if for no other reason), but he has to prove that he can protect the football and still make explosive plays.
The Pats need a big rushing game against what is the NFL's eighth-rated rush defense, according to Football Outsiders' ratings for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. More importantly, the Patriots need Ridley to prove that he can provide New England with much-needed ball security if he hopes to regain the trust required of a feature back.
Is the Secondary Really This Good?
Yes, it's a small sample size, but the Pats are currently rated third in the NFL in pass defense, per Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings.
While the team hasn't collectively played well by their own phenomenally high standards, New England's secondary has held its own, albeit against two rookie QBs.
They've allowed less than 200 yards passing in each of their first two games, yielding a 53 percent completion rate and an average of 5.5 yards per catch. How good is that? If a quarterback had put up a season-long 53 percent completion rate and 5.5 YPA in 2012, he would have been last in the NFL in both categories.
The Patriots' defense has also been opportunistic, generating four forced fumbles (tied for second-highest in the NFL) and three INTs (tied for third-highest) in their first two games.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to temper early excitement over the performance of the defense. Both offenses they've faced rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of total yards last season. Both are also integrating rookie quarterbacks.
The Patriots' pass defense will face a sturdier test in Week 3 against Josh Freeman, who even while disgruntled, is a talented player coming off a solid year. He has a prime target in Vincent Jackson, one of the league's top receivers who is averaging 19.3 yards per catch and 116 yards per game in his first two weeks.
The Pats must hope that top cornerback Aqib Talib is healthy after missing practice this week. Talib and second-year corner Alfonzo Dennard are a strong pair of physical cornerbacks capable of playing man-under press coverage.
With Devin McCourty and the surprisingly effective Steve Gregory manning the safety spots to go with Talib and Dennard underneath, the Pats may have their best defensive backfield in a long time.
If the Pats' secondary can be this effective going forward, New England can win games even when their heralded offense isn't up to snuff.
Besides Chandler Jones, How Will the Pats' Defensive Line Fare?
While the Patriots' passing defense has been effective as a whole, their pass rush hasn't been consistent enough to stop elite quarterbacks. They grade out as just the 23rd overall team in the NFL in pass rush, according to ProFootballFocus.
The unit's struggles don't stop at pass defense. New England allowed 129 yards on the ground to the Jets in Week 2, mostly to the combination of Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory. To put that in perspective, if a rush-defense allowed 129 yards per game in 2012, they'd be tied for 26th in the league. That is not good.
Many of last week's struggles stem from the performance of Vince Wilfork, who got pushed around by Nick Mangold in the interior line. Wilfork graded out in the negative in Week 2 per ProFootballFocus' metrics, finishing with a -5.1 mark.
Tommy Kelly, the Patriots' other starting defensive tackle, also struggled after a positive Week 1 grade, finishing at -2.3 for the game.
When the Patriots' defensive line has been good, it has largely been due to the contributions of second-year lineman Chandler Jones, who had two sacks against the Jets.
Jones looks healthy for the first time since sustaining an ankle injury last season. Consequently, the Pats have been moving him all around the line and watching him beat offensive linemen. If any regression from Wilfork occurs, which is expected given that he finished last year having played 81.3 percent of the team's defensive snaps and he turns 32 in November, Jones will have to offset it with a step forward this year.
This week will be a big test for the Pats' line in particular, as it goes up against two major running threats in Freeman and running back Doug Martin, who had 144 yards rushing in Week 2. The interior line has to avoid getting pushed around if the Pats hope to stop the Bucs.