5 Burning Questions the New England Patriots Still Must Answer
The New England Patriots are winning football games and that should be all that matters.
However, while they have started the season with a perfect 4-0 record, they are not winning in their typical manner.
The Patriots' usual high-flying, quick-snap offense has been replaced by a huddle-first, grind-it-out game plan.
The long list of All-Pros and future Hall of Fame players have dwindled for New England. These Patriots are instead grooming undrafted rookies to succeed. Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are the main connection to the franchise's championship seasons of the past and its guides for the future.
Belichick and Brady are never satisfied and always strive for perfection. The Patriots may have a perfect record, but there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered this season.
How will the Patriots Survive Without Vince Wilfork?
Early in New England's Sunday night win over the Atlanta Falcons, Patriots defensive stalwart Vince Wilfork was carted off the field with an apparent foot injury.
The reports on Wilfork revealed very bad news for the defensive leader, as Albert Breer of NFL.com tweeted:
Patriots NT Vince Wilfork's torn Achilles will end his season. He's been an ironman for NE. Sense is he was playing thru pain this year.
Wilfork tore his Achillies and is out for the season.
Wilfork is irreplaceable.
His huge frame demands double-teams on the offensive line and his ability to plug running lanes will be missed. The Patriots will have to fill the void in hopes of maintaining their impressive defensive start to the season.
The Patriots have little depth at the position and will look for Tommy Kelly, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano to step up during Wilfork's absence. The most likely candidate is Vellano, who showed promise against Atlanta by tallying two tackles and one sack.
It is obvious that the Patriots will have to make a move to bring in some help for the defensive line.
Other suggested replacements being discussed include Marcus Forston, A.J. Francis and Armond Armstead. The Patriots will be tested once again to adjust on the fly and mend their front line on defense.
What Type of Offense Will the Patriots Run This Season?
The Patriots have one of the best quarterbacks in the game, but have put an emphasis on running the rock so far this season.
The Patriots now huddle up and take time before snapping the football.
With a stable of talented running backs, the Patriots can apply a committee approach to their ground game and go with the hot hand at any given time.
This has had a positive impact on the offense early on, as the Patriots have averaged at least four yards a carry and have won the battle for time of possession in each game.
This approach opens the passing lanes for Tom Brady and keeps opposing offenses on the sideline. It was very successful against Matt Ryan and it could be a glimpse of how the Patriots intend to deal with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos when the teams meet on Nov. 24.
Do the Patriots Still have a PR Problem?
The Patriots' public relations department had a disastrous offseason.
It started with the departure of longtime wide receiver Wes Welker, who signed as a free agent with the Broncos. Welker later lashed out at his former head coach, leaving a dark mark on the organization.
That, however, was nothing compared to the arrest of Aaron Hernandez on first-degree murder charges.
The ugly Hernandez ordeal is difficult to deal with, but the organization actually made good with the fans by setting up a jersey swap, allowing fans to trade in their old Hernandez jerseys for those of other Patriots. The gesture was quickly overshadowed by a scathing article in Rolling Stone which all but blamed Bill Belichick and the Patriots organization for the problems surrounding Hernandez.
Now, the Patriots' are facing another public relations problem concerning Rob Gronkowski.
With Gronkowski still recovering from an arm injury, the rampant speculation surrounding his return cannot be good for the organization. Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweeted that it was Gronkowski's father, and not the team, who kept him on the sidelines in Atlanta:
#Pats believe Rob Gronkowski wants to play, but his dad is keeping him off the field as a precaution after he injured himself in playoffs
The Patriots are not on the same page with Gronk's family and his inner circle of friends. The result is a very ugly and public divide that will be a distraction until the tight end takes the field.
The Patriots' public relations department still has plenty of work to do.
Will the Return of Gronkowski hurt the development of younger players?
The frustration that Tom Brady showed early in the season with his young wide receivers is starting to slowly subside.
The main reason for that change is Kenbrell Thompkins.
Against the Falcons, Thompkins amassed 127 yards on six receptions and scored a touchdown. The highlight of the night also belonged to Thompkins, who he hauled in a 49-yard deep ball with a miraculous catch. Thompkins is emerging as a go-to-guy for Brady and a potential deep threat that this offense has been longing for this fall.
The development of Thompkins and other young pass-catchers can be derailed with the return of Gronkowski.
Brady has a built-in chemistry with Gronkowski, so a dropped pass by a young receiver could easily sway Brady to again start targeting his favorite tight end. The Patriots coaching staff will handle this with Brady, but it is something that is worth watching as this team grows.
Is the Patriots' Defense for Real?
Before their game against the Falcons, the Patriots' defense was dismissed and overlooked.
New England's great start on defense this season was considered to be a byproduct of a schedule that featured two opposing rookie quarterbacks and a Tampa Bay team in disarray.
After the Falcons' game, it is very clear that the Pats' defense is legitimate.
Aqib Talib is a standout at cornerback and single-handedly thwarted the Falcons' comeback attempt. That play punctuated a great defensive effort that has gone unnoticed to this point.
This is a defense that always seems to rise to the occasion. The defense stuffed the high-flying Falcons in five of the six visits to the red zone, proving that New England's defense is up to any challenge.
The Patriots held the explosive Falcons in check and, statistically speaking, the Pats are very impressive. It may be early in the football season, but Bill Belichick's defense is definitely for real.
The Patriots are still a team that is going through many changes, so these burning questions will be answered as the season unfolds.
James Brown is a B/R featured columnist and can be followed on Twitter. Feel free to contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org.