Handing Out Superlatives for the New England Patriots' First Half
Tom Brady likes to say that the real season does not start until Thanksgiving, but with eight games in the books this year, we already have a fairly solid picture of what the New England Patriots will look like going forward. Surely, the Pats will adhere to the cliche of "improving each day," but there will be no more great surprises.
With that in mind, we can look back at the first half of the season as a foundation for expectations moving forward. New England has unfortunately suffered a rash of season-ending injuries, so there is no need to account for the return of vital cogs like Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, while important reinforcements like Aqib Talib and Shane Vereen should return shortly. Another traumatic injury may very well occur, but this middle-class-heavy roster will be the Pats' main personnel group going forward.
The Patriots have been a team of extremes this season, a trend that figures to even out as the offense gels and the defense languishes from a personnel shortage. However, those extremes also make the Pats ripe for a list such as this one, which will highlight the most significant factors that have shaped their season thus far.
It's tough for a single list to cover every notable feat, so while we're here, props to Chandler Jones, Nate Solder and Stephen Gostkowski; demerits to the injury bug, LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington.
With that, here are eight of the most noteworthy superlatives from the Patriots first eight games along with what we can learn from each of them going forward.
*All stats courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com or Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required).
Most Improved Unit
With a combination of rare draft hits, smart free-agent signings and a monumentally important trade (Aqib Talib), the Patriots have finally molded a secondary that is capable of adequately covering any passing attack in the league.
The obvious key has been Talib, who has graded out as one of the league's best cornerbacks under multiple advanced metrics. A year after accumulating just nine pass deflections and two interceptions for the season, Talib has already amassed five deflections and four picks in less than half the time in 2013.
Furthermore, opposing quarterbacks have compiled a ghastly 28.9 quarterback rating when throwing at Talib, who has provided the Patriots with their first true man-to-man shutdown corner since the halcyon days of Ty Law.
Not to be overlooked, Devin McCourty has similarly made his mark as one of the league's elite safeties, with the best coverage grade of anyone at his position, according to Pro Football Focus. McCourty's role is not nearly as flashy as that of a shutdown corner, but his wide-ranging coverage and tremendous instincts provide an indispensable security blanket on the back end.
A year after surrendering 74 pass plays of at least 20 yards, the worst mark in the league, the Patriots have yielded just 26 so far this season, leaving them on pace to finish with 22 fewer "big" pass plays.
So long as Talib can stay healthy (more on that later), he and McCourty will continue to have a positive domino effect on the rest of the secondary. Once the bane of Foxboro, this unit may now be the very best on the team.
Least Improved Unit
On the other end of the spectrum, the Patriots wide receivers have suffered the precipitous decline that many were expecting. New England's turnover at the position was much-ballyhooed in the preseason, but few could have envisioned the struggles that would envelop this formerly unassailable unit.
Tight end has technically suffered a larger statistical drop-off, but with Rob Gronkowski's return, that position should be relatively stable going forward. However, Tom Brady has little choice except to continue throwing to the likes of Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins this year, as Wes Welker is not walking back through the door.
Drops have been the main malady plaguing the unit, as four Patriots receivers are among the top 21 at the position in terms of drops, and three of them are in the top 15 in terms of drop rate. Dobson has racked up the second-most drops in the league with eight, which is good for a 23.5 percent rate that ranks as the league's third-worst. Danny Amendola has also somehow dropped four passes in a meager 187 snaps, a 17.4 percent drop rate that ranks him as the 10th-worst in this category.
This is theoretically a fixable problem; after all, none of these receivers arrived with a reputation for possessing shaky hands. A more likely explanation for these drops arises from the shaky timing between Brady and his receivers, something that has stifled the passing game all season. If the receivers are still trying to remember what routes to run and what reads to make in the middle of a play, these supposedly second-nature actions could interfere with the pass-catching.
That is where the true problem lies, as it is totally unclear if the receivers have made enough progress to be reliable targets in the postseason. With both Gronk and Amendola in the lineup this week, Brady targeted his rookie receivers just six times. If opposing defenses do not have to respect the vertical threat, the Patriots will run into the same problems that have ended past playoff runs.
Least Encouraging Moment
This reflects not so much a single moment as it does a montage of Tom Brady's deep throws this season. It is exceedingly foolish to proclaim that Brady is finished, but at 36 years old, it's fair to question how much of a decline Brady has exhibited and whether or not this reputed decline is significant enough to hold back a raw New England offense.
First, it's important to note that Brady has set impossibly high standards over his career, so a slight regression from him would still leave the Pats with a superstar quarterback. However, there have undeniably been holes in the future Hall-of-Famer's game this year, and midway through the season, they are impossible to ignore.
The disappearance of the deep passing game is the most obvious defect. Brady is just 9-for-28 on passes of more than 20 yards, with a 36.8 accuracy percentage that ranks 17th out of 24 qualified quarterbacks.
This has considerably toned down a previously explosive offense; a year after averaging 5.8 yards per play and racking up 68 plays of 20 or more yards, the Patriots are on pace for only 56 big plays in 2013 and are now averaging just 4.7 yards per play.
Not all of this is on Brady of course, as you probably discerned both from the last slide and simply from watching the games. But this lack of reliability and timing has affected his accuracy on all of his throws. A year after ranking 10th in the league with a 74.8 accuracy percentage, Brady is 25th this year with a 67.2 percent mark.
It's certainly possible that time will heal these flaws, as better timing between he and his receivers will surely improve Brady's numbers. But since 2010, only 8-of-33 NFL playoff games have ended with the winning team scoring fewer than 24 points. Needless to say, the Patriots passing game has a long ways to go to before having any hopes of making a run to the Super Bowl this year.
Most Encouraging Moment
On the other hand, even in a season full of frustrations, Tom Brady has shown flashes of magic that keep Patriots fans believing. This was never more evident than during the team's miraculous last-minute game-winning drive against the New Orleans Saints in Week 6—a game the Patriots had just a one-percent chance of winning, per Advanced NFL Stats.com.
That drive illustrated the very best of Brady, as his pinpoint accuracy and impeccable awareness stole a win on that miraculous afternoon. If nothing else, it proved that his supposed accuracy issues are certainly correctable. It's not as if Brady is incapable of conjuring up stretches of brilliance, even if the passing game is not yet entirely cohesive.
Ironically, though that drive was the last time in which Brady did not have either Gronkowski or Amendola, his last two weeks have been two of his three worst games ever in terms of quarterback rating. I'll have more on Gronk's impact on the offense later this week, but in summation, while there have been a few encouraging flashes, the consistency is still lacking since his return.
Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to expect solid improvement from the passing game, to the point where the Pats may end up ranking as an average offense by season's end. That does not sound particularly impressive, but consider that the past two Super Bowl champions, the Giants and Ravens, were flawed teams who gelled in time to transform into well-rounded squads with few weaknesses. It may look unlikely now, but the Patriots are fully capable of doing the same.
Most Troubling Under-the-Radar Trend
Other organizations have marveled at the Patriots ability to churn out consistent offensive production despite constant levels of personnel turnover—the hallmark of New England's decade-long consistency.
An underrated component of that success is the offensive line, as the Pats have repeatedly turned their investments into capable multi-year starters and solid backups.
However, the cracks are starting to appear this season, especially along the interior. Center Ryan Wendell struggled in pass protection all last season, but he compensated for that by grading out as the best run-blocking center in the league, by far.
But even that valuable asset has disappeared this season, as Wendell has compiled an essentially neutral plus-0.1 run-blocking grade. Combined with his minus-8.3 pass-blocking mark, Wendell has been one of the five-worst centers in the league this season.
Similarly, Dan Connolly has had his struggles, with a minus-6.9 pass protection grade. Even former All-Pro Logan Mankins has not been particularly dominating, with a minus-2.0 pass-blocking grade. As we have seen over the past month, the Patriots offensive line has had its share of struggles containing the bigger front sevens of Cincinnati, New York and Miami.
Some of this stems from Brady holding onto the ball a bit longer than usual, but it seems as though there have been more frequent blown assignments from the guys in front of him. Plays like this, where sloppy technique by Mankins caused an easy sack, have happened more often than usual this season.
Even with Sebastian Vollmer possibly being done for the season with a broken leg, the Patriots offensive line still has the talent and excellent coaching from Dante Scarnecchia to turn things around. For the New England offense to re-discover its rhythm, success must start in the trenches.
Best One-Hit Wonder
Shane Vereen may have played in just one game thus far in 2013, but his explosive performance in Week 1 following Stevan Ridley's benching may have saved the Patriots' bacon against Buffalo. However, Vereen also broke his wrist on that day and has been on injured reserve/designated for return ever since. Fortunately, he is eligible to play again following the Pats bye in Week 10.
Vereen could be the final ingredient that will bring the New England offense back to full strength, at least for the time being. The receiving back is an increasingly en vogue weapon around the NFL, but the Patriots have had tremendous stability at the position over the past decade with Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead. In limited playing time, Vereen has shown glimpses of providing even more explosive play in this role.
His return will provide a bigger boost than many Pats fans may expect, as New England running backs have compiled a minus-3.2 grade in the passing game this year. In just one game, Vereen racked up a plus-1.5 mark. Primary passing back Brandon Bolden has been especially unreliable, with a minus-2.6 receiving grade and four dropped passes on just 17 targets.
Considering how important the screen game is to the Patriots offense, a reliable receiving back is nearly as valuable as a middle-of-the-field possession receiver. Vereen would add another dimension to a fairly static passing game, providing a change-up the Patriots simply do not possess right now. Moreover, his versatility to split out wide (which we saw this preseason) would open up some creative possibilities for Josh McDaniels, something Patriots fans have been clamoring for all season.
Vereen may need a few weeks to kick off the rust, but his future presence in the offense is not something we should undervalue.
Most Underrated Player
With Vince Wilfork out for the year and Tommy Kelly absent for the past month, the Patriots have been forced to play one of the league's most undersized defensive tackle duos in rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano.
And yet, while the Pats have occasionally gotten gashed on long runs, opponents are averaging just 4.0 yards per carry over the past two weeks—weeks in which the Pats have played without Wilfork, Kelly or Jerod Mayo.
Jones and Vellano are doing as well as one could reasonably expect, but the real catalyst for that respectable showing has been linebacker Brandon Spikes.
Early on, it appeared that the Patriots were phasing Spikes out of their defensive gameplans, as the big linebacker did not have a role in the sub-package-oriented schemes. However, after playing just 90 snaps during the first four weeks, Spikes has played 233 snaps over the last four weeks, signifying his importance to the run defense.
Spikes is essentially another defensive linemen, as the Patriots will often send him crashing into one of the A-gaps. This has occassionally backfired, as Spikes can lose contain on a running back in his overzealous pursuit, but overall, his presence has almost single-handedly prevented teams from crushing the Pats up the middle. In fact, despite barely playing the first month, Spikes has already racked up the highest run-defense grade in the league with a plus-11.2 rating.
Considering that the two rookies have combined for a horrifying cumulative run grade of minus-17.5, Spikes is now one of the most important players remaining on the defense. His relentless bruising style makes him a health risk to both opponents and himself, so the Patriots will need a bit of overdue injury luck to keep their best run-stuffer on the field.
Most Important Recovery
Tom Brady's hand may be the most scrutinized body part on the Patriots roster, but Aqib Talib's hip is a close second. Hip problems plagued Talib towards the end of last season, and his absence from the roster has stretched the Pats secondary to the limits of its depth.
Earlier, I hinted at how Talib and McCourty are vital to the team's success—not just for their individual talent but for the subsequent domino effect their presence has on the rest of the secondary. They allow more limited players to perform roles that suit their strengths.
Indeed, in McCourty's case, his range has enabled the Patriots to play lots of Cover 1 robber zones. This permits Steve Gregory to play closer to the line rather than back in coverage like a traditional free safety.
Talib's effect is even more drastic, though the Patriots have gotten by over the past few weeks while facing subpar passing attacks in the Jets and Dolphins. Without Talib in the lineup, the Patriots have had to turn to either Kyle Arrington or Logan Ryan as an outside cornerback.
Arrington struggled badly in that role against the Jets, conceding numerous third-down catches to Jeremy Kerley and earning a minus-1.9 grade before being benched. Ryan actually hasn't fared much better, with a minus-0.9 pass-coverage grade over the past two weeks, despite a couple of flashy highlights.
After the bye, the Patriots face a slate of teams with dangerous receivers. While no one has had success stifling the Broncos' historically prolific attack, it seems reasonable to expect the Patriots to limit teams like the Panthers, Texans and Ravens, all of whom possess a single dangerous receiver and little else. Having their shutdown cornerback would go a long ways towards containing those offenses.
Even with the losses of Wilfork and Mayo, the nature of the cornerback position makes Talib a foundational player that the Patriots can construct their defense around. They may no longer resemble the top-five behemoth from the first month, but the defense should still be a top-half unit if Talib and his balky hip can stay at full strength for the rest of the season.