Where These 3 Patriots Stars Must Improve in 2014-15
Bill Belichick always admonishes his players to do their job. It's a simple and not especially galvanizing war cry, but it's the most critical lesson in a sport that relies more heavily on teamwork than any other.
So who on the Patriots can better fulfill the requirements of their job description next season? Let's take a look at a few players with things to work on in the offseason.
Chris Jones: Run Defense
Rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones has filled in admirably on a depleted defensive line this year, especially considering he didn't even start the season on the team.
With stalwart interior linemen Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly both lost for the season to injury, Jones found himself starting on a makeshift Patriots line.
Jones made quite an impact as a pass rusher alongside fellow rookie Joe Vellano. He finished his first season with six sacks and has already added another sack in his first postseason game. His ability to rush the quarterback from an interior position makes him a valuable player on passing downs.
But if Jones wants to be a viable starter in this league for the long term, he'll need to improve against the run. Among DTs, he finished dead last by a wide margin in defending the run per ProFootballFocus' grading metrics.
His tendency to get pushed around in the running game and his inability to occupy multiple blockers make the job of linebackers behind him that much harder. It's no coincidence that LB Dont'a Hightower's performance has dramatically improved since stout newcomer Sealver Siliga was activated off the practice squad.
Right now, Jones is starting next to Siliga, whose skillset as a gap-filler and point-of-attack-maintainer complements Jones' ability to get upfield. Still, Bill Belichick (like most coaches) prefers his linemen to be able to make plays against the pass and the run. Jones has a way to go when it comes to doing the latter job.
Dont'a Hightower: Sideline-to-Sideline Speed
I'm as big of a Dont'a Hightower fan as you'll find among Patriots fans. He received plenty of (valid) criticism this season for his play, but football is a team sport and Hightower was playing behind an interior defensive line populated by undrafted free agents and castoffs. It's hard to make plays as an LB when you constantly have to shed blocks from bigger offensive linemen.
Since the aforementioned Siliga has slid into the starting lineup and eaten up space and blockers, Dont'a Hightower has had to contend with far fewer linemen on the second level.
Hightower's play in the final quarter of the season is reflective of his potential when he has room to operate. He finished third among 4-3 OLBs in run defense per ProFootballFocus thanks almost entirely to four highly-graded performances to close out the year. The Patriots also see something in Hightower's pass-rushing ability, as they've called more plays recently in which Hightower is off the line but crashes once the ball is snap.
Where Hightower is lacking, however, is in coverage ability. He has regularly been beaten by running backs and tight ends in the middle of the field this season, leading to the fifth-worst coverage rating, per ProFootballFocus.
Nobody expects Hightower, who Wes Bunting of the National Football Post described before the 2012 draft as a player who "doesn't have a great first step or great range sideline to sideline," to be able to cover CJ Spiller or LeSean McCoy. But he'll need to be able to avoid getting picked apart regularly by tight ends over the middle, and he'll have to work on passing off his assignments on crossing routes when he's dropping into zone coverage.
Again, this is nothing Hightower can't improve on. I expect to see him playing Brandon Spikes' 4-3 MLB role in 2014-15, and I expect him to be more dynamic at the position than Spikes ever was.
Stevan Ridley: Ball Protection
We all know the story by this point. Stevan Ridley runs hard, keeps his pads low and makes his reads decisively. He's everything the Pats should want in a featured back. By all rights, LeGarrette Blount should never be seeing the workload he's been getting this season—those carries should have been going to Ridley from the start.
The problem, of course, is with Ridley's fumbling problems. Of course, Ridley actually had fewer fumbles per carry this season than Blount (Ridley fumbled once every 59.3 carries, while Blount coughed up the ball once every 53 carries) but Ridley's issues came to a head when he fumbled in three straight games against Pittsburgh, Carolina and Denver. All three fumbles were recovered by the opponent (a bit of bad luck there) and all led to points.
As Bleacher Report Lead Writer Erik Frenz detailed back in November, Ridley's problem seems to be that he lacks the awareness to know when to secure the ball with his off hand when defenders close in for the kill.
He also sometimes secures the ball at only two points of contact (the palm of his hand at one point of the football and the other point tucked into the crux of his elbow) rather than maintaining that crucial third point of contact (high and tight against the body) that prevents defenders from poking the ball loose.
Ridley is slowly regaining Bill Belichick's trust, and he appears willing to put in the work necessary to regain his featured back role. He has said all the right things publicly with respect to his fumbling problems and subsequent benching. Now all that remains to be seen is if he is able to correct an issue that has dogged his reputation, deservedly or not.
Patriots fans hope so, because the best edition of this Patriots squad includes Stevan Ridley, with all of his immense talent and none of the ball-security issues.