From Week One, New England caught the attention of the rest of the league and made pending opponents take notice andspend extra time in the weight room, film room, etc.
It was to no avail, of course, as the Patriots steamrolled through the first half of the season and maintained cruise control to finish the regular season 16-0. The playoffs didn’t end as they wished, but there was no denying the powerful effect on the NFL in general and the AFC in particular.
Following that storybook season was the Tom Brady-less 2008 campaign. Matt Cassel did an admirable job, leading the team to an 11-5 record despite not starting at quarterback since 1999.
The Patriots still managed to finish in the top 10 in points for the fifth-straight year, but despite tying the Dolphins’ record, they were left out of the playoffs due to the tiebreaker.
The big question now is, what do these two seasons combined portend for the upcoming 2009 season?
2007 was a great season for the defense. Playing with a lead for nearly the entire season, they could pin their ears back and get after the opposing quarterback with reckless abandon.
The secondary only needed to hold for 3-4 seconds while the defensive line and linebackers rushed. This led to a total of 47 sacks and 19 interceptions. They had the fourth-ranked defense, and many believed that it was one of the best defenses the Patriots had put on the field.
After 2007, they lost Asante Samuel. Yet, somehow, the 2008 defense (with Deltha O’Neal replacing) still managed to snare a respectable 14 interceptions on their way to the eighth-ranked defense. That ranking seems high in retrospect.
The Patriots only picked up 30 sacks and allowed opponents to convert over 44 percent of third downs. In addition, they did not manage to get a touchdown on defense, compared to six in 2007.
Despite the high ranking, the defense looked tired, out of sorts at times. They were almost entirely ineffectual against the pass.
They ranked fourth in rushing touchdowns allowed, but this is dismissed by their abysmal 31st ranking in passing touchdowns allowed. The weakness was noticed and exploited for much of the year.
In 2009, the secondary has been revamped heavily. Last year’s starters, Ellis Hobbs III and Deltha O’Neal, have been replaced by veteran free agents Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden.
The Patriots also drafted Connecticut cornerback Darius Butler this year, in addition to second-year players Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley; Wheatley suffered a season-ending injury against the Colts last year.
For the safeties, Brandon Meriweather took over for Rodney Harrison following Harrison's season-ending quadriceps injury and did well. James Sanders remains unspectacular but serviceable. The safety position was also bolstered by the drafting of Patrick Chung from Oregon.
What the Patriots have, in effect, is a group of players that, many of whom, will be in either their first or second year in the system.
Central to the Patriots’ overall success is how quickly these new players can adapt to Belichick’s philosophies.
The defensive line remains unchanged. Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, and Richard Seymour start, followed by Jarvis Green as needed. This is a solid group and still fairly young, given their experience in the system.
Ron Brace was drafted to back up this group, and they still have Mike Wright to provide support.
The strength of this group is the front three, though. I expect that the entire group will perform well, even better than last year.
Was the reduced number of sacks due to this group’s inability to get after the quarterback, or was it due to the secondary’s poor play? I happen to think it is the latter.
The linebacker group is actually the biggest risk/reward area for the Patriots on defense this year. Jerod Mayo played at ILB nearly every defensive snap last year. He and Adalius Thomas at OLB are the two best players in this group and will be the leaders.
Longtime veteran and fan favorite Tedy Bruschi will likely platoon with second-year player Gary Guyton, who may well replace him this year in the starting lineup.
The big questions revolve around the rest of the group. Will Pierre Woods step up and be the starter, or will Tully Banta-Cain, back from a short stint in San Francisco, take the lead role?
Shawn Crable watched last year from IR; can he become the starter?
Recent signee Paris Lenon is glad to join Leigh Bodden in their escape from 0-16 Detroit, but will he beat out Eric Alexander for the primary backup role behind Jerod Mayo?
I’m not certain whether or not this is going to be a great defense, but the possibility is there. There are going to be at least four new starters, and that could prove a bit tricky at the onset.
Expect more pressure on the quarterback and a much better third down defense. There are several members in their final year of their contract, so you can look for a tremendous "contract-year" result for this defense.
They won’t want to be the reason that the team couldn’t get the Lombardi trophy. I anticipate that Tully Banta-Cain won’t make the roster, despite his experience with the defense.
Secondary (S, CB): Improved, but it remains to be seen by how much.
Defensive Line: Solid as ever, with younger players coming up.
Linebacker (OLB, ILB): Questions remain here, but this group could be improved over last season, barring injury.
The offense of the Patriots bears a striking resemblance to the record-setting 2007 group that took the league by storm. There are differences, though, and possible changes in philosophies that could come to bear in the games ahead.
At quarterback, we’re moving ahead to the past with the return of Tom Brady. Kevin O’Connell is unproven and untested as the backup, but then so was Matt Cassel.
It is expected (and hoped!) that he won’t get a chance to see the field much this season, except in late game mop-up duty.
The big question on everyone’s mind won’t be answered until at least August—how healthy is Tom Brady’s knee, really? Personally, I anticipate that it’ll be strong, but that his play won’t be quite up to the 2007 numbers.
But a 90 percent Brady is better than 99 percent of other quarterbacks playing at their best. I look for 4,300-plus yards and 32-36 touchdowns, perhaps with 12 interceptions.
Randy Moss and Wes Welker once again highlight the receiving corps. Moss has shown that his talent remains, grabbing 167 passes for 2,501 yards and 34 touchdowns over the past two years. He’s a true No. 1 receiver that teams must game-plan around and most defenses double-team.
Welker has picked up 223 receptions for 2,340 yards and 11 TD in his two years with the Patriots. Along the way, he has established himself as the best slot receiver in the game.
Don’t be surprised to find him catching under 100 passes this season, however, as the offense does more work on the running game.
The Patriots have lost two receivers from 2007: Donte Stallworth, who left after 2007, and Jabar Gaffney, who joined Josh McDaniels in Denver this year.
The Patriots have stayed true to form, however, signing Joey Galloway in free agency, trading for Greg Lewis, and drafting Julian Edelman.
Joey Galloway is considered a better route runner than Stallworth and has good hands and great speed—when he is healthy, that is. If healthy, he’ll start opposite Moss.
Lewis has been plagued with criticism throughout his career for route running, work ethic, and dropping passes. Leaving Philadelphia could be the best thing for his career.
New England doesn’t have high expectations for him, as they merely want him to do his job as the No. 4 WR, be ready to go, and catch the ball when it comes his way.
Julian Edelman is easily the most intriguing rookie on the offense. A former QB, he’s said to have slipped into the WR role with incredible ease, and he’s shown great promise.
That said, everything we have seen has been without hits and without pads, so we’ll hold off the great praise until we see what he does in full contact.
The tight ends are much improved. Ben Watson and David Thomas are no longer the consensus 1-2 of the group. The arrival of newcomers Chris Baker (FA) and Alex Smith (trade) could mean that Thomas misses the cut this season.
Baker and Smith are both good receivers and should help blocking in the running game as well. Watson will need to show the ability to catch the ball to match his athleticism, or he will be moved to No. 2 or even No. 3.
The running back corps has definitely improved. The 2007 group consisted of Sammy Morris, Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, and Kyle Eckel, with Heath Evans as fullback. In 2008 they lost Eckel but acquired free agent LaMont Jordan and undrafted rookie BenJarvis Green-Ellis.
Now, Evans and Jordan are gone, and Fred Taylor has come in. The combination of Taylor-Morris-Maroney-Faulk looks like the best set of backs since the Corey Dillon-Maroney-Faulk group of 2006.
I fully anticipate the Patriots to utilize the run more prominently in 2009 than they did in 2007. I expect a regular platooning—assuming health, of course—with Taylor as lead, followed by Morris and Maroney. Faulk would once again assume the third down or change-of-pace back position.
Still, don’t believe that the Patriots haven’t been effective in their attempts to run the ball recently. In fact, in the past three seasons, the Patriots have rushed for three of the top-four yardage totals since Belichick took over in 2000.
This includes the top three rushing TD totals and three of the four highest YPC average. Not only that, but three of the five most total rushing attempts have come the past three years.
2008 alone brought the second most rushing attempts, along with the most rushing TDs, yards, and ypc average in Belichick’s tenure. Running the ball has benefited from the passing game quite well.
The big question with the running game is what to do with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. In his rookie season, he rushed for 275 yards and five touchdowns in limited action.
Standing behind Taylor, Morris, Maroney, and Faulk makes it difficult for him to make the roster, much less get playing time.
Be prepared to see the Patriots and Bill Belichick decide to keep a fifth back this season, if for no other reason than the fact that Green-Ellis is no longer practice-squad eligible. That fact alone might well put him on the 53-man roster.
The offensive line, which garnered tremendous praise during the 2007 romp through the regular season, took some heat for the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Last year, thanks to injuries and sometimes sloppy play, they went from being the darlings to being considered the dogs.
2009 could be redemption, and with some contracts expiring, this could be a last shot for some to remain with the team. Matt Light remains good at left tackle but has difficulty with quicker DE’s and OLB’s, which has meant shifting protections.
Logan Mankins is a road-grader with a mean streak, perfect for the left guard. Dan Koppen has been a solid center, and there’s no reason to suspect otherwise.
Stephen Neal is good when on the field, but he’s missed a lot of games lately. He’ll need to be healthy, or it’s an outside chance he might not even make the roster come fall.
Nick Kaczur is another who could be in danger and will need to take his play up a notch.
Even so, with a new QB in Matt Cassel, this group worked hard and tried to learn his cadence and his instincts. It shouldn’t take long to get into “Brady mode.”
There is new, young talent coming up in Rich Ohrnberger and Sebastian Vollmer. Thanks in large part to Dante Scarnecchia, the OL coach, the O-line will again be a contributor to the team’s success, not a cause of their demise.
Tom Brady’s knee is the biggest difference between the 2007 offense and this upcoming season. Matt Cassel took the helm in 2008, and the Patriots went 11-5. Cassel was also able to throw 21 TDs compared to just 11 INTs and compiled nearly 3,700 yards.
It has to be assumed that a healthy Tom Brady would be able to improve upon that, especially with the improvements in the running backs and receivers.
Brady’s injury, however, could mean a potential shift in how the Patriots approach games. If Brady is at 100 percent, I would not be surprised to see the Pats come out guns a-blazin', scoring points like mad from the start. Even then, don’t be shocked if the running game plays a more prominent role.
Quarterback: Tom Brady, expected healthy. Nothing more needs to be said.
Receivers (TE, WR): Improved, especially at TE, but how much is still in question?
Offensive Line: Dependable as always.
Running Backs: Best since Dillon-Maroney-Faulk, and quite probably superior to that. Could be best RB group Belichick has ever had.
This Patriots team is positioned to reclaim the AFC East title and wants to recover the Lamar Hunt trophy on their way to grabbing the coveted Lombardi.
On the offensive side, there is no reason to expect anything other than excellence and tons of scoring; not equal to 2007, but superior by far to 2008.
They are definitely one of the top-10 offenses in the league and probably top 3-5.
The questions are on defense. If the first- and second-year players and recently acquired veterans can mesh quickly in the Patriots system, this could be one of the better defenses in the league.
If they struggle to keep discipline on their assignments, they could be middle of the pack and disappointing.
It’s my opinion that this defense will far surpass last year in all areas. Expect much better numbers for sacks, interceptions, third-down defense, and red-zone scoring.
Rushing yards allowed will be about equal, but passing yards will fall. This defense will be good and be a strong asset on their way to a February game.