New England Patriots: What We've Learned Through Week 3 of Training Camp
The New England Patriots are beginning to pinpoint where their biggest strengths and main weaknesses lie. For the former category, consider the pass defense.
While a lot of offseason attention has been dedicated to the arrival of premier cornerback Darrelle Revis, an undrafted cover man is showing the Pats secondary won't be a one-man show.
The revamped defensive backfield will also be ably assisted by what is shaping up to be a very deep, talented rotation of pass-rushers. A late-round draft pick is steadily making an impression among a group already boosted by the arrival of graybeard defensive end Will Smith.
However, it's not been all good news for the defense. The unit's ability to stop the run has been called into question during recent scrimmages and preseason action.
Over on the offense, the franchise might be rethinking its view on backup quarterback Ryan Mallett. He has wasted an opportunity to merit buzz as Tom Brady's possible successor.
Here's a closer look at some of the lessons learned through the third week of Pats camp.
All statistics via NFL.com.
Run Defense Might Be a Worry
It's almost been taken for granted that last season's miserable 30th-ranked run defense would automatically improve with the return to health of behemoth D-tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
However, it's just possible the problems may go a little deeper than an absence of beef along the interior. That was obvious during organized scrimmages and preseason action against the Washington Redskins.
NFL.com media reporter Albert Breer highlighted some of the issues the run defense could face this season:
It's not just the 177 rushing yards the Redskins accumulated on Thursday, but the consistent success they seemed to have running the ball in the team's joint practices last Monday and Tuesday. Tommy Kelly is 33 and Wilfork will turn 33 during the season. The depth up the middle is questionable beyond those two. The Patriots undoubtedly would like to rotate their older big men, which means they'll need to find guys worthy of those snaps in the coming weeks. (Ideally, first-round draft pick Dominique Easley, who is recovering from major knee surgery, gets healthy enough to contribute.)
Wilfork and Kelly coming back certainly should make a difference. Head coach Bill Belichick usually builds his defense on size in the middle, and that often leads to a stout run front.
Yet the fact that the group was gashed by Washington, albeit without Wilfork and Kelly, still rates as a concern. It hints that the basic techniques of gap control aren't being followed, or worse still, teams have sussed New England's schemes along the front.
Washington runs a zone-based system that clearly gave the Pats problems. Closer to home, AFC East rival Buffalo has some of those same principles in its own ground schemes.
Meanwhile, the New York Jets may incorporate less man blocking to take advantage of the speed of Bilal Powell and new arrival Chris Johnson.
Belichick won't have been happy to see his run front mauled during scrimmages and the preseason opener, no matter who was lining up in the trenches. But his plans for the season will be helped by the pending return to health of first-round pick Easley.
Easley, meanwhile, had blown out both ACLs while at college. He's been rehabbing the right one, which was the latest. He had been on the active/non-football injury list. At one point, he broke off from the defensive line group and worked with strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash. He looked pretty good in all the change-of-direction work Nash put him through.
If he can quickly work his way into playing fitness, Easley will offer the Patriots something different inside. Specifically, he'll bring quickness and the ability to dart through gaps, rather than simply controlling them. More penetration up front will help the Patriots wreck running plays at their source.
The team now faces a week of organized scrimmages with the Philadelphia Eagles, followed by a preseason encounter. The Eagles are owners of 2013's top-ranked rushing offense. So be sure to keep a close eye on how successfully the Pats are able to corral Philly runners.
Malcolm Butler Is Showing the Depth and Quality in the Secondary
Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia know they can count on Revis and eventually Brandon Browner at cornerback this season. However, merely having two quality corners isn't enough in today's era of spread sets and pass-led offensive schemes.
That's why it's good news that first-year cover man Malcolm Butler continues to impress. ESPNBoston.com writers Mike Reiss and Lee Schechter are the latest to take note of Butler's positive development:
Earlier in the day, Bill Belichick said that undrafted cornerback Malcolm Butler was still improving, which won't come as a surprise to Patriots fans who watched the preseason opener. Butler (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) caught the eye again in this practice, intercepting Tom Brady on a sideline pass to Kenbrell Thompkins in situational 11-on-11 work. Butler, of West Alabama, wore a red non-contact jersey for the second half of practice and received some quality reps opposite Darrelle Revis.
Butler's form shows the depth of quality New England boasts in the secondary this season. That is most evident at cornerback.
In the same report, Reiss and Schechter also highlighted how Alfonzo Dennard is nearing a return to full fitness. He's reportedly featured in some seven-on-seven drills.
Belichick can also still turn to flexible veteran Kyle Arrington, along with second-year pro Logan Ryan. Options are aplenty here, something that's good news when one glances at this season's schedule.
Quarterbacks such as Jay Cutler, Peyton Manning Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers await the Patriots once the real season begins. So do wide receivers the caliber of Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Jordy Nelson, Keenan Allen and Reggie Wayne.
So, the more capable cornerbacks at Belichick and Patricia's disposal the better.
Pass-Rush Rotation Will Be Strong
Even with an established star like Revis and a prospect as intriguing as Butler, any secondary needs the support of a strong pass rush. That's just what the Patriots should have thanks to growing options on the outside.
One such option might be sixth-round rookie Zach Moore. He has recently been showcasing some impressive versatility and natural rush skills, per CSNNE.com reporter Phil Perry:
Moore's length and power help open up for him various assignments. While he's most experienced as a defensive end, he's also played at the defensive tackle spot and could even be used as an outside linebacker. He saw plenty of reps on the inside Sunday and may continue to see more there after defensive tackles Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones suffered injuries last week.
Being able to play multiple positions is a necessity for pass-rushers in a Belichick-designed defense. The coach still loves to flip-flop between 3-4 and 4-3 looks in base situations. That's only possible with players who can put their hand down, and who also have the ability to set the edge from a standing position.
Shifting Moore inside may not be all about necessity. Last season, the Pats used some four-defensive end looks in obvious passing situations. Those fronts featured edge-rushers moved inside to align as 3-technique tackles.
In a scheme as multiple as Belichick's, flexible linemen are the key. Moore is helping his case to become a fifth hybrid weapon for Belichick to deploy in creative ways.
Moore can be part of a group that will provide greater depth on the edge, something that remains an offseason priority.
Progress in that area is looking good, as Moore is not the only rush end turning heads at camp, per Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe:
While on one hand it speaks to the durability and conditioning of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich that they were both able to play more than 95 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps last season, the fact they were forced to play so much also points to a lack of depth at the end position.
With Jones and Ninkovich getting the night off against Washington last Thursday, Buchanan started and played the entire game, on the field for 60 (of 76) defensive snaps. He was credited with seven tackles, including the Patriots’ only sack, two quarterback hits, and two tackles for loss.
Moore and Michael Buchanan's progress is good news for the rest of the rotation. Jones and Ninkovich will remain the primary starters on the outside. But they'll also be supplemented by a trio of hybrid-style rushers.
Add Smith to the mix, and Belichick and Patricia will be able to craft even more pressure-heavy fronts to challenge quarterbacks.
Ryan Mallett's Future May Not Be so Bright After All
New England's preseason opener against the Redskins was supposed to be Mallett's chance to showcase his talents and justify offseason hype. Consider it an opportunity squandered.
NFL.com writer Gregg Rosenthal detailed how much Mallett struggled against Washington:
Operation Showcase Ryan Mallett got off to a slow start for a third straight year. Mallett was not comfortable in the pocket, and not accurate during a 5-of-12 performance. The Patriots didn't score while he was in the game.
To make matters worse, Rosenthal also noted how second-rounder Jimmy Garoppolo took his chance to shine. That's a reversal of fortunes for these two backup passers compared with most of training camp.
Garoppolo was panned for his performances earlier in camp. Boston.com writer Erik Frenz bemoaned the young signal-caller's inconsistency.
At the same time, Mallett was being hailed as a potential starter by NFL Media Analyst Mike Mayock (h/t NFL.com writer Chris Wesseling), while Boston Herald reporter Jeff Howe spoke glowingly about Mallett's quality this camp.
But all of that has been turned on its head after Week 1 of the preseason. Mallett has once again looked anything but the potential natural successor to Brady.
In fact, Mallett may now be in danger of losing his spot as Brady's chief deputy. It doesn't help that he has missed two practice sessions in a row, per NESN.com writer Doug Kyed:
Mallett missed his second straight practice with what appears to be an undisclosed injury. The second-string quarterback slid awkwardly on his left knee in Thursday’s preseason loss to the Washington Redskins, but he stayed in the contest.
Garoppolo would have to keep improving in practice and string together four consistent preseason games to pass Mallett on the depth chart. Mallett has to get back on the practice field, however.
If this offseason has taught Belichick anything, it's that he shouldn't assume 37-year-old Brady's eventual replacement is already on this roster.
Offensive Line Is a Concern
The offensive line has usually been a team strength during the Belichick era. However, things might be about to change for the worse.
Every area of the offensive front has had issues so far during both camp and the early days of preseason. One prominent player experiencing problems is left tackle Nate Solder, per ESPNBoston.com reporters Reiss and Schechter:
After fourth-year left tackle Nate Solder struggled in joint practices with the Redskins, and then in the preseason opener, it's been notable that he has not been working alongside left guard Logan Mankins the past two days. Marcus Cannon has stepped into that role. It has also caught our attention that first-year player Jordan Devey, who started the preseason opener at left guard in place of the rested Mankins, has worked as the top right guard the past two days. Devey could be an under-the-radar player to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
Solder's woes aren't good news when considering he's Brady's blindside protector. The Patriots hardly want to be tinkering with such a key position.
But it isn't just on the edges where struggles are evident. The reference to Devey speaks to notable uncertainty on the inside, something highlighted by NFL.com's Breer:
On the flip side, the interior of the offensive line remains an area of concern, with the Patriots having created competition by drafting a guard and a center. The retirement of Dante Scarnecchia, maybe the most respected of Belichick's coaching lieutenants, doesn't help. New line coach Dave DeGuglielmo has big shoes to fill.
The Patriots must have strength and skill along the interior. In particular, their power-based running game demands it.
The Patriots love to pull guards around the line as lead blockers in the ground game. That requires stamina, mobility and brute force at the heart of the trenches.
The last thing Belichick will want is to lose the balance a productive rushing attack has provided in recent seasons.
There's a lot of shuffling going on so it's clear the Pats are yet to decide what their best combination up front looks like. Thankfully, that's just what preseason is for.
However, it is still something of a concern that with only three exhibition games before the real action begins, such a key position remains shrouded in uncertainty.
Generally positive reviews for the defense but question marks on offense is a familiar pattern for New England's offseason. The Pats are counting on dominance from the former unit, while another season of brilliance from the aging Brady will be needed to carry the latter.
That's just how things are shaping up.