New England Patriots: 10 Things to Look Out for in '09
This is a new-look Patriots team, and it will be interesting to see how it all pans out.
While most of the key components of Coach Belichick's dominant defense in its dynasty years have come and gone, the Patriots now have in place an outstanding offense, which is backed up by a defense that has all the right tools to carry this team on a deep playoff run.
Without further ado, here are 10 things that Patriots fans (and haters) should be prepared for in the upcoming 2009 season.
Shock and Awe: Offense Leads the Way
For one of the first times in the Belichick era, the New England Patriots are going to be an offense-first team, with a lot of pressure placed on the main group of Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker to succeed.
What's left of the "defense of the dynasty" years has slowed down drastically, and the rest of the defense is young and coming into their element.
There is great potential with this defensive group, but the more talented part of the Patriots' squad is the offensive part.
Tom Brady, who in 2007 led a 4,086-yard, 50-touchdown aerial assault with a 117.2 passer rating, is back for his first full season since tearing his ACL in the first game of the 2008 season.
He returns to a familiar group of receivers led by his favorite toy Randy Moss and exceptional possession receiver Wes Welker.
Fred Taylor, who last year ran a solid 3.9 yards per carry, joins a deep and talented running back corps that includes the young Laurence Maroney and tried and tested veterans Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris, who are the final components of a complete offensive unit.
Brady can do whatever he wants with this offense in place, whether that be firing a quick out to Wes Welker or a deep bomb to Randy Moss.
But Brady also has the options to go to slot guys Joey Galloway or Greg Lewis, as well as hand off to one of his many good running backs.
Brady comes back to the control of an offense that is as heavily equipped for battle as an Abrams tank. And it will be exciting to watch him lead another prolific aerial assault that will surely march onwards to victory.
Defensive Young Guns Try To Keep Up The Tradition
While the news of Tedy Bruschi's retirement was shocking and saddening for us all, though I do imagine that I'm not the only New England fan excited to see how the defense performs this year.
Bruschi passes the torch on to Defensive Rookie of the Year Jerod Mayo, who looks to be one of this team's defensive leaders as he tries to build from an outstanding 2008—when he collected 98 solo tackles and forced one fumble.
The Pats also have some familiar faces up front with Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Adalius Thomas, and Richard Seymour. But the rest of the defense is packed with fresh rookies and more experienced veterans.
Perhaps the most interesting position to watch could be right inside linebacker, as the Patriots will look for someone to step up in place of Bruschi.
Gary Guyton looks like he will be the starter, but questions have been raised as to whether he will be a three-down linebacker.
Paris Lenon, Shawn Crable, and Eric Alexander could also see some time in Bruschi's spot.
In the wake of Rodney Harrison announcing his retirement in June, it shall also be interesting to see how safeties James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather continue to develop.
Meriweather, a three-year veteran from Miami, has turned into a ball-hawking leader in the secondary. He was all over the place in 2008, recording two sacks, four interceptions, and 57 solo tackles while forcing two fumbles in 11 starts.
Sanders, who will turn 26 in November, continues to be a solid option at safety, as he had 64 tackles in 14 starts last year. However, in the long run, expect to see Patrick Chung take over at free safety for Sanders.
And finally, we have the cornerbacks. Belichick completely revamped this area of the defense, and it is my belief that it was last year's cornerback play that was responsible for the Patriots having the worst secondary in the league.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the cornerback corps was Leigh Bodden. Bodden had a bit of a down year last year with Detroit, but in 2007 with Cleveland he was phenomenal, collecting six interceptions and 76 solo tackles.
To his credit, he did have a career high three forced fumbles last year, and all in all, Bodden should be a tremendous upgrade over Ellis Hobbs, who was weak in pass coverage.
Lining up opposite from Bodden will be either Jonathan Wilhite or Shawn Springs. Wilhite, 25, played in all 16 games last year but only started four of them. In those 16 games, he had 20 solo tackles and one interception.
Overall, it looks like a good defense. It may not be the same as the crew that was ranked fourth best in the league in 2007, or in the top 10 in 2003 and 2004, but the potential for greatness is certainly there.
Success! Bill Belichick Does It Again
No surprise here. With nine seasons under his belt, Belichick is already the longest serving and most successful coach in New England Patriots' history.
In those nine seasons with coach Belichick, the Patriots are 102-42 and 14-3 in the playoffs. Belichick has brought the Patriots to four Super Bowls, three of which were won by New England.
Look for the Pats to win 12 to 13 games, but more importantly, make another deep playoff run under their brilliant coach.
Changing Up: More Frequent Use of the 4-3
After popularizing the 3-4 package on defense, we have seen the Patriots using more 4-3 packages this preseason.
This makes the Patriots incredibly versatile on defense, as they can line up and play two different styles of the 4-3 variety.
In one instance, they could line up with Seymour, Warren, Wilfork, and either Mike Wright or Ron Brace, but in another instance, they could also include newly acquired defensive end/linebacker hybrid Derrick Burgess.
In the first case, the line would be crowded with 300+ pound monsters who can stop running backs in their tracks or push through offensive lines to get to the opposing quarterbacks.
With Burgess lined up alongside the rest of the linemen, it would prevent opposing teams from trying to put too much protection around a certain area.
This is because there are simply too many guys on the Patriots' defensive line who can burn running backs or quarterbacks alike if left open.
This strategy could have been seen, as early as April's draft, when the Patriots stocked up at tackle with Ron Brace and Myron Pryor.
Belichick always loves staying one step ahead of the trends, and with the flexibility and depth to line up in the 3-4 and the 4-3, it will be very interesting to see how opposing offenses deal with New England's defense.
Adam Vina-who? Gostkowski's Golden Leg Makes Us Forget
Adam Vinatieri may have been one of the most important pieces of all three Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams.
What do the St. Louis Rams, Carolina Panthers, and Philadelphia Eagles all have in common? They each lost a Super Bowl to the Patriots, and every one of them lost by just a field goal. Vinatieri was that important.
A field goal late in the fourth quarter of the 2005 Super Bowl put the game just out of reach for the Eagles, who made it a three-point game in the end with a touchdown pass to Greg Lewis. Without the field goal, the Eagles could have gone for the win.
In 2004, all it took was a field goal for the Patriots to win the game despite a 19-point fourth quarter for the Carolina Panthers. After a 12-yard touchdown pass from Delhomme, Vinatieri responded with a 41-yard field goal to finish the game.
And finally, in 2001, the Patriots only needed one score in the fourth quarter to thwart the two touchdown efforts from Kurt Warner and the Rams.
After Warner found Ricky Proehl for a 26-yard touchdown, Vinatieri and the Patriots ended up winning the game with their only scoring play of the fourth quarter: a 48-yard field goal.
After leaving for the Colts, Vinatieri has become an afterthought for the Patriots, and Gostkowski has been great for the Patriots.
After playing all 16 games in 2006, Gostkowski broke out in 2007, and between '07 and '08 he has made 57 field goals with 88.75 percent accuracy.
Laurence Maroney Breaks Out of His Shell?
After two solid seasons in 2006 and 2007 when Maroney started in six games, rushed for 1,580 yards, and rushed for 12 touchdowns, the University of Minnesota alum played three games in 2008 before getting injured and missing the rest of the season.
He also lost a step from the previous two years, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry compared to the 4.4 yards per carry he averaged between 2006 and 2007.
This year, Maroney is back and ready to go and should be the feature back among the deep and versatile running back corps, which includes Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, and Kevin Faulk.
Maroney is the only player under 30 in that group and should get the bulk of the workload.
At Minnesota, Maroney became only the third Big Ten player ever to rush for over 1,000 yards in his first three collegiate seasons, and that was while he was splitting carries with the Dallas Cowboys' Marion Barber and the Oakland Raiders' Gary Russell.
Back to full fitness, Maroney should make a return to form as the speedy running back with a great burst of speed and could well do a nice job rounding out a complete offense.
Expect to see Maroney bust it for some big gains if opposing defenses get too pass-happy in their coverage.
Role Call: Pats' Roster Heavy With Role Players
This offseason, the Patriots have brought in two players who will be used heavily in sub packages:
One is former Patriot Tully Banta-Cain, who was on board for two Super Bowl runs.
And their newest addition is Derrick Burgess.
Banta-Cain was never anything more than a third-down pass rusher for the Patriots, as it was the area he most excelled at.
In 2006, the last year of his first stint with the team, Banta-Cain recorded 5.5 sacks and forced a fumble despite starting in just five games. He still played in all 16.
Banta-Cain, typically an outside linebacker who lines up on the right side, will be joined by Derrick Burgess, who can play defensive end on either side.
Burgess had an injury plagued and ineffective 2008, but in '07 he made 14 starts and recorded eight sacks.
Banta-Cain and Burgess will mostly be defensive substitutes, but their roles as pass-rushing leaders couldn't be more crucial to the team, which is in dire need of a pass rush upgrade.
Greg Lewis Emerges as Third Option at Wide Receiver
During training camp, new additions Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis haven't been too impressive, but it will take time for the third wide receiver to be figured out.
While both Galloway and Lewis have value to the team, Galloway as a deep threat and Lewis as an exceptional route runner with good hands, I believe Lewis will become the primary option at slot receiver.
For one, Lewis is almost 10 years younger than Galloway, who lost 7.2 yards per catch between 2007 and 2008. Galloway has slowed down, and last year Lewis posted a yards per catch right around his career average despite it being a big drop down from '07.
Lewis has better hands, and his ability to run routes should leave him in positions where he is open to take a pass.
Lewis' skill set is much more complementary to Tom Brady's skill set than Galloway's, so i expect to see Lewis getting more time on the field as the third wide receiver.
Kevin Faulk Remains Brady's Safety Valve
Faulk has never been a feature back for the Patriots, but that's not what they drafted him for.
Faulk is a do-it-all type of guy, whether that be taking carries or catching passes out of the backfield.
With 507 rushing yards and 486 receiving yards in 2008, Faulk now has 3,170 yards on the ground and 3,304 yards through the air in his 10-year (and counting) career with the Patriots.
With Tom Brady and the rest of New England's offense back for business as usual this year, expect to see him looking for Faulk on a screen pass or an important carry on a 3rd-and-short to keep the chains moving when no other options are open.
AFC East Champs!
New England's 2009 schedule has been ranked as the hardest in the NFL, but I don't really see it.
Should I look at every other schedule to see what makes New England's so hard?
I see a Bills team they can beat twice, as well as Miami and New York squads that should garner a one-one series split at the worst. New England play the Titans, Ravens, and Colts just one time, and won't face the Steelers at all.
I will not go as far as predicting a Super Bowl appearance, but at this point in time, the Patriots look like hands down winners of the AFC East. And anything can happen in the playoffs.
After missing the playoffs with an 11-5 record last year, the Patriots will be out for blood this year, and the Patriots should slaughter weaker teams like Buffalo, Denver, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and Jacksonville along the way of their conquest to return to the Super Bowl.
Five days (and counting) until football is back! Get your popcorn ready, football fans.