While the National Football League preseason won't tell you everything you need to know about your football team, it'll certainly tell you more than you'd think. Even though the games don't count and the primary players are backups or eventual roster cuts, fans and media can still gauge how their respective teams will do based on game management, discipline, and simple player attributes such as tackling ability, quarterback accuracy and overall speed.
After some good performances against potential NFC playoff contenders New Orleans and Atlanta, the Patriots suffered some serious setbacks. While the potential is still there for yet another postseason, New England on paper (and on the field) looks about as vulnerable as they have been since Bill Belichick's first year as head coach.
The team's key weakness, no doubt, lies on the defensive side of the football. For the second straight season, the focus is on young players who come in with a high pedigree. The Patriots project to have seven starters on defense that were either first or second-round picks. Of those seven, four are either rookies or in just their second year professionally. While that means there should be a lot of talent on the field, it's talent that requires some sort of learning curve. Plus, season-ending injuries to Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden won't allow the youngsters any breathing room when it comes to making mistakes.
In the past two preseason games, the first team defense was carved up. First, by a rookie quarterback that didn't have a strong running game. Then, by a veteran quarterback still lacking some polish with a sub-par crew of targets. This hardly inspires confidence going into a Week 1 matchup with the Bengals, a team that boasts a former Pro Bowl quarterback, two former Pro Bowl wide receivers and a powerful running back out to prove that last year wasn't a fluke.
The tough matchups for the defense don't end there. In addition to the Bengals, the Pats also will be forced to deal with the Packers, Vikings, Colts, and Chargers, all teams that boast elite level quarterbacks. All preseason, New England has shown no improvement in its pass rush, arguably its biggest weakness last season. In the modern NFL, it's rare to find a playoff-caliber team that generates little to no pressure on the passer.
Even the one area of the Patriots that appears flawless, its offense, has some hidden lumps. While there's no reason to be concerned about Tom Brady or most of his targets, the New England offense is far from where it would like to be. First of all, the team's balance is still a major issue. Laurence Maroney is closer to playing his way out of town, rather than playing for the majority of the carries. Fred Taylor certainly be counted upon at his advanced age, and Sammy Morris seems to get banged up constantly. Plus, the team still hasn't found an adequate blocking back for short yardage situations since letting Heath Evans walk in free agency two years ago.
The Pats are also thin along the offensive line. Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins continues his contract standoff with the front office, with both sides refusing to budge. The team also appears to have lost Nick Kaczur for the season after back surgery. That leaves three and a half (Sebastien Vollmer) returning starters. Matt Light likely will still be a liability at times against quick rushers on the outside, and will be more vulnerable without Mankins to help protect him.
Add it all up and it looks as if the Patriots are going to have to overcome some major challenges in order to take home another AFC East crown. On the plus side, they still have one of the league's premier quarterbacks with his best receiving crew since 2007, when he put up record-smashing numbers. Even though the team's been preaching youth on the defensive side for the past two years, this will be the first time they've committed to putting an inexperienced lineup on the field. Perhaps finally turning the page will help the defense create a new identity, something they've sorely needed. If it seems like I'm grasping at straws, it's largely because I am. There's little that this team showed that gives cause for real optimism. In the wake of having that, I'll take whatever silver linings I can find.