5 Biggest Changes for the New England Patriots in 2011
It is hard to imagine that a 14-2 team would be looking to shake things up too much from one season to the next.
Yet the New England Patriots appear to be putting in some big changes to help get this team over the hump and back playing on Super Bowl Sunday.
The mentality of the team and its coach has always been championship or bust.
As we draw closer to the start of the NFL season, many are trying to pick out the key details to what changes will be made to New England's roster and style of play.
We see the new faces out there and we have seen some changes in play mentality start to take hold in the latest preseason games.
So we ask, which of these changes will stick and impact the 2011 regular season?
Increased Use of the Run
The Patriots brought back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and drafted two rookie running backs in this year's NFL Draft.
This left New England with Green-Ellis, Woodhead, Steven Ridley, Shane Vereen, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris in their backfield. Faulk is on the physically unable to perform list and Vereen may end up on the injured reserve list.
In the preseason so far we've seen a solid use of Ridley, but in the second game against Tampa Bay we got a good look at Green-Ellis and Woodhead as well.
It is clear that the Patriots aren't bringing in all these backs to block for Tom Brady as he drops back.
What it appears to me is that Bill Belichick plans on playing to his different running backs' strengths. This will give New England the luxury of having a back with the right skill set for the situation and fresh legs.
The Patriots will always be primarily a passing team as long as Tom Brady is their quarterback. However, having the ability to run the football and wear down defenses is a key factor to team's success.
I fully expect to see those backs getting plenty of work.
Changing the Look of the Defensive Line
It has been clear just by looking at the Patriots transactions that they are planning on changing the look of their defensive line.
Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson highlight the additions to a growing defense.
While they are matching up with linemen that were here last year like Mike Wright, Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick, it is likely that many of those names will make the team.
It is clear that the Patriots are looking to bring some versatility to this line.
Vince Wilfork has been the star of the defensive line since Richard Seymour was shipped to Oakland. Due to the lack of talent around him, Wilfork has had to be responsible for occupying multiple offensive linemen in order to create opportunities for other players rather than looking to make the big play himself.
Hopefully with the additions to the line, Belichick will have the ability to throw a variety of looks at offenses this season and allow players like Wilfork to maximize their skill sets.
Establishing a Pass Rush
The New England Patriots defense that lined up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2 of the preseason was much different then the one we saw in 2010.
It appeared that the Patriots' goal was to open up opportunities for all of those new defensive linemen to get free and make plays. In the past we've seen a more conservative defense that relies on not giving up big plays rather than making big plays.
Adding talent like Ellis and Haynesworth to the likes of Wilfork makes for a massive defensive line that can eat up offensive lines if they're on their game.
Then bringing in Andre Carter and Mark Anderson for a stronger edge rush is going to allow the Patriots defense to create a number of different looks.
Belichick has always been known for coming up with confusing schemes to throw off the opposing offenses. Now with this large of a variety of options it looks like things may get even worse for the other teams around the league.
If this new look sticks, which it appears it will, the Patriots defense may be the biggest change heading into the 2011 regular season.
Fewer Roster Spots for Special Teams Players
This is a change that I imagine most teams will be making heading into the season with the new kickoff rules.
It appears as if moving the kickoffs up to the 35-yard line has essentially made them useless. There have been several complaints around the league from coaches, players and fans alike about the rules taking away part of the game.
Unfortunately for those players who make their livings off of special teams, they may not have a roster spot because of it.
Belichick has always emphasized the importance of playing well in all three phases of the game. Past players like Larry Izzo and current players like Matthew Slater have held onto roster spots simply because of the impact they have on the special teams.
Even with punts still being a factor in special teams, it is hard to imagine that the Patriots or any team would keep special team guys specifically for kickoffs with the new rules.
Don't be shocked to see some familiar special team players like Slater without a job at the beginning of the season.
Changing of the Guard at Tackle
The Patriots surprised many by taking Nate Solder, a towering 6'8" tackle from Colorado.
What was once a very established offensive line has seen some changes over the course of the offseason. Former right tackle Nick Kaczur was let go and replaced by Sebastian Vollmer.
Even though the Patriots brought back veteran Matt Light, it is expected that Solder will get his share of chances at the left tackle position protecting Brady's blindside.
Light surely will be labeled as the starter. However, it is clear that the Patriots have made the choice to begin to build their offensive line for the future.
One of New England's biggest keys to success has been their ability to protect Tom Brady and give him plenty of time to complete the passes he needs to. As the familiar faces get older, there is no doubt the the Patriots will continue to inject young talent to the line to assure that their starting quarterback will be protected for 2011 and years to come.