New England Patriots: Unsung Heroes, Philosophy Change Cause Pats Transformation
Dan Connolly, Kyle Love, James Ihedigbo, Kyle Arrington and Matthew Slater.
These five are just examples of the unheralded contributors who have helped the New England Patriots round into form in 2011.
After breezing through the first two games of the season with record-breaking performances by offensive stars Tom Brady and Wes Welker, the running game, defense and special teams have been the keys to the transformation that we've witnessed these last few games.
Two things happened following New England's surprising 34-31 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 3.
First, there was a philosophical change to the team's offensive and defensive game plans. Second, there was a group of players who quietly emerged as quintessential cogs in the Patriots machine.
On offense, the philosophical change has been obvious: the team finally committed to the running game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been phenomenal. He may have been the most important player on the field in the Pats' narrow victory over the rival New York Jets.
Stevan Ridley, the first-year running back from LSU, broke out against the Oakland Raiders by sealing the game with an explosive 33-yard touchdown scamper.
The running game has been aided by the tremendous play of two guys who weren't even in the starting lineup during the preseason.
Brian Waters, the right guard signed just before the start of the season, has stabilized what was once a huge weakness for the offensive line.
Dan Connolly, who was forced into action with the season-ending injury to center Dan Koppen, has been nothing short of brilliant. Connolly's magnificence as a starter has once again proven that in head coach Bill Belichick's system, any player can be replaced (take note, Indianapolis Colts fans).
On defense, the philosophical change has been less transparent. The coaching staff scrapped the man-defense experiment, choosing to go back to the more familiar zone defense.
The results have been astounding.
Not that the Patriots defense is all of the sudden one of the league's best. In fact, they remain last in the NFL in yards allowed per game.
But to anyone who has been watching this season, however, the secondary has improved immensely, especially regarding the deep pass.
At the beginning of the year—specifically against the Buffalo Bills—there were way too many long passes being converted against the Pats' young, inexperienced secondary. Many times, the defense would be in a cover-one defense, matching up Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden, Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling in a man-to-man coverage, while safety Patrick Chung provided help in the deep-middle part of the field.
What was the result?
The Pats' cornerbacks were torched along the sidelines, giving up huge chunks of yardage without any resistance. With the implementation of a zone defense, they are not only giving up fewer big plays, they are getting off the field on third downs.
Who has been the biggest "unsung hero" this season?
Last season, the Pats were hellacious on third down situations, allowing almost a 50-percent success rate (last in the NFL). This year, after starting the season amongst the league's worst, the defense is moving towards mediocrity with a 42-percent allowance rate.
Part of moving into the zone defense is a switch from more sub packages (when there are more than four defensive backs on the field, depending on the team) and back into the team's base defense (in this case, a 4-3 defensive front).
This change has also helped the Patriots, because the base defense has been so effective at shutting down opposing running games. Even the Raiders' superb attack with Darren McFadden and the Jets' tough tag-team of Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson were neutralized.
However, these philosophy changes would have meant nothing if no one stepped up and started making plays.
With players like Brady, Welker, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, excellence is expected.
It's when the 'other' guys become exceptional that you know you have something special. In the case of the 2011 Patriots, there have been many players who have come into their own and proven their worth time and time again.
I mentioned Dan Connolly and Brian Waters on the offensive line, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Stevan Ridley in the running game.
What about on the defensive side of the football?
On the defensive line, people were expecting Wilfork and offseason addition Albert Haynesworth to occupy the middle and overpower the offensive line. While Haynesworth has been playing very well lately, it is actually Kyle Love who has been starting next to Wilfork and dominating opposing teams' offensive lines.
The 6'1", 310 pound undrafted monster from Mississippi State is in his second year with the Pats. Statistics can't measure his impact on the field, and they certainly can't measure his contagious, high-energy playing demeanor.
Love is making the most of his opportunities this season, and can expect to remain a fixture on the defensive line for a long while.
Aside from Love, guys like Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, who came in here as sort of mysterious figures, have made a name for themselves as pass-rushing fiends. I wouldn't say the Pats have their Dwight Freeney quite yet, but I would say they are moving in the right direction.
How about James Ihedigbo?
The Jets import was brought in here as a fifth or sixth option at safety. His main contributions were supposed to come as a special teamer.
Instead, after the trades of Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, as well as the complete collapses of Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett, Ihedigbo has found himself as the starting safety for the best team in the AFC.
And he's delivered.
In his two starts, Ihedigbo has produced 13 tackles, and has rarely (if ever) been on the wrong side of a big play. A tough hitter with above-average athleticism, Ihedigbo has secured the free safety position—a huge relief for Patriots fans across the globe.
After watching Brown and Barrett through the first few weeks, I honestly thought that they were the only thing holding this team back from greatness. With Ihedigbo's arrival, those thoughts have disappeared.
The list goes on and on with these under-the-radar guys. There's Kyle Arrington, a special teamer-turned-cornerback who has become the Pats' best playmaker, leading the NFL with four interceptions.
There's Matthew Slater, another special teamer who has been so instrumental in kick and punt coverage that he was named a team captain this season.
The Patriots may be led by the infallible duo of Tom Brady and Wes Welker, but without all of these unsung heroes, this team would probably suffer the same tragic fate as the 2010 Patriots.
However, in 2011, these unheralded diamonds-in-the-rough have exceeded everyone's expectations, and have the Patriots riding the fast track to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis this February.
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