Largely considered the favorites to attain Super Bowl glory entering 2011—for what would mark their fourth championship of the decade—the New England Patriots’ season has been a mixed bag.
Impressive wins marred by unexpected losses compounded by an apparent lack of consistency on both sides of the ball.
Now 5-2, the Patriots still very easily remain among those in the Super Bowl conversation, but have understandably lost some of the steam of which they entered the season with.
Here are five players who need to improve in order to better Bill Belichick's chances at getting that fourth ring this year.
Coming into the 2011 campaign Chad Ochocinco was in the conversation as potentially the best acquisition of the offseason.
But he has not played anywhere close to expectation thus far with just nine receptions and 136 yards through seven games.
Last season the 33-year-old was targeted an incredible 125 times by Carson Palmer, but only managed to pull in 67 of those passes in his direction despite the benefit of Terrell Owens operating opposite of him.
Terrell Owens—who has been “over-the-hill” for about two years now by the admission of the heavily-mistaken majority—outplayed Ochocinco in his first season with the Cincinnati Bengals catching more passes, recording more than twice as many touchdowns receptions, and running nearly 100 yards more after the catch.
Do I want Ochocinco to succeed in New England? Of course I do.
Do I think he will? I would not count on it. His lack of receptions over the last two games and Tom Brady’s obvious displeasure with the entertaining receiver following his miscue on the deep ball in Pittsburgh does not bold well for the rest of the season.
Speak up Chad, being quiet is not your thing.
Jerod Mayo has looked horribly average this year.
After having missed two games of the season so far Mayo has a total of 27 tackles which puts him on pace for 76 on the season over 14 games.
A statistic that will fall well short of his tally in any of his previous seasons as a professional; the linebacker had even managed 103 total tackles in a year in which he only made 13 appearances.
But if there were ever a player to rebound it would be Mayo who had 10 games with 10 or more tackles in 2010.
The conversion from a 3-4 inside linebacker—a position in which he thrived—to a 4-3 outside linebacker has proved somewhat problematic as his responsibilities have shifted from shooting gaps to dealing heavily with containment and playing off-zones.
There is little doubt the tremendously talented 25-year-old will return to form, but Bill Belichick would be wise to send one of his most explosive defenders forward in effort to rush opposing quarterbacks.
Devin McCourty finished his rookie season, having started all 16 games, with 82 tackles, seven interceptions, one sack, two forced fumbles and 17 passes defensed.
After being named to the 2011 Pro Bowl in his very first professional season, the 24-year-old has struggled mightily in pass coverage this season—being exposed on multiple occasions—despite racking up more tackles than anyone on the roster not named Patrick Chung.
McCourty will have to rediscover his knack for creating turnovers and start swatting down passes to take the pressure off Tom Brady to win games.
I know I said "players," but I could not realistically identify another individual player that needs to turn things around in order to make a real difference.
Of course there are players who are simply not playing up to the level that has come to be expected of them such as Devin McCourty and Jerod Mayo, but the entire defensive unit—outside of Vince Wilfork, Patrick Chung and Kyle Arrington—has been regrettable thus far.
To say that the New England Patriots’ pass defense has been “bad” would be an understatement—they have been downright horrendous.
Ranked dead last in the NFL in pass defense—interestingly enough, behind lone unbeaten and defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers—the Pats will have to show dramatic improvement in order to prove to be anything more than Super Bowl pretenders this season.
The team must generate greater pressure on opposing quarterbacks in order to help out a secondary that has struggled thus far.
Anytime the leader for second-most interceptions on your squad happens to be a 325-pound defensive tackle—with two—there is room for improvement.
Looking at the numbers this may be as close to a ridiculous proclamation as one may get but, for all of his stats, Tom Brady still has room to improve his play this season.
In the games Tom Brady has struggled—specifically in his last two games against the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers—teams have focused on shutting Wes Welker, Brady’s most consistent and preferred target, out of the game.
By eliminating Brady’s favorite option teams have forced last year’s unanimous MVP to look elsewhere and become noticeably frazzled in the pocket.
Widely-known for spreading the ball around Brady has targeted Welker a whopping 82 times this season which is nearly twice as many targets as the next player, tight end Rob Gronkowski (47).
A large part of the blame can be attributed to the majority of his receivers being unable to generate enough separation to create opportunities, but as one of the most recognizable figures in the NFL today, Brady must find a way to deliver the ball when Welker is not an option.