New England Patriots: 3 Adjustments Team Must Make to Mount a Postseason Run
Yes, we're talking about the Patriots and the playoffs.
In the last decade, the Patriots and playoffs have become synonymous and this year will not be an exception.
The Patriots hold a season sweep against the New York Jets, and have a home game on the horizon against the nose-diving Buffalo Bills. Therefore, barring a cataclysmic meltdown against a soft remaining schedule, the Patriots look to be playing for a high seed in the playoffs.
Lately, making the playoffs hasn't been a problem for the Patriots—surviving past the first round has been.
Since their Super Bowl loss against the New York Giants, the Patriots have lost their last two playoff games—both at home. The way they lost was a bit disturbing, having been dominated on both sides of the ball.
To avoid another one-and-done postseason this year, the Patriots have to make a few minor adjustments. If they do, a run to the Super Bowl is possible.
Less "Bendability" on Defense
The Patriots' defense gets a slightly bad rap. By the standard metric, the Patriots look like the NFL's version of the Maginot Line, ranking dead last (404 yards per game).
But this statistic is meaningless. The only thing that counts is what's on the scoreboard and the Patriots' defense is quite respectable is this regard, ranking 10th (20.3 points per game).
According to the good folks at coldhardfootballfacts.com, the Pats defense is hovering near the top ten in "bendability," which basically means that the Patriots' opponents gain a chunk of yards, but don't put up the points in proportion to those yards.
However, bendability does have its flaws, which were exposed in losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Giants. If the opponent is able to control the ball, then the Patriots offense has fewer opportunities to score. Furthermore, if that opponent has a strong defense, the Patriots offense won't be able to score at a moment's notice clip.
Being able to bend, bend and then bend some more against the cream puffs of the league isn't as much of a problem because the offense can still score at will. However, in the playoffs, against better teams with strong defenses, this mind-set will be costly.
If the defense can increase its tensile strength slightly, opponents will be less likely to play keep-away from the offense.
Make the "Blueprint" Obsolete
Look, since the Super Bowl loss against the Giants, the "blueprint" has been set for how to slow down the Patriots offense: pressure Brady up the middle and disrupt the timing of the passing game.
Keeping Brady off his back seems to be a no-brainer. And in the past, the Patriots haven't really needed to give this a second thought.
However, this season the Patriots have struggled a bit in keeping the heat off Brady. Case in point is the Monday night game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Describing the Chiefs' pass rush as a anemic would be a slight complement. Going into that game, the Chiefs' had nine sacks for the season. Against the Patriots, the Chiefs had three sacks in the first half.
The situation is far from dire, as the Patriots have only allowed Brady to be sacked 16 times, hardly porous by any metric. But, teams have been able to apply the first part of the "blueprint" more effectively.
The second part of the "blueprint" can be addressed by slightly altering the scheme. Notice how I said "slightly," not dramatically. After all, the team averages 29.3 per game, so what they're doing works.
Yet, the Pats have become somewhat predictable—Welker and Gronkowski have accounted for slightly over half of Brady's completions. Throw in Hernandez, and that number pushes closer to 70 percent.
Again, it's been successful during the regular season, but will become problematic against better teams and better defensive coordinators.
It is imperative for the Patriots to spread out the passes. Branch has to step up his game and Ochocinco has to actually bring a game so that the "blueprint" becomes more difficult for the opponents to follow.
Get the "Law Firm" Involved
Most people have the false impression that the Patriots can't run the ball. Unlike many pass-happy teams in the NFL, the Patriots can run the ball when the game or situation calls for it. Against the Raiders, the Patriots ran for more than 180 yards.
The Patriots' rushing offense ranks right 15th in rushing yards (111 per game) and yard-per-attempt (4.2), so it's not as if the team doesn't run. Furthermore, the idea of establishing the run has gone the way of the Dodo bird in this current free-throwing NFL environment.
Still, if the Patriots can come out with a large spoonful of BenJarvus Green-Ellis within the next several weeks, the future playoff opponents will have an extra element to analyze on game film. Green-Ellis is a competent back who never turns the ball over.
This doesn't mean that the Pats have to become the 1972 Dolphins incarnate; it just means that by throwing in the ground game, opponents will have another thing to keep in mind.
The Patriots are far from desperate. They'll make the playoffs. By making these three adjustments, the Pats should be able to break the one-and-done trend and make a trip to Indianapolis possible.