Somehow, the Patriots managed to finish 11-5 in 2008, tying Miami for the best record in the AFC East, without the services of All-Everything quarterback Tom Brady. He’s back, but most of the veterans on the other side of the ball are gone. Will the youth movement on defense keep New England from returning to the playoffs? We’ll see.
OFFENSE (#5 total yardage, #6 rushing, #12 passing, #8 scoring):
Tom Brady has led 28 fourth-quarter/overtime game-winning drives during his illustrious career, but his greatest “comeback” challenge may be the one now facing him: returning to the top of his game a year after a torn ACL just seven minutes and 33 seconds into Week 1 ended his 2008 season. He’s looked good in practice, but how will he react when defenders starts getting close to that knee?
With that in mind, he has to be thrilled that the anemic Bills pass rush leads off the schedule. Brady has made a habit of picking apart the Buffalo defense over the years, completing 268 of 411 passes for 3,220 yards and 30 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions, good for a 103.3 passer rating.
Oh yeah, and a 13-1 win-loss record.
Matt Cassel performed adequately in Brady’s stead last season, earning him a ticket to Kansas City as their starting quarterback. 2008 third-round pick Kevin O’Connell was expected to step into the backup role, but was jettisoned after being outplayed during the preseason by undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer (Michigan State).
Naturally, the Patriot offense became more conservative last year without No. 12 under center. Cassell handed off almost as many times as he threw, a trend the team may seek to continue until Brady works his way back to full game speed. To that end, they added Jaguars all-time leading rusher Fred Taylor to a stable of backs which already included former first-round pick Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris (whose 727 yards led the team last season), and versatile Kevin Faulk. Last year’s surprise player, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, is also back, after performing well enough during the preseason to make it impossible for the team to cut him.
But while the depth chart may be loaded at running back, Randy Moss and Wes Welker obviously remain New England’s primary weapons. In their two games against Buffalo in 2007, the Brady-to-Moss combo torched the Bills secondary for 243 yards and six touchdowns – but if they concentrate on stopping Moss over the top, the elusive Welker will be tough to cover underneath. (He’s been limited in practice and is listed as questionable, though.) Joey Galloway inherits the No. 3 job from the departed Jabar Gaffney, but special-teamers Sam Aiken and Matthew Slater and rookie Julian Edelman – the next Welker, according to some – are the only other receivers on the roster. There was some speculation that tight end Ben Watson’s job might be in jeopardy, but he survived the cutdown to 53, and is still listed ahead of former Jet Chris Baker on the depth chart for now.
Barring injuries, the line has been together ever since right tackle Nick Kaczur worked his way into the starting lineup in 2006. That said, here’s an interesting stat: Without Brady and his lightning-quick release behind them, a group which includes two members of the Patriots’ all-time team, left guard Logan Mankins and left tackle Matt Light, allowed 48 sacks in 2008.
DEFENSE (#10 total yardage, #15 rushing, #11 passing, #8 scoring):
Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi, retired. Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour, traded. The Patriots are well known for cutting ties with their aging players, but that’s 51 years and 11 Super Bowl rings worth of experience lopped from the roster in a single offseason. (Add another 20, if you wish, for Junior Seau’s re-retirement.) The most recent departure was also the most stunning, when Seymour was dealt to Oakland on Sept. 6 for the Raiders’ 2011 first-round pick. Looking at it objectively, the trade makes sense because the five-time Pro Bowl defensive end was likely to leave as a free agent after this season. But with the last remaining defensive starter from Super Bowl XXXVI now gone, Patriots fans have to feel like an era is ending.
However, it’s not like an untested rookie is stepping into Seymour’s place at right end. Jarvis Green has been with the team since 2002, playing in 108 games – now the most of anyone on the defense – and starting 34. The underrated Ty Warren is on the other side, and don’t forget that the Pats also added Oakland single-season sack record-holder Derrick Burgess at the beginning of training camp. Nasty tackle Vince Wilfork anchors the inside; we’ll see if Geoff Hangartner fares any better against him than other recent Bills centers. Veteran Mike Wright and two rookies, Ron Brace and Myron Pryor, complete the rotation.
Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo was an instant hit in Patriot blue, leading the team in tackles on the way to winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors last season. He’ll be flanked by Adalius Thomas and Pierre Woods, with Gary Guyton, the second-year player whose performance helped push Bruschi off the roster, coming in when New England shifts back to a 3-4.
The secondary was a weak spot in 2008, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete over 60 percent of their passes and throw for 27 touchdowns. Cornerbacks Deltha O’Neal, Ellis Hobbs, Jason Webster, and Lewis Sanders are all gone from that unit, with free agents Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden brought in to take their place. The Patriots also drafted Darius Butler (Connecticut) in the second round to go along with last year’s selections, Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite. Strong safety Brandon Meriweather led the team with four interceptions last year; James Sanders has held down the job at free safety since working his way into the lineup in 2006.
After Stephen Gostkowski shattered Uwe von Schamann’s NFL record with 74 extra points in 2007, he was called on to try a few field goals last year. The fourth-year kicker responded with the best season of his career, connecting on 36 of 40 attempts – including an impressive 9-of-11 from 40 and out – to lead the league with 148 points and earn All-Pro honors. Punter Chris Hanson averaged 43.7 yards per kick and landed 19 of 49 attempts inside the opponent’s 20, but a lousy coverage team dropped his net average near the bottom of the league.
With Hobbs now in Philadelphia, Slater was expected to be the primary kick returner, but he’s listed as out for this game. Either Maroney or Faulk will likely assume those duties, with Welker dropping deep on punts.
The numbers documenting New England’s recent dominance in the series get uglier by the year: Eleven in a row. Sixteen of the last 17. Oh-for-forever at Gillette Stadium. The two team have played 18 times since Bill Belichick returned to Foxborough in 2000; they broke even in a pair of overtime games that first season, but since then, the Pats have outscored the Bills by 15.5 points per game. (Yes, that includes Buffalo’s win. Otherwise, the number gets even worse.) Even Brady’s absence last year wasn’t enough to push the Bills within a touchdown of ending the ignominious streak.
So why should this season be any different? Well, the Bills offense should logically be more potent with the addition of future Hall of Famer Terrell Owens across from Lee Evans. Nobody knows for sure whether Brady’s really all the way back until the bodies start flying at him for real. And the Patriot defense is in transition, trading veteran leadership and savvy for youth and speed, with results yet to be determined.
But in the end, Buffalo is still sending an untested offensive line into a place where no Bills team has won, and with a rookie offensive coordinator to boot. In my mind, that’s just too much of a handicap to overcome. With a primetime crowd amping up the volume at the “Razor,” the Patriots keep the streak intact.
Welcome to the Blogosphere:
ESPN AFC East
ESPNBoston.com - Mike Reiss
Extra Points (Boston Globe – the former “Reiss’s Pieces,” now under the management of Christopher Gasper)
The Rap Sheet (Boston Herald, Ian R. Rapoport)
ProJo PatsBlog (Providence Journal, Shalise Manza Young)
Lori Chase, a staff columnist for Two Bills Drive, can be contacted at lchase (at) twobillsdrive (dot)com.
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