2010 NFL Team Preview: New England Patriots

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2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 10-6, 4-2
Division finish: 1st AFC East
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 6th, 3rd, 3rd, 12th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 5th, 11th, 12th, 13th

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Laurence Maroney, 757 yards, 9 TD
Passing: Tom Brady, 4,398 yards, 28 TD, 13 INT
Receiving: Wes Welker, 1,348 yards, 4 TD; Randy Moss, 1,264 yards, 13 TD
Tackles: Jerod Mayo, 103 total tackles
Sacks: Tully Banta-Cain, 10.0 sacks
Interceptions: Brandon Meriweather and Leigh Bodden, 5 interceptions (1 touchdown)

2010 Season Outlook

(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

September 12 vs Bengals: This is not who the Bengals want to start the season against. After their monumental collapse in the playoffs last season, and an offseason filled with speculation that their dynasty had fallen apart, the Patriots are embarrassed and angry. Last time the Patriots were embarrassed and angry, they rewrote the record books and recorded the first-ever 16-0 regular season to make the NFL world forget about the “Spygate” debacle. Both the Patriots and the Bengals have defenses that were ailed by injuries late in the season and are looking to regain their early 2009 form this year. On offense, the Patriots are going to throw the ball early and often to build a lead, so the run-first Bengals will have their passing offense tested majorly in this game, and we will see how the addition of Jermaine Gresham and Terrell Owens boosts the Bengals' passing attack.

September 26 vs Buffalo: The Bills’ defensive backfield is supposed to see a huge improvement this year, and this early game against the Patriots, a pass-first team who can’t run the ball very well, will be a good test of whether that is true or not. C.J. Spiller may have a breakout game and run wild all over the Patriots, as their linebacking corps is lacking in speed. While an upset is pretty unlikely, the Bills may be able to make this game a close one.

Key Losses

Adalius Thomas, LB; Chris Baker, TE; Ben Watson, TE; Logan Mankins, OG (holdout)

Key Returning Players

Tom Brady, QB; Randy Moss, WR; Wes Welker, WR

Key Draft Picks

Devin McCourty, CB; Rob Gronkowski, TE; Jermaine Cunningham, DE/OLB; Brandon Spikes, LB; Aaron Hernandez, TE

Key Free Agent Signings

Alge Crumpler, TE

Key Acquisitions via Trade

Jarrad Page, SS; Tracy White, LB; Quinn Ojinnaka, OG

Offensive Overview

Much has been made of left guard Logan Mankins’s holdout, as well as right tackle Nick Kaczur’s offseason back surgery. However, the Patriots inserted backups Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer into Mankins’s and Kaczur’s spots, respectively, and the line hasn’t missed a beat. Not only do all five linemen hold their blocks well, they also do an excellent job of picking up picking up on blitzes. In the run game, they all do a great job of pushing defenders off the ball. Connoly especially, as he he is extremely good at pulling on a run play and still landing a big hit on defenders. In run-blocking, the Patriots are aided by the presence of former Falcon and Titan Alge Crumpler, who is absolutely huge and blocks as well as a sixth offensive lineman would. For someone of his size, Crumpler has great hands and moves, so he is still a good option to throw to from time to time. At tight end, the Patriots also added Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the draft, completely restocking a position that had been depleted with the offseason departures of Chris Baker and Benjamin Watson.

Behind this offensive line, the passing game is going to have a very productive year. Gronkowski and Hernandez are both very athletic and can create matchup problems for defenders. Randy Moss is still a major deep threat; even though he doesn’t change direction as well as he used to, he still has great hands, jumping abilities, and deep speed. We Welker is coming back from a major ACL injury already, but he might struggle with all of the quick cuts that his role in the offense requires. If so the Patriots will likely rely heavily on Julian Edelman, who plays like an exact clone of Welker. Torry Holt has lost a ton of speed over the past few years, but he still runs routes well and has great hands. Behind these four, second-year receiver Brandon Tate and rookie Taylor Price will be learning from the benches.

The man throwing to all of these receivers is without a doubt one of the best in the league today, and arguably one of the best ever. Tom Brady has everything. His passes display a ton of arm strength, great accuracy, and a perfect spiral. There was talk that Brady played poorly last season, but that simply isn’t true. By the second half of the first game of the season, Brady had regained confidence in his surgically repaired left knee and was stepping into his throws like he normally did. Statistically speaking, he met or exceeded his performances in every season except the wondrous 2007 season. He had a higher completion percentage than any other season except for 2007, the only year where he threw for more touchdowns than his 2009 performance.

The only thing the Patriots’ offense is missing is a running game. Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris are good third-down passing outlets, but can’t carry the load of a starting running back. Despite his advanced age of 34, Fred Taylor hits holes quick, but he can’t be relied on to start. For the Patriots to be consistently effective on the ground, 2006 draft pick Laurence Maroney has to be the core of the Patriots’ run game. He can be effective going up the middle, but when he tries to juke or make big plays it often backfires and causes a loss of yards. For the Patriots to move the ball effectively on the ground, Maroney has to commit to running straight up the middle and plowing his way through defenders.

Defensive Overview

Linebacker was the worst position on this team last year, and that position’s lack of speed was the main reason the Ravens were able to run for 234 yards against them in the playoffs. Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess have decent tackling abilities, but neither has the burst necessary to be a playmaker from the edges. For that reason, look for rookie Jermaine Cunningham, a defensive end at the University of Florida, to end up making an impact at one of the outside linebacker spots. Jerod Mayo has shown himself worthy of his first-round selection in the 2008 draft, and the defense will be better now that the inside linebacker is fully healthy. At the other inside linebacker position, the Patriots are hoping that another former Gator, rookie Brandon Spikes, can step up and earn the starting job.

If the linebackers can play more quickly, then they’ll be able to make plenty of big plays thanks to the Patriots’ defensive line. Vince Wilfork is absolutely monstrous, and not only can he consistently occupy double-teams, but he can beat them fairly frequently as well. Defensive end Ty Warren is great at clogging up running lanes, but was lost for the season due to a hip injury. In his place will be Gerard Warren (no relation), who has incredible athleticism and speed for someone his size. Opposite of Warren is Mike Wright, who doesn’t get taken out of the play just by being double-teamed. Wright also has the athleticism to shoot through gaps when pass-rushing.

The Patriots’ defensive backfield looked worse than they really are last year because of the Patriots’ inability to rush the passer, so if there’s still no quarterback pressure this season, the secondary is going to get beaten frequently, through little fault of their own. Free safety Brandon Meriweather has great speed and is excellent at getting to where the ball is headed as soon as the quarterback releases it. Strong safety Patrick Chung showed impressive flashes of his ability last year, but if he cannot perform consistently the Patriots will turn to hard hitter Brandon McGowan. Cornerback Leigh Bodden doesn’t play very tight coverage, preferring to stay off the receiver so he can watch the ball and make a play. For this reason, he is expected to be little more than a nickel back, while second-year corner Darius Butler and rookie Devin McCourty get to start. That’s a lot of inexperience in the defensive backfield, especially if Chung starts, so the Patriots are absolutely going to need their pass rush to step their game up.

Special Teams Overview

Even though they were 5th overall in average kickoff distance, the Patriots were horrendous in their kickoff coverage, ranking 27th in average kickoff return distance allowed. The Patriots were 21st in average punt return distance allowed, largely because their punts were so short. They were dead last in the NFL in punt distance last year, and they were the only team to punt for an average of below forty yards. For this reason, they drafted rookie Zoltan Mesko out of Michigan, and Mesko has provided a small upgrade, averaging 41.7 yards per punt in the preseason.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been very good over the course of his career, making 103 of 121 field goal attempts. Entering into his fifth year, he should remain as good as he has been, because it’s not like age will cause his kicking leg to slow down.

Wes Welker has been the primary punt return man for a while now, averaging 12.5 yards per return last year. Since Welker is still coming off of his ACL injury and the Patriots wouldn’t want to risk further injury, they may use either Brandon Tate or Taylor Price in his stead. At kick returner, the Patriots don’t really seem to care who they use, so they just rotate a variety of receivers and running backs there.

Head Coach: Bill Belichick

Belichick Is the most hands-on coach in the league, and instead of hiring a new offensive coordinator he ran the offense last year after Josh McDaniels departed for Denver in the 2009 offseason. Belichick has received criticism from the media after the “Spygate” scandal, when he got in trouble for filming some of the Jets’ signals during the game. Belichick has been his own defensive coordinator for years and is considered one of the greatest modern-day defensive minds in the game. Like or dislike him, you’ve got to respect, and somewhat envy, the fact that he wins. A lot.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Randy Moss, WR; Laurence Maroney, RB; Matt Light, OT; Jarrad Page, SS

Season Prediction

2nd AFC East

This division is incredibly tough to call, and there is only the slightest bit of difference between their talent levels. The Patriots are simply too good in the passing game for the Dolphins’ defense to shut down, so it is likely that the matchups between the two teams will turn into who performs better – Tom Brady or Chad Henne. My money’s on Brady. As far as the Jets go, the Patriots’ linebacking corps is still an area of weakness, so a power-running team with a strong defense will likely be the Patriots’ downfall just like last year. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.


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