If you are not attacking, you are being attacked.
That is an old military axiom that holds true for many things, particularly for professional football. Last season, with the exception of a few trick plays and periods of stagnation, the New England Patriots offense attacked their enemies in a manner not ever seen before in the history of the NFL.
Thing is, it wasn’t nearly as brutally efficient as it could have been, and that knowledge has to have the Patriots’ 2013 season opponents’ defensive coordinators up nights already, trying to figure out a way to stop the juggernaut that Bill Belichick is likely to unleash upon them…
…and I say “likely” to unleash rather than committing to “will” unleash simply due to the capricious nature of their off season roster.
We are a little less than two weeks from the start of the free agency period and the Patriots front office has much on their plate in preparation, because what happens in free agency will directly affect what direction the Patriots turn in the Draft in trying to plug holes on the roster.
Is Wes Welker going to be back? How about Right Tackle Sebastian Vollmer? Brandon Lloyd is likely to be released due to some behind the scenes issues, so the receiving corps are going to have to be addressed in both free agency and the draft and there are depth concerns in other areas of the offense as well…
The defense? As many steps that were taken in the 2012 season to strengthen the much maligned unit, there are at least that many remaining to bring the defense up to championship caliber.
Aqib Talib, is he going to re-sign? Is Alfonzo Dennard going to be gracing the secondary or will he be sharing a cell with Bubba in Nebraska? Is Tavon Wilson the answer as the Big Nickle or will the defense have to rely on the unreliable Kyle Arrington once again?
Before one can reasonably make an argument for one player or another on the free agent market or in the draft, one must know – or at least take an educated guess – as to who their team is, what is going to be their primary focus on offense, and did we see a hint of it last season?
Does the defense attack or play rope a dope, clamping down in the red zone and hopefully holding the opposing offense to a field goal attempt?
If you are not attacking, you are being attacked. ’nuff said.
The Patriots offense never did get rolling last season – which is a scary, scary thought for the rest of the NFL. They led the league in scoring and in many offensive categories they were among the leaders, but we only saw the true Patriots’ offense in short intense bursts, and in some games not at all.
Coming out of training camp, Head coach Bill Belichick had stocked the offense with personnel that suggested nothing but power. Four tight ends and four running backs and only three receivers…and in the first game of the season against the Tennessee Titans, we saw a preview of something that was never to come…
…and then in the next game against the Arizona Cardinals saw what happened when one injury derailed the entire scheme.
The loss of Aaron Hernandez early in the second game of the season brought the scheme to a screeching halt…and it became obvious – within the scope of my twisted reasoning – that Hernandez was scheduled to be the Next Big Thing, that the playbook was designed to take advantage of the mismatches that his presence created all over the field.
One NFL General Manager went as far as to admit that the Patriots offense with Hernandez could make a defense feel as if they were in the wrong package every single time – even if they were in the proper one – due to both Brady and his mastery of the up-tempo scheme and also the ability to take advantage of Hernandez’ versatility.
By simply calling an audible, Brady could move Hernandez to a position in the formation that best took advantage of mismatches, be it as an in-line tight end, lined up out wide, in the slot or in the backfield…and if the defense was able to adjust in time, it left open a Rob Gronkowski or a Brandon Lloyd or left a big hole for a Stevan Ridley to run through.
On paper, it was unstoppable – and conspicuously void of master slot man Wes Welker, because with Welker on the field and running primarily out of the slot, it took away one potential mismatch, which apparently was too much for Bill Belichick to stomach as Welker found himself relegated to the bench.
Had the Patriots an athletic tight end as depth behind Hernandez, chances are that the Patriots could have continued with their plan to take over the NFL one victory at a time – but since they didn’t, it was back to the 2011 offense…
…which was boring, but efficient and the best in the NFL. Welker started every game from there on out and Gronkowski went all neanderthal, dragging folks all over the field, Ridley’s hard running was a pleasant thing to witness and Lloyd caught everything thrown outside the numbers – it was a great offense, but one can only imagine what could have been.
So assuming that Welker will be re-signed as well as Vollmer, there are two pressing needs on this offense: A speedy wide out to replace the apparently aloof Lloyd and skilled depth behind Hernandez and Gronkowski – and we are talking speedy wide receiver, someone that helps ensure that the safety can’t cheat up and disrupt the underneath stuff.
One could make the argument that Jake Ballard and Michael Hoomanawanui provide solid snaps behind the starting tight ends, but neither possess the athleticism that the offense would lose if either of them went down again.
Defensively, Belichick added the pieces in the offseason to bring the front seven into a class of one of the best in football, what with bringing in defensive tackle Jonathan Fanene through free agency and drafting almost entirely on the defensive side of the ball.
Chandler Jones brought length and athleticism to the pass rush from the right end position and along with Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork and impressive depth created a formidable line, which was backed up by the trio of Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and rookie Dont’a Hightower.
But the release of Fanene and injuries to Jones, Spikes and Hightower and a suspension of Jermaine Cunningham caused major riffs in the cohesion of the units. Despite the skill of the linebackers, they couldn’t cover tight ends or running backs underneath, putting strain on a front seven that had been holding the defense together enough to make up for the deficiencies in the secondary…
…which were many. But Belichick pulled a Halloween trick and acquired Aqib Talib from the Buccaneers and seventh round steal Dennard started flashing potential and suddenly, with Devin McCourty patrolling the back third of the field, the Patriots had a championship worthy defense. But injuries and ill-timed mistakes doomed the defense in the end.
And they were doomed because they were unable to attack. Just like on the offense, when the defense lost their starters, they also lost some of the ability to attack and dictate to the opposition – and what have we learned here? Right, If you are not attacking, you are being attacked.
The Seahwks and 49ers were able to take advantage of it, as were the Ravens…and it only takes one team to take advantage of you in the post season, and it all ends.
To prevent this from happening this season, the Patriots needs on defense are simple: A stud outside linebacker with rush skills and the ability to cover running backs and tight ends, a cornerback to develop under Talib and an athletic and rangy safety to cut the field in half.
And with Brady restructuring his contract and the team’s imminent release of Lloyd, the Patriots have plenty of leverage (cash) in picking and choosing the players that they need…and they need to treat this offseason like they are playing for the Super Bowl, because they essentially are:
Be aggressive in targeting their needs in free agency, making financially sound offers to them and then filling with depth through the draft.
All of this being said, just whom should the Patriots target in free agency in the draft?
Next: Part 2, The dark business of football forecasting, offseason edition…