The Patriots defense has been in focus for most of the season due to the erratic nature of their performance. Some games are fantastic, some are awful and some are just plain average. It's okay, though, because it's chalked up to inexperience. As pointed out before, only Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Brandon Meriweather have 3 or more years of starting experience on this defense. Pat Chung, Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty, Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich, Gerard Warren and Brandon Deaderick are all first year starters on this defense. It's clear why everyone gives the defense some slack.
But what about the offense? Do they deserve a break? Everyone, myself included, was upset about the offensive output against the Chargers. It was down right deplorable. 38 Yards of offense in the first half is inexcusable for this offense, especially with how many opportunities it was given.
So let's look further at this offense. What's up?
Quarterback: Tom Brady. He's Tom Terrific and has been playing as well as could be expected. His biggest contribution has been his lack of "messing up." He forced two terrible turnovers against the Jets, trying to reach Randy Moss. He had one pick against the Ravens on a Hail Mary to close the half, which doesn't really count, and then a bad interception to start the second half. Apart from that, he's limited his mistakes. When Brady doesn't turn the ball over, the Patriots will play well and be in the position to win. That's a given.
Running Back: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead. These are the only two players who are seeing the football from the running back position. What do they have in common? Both are first year starters. BJGE has been in the system, and even pulled a night shift as a starter in 2008. He's put up three goose egg performances, not coincidentally during the three toughest games of the seasons- Jets, Ravens and Chargers. He's reaching the end zone, but that should be a given when he's given the ball on the goal line. He's just not performing between the 20s. Is it his fault? Or is it the offensive line's fault?
Woodhead is the other first year starter and he's playing exceptionally well. He's a threat out of the backfield as a runner and as a receiver.
Wide Receiver: Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman, Taylor Price. Other than Wes Welker, what do these players have in common? Inexperience in the current Patriots offense. Yeah, Branch played in the beginning part of the decade and he seems to have some chemistry with Brady- he's still new to this offense. Edelman has been too injury prone to stay on the field, Price hasn't seen the field yet and Tate is just starting to see playing time after riding the Injured Reserve last season. That leaves Welker as the only truly experienced wide receiver in this offense and he's still coming back from his injury.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Alge Crumpler. This position underwent a fire sale over the summer. None of these players were with the Patriots last season and two of them were in college. Hernandez has emerged as a stud receiver, but he's still learning the offense. Gronkowski is a big target who knows how to block, but is still waiting to become a bigger staple in the receiving game. Crumpler, although he is a captain, is still new to the system and is learning everything himself.
Offensive Line: Matt Light, Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal, Sebastian Vollmer. Light and Koppen are playing like they don't want to come back next season. Connolly, after playing solid football the first couple weeks, has been performing like a back-up who was thrust into a starting role. Neal has been his solid, but unspectacular self. Vollmer is playing like a second year player. This is the weakest link on the offense and is getting long in tooth. Light, Koppen and Neal could all be replaced next season, and Connolly may not be a starter either.
The offensive line has been unable to keep Brady clean and give him time in recent games and deserve a large portion of the blame for the offense's struggles. This unit underwent a negative makeover during the summer (Logan Mankins out with a contract dispute, Nick Kaczur out with a back injury) and will need to be improved over the next couple seasons.
The success of this offense hinges on offensive line play. Perform well and the Patriots will produce. Struggle and it will be a long day. I don't believe that the skill players (running backs, wide receivers, tight ends) are really to blame for the lack of offensive firepower. They are all players who are either new to the system, or are new to the NFL, and are all learning the Patriots offense. They will get there.
So while we continue to give the defense the benefit of the doubt and write off their performances as a result of their inexperience, maybe we should do that for the offense as well. Just like the defense, this young offensive unit should grow as the season continues and hopefully they will become more potent. While the offense is dependent upon the success of the offensive line, the skill players must continue to learn the game and become better players. Until that time, maybe they should be given a little bit of a break because they're all still young.
Oh, and the Patriots are #1 in the league in points per game.