The Patriots come into Sunday's game looking for revenge and for a rebound. Can they do it? Here's what they have to do:
1. Strengthen the Middle – There's no question here; the middle of the Patriots defense played one of its worst games of the past decade. Yeah, bold claim, but I don't think I'd back too far away from it. That's not to say they did nothing well, but they need to take large strides in every single facet of the game. They need to be better in blitz packages. They need to be better in zone. They need to be better in run defense. They need to be more aware in pass coverage. They need to be more instinctual when the ball is in the air. They need to work on their tackling form.
From the linebackers to the safeties, the Patriots have to improve. The Giants have a competent quarterback-to-tight end tandem in Eli Manning and Jake Ballard, so you can be sure they watched extra closely to Ben Roethlisberger's lights out performance with Heath Miller. Rob Ninkovich needs to be more aggressive in his jams at the line of scrimmage and every player has to step up in coverage. Look for Phillip Adams to see time in the slot and for Kyle Arrington to stay on the outside. Don't be surprised if a healthy Josh Barrett takes the field next to Pat Chung or, if he's injured, James Ihedigbo and Sergio Brown rotate.
2. Slot Machine – Last week, tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receiver Wes Welker were nowhere to be found. Welker was extremely limited and Hernandez was ignored. The Patriots offense has to find ways to get these two players involved. Last week, the Steelers had success by jamming the receivers at the line and utilizing man coverage. The Patriots couldn't adjust. They need a player who can force the defense to drop backwards and open lanes up underneath. Remember how Deion Branch couldn't produce when Aaron Hernandez was out, because Branch picks up his yards when Hernandez draws the defenders a couple steps deeper? Last week, that happened to every single receiver. There was no one opening up the field. Look for Taylor Price, Chad Ochocinco, Rob Gronkowski, or even Matthew Slater to try and take the top off of the Giants defense five (5) or more times on Sunday.
3. Being Brady – Also of note is how quarterback Tom Brady has been extremely ineffective since the Bills game. Coincidentally, that's when the Patriots started shifting their offense to try and make it more balanced. The Patriots have not been able to get their offense into any sort of rhythm and that has prevented the team from playing well. The defense is not built to play from behind and it needs the offense to get on the board early. Brady needs to open the game making making quick, accurate throws to the open receiver. Look for passes between 10-20 yards down the field. Aaron Hernandez needs to have some targets, as does Taylor Price. The Patriots running attack relies heavily upon the passing game to open up the field and a rhythmic Brady will make the offense run like a well oiled machine. They need to use the pass to set up the run to set up the deep ball.
4. O-no – The offensive line has struggled mightily. While the current offensive line would be fantastic for the majority of the league, the timing-based passing attack of the Patriots relies on one thing: time. The offensive line must give Brady and the receivers enough time to get open and create a play. Last week, the Steelers were able to generate enough pressure where press coverage in the secondary prevented Brady from making a quick pass. If Brady has a couple more seconds, the receivers can break free from the tight man coverage and make a play. So the offensive line has been "average" the past couple of weeks and that has hurt the offense. They need to be "spectacular."
5. Defensive Front – On defense, the front seven must generate pressure on Manning. Quarterbacks have had enough time in the pocket to stand tall as their receivers ran open down the field. The pressure must come quickly or the secondary will be more exposed. Great coverage comes hand-and-hand with great pressure in the front and that involves disruption in the backfield. Albert Haynesworth has looked great and he should have an increased role in the defense. If Shaun Ellis is out with an injury, Brandon Deaderick must step up his performance and be a great defender. The linebackers need to be smarter with the blitz packages so they (read: Brandon Spikes) do not open up passing lanes in their vacated zone and, at the very least, put their hands in the air to try and knock down the pass. If they do blitz, other defenders need to be aware of which players are blitzing in order to compensate in coverage and protection.
Sunday's game against the Giants looks to be a great chance for the Patriots to rebound against a quality opponent. The Giants are capable of generating pressure and have a rising star in pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul. They also have very competent defensive backs to press the Patriots receivers. On offense, their two star players running back Ahmad Bradshaw and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks have major question marks due to injuries and it is unknown if they will play. However, they still have plenty of weapons and the Patriots defense must prove themselves every single play.
On to Sunday!