NB: This is not a negative article bashing the Patriots team. I don't doubt their ability as a team and think they will make a strong Super Bowl challenge in 2011. This article is simply playing devil's advocate.
After analysing five key factors which could push the Patriots over the edge in 2011, it is clear the Patriots could be very strong in 2011. However, no team goes into any season without any concerns and usually it is the team which best addresses or deals with these concerns which have the most success. Here are five reasons the 2011 New England Patriots might not be ready to take the next step...
•1. Unlikely to repeat the turnover differential
Last year was an unbelievable year for the Patriots, turnover-wise. In 2010, the Patriots finished +28 in turnover differential (by far the best in the league), snagging 25 interceptions and forcing 11 fumbles. This differential was the second best since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, behind only the 1983 Redskins, who had an insane +43 differential. Tom Brady went on the greatest interceptionless streak in history with 339 passes without an interception, and throwing only four all season (plus one in the playoffs). As a team, the Patriots set a turnover record for fewest turnovers with 10, besting the previous record set by the Dolphins and Giants in 2008 with 13 apiece. Put simply they were spectacular, and it was arguably these statistics which gave the Patriots some edge in some closely fought victories in 2010, particularly against the Colts, Chargers and Packers. Belichick preaches that turnovers lose games and of course, he is right, but the Patriots surely cannot best their 2010 performance. A drop off could potentially cost the Patriots some close games in 2011, although a significant improvement in 3rd down defense would help negate any drop off in takeaways.
•2. Offense is not proven in the clutch
While Tom Brady has produced BIG late in the game in every Super Bowl he has played in, and has rightly earned his clutch status, the current offense (2 TE offense with youngsters such as Tate, Hernandez, Gronkowski, Woodhead etc) is unproven in producing game winning drives in close games. Due to the prolific nature of the offense in 2010, they rarely had to, however despite a clutch 4th quarter comeback against the Ravens, were unable to produce the game winning drive at the end of regulation, waiting until deep into overtime and numerous defensive stops to get the job done. Even in 2009, the Patriots failed to produce game winning drives against the likes of Miami. While the defense made a number of confidence boosting late stops in 2010, this offense hasn't done the same and will need to prove its metal at some point.
•3. The Patriots still have no proven field stretcher
I do not agree that the Jets provided a blueprint to stop the Patriot offense. The Jets have one of the most talented defensive rosters in the league and in Rex Ryan, one of the more creative coaches. However, teams will nonetheless attempt to carry more defensive backs when playing the Patriots, in an attempt to flood the shorter zones of the field and dare them to go long or run the ball more. The Patriots have stocked up on running backs in the draft, perhaps acknowledging this scenario, but the Patriots have no proven deep threat. Perhaps one is on the roster, in the form of Taylor Price or Brandon Tate, but as yet, this talent is unclear. The Patriots play the Jets twice a year and will again stand a decent chance of facing them in the Playoffs - with no proven consistent deep threat on the roster, the Patriots may encounter some frustrating afternoons offensively in 2011.
•4. Will the pass rush compliment the coverage
We often hear Bill Belichick discuss the merits of the pass rush and how it relates to coverage. In the Belichick defense, a big emphasis is placed on complimentary football, with coverage and pass rush working in tandem. With the addition of Ras-I Dowling with the 33rd overall draft pick and the return of Leigh Bodden, the Patriots will field arguably the most talented secondary in the NFL in 2011, one rivalling that of the vaunted Packer secondary. However, with no additions to the outside linebacking core and no pass rushing defensive line players added, it remains to be seen whether the pass rush will hold up its end of the deal. The whole of the Patriot line backing corps generated just 19 sacks in 2010 and its leading sacker on the defensive line, Mike Wright, is returning from a serious concussion and is not an every down player. The pass rush will need to match the coverage for this defense to realise its potential, otherwise it could be more of the same 3rd down woes for the Patriots and ultimately worse if the defense can't reproduce the turnovers of 2010.
•5. The Lockout
I hate talking about it and you sure as hell hate hearing about it, but the effects of the lockout cannot be ignored when talking about the progress or lack thereof this team could make. After fielding the youngest defense in the league in 2010 and after drafting and retaining the most youth over the past three drafts, the Patriots rookies and 2nd year players need this offseason to either adjust to the pro game and digest the playbook or help make the jump from rookie to 2nd year player, arguably the most important transition in ones career. As it stands, the lockout is preventing any contact between players and coaches and as such, players are not receiving the coaching or strength and conditioning sessions they so badly need. Arguably no team in the league requires these sessions more than the New England Patriots, who employ complex offensive and defensive systems which the younger players still need to learn. There is no doubt the absence of an offseason program will hurt this team, particularly at the beginning of the year.