The Patriots spent the season creating a new identity. After spending three seasons with a high flying offense and two seasons with an unreliable defense, coach Bill Belichick decided to change the whole team. In the middle of the season, he shipped off wide receiver Randy Moss and transformed the offense to a possession offense. With receivers like Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Woodhead, the Patriots spent the better portion of last season throwing short-to-middle range passes and slowly, yet methodically, moving the chains down the field.
Most people who watched the new offense thought back to the Patriots' offenses during the Super Bowl victories- slow, methodical offenses that just chipped and chipped away at opposing defenses. Quarterback Tom Brady took advantage of great possession receivers like Troy Brown, David Givens, and Deion Branch and utilized their reliable hands to take whatever yardage was available.
This upcoming season, the Patriots will have to re-find their reliable hands on offense. It was clear that the offense stalled in all three of the losses last season, but it was especially prevalent during the Browns loss and the playoff loss to the Jets. Brady was just not on target against the Browns and there were numerous untimely drops that killed all offensive momentum in the playoffs. Players like Wes Welker and (in the playoffs) Deion Branch will have to re-find their hands, while players like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Tate, and Taylor Price must work on their chemistry with Brady. The running game will always be used as a complement to the passing game, so BenJarvus Green-Ellis must continue to reliably gain yardage and keep the defense honest. The team is unstoppable when the offense is firing on all cylinders, so it's crucial to have offensive momentum.
This Monday, we'll be watching a great video- the Patriots vs the Colts: 2003 AFC Championship. It's on Hulu, so it's the highlights from the game. You can watch the tempo of the game change from when the Patriots offense is in a groove to when they lose the timing. However, while it's clear that the Patriots' offense is required to win the game, it's also clear that the Patriots' defense sets the tempo for the entire game.
Let's look at how the defense must evolve after the jump!
Just look at the players on the defense. Jarvis Green, Willie McGinest, and Roman Phifer all collected sacks over the game. Ty Law and Rodney Harrison both racked up interceptions. However, the key point is how there was not just one player who pushed the team over the top; there were multiple players who had to make plays in order for the defense to perform at an elite level. When I say that, I mean that the Patriots are not one first round draft pick player away from becoming an elite defense. In fact, I believe that a first round player would take the defense back another year. What has to happen is all the current players on the roster must use their knowledge of the Patriots' defensive schemes and collectively elevate the group to the next level.
Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, Myron Pryor and the other defensive linemen need to take the next step and continuously generate pressure. Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich, Eric Moore, and even Markell Carter need to start taking advantage of the pressure they can create. Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Gary Guyton, and Dane Fletcher all must start making plays and cutting off the opposition before they even start producing. Devin McCourty needs to have a helluvan encore season, and Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler, and Ras-I Dowling must learn the schemes to lock down receivers. Pat Chung, Jarrad Page, Brandon Meriweather, and James Sanders need to step up and become reliable playmakers in the secondary- and not liabilities.
I specify those players for a reason- this is an extremely young defense. It's been obvious the past few seasons that the defensive scheme has been extremely basic and the classic Belichick wrinkles have been hidden. There are a few disguises (Joker in '09, Manning's interception in '10), but as a whole, the defense has been relatively simple compared to what fans are used to watching. The Patriots could start a second or third year player at every spot on the defense (DL, ILB, OLB, CB, S), which presents two further points:
1) This is the year for the Patriots defense to take itself to the next step and produce at a Belichickian level.
2) The addition of a first year rookie would set back a position another year when there are other young players with more experience who can take the next step.
This defense is ready to set tempos for games next season, just like the Patriots' defense in '03. One star can't make this defense an elite squad, but a collective effort can yield fantastic results.
I'm ready to see some offensive consistency in the playoffs, as well as a more versatile, exotic, and Belichickian defense for the whole season. We were able to see the '03 and '04 teams succeed based on those two concepts. Hopefully '11 can achieve similar success.