FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 18: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots reacts after he gained yardage despite the defense of Eric Weddle #32 of the San Diego Chargers in the second half at Gillette Stadium on September 18, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
If there is any silver lining to Aaron Hernandez's sprained MCL that occurred against the San Diego Chargers last Sunday, it's that New England fans should now be able to see the offseason's most outspoken acquisition, Chad Ochocinco, on the field for more than twenty snaps. In my opinion, this is a bleak silver lining. Aaron's injury supposedly occurred when he was tackled by the former Indianapolis Colt Bob Sanders, and the safety's helmet hit Hernandez directly on the knee. He remained on the field for a series, and then was off the field for the fourth quarter. Time will tell if the offense's unbelievable production so far this season will suffer without Aaron on the field.
I doubt that the Patriots will stray far from the two tight end and two wide receiver package that has seen such success in 2011 simply because of Aaron's absence. So far this season, New England has run roughly 125 of 150 offensive snaps with two or more tight ends on the field. That is simply an incredible number, and I doubt that Bill Belichick's gameplan will deviate much from the success seen in these offensive sets. Though Dan Gronkowski is nowhere near the offensive weapon his brother Rob is, they are both apt blockers and will at least threaten the Buffalo Bill's defense next week with possible passing. I spoke with my friend today about the brothers' homecoming to Buffalo this year- would it not be a quirky Belichickian thing to do to get both a touchdown in this contest?
Another prediction (though it's been said before and isn't tremendously bold): Nate Solder will catch at LEAST one touchdown pass this season, despite never having caught a collegiate touchdown.
The success the Patriots had with Solder on the field as an extra tight end leads me to believe we'll see more of the same against the Bills- he was on the field for 18 snaps: 14 runs, 3 passes, 1 defensive penalty, and a touchdown. If Sebastien Vollmer stays healthy (which is uncertain because apparently he complained of pain to the German press) Belichick will find a way to put Solder on the field. Garrett Mills, if promoted from the practice squad, will possibly fill the receiving tight end void in Hernandez's absence.Chad Ochocinco has seen less than 40 snaps in the first two games of the season- Rob Gronkowski saw over 60 just last game. Never fear, Ocho supporters- his catches have all been impact catches and he definitely shows signs of life. I'm almost tired of the argument surrounding Chad's abilities- he certainly SEEMS to be more athletic than Deion Branch or Wes Welker, but athleticism is definitely not everything in New England's offense. Branch and Welker have an uncanny chemistry with number 12, something that can't be traditionally defined in the sense we are used to seeing in today's fantasy football culture. Fans salivate over big-bodied receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, or Vincent Jackson or speedy downfield threats like Mike Wallace, Desean Jackson, or Stevie Johnson. The fact of the matter is that the Patriots offense isn't build for big plays. New England looks to scheme and dissect their opponents' defenses, exploiting defenses and moving the chains. Big play teams can be shut down by better defenses- offenses based on geometry, options, and an otherworldly quarterback are much harder to stop.
Make no mistake about it- the current incarnation of the Patriots' offense is a supercharged version of the 2010 offense that lead New England to a 14-2 record. Last year, Belichick and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien had to adjust their strategies early into the year with the departure of Laurence Maroney (has anyone heard that name recently?) and Randy Moss. Deion Branch and Danny Woodhead were brought in midseason to the team, and the Patriots' new tight end toys had a minimal amount of time within the system. This year, "Hoodie" was given an entire offseason to play around with ideas for the offense, and it shows.
I believe this concept is what most would refer to as "chemistry." And to this point, that is exactly what the Patriots' defense lacks. With a great amount of talent, all New England's defense needs is game situations to fill in the cracks. Though the season opener against Miami was certainly a hiccup, this past week against the Chargers showed a playmaking defense very similar to 2010- and I'm not one to think of playmaking as a negative thing. Too many people are obsessed with statistics; maybe it's a product of hearing too many Belichick press conferences, but I look at wins as the defining statistic. That, and interceptions by Vince Wilfork. I don't think it was a coincidence that Wilfork's first career interception occurred this year. With more talent surrounding him, Big Vince has been freed up to diagnose situations and make plays.
When I watched the full contest against the Chargers for the first time (unfortunately, I was only able to listen on Sunday as I was returning from a fantastic weekend in Pemaquid Point, Maine), it struck me how much of the Chargers' offense was gained with checkdowns. Another great thing that struck me was how few YAC (yards after catch) were given up. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I see this as a great sign that the Patriots' defensive schemes were working excellently. Even when giving up large chunks of yardage in the air to San Diego, New England's defenders were always tight to their man, able to immediately bring their responsibility down. This shows that the Patriots' defenders weren't getting beat, and that the Chargers' offensive weapons were simply making plays. Vincent Jackson made some unbelievable catches, including a one-handed touchdown grab surrounded by three defenders that was so incredible I could not possibly be mad about it.
Does New England's defense have weaknesses? Absolutely. Without a shadow of a doubt. Are these deficiencies correctable? You bet! The pass rush was definitely stifled against San Diego, but I may attribute that to several instances where Andre Carter chipped Antonio Gates out of a two point stance before rushing toward Rivers. New England needs to work on following assignments and preventing checkdowns- quite often, the Patriots players were lined up a yard or two beyond where they could have been to prevent a big gain on a checkdown. We go back to the word "chemistry"- with such a short time to prepare the defense for a transition to a 4-man front, it must be hard for the linebackers to learn new responsibilities in zone coverage. While I will not absolve the defense of the tremendous amount of yardage given up so far this year, I will say that I expect it to tighten up going forward- generating much more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and defending a lot more passes.
Many people would consider this week's game against the Buffalo Bills to be a trap game; This early into the season, I definitely disagree. Especially considering the weaknesses the Patriots' defense has shown thus far this season- I doubt Bill Belichick's review of the game film will be as rose colored as my analysis has been, and I also doubt that he'll allow his defense to become complacent with allowing the Patriots' offense to win every game. We should make no mistakes about it, and neither will New England- Buffalo is dangerous this year. I'm sure that in trading Lee Evans to Baltimore prior to the regular season, that Chan Gailey probably did not anticipate Roscoe Parrish going down so early into the season; but Buffalo has playmakers, and players that will take every inch New England gives them. They pound the football with Fred Jackson, have an explosive backfield threat in C.J. Spiller, and a more explosive downfield threat in Steve Johnson. Not to mention, Ryan Fitzpatrick looks more and more like a top 10 NFL quarterback with each victory. New England has won the last 15 contests against the Bills- as a fan of odds, I hate that type of statistic. Undefeated runs like that are just begging to be broken; for reference, consider the fact that the Patriots haven't lost to Buffalo since Vince Wilfork has been in New England. We can either ascertain that the Patriots have the Bills' number, or that the time is coming for an epic upset.
I'm not going to play the doomsayer for this game, however. New England's offense has looked too unstoppable this season, Aaron Hernandez or not.
The injuries are racking up, however. I read last night that my new favorite Patriot Patrick Chung had thumb surgery. It remains to be seen how long he'll be out (if at all) but injuries could be the one thing that derail New England this year. Losing stalwarts like Dan Koppen and Mike Wright, along with having new studs like Hernandez, Chung, Taylor Price, Dane Fletcher, and Sebastien Vollmer beat up already will challenge the depth we all saw coming out of the preseason.
Injuries are no excuse- ask the 2010 Green Bay Packers. They were able to overcome the adversity presented, and achieve their final goal; 2 games into 2011, it's still too early to forsee what the Patriots' final product will be down the road. Us fans have no idea what speedbumps New England will see in the course of this season- or if any new Patriots will be acquired before all is said and done (Randy Moss??).
Patriots fantasy outlook for the week: If you're a fan of long shots, pick up Dan Gronkowski. If you're not a fan of longshots, you should feel very favorably about our running game this week. In two games against the Bills last year, New England racked up nearly 420 rushing yards- BenJarvus Green-Ellis accounted for nearly half of them. Look for Danny Woodhead to also make an impact in the game.