It has been five weeks of football now, and I think we're at the point where we can begin the process of drawing conclusions about what kind of team the 2012 New England Patriots are. Yes, they are absolutely still a work in progress, and yes, they still aren't playing up to their full potential, but I'd like to think that through five weeks, there are enough pieces in place to know where this team's strengths and weaknesses lie.
It's easy to get wrapped up in Sunday's win over the Denver Broncos, as we're all still fired up over the running game and the no-huddle and putting another tick mark in the Win Column in the Brady vs. Manning annual showdown. Well that's where I come in. Nobody knows how to rain on a parade like yours truly, and the harsh truth surrounding last week's game is that this team was quite possibly a dropped 4th down conversion and a red zone fumble away from being the victims of yet another late Peyton Manning surge.
There are plenty of areas for improvement for the Patriots, but here are the five where I think the team needs to focus on if they want to make a serious postseason run.
Field position. While it's always great to see the Patriots masterfully execute a long, sustained scoring drive that ends in points, I think it would be nice every once in a while to see them execute a short, punishing drive that ends in points that resulted from a decent kick return. Except for when they get a turnover, this team is pinned back right around their own 20 more often than not and consistently face long fields. The main culprit here is the kickoff unit, which currently ranks last in the league in yards (their longest return of the year is 28 yards in week 1). I'd like to place blame on Devin McCourty, but it isn't entirely on him at all; he has the speed, but the blocking has to be there as well. Plus, what are the team's other options? Jeff Demps is on IR, Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman weren't all that effective last year, and Matthew Slater seems to still be in the doghouse after some early 2011 ball security issues. You also have to factor the increased number of touchbacks teams are seeing, which translates into fewer return opportunities, but there are still chances to set the offense up with decent field position and the kickoff team just isn't getting it done. Should they change up the return man, maybe give Shane Vereen a shot? I'm not sure, but it would be nice to start an offensive drive from the 40 for a change.
Big plays. I've harped on this in the past, but it warrants mentioning again after Sunday's game: the Patriots are still very susceptible to the big play. They gave up 188 yards to Demaryius Thomas, many of which came on plays of 20+ yards (including a monster throw and catch on 4th and 1 in the 4th quarter that would likely have set up a TD had McGahee not fumbled). To be honest, I'd prefer last year's bend but don't break defense over this big-play defense; as maddening as it was to watch opposing teams simply march down the field at will, at least it took them a few minutes to get within field goal range. On the plus side, Manning is a once-in-a-lifetime talent when it comes to scoring a lot of points fast, so there won't be another test like that for a while this season. At the same time, though, I'd like to know that a 3 score lead with 8 minutes left to play is enough to seal the victory because QBs won't be able to launch a 4 play, 80 yard scoring drive that only takes 90 seconds off the clock. A big part of that big-play susceptibility is...
Defensive fundamentals. I know deep down that it isn't a matter of simply turning your head when the ball is thrown; you have to stay with the receiver, make sure he doesn't break off his route, and put yourself in the position to make a play. At the same time, though, a DB who doesn't turn his head when he makes a play is going to get called for Pass Interference every single time. Sunday wasn't the first time it's happened, and it won't be the last. Getting your head around is a very basic cornerbacking skill, and until our DBs (looking your way, McCourty) figure out how to fix it, quarterbacks are just going to keep throwing at them knowing that receivers will either catch the ball or draw the flag.
Deep threat? Wasn't Brandon Lloyd supposed to represent the deep threat that the team has been missing since Randy Moss departed for Minnesota, then Tennessee, then nowhere, then San Francisco? If so...well, then, where is it? There really hasn't been all that much in terms of long, field-stretching passes downfield to Lloyd, and it's at least worth noting. The good news is that Lloyd has still been a great addition to this team and catches most of the passes that come his way, including more than a few circus grabs that kept crucial drives alive. However, when we signed him, I envisioned that Tommy B would take a shot down the field with him at least once or twice per game, and we aren't seeing that right now. It's hard to harp on the sporadic appearance of the deep ball as a negative, since the offense is still rolling along without it, and I think that Lloyd and Brady are still getting on the same page in regards to the longer routes as the timing and communication needs to be much sharper than on the intermediate routes. More importantly, this team hasn't really needed to take all that many shots downfield because the running and mid-range passing game has been working so well. Still, though, I'd like to see the deep ball become a factor in what is already a highly potent offense, and if there isn't at least the threat of a potential long pass, defenses will start adjusting and the run game may suffer as a result.
Sacks. Any way you slice it, Tommy B is still taking a lot of sacks, and they started to take their toll on Sunday - not so much in a physical sense, but mentally. Of the four sacks Brady took, I'd argue that he could have stepped up and escaped two of them, but he felt phantom pressure and braced himself for hits that didn't come until a few seconds later. Luckily, very few of the sacks he has taken so far have been reminiscent of the Elvis Dumervil slam he took last year, but regardless, the less he gets hit, the better. All in all, the offensive line is still playing very well, but I'd like to see Brady's sack total drop, as he's on pace right now for upwards of 40 sacks on the season. We all know the difference between a confident Brady and a rattled one, and if he starts hearing footsteps, things could take an ugly turn.