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Thursday Morning 3rd and Long

Is it just me, or does the 2011 season for the New England Patriots seem a heckuva lot like the 2010 season?

Great passing offense, no deep threat, terrible passing defense, no-names playing significant time on one of the worst statistical defenses in the league, and oh yeah... maybe Bill Belichick has lost his edge on draft day?

At this same point last season, the Patriots were one game better in the win column. At this point last season, New England continued on what would become an eight game win streak to finish the season 14-2. This season, the Patriots have a chance to replicate their streak heading into the playoffs.

The last four opponents New England faced in 2010 were the Bears, Packers, Bills, and Dolphins. The Patriots routed 3 of those four games, holding their opponents to 7, 3, and 7 points. The Packers game went nowhere near according to plan as the Patriots allowed the Green Bay offense, led by a backup quarterback, to get within four points and have possession during the waning seconds. The defense stepped up in those seconds, and put the game away.

Like the broken record that has become the 2011 Patriots, the team will again face Miami and Buffalo for the final two games of the year. Instead of the Bears and Packers, New England has to play away from home against two tough defenses- one with a mediocre offense, and the second with a similarly mediocre offense headed by the second coming of Vince Young, without the off-the-field issues.

This week is going to be a tough week. The Patriots go into a crippled 4-8 Washington, a team that has a sturdy, aggressive defense led by two outside linebackers the Patriots wish they had (one of whom is in AWFUL Geico commercials that make no sense). Washington showed early promise this season, only to have several games where the team faded or made a crucial mistake.

Much like the Colts, I'm not really sure where the Redskins can threaten the Patriots. New England is just a better team, but one that desperately needs to close the season on a dominant note and establish a rhythm going into the postseason. For those of you saying "How did the 8 game win streak help the Pats last year," I just don't have a response. Even though this season is 2010 version 2, it is still far better to win than to lose. (By the way, I've actually heard that argument on sports talk radio this week. I'm beginning to wonder why I listen)

Rex Grossman may be one of the worst, or at least most inconsistent, quarterbacks to ever play in a Super Bowl. It seems like every game I watch of his, he's either diming in deep balls for touchdowns or making inexcusable throws to put his team in terrible positions. The knock on Rex is that he holds the ball too long, and is thus sacked often. (Cut to former Redskin castoff Andre Carter licking his chops)

Roy Helu is a pleasant surprise for Washington- two straight games of 100+ yards, durable with the ball and runs with great burst. I'm not concerned- teams have had little luck rushing against the Patriots, and New England linebackers/ safeties have been much better in spying screens over the last few weeks. They'll hopefully continue that trend against the Redskins, as Helu has added close to 100 yards receiving on top of his rushing yards over the last two weeks. He's done so well that Ryan Torain hasn't even seen the field, despite Tim Hightower's injury situation.

The best news I read all week was that Fred Davis wasn't going to be playing this week, or for the rest of the season. He was the only legitimate threat on the Redskins offense I was concerned about, even though opposing tight ends are having trouble against the schemes of the Patriots.

So there it is- even with a NFL-competent quarterback, the Redskins have much, much, MUCH less explosive weapons to work with than the winless Colts.

There was actually a lot to evaluate in the Patriots play against the Colts.

First, Nate Jones is a FANTASTIC addition to New England. I know most played the devil-you-know card when the Patriots released Philip Adams, but I see Jones as bringing great special teams value as well as good experience and a tremendous amount of versality- heck, in his first game this season, for a new team, he played two positions! Nate seemed particularly good at tackling and always seemed to be near the ball. I think his role really depends on how his coverage skills look over the next few games- either he'll be primarily a back-up nickel option at the star cornerback position, a back-up safety, or who knows- maybe he ends up starting at outside cornerback? Nothing would surprise me anymore this year.

This particular secondary is definitely more of a hodge-podge group of talent than 2010 but the biggest plus is New England doesn't have anyone named Meriweather on the field.

Patrick Chung should be back soon, and this will create some problems with the rotation in the secondary. Chung and Ihedigbo are both better built for supporting the run than coverage in the deep backfield. This is best evidenced by James playing a hybrid safety/linebacker role at times last Sunday. However, these are the Patriots best safeties, and both are better options than Sterling Moore and Sergio Brown.

It seems to me that Belichick was confident that he had seen enough of Moore at safety, and wanted to give the young player some time at cornerback to test his coverage skills. He also wanted to see how Matthew Slater would perform at safety, and I'd say that Slater definitely met the challege.

It really makes total sense to me why career special teamers in Ihedigbo, Slater, Edelman, and White are having such a massive impact on the defense this year. These players aren't being asked to cover wide receivers man to man, they're in zone safety roles (or in White's case, a coverage-based linebacker role) where angles and coverage are stressed- much like in special teams. If those players can adequately fill in the scheme, Belichick can play to the strengths of the defensive line, and the linebackers when Spikes returns to his role beside Jerod Mayo.

If Matthew Slater makes more tackles on special teams than Sergio Brown, is a proven leader, and is the better athlete, why wouldn't he be the better back-up option? He's so far down on the wide receiver depth chart that he'd never get on the field, whereas the Patriots are swiss cheese in their defensive backfield.

I'd also like to see Devin McCourty tested at safety. It's hard to wrap one's head around the fact that Antuan Molden, Sterling Moore, and Kyle Arrington are better in coverage than McCourty, but it's true. However, McCourty is still one of the best players in the secondary- he just can't cover to save his life this season.

I think that Devin would be a great free-safety to complement Patrick Chung- maybe he's slightly undersized, but he has a fantastic knowledge of schemes and is a relatively good tackler.

If there's a single thing to be said for Bill Belichick, it's that he makes all of his decisions to win. He's not going to keep McCourty at cornerback just because he was a pro-bowler last year. However, he has to be impressed with Nate Jones' coverage skills in the star position and his sure tackling with almost no practice under his belt. Heck, Jones played 70 of 74 snaps in his first week!

This Week in Ochocinco

Like most, I was cheering for Chad when he made his catch last Sunday, because I really want to see him succeed. But listening to Scott Zolak on Monday, I've gone back to being frustrated with Chad's inability to stay on the field.

There were a series of events leading to Chad's 10 game reps coming to a close- first, he made a great catch on a 3rd down. Fantastic! Next, he appears to have no idea what the playcall is, and is completely out of one play. He then taps his helmet to come out, allowing Tiquan Underwood in the game. Almost as if Brady was making a statement to Chad, he fires to Underwood on the next play, seemingly saying "if you knew the plays better, you'd be getting the ball here Chad."

So there it is: after four months, Ochocinco still has not caught on to the New England system. Will he make contributions here and there? Probably. But after expecting 45 receptions and 500 or so yards in the preseason, I'm finally coming around to the terrible reality that Chad is being outplayed by a no-name burner with the "dropsies."