Part one of a three-part series detailing the attitude necessary for the Patriots franchise to return to its championship-winning ways. In Part 1, we will define this attitude, and discuss defensive players already on the roster. In Part 2, we will discuss the offensive players on the roster, and examine what is missing on both sides of the ball. In Part 3, we will take a look at which draft prospects could possibly fill those gaps.
When most people speak of the elusive ‘Patriot Way,’ they generally refer to the calm professionalism the team is known for. Coming to work prepared, doing your job to the best of your abilities, letting your play speak for itself, and trusting your teammates and coaches are frequently cited, as well as the creative-yet-cold decision-making that Bill Belichick is known for. The right to play for the Patriots has to be earned, and whichever player on the roster can do the best job will be given the responsibilities, regardless of where they were taken in the draft or how much money they make. If a player can’t get in line with the message, or when their contract has outgrown their abilities, they will be quickly shipped out of town. This is the strategy that has kept New England a genuine Super Bowl contender every season for the past decade - an exceptional feat in the NFL.
Two years ago we were talking about replacing the great departed veterans of the franchise, players like Tedy Bruschi who defined the Patriots and their workman-like attitude. The team needed to develop a new identity and it did not materialize immediately. The 2008 and 2009 seasons ended in disappointment, and while this year also saw the Patriots exit the playoffs early, they have begun to rediscover that identity. The re-signing Vince Wilfork, Leigh Bodden and Tom Brady, combined with a strong draft class means New England has reloaded in a major way - and they’re not done yet. Not with the reloading, and not with the cultivation of a new attitude.
What is sometimes forgotten about the teams that won three Super Bowls in four years is on top of the professionalism and teamwork was a hit-us-and-we-hit-you-back-harder threat. The players knew they were privileged to be part of such a successful franchise, and they let their opponents know it on the field. You might stop them on third down, or drive all the way to the goal line, but New England would have the final say. An individual, put in a position to succeed by the rest of the organization, would raise his game that extra little bit and make a play when it counted. If the momentum was swinging away from them, a player would step up and make a statement. Be it a bone-crunching tackle, a hard-fought run up the middle for a first down, or a clutch field goal with time expiring, you knew there would be a response. New England needs to foster that intimidating, never-say-die attitude again.
The Patriots are the most hated and respected team in the league. The media loves to butter them up when they’re winning, and relishes their downfall even more. The 31 other franchises have jealously tried to tear New England from its perch, and they’ve come very close to succeeding. Had Pittsburgh beaten Green Bay in the Super Bowl, we would be talking about the Steelers as the reigning dynasty. They failed to make it three championships in six years, and that has left The Patriots still wobbling on top of the NFL heap. It is time for New England to pull a new sword from the stone and make it clear to the rest of the league that their reign is not over.
Both the offense and defense are built around players who are the best in the league at what they do; Wilfork and Brady. On defense you have the human wreaking-ball that is Vince Wilfork. If you don’t double-team him, Vince will push your center backward into the quarterback. Even if you do assign two blockers to number 75, he’ll still hold his ground, and if you run it at him, there’s a good possibility he’ll disengage and smother the ballcarrier. His exceptional play this season meant inside linemen were rarely able to get to the next level and block New England’s linebackers, allowing Jerod Mayo to lead the league in tackles. Wilfork tackling you means being ground into the dirt. Even if he can only grab your foot or arm, you’re not going to break away. His tenacious attitude can be infectious, and he is the perfect man to teach this new crop of defensive players how to approach the game mentally: Hit ‘em, hit ‘em again, then sit on ‘em so they can’t get back up.
Don’t get me wrong, Wilfork is a smart guy and not some mindless berserker – he just knows it helps if opponents think he is. New England needs that chip on its shoulder. Sure, it’s important to be professionals and do your job, but you need that hunger as well. It helps to play football with a controlled rage, like your reputation is on the line. When you look at the current legends of the game like Ray Lewis, he doesn’t play like he’s going to tackle you, he plays like he’s going to crumple you into a little ball.
New England needs a mixture of that vicious attitude tempered with smarts. The rage is useless without the ability to control it. The Patriots scheme is a difficult one to master, which is why intelligent players like James Sanders are able to excel. Sanders has learned to be in the right place at the right time, and make the play that needs to be made. Brandon Meriweather on the other hand, has not mastered the system, and it shows when he takes bad angles, or is not there to break up a pass. Unlike Wilfork, Meriweather is too far out on the attitude end of the spectrum. He plays with an edge, as evidenced by his brutal hits on receivers and risky, yet sometimes exceptional play. However, properly diagnosing plays and using sound judgment are just as important. It is a fine line. Sometimes you need to lay a receiver out. Sometimes the best play is the boring old wrap the guy up and make sure he doesn’t get by you.
Jerod Mayo is on the other end of the spectrum from Meriweather. Mayo is no Ray Lewis - he doesn’t intimidate or force a lot of turnovers, but he’s always there to make the tackle. His grasp of the game and the system is phenomenal, and his physical talents allow him to be constantly around the ball and make the play that needs to be made. The Patriots attitude has to be an even mixture of Mayo and Wilfork, brains and brawn.
There are some Patriot defenders who seem well on their way to mastering this concept, Devin McCourty in particular. Like Leigh Bodden last season, he came in and immediately raised the level of cornerback play. The two are similar players in a good way, physical at the line of scrimmage and tight in coverage. They both are capable of coming up with difficult interceptions, and are sound tacklers. McCourty has a little more speed, and Bodden more experience. Together they should make a terrific tandem next season if Bodden is able to return to his pre-injury form.
Pat Chung is a player who has improved dramatically over his two years in the league. He struggled at times, but is an extremely hard worker and has enormous talent. Chung has developed the mental aspect of his game each season, and once he masters the concepts, he has the potential to be a top safety. We saw his knack for the big play in the Patriots Week 4 win over Miami when he blocked both a punt and a field goal, and returned an interception 51 yards for the score. Chung can explode into ball carriers when he tackles, but also makes sure to wrap them up. Like Mayo, Chung has the speed and instincts to be involved in nearly every defensive stop. He puts in extra effort in practice, and with a little more seasoning should become a leader on the team.
Brandon Spikes seems to have the brawn side down, but is still working to refine the brains side of the equation. Coming out of Florida, Spikes was known as an instinctive player who could read plays with ease, but NFL offenses are difficult to understand. He made some excellent plays in 2010, but also was fooled by play-action on occasion, and was not always good in coverage. Brandon is an aggressive player, and can unload with big hits. He should develop into a nice compliment to Mayo in the 'thumper' role next to the sideline-to-sideline MLB. Spikes may have more of a talent for the big play as well, evidenced by his goal line interception of Mark Sanchez in the Monday night rout of the Jets. Spikes also needs to overcome the off-field issues that have marred his college and professional career, including a suspension for violating the NFL's banned substances policy, but those seem more like young mistakes due to poor judgment than deeper character issues.
Jermaine Cunningham and Ron Brace are two players who have not yet reached their potential. At times they each seem to be improving, but are not able to show any consistency yet. Cunningham was frequently able to get near the quarterback when rushing, but not able to actually get to the quarterback and bring him down. There are a lot of different techniques and responsibilities for a Patriots OLB, and Cunningham has shown himself to be good at many of them but not great at anything yet. He played defensive end in college, and is still learning the position. With time he could develop into the complete OLB New England desperately needs, but he still has a lot of work to do.
Brace sometimes looks like a dominant run defender who can hold his ground, read, react, and then shed his blocks to make the play. Other times he is too easily contained, and doesn’t show the tenacity that Wilfork brings each and every play. Brace will never be a Richard Seymour-type since his pass-rushing skills are not great, but he could be the heir to Ty Warren if he is able to use his considerable bulk to manipulate blockers and stuff the run. In college, Brace was the ideal foil to B.J. Raji of the Packers. In Boston College’s 4-3 defense, the two manned the middle of the line, with Brace occupying multiple blockers so Raji could knife into the backfield. If Brace can prove capable of controlling NFL-caliber offensive linemen as consistently, he will make himself invaluable in the Patriots scheme.
Stay tuned for Part 2, discussing the current offensive players and elements still missing from the team.