After nine weeks of the NFL season, more than halfway through the year, the Patriots finally get to rest up with a bye in Week 10.
It’s a good time for the Patriots to rest because of injuries to key players, but it’s also because the following seven weeks will be the team’s most treacherous stretch of games, including the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos. With so much to digest, including injuries, faux injuries, and renewed expectations, a review of the team’s first half of the season is necessary.
It’s not all good. But it’s not all bad either. Check it out.
Up until Week 9’s masterful performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tom Brady had appeared to be struggling more than ever with his accuracy and command of the football. Part of of his accuracy woes could be blamed on an unacknowledged hand injury, but there is shared blame with his entirely new group of receivers and running backs, who have dropped a league-high 32 passes and contributed to the substandard offensive output in New England because of a distinct lack of chemistry.
This season, thanks to those first struggling eight weeks, Brady has completed 57.1 percent of his passes, a career low as a starter. Despite all of this, he has led the Patriots to a 7-2 record in a pass-first offense. His touchdowns are down (13), as are his yards (2,256) from previous seasons at this point, but he has managed in one way or another to make plays for the Patriots, including a game-winning drive against the New Orleans Saints with a go-ahead touchdown pass.
The upside is that his hand is clearly better now and he will be able to rest up for the second leg of the season. He is expected to perform like his usual self going forward, a career 63.7 completion-rate passer.
In the most recent game, the Patriots’ rushing production was above average. Stevan Ridley carried the ball a season-high 26 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns, while the team finished with a season-high 197 yards on the ground. Ridley now has 514 yards (4.4 average), which projects to a year-end total of 914 yards.
While he struggled in the early going with a fumble in Week 1 that got him benched, he has proven to be a one of the best in the league at making opposing defenders miss tackles (17 on 118 carries).
LeGarrette Blount, who has been a spot-starter and the team’s kickoff returner, has 305 yards on 70 carries. He hasn’t had one bad day for the Patriots, rushing hard between the tackles and surprising opponents by breaking off multiple runs of 20 yards or more. His 40-yard touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons was a back-breaker. And his 4.4 yards per carry has given coach Bill Belichick a solid option to spell Ridley.
Brandon Bolden, whom the Patriots have used on third downs, in the hurry-up, and in passing situations, has struggled with consistency. He missed the first two weeks of the season with a knee injury, returning against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to have his most prolific day statistically, rushing for 51 yards on only three carries. He has 17 receptions on 23 targets, but an alarming four drops. He’s been good for the Patriots when they’ve opted to use him on draw plays, as was the case in Week 9 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but spotty elsewhere. He has 205 yards rushing on 38 carries.
Everything has changed dramatically with the return of Rob Gronkowski to the playing field. After missing the first six weeks of the season, Gronk has already caught 19 passes for 284 yards and a touchdown.
Because of his presence, Tom Brady has sought out the big target to help alleviate some of the stress put on the other, less experienced receivers on the roster. Brady went so far as to target Gronkowski 17 times in his season debut.
It’s clear that the fourth-year tight end is a critical component of this offense, especially considering the struggles the team has endured with him gone.
Michael Hoomanawanui has certainly helped in a limited capacity. The Patriots don’t trust the veteran in too many passing situations, but he has caught nine of 12 passes thrown his way. He has struggled in run blocking, which has contributed to an increased role for Matthew Mulligan, who can be seen strictly as a blocking tight end.
While the position might as well have been nonexistent three weeks ago, it’s very much now the focus with Gronkowski in the fold.
The Patriots sustained a major loss when tackle Sebastian Vollmer was placed on injured reserve. He has been replaced by Marcus Cannon, who has performed well in the two weeks he’s received significant playing time.
But the offensive line overall has not performed well. While it has been defined by the ruggedness of guard Logan Mankins, the team captain, the unit has fallen prey to some stout defenders. The team has given up 20 sacks, tied for third most in the NFL, and 76 quarterback hurries.
In 2012, the Patriots allowed a grand total of 24 sacks during the regular season. In 2011, 20. And in 2010, a mere 15.
Mankins has allowed a team-high six sacks, with left tackle Nate Solder allowing five and center Ryan Wendell four, according to the statistical website ProFootballFocus.com. Mankins is tied with Miami guard Richie Incognito for the most allowed by a guard, while Wendell leads all centers.
There isn’t a unit on this Patriots team that has sustained more losses due to injury than the defensive line. It has been severely hampered without Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, who was recently placed on injured reserve.
The Patriots have countered by installing two rookies, Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, as their defensive tackles before trading for veteran nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. Sopoaga made his debut in Week 9.
Vellano, who came on for Wilfork in Week 5 after he was injured against the Cincinnati Bengals, has improved steadily each week. But he’s not asked to do much, mostly holding gaps and stuffing the run, which he has done well. He has 33 combined tackles and a sack.
Chris Jones, who has six sacks after making his first appearance in Week 4, has had a much tougher time against the run, getting pushed out of space while allowing for extra yardage from opposing running backs. It’s probably no secret that Chris Jones’ struggles inside forced the Patriots to deal for Sopoaga to shore up a defense that is giving up 128.2 yards per game, third worst in the league. That’s a far cry from where the team started in the first quarter of the season when Wilfork and Kelly were available.
The bright spot has been defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Chandler Jones has 50 tackles and 8.5 sacks this season, on pace for 15.5 sacks this year. Ninkovich, who was banged up in Week 9, has 45 tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles. Between the two defensive ends, the Patriots have done well to hold the edges against their opponents. Both have been given expanded duties as the season has progressed, standing up and dropping back into coverage as 3-4 outside linebackers. While the defensive tackles struggle at times just to hold the gaps, these two have been able to bring the pressure and hold the line as every down players.
Things have changed with Jerod Mayo out with a torn pectoral muscle for the season. The Patriots have begun to rely heavily upon linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower, both of whom had seen reduced snaps at the beginning of the season as the team opted for more defensive backs in sub packages.
Spikes has been fantastic in run support, with only one missed tackle all season. He has 53 combined tackles and an interception. He’s not asked to rush the quarterback much, just 39 times this season, and has shown improvement year over year in the passing game.
Hightower has been productive with 51 combined tackles and a sack, proving himself to be one of the more solid outside linebackers in the league given the amount of snaps he has played (502).
Rookie Jamie Collins has had trouble in the running game and despite the opportunities afforded him with the loss of Mayo, he saw his snap count reduced to two plays against the Pittsburgh Steelers after a season-high 25 snaps against the Miami Dolphins. He has seven tackles this season and three tackles for a loss.
Backup Dane Fletcher has seen an increased role in dime packages with Mayo out, recording a single sack the past two weeks.
Aqib Talib was all the rage of the Patriots until his hip became a problem. He’s been sidelined for the past three weeks, practicing for the last two before being ruled inactive. Despite his absence, he is still tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with four and is tied for 11th with passes defensed (9). He most notably broke up a potential game-tying touchdown pass to Roddy White against the Atlanta Falcons with seconds remaining.
His counterparts have had a mixed time without him. Alfonzo Dennard is playing with confidence, despite getting roasted for only his second touchdown of the season this week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is allowing only 50.9 percent of passes completed when thrown in his direction, putting him in the top tier of the NFL. But he has struggled in run support. He has nine missed tackles this season, tied for third most of any cornerback in the league.
Kyle Arrington is one of the most targeted corners in the NFL. He’s allowing 59.3 percent of those passes to be caught and has given up four touchdowns, tied for fifth among corners. But he’s been resilient, batting away eight passes this season, good for third in the league at his position.
Rookie Logan Ryan has improved immensely since the start of the season and has been given more opportunities with Talib out, working from both the slot corner and right cornerback position. He has allowed two touchdowns, but also has an interception returned for a touchdown. The Patriots surprised everyone when they called Ryan’s number twice against the Miami Dolphins and he came away with two sacks, marking the best game of his young career.
Safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory have been every down players for the Patriots. McCourty has played 664 of the team’s 671 snaps, while Gregory, who suffered a thumb injury in Week 9, has played 558. Both have been good, helping the Patriots turn the tide from a team that was one of the worst in pass defense to one that is now in the middle of the pack, allowing 233 yards per game (13th in the NFL).
McCourty in particular has been great, accounting for 40 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, an interception, and five passes defensed. He has allowed no touchdowns thrown in his direction. Gregory’s numbers are similar, allowing only one touchdown this season, while recording 44 tackles and 14 tackles for a loss.
Add in safety Duron Harmon, the other rookie out of Rutgers, and the Patriots have been solid deep. Harmon has two interceptions. Year over year, and with essentially the same core group in place, this unit has been the biggest bright spot for the Patriots.
Stephen Gostkowski has had a phenomenal start to the season. He’s 22 of 23 on field goal tries, most notably making 7 of 8 attempts between 40 and 49 yards and going 2 for 2 when attempting field goals 50 yards or more. In Week 1, he kicked a game-winner to lift the Patriots over the Buffalo Bills, 23-21.
He’s also been solid on kickoffs with 38 touchbacks. The average start for Patriots opponents is the 20.3 yard line because of him and the team’s coverage unit, a huge boon to the defense.
Punter Ryan Allen has had some starts and stops, but has mostly been good for the Patriots in his rookie season. He is averaging 46 yards per punt and only 34.7 percent of his punts are returned. But he also has eight touchbacks on 49 attempts and has at times out-kicked his coverage. His net punting average is a meager 39.5, 22d in the league.
Julian Edelman has worked extraordinarily well as the team’s punt returner. In 26 attempts, he has returned punts for 310 yards, or an 11.9 average. He has at times almost broken a few of his attempts back, getting returns of 43, 38, and 24 yards this season.
LeGarrette Blount has been mild on kickoff returns. He’s averaging 23.3 yards per return, good for 18th among players with at least five returns this season. The big back’s longest return went for 30 yards. His kick returns are the one area of the Patriots’ special teams unit that doesn’t make much sense given the production elsewhere.