By: Steve Balestrieri
With the loss on Sunday to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots season falls a game short of where they always aim to be which is in the Super Bowl.
While that would be a plus for many teams in the league, for the Patriots it’s a bitter disappointment and time to not only reflect on what went right and wrong this season, it is also a time to look forward and what the team’s priorities are for next season.
Later this week we’ll give a year in review for 2012, but right now this column will focus on what their biggest needs are going into the 2013 off-season and summer camps. The Patriots have quite a few free-agents this spring and not all will be returning. That will also be looked at a later date. But the main areas of needing improvement are:
Shut-Down Cornerback: The acquisition of Aqib Talib changed the way the defense played down the stretch and into the playoffs. Not that he is a Top 5 corner in the manner of a Darrelle Revis but he was a guy that, with the rise of rookie Alfonzo Dennard gave the Patriots the opportunity to move Devin McCourty to safety which immediately solidified the back end.
The move also allowed the defense to play much more aggressively, the pass rush improved and the team blitzed more frequently. It also allowed the team to play more man coverage.
The depth in the secondary at cornerback is evident, once Talib went down, slot corner Kyle Arrington was forced outside where he is not nearly as effective. Marquise Cole was pressed into service and the defense became much more passive and Joe Flacco picked them apart in the second half.
Both Talib and Arrington are free agents, and this isn’t to say the team should definitely re-sign him or both but depth is needed at the position and Talib should at least be given a long look.
Big, physical deep threat wide receiver: The Patriots struggles in the red zone against the Ravens weren’t a one game anomaly; they were the result of Baltimore contesting every play with big, physical defenders and the Patriots having no one who could match up.
With the biggest target in the red zone Rob Gronkowski on IR, Aaron Hernandez remained Tom Brady’s only big target in the red zone, and it seemed like they had him doubled down deep. The other receivers are small and quick, but can’t go up for a high pass in the endzone against tight coverage a la Anquan Boldin and bring it down.
Brandon Lloyd was brought in this off-season and played well overall. He had his moments and goes down too quickly but was light years better than his predecessor. Lloyd though, isn’t a true #1 wide receiver, he would and will excel in the Deion Branch role, the outside the numbers, move the chains kind of player who can get behind defenders on occasion and make teams pay for leaving him alone in single coverage.
Brady lacks a true deep threat receiver but with the tight ends, a #2 WR and Wes Welker in the slot, there is plenty of balls to go around. Welker was forced into going deep sometimes just because he’s the most dependable although it’s not his strength.
Many Patriots fans are already clamoring for Green Bay’s Greg Jennings who, while he would be a great fit, isn’t really a realistic option since he’d command far too much money in the free agent market and I think the Packers find a way to re-sign him.
Safety Help: The team signed Steve Gregory this off-season but he had many struggles as well as big plays along the way. Pat Chung lost the confidence of the coaching staff and being a free agent, will probably be allowed to walk. With McCourty moving to safety, the play and communication was greatly improved but herein lies the problem.
Both McCourty and Gregory are more of the free-safety types; the team could really use an upgrade with a player in the more strong safety mold. While the Patriots prefer their safeties to perform both roles, there were times when the team suffered because of that as big, physical tight ends and wide receivers gave them problems and it may be time to address that and bring in a strong safety type.
Tavon Wilson will probably be looked at to fill the “star” role in the future when the team goes into the big nickel or dime looks in the underneath zones.
Interior (DT) Pass Rush: Next to Vince Wilfork, the Patriots have Kyle Love and little else. But while both are very solid in stopping the run, the interior push of a pass rush at the tackle position is at times glaring. The team thought they addressed this with the signing of Jonathan Fanene this spring, but he showed up with knee problems and the team suffered.
This is another position that really needs an upgrade, the team tried a “NASCAR” package with four defensive ends at times, but in reality, it rarely worked. With Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich outside at DE along with Justin Francis, the outside will generate more pressure with inside help.
Re-sign Vollmer: While Sebastian Vollmer is going to be 29 years old this season and entering in only his second contract, and has also suffered with injury problems he should be retained.
While many will point to lingering back issues which tend to only get worse as time goes on, Vollmer has proven to be a very solid RT and one of the better ones in the league when he’s healthy. Tom Brady enjoyed solid protection for the vast majority of the year and it was no coincidence that his protection improved when Vollmer and Logan Mankins returned from injuries. The depth along the offensive line is good and they enjoy the wealth of experience and knowledge of Dante Scarnecchia, who always brings out the best in the group.
Kick Return Help: With both Wes Welker and Julian Edelman possibly gone this season, which leaves a tremendous hole in punt returns. Welker even if he returns should not be fielding punts anyway. McCourty was returning kicks all season and was for the most part ineffective.
Jeff Demps was signed midway through training camp and was then placed on IR with a possible case of “Foxboro Flu”. But with Olympic speed, he at least would provide a measure of dangerousness that the team doesn’t presently possess. The return of Edelman would solidify the punt return team and give added depth to the wide receiving unit where he was starting to find his niche this season before ending up on IR.
One thing that keeping Demps would do however is change the dynamic of the running back position. Someone would have to go and with Danny Woodhead a free agent, this may force the team’s hand. Or cut one of the 18 tight ends on the roster.
Coverage Linebacker: With the starting three linebackers, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower all big, physical run-stuffing types, they all at times suffer in coverage. While it’s an area that they improved upon during the season, they also were picked on by athletic tight ends and especially by running backs and the games against Texas and Baltimore highlighted that need in a big way.
Dane Fletcher was placed on IR early this season and could possibly fit that role but it will have to be addressed. The Patriots defense was very stout against the run, but the middle of the field was always an issue with pass defense.
It seems that there are still too many issues pending with the defense, but in reality they are only 1-2 players from being an outstanding unit. This was the youngest defense that Bill Belichick has ever fielded with the Patriots and in the entire NFL this season. With some added experience some of these issues may be worked out, others will not.
The off-season, as always in Foxboro promises to be an interesting one.