Published August 27, 2012
| Sports Network
Outstanding regular seasons are nothing new to the New England Patriots.
Unfortunately, neither is losing to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
For the second time in five years, the 2011 Patriots were unable to best the Giants in the biggest game of the year. After New York spoiled New England's bid at a perfect season in 2007, last year's 13-3 mark meant very little after a 21-17 setback to the G-Men in Super Bowl XLVI.
It left the Pats scratching their heads and wondering just what they have to do to finally get back over the hump. After all, an 11th straight winning season still failed to produce the franchise's first championship since 2004.
Head coach Bill Belichick's offense shouldn't have much to worry about with quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Wes Welker set to return, though a lack of experience in the backfield will put pressure on the duo as well as the dynamic tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
It will be up to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who returned to the Pats during last postseason following two years as head coach of the Denver Broncos as well as a stint as the offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams in 2011. McDaniels was with the Patriots for eight seasons from 2001-08, including the last three years as the OC.
In 2007, McDaniels oversaw an offensive unit that set NFL records for both points and touchdowns scored. He should be in store for another easy gig this year, seeing as New England posted the third-most touchdowns in franchise history with 61 in 2011 and went over 500 points for a second straight season. Last year's Pats also set a new club mark with 6,848 total net yards.
What McDaniels likes most about the Patriots is that he feels the group is very coachable, even veterans like Brady and Welker.
"Those guys, whether we try to get them to do something a little different or whether we try to get them to do the things they've been doing for so long successfully just a hair better, they're willing to work at it, and willing to do what you want them to do," McDaniels said. "They've grown and gotten better, there's no question about that, and hopefully we can make them better this year."
The task will be much harder for first-year defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who takes over the title vacant since Dean Pees exited following the 2009 season. Patricia has been with the Patriots for the past nine years, the last five as linebackers coach, and has been the primary defensive play-caller for the last two.
He'll try to shape up a unit that often bent last season, but didn't really break when it mattered until the Super Bowl. New England ranked 31st in team defense as well as against the pass, but was 15th in scoring defense.
Patricia will needs the likes of safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Devin McCourty to step up big in 2012.
"Consistency is number one," said Chung. "You have to be able to make plays consistently, like boom, boom, boom, boom. It can't be good play, bad play, good play, bad play. Being consistent is number one on the back end, because if you mess up on the back end it's a touchdown. So we have to be on the same page and everybody has to know what they're doing so those plays never happen."
With the offense in good shape, the Patriots spent their first six draft picks on the other side of the ball, including two first-round selections in defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. They also added a veteran to the secondary in free safety Steve Gregory, formerly of the Chargers.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the New England Patriots, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 13-3 (1st, AFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to N.Y. Giants in Super Bowl XLVI
COACH (RECORD): Bill Belichick (139-53 in 12 seasons with Patriots, 175-97 in 17 seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Josh McDaniels (10th season with Patriots, 4th as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Matt Patricia (9th season with Patriots, 1st as DC)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Tom Brady, QB (5235 passing yards, 39 TD, 12 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Jerod Mayo, ILB (95 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 2nd overall (20th rushing, 2nd passing), 3rd scoring (32.1 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 31st overall (17th rushing, 31st passing), 15th scoring (21.4 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Brandon Lloyd (from Rams), DE Chandler Jones (1st Round, Syracuse), OLB Dont'a Hightower (1st Round, Alabama), FS Steve Gregory (from Chargers), WR Jabar Gaffney (from Redskins), TE Daniel Fells (from Broncos), TE Visanthe Shiancoe (from Vikings), TE Jake Ballard (from Giants), DE Trevor Scott (from Raiders), OLB Bobby Carpenter (from Lions), CB Will Allen (from Dolphins), CB Marquice Cole (from Jets), S Tavon Wilson (2nd Round, Illinois), S Derrick Martin (from Giants)
KEY DEPARTURES: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (to Bengals), LT Matt Light (retired), DE Shaun Ellis (free agent), DE Andre Carter (free agent), DT Mike Wright (released), RB Kevin Faulk (free agent), WR Chad Ochocinco (released), DE Mark Anderson (to Bills), OLB Gary Guyton (to Dolphins), MLB Dane Fletcher (out for season), CB Antwaun Molden (to Giants), CB Nate Jones (free agent)
QB: No quarterback has a better record in the Super Bowl era than Brady (39 TD, 12 INT in 2011), who has won 124 of his 159 career starts in the regular season. More importantly, last season he played in all 16 games for a third straight year since a knee injury cost him all but one game in 2008. The 35- year-old set a franchise record with 5,235 passing yards, only the fourth player in league history to surpass 5,000 yards in a single season. Behind Brady is the duo of Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, the former throwing one pass last season. Mallett could pass Hoyer on the depth chart this season after getting taken in the third round of last year's draft, though the Patriots would prefer neither saw much action.
RB: With Brady attempting 611 passes last season, it is no surprise that the Patriots ranked 20th in rushing and saw their leading runner -- free agent departure BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- top out at 667 yards on 181 carries. Green- Ellis did score 11 touchdowns, so New England does expect some production from the backfield. It will likely be up to second-year man Stevan Ridley, who has good speed to compliment his 5-foot-11, 220-pound frame. He ran for 441 yards during his rookie campaign and fumbled just once on 87 carries. There isn't much experience behind Ridley, as 2011 second-round pick Shane Vereen had just 15 carries last year and fifth-year back Danny Woodhead (351 rushing yards, 1 TD, 18 receptions) has logged 189 attempts in his career. Woodhead's ability to add to the passing game should get him on the field, however. Eric Kettani, a former standout at the Naval Academy, will likely be the lone fullback on the roster if the team opts to keep one.
WR: With the Patriots likely to rely on the passing game again in 2012, Brady has no shortage of targets to hook up with. New England made sure his top receiver was back after franchising Welker (122 receptions, 1569 yards, 9 TD), with the wideout eventually signing his tender following a season in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl for a fourth straight time. Nobody has more catches in the NFL since the 2007 season, and Welker also set a club record for receiving yards a season ago. While he often lines up in the slot, new addition Brandon Lloyd (70 receptions, 5 TD) will stretch the field on the outside and give Brady a deep threat. Lloyd spent time with the Broncos and Rams last season and will reunite with McDaniels, who coached Denver when Lloyd posted a breakout season in 2010. Brady also has a familiar target in Deion Branch, who returned to the Pats in a trade during the 2010 season and had 51 receptions for 702 yards and five scores last year. Branch, the MVP in New England's last Super Bowl victory, will see competition for playing time from Jabar Gaffney (68 receptions, 5 TD with Redskins), another familiar with McDaniels' system from his previous time with Denver.
TE: It would be plain unfair if Brady had just one capable tight end to throw at. It's just ridiculous that he has two outstanding ones in Gronkowski and Hernandez. Gronkowski set NFL tight end records with 1,327 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns last season, grabbing 90 passes while starting all 16 games. He also scored once on the ground, but was hampered by an ankle injury in the postseason that required offseason surgery. He returns this season with a six- year, $54 million extension. Hernandez was no slouch himself, hauling in 79 passes for 910 yards with seven touchdowns. He also helped out by lining up in the backfield at times, giving Belichick no shortage of options to find ways to get both on the field. Depth behind the two was an issue, but the Patriots brought in a host of experienced reserves that includes Daniel Fells (19 receptions, 3 TD with Broncos) and Visanthe Shiancoe (36 receptions, 3 TD with Vikings), both of whom could be instant contributors if an injury should arise.
OL: Brady has always made his offensive line look good, but he took some punishment from the Giants defense in the Super Bowl and the 32 sacks he took in the regular season were the most he had been subjected to since 2003. Brady could see himself age some more this year, given that three-time Pro Bowler and five-time Super Bowl starter Matt Light's retirement has left a hole at left tackle. Additionally, Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters has yet to even show up to camp, leaving his future in doubt and Dan Connolly as the likely starter on the right side. Nate Solder, a first-round pick from 2011, gets first crack at filling in for Light as he moves to the left side opposite right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who like center Dan Koppen, is coming off an injury that cost him a chunk of time in 2011. Left guard Logan Mankins is also a health risk, as he is coming off a torn ACL, but when healthy he's one of the best in the league. Vollmer does have experience on the left side and could switch there if Solder struggles. Expected contributors off the bench include guard Donald Thomas and tackle Marcus Cannon.
DL: The Patriots have enough bodies and athleticism to throw either three or four-man fronts at offenses, with veteran Vince Wilfork (52 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT) a big part of the middle. He was again a disruptive force last year, while also grabbing the first interceptions of his career. Wilfork will start at tackle along with Kyle Love (33 tackles, 3 sacks), who proved himself to be a strong run stopper last season. Defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson both logged 10 sacks a season ago, but Anderson signed with the Buffalo Bills and Carter is still a free agent coming off a major leg injury. That leaves Rob Ninkovich, free-agent addition Trevor Scott and rookie Chandler Jones to fill the void. Ninkovich (74 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 2 INT) made nearly all of his 16 starts last year at linebacker, but at 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, can easily shift to a down lineman. The same goes for the 250-pound Scott and Jones, one of two first-round picks made by the Patriots in the 2012 draft. The Syracuse product played the end in college and excels at sealing off the run.
LB: There is no lacking of talent behind the front four, even if Ninkovich and Scott spend the majority of their time as linemen. Jerod Mayo (95 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) will have a place on the field at all times as a three-down linebacker, either on the inside of a 3-4 setup or as a weakside man. Brandon Spikes (47 tackles) enters his third season on an upswing, though the starter at the middle spot did miss time last season with injury. Rookie Dont'a Hightower (Alabama), New England's other first-round pick in this past draft, will challenge for the starting job on the strong side and is very athletic given his 270-pound frame. Veteran Bobby Carpenter (29 tackles, 1 INT with Lions) was signed in the offseason to join 31-year-old Tracy White (37 tackles) as experienced insurance at the outside spots. Mike Rivera and special-teams standout Niko Koutouvides will also battle for time inside in the crowded unit after backup middle linebacker Dane Fletcher was lost for the season due to a torn ACL in his left knee.
DB: New England's secondary logged 23 interceptions as a group last year, including a team-leading seven from cornerback Kyle Arrington (88 tackles) that tied for the NFL individual lead, and scored a pair of touchdowns. However, the group also allowed 293.9 yards per game through the air. The Patriots know they might not get away with allowing as much this season, and a step forward from McCourty (87 tackles, 2 INT) would help. The 25-year-old regressed in 2011 after an excellent Pro Bowl campaign during his rookie season in which he nabbed seven interceptions and forced a pair of fumbles. He'll try to go back to making big plays this season starting opposite of Arrington or second-year man Ras-I Dowling. New England's corners are young, so it made sense that it brought in Gregory, who spent the first six years of his career with the San Diego Chargers and posted 57 tackles and one interception in 15 games last season, in which he made a career-high 13 starts. He will certainly help out Chung (62 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) in his fourth season, with the strong safety aiming to bounce back from a knee injury that held him out of eight games last year. Another veteran, corner Will Allen (43 tackles with Dolphins), was also brought in as a free agent and will try to rub some of his experience off on the unit and on rookie Tavon Wilson (2nd Round, Illinois), who can play both corner and safety but is still considered a work in progress. Safeties James Ihedigbo (69 tackles) and Sergio Brown (37 tackles) also return.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Reserve receiver Julian Edelman is New England's big return threat and took one of his punts handled back for a 72-yard touchdown in 2011. He also averaged 23.7 yards per return on a handful of kickoffs and can make tackles on coverage teams, while Woodhead also returns kicks. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski (28-of-33 field goals) gets plenty of chances with his leg due to New England's potent offense, and his 84.4 percent accuracy rating on field goals is currently the best in team history. Punter Zoltan Mesko (46.5 avg.) had a solid net average of 41.5 a season ago and enters his third season with the team, and second with long snapper Danny Aiken.
PROGNOSIS: New England and regular-season success go together like Jim Belushi and bad sitcoms, though at least the longevity of the Patriots' current run makes sense. Things aren't likely to change in Foxborough as long as Brady and Belichick are running things, though one has to wonder when age will finally start catching up with the two-time MVP quarterback. It won't likely be this year, however, and the Patriots have to be considered a favorite to return to the Super Bowl unless their defense completely implodes. Only the Buffalo Bills have an offense that can even come close to matching New England in the division, and the teams did split their two meetings a season ago. A two-game trek through Baltimore and Buffalo in Weeks 3 and 4 could be an early bump for the Pats, or they could roll through with flying colors on the way to another dominating season. It is likely the real test won't begin for New England until January.