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A Mid-Season Patriots Review

A bye week after eight games splits the NFL season into two distinct halves, much like halftime in a football game.  Like halftime, a mid-season bye week provides a break in the action to regroup and evaluate your efforts from the first half.  With the Patriots now coming of their mid-season bye week, it also provides an opportunity to reassess expectations for the remainder of the season.

The first half was generally a disappointment to Patriot fans, who had visions of an undefeated season prior to the season.  These hopes were quickly dashed in the season opener against Kansas City, and took a further hit with another home loss to the Panthers in Week 4.  If not for a late comeback against the Texans in Week 3, the Patriots very easily could have gotten off to a 1-3 start, with three losses at home.  The defense was in shambles, allowing big play after big play.  To their credit, the Patriots kept it together and reeled off four straight wins to close out the first half at 6-2. 

While it has not been unusual for the Patriots to get off to slow starts as they figure out their team, the issues are usually worked out well before the midway point of the season.  One does not get that impression with this year’s team, causing real concern among Patriot fans.  Let’s now assess what we have seen so far from the team, and what we can expect to see in the second half.

Offense

The offense was the savior of the team in the first four games of the season, outscoring the Saints and staging the late comeback against the Texans to keep the team record even at 2-2.  They finished the first half ranked first in total yards and passing yards, third in third down efficiency, and seventh in points.  The last stat isn’t bad, but it is below the expectations of the usually high-powered offense.

The offense has been trending downward despite the four game winning streak.  After putting up 27, 36, 36 and 30 points in the first four games, the Patriots have not scored more than 24 points in their last four games (19, 24, 23 and 21).  While the team has moved the ball effectively between the 20s, they have recently had issues scoring in the red zone, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns.

Tom Brady, who surprisingly turned 40 earlier this year, has been generally stellar but has had uncharacteristic bouts of inaccuracy.  Some of these can be attributed to working with new receivers, to a left shoulder injury, and to offensive line issues.  The offensive line has not kept the pressure off Brady, and must do a better job in the second half of the season to keep Brian Hoyer on the sidelines. 

The rushing attack has been more of a focus in the past few games, utilizing a rejuvenated Dion Lewis as the primary back with Mike Gillislee also getting significant playing time.  Whether this has been a means to offset the opponent’s pass rush, or an effort to control the clock and keep the defense off the field, it has resulted in a more balanced attack.  It is expected this trend will continue into the second half, especially as the weather gets colder in the northeast.

The receiving corps has been a disappointment to this point.  Rob Gronkowski has not been able to fill the void created by the preseason loss of Julian Edelman.  Danny Amendola has picked up some of the slack, but he has a reputation of being fragile and is always a hit away from missing extended time due to injury.  Chris Hogan showed signs of becoming Brady’s go-to guy, but a hit to the shoulder late in the Charger game could affect his availability for the next two key games against the Broncos in Denver and the Raiders in Mexico City.  Brandin Cooks and the remainder of the receiver corps will need to step up to offset the loss of Hogan and take the pressure off Amendola.

Defense

By all measures, the defense performed far better in the last four games then they did in the first four games. They held opponents to 14, 17, 7 and 13 points in that stretch, yet still rank last in the NFL in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed, and are tied for 16th in points allowed.  That is an indication of how putrid the defense was in the first four games.  But unlike the offense, the defense is trending in the right direction and, while not dominant, are showing signs of respectability.

The turnaround in the defense has coincided with the absence of cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who reportedly sustained a concussion in practice and has been out for the past three games.  Coincidence?  This author does not think so.  Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Jones have moved up from special teams and played well in the absence of Gilmore and Eric Rowe, who has also missed significant time due to injury.  Malcolm Butler appears to have gotten over his early season disappointment at not signing a big contract and has been solid in recent games.  The hope is both Gilmore and Rowe return to form and team with Butler, Bademosi and Jones to turn the defensive backfield from a glaring weakness into a team strength.

The front seven has been a mixed bag all season.  With the exception of rookie lineman Deitrich Wise, the defensive front has been unable to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks.  The linebackers have also had issues with providing back-side coverage on misdirection plays that have led to big gains by opponents in the run game and screen passes.  Mistakes such as these are caused by lack of discipline rather than talent, and are usually correctable.  The recent acquisition of Ricky Jean Francois and return of veteran linebacker David Harris should help offset the loss of Don’t’a Hightower, but the front seven needs to play mistake-free to offset the lack of a playmaker.

Special Teams

The Patriots are playing a dangerous game with their kick and punt returners.  Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola have been the primary returners at each respective position.  The use of key offensive starters in the return game is always risky, and the risk is escalated further with their respective history of injuries.  The offense cannot afford to lose either of them.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski appeared to have corrected some of his problems from last season converting field goals, but then missed two makeable kicks against the Chargers.  These misses highlighted the team’s struggles to score touchdowns in the red zone, and turned what should have been an easy victory into a contest that was not locked down until the final play of the game.  Ryan Allen has been stellar in the punting game, deftly pinning opponents inside the 20 when punting from around mid-field.

Coaching

The coaching staff has had their work cut out for them since the preseason.  Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has had to start from scratch and simplify a defense that could not stop a nose bleed early in the season.  The poor play of the defense was unexpected given the majority of players returning from the previous season.  More work is needed from this side of the ball before anyone can have serious thoughts of repeating as Super Bowl Champions.

Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels has had to reconfigure his game plan due to the preseason losses of Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell.  Mitchell was expected to play a greater role in the passing game after finishing strong in his rookie season last year.  Injuries to Gronkowski and Amendola further hampered the passing game in the first half of the season.  The focus on the running game should help to open up the passing game and keep the opposing pass rush in check.

Second Half Preview

The second half of the season starts with a brutal road trip to play the Broncos in Denver and the Raiders in Mexico City, before returning to Foxborough to face the Dolphins.  Denver has always been a house of horrors for Brady and the Pats.  Old friend Aqib Talib matches up well with Gronkowski, and Von Miller is still a formidable pass rusher.  The Raiders have their own beast of a pass rusher in Khalil Mack, who can single handedly take over a game on the defensive end.  The Raiders could be looking to resurrect their disappointing season with a convincing win against the defending champs. 

Both venues are high altitude sites that could present issues for a team, particularly offensive and defensive linemen, unaccustomed to playing in the thinner air.  The Patriots will remain in Colorado between games to try to acclimate to the higher elevations.

The Patriots then return home to face the Dolphins for the first of three straight games against AFC East rivals.  After the Dolphins game, the Patriots go back out on the road for three more games against the Bills, a return match against the Dolphins in Miami, and end the trip with a visit to Pittsburgh.  The Patriots end the season with two more AFC East games at home against the Bills and Jets.

The Steelers game not only has the potential to be a preview of the AFC Championship Game, it could decide which teams receives byes in the first round of the playoffs.  Currently the Patriots and Steelers sit atop the AFC with 6-2 records, with Kansas City close behind at 6-3.  Kansas City holds the tie-breaker over the Patriots by virtue of their opening night win in Foxborough, however, the Steelers hold the tie-breaker over Kansas City after beating the Chiefs in Week 6.  A Patriot win over the Steelers is even more critical in the event the three teams end the season in a three-way tie.  If that should happen, the head-to-head tiebreaker is negated in favor of best won-lost percentage in the division.  A loss to the Steelers could cost the Patriots a bye and land them in the Divisional Round.

Outlook

The path to the AFC East Championship, a perpetual foregone conclusion, is being contested for the first time in nearly a decade.  The Bills are much improved, especially on defense.  Buffalo faces a tough schedule in the second half, with games against New Orleans, the L.A. Chargers, Kansas City and two with the Patriots.  Barring a collapse by the offense, a relapse of the defense, or an injury to Brady, the Patriots should have no problem taking the East.  But unless both sides of the ball step up their games in the second half, a trip to a seventh straight AFC Championship game will be in jeopardy.

Follow Bill on Twitter @BTravers_BSoT. 


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