PFF Preview 2011 – New England Patriots

| August 26, 2011

The Patriots finished the regular season by winning eight straight games by an average of more than three touchdowns. Even more impressive, that stretch included games against a number of playoff teams including both Superbowl contestants. Unfortunately, the win streak ended in their first playoff game against the Jets, extending a different streak New Englanders may have thought impossible in the Brady/Belichick era…a playoff losing streak.

So, despite a 14-2 record, things are changing in New England. The Patriots were poised to strike after a shortened offseason and–after some key additions–look to have completely changed their defensive philosophy. Notably, the addition of Albert Haynesworth could bring the Patriots defense to a level unseen since the years where Superbowl parades were as regular for New England fans as a trip to Dunkin Donuts.

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Five Reasons to be Confident

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1) The Man of No Mistakes

After Khaled infamously named Tom Brady the 33rd best player in 2010, he posted an explanation about what makes Tom Brady so special…not making mistakes. After trading away Randy Moss, shockwaves of panic and confusion hit even the most die-hard Patriots fans who were concerned that the exit of Brady’s most talented target was the exit of Patriots from playoff contention. What Brady reaffirmed, however, is that he’ll get the job done regardless of who he’s throwing to. Though he didn’t top all quarterbacks in PFF grade, he did top all quarterbacks by only registering a negatively graded play in 1.4% of his 572 drop backs. When you have a quarterback as error-proof as Brady, it’s hard not to be confident every Sunday.

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2) Bringing the Heat

If you ask Bill Belichick, nothing has changed about Patriots defensive attack this season. If you’ve watched any of the Patriots preseason games this year, what you have seen is something definitely different with the key word being attack. In their second preseason game against the Buccaneers, the Patriots unleashed new free agent Andre Carter who helped generate so much pressure that Josh Freeman hit the ground as many times as he completed passes. Despite what Belichick has said, Carter was getting his pressures playing as a 4-3 defensive end, where he registered PFF’s third best pass rush grade (+19.1) and 13 sacks in 2009. If Carter can return to the same level of production, the Patriots should be able to improve upon last year’s low defensive rankings like ranking dead last on third down. In the words of one NFC executive, “Belichick is through screwing around…They’re not reacting. They’re dictating.”

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3) Adding a Difference Maker

There is a difference between underachieving and underperforming. The story of Albert Haynesworth in Washington was one of underachievement, not underperformance. It’s safe to say, that after his myriad of problems in Washington he never lived up to the massive contract he signed after his impressive 2008 season. But lost in the comments about his weight, laziness, and other off-the-field issues is that when he’s played (and it’s important to emphasize when as he was relegated to sub-packages last season), he’s been as dominant as he was for the Titans. Haynesworth is so physically imposing, that he consistently makes offensive lineman look like ragdolls that he toys around with at his own disposal. Pair him with Vince Wilfork and Carter in the 4-3 defense, and it probably wouldn’t matter if Tom Brady was playing the opposite end spot. The Patriots have been known to take fliers on players before, and the addition of Haynesworth could be for the Patriots defense what the addition of Moss was for their offense in 2007.

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4) Bringing a Corner Back

If it weren’t for rookie cornerback Devin McCourty last season, the Patriots defense may have surpassed the Texans as the defense with more holes than a sponge. McCourty finished the season with an +11.6 grade and became PFF’s Rookie of the Year after being the sole reliable player in the Patriots secondary, week-in and week-out. This year the Patriots welcome back Leigh Bodden who missed all of last season with a torn rotator cuff. He will be a welcome addition after finishing 2009 with +10.2 overall grade, which is significantly better than the cornerbacks playing opposite McCourty last season. After Darius Butler was benched early in the season for looking as lost as a vegan at a steakhouse, converted special teamer Kyle Arrington started the remainder of the season and played below-average with an overall grade of -5.0. The return of Bodden with the aforementioned additions to the defensive line, quarterbacks won’t be picking this defense apart like they did last season.

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5) The Young Guns

By drafting Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez last season, the Patriots arguably got the two best rookie tight ends. Their early emergence in the offense could have been one of the reasons prompting the trade of Moss mid-season. Of the two, Hernandez is definitely the better athlete proving as dangerous after the catch as anybody which is a lot to say about a tight end. He was hampered by a nagging hip injury, and finished the season with a +3.9 grade. The other rookie tight end may be less of an athlete, but is as well-rounded as you can ask for. He has size that makes him nearly impossible to cover, which is only made better by a blocking ability that convinces me he could play offensive tackle if he wanted. Gronkowski ended the season with a +12.5 grade, the fifth best grade of all tight ends. Considering each of them were selected outside of the first round, 31 NFL coaches would probably like a “do-over”.

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Five Reasons to be Concerned

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1) Not Safe at Safety

You don’t finish 30th against the pass without some pretty serious problems in your secondary. The return of Leigh Bodden helps, but with Brandon Meriweather still serving as the last line of defense…well, unpredictable stuff can happen. For parts of last season, Meriweather was PFF’s lowest rated safety and finished with a -10.0 overall grade. That’s not exactly what you’re looking for from your fourth year, first round safety. Last season he consistently was either out of position or taking bad angles to the ball. One such example was a play against the Green Bay Packers where Meriweather laid out McCourty, allowing Packers’ receiver James Jones to run free for a touchdown. It’s not quite time to give up all hope for Meriweather, he does after all have a year left on his contract to see if he can figure it out, but if he plays like last season then he probably has a better chance to sign a long term deal with a record label then back with the Patriots.

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2) Getting on the Same Page

The second biggest acquisition made by the Patriots this offseason was the trade for Chad Ochocinco. It’s not like they broke the bank when trading for him – they gave up two late round picks in the next two years – but after watching him struggle a bit in his preseason debut, I think there are legitimate concerns about whether Ochocinco can pick up the entire offense before the season starts. The Patriots don’t need Ochocinco to be successful, but if it takes the Twitter phenom longer than expected to adjust then his role will have to filled by unproven Taylor Price or Brandon Tate who was one of the few negatively graded players for the Patriots last season.

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3) Thin in the Middle

A few months ago I wrote about Brandon Spikes as the Patriots’ Secret Superstar. Spikes’ overall grade in just 365 snaps was +18.6 and didn’t miss a tackle all season, which bodes well for Spikes as the projected starter at middle linebacker. However, Spikes has been sidelined with a leg injury for the majority of the offseason which isn’t a great sign for a player who ended last season playing limited snaps after returning from a four game suspension in sub-optimal shape. Behind Spikes is Dane Fletcher, who has looked good in preseason action and graded well in his limited opportunities last year, but he was recently sidelined with a thumb injury. Spikes definitely proved capable of being the Patriots middle linebacker of the future last season, but expecting him to make the jump from 365 snaps to a number like Jerod Mayo’s 1,132 snaps last season might be too high of expectations for a position with little safety net.

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4) The Weakest Link

Dan Connolly played as well as you could hope for a guy filling in for the monumental shoes of Logan Mankins. That said, he closed out the season with two of his worst performances and as the only Patriots offensive lineman with a negative grade. So far, those bad performances seem to be spilling over into the preseason. Against the Buccaneers Connolly was beaten in both the running and passing game, including allowing a rusher completely free to knock Brady to the turf. Though there has been some speculation that Nate Solder, the Patriots first overall pick, has been taking some practice snaps at guard, Connolly will likely be the starter and will have to play like he better if he doesn’t want to standout on a line stacked with consistent players. On the bright side, if he ever did lose his guard job he could always return kicks as he currently averages 71 yards a return.

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5) Kicking Past an Injury

It may seem like I’m nitpicking here, but the Patriots know better than most the importance of kicker in winning crucial games down the stretch. Stephen Gostkowski’s season was ended early last season after tearing his quad against the Browns, proving that literally nothing went right for the Patriots in that game. Over the past five seasons he’s been as consistent as you could ask for, kicking for the highest field goal percentage in Patriots’ history. Most remarkably, Gostkowski has managed to escape the gigantic shadow cast by Adam Vinatieri. That being said, kickers can go out of style faster than the latest fad. If Gostkowski’s leg injury does have any lingering effects, it wouldn’t be long before the Patriots would be out searching for other options.

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When you win three Superbowls in four years, expectations change. There are no more silver linings for seasons that don’t end in championships; regardless if you have the league’s best record and NFL MVP. The Patriots will once again start the season as a favorite to hoist the Lombardi trophy and this just may be one a season their defense could as dangerous as their offense, a formula that served them well when they were actually winning Superbowls.

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Follow Rodney on Twitter: @PFF_RodneyHart … and be sure to follow our main Twitter feed as well: @ProFootbalFocus
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  • tom

    In my opinion, your QB rating method is flawed when Brady tops all QB’s in negative rating and is virtually error free and is ranked #33. We might as well use that most flawed of stat’s-QB rating. It’s the QB’s job to win games and not put the ball in “harms way”. Some of the higher rated QB’s have a scrambling ability, but if it does not correlate into winning, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

    • Nathan Jahnke

      It is not just the quarterbacks job to win games, it is everyone on the fields job to win. Football is a team game, and is the contribution of everyone; not just one player. The Patriots have a great collection of players, and week in and week out they were all part of why the Patriots won so consistently. Yes the quarterback plays more of a role in this than others on the field, but having a great quarterback doesn’t always equal a winning team, and a poor quarterback doesn’t always equal a losing team. I don’t think you would find many people who would say Mark Sanchez is better than Matt Schaub, but Sanchez has been winning more recently. Matt Cassel and the Chiefs won the division, but that doesn’t make him a better quarterback than Philip Rivers.

      Because any number for a quarterback will play a big role in winning, I would find it hard to come across a common passing statistic that doesn’t correlate to it. The point isn’t to find the measure that best correlates to winning. The point is to find methods that most accurately measure how a quarterback performed.

      I would also argue that with all else being equal, having a quarterback who can run is better than having one who can’t. It might not have as strong of a correlation to winning as good passing, but it still helps. If you look at the top five quarterbacks in terms of our rushing rating, it’s Vick, Freeman, Garrard, Rodgers and Cutler… all on winning teams last year.

  • naim15

    Brady has ALL DAY to throw on every play. His WRs aren’t great (Welker is beast Branch sucks), his TEs are great. People tend to judge Brady, and Qbs in general, based on the talent around them. You guys in PFF are an exception. You guys judge Brady based on Brady, not on whether or not he has all day to throw or whether or not his tight ends are wide open. Thank you and keep up the good work. Don’t let the idiots who judge him based on the talent around him bother you.

    • Rodney Hart

      I think what gets lost in translation, is that Brady is exceptional at making good decisions. Last season, many of his throws weren’t really difficult throws and for that reason he didn’t grade as highly as other quarterbacks. It isn’t to say that the 32 players who played better at their positions in front of him are necessarily more valuable to their team. We don’t have numbers from the 2007 season, but in that season he certainly would have graded higher because a larger percentage of his throws were longer, more difficult throws.

      To your comment about quarterbacks being judged by the talent around them is true, in the sense that quarterbacks will always get too much credit and too much blame. Does Brady have a lot of talent around him? Yes, of course (which includes Branch, who I would disagree with your sucks comment). Has he succeeded with less talent? Yes to that too. He is a great quarterback who does-like the rest of the Patriots-what is asked of him to give his team the best chance to win. Whether that means his throws are more or less difficult shouldn’t bother Patriots fans given the success of the team over the years, whether he’s throwing it deep or short.

  • tom

    I don’t know, this rating/ranking of QB’s seems impossible to me. A running QB is better than a non-running one, one makes more difficult throws than the other, one makes more errors than the other, and on and on it goes. It’s almost like saying Rothlisberger is better than Marino because he has more super bowl rings.

    Rodney, thanks for the patriots football weekly, tosses in a new argument; how do you analyze and rank a QB’s decision making? Did he really throw to the right guy or get lucky or did the defense make a mistake? It seems that in our attempt to make QB’ing a black or white issue, we continue to muddy the situation. Then naim15 adds the level of talent around them issue. Is Peyton that good or was it Harrison, Wayne & Clark making him look that good?

    • Rodney Hart

      Like you’re saying, it’s not exactly black and white, but what we’re doing is rating how a quarterback performed on every given play; which is objective, yet not necessarily reflective of how valuable a player is to his team. Like I said earlier, and I don’t want to speak for Khaled here so I’ll use his own words, but the 33rd ranking wasn’t saying he’s the 33rd most valuable player in the NFL, “…I was looking at what each player did relative to his position. Only a fool would say Kareem McKenzie had more of an impact, or was more valuable than Tom Brady, which is why he appeared nowhere on our MVP ballots, unlike the Patriot passer.”

      Understandably, it can be hard to separate the two..I have trouble myself, too. But the point is, if a Tom Brady screen is taken for 34 yards, the grading for that throw is not nearly as difficult as being able to hit the receiver in stride over a defenders hands 34 yards down the field. Now maybe Brady read a blitz, knew the screen would work, and audibled to it. Maybe the quarterback who put the pass 34 yards down the field over the defenders shoulder missed a wide open receiver on the opposite side of the field because he was only ever going to throw it to the primary receiver anyway. For that reason PFF’s MVP race is more than just the players with the top grades..but that isn’t to say that the grades aren’t incredibly useful.

      For example, so many times a player in the NFL will earn a reputation and live off of it-for better or worse. Albert Haynesworth has earned a reputation for being lazy, and unless you have watched him closely you probably would think that the Haynesworth play where he lays down on the ground was something he did all the time. Obviously he has earned his reputation and from the sounds of it was a thorn in everyone’s side, like the stories of him reading a newspaper in team meetings, but when he got on the field he was largely the same player he was in Tennessee. When you commit to saying how everyone played, even if it doesn’t exactly agree with player reputations, you are bound to step on a few toes.

      To get back to answering your question, yes quarterback can be an incredibly difficult to position to analyze given all of its components. Talent, decision-making, the role of coaches, etc. Which may be why the drafting of a quarterback can be an incredibly hard proposition, as well.