The New England Patriots are a highly successful and well run organization who once again fell short of winning it all. Last season they lost in the Super Bowl, and this season they were beaten in the AFC Championship game, and fans who are used to Super Bowl success with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady want answers. Of course, they won’t get any from Belichick because he won’t answer any, but the big question still remains: why haven’t the Patriots gotten over the hump recently?
I believe there are two key areas that continue to hold the Patriots back, and they are the same areas they have failed to address in the past few years. One is their lack of a pass rush. They drafted Chandler Jones to help out their pass rush this season, but he didn’t lead the team in sacks. Mr. Everything, Rob Ninkovich led the team with eight sacks, which was two more than Jones. Jones will get better with time, and the Patriots desperately need him to become a double-digit sack player fast.
The Patriots finished in the middle of the pack in terms of sacks this year with 37 but that was mostly due to their ability to get out to a big lead and going after the opposing quarterbacks because they knew they had to pass. It’s also the reason New England was ranked 25th in the NFL in defense, but had the best turnover differential at +25. When they don’t get out to a big lead and can’t pressure the quarterback, they get beat in the passing game. Last night, Joe Flacco had all the time in the world to throw from the pocket in the second half, and he ate up the Pats defense.
The other major area where the Pats struggle is in the deep passing game. Sure, they missed Rob Gronkowski and it’s a different offense without him, but the Patriots haven’t had a deep threat since the 2007 version of Randy Moss and it’s getting them beat. New England continues to have a great regular season record, and that will likely continue with as long as Belichick and Brady are around, but when the playoffs arrive it becomes a different game. It’s about being physical and making big plays, the Patriots don’t have the ability to make enough explosive plays to hurt a defense.
Yes, the Patriots can be physical but when they’re on offense and they run those quick plays with short passing routes, the receivers are going to get hit. Actually, it’s the same principle the Patriots used to beat the St. Louis Rams to win their first Super Bowl; we’ll let you catch passes but we’ll make you pay for them. That’s where the Pats have been getting beaten up physically, with smaller receivers like Wes Welker taking too many hits.
Don’t get me wrong, they have a great offense; but today’s NFL is built on the explosive plays, and the Patriots don’t make enough of them. They rely more on scheme than they do in making big plays and it caught up to them. By not throwing the ball deep down field enough, the Pats allow the defense to play on a smaller field and squeeze in everything into a smaller space, which makes it tougher on the offense to succeed long term. Without challenging the defense deep, the offense has to sustain longer drives to score, and longer drives mean there’s also more chances for the offense to make mistakes, which the Patriots made yesterday.
New England is still a great team with a great quarterback but if they have off days offensively like they did yesterday, they need to find ways to open up their offense and stretch the defense. The Patriots can’t do that because they don’t have any wide receiver capable of stretching the field.
The AFC Championship was just another example of what the Patriots need to do to get better and it revolves around two things, sacking the quarterback and stretching the defense. Until those problems are solved, Patriots fans may need to get used to Bill Belichick blowing off press conferences and leaving them in the dark.
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