- The offense is ready to get more vertical, and the bend-don't-break D has two elite corners to make up for a lack of edge rushers. Is it enough for the champs to repeat?
1. What stands out most in Tom Brady’s career is the variety of different systems he has succeeded in. In 2016, we saw Brady’s mastery here occur gradually over the course of 19 games. As the season wore on, the Patriots transitioned from being an almost strictly horizontal-based passing attack to one a little more vertical. Wide receiver Chris Hogan was a big part of these designs. Second-year receiver Malcolm Mitchell was, too, on the perimeter. Even Julian Edelman (now injured), a consummate slot receiver, made plays downfield and outside. It looks like the Patriots will continue going in this direction. Rob Gronkowski is back healthy and speedy ex-Saint Brandin Cooks is aboard.
2. The beauty of New England’s offense is that it doesn’t have to be vertical. The receiving versatility of passing-game running back James White (and maybe soon in his place, ex-Bengal Rex Burkhead) makes for a potent “spread empty formation” package, with all five eligible receivers flanked out wide. This is where you see the patented underneath routes that Brady works to dink and dunk defenses. (That’s what happened in Super Bowl 51; Brady’s longest pass during the comeback was 28 yards.) Cooks has the quickness to prosper in this underneath passing game.
3. A defining trait of this offense that gets lost: the screen game. The Patriots make great use of it, both out of the backfield and out wide with receivers.
4. LeGarrette Blount will be missed. He was superb in goal-line situations and his running style worked well behind the pull-blocks that New England’s ground game features. That said, the addition of former Bills back Mike Gillislee brings a whole new dimension of explosiveness to this offense. Gillislee is almost the anti-Blount; he has excellent burst through the hole and around the edge.
5. All five starters return along the offensive line. It’s not an overly talented group, but that continuity will allow this multifaceted offense to expand smoothly.
6. The league’s No. 1 scoring defense in 2016 has a new upper-tier cover corner in Stephon Gilmore. And, for at least one more year, it still has incumbent upper-tier corner Malcolm Butler, one of the few corners in football who travels with quickness-based No. 1 receivers like Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. The only question is, with Logan Ryan gone, who will play the slot? There are options. Safety Patrick Chung is physical and effective. In man-to-man, Butler can slide inside and lanky boundary defender Eric Rowe can come in. Or, more likely, Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can use a bevy of different players, based on each week’s specific matchups.
7. This is a bend-don’t-break defense. The Patriots don’t usually blitz until the offense gets inside field goal range, and many of their coverages—which, by the way, became more diverse last year, with some man-to-man snaps replaced by zone—have two safeties back. That allows the Patriots to disguise and, more importantly, double-team No. 1 receivers, which they almost always do.
8. You can only play two safeties back if you have a stingy defensive line that can plug against the run. The most underrated assets in New England are defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown. And this year, Lawrence Guy joins the mix. He was great as a strongside defensive end against double-teams in Baltimore last season.
9. The retirement of Rob Ninkovich and departure of Jabaal Sheard means the Patriots must find new edge-setters. That’s a vital part of their run defense. You set the edge, force the running back to keep it inside and that’s how the gap-shooting tactics you see from New England’s linebackers produce run-stuffs. A dark horse candidate for some of the edge-setting responsibilities on base downs: Dont’a Hightower. He was sensational here in the second half of Super Bowl 51. And moving Hightower outside might explain why the Patriots brought in longtime Jets thumper David Harris. Harris and the D-line present a lot of human mass inside. That’s perfect for allowing undersized but dynamic second-year man Elandon Roberts to stay clean and attack.
10. The only real weakness on this team is its pedestrian pass rush. Maybe it improves with the continued development of masterful technician Trey Flowers, but there are no proven threatening edge-benders on the roster. It’s incredibly unusual for a team to play a conservative, coverage-based scheme, get little from its four-man rush and still finish with the No. 1 scoring defense, but that’s exactly what the Patriots did last year.
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