Friday, May 24, 2013
BY HOWARD ULMAN
AP Sports Writer
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots lost just three regular-season games last season and didn't even have a deep receiving threat, a solid defense or a soft schedule.
THE MISSING PIECE? The New England Patriots hope Brandon Lloyd can be the deep threat they were missing last season when they lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
2012 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
New faces: WR Brandon Lloyd, TE Daniel Fells, S Steve Gregory, CB Marquice Cole, DE Chandler Jones (first-round pick, No. 21), LB Dont’a Hightower (first-round pick, No. 25).
Key losses: T Matt Light, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB Kevin Faulk.
Strengths: As always, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are among best in game. Patriots upgraded wide receiver corps by adding Brandon Lloyd to join Wes Welker. Defense, which allowed second most yards in NFL last year, picked up two first-round draft choices in Jones and Hightower. New S Steve Gregory improves starting secondary, while second-year running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen provide more shiftiness and breakaway speed than Green-Ellis. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are NFL’s best tight-end tandem. PK Stephen Gostkowski and P Zoltan Mesko among league’s best.
Weaknesses: Offensive line with retirement of Light, who spent 11 seasons protecting Tom Brady’s blindside, is a concern. His replacement, 2011 first-round draft pick Nate Solder, was inconsistent during preseason. RT Sebastian Vollmer has been slowed by back problems, so position could be another problem, and standout RG Brian Waters hasn’t reported but could be ready for regular season. Defense has potential to vastly improve but several players being counted on are young, unproven. Pass rushing also could be issue with departure of DEs Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, who each had 10 of the team’s 32 sacks last year.
Expectations: Hopes high for second straight Super Bowl after team addressed offseason needs for deep receiving threat and improved defense from front line to the secondary. Of seven draft picks, first six play defense. They also have one of the weakest schedules with only four games against teams that had winning record last year.
— Associated Press
How much better would they be if they had all three?
That question should be answered this year.
The Patriots reached the Super Bowl, losing to the New York Giants 21-17 on a last-minute touchdown, then spent the offseason adding players at positions of need.
Brandon Lloyd is the long-distance receiver they lacked. Rookie first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower could vastly improve the defense that gave up the second most yards in the NFL. And the schedule seems packed with pushovers with only four games against teams that had winning records last season.
So the Patriots are looking forward. Reflecting on the Super Bowl disappointment is just a distraction.
"I honestly don't think about last year much," quarterback Tom Brady said. "This is a whole different team and we're in a different situation. All of us have pretty much moved on from last year. You have to go out here and establish what this team's going to be all about."
The Patriots signed Lloyd as a free agent and he and Brady have developed a good connection. It helps that Lloyd picked up the complicated offensive system after playing the last two seasons under new Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, first when McDaniels was coach at Denver and then when McDaniels moved to St. Louis as offensive coordinator.
"We are developing as an offense and we're trying to integrate as much of the running game and pass catchers as possible," Lloyd said, "but I think what it is coming down to is that we all need to make plays and be more consistent."
The offense scored just six touchdowns in the first three preseason games. Two of them came on throws by third-stringer Ryan Mallett in the last five minutes of last Friday night's 30-28 loss at Tampa Bay after the Buccaneers had taken a 30-14 lead.
Once the regular season starts, Brady, whose 5,235 yards passing last season were the second most in NFL history, should have a strong group of targets -- wide receivers Lloyd and Wes Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
The running game should be more dynamic now that BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a sure-handed but straight ahead back left for Cincinnati as a free agent. Second-year pros Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen should get most of the carries, and both have greater breakaway potential than Green-Ellis.
Ridley, second on the Patriots last season with 441 yards rushing, has a simple goal: "That this team can depend on me at the running back position and that's (in) all aspects of the game. It's not just one thing. I just have to go out there and just be the player they know I can be."
The offensive line has struggled during the preseason since left tackle Matt Light retired.
Left guard Logan Mankins has played sparingly after offseason knee surgery, right guard Brian Waters hasn't reported and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has back problems. But all three could be ready for the regular season. And 2011 first-round draft pick Nate Solder, Light's replacement, has improved after a shaky start in training camp.
"They're doing their job and I have to worry about my job," Brady said. "Part of what our team has always been built on is guys having trust in each other to do what they need to do to be competitive."
The defense should be better with tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love and ends Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Young veterans Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes will be joined at linebacker by Hightower. New safety Steve Gregory, a free agent from San Diego, should stabilize the secondary.
"We're doing some things well, but it's a long way for us (to go)," cornerback Devin McCourty said. "The good part is that you have a lot of guys that have played that are building a good bond back there."
Improved coverage would help the pass rushers. New England had 40 sacks last season, 14th most in the NFL. But ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, who had 10 each, are no longer with the team. So Jones and Hightower must jell with the holdovers.
"You've got to have coordination of the rush," Ninkovich said. "You can't just be out there doing your own thing in this league. Obviously, you've got to have good rush lanes or else the quarterback can see down the field and scramble on you."
Fortunately for the Patriots, the opposition is hardly imposing. The first four quarterbacks they're scheduled to face are Jake Locker (Tennessee), John Skelton or Kevin Kolb (Arizona), Joe Flacco (Baltimore) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Buffalo).
Minutes after the Super Bowl loss, Brady said, "I think every guy in the locker room wishes they could have done a little more."
The Patriots appear better equipped to do that this season.