The Patriots enter the bye week at 6-2, a game ahead of the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East and now surprisingly in control of their own destiny in the AFC playoff seedings. After laying a stinker on opening night against the Chiefs, and dropping the home game to Carolina, they were essentially three games behind Kansas City. But courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys, the Chiefs have dropped three of their last four games which puts the Patriots and Steelers at 6-2 atop of the AFC. The two teams will meet later this season. It just goes to show how the season is a marathon and not a sprint.
The season started with the offense just clicking on nearly all cylinders and the defense looking historically bad. With the last four weeks, however, the offensive output has noticeably cooled while the defense, still far from perfect is allowing just 12.8 points per game and has backboned the team on the four-game winning streak.
This being New England, we always tend to focus on the what-ifs. And I’ve heard the same yada-yada that the team could easily be anywhere between 2-6 and 7-1. Well they’re not, they are what their record says they are…(sound familiar), which is 6-2
Here is our look at the team and where they stand at the midway point of the season. We’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.
Tom Brady leads the league attempts (309), completions (206) and yards (2,541). He’s tied for second in fewest interceptions (two), tied for third in touchdowns (16) and is fifth in completion percentage (66.7). Those are tremendous numbers and he’s at the top of the list for players who could be in line for the MVP if the season were to end today.
But Brady is his own worst critic and after the victory over the Chargers (almost said San Diego), he lamented the lack of red zone production the team is suffering. He obviously has to share in some of that. He’s not immune to making mistakes and has made some.
I believe that he’s still missing his biggest target of the past several years in Julian Edelman. While everyone around him has stepped up, it is still a significant loss.
Running Backs: B
The running backs diverseness and versatility are the keys to what makes the offense so potentially lethal. They are deep and each of the top four backs brings something a little different to the table than the others.
James White is still at the head of the class. He followed up a tremendous Super Bowl with a very solid first half of the season. He leads the team with 43 receptions and ranks 2nd in the NFL in receptions by a running back. He remains a good runner between the tackles and a tremendous pass blocker. Dion Lewis was a ghost early in the season and the frequent target of trade rumors. No longer. Lewis has emerged as the lead back in the running game and is getting that shifty, waterbug elusiveness that we saw early in 2015. He’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry which is impressive.
Mike Gillislee has been a bit of a disappointment thus far. Although he has rushed for four touchdowns, he hasn’t been able to run with the consistency that we were expecting to see. We’ve seen flashes the past few weeks of him turning the corner, and maybe his comfort level in the offense will begin to take hold and we’ll see him turn it on.
Rex Burkhead missed four-plus games with a rib injury he suffered in the first half of Week Two in New Orleans. But as he’s been eased back into the lineup the past two games, he’s shown the ability to run the ball well as well as catch it and be a nice option in the passing game. James Develin remains one of the better blocking fullbacks in the league. The biggest issue facing this group has been the maddening inability to pick up short yardage runs. This is an area that must be improved down the stretch.
Wide Receivers: B+
The Patriots wide receivers despite missing Julian Edelman have performed very well in the first half of the season while dealing with a myriad of injuries. Besides Edelman, second-year receiver Malcolm Mitchell began the season on IR. Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola both have suffered from different injuries.
Brady has spread the wealth very equitably thus far, Brandin Cooks and Hogan have 33 receptions and Amendola 31. Add in tight end Rob Gronkowski’s 34 receptions and you have a true sharing of the spoils. Cooks has been the deep threat receiver that can stretch the field that they’ve lacked and is on pace for an 1100 yard season. He can be a bit more consistent in the short areas of the field but has been as good as advertised.
Hogan has stepped up his game from a year ago and has been very dependable and frequently makes plays despite taking some big shots this year. Amendola always seems to make the big catches at crunch time in big situations and has arguably the best hands on the team. Phillip Dorsett was brought in for depth and has contributed but not a lot as he’s been very limited in his snaps.
Tight Ends: B-
Rob Gronkowski has been able to stay healthy this season after coming back from back surgery last season that saw him land on IR. He’s on pace for a 70 catch, 1000 yard season despite being held more than any tight end on a consistent basis. As closely as the referees watch him from pushing off, they seem to miss him being mugged constantly as he’s running down the field.
Dwayne Allen has been a total bust thus far. Through eight games he’s still looking for his first reception as a member of the Patriots. His inability to carve out even the slightest of roles in the passing game has been a major disappointment and factors into the team’s red zone woes. It has affected his blocking as well.
Rookie Jacob Hollister is still a work in progress but has shown a nice ability to threaten the seams of the defense. He may see an uptick in red zone targets as he gets more comfortable in the offense.
Offensive Line: B-
The offensive line has had their share of struggles this season. Tom Brady has been sacked more this season than he was all of last year. However, both Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon have been playing hurt and the number of sacks has trended down the last few weeks. They face a big test in Denver on Sunday night, and this will be a matchup worth watching closely this week.
The interior of the line has been solid in pass protection for the most part and they are beginning to find their comfort level in the running game. That being said, the offensive line has struggled to open holes for the team in short yardage. The Patriots rank only 21st in yards per carry with 3.7. That must improve down the stretch.
Defensive Line: C+
The Patriots defensive line started the season, like much of the defense woefully slow and the normally stout defensive line against the run was being gashed. Alan Branch started very slowly and saw little playing time and was a healthy scratch. Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy both had their issues early as well.
The pass rush, as expected, has struggled with bouts of inconsistency. Trey Flowers has been good but after that, it has been just flashes from everyone else. Deatrich Wise has shown good ability to get after the passer as has Cassius Marsh and Adam Butler. But they’ve struggled at times in setting the edge and maintaining their lanes. Those things are expected with young players. Dont’a Hightower missed time after the first game and then tore a pectoral muscle against Atlanta and is gone for the year which is a big blow.
With Dont’a Hightower out for the year, the onus is now on Kyle Van Noy. I thought the Patriots had both of those players out of position early this season. When they moved both back to positions of strength (inside for Hightower, outside for Van Noy), the defense responded much better.
David Harris was a forgotten man for much of the early season but is getting on the field more lately and he and Elandon Roberts provide excellent downhill run support while being limited in a coverage role.
Shea McClellin should be activated soon from IR and that should help the linebackers across the board with run support, coverage and the pass rushing potential. Marquis Flowers and Trevor Reilly are special teams players only at this point.
This was supposed to be the Patriots strength on defense and instead for the first four games, was a nightmare of blown assignments, poor communication and the very alarming trend of allowing big plays.
Newcomer Stephon Gilmore struggled early but showed signs of turning things around when he suffered a concussion. Eric Rowe has missed significant time with a groin injury. But the good news is that depth players Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Jones have played surprisingly well at corner. Malcolm Butler also started slowly but has responded and is playing better each week.
Safeties Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, and Duron Harmon have all been solid at safety after a slow start and allowing some uncharacteristic big plays. Things are trending up for this unit.
Special Teams: A-
Stephen Gostkowski has missed a few field goals but overall has been very solid this season while making a career-long 58-yarder. His kickoffs continuously allow the Patriots coverage units to get downfield and stuff opponents deep in their territory. Those coverage units have been consistently good and getting better now that Matthew Slater has returned. Ryan Allen has had an up and down year. Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis are giving the team the needed boost in return yardage. The team has blocked two field goals with Marsh and Guy each notching one. The one other knock has been penalties, which need to be curtailed moving forward.
Bill Belichick has had to deal with injuries to two of his key players on offense and defense with Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower. The new faces on defense struggled badly in the early going. But as he always does, he finds a way to get things done. The team is playing much better now on defense which Matt Patricia also shares in the blame early and the credit now that they’ve turned it around.
Josh McDaniels has had to tinker with a constantly changing lineup and they have tremendous potential but have struggled lately to score and put teams away. And yet they’re tied for the lead in the AFC and are on top of the division. This is the time of year that they consistently begin aim to put things together. Belichick preaches that around Thanksgiving is when you see what kind of team you have. And the Patriots are trending upward. The only question that remains is, can they stay healthy for the stretch run?