Originally posted on The Sports Headquarters  |  Last updated 9/4/12

2011 in a Nutshell: 13-3 AFC East Champions; Lost Super Bowl

It was almost a case of last team standing for the Patriots in 2011; everything seemed to break their way en route to an AFC Championship and Super Bowl appearance where those damn New York Giants beat them again. Every other elite team in the AFC had something major go wrong during the season which left the Patriots as the eventual champions, Peyton Manning never took the field for the Colts, Ben Roethlisberger had his ankle in several pieces for the last month of the season, Houston was forced to start T.J. Yates and Baltimore had THAT field goal miss. Those factors all helped the Patriots overcome an abominable defense and have, based on expectations at the start of the season, a rather successful year. In what was supposed to be a bridging year, once again Belichick and Brady added to their Hall of Fame resumes while tight end Rob Gronkowski emerged as a fan favourite by having the greatest season ever for a tight end. Playing for the memory of Myra Kraft, the owner’s late wife, the Patriots showed that they still belonged among the NFL’s elite.

2012 Season Motto: Bayou or bust!

Personnel Performance

In a rare show of aggression, Bill Belichick opted to trade up in the first round (twice) to go and get players he really wanted. With a pick he acquired from the Saints last year he traded up to number 21 to select Syracuse DE Chandler Jones to try and fill that Willie McGinest ‘elephant’ role in his defense allowing them to switch between a 3-4 and 4-3 without changing personnel. After the Steelers passed on him, Belichick then traded up to number 25 with the Broncos to select Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower to allow them to complete their all SEC linebackers group (or SECD as the writers of the team paper have called it). Both Jones and Hightower will be coming in to a unit that was ranked second last in the league and be asked to have an impact on that group. The defensive drafting did not stop there however as Belichick then drafted a safety in the second round, unfortunately nobody had heard of Tavon Wilson before that point but it did give fans a great moment as Mel Kiper looked absolutely lost as he tried to find his notes on the player. Third round pick Jake Bequette has impressed so far in camp and could feature as a substitute rusher on occasion while sixth round pick Nate Ebner has looked like the best tackler on the team coming from a rugby background before playing some gridiron at Ohio State.

Belichick’s aggressive approach was not limited to the draft as he went after several players in free agency to try and improve the overall skill level of his team. Somewhat surprisingly however, most of the signings were on the offensive side of the ball and not many of the players made it through the offseason. Former Colts Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Addai didn’t make it to the first training camp practice with the latter reportedly quitting on the conditioning test. Members of the 2007 team Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney were brought back to the team but they were also gone, as was defensive lineman Jonathan Fanaene. Not every player was a ****** though as receiver Brandon Lloyd came over from St Louis to reunite with Josh McDaniels, something he had been campaigning for all offseason. Tight ends Daniel Fells and Visanthe Shiancoe join the league’s most productive tight end unit to create a fearsome foursome and allow Gronkowski and Hernandez more freedom to move around. Safety Steve Gregory comes over from the Chargers to provide an upgrade over the often injured James Ihedigbo at free safety and will form a decent pairing with the hopefully healthy Pat Chung. Receiver Wes Welker was kept through the franchise tag but a long term deal was not reached as the Patriots and Welker’s valuations did not match up meaning he is playing the season on a one-year deal.

Key Player for 2012: Devin McCourty – CB

To put it bluntly, McCourty played like absolute crap last season after a phenomenal rookie year where he snared seven interceptions. It got to the point where fans felt so bad for the guy they were happy to see him miss time with a shoulder injury midseason. Of course McCourty wasn’t the only negative light on the Patriots defense last year which was pretty poor overall, but he at least represents a ray of hope for the future. It’s hard to judge what caused the drop off in his play, whether it was mental or physical but he just did not seem to have it last year. While he will probably never be as historically bad as he was last year, he probably won’t be as good as he was as a rookie, fans will just have to hope he settles closer to the good player rather than the bad one. If he can become a solid number one corner again then the Patriots defense will be a lot better off than if he is getting beaten several times a game.

Season Expectations

We all know that as long as Bernard Pollard is not hovering around his knee again, Tom Brady will be a consistent performer at an elite level, that part is not in doubt. The biggest question now is how this offensive line will hold up to the losses it has sustained this offseason and will that effect their ability to protect Brady. Mainstay left tackle Matt Light was never an elite Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones type of player but he was always there and willing to compete with most pass rushers. Second year player Nate Solder will be his replacement but he has not been up to Light’s level as yet while right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has been struggling with injuries this offseason. His replacement Marcus Cannon has been anything but impressive thus far and he will likely be thrown into duty at some stage this offseason. Inside, guard Logan Mankins is still recovering from a torn ACL while Brian Waters is nowhere to be seen. The fact the team has given away his jersey number to Dont’a Hightower does not bode well for his return. Despite all of the questions there is still a good chance this line will look better than it is as they have one of the best position coaches in the league in Dante Scarnecchia who seems to be able to turn anybody into a solid NFL lineman.

After final roster cuts the Patriots offense has an interesting look to it, they cut backup Brian Hoyer and entrusted the lone backup role to Ryan Mallett who is a work in progress. The running back group lost its leader BenJarvus Green-Ellis to the Bengals, while he wasn’t a gamebreaker type of back, he was a consistent contributor who never fumbled and always got enough yards. Stevan Ridley takes over the lead back role, he is more of a home run threat than Green-Ellis but more of a fumbling risk too so how he responds will be interesting. He is also joined by fellow 2011 draftee Shane Vereen and the veteran of the group Danny Woodhead, both of whom are more third-down/change of pace backs while rookie Brandon Bolden made the roster after a solid preseason despite going undrafted. For such a pass heavy team, the Patriots only went with 5 receivers on their final roster which was somewhat surprising especially considering one of them is primarily a special teamer in Matthew Slater and another was traded for within the last week in Greg Salas. A lot must be expected of Julian Edelman as the next option behind starters Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker. Luckily for the Patriots they still have two of the league’s top tight ends, both of whom are great receiving threats in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

To put it politely, this Patriots team went 13-3 in spite of having the worst defense of the Bill Belichick era in their first season as a 4-3 team in nearly a decade. They did a fantastic job of making mediocre quarterbacks look like superstars as they were continually passed on by every team they faced. This year that unit has to get better and they will have to do it without two of their bright spots from the year before. Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, who combined for 20 sacks and came on strong at the end of the year so that production will now need to come from elsewhere with the leading contenders so far being rookie Chandler Jones and third year player Jermaine Cunningham who is currently fighting for his Patriots career. The defensive line is lead by the big man Vince Wilfork who is one of the truly elite defensive tackles in the league. Their three SEC linebackers make for a formidable trio with Jerod Mayo providing a solid, reliable presence with Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower bringing the physicality and the all important asshole mentality any good defense needs. Brandon Spikes is key here as he has playmaking ability when he is on the field but he has not been healthy enough to contribute regularly so far. In the secondary health will once again be key, second year corner Ras-I Dowling will be battling all season with Kyle Arrignton for the starting job opposite McCourty while the safeties should be better than last season which will help whoever is playing corner. Last year there were too many breakdowns as the coverage looked like it was expecting safety help but they were late getting to their spot leading to a big play. This unit doesn’t need to be like the 2000 Ravens, just middle of the pack will be good enough for the Patriots this year and that will be enough for the team to succeed.

Overall the Patriots schedule looks largely easy, with a couple of occasional challenges and potential banana skins on the way too. They open up with Tennessee away and then Arizona at home before travelling to Baltimore on NBC in week three. Week five sees fans treated to another Brady vs Peyton match at Gillette Stadium which was sorely missed off the schedule last season. St Louis gets to host New England in Original England before a week 9 bye which should see the Patriots sitting at 6-2 at worst. A thanksgiving night trip to the Meadowlands against the Jets will always make for a great game, especially if Tebow is starting by then. Weeks 14 and 15 see the Patriots making back to back home primetime appearances first on ESPN against the Texans then against the 49ers on NBC which will give them a decent test.

Final: Will they be better or worse off than last year?

It’s always tough backing up after a Super Bowl loss but really, how much can you bet against Brady and Belichick? I won’t pick them to match last year’s win total but they will claim the AFC East and be fighting for seeding in the playoffs with 11 or 12 wins, for this team it’s all about how they do in the playoffs and anything less than another Super Bowl appearance has to be considered a disappointment.

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