It has been an unconventional start to the 2012 NFL season to say the least. The 5-3 Patriots find themselves as the conference’s three seed and if the season ended today the Patriots would be hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers:
After dismantling the Rams (45-7) in the United Kingdom, the Patriots had a much-needed bye in week nine. New England gained ground on the Dolphins and Bills after both suffered losses to the Colts and Texans respectively. Half way through the year, the Patriots are still atop the AFC East despite their inability to finish games. Let’s analyze all three phases and grade New England’s performance to date:
The Patriots lead the NFL in PPG (32.8) and YPG (440.8) as an offensive unit. Rounding out the top five in passing and rushing, New England averages 291.1 (5th) and 149.6 (4th) YPG respectively. Tom Brady has thrown 16 TD and 3 INT through 8 games, putting him on pace for 32 TD and 6 INT in his 2012 campaign. 291.1 YPG also puts TB12 on track for another 4,500-yard season and should not be downplayed. While Gronkowski has hauled in a team high 7 TD, Welker leads the way with 60 receptions and 736 yards. Giving Hernandez an additional week to rest should help solidify his health and prominent role down the stretch, when the Patriots need him most.
Stevan Ridley has gained 716 yards on 150 carries, netting him 5 TD, 89.5 YPG, 4.8 YPC and the 7th best slot in rushing. These statistics would translate into a 1,432 yard season with 10 TD. Excluding BenJarvis Green-Ellis’ 1,008 yards in 2010, the Patriots have not had a running back crack the elusive milestone since Corey Dillon gained 1,635 yards in 2004. Is it a coincidence that New England won their last Super Bowl that year?
Through eight games, the Patriots have earned a record 32 more first downs (232) than any other team in the NFL. That is an additional four per game and equivalent to one methodical drive. Thus stated, our offense has been executing shorter routes and pounding the rock, hard. New England has converted 48.7% of their third downs, second to only Pittsburgh.
So why does the New England offensive unit only receive an A- grade? Although the Patriots lead the NFL in scoring for the first and third quarters, they are fifth in the second quarter and tenth in the fourth quarter. Statistically speaking, their red zone inefficiencies are not that bad; however, New England has squandered many opportunities before halftime and have become dormant at times in the fourth.
With their “season on the line” against the Jets in Week 7, order was restored to the NFL in the form of a vintage two-minute drill from Tom Brady. This drive pushed the game into overtime and put the Patriots atop the AFC East for good. Executing late and winning that game was a turning point for 2012 New England Patriots.
The only reason this grade is not of the “D” variety is due to the Patriots leading the AFC in takeaways with 20 (11 FR, 9 INT) and a turnover differential of +13. The bend but don’t break defense has unfortunately been broken, almost every game. Teams have continually taken the top off our defense and exposed our weak secondary with ease.
The most underwhelming statistic for the defense is that the Patriots are 28th in the NFL giving up (281.1 YPG) passing. The acquisition of Aqib Talib proves how desperately New England is in need of a corner that can hold his own. Talib is not eligible to play until November 18th against the Colts, however; his presence is needed ASAP. Keep in mind, part of the reason why the Patriots give up so many yards is because the opposition is usually playing from behind.
New England is in the middle of the pack in terms of pass rush – recording 17 sacks, Houston and Denver lead the AFC with 24 while Green Bay leads the NFC with 28. Strong play from highly touted rookie Chandler Jones (6 sacks, 3 FF) has disrupted opposing quarterbacks all season. His presence may overshadow the emergence of Brandon Spikes (50 tackles, 3 FF) in 2012. While Mayo continues his Pro Bowl linebacking, Spikes leads a crew of playmakers that have changed the course of many games. Rookies Tavon Wilson (3 INT) and Alfonzo Dennard (2 INT) have also chipped in with timely turnovers.
The Patriots rush defense is seventh in the NFL, giving up 88.6 YPG on the ground. Furthermore, New England gives up an average of 21.3 PPG – good for 12th in the NFL. This equation illuminates several variables. First, the bend but don’t break defense is still alive. Second, being able to stop the run puts more pressure on the defensive backs. Third, the Patriots need to score and have done so easily this season.
Special Teams: B
The early blunders by Stephen Gostowski were erased with his clutch performance against the Jets in week seven. On the season, he has hit 17/20 and continues to boot the ball through the endzone.
Returning a kickoff to the house earned McCourty the opportunity to fumble it away in a critical moment late against the Jets. Aside from the aforementioned players, special-teams has not been a major factor for the Patriots in 2012. This is always a good sign, as ST gets discussed when things are not going well.
Zoltan Mesko has actually recorded the third worst punt average with 42 YPP. His net of 39.6 YPP is sixth worst in the NFL. This can be attributed to our offensive attack. The Patriots have only punted more than two other teams in the NFL, the Steelers and the Cowboys. Out of his 30 punts, Mesko has landed 18 of them inside the 20 – an unbelievable statistic.
Coaching – B+
While the Patriots operated efficiently and effectively against the Titans in week one, it took a few weeks for the Patriots to gel as a cohesive unit. Many attribute this to Josh McDaniels calling all the shots and in some instances it is quite apparent.
Whether you are a hardcore fan or not, it is known that the Patriots notoriously execute draws and screens with their eyes closed. This cute play-calling has backfired multiple times and lost NE a couple games with passive sets.
So why a B+? Belichick is working with one of the most inexperienced defensive units in the league and has survived the first half of the season. You can bet being able to study eight weeks of film will improve our defense moving forward.
It’s all about progression though and the Patriots still have half a season and more to play. There is room for improvement in these grades and Patriots fans hope to be “passing” with flying colors come the first week of February.