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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Patriots Lack Of Depth: A Self-Inflicted Wound

For the New England Patriots, 2014 is is starting to look a lot like 2013 did. Last season started with a strong defense and an improving offense. But the defense struggled after key injuries, and the team made up for it by going all-out on offense to beat opponents in shootouts.


It worked out okay for the Patriots last year; they ended up 12-4 and got to the AFC Championship Game. However, they might have learned the wrong lesson -- they might think they can overcome injuries no matter what. And as the injuries mount in 2014, the team has less depth quality depth than last year, giving them an even slimmer margin for error.


Injuries are a fact of NFL life, for General Managers, coaches, and especially for players. But the Patriots shouldn’t be surprised that missing starters are trouble for them, based on last year. And yet, they voluntarily left themselves short-handed before the season even started. (As noted here in my 2014 season preview:


Here is where they went wrong, and what (if anything) they can do about it.





The New England defense dropped off sharply when starting linebacker Jerod Mayo went down in 2013. That’s why it was so odd that they let Brandon Spikes, their other inside linebacker, walk in free agency. Spikes was a solid player whose excellent anticipation of run/pass and heavy-hitting style gave the defense a real attitude. Spikes signed a 1 year, $3.25 million contract with Buffalo, hardly a king’s ransom if the Patriots wanted to protect themselves at this position.


What makes the release of Spikes even stranger is that the Patriots reportedly wanted to switch to a four-linebacker set in 2014. But the absence of any decent fourth linebacker forced them to move back to the 4-3 for opening day, as they suited up only four LBs for that game. And as stated earlier, this move was voluntary -- the Patriots knew they were thin at linebacker after last year, and made themselves thinner by letting Spikes go, even though they had plenty of money to spend.


As with many positions on the field, the Patriots starting linebackers are very good. Mayo paired with first-round pick Dont’a Hightower and the Pats first pick in the 2013 draft, the improving Jamie Collins. But cutting Spikes made them thinner at the position, something they should have avoided after seeing what Mayo’s injury did to them last year. They just traded for Tennessee linebacker Akeem Ayers; but even if he picks up the defense quickly, it will be a struggle to catch up.


Possible solution: get in a time machine and re-sign Spikes; other than that, not much else they can do, unless they can engineer another trade.



The Defensive Line


Everyone knows big Vince Wilfork, and he continues to play well (though not quite up to his former Pro Bowl standards). But injuries to Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, and Dominique Easley exposed a lack of depth on the defensive line that will be difficult to fix. The unnecessary cut in this area: DL Tommy Kelly, a solid player from last year who is playing well for the 5-1 Arizona Cardinals.


Without Kelly to step in for Siliga, the Patriots are getting gashed in the running game. In non-overtime games last year, the most rushing yards the Patriots gave up was 169 (Bills). This year they’ve given up more than that three times already: 191 to the Dolphins, 207 to the Chiefs, and 218 to the Jets. And it’s unlikely to get better, especially with the Mayo injury compounding the depth problems on the defensive line.


When Kelly was released, some in the media and fandom wondered why. It turns out he had incentives that he was unlikely to reach as part of a defensive line rotation, so he asked for his release. But if the Patriots had learned the proper lessons from 2013, they would have redone the contract to guarantee the incentives and keep him in New England.


Possible solutions: the team reportedly signed DL Alan Branch, who was released by the Buffalo Bills after missing off-season workouts and being arrested for DUI. And they will bring sometime starter Joe Vellano up from the practice squad. Beyond that, they’ll have to wait and see if Siliga can return from IR in time to help.



The Offensive Line


This is the most obvious one of all. The 2014 Patriots lost their long-time offensive line coach, Dante Scarnecchia. And then doubled-down on that potential problem by trading their best offensive lineman, Logan Mankins, just before the season started.


The lack of depth was obvious even before injuries hit. The Dolphins sacked quarterback Tom Brady 4 times (23 yards) on opening day, and shut out the Patriots offense in the second half. By week two, New England was using six offensive linemen just to better protect Brady, and as small injuries started to pile up, they continued that crutch for a few weeks.


The nadir came in Kansas City, where the Chiefs completely dominated the game, pressuring Brady and stuffing the Patriots running game all night long. Since then, the line has played better. But they still give up outside pressure too quickly and have trouble opening holes from running formations and short-yardage situations.


And again, this was at least partially voluntary. They probably couldn’t stop Scarnecchia from retiring, but they could have given new coach Dave DeGuglielmo more to work with. The Mankins trade freed up salary cap space, but it’s doubtful they can use that to sign an offensive lineman of consequence at this point in the season. So DeGuglielmo is left coaching-up low draft picks and free agents no one else wanted.


Possible solutions: it’s unlikely a new lineman would help at this point, so better health on the line, along with backs and receivers who get open faster, would be the best elixir.



Running Back


A knee injury cost the team it’s best running back, Stevan Ridley, who is officially out for the year. The Patriots have decent backups at this position, though Brandon Bolden isn’t proven yet, and Shane Vereen is better on third down, or at least out of the shotgun formation.


If only the Patriots could find a back to replicate Ridley’s 773 yards and 7 touchdowns from last year. Oh wait… they had one on the roster last year, LeGarrette Blount, who had 772 yards and 7 touchdowns (and averaged 5 yards a carry to Ridley’s 4.3). Alas, Blount is a backup in Pittsburgh now, signing for a 2 year, $3.85 million contract with the Steelers. Pretty short money if the Patriots wanted some insurance at running back.


Possible solutions: given the complexities of pass protection in the Patriots scheme, they can’t just pick up any back; but if the current roster isn’t good enough, they could sign free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who knows the offense and never fumbled in four seasons in New England.





Even with injuries at some key positions, you can never count out the Patriots. Last year’s injuries looked devastating, but they kept it together for a 12-4 year and another playoff bye. As long as they have Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, they will be a threat in the playoffs.


However, there is no denying that the team hamstrung itself this year. No team stays 100% healthy, and it’s clear the 2014 Patriots didn’t learn the right lessons from the 2013 Patriots. The drop-off from starter to backup is very steep at almost every position.


The team is at least $10 million under the salary cap (more, according to some sources). And $3.25 million for Spikes, a maximum of $2.5 million for Kelly, $2 million to retain Mankins, and $1.4 million for Blount this year would fit nicely under that number.


For the balance of the season, it will likely be “next man up” in New England. But in future years, they need to manage their depth better. Last year should have shown them that the “next man” isn’t always good enough.


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