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NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - INSIDE SLANT
The inconsistency of the New England Patriots' offense in 2013 can be traced to multiple issues, including an overhauled wide receiving corps, the incarceration and release of tight end/H-back Aaron Hernandez over the summer and tight end Rob Gronkowski's lengthy recovery from multiple surgeries
However, the primary concern continues to lie in the trenches with an offensive line that simply has not been good enough, consistently enough, this season.
Through 13 games the group has allowed 26 sacks. That's just one fewer than the Patriots allowed all of last season.
It's a pace of poor protection that would see Tom Brady go down 46 times on a full season. Not only would that be more sacks for the now 36-year-old quarterback than any other times in his career - topping 41 sacks during his first season as a starter in 2001 - he has only been sacked more than 30 times once in the last nine seasons.
It's a problem that well respected and longtime New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is obviously well aware of.
"I think that, yes we have given up more sacks at this point than we did all last season. Believe me, I understand that," Scarnecchia said. "So, what is it? I think that I probably have to do a better job coaching and getting them to do things better. I think our players are working at it very hard and you know sacks are a byproduct of a lot of different things. So, I'll pretty much just leave it at that and hopefully, as we've said, we're going to try and (be) better doing the things that we're doing going forward."
There really hasn't been an obvious reason/excuse for the Patriots' line struggles this season. The group returned all five starters from a year ago. The players were relatively healthy until right tackle Sebastian Vollmer went on injured reserve in Week 9 with a broken leg. The group includes three of the team's top 10 highest cap figures and is made up of two former first-round picks and a second rounder.
Still, the line allowed Brady to be sacked three or more times in seven of the first nine games, and in each of the last five games leading to the bye.
Things certainly won't get any easier this Monday night in Carolina. The Panthers sport one of the NFL's top defenses, buoyed by an impressive defensive front. That includes not only starting defensive tackles Dwan Edwards and rookie Star Lotulelei, but also backups Kawann Short and Colin Cole.
"It's not very often you play a team with four good tackles; they have a lot of depth up front and a lot of good players," guard Logan Mankins said. "To rotate like that, they stay pretty fresh and there is not a huge drop-off when they do rotate."
That doesn't even take into account defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who have combined for 14.5 sacks, led by 8.5 for Johnson.
"It seems like a defensive meeting at the quarterback," Mankins joked.
But protecting Brady is really no joking matter, especially in a league that has seen too many star quarterbacks go down this season. The Patriots don't want Brady to be added to that list next.
"We're at a point right now where the key thing for all of us is that we avoid using the word satisfied. None of us should be satisfied with anything," Scarnecchia said. "The idea is to improve every day and try to get better every day and be a better football team tomorrow than we are today, so pretty much that's it. We know where we are, we know what we do, we know how we do it and we're just going to try and get better as we go forward."
For Scarnecchia's offensive line, and the offense in general, that means doing a better job protecting Brady to not only keep the face of the franchise on the field but allow him to take advantage of a more abundant group of now healthy offensive weapons around him. That quest over the second half of the season starts Monday night in Carolina against an upstart, dangerous Panthers defense.
SERIES HISTORY: 5th regular-season meeting. Series tied 2-2. The most notable meeting between the two teams obviously came in New England's 32-29 win in Super Bowl XXXVIII following the 2003 season. The Patriots won the most recent game, 20-10, in Foxborough in 2009, but it was Carolina taking the victory 27-17 back in 2005 a year and a half after the teams' exciting back-and-forth Super Bowl battle.
NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - NOTES, QUOTES
--Safety Ed Reed has always been a favorite of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The safety has had as much praise heaped upon him as any opponent over the years. As such, there was immediate speculation that Reed might be an option for the Patriots when he was released by the Texans on Tuesday, especially given the fact that New England is dealing with a depth issue at the position with a thumb injury to starter Steve Gregory.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who has also spoken incredibly highly of Reed over the years, was the first asked if Reed might be an option to join his former foes for a stretch run this season.
"Those things are so far out of my control," Brady said. "I have a lot of other things to worry about. Coach always makes those decisions."
Belichick was asked about Reed on Wednesday.
"I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on players who aren't on our team," Belichick said.
--Quarterback Ryan Mallett has yet to step on the field this season. The third-year New England backup has played just four games in his two-plus seasons, throwing a mere four passes. But as many teams have learned this season, the backup is one injury away in a league where injuries are happening at an alarming rate.
Even though the former third-round pick hasn't had to step on the field, he is apparently still impressing his coaches with his professionalism in the background.
"Ryan comes to work every week with a great attitude and a great approach," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "He prepares as if he is playing. I think he has continued to try to work at what it means to be a quarterback in this league; prepare hard, go through you daily preparation of segment of the game plan.
"He has really done a nice job of trying to give our defense a good look each week, which I think is an underrated part of a backup quarterback's preparation, but it is important nonetheless because it is an opportunity to go back there, make reads, and throw the ball accurately and work on your fundamentals, get better and lead that team. Even though it might not be the first team offense all the time, you get a chance to do those kinds of things as a quarterback on the scout team.
"I think he has really done a nice job and taken a lot of leadership and responsibility there. So, I think Ryan's doing a good job of continuing to try to push himself to get better and improve. We have a lot of confidence in him."
--WR LaQuan Williams, according to a report in the Baltimore Sun, is being sued relating to an altercation that took place outside a strip club this past June when he was still a member of the Ravens. Though he was not charged with a crime, the suit accuses Williams of assault and battery. The suit was filed by two security workers from the club.
--Under flexible scheduling guidelines the NFL announced this week that the Patriots' Week 13 trip to Houston to take on the Texans has been moved from a 4:25 kickoff to 1 p.m. For New England, that Dec. 1 game will come after a two-week stretch of prime time kickoffs, including this Monday night's trip to Carolina and next week's Sunday night matchup with the Broncos at Gillette Stadium.
BY THE NUMBERS: .735 - New England's winning percentage - 36-13 - in the month of November dating back to 2001. That's the best mark in the NFL, slightly ahead of the Colts (36-17) and the Ravens (34-20). The Patriots have gone undefeated in November four times in that span, including a year ago. The team got off to a hot start this November with a 55-31 win over Pittsburgh leading into last week's bye.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I like 4 (p.m.) the best. Just get up, eat, sit around a little bit and then go. I don't mind 1, it's the late ones I'm not a fan of ... (although) you do get to take a nap that day." - Patriots Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, offering his opinion on the various starting times of NFL games.
NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--RB Shane Vereen (wrist) is expected to return from injured reserve on Monday night in Carolina. As such New England will need to make a subsequent roster move to make room for the third-down back on the 53-man roster.
--S Steve Gregory (thumb) was the only Patriots player missing from the media viewing period of practice Tuesday, New England's first workout after returning from the bye week break. Gregory suffered a reported broken right thumb in the pre-bye win over Pittsburgh and could miss a couple weeks with the injury.
--DE Rob Ninkovich was on the field with his teammates for practice on Tuesday following the bye. The defensive co-captain limped off with a foot injury against Pittsburgh prior to the bye and could not finish that game, but appears to have avoided extended injury.
--S Duron Harmon could see an increased role against the Panthers with Steve Gregory missing practice this week with a broken right thumb. Harmon has seen increased reserve action in recent weeks, but the third-round pick out of Rutgers could very well make his first career start in Carolina assuming that Gregory can't go.
--WR Kenbrell Thompkins was a healthy scratch against Pittsburgh prior to the bye. But the knee injury that caused New England to release veteran Austin Collie could push the rookie pass catcher back into the game day mix in the passing game.
GAME PLAN: The Patriots' trip to Carolina coming out of the bye is an interesting matchup against one of the best defenses in the NFL. Though the New England offense hit the week off with some offensive momentum after its 55-point, 610-yard outburst against the Steelers, that doesn't overshadow that the unit struggled for much of the first half of the season. Carolina is No. 2 in overall defense, No. 2 against the run and tied for No. 4 against the pass. It is also No. 2 in points allowed.
New England may have a full complement of offensive weapons for the first time this year and that gives the attack more options. This could be a chance for Tom Brady to spread out a defense that's stout in the middle and look to get rid of the ball quickly to negate an impressive front four. That means quick throws to guys like Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski as well as potentially using now-healthy passing back Shane Vereen to create mismatches.
The biggest issue for the offense will be staying on the field. New England barely converts one in three third downs at this point, and Carolina only allows opponents to convert one of three chances to move the chains. But the extra weapons for Brady should help out in that area.
Defensively, the Patriots' issues will be a controlled pass rush against Cam Newton and shutting down a solid running game led by DeAngelo Williams. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga will be in his second game with New England since being added at the trade deadline, and look for more potential 3-4 looks with him on the field. Still, rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano will be tested by Carolina's run game.
Carolina's offense has decent balance and has scored 30-plus points in four of the past five weeks. New England continues to battle injuries on defense and will have to piece together a stout effort up front in order to contain Newtown and his complementary weapons.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Patriots C Ryan Wendell vs. Panthers rookie nose tackle Star Lotulelei. Wendell is an undersized center who can be pushed around on occasion in the middle of the offensive line. He's certainly the physical weak point of the front. He'll see plenty of the impressive rookie Lotulelei, who's a unique combination of power and rare athleticism for his size. Wendell won't handle the rookie alone but can't get too much help against a four-man front that's a big challenge as a group.
Patriots S Devin McCourty vs. Carolina TE Greg Olsen. Steve Gregory is likely to miss this game, meaning rookie Duron Harmon could earn his first career start. That will leave McCourty as the veteran presence in the back end. Olsen is a solid weapon for Cam Newton, ranking second on the team with 35 catches while tying for the team lead with three touchdown catches. Olsen can challenge the middle of the field and it will be up to McCourty to play a key role in trying to take that away.
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Panthers FS Mike Mitchell. The strength of the Panthers defense is clearly the front seven. The line does its job getting pressure on the quarterback and the linebackers run around and make plays. The back end is a bit suspect. Gronkowski is getting back to full health and his true Gronk playmaking ways. When the offense is at its best for New England that includes Gronkowski making plays over the middle and down the seams. Mitchell and his help will have a lot to deal with against big No. 87.