FOXBORO, Mass. — There’s an expectation of instant gratification in football.
The Patriots are three weeks into the season and many writers and fans alike are drawing ultimate conclusions about this team.
“The Patriots never should have let Wes Welker walk!”
“The Patriots’ defense is elite!”
“The Patriots haven’t proven anything against subpar competition!”
“The rookie receivers are terrible!”
The truth is, we know next to nothing about this team right now. No one expected the Jets to be 2-1 at this point in the season. No one expected the Falcons to be 1-2. Most people probably expected the Patriots to be 3-0, but who would have thought there would be so much panic over a team that hasn’t lost yet?
Fortunately, after Week 4, we’ll know more about this New England team, especially their defense. We don’t know much, but we have a pretty good idea that Atlanta’s offense, and especially their passing game, is top notch. Julio Jones and Roddy White may be the top receiving tandem in the league, and if Matt Ryan isn’t elite, he’s darn close.
After facing two rookie signal callers and a quarterback who was just benched for a rookie, the Patriots’ passing defense hasn’t exactly been challenged yet, despite playing some top-tier receivers. On Sunday, they will be tested. If Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory still come out looking like a Top 10 unit, it’s time to crown them as such. If they come out and struggle, it’s time to play the wait-and-see game.
In this week’s “No Huddle Offense” feature, I’ll be shooting out 11 thoughts on how the Patriots look going into Week 4.
1. It’s not common for the offensive line to look like an issue at this point in the season, but so far, there have been some issues in opening up holes in the run game and in protecting Tom Brady. Some of the problems there may have to do with competition. The Bills, Jets and Buccaneers all have top-tier defensive lines. Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Muhammad Wilkerson and Gerald McCoy are some of the best front-seven players in the NFL.
2. Coming into the season, I expected the Patriots to show some different, more complex looks on defense. So far, that has absolutely been the case. On Sunday alone, the Patriots were in a 3-4, 4-3, nickel, 4-3-4 with three cornerbacks and one safety and multiple different alignment with non-starting personnel.
Jamie Collins got more time in the nickel, Chandler Jones continued to push over to defensive tackle on third down, Joe Vellano got some time at defensive tackle, Logan Ryan filled in for Kyle Arrington and Duron Harmon came in for Steve Gregory. The longer players are in this defense, the more Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia can add to it. And the more they add to it, the more confusing it will be for opposing offenses.
3. Dont’a Hightower continues to shine in coverage this season. It’s rare to see a 265-pound player lining up out wide in coverage, but he’s been out there pretty often this season. I wrote last week about how getting better as a pass defender was a goal of Hightower’s this offseason.
So far, Hightower looks better in man and zone coverage. He’s big, but speed has never been an issue for the second-year linebacker. He weighed 265 pounds at the 2012 NFL combine and still ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash. That’s pretty impressive.
4. It’s been odd to see Steve Beauharnais as a healthy scratch the past two weeks. Beauharnais appeared to be adapting well to the defense this summer. He also seemed like he could contribute on special teams. Chris White seems to have stolen his role as the special teams linebacker, though. I didn’t expect White to last into Week 2, but the former Buffalo Bill and Detroit Lion seems to be here to stay.
5. Brandon Bolden said after Sunday night’s game that he, LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley bring three different looks to the offense. While it’s certainly true that they all have slightly different strengths and weaknesses, it’s rare to have three backs who are so similar in one offense. They’re all 220 pounds or bigger and none are prototypical speed backs.
Mike Smith tends to agree.
“You know Stevan Ridley…they basically have almost the same skill sets in my mind,” Smith said. “They’re all in the 220-plus range except for Leon Washington, who I consider a change of pace back. But, when you start talking about Ridley, LeGarette Blount and Bolden, they are very similar in terms of their skill set. They are powerful runners, I think they are north and south runners and they’ve done a great job.”
6. Bolden has got in front of reporters twice since his big game on Sunday and on both occasions, he’s talked about the camaraderie of the running backs.
“Oh no, I love it. I love the running back by committee. It’s easier. And it keeps you fresher that way. So, if Stevan gets even a tad-bit winded, he’ll pass on to the next guy, the next guy gets it on to the next guy, then you start it all over again. It keeps guys fresher that way. It will pay off in the long run.
“We’re probably the biggest fans of each other. You’ll never see not one play that one of them score, I guarantee you’ll see the other two down there dancing together. That’s pretty much how it is with this group. We all want to see the other guy do better. It’s not no one man gets the glory. Everybody. It’s running back by committee like everyone said.”
Most of the time, it may be easy not to believe an athlete when he throws out a statement like that, but Bolden legitimately seems to mean it.
7. There was a time when we thought depth along the defensive line may be a problem. It was easy to think so with just Joe Vellano and Chris Jones behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. But Vellano has improved quickly in this defense. During Week 1, he was a bit of a liability as a rotational tackle. But in Weeks 2 and 3, there wasn’t a major drop off, especially in the run game, when WIlfork or Kelly was given a rest.
8. Depth is not much of an issue in the secondary either. On Sunday, we saw Harmon and Ryan get into the game during stretches and the defense did not suffer for it. That shows how fast the Rutgers rookies are coming along. If either player had to start, the secondary would likely be able to keep on chugging along without a major drop off. That’s important in today’s NFL when injuries are such a common occurrence.
9. Harmon filled in for Matthew Slater well, too, as the gunner on punt coverage. Punter Ryan Allen only allowed one return on the afternoon. Eric Page took it back 12 yards.
10. If the Aldon Smith situation confused anyone else, welcome aboard. Smith was added to the non-football injury list when he went to rehab. He can rejoin the 49ers at any time. Armond Armstead and Mark Harrison have to wait until Week 7, even though they too are on NFI.
That’s because Smith joined NFI midseason on the league’s drug program. Because Armstead and Harrison were put on NFI before the season, they have to sit out until at least Week 6. Harrison probably won’t join the team unless a receiver gets hurt, though. The last I saw Armstead was during the Giants preseason game. He looked significantly trimmed down.
11. Brady opened his press conference on Wednesday being asked why he doesn’t have a cool nickname like “Matty Ice.” It’s odd, especially in Boston, that an athlete of Brady’s stature never got a nickname.
TB12 is the closest the future hall-of-famer ever got to a nickname, and no one really calls him that. Brady never got his “Larry Legend,” “The Truth,” “Yaz” or “The Kid. Now that I think of it, Bill Russell and Bobby Orr never had cool nicknames either. Some athletes just don’t need them.