- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- At the start of Patriots training camp each year, it is commonplace to gather a list of burning questions facing the team.
Seven weeks into the season, with the Patriots on their bye, here is a look back at one opinion on the top questions and how they've been answered:
1. Third-down defense
In 2008, the story of the season was summed up on one play -- the third-and-15 in overtime against the Jets in mid-November. The Patriots had the Jets right where they wanted them, but the defense couldn't close the door.
By the end of the season, the Patriots' defense ranked 26th on third down, with opponents converting 44.4 percent of the time.
Improvements have been made this season.
Through seven games, the Patriots rank 15th on third down, as opponents are moving the chains at a 36.1 percent clip.
Major strides have come in the secondary, where the coverage has been tighter. The Patriots seem to be playing more man-to-man, and they have more talented cover men than in 2008. Ellis Hobbs, for example, would be the fourth or fifth corner on this team.
2. Tom Brady's return
One statistic highlights some of the early struggles: Brady has four delay-of-game penalties this season.
That might be as many as he had over the last four years combined, and it reflects how difficult it is to take a year off and simply return to record-setting form. Brady has battled through getting a feel for the game and all the aspects that go into managing the offense.
He is 179-of-273 for 2,032 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions and appears to have become more and more comfortable with his footwork in recent weeks.
One interesting aspect of Brady's return is that the coaching staff also seemed to misjudge how quickly he could return. The game plan in Week 2 against the Jets -- to go no-huddle and put the game in Brady's hands -- looked like a miscalculation. At that point, Brady wasn't ready for that against such an attacking defense.
Now he is.
3. Red zone defense
Last year, the red zone was a trouble spot, as opponents came away with points on 42 of their 45 trips. Thirty of the trips resulted in touchdowns, ranking the Patriots 31st.
Small steps forward have been made this year.
Opponents have made 15 red-zone trips and scored points 12 times (eight touchdowns, four field goals). The bright spot came against the Ravens (a dropped pass by Mark Clayton helped), the low point against Denver.
Expect the Patriots to put added emphasis in this area over the coming days. With the team's next game against the Dolphins, consider this statistic: Miami scored eight touchdowns on eight trips in the red zone against the Patriots last season.
4. Filling the Vrabel void
In terms of toughness, knowledge of the defense, and making clutch catches on the goal line as a tight end, Mike Vrabel was in a Patriots class by himself. It seemed clear that the team couldn't expect that type of production from one player this year, and that's the way it has unfolded.
With Jason Taylor resisting the temptation to join New England because of family considerations, the Patriots instead acquired Derrick Burgess in a trade from Oakland for third- and fifth-round draft picks. Burgess has had a quiet start to his Patriots career. The more surprising stories have been the emergence of Tully Banta-Cain and the dwindling playing time of Adalius Thomas.
Few could have seen this coming.
Vrabel is still productive (seven starts, 28 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble), and he could have helped the Patriots this season. But seven games into the season, the thinking of Bill Belichick & Co., has come into sharper focus.
They wanted to turn over the defense to add more youth and speed, and with that, some tough decisions have to be made. The plan seems to be sound.
5. Carving out an identity
After the team's loss to Denver on Oct. 11, Brady acknowledged that the offense was still searching for what it could hang its hat on. Two weeks later, after romps over the winless Titans and Buccaneers, the unit has taken steps in the right direction.
Still, an identity has yet to be completely formed on offense.
Defensively, it's a bit of a different story.
We know what this defense is: big, physical, multiple in its schemes, deep in the secondary, and one that ranks fifth in the NFL in terms of blitzing. The question remains whether the unit can pressure consistently with the four-man rush.
While those were the top 5 issues identified, here are some other questions and issues from the beginning of the season:
• Joey Galloway at No. 3 receiver. Galloway represents one of a few miscalculations in pro personnel this year (e.g. Greg Lewis, Alex Smith). The thought was that he could stretch the field opposite Moss and Welker, but the plan never came to fruition. The feeling here is that it wasn't a matter of his not knowing the system; he just didn't make the plays.
• Kevin O'Connell's progress as top backup quarterback. Rookie free agent Brian Hoyer gained more trust from the coaching staff in five months than O'Connell did in 15. This seemed to be a case of O'Connell's not grasping the team's system fully.
• Impact of coaching-staff changes. It's a staff in transition, and there have been some early rocky stretches (Jets, Broncos), but the long-term prognosis looks positive.
• Twelve draft choices vie for roster spots. Of the team's 12 draft choices, nine are currently on the roster. (Seventh-rounder Darryl Richard is on the practice squad, and third-rounder Tyrone McKenzie and fifth-rounder George Bussey are on injured reserve.) Add Hoyer to the mix, and it's been an unexpected youth movement.
• Will Vince Wilfork's contract talks affect his performance? He's been a stalwart on the line and a professional in separating his off-field business from his on-field business.
• Veteran corners Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden. Last year it was Deltha O'Neal and Ellis Hobbs as Nos. 1 and 2. This year, Springs and Bodden projected as the top tandem. Yet Jonathan Wilhite and Darius Butler have also started, so this situation is still developing.
• Is continuity a benefit on offensive line? The Patriots were one of 16 teams to return all their starting personnel on the offensive line. The Patriots rank second in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play, which reflects some solid work, but the unit has been inconsistent in the run game and at times in pass protection.
How have the Patriots answered some key preseason questions?