After bye, Pats will see Denver copycats
Every Thursday, former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the Patriots' next game. With the Patriots on the bye, this week's breakdown takes a big-picture view of the team and NFL.
Mike: It's Week 8 of the NFL season, Tedy, and the Patriots are off this weekend after the trip to London. This is a time to step back and assess the first seven weeks of the season, and look ahead to the final nine games on the schedule. Where do you start?
Tedy: With the Patriots being 5-2 and on top of the AFC East, I think they have to be considered one of the best teams in the AFC. I don't know if they are the best team. I look at those two losses, and the teams playing the Patriots can look at those losses as ways to attack them and ways to copy concepts to give them problems. The Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos both are undefeated, and they have to be talked about as the best teams in the AFC. The Patriots have always made it their mantra to start playing their best football after Thanksgiving, and they are set up to do that. Right now, improvements must be made if they are to be considered at the same level of teams that are undefeated.
Mike: If you were assessing the main areas they need to improve, what comes to mind? Tedy: Defensively, I think they need to work on formation recognition and adjustments. It's highly possible that a team coming up will try to formation them like the Denver Broncos did, to see if they can adjust multiple times within a down. This is a copycat league. The Patriots have had problems with the Wildcat/Wild Horses formation in the past, so I think they need to work on adjustments to those formations in particular. They still have to play the Miami Dolphins twice, and you know the Dolphins will be dissecting that Broncos film, looking at what the Broncos did to get the Patriots in vanilla coverages where Kyle Orton knew what the Patriots were in pre-snap and could make the right reads and the right throws every down.
Mike: That's an interesting point, Tedy. Given the struggles in Denver, and the fact the Dolphins run the Wildcat so effectively, I bet Bill Belichick is happy he has some extra time to work on that. I'm sure he has some other areas on defense in mind, too.
Tedy: The bye week is another week for the young defensive backs to improve -- Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler, Brandon Meriweather, Brandon McGowan. Yes, the two Brandons have played outstanding up to this point, and they have to be considered a top-flight safety group. Still, all four players need to develop a little more chemistry, and the two practices in the bye week are just more opportunity to work together as a unit. They have some injured players who will benefit from the bye week, and one I think in particular is Jerod Mayo. Coming back from a serious MCL injury -- and I know this because I've had a serious MCL injury -- it's a multiple-week process to feeling 100 percent again once you get back. I've seen Mayo play quicker than he has in the past few weeks. I believe his knee is still healing. After the bye week, he should start to hit the field full speed and make game-changing plays.
Mike: From a scheme perspective, I know you've been on top of a few evolving aspects of the team's defense, too.
Tedy: The past two games, a couple of players are starting to do multiple things for Belichick in multiple schemes, and those players are Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess. Within a defensive series, they have the possibility of playing defensive end, outside linebacker and third-down edge rusher. This can be extremely difficult for offenses to decipher. The Patriots have always been known as a matchup defense -- for example, if an offense brings out running personnel, the Patriots bring out a run-stopping defense, or if the offense brings out passing personnel, the Patriots shuffle out their defensive backs. With Burgess and Banta-Cain doing multiple things, there are fewer personnel matchups that the Patriots have to go through. They can leave the same defensive group on the field, and the offense won't know what defensive schemes they get until they come to the line of scrimmage. That gives the offense less time to think about how to adjust. This is an advantage for the Patriots' defense. Position flexibility is what this team values most, especially defensively. The more versatility a player can show, the more he will play.
Mike: Offensively, I know one assistant coach who probably couldn't wait to light into his group during the bye -- Dante Scarnecchia. The offensive line did not have its best game against the Buccaneers, both in pass protection and run blocking. Of the Patriots' 10 accepted penalties in that game, eight came against offensive linemen.
Tedy: After the past two weeks, there is not much complaining you can do with the offensive unit. They gained a bunch of yards and scored a ton of points. Tom Brady looks like the player we were used to seeing for years -- Tom Brady is back to being Tom Brady. If you want to focus on one thing, it's the penalties in the game against Tampa Bay. For all the progress Sebastian Vollmer showed against the Titans, he took a step back with two holding penalties. Logan Mankins had four penalties all by himself. Still, I attribute the offensive penalty problems to them actually being bored. They weren't challenged, and could score whenever they wanted. Brady was taking chances he usually wouldn't take, and on that day, it was no big deal. They knew they were going to win the game. They also knew they were in another country and all they wanted to do was get the win and get back on the plane healthy. So to base anything on what they did against Tampa would be off the mark.
Mike: Then where would you start when analyzing the offense during the bye week?
Tedy: A more serious problem is the running back position. We're getting into November now. When you play football in the Northeast, in November, December and January, you have to start considering the weather. Bad weather makes it more difficult to throw the ball, so yards are going to have to be gained on the ground. Laurence Maroney is going to have to show up for this team in the near future. During the Patriots' championship seasons, there were defining moments created by power running backs. Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon were two running backs that brought a physical presence through the running game. Can Maroney establish that same presence that Antowain and Corey did? Winning a championship by constantly throwing the ball will be extremely difficult. Even watching the Colts this year, they have two running backs that will bring it in Donald Brown and Joseph Addai. The Patriots' offense will need to develop this aspect of its game if the team wants to win a championship this year.
Mike: One of the fun parts about this time on the schedule is to look back at the offseason and training camp and point out players who have exceeded expectations. Let's each pick one on defense and one on offense.
Tedy: I'd go with Brandon McGowan. He's established himself as the most physical presence on the defense and he wasn't even starting at the beginning of the year. He won the starting job over James Sanders, and I feel Sanders is a quality football player. One thing that sets McGowan apart is that he causes turnovers. His hits force fumbles and that's a dimension this Patriots team hasn't had for a while. Offensively, I'd go with Julian Edelman. The youngster from Kent State has impressed from the first day I saw him at minicamp practices. He's one of those versatile players that Coach Belichick loves -- receiver, special teams, quarterback. I wouldn't put it past this team to get him reps at the Wildcat position, which is similar to what he ran at Kent State. If the Patriots ever wanted to tinker with a changeup for a handful of snaps per game, they could use Edelman as that option. Unfortunately, he broke his arm.
Mike: Those are great choices. McGowan seems like the clear-cut winner on defense, but since you picked him, I'll go with Tully Banta-Cain. He has the three sacks and I think he's been their best pass-rusher off the edge. When he was signed to a one-year deal back in February, I wasn't even sure if he'd make the team. He had Adalius Thomas in front of him, as well as Shawn Crable and maybe even Vince Redd. But he's really been reborn here as it seems like the perfect fit for him. On offense, I'll go with Benjamin Watson. I remember the vibe after the fourth preseason game when he was playing in the second half with most of the players who were going to be cut. We wondered if he was in jeopardy. With the pressure off, he's had his best year in New England with some big-time catches from the tight end position.
Tedy: Let's look ahead to what this team faces after the bye. It's time to talk real football because the bounce-back games are over for the Patriots. The past two weeks aren't a true gauge of where they are in terms of the NFL elite. Offensively, they put up great numbers, and in two games allowed only one touchdown. But that was against two of the worst teams in the NFL. The season gets real after the bye week. The Miami Dolphins are physically one of the toughest teams in the NFL. After that is a trip to Indy, then a rematch with the New York Jets. Questions will be answered very soon. If the Patriots ever needed motivation to win a championship this year, take note of this list: Logan Mankins, Laurence Maroney, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Meriweather, Sammy Morris, Randy Moss, Fred Taylor, Wes Welker, and Junior Seau. These are players on the roster who have never won a championship. When you talk about the New England Patriots, everyone always mentions in the same sentence "three-time Super Bowl champion." But those players who have been major contributors haven't won a single championship. They are all great players that have achieved much in their careers but are just missing one thing.
Mike: Motivation shouldn't be hard to come by. Now let's look NFL-wide, at your suggestion, at some winners for annual awards at this juncture.
Tedy: Before Brett Favre went out and looked like his old self against the Pittsburgh Steelers, I honestly thought he'd be the choice for Offensive Most Valuable Player. What other player had made that much of a difference as a new addition to his team? But after two defensive touchdowns from a Favre interception and fumble this past Sunday against the Steelers, it reminded me of his Week 17 performance against the Miami Dolphins last year when he single-handedly ended the Jets' season. That's the problem with Favre -- there is always one game where you look at him and say "He should have retired." The Minnesota Vikings are hoping that game is out of the way. So having Favre out of my equation, the obvious choice is Peyton Manning. The Indianapolis Colts are undefeated, and without Manning, they'd be 0-6. That's how valuable he is. I watched the Monday night game against the Dolphins when he had the ball less than a quarter and still won. That showed how special he is.
Mike: I was leaning toward Manning for offensive MVP, but I'm going to do what he does and check my call at the line of scrimmage. I'll take Drew Brees on the offensive side. The Saints have scored 45, 48, 27, 24, 48 and 46 points in six wins this season. That's an eye-popping average of 39.6 per game. Brees is the guy who makes it go, so he'll get my vote.
Tedy: On defense, it's safety Darren Sharper for me. He has not only made the Saints' defense legitimate, but he wins games from his free safety position. When he gets his hands on the ball, he is an offensive weapon. He's scored three touchdowns on interception returns and had a fourth called back in the New York Giants game when Jonathan Vilma had a roughing-the-passer penalty.
Mike: Sharper's a solid choice, and my pick will probably have some rolling their eyes, but I've watched three Denver Broncos games from start to finish, seeing one in person, and the player who stands out to me as most valuable is safety Brian Dawkins. He doesn't have the stats, but I think stats can be overrated when we're talking about value. This guy sets a tone for that defense, a hard-hitting, winning, team-first tone. That defense was soft last year, but they are anything but soft this year and I think Dawkins is the main reason why. I know Elvis Dumervil has the 10 sacks and that looks good on the stat sheet, but I want to go deeper than stats here, where value includes hard hitting, discipline, leadership and helping instill a winning culture.
Tedy: For Coach of the Year at this point, can we agree that it's unanimous as Josh McDaniels?
Mike: Agreed. We don't need to say much more there. Let's wrap it up by each of us picking a rookie of the year at this point.
Tedy: I love that Johnny Knox kid from Chicago. He's exciting to watch, makes plays as a returner and a receiver, and he's someone that nobody ever heard about from Abilene Christian, drafted in the fifth round. He is already being considered one of the most dangerous weapons the Chicago Bears have. His name, too -- I like it.
Mike: I know you also like Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, who I think was a player the Patriots would have considered strongly at 23 if he was available. Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher has stepped right in and should warrant consideration. Bills safety Jairus Byrd has an AFC-high five interceptions. Receivers Percy Harvin (Vikings), Mike Wallace (Steelers), and Austin Collie (Colts) have made immediate marks, and Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga has brought a lot to that team. All are solid choices. In the end, I'll go with Cushing, who seems to have a knack for creating turnovers. You sold me on him Tedy, and you know a thing or two about linebacker play.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.