Based on six-plus weeks of training camp and preseason, we can say with some certainty that we’ve learned a few truths about the 2009 Patriots even before they’ve kicked off the regular season.
The offense will break the 450-point plateau this year. The Patriots aren’t going to be able to touch the 589 points they scored in 2007, but with Tom Brady returning — along with Randy Moss, Wes Welker and almost every other offensive option from that record-setting year — 450 points is a realistic goal for 2009. (By way of comparison, New England finished last season with 410 points … without Brady.) That would leave the Pats averaging just over 28 points per game, and that would be more than enough to support a team that still has some defensive question marks heading into Monday night's opener in Foxboro against the Bills.
One of the advantages is the offense enters the year with a real sense of continuity — 10 of the 11 expected offensive starters were starters on the record-setting 2007 squad, and Brady, Laurence Maroney and Benjamin Watson were the only serious offensive contributors to miss any extended time last season.
“The continuity on offense is always important because it requires a lot of communication and anticipation,” Brady said. “On offense, if one guy does the wrong thing, the play doesn’t go well. For us to have the opportunity to play together for as many games and we have, you can make corrections that much faster. So, rather than waiting until Monday morning to make the correction, you can make it as you walk off for the first series of how you want to handle something.
“It’s something that we’ve done in the past and we’re familiar with and that hopefully you can apply toward later in the game.”
The Patriots will finish 13-3 in the regular season. New England will lose three of these five games: Ravens, Titans, Colts, Saints and Dolphins (in Miami). It’s a tougher schedule than last season — no NFC West — but one that should allow the Pats to win the AFC East title and probably a first-round playoff bye.
Fred Taylor will play a key role for the running game before the end of the season. The running game will be back-by-committee in 2009, and it will be interesting to see how Bill Belichick and the coaching staff decides to break up the carries. But it’s a safe bet that the veteran will have his day — probably sometime late in the year. Sammy Morris and Laurence Maroney will be hobbled, and Taylor will wake up the echoes with a 25-carry, 110-yard performance. (How about Dec. 27 in Foxboro against his old team, the Jacksonville Jaguars?)
Jerod Mayo will make the Pro Bowl. We will look back on the 2009 season as the year Mayo truly arrived as the next great middle/inside linebacker. The 23-year-old was a beast in training camp, and he continued that dominance into the preseason. And he’s not just making gains on the field. At the start of his second season, he already sounds like a leader, calling the rest of the linebackers “his guys” and becoming notorious for his long hours in the film room.
“You talk to Jerod, he’ll want more on his shoulders. He’s that type of player. He wants to be good. He wants to be really good,” said former teammate Tedy Bruschi. “You can really see that he desires to be a good player.”
Leigh Bodden and James Sanders will be steadying forces in the secondary. Bodden has played well through training camp and into the preseason, and has done nothing to dissuade people from thinking he’s a starting cornerback on this team. The same is true with Sanders, who — at the ripe old age of 25 — has very suddenly become the senior member of the New England secondary with four years of service under his belt.
They both rarely gamble in coverage, and neither one of them appears to have a predilection for highlight-reel collisions. But they are both extremely well-suited for their jobs — they have an extensive background in the Patriots defensive style (Bodden played for Romeo Crennel in Cleveland), both are very smart and both have the physical tools to get the job done. No one is going to confuse them with Ty Law or Rodney Harrison any time soon, but they may be just what the Patriots need to help stabilize a secondary that is still getting used to playing together.
The Patriots’ Rookie of the Year will be Ron Brace. The defensive lineman out of Boston College won’t make an instant impact at the start of the year, but by the end of the season, the 6-foot-3, 330-pounder won’t be denied when it comes to playing time. The 40th overall pick in the 2009 draft certainly has impressed throughout the preseason, doing a great job as a space-eater along the defensive line. Brace was the first Bay State native to be taken by the Patriots since they selected receiver Sean Morey in the seventh round of the 1999 draft, and he has a level of versatility that has impressed Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
“When you look at Ron, he’s got that frame,” Belichick said. “He’s got good height and a good long frame to play end, as opposed to some players who might be big players, 300-pounders that don’t have the length to play out there. I think Ron has that combination of size and power and length.”
(For what it’s worth, safety Pat Chung and offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer will have the second-greatest impact. And it’s difficult to think that wide receiver/returner Julian Edelman won’t have a memorable moment or two this season)
If you can only watch one Patriots game this year, make it the Indianapolis game on Nov. 15. In a season with road games in London (against the Buccaneers) and New Orleans and home games against Baltimore and Tennessee, the annual midseason clash with Indianapolis remains as compelling as it ever was. It won’t be the apocalyptic showdown of undefeateds we saw in 2007, but the return of Brady against his old pal Peyton Manning should be must-see TV for the rest of the NFL.
New England will have at least three memorable special teams moments. It was easy to see that new special teams coach Scott O’Brien is different than other special teams coaches less than a week into training camp when he took part in the “slip and slide” drill with the team's rookies. It was the first time in recent memory a coach went through the soggy gauntlet, and the sight of the gonzo O’Brien diving in added to his quickly developing legend. The enthusiasm he’s brought to the special teamers is infectious — they’ll run through a wall for him. His unique drills and relentless energy have changed the way New England operates on special teams.
“He’s probably as good a coach as I’ve ever been around. He’s so thorough with his knowledge and understanding of the subjects that he’s teaching that you gain an instant respect for him,” Belichick said. “He’s just an outstanding coach in every aspect: personnel evaluation, game-planning, strategy, fundamental teaching at every position.”
The Patriots will play more 4-3 than 3-4 this season, but will change looks with more frequency than they have in the past. New England prides itself on showing a variety of defensive looks, but it has worked on too much 4-3 in training camp and the preseason not to utilize it extensively in 2009. Even without Richard Seymour, the Patriots have more depth along the defensive line than they do at linebacker. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to abandoned the 3-4 entirely.
“We’ve been a multiple defense since I’ve been here. We’ll continue to be that,” Belichick said. “We’ll try to put the players out there that we feel are the best for the situation or the game plan or the team we’re playing.”
Tom Brady is going to play below his usual level in at least one game over the first half of the season. Few people know Brady better than Tom Martinez — the two have been working together since the quarterback was a teenager. And the legendary Bay Area quarterback guru says that in the wake of last season's injury, Brady will likely have at least one bad game over the course of the first half of the season.
As a point of comparison, Martinez said New England football fans should take a look at Peyton Manning’s performance over the course of last season as an example — the Colts quarterback, coming off an offseason knee problem of his own, struggled in a few games at the start of the 2008 season. The good news? Manning was back to his old form by Thanksgiving. Martinez anticipates Brady will follow the same path.
“Do I anticipate Brady having trouble? Yes. Will he correct it? Yes,” Martinez said. “I think if he was concerned and it showed early, I wouldn’t panic. The same thing happened with Peyton. He was holding back early last year, not attacking the throw and leaving a little off it. By the end of the season, he was back to where he needed to be.”