FOXBORO — To this point, 2009 has been a forgettable season for Adalius Thomas.
Saying the outside linebacker has struggled would be generous. This season, a street free agent (Brandon McGowan) has more quarterback hits and an undrafted free agent (Mike Wright) has more sacks. Through five games, Thomas has just 12 tackles, two quarterback hits and one sack.
The dominating presence that opposing offenses had to game-plan for through stretches of the 2007 and 2008 seasons has been absent, replaced by someone who has been easy to neutralize. He was benched last Sunday, a healthy scratch for the first time since he was a rookie in 2000 with Baltimore.
“Ask Bill,” Thomas said Wednesday when asked if he thought he was having a subpar season. “He does all the evaluating. He knows all of that. I don’t do expectations.”
Some of this is not his fault. Thomas has been hamstrung because he is first and foremost, a pass rusher, one who thrives in a 3-4 defense bringing heat from the outside. That’s where his skills are best utilized. Instead, this season, he is being asked to do other things and in other schemes. (In the Baltimore game earlier this season, his responsibility was to act as a spy on quarterback Joe Flacco. There has never been a more expensive spy in the history of the National Football League.) He’s been working predominantly on the outside in a 4-3 set, a set that usually features safety blitzes and pressure from the defensive line as the best way to get pressure on the quarterback. Neither one of these things allows him to play to his strengths.
Now that the Patriots have some depth inside — which will allow them to play more 3-4, as they did last week against the Titans without him — they should turn Thomas loose, allowing him to do what he does best — rush the passer.
“I just do what I’m told,” Thomas said. “So, that’s how things are. He just [says] who plays, he makes all the personnel decisions. I think you all probably want to huddle up with him and find out. When you all find out, I’ll find out.”
Half a world away from Gillette Stadium, Thomas will hit a career crossroads on Sunday at Wembley Stadium. Fair or not, the 32-year-old linebacker will be measured by how he responds to the events of last weekend. Will the benching change the course of the season, sparking a return to the dominating presence he was for sizable portions of the 2007 and 2008 seasons and before? Or will he continue to regress?
“I’ll be ready,” Thomas said. “I’m ready every Sunday.”
Here are four other things to watch for Sunday afternoon:
Laurence Maroney. Everyone’s favorite comedian (each Maroney press gathering should come ready made with one of these), the running back snapped out of a year-long malaise last week against the Titans, rushing for 123 yards in the win. More important than the yards was how he got them: Instead of juking and dancing, he waited for the holes on the offensive line to develop, and when they did appear, he hit them decisively. It was a terrific performance for the much-maligned back, who deserves to take a bow for his effort.
Now comes the hard part — putting solid back-to-back outings together. There is no reason to think Maroney could not follow up his effort against Tennessee with a similar performance this week against the Bucs. He will get plenty of touches (Sammy Morris isn’t expected to play), and Tampa Bay is miserable at stopping the run (they allow an average of 172 rushing yards per game, the 31st in the league). If everything works out, this week should provide his first back-to-back 100-yard efforts since the end of the 2007 season.
The No. 3 receiver. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Patriots are looking for a solid No. 3 option in the passing game. This will be the first week they will be without veteran Joey Galloway, who was finally cut loose this week in what amounted to a mercy killing. That move, coupled with Julian Edelman’s reported broken arm, leaves a passing attack already perilously thin, without a real third receiver.
Other than Sam Aiken — who will likely get every opportunity to win the job, but is probably a long-shot at best to remain there long-term — there are some legitimate candidates out there, none of whom are all that experienced. Either Brandon Tate or Terrence Nunn could emerge off the PUP list or practice squad as a possible option.
“If you’re on the roster and you have an opportunity to play, I have confidence,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “Brandon is going to be out there, hopefully, and Terrence is going to be out there this week (in practice) to see how they perform. Hopefully, they do a good job.”
“If they give me the call, yeah, I’ll be ready,” said Tate when asked if he felt like he could go Sunday against Tampa Bay.
However, there are some other possibilities that are sufficiently intriguing: practice squad quarterback Isaiah Stanback was spotted working out with the wide receivers at the start of practice on Thursday, and has some experience at the position. He suited up as a wide receiver last season for the Cowboys, as well as a collegian at Washington. (The Patriots have already had one player move from quarterback to receiver this season in Edelman.)
In addition, cornerback Darius Butler played some wide receiver in college, and could be an option there as well. And Matthew Slater, while serving primarily as a special teamer and safety in his year-plus in New England, also played some receiver as a collegian at UCLA.
Goin’ deep. For the first time all season Sunday against Tennessee, the Patriots were able to hit on some big plays. After getting hassled all week in the days leading up to the game by Belichick about the fact they were the only team in he league without a 40-yard pass play or a 20-yard run, they had three plays of 40 yards or more (two pass plays and a run), with a 38-yard touchdown pass also thrown in for good measure.
“We mentioned it to him in about the third quarter of last game — we got a couple for him,” Brady said with a smile.
“Those were big plays in the game,” Brady added. “When you can hit those plays and change field position like that, as well as being able to run it and have that ball-control offense — that makes it tough. You have to able to expand the field vertically, and that’s something that we didn’t do very well in the first five weeks of the season. We did a lot better job of it this last weekend.”
It was a perfect storm for the New England offense last Sunday: It was looking to stretch the field, and the Tennessee pass defense entered the game on a historically awful pace. It doesn’t set up as easily this week — the Bucs are pretty much middle of the pack when it comes to pass defense — but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Patriots take more shots downfield this week.
Playing in a foreign environment. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who is the only player on the current 53-man roster to have played at Wembley — he was there with the Dolphins a few years ago — said the players should prepare themselves for a surreal setting. The stadium is bigger, the fans aren’t as football-savvy and there’s no real home-field advantage for either team.
“Fans are trying to learn the game as they’re watching it, so there’s not really a home-field advantage,” he said. “It’s just loud the whole time and people are cheering the whole time. You see, like, every color of the NFL in the stands, because everyone has their own favorite player jersey.”