Hannable: Is this Patriots team fixable?

Ryan Hannable
October 16, 2017 - 1:57 am

Chuck Cook/USA Today Sports

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — On Sunday, once again the Patriots were able to hold on for a win, 24-17 over the Jets, but as has been the case in almost every single game this season, it wasn’t easy.

The Patriots defense needed to make another last possession stop just like last week against Tampa Bay to secure the victory. Making these stops when they matter most is great and all, but the Patriots shouldn’t be putting themselves in these positions.

There was no need for Sunday’s game to come down to the final possession. The Patriots are better than that, or so we think.

While the Patriots are 4-2 and leading the AFC East, they haven’t given off the same vibe as most Patriots teams in the past. 

With it being Week 6, teams are fine-tuning who they are and deciding what improvements need to be made for the stretch run. Led by Bill Belichick and the rest of the coaching staff, most Patriots teams are not finished products until November and the trade deadline passes.

Past Patriots teams have constantly got better each week and around the trade deadline decide if any area needs a boost from outside the organization. The Patriots have made quite a few trade deadline moves of late including trading for Aqib Talib in 2012, defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga in 2013 and linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas in 2014.

So, what suggests this team is different? As of now the team isn't fine-tuning who it is, it is still figuring out what it is.

On offense, its identity isn’t 100 percent clear. No longer is it a short, quick pass offense, it’s a much more vertical one than what has been shown in the past. Also, over the past few weeks there’s been more of a commitment to the run, which has helped to protect Tom Brady. So which is it, a vertical offense that wants to take shots down the field, or a run-heavy offense working to set up third-and-short and protect the 40-year-old signal caller?

It’s quite apparent Brady misses Julian Edelman, who is out for the year with a torn ACL. While Chris Hogan, Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski have all made a number of plays this season, none of them have Brady's trust like he does with Edelman. It has felt at times the offense is a productive receiver short, as it has forced a lot of playing time for some who probably don’t need it.

Defensively, it’s been all over the place. Following Week 4’s 33-30 loss to the Panthers, the Patriots were last in yards allowed and second-to-last in points allowed. The past two games have been better, but still it’s not a group to feel confident in.

“We’re a lot better defense than when we played the Carolina Panthers and we’re going to keep getting better and better each week,” safety Duron Harmon said after the game Sunday.

Any defense could be a lot better than what it was against the Panthers, as that was the worst defense in the entire NFL — coming in at No. 32 overall after the game.

The biggest issue may be the pass rush, as the Patriots simply cannot create any pressure on the opposing quarterback. This is allowing for plenty of time in the pocket to find a receiver and when a NFL quarterback gets upwards of four or five seconds, he is going to find someone, no matter how good the secondary is. Failing to create pressure is in turn making the secondary look worse than it actually is.

Another issue is speed at linebacker. The Patriots linebackers have been getting toasted week after week with running backs out of the backfield. They just have appeared too slow to keep up and opposing teams are taking full advantage getting their faster backs matched up against a Patriots linebacker in space. Another solid cornerback wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, either. The depth just isn’t there, especially when dealing with all the injuries the position has at the moment. Case in point, Johnson Bademosi started opposite Malcolm Butler against the Jets.

Aside from 2012 and Talib, rarely does the team make a trade that changes the entire complexity of a unit, and that doesn’t appear likely this year. While the Patriots have been outstanding over the years of identifying a player who can help the team via trade, there haven’t been as many needs in the past, and the players the team has been able to identify have all been role players.

The Patriots very realistically could be in the market for a defensive lineman, edge rusher, linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver, and there's no guarantee they will be able to add even one. At past trade deadlines there’s been one or two areas the team has identified it needs to be upgraded. This year it’s way more than that.

Additionally, watching the team this year it has just had a different vibe.

On the Jets’ final possession trailing by seven Sunday, there were a number of people worried about the defense allowing them to march down the field for the game-tying touchdown. In almost any other year this wouldn’t even be up for debate. On the other side of the ball, New England had a crucial third-and-7 late in the fourth quarter to put the game away. Most other years this likely would have been a quick out to Edelman, but not this year, as a pass intended for Amendola fell incomplete.

The one saving grace for the Patriots is while they may not be able to get all their issues corrected, the rest of the league is a mess too. No team is still undefeated and no team in either conference has established itself as the team to beat. Kansas City fell to the Steelers at home on Sunday for their first loss of the year, the Raiders are 2-4 and no team in the AFC South is above .500. If there was any year to be able to get away with so many deficiencies, this may be it.

Bottom line, while past Patriots teams have been able to correct their mistakes early on in the year and get to playing at a high level by the time November rolls around, it just doesn’t seem as likely for this year’s group, primarily because of the number of problem areas they actually have. After all, three, four, five trades are not possible.

How far the team advances this year may be dependent on what kind of shape the rest of the league is in, and that is an unfamiliar feeling as typically the Patriots are the ones setting the mark for what a championship contender looks like.


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