What to Look for…

Rebounding after a huge win or a big loss one of the biggest challenges for young teams to conquer.  Coach Belichick is notorious for keeping his team focused on the task ahead, but you can only control the players for so many hours in the day.  The San Diego Chargers are bruised and battered, but they have the best passing attack and passing defense in the NFL (statistically).  I think that Sunday’s matchup between the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers is going to be a better game than most expect.  Here are some things to look for while watching the game:

-Antonio Gates is questionable with a toe injury.  Malcolm Floyd isn’t expected to play with a hamstring injury.  Legedu Naanee is experiencing hamstring troubles as well and it listed as doubtful.  That leaves Buster Davis and Patrick Crayton as the Chargers’ two leading wideouts.  This game should be a layup, right?  The problem with a young team is that they can be influenced by things that are outside of their control.  Whether it is fan/media pressure, emotional highs and lows, or injuries to other teams’ players, young teams let these issues mess with their heads.  What to look for: If the Pats’ young defense plays down to the subpar receiving corps of the Chargers.

-As I mentioned in my review of last week’s game, the Patriots young defense seemed to mature in front of our eyes against the Ravens.  They finally showed the ability to step up when necessary and make plays to help win the game.  Here is the real challenge, seeing how the defense comes back and plays this week against one of the best offenses in the league.  Building on successful performances is what makes teams championship contenders.  If the Pats’ defense can build on what they did against the Ravens last week, this is not a team that I want to play in week 16, 17 and the playoffs.  What to look for: If the Patriots’ defense can build on their success from last week.

-Deion Branch and the Patriots passing offense, in my opinion, over performed last week against one of the NFL’s best defenses.  So it’s settled, the Patriots are a better offense without Randy Moss…not so fast.  I agree, they played very well last week.  Brady led two scoring drives in the fourth quarter, leading to ten points and forcing the game into overtime.  Then, key plays in the passing game got them into a position for Gostkowski to kick the game winning field goal (so he still leads game winning drives Scottie).  But, the Patriots do not lose after bye weeks.  Coach Belichick and staff had two weeks to game plan ways to get the receivers open.  The real test will come within the next few weeks.  Teams will get tape on this offense without Moss and switch their game plan to adjust to the Pats’ new personnel.  What to look for: How the Pats’ passing attack continues to perform without the presence of Randy Moss.

-So much has been made of how much of a piece of garbage Brandon Meriweather is.  He was out to kill Todd Heap, clearly looking not to play football but just to injure players.  Read my post on “the vilification of Brandon Meriweather” and then relax a bit.  Anyways, Meriweather was subject to more media scrutiny this past week than he has been in his entire career.  He was forced into apologizing for playing the way he has been taught to play for his entire life.  He is being guilted into transforming his game, tackling players in a different way.  “I’m going to be aggressive…I’m not going to change my game.”  That’s what Meriweather says, and I’m interested to see how it translates onto the field.  What to look for: How Brandon Meriweather responds to the criticism of his play, and its translation onto the playing field.

I’ve changed my prediction since last week’s review, so here’s the updated prediction…

THIS WEEK’S PREDICTION: Chargers 35 – Patriots 31

The Vilification of Brandon Meriweather

I would bet a large sum of money that over the past two days, and probably for at least another two days, you cannot turn on sports talk radio for ten minutes without hearing about the issues with head shots in the NFL.  I refused to turn my radio dial to WEEI today.  I can’t take it anymore.  I’m fed up with all of this whining and complaining about how players are purposely launching themselves at guys heads, trying to knock them out of the game.  I’m sure that James Harrison’s statement that he was trying to hurt guys attributed to the enormity of this story, but Harrison is an idiot.  Don’t let the words of one ignorant man paint the picture for an entire league.

Let me ask you this question: If these three incidents did not occur all on the same weekend, would we even be discussing this issue right now?  Absolutely not.  But, because four players received concussions because of the actions of three football players, this is apparently a huge issue.  I don’t enjoy listening to Mark Schlereth in the least bit.  Take it from me, if you get a chance to head onto youtube.com at some point in the near future, look up Schlereth’s reaction to the NFL’s decision regarding these hits.  The man goes off, and I completely agree with everything that he said.  Schlereth stated, “If you take all the contact away, guess what you are?  You’re soccer!”  That is complete truth, spoken by a former NFL player.  Americans love football because people get whacked.  “Jacked Up” was one of my favorite segments on ESPN.  Huge hits are glorified, making the league millions of dollars each year.  Now you’re going to fine and suspend those very same guys that made you millions?  HYPOCRISY!

Getting back to Meriweather, why does everyone in New England seem to hate this guy?  Brandon Meriweather is one of my favorite players on the team.  He brings a relentless aggression that no other player on that defense has.  He brings a mean streak that hasn’t been seen in that secondary since…Rodney Harrison.  In the eyes of New England Patriots fans, Rodney Harrison is approaching God-like status.  Rodney was the enforcer on the defense of the 2000’s.  If anyone got out of line, leave it to Rodney to lay them out while running across the middle.  No one balked when Harrison received fine after fine because of dirty plays.  Some actually enjoyed seeing Rodney get voted the NFL’s dirtiest player 3 times.  But wait, Brandon Meriweather brings that same mentality to the field and he is the worst man on the earth.  Meriweather clearly only plays the game for one reason, to knock guys out right?  To all you New England fans out there, stop vilifying Brandon Meriweather for playing like an NFL player.  How can you knock a guy, a safety as a matter of fact, for trying to separate a receiver from the ball.  THAT IS HIS JOB.  I would be pissed if Meriweather backed off on that play, didn’t hit Todd Heap, and Heap made the reception for a 15 yard game.  Do you want to know what Monday morning’s on WEEI would sound like then?  “Come on Dale, Meriweather shouldn’t be worrying about hitting Todd Heap, he has to make that play!”

In 2005, Todd Heap signed a 5 year, $30 million dollar contract.  As he signed on the dotted line, making himself a very rich man, Todd Heap also acknowledged the risk that he was taking by playing professional football.  He needed to be aware that when balls are being thrown his way, there are going to be defenders that are going to try and stop completions from happening, any way that they can.  As an offensive player running full speed down the field to score points for your team, it is critical that you realize the risk at hand.  Very large defenders will be running in your direction trying to end any chance of you gaining yardage.  That means collisions will happen.

What makes football players so amazing, are instincts and reaction time.  There are a ton of guys at our local Gold’s Gyms that are NFL sized people.  None of those guys had the instincts to play in the NFL.  During my playing days I was always told to stop thinking and to just react.  Brandon Meriweather, James Harrison, Dunta Robinson, and the rest of the defensive players in the NFL get paid millions upon millions of dollars to react.  Their instinctual reaction speed is what makes them so good.  Now, by imposing huge fines and possible suspensions, you are forcing these defenders to calculate every move before it is made.  Do you really want Ray Lewis thinking about how he is going to hit Ochocinco while Chad is catching a pass over the middle, or do you want Lewis just to lay him out and start his celebrating?  I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the latter option all day, every day.

Super Bowl or Bust (Defensive Edition)…

A majority of the draft picks that the New England Patriots have made since the 2008 season have been defensive players.  The Patriots top pick in 2008 was stud linebacker Jerod Mayo, and he is accompanied in that draft class by Terrence Wheatley, Shawn Crable, and Jonathan Wilhite.  The team’s first selection in the 2009 draft was safety Patrick Chung, and he is accompanied in that class by Ron Brace, Darius Butler, Tyrone McKenzie, and Myron Pryor.  The 2010 draft selections followed suit as the Pats chose Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes.  There certainly was some great offensive talent mixed in those three drafts for the Patriots (2009: Sebastian Vollmer, Brandon Tate, and Julian Edelman; 2010: Rob Gronkowski, Taylor Price, and Aaron Hernandez), but the majority of those draft picks, and more importantly most of the higher draft picks, were dedicated to defensive players.

One of the main focuses over the last few years for coach Belichick has obviously been to develop a younger, faster, and more athletic defense.  This is the year when all of that work needs to translate into one of the best defenses in the league.  The transition from the Seymour, Bruschi, Harrison defense is now complete, and it is time for the new set of stars (Wilfork, Mayo, Meriweather) to step up and make this defense their own.  Similarly to the offensive side of the ball, there are many questions surrounding the 2010 New England Patriots’ defense.  How those questions are answered throughout the course of the season may very well determine that amount of success that the Patriots have this upcoming season.

The defensive line had always been a spot of consistency for Bill Belichick’s defense.  Since drafting Vince Wilfork in 2004, the Wilfork, Warren, and Seymour combination always was consistent and performed their duties wonderfully.  The team has just undergone their first full off-season without Richard Seymour, and the right defensive end position is an area of concern.  Free agent signee Gerard Warren seems to be the front-runner to fill the void at right end.  But, don’t discount the skill set and experience that Mike Wright brings to the table.  Wright has been the fourth lineman, filling in at both the nose and two end spots, for the past four seasons, and dangling a starting position in front of him will certainly elevate his play.  Defensive line depth is certainly a strength for the Pats as backups consist of previously mentioned Wright, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, and 2010 seventh round draft picks Brandon Deaderick and Kade Weston.

The one position group that has me most excited for the 2010 season (and actually even more excited for the preseason games to see the young kids play) are the linebackers.  In my opinion, there is only one linebacker spot filled, and that is with Mayo in the middle.  I know that it is highly likely that Tully Banta-Cain will be starting come opening day, but with so much young talent and athleticism behind him it may be tough for him to keep that spot.  I really hope that Brandon Spikes begins the season as a starter alongside Mayo, but just the other day Belichick was talking about how different the Patriots’ defense is than the Gators’ defense, which may slow Spikes’ arrival into the starting lineup.  Once Spikes nails down the playbook and becomes comfortable in the defense (which is something that Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess were never able to do, so it is no easy feat) he fits perfectly into the Pats’ 3-4 defense and will be a certain upgrade to Gary Guyton.  Speaking of Guyton, he better get onto the practice field because Spikes and Tyrone McKenzie are gunning for his spot.  McKenzie apparently used his season on IR to his advantage as he was receiving praise from Belichick about his knowledge of the playbook.  There were high hopes for McKenzie (2009 3rd round pick) as a rookie, but his season was derailed by a torn ACL.  In 2010 McKenize hopes to push for a starting spot, and would also be an upgrade to the undersized Guyton.  As for the remaining outside linebacker spot, your guess is as good as mine.  Rookie Jermaine Cunningham has the natural ability to play the position immediately, but he is changing positions (from defensive end in college to outside linebacker in the NFL) along with trying to pick up one of the most difficult defensive systems in the league.  I expect Cunningham to contribute more towards the end of the season rather than at the beginning.  Remaining players consist of Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, and Rob Ninkovich.  I don’t see any of those guys as viable starters in the league.  One area I would like to see the Pats explore is signing Aaron Schobel.  Schobel has been a pain in Matt Light’s side since arriving in Buffalo in 2001.  His rushing ability alone would make him a good addition to this Patriot defense.

Brandon Meriweather is a Pro Bowl safety that will be a staple in the Patriots’ defense for years to come (pending any Mankins-like contract issues).  Addressing the free safety spot is where it gets interesting.  James Sanders has the experience factor and certainly does what is asked of him, but he lacks big impact in the run game and rarely makes big-time plays.  Pat Chung has apparently made great improvements in the off-season and it primed for a big year.  Chung dedicated his off-season to hitting the weight room and studying film.  I expect that Chung will overtake Sanders for the starting free safety spot by at least mid-season, if not by the opening game.

Simlarly to Pat Chung, Darius Butler spent most of his off-season hitting the weights and watching tape.  Butler is one of the most physically gifted corners in the league.  At 5’11” 190lbs, Butler posted a 4.4 40-yard dash and a 43” vertical jump.  Those numbers alone make him the most athletic corner on the roster.  Combine that athleticism with ball-hawking instincts and you have a great corner in the making.  I expect 2010 to be Darius Butler’s breakout season and for him to be supplanted as the starter alongside Leigh Bodden for most, if not all, of the 2010 season.  Bodden is pretty solid and you know what you are getting from him.  The Patriots were sadly a victim of a poor cornerback market this off-season, considering Bodden was the second best corner available.  But, his experience complimented with Butler’s athleticism should be a decent 1-2 punch.  The third cornerback spot looks to be locked up for the moment by Jonathan Wilhite.  Wilhite’s play has been nothing short of inconsistent, but his talent level certainly makes him the best option to play the nickel.  2010 is a make or break season for Terrence Wheatley.  Expectations for Wheatley were high after being selected in the second round of the 2008 draft, but he has struggled to stay on the field and when he has played he has looked very sloppy.  Another bad season and Wheatley’s days in New England will most likely come to an end.  Rookie cornerbacks have notoriously struggled in Belichick’s system and I do not expect that to change with Devin McCourty.  The 2010 first round pick is an exceptional athlete, but any contributions outside of special teams will be an unexpected bonus.

As for the special teams, Gostkowski is one of the most consistent kickers in the game, and in my opinion signing him is priority number two, after signing Mankins.  The punting position seems to be rookie Zoltan Mesko’s job to lose.  Mesko has seemingly impressed so far in training camp and I fully expect him to win the job.  The return game has been a sore spot for the Patriots for a few seasons now.  Last year, the combination of Maroney, Slater, and Edelman taking back kicks never really got the job done.  I expect McCourty to return kickoffs this season (maybe with some help from Brandon Tate and Taylor Price) and hopefully use his exceptional speed to grab a few touchdowns.  Punts will most likely be returned by Kevin Faulk and maybe occasionally by Welker.  Although I hate seeing Welker back to return a punt as that is just one more play where there is a risk of injury.

As for the 2010 season as a whole, I expect nothing less than greatness from this group of New England Patriots.  Their mindset alone gives them an edge on most teams in the league.  When ESPN’s Adam Schefter stopped by Patriots’ training camp on Friday and asked Welker to sign the Patriots’ logo after explaining what Rex Ryan wrote on the Jets’ logo (“soon to be champs”), Welker simply signed his name and then wrote, “one game at a time.”  You have to love that attitude.  Getting back to business, I expect the defense of the Patriots this year to be better than most expect.  Any offense led by number 12 will be good, and hopefully Maroney can have a decent season to accompany one of the best passing attacks in the league.  An AFC East title should be expected, and I would love to see a Colts vs. Patriots matchup in the AFC Championship game.  I think you know what my prediction from there would be, but I’m not going to say it just for the odd chance that I jinx the season and the in week one Brady goes down with a torn ACL in the other knee…oh shit…

Position Rankings (OTA Edition): Safeties

Well, training camps are begginning today and what better time to close out my rankings.  Today I look at the last line of defense, the safeties.  A very demanding position the safety is asked to cover a large area.  Set back from the line of scrimmage, safties need to be able to diagnose plas and formations and communicate them to the rest of his secondary.  Some of the most notable defensive players in the league play the safety position.  Safties need to be able to do all tasks on the field. They need to be able to run with recievers as well as tight ends, come up to make tackles, or be responsible for a third or half of the field in deep zone coverage.  The AFC East hosts some very young budding stars at this position.

1) Buffalo Bills- OK, you can say whatever you want but I had to throw them a bone here. It may be the only thign they finish first in, unless you count losses of course.  The Bills have an extremely deep and very talented core of safties which is what warrants them the number one ranking here.  Jairus Byrd busted onto the scene last season with 9 interceptions! Donte Whitner has been a very solid Free Safety for this team for 5 season and his injury last season allowed Byrd to shine.  Whitner, a former first rounder out of Ohio State is a much better coverage guy back there than Byrd, but he lacks the play-making ability of the second year ballhawk.  It will be vey interesting to see what happens with this group, I predict Whitner is moved over to strong safety to start the season because Byrd was the lone bright spot in a forgettable 2009 season for the Bills.  The strong safety for the Bills last season was George Wilson, a 5 year vet out of Arkansas.  Wilson finished second on the team in tackles and contributed with four interceptions of his own last season.  Wilson saw his first season of serious playng time last year and played well.  If Whitner (my presumed starter) has trouble with his transition, Wilson will retain his duties thus making another Bills first round draft pick moot.  The main thing to know about this group for the Bills is that they have three starters, some teams in this division aren’t sure if they have one.

2) New England Patriots- New England couldv’e easily been ranked one with Brandon Meriweather alone.  After struggling with the schemes of the hoodie’s defense early in his career, Meriweather has quickly turned into a star at the position.  The game has started to slow down for the former Hurricane standout and allowed him to fly all over the field making plays.  He is also the reason that the pass defense has not suffered with all of the changes at the corner back slot.  Opposite Meriweather is a bit of a question mark.   James Sanders started the first game of the season only to be demoted to reserve duty for most of the year.  He finished strong and started the last four games which gives him the edge on Brandon McGowan.  McGowan started 11 games for the Pats’ last season but played himself out of that role by week 14.  Both players have shown flashes of promise but whoever is most consistent during camp will liekly get the job.  No matter who wins the job, look to see both 6 yr vets see the field for New England.  The combination of these three talents gain them the two spot, but the inconsistent playat free safety keeps them from top billing. 

3) New York Jets- The Jets are bringing in some new talent ofter the departure of Kerry Rhodes.  Rhodes made soem big plays for this defense during its playof push and his absence will hurt the unit.  Replacing Rhodes will be Brodney Pool who came over from the Browns this off-season.  Pool has good ball skils at the safety position and if I were to label him, he would fall into the; covers better than he tackles category.  Pool has 11 interceptions in his 5 season of play and with great corners on both sides, Pool should have a lot of opportunities to make plays in coverage.  The strong safety for this defense is Jim Leonhard.  Leonhard followed Rex Ryan to New York after becoming the starter during the 2008 season with the Ravens. Leonhard is a high motor guy who always seems to be around the pile.  Extremely undersized, the former badger from Wisconsin plays big.  He hits hard and throws his body around the field.  With Pool’s coverage skills, and Leonhard’s seemingly disregard for his body, this combination has a good chance to gel and be a very solid group for the gang green.  Backing up Pool and Leonhard will be Eric Smith.  Smith managed a few starts last season and has good size (6’1″) for the position, especially wen compard to Leonhard.

4) Miami Dolphins- The Dolphins find themselves in the four slot here due to them having no idea who will start at free safety.  Chris Clemons, Reshod Jones, Tyrone Culver, Jason Allen?  Two of those guys are nickle and dime corners in some sets.  Clemons, the second year man from Clemson, will get the first shot at the job in my opinion.  He has good coverage skills and great speed to cover ground.  He lacks physicality that is coveted by this coachign staff and his communication skils are a work in progress.  He showed some signs last season that he had what it takes in the NFl and this coaching staff is putting a lot of pressure on him to follow through.  Yerimiah Bell enjoyed his first Pro Bowl selection last season and is a very solid stonrg safety.  He hits a ton and  has great athleticism to cover both tight ends and recievers.  His tackling skills are above average and he will need to take Clemons under his wing in order for the group to be effective.  This position is no doubt the biggest focus in Dolphins camp this off-season, and it may be the reason this team does not get over the hump and make the playoffs.