Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots, brought to you by Field Yates (as it's Mike Reiss' bye week):
1. The Patriots finished the 2011 season second in total offense and third in the NFL in scoring, but it was believed that there was a missing element of a perimeter receiving threat that could stretch the field and unclog the middle, where players like tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Wes Welker are most effective. With the signing of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd this offseason, many felt the final piece of the puzzle was in place. And while Lloyd has made an impact for the Patriots in 2012, the role that a prolific running game has played in creating space in the middle of the field should not be overlooked. The fifth-ranked rushing attack has increased the effectiveness of the play-action passing game and often draws an extra safety down into the box to defend it, opening up space between the numbers for the offense to operate.
2. He wasn't a high-profile acquisition, but defensive back Marquice Cole may have been one of the Patriots' shrewdest pickups this offseason. The numbers don't tell the full story on Cole: He's an ace special-teams player with elite speed and ability to get down the field in coverage and toughness to serve as a block/hold-up player on return units. It was his block that helped to spring Devin McCourty's 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Jets in Week 7, and Cole has routinely forced fair catches by flying down the field as a gunner on the punt team. Beyond that, Cole has served as a fill-in defensive back as the Patriots have dealt with myriad of injuries in the secondary. In the locker room, Cole provides a veteran presence for a secondary composed primarily of players 25 years old or younger.
3. Hard to figure out how the Philadelphia Eagles are next to last in the NFL with just nine sacks at this point of the season. Not only has the team invested heavily in players such as Jason Babin (who accounted for 18 sacks on his own in 2011), Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Cullen Jenkins, but I was impressed by its reserve players as well during a preseason matchup against the Patriots. Defensive end Phillip Hunt made a lasting impression but can't seem to work his way into the rotation this season. The Eagles have already changed defensive coordinators, but regardless of the scheme in place, one would have to think a group as talented as their defensive line could register more than nine sacks in eight games.
4. We previously noted that Patriots practice squad wide receiver Greg Salas had his salary raised from $149,600 to $465,001, and it's a suggestion that the team is interested in developing the 2011 fourth-round pick, and also that another team was interested in signing him to its active roster. New England similarly raised the salary of defensive end/linebacker Markell Carter while he was a member of the practice squad in 2011, but eventually released Carter during the offseason. As it relates to Salas, even if the team opts not to promote him at any time during the regular season, it's worth bearing in mind that just two of the team's five active roster receivers -- Brandon Lloyd and Matthew Slater -- have contracts past the 2012 season. Keeping Salas "in the program" affords the Patriots an extended opportunity to evaluate him as a long-term piece of the offensive puzzle.
5. With passing records being shattered seemingly every season, it's tough to argue with the assertion that the NFL is a passing league. But that is not to say that those who pass the ball most effectively are the best teams, or that a team must be proficient through the air in order to be successful. Based on records and the eyeball test, two teams have stood out through their first seven games this season: Atlanta and Houston. Atlanta's offense is catalyzed by a dynamic passing attack headlined by quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White. Houston, which ranks 18th in passing yards per game, wears defenses down on the ground. It's an interesting juxtaposition of philosophies and roster construction. A thought to stash away until January: Will run-heavy teams such as Houston and San Francisco be able to play from behind against playoff-caliber opponents? If a team like Houston fell down early to someone like the Patriots or Broncos, a game of keep-up could be a difficult chore for the Texans.
6. It's too bad to hear the news that Detroit Lions running back Jahvid Best won't take the field at all this season as he continues to deal with symptoms related to a concussion. Best, a former first-round pick who hasn't played since October 2011, was a talented player at Cal in college and showed signs of promise during his rookie year with Detroit. There are those who feel that the NFL has enforced rules to protect players that take away from the integrity of the game, with the emphasis on quarterback safety being one of the areas in question. But player safety is something that should remain a priority for the league, and though the Lions could use a talented player like Best in their backfield, entrusting medical professionals to determine his timeline for recovery is the appropriate way to proceed. Here's to hoping he makes a successful return to the field in 2013 or beyond.
7. The two-fold immediate reaction to the recent acquisition of Aqib Talib was: How will he impact the Patriots' secondary, and did the team overpay for his services? From this vantage point, evaluating a trade in the days following its completion is a fruitless endeavor. I'm reminded of the decision by Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland to dump two talented players in receiver Brandon Marshall and cornerback Vontae Davis via trade before the season. The consensus reaction seemed to be that those two moves were a sign that Miami was in a full-blown rebuilding movement, and that the team was headed for another tumultuous campaign in 2012. With four wins in seven games, a dominating run defense and a rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill who looks worth every penny he is being paid, 2012 has been anything but a rebuilding year for Miami. Couple the promise of this team with five selections in the top three rounds in the forthcoming 2013 NFL draft, and the future is undeniably bright in Miami and the trades undeniably wise by Ireland. For now, we'll hold off on grading the Patriots' most recent maneuver.
8. It's far from perfect, but I'm continually impressed by the talent nucleus in Minnesota, particularly the yield from recent drafts. The obvious standouts include running back Adrian Peterson, offensive weapon Percy Harvin and the Vikings most recent top choice, left tackle Matt Kalil. But taking a look at the lesser-profile selections, the Vikings have done well for themselves in finding players such as guard Brandon Fusco (sixth round, 2011), tight end Kyle Rudolph (second round, 2011), linebacker Jasper Brinkley (fifth round, 2009), cornerback Josh Robinson (third round, 2012) and kicker Blair Walsh (sixth round, 2012). The NFC North is top-heavy with Chicago and Green Bay leading the way, but Minnesota offers promise with a developing young roster.
9. The New Orleans Saints have stumbled out to a 2-5 start in 2012, and a team that was recently atop the NFL seems to be sliding away from its elite status. Woes on the defensive side of the football are obvious, as is the absence of head coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the 2012 regular season in connection with the ongoing bounty scandal investigation involving the organization. With Payton gone, it appears as though leadership has grown shaky in New Orleans and serves as a reminder of how critical that is to an NFL team regardless of the talent in place. There's a cast of football followers who want to debate whether Bill Belichick or Tom Brady has been more integral to the team's run of success over the past decade. There's no right answer to the question, as football is the ultimate team game; it requires both talent and leadership to win. In New Orleans, they're learning that an imbalance of talent and leadership hurts.
10. A tip of the cap to all of those involved in the Patriots' football operation staff for shuffling the team's itinerary to make it home from London before the brunt of the weather-induced complications from Hurricane Sandy. In my experience working within the NFL, it never ceased to amaze me how quickly equipment and training staffs were able to pack up after a road game and transport what looked like endless storage cases from a stadium to an airport. The three-day trip to London involved additional moving parts, and it was no small task to have the team in the air within roughly 18 hours of the clock striking zero in a 45-7 win. The bye week is an invaluable period of rest, and being able to take that rest at home makes a big difference. Kudos to all who made the expedient return trip possible, and best wishes to all those who may have been impacted by the storm.