Patriots have room for improvement

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Coming down the homestretch of the regular season, the New England Patriots won't be able to answer the question of whether they can go into enemy territory and win a high-stakes game against an elite team. That opportunity has passed them by after crushing losses to the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints.

But as quarterback Tom Brady pointed out Wednesday, the five remaining games present an opportunity in other areas.

"The season isn't decided at all," he said. "We're still trying to make improvements, and there are a lot of things that are going to happen over the next five weeks. There's a lot of football to be played."

When assessing the areas that need to improve, there are obvious ones such as eliminating big plays by the opposition, winning on the road and coming up with more "wins" on critical plays.

Here is one viewpoint on four other areas that could spark the team.

1. Less is more on defense

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said Tuesday that some of the team's breakdowns against the Saints were unusual because they came in situations in which the defense has been generally solid all season. "There's got to be a reason behind it, and I've got to get down and find out what it is," Pees said.

Here is one possibility for Pees to consider: too much substituting.

The Saints had 50 offensive snaps in Monday night's game, and there were only 12 plays in which the same defensive personnel stayed on the field from the previous play. The constant shuffling can make it hard for some players to get in a rhythm and develop cohesiveness with other defenders.

One of the prime individual examples is Adalius Thomas.

Thomas surged off the left defensive edge and sacked quarterback Drew Brees in the third quarter, but on the next snap, he was heading to the sideline, replaced by ineffective Derrick Burgess.


Some defenders talked Wednesday about getting back to basics, and this might be a good way for the coaching staff to help the players do that, by adopting a less-is-more approach in terms of substituting. Burgess, in particular, has done little to earn his role as a sub rusher.

2. Making a statement-type personnel change

After such a disappointing defensive performance, in which the Patriots allowed 314 yards on eight plays, a change in the starting lineup is warranted.

Second-year cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, who has started eight of the team's 11 games, is the top candidate to see his playing time reduced.

He was beaten for a 38-yard touchdown pass Monday and was toasted on a backbreaking 68-yard reception that almost completely negated any momentum the Patriots had generated with their early third-quarter touchdown.

It marked the third straight week in which the receiver Wilhite was covering had a big day. Although Wilhite often seems to be in good position and his fluid movements show up well, he struggles making plays on the ball.

The Patriots awarded veteran Shawn Springs a lucrative three-year contract in the offseason, but he's been inactive the past three games. Now seems like the right time to reintegrate Springs into the mix as the Patriots will be facing receivers Steve Smith (Panthers), Terrell Owens (Bills) and Andre Johnson (Texans) in the coming weeks.

If not Springs, rookie Darius Butler could return to the starting lineup.

3. Don't lose confidence in Laurence Maroney

Running back Laurence Maroney was on the field for just two plays after his third-quarter fumble Monday, which marked the third straight game he has fumbled the ball.

Part of the reason for Maroney's lack of second-half action could have been a result of the Patriots' being behind and forced to pass, which usually means they turn to running backs Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris. But Maroney, whose hard-charging running has been one of the bright spots in recent weeks, shouldn't be overlooked for more of an all-around role.

Although he doesn't seem to have the natural feel for the passing game of Faulk and Morris, and his picking up blitzes remains a work in progress, Maroney offers an explosiveness the Patriots lack outside of receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker. The Patriots used a two-back combination of Faulk and Morris on Monday, lining them up on both sides of Brady in the shotgun.

Why not Maroney?

His big-play ability could have hurt the Saints for focusing so much on Moss and Welker.

As for the fumbles, coach Bill Belichick said this week that when defenses notice a running back losing the ball a few weeks in a row, they will key in that much more on ball stripping. Although it would be easy to get down on Maroney for his three-game fumble streak, it is also easy to forget he had just one fumble in his NFL career before this stretch of poor ball security.

4. Getting more out of the kickoff return unit

Although former Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs often struggled in coverage, one area where he gave the Patriots a terrific spark was on returns. The Patriots miss him as the kickoff return unit ranks 27th in the NFL with an average drive start of the 24.2-yard line.

In part because of injuries, the club has had five players serve as the primary returner this season: Julian Edelman (10), Maroney (9), Faulk (6), Matthew Slater (6) and Brandon Tate (4).

Slater has been the main returner the past two weeks, but he has done little to inspire confidence. Other options include Butler and cornerback Terrence Wheatley, one of whom could provide a much-needed lift.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.