Every week during the season, former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the Patriots' upcoming game, but before getting to the season opener against the Bengals, the two are looking at the team's preseason and how the roster has taken shape:
Mike: Tedy, it's great to be back for another season with the "Breakdown." We'll also have a weekly podcast together this year, which is another way to communicate with visitors to the site. For this "Breakdown," I'll just start with some quick thoughts on the Patriots. I think the offense has potential to be one of the best in the NFL. The defense, on the other hand, has quite a few question marks.
Tedy: In my opinion, this preseason couldn't have gone any worse for the New England Patriots. It started off on the wrong foot with Logan Mankins not reporting to camp, and he is still AWOL. The Nick Kaczur experiment at left guard failed miserably with a severe back injury. You lose cornerback Leigh Bodden and defensive end Ty Warren (both put on injured reserve). That's three legitimate starters and then you make it four with Mankins. One of the main goals in the preseason is to stay healthy and keep your team intact going into the season opener. The Patriots don't have that now.
Mike: You could also add reserve safety Brandon McGowan in there as well, as he's out for the year with a torn pectoral muscle. The biggest question I have right now with the defense is not the pass rush, but its ability to stop the run. There have been a lot of changes in the front seven. One thing you can generally count on with a Bill Belichick defense is that it will be sturdy against the run, but I don't think we can say that right now. Will Gerard Warren make the transition to the team's scheme at left end? Can Mike Wright hold up at right end? Is Tully Banta-Cain strong enough against the run? Will the starter at outside linebacker on the other side hold up against the run?
Tedy: In the preseason, one of the things you want is to execute in all phases at a level that makes you content that you've made progress. Going into the season opener, you want to feel like you're fielding a team that can compete. Right now, defensively, with the injuries and the youth and the way they looked against the New York Giants in the final game of the preseason, this defense has a long way to go. When the Giants come at you with plays that aren't too complex, but just test your fundamentals, and you can't execute those fundamentals, you could be in trouble. A simple reverse play. A simple tight end pass to the flat who is wide open. A simple off-tackle run. These are plays that should be going for 3-5 yards, but they end up being big plays. That's when you know you're not executing the way you should.
Mike: On the flip side, it was easy to be impressed with the offense in the preseason. I thought the passing game looked sharp, with the integration of the tight ends giving the unit a more complete look. I also thought the running game was effective, thinking back to the third-and-short against the Giants that Fred Taylor converted with a strong situational run behind Sammy Morris. To me, a good running team is one that gets 2 yards when it needs 1. I think the Patriots have built some momentum in that area.
Tedy: Tom Brady and the passing offense looks like it will be OK. I still wonder at the running back position. Right now, the Patriots are a team that passes to set up the run. The development of the tight ends is good. Overall, with what looks like problems defensively, this offense is going to have to score points. From a Brady perspective, you get nervous having him drop back time and time again when there are some young players protecting him.
Mike: Few could say that the Patriots' defense inspired confidence in those final two preseason games.
Tedy: Right now, this defense has a lot of unproven youth. Then there are some players in the latter parts of their careers that are being counted on. How good can Gerard Warren be at the five-technique defensive end spot? They brought in Damione Lewis and hoped he could provide some depth there, but he's no longer on the roster. Mike Wright, up to this point in his career, has never been an every-down player. It looks like they're asking him to do that. When you have unproven players providing depth, it magnifies an injury like Ty Warren's. There's too much of a drop-off between Ty Warren and the next player. You have big questions at outside linebacker. And can Tully Banta-Cain produce like he did last year, with 10 sacks for the second year in a row? Those are some big question marks.
Mike: We often say that reading into the preseason is dangerous, but after watching the 3-4 defense get sliced up by the Rams and Giants, it made me wonder if they should try something else.
Tedy: I thought the exact same thing. All we have to go by now is what we've seen. And the last two games what we've seen is a Rams offense that had more than 90 plays, and then against the Giants in the final preseason game, all I wanted to focus on was the opening drive. That's really the team's focus in that game and the question "Would they answer from last week?" After what Coach Belichick said about the Rams game, of course the starters were going to play. And they didn't respond on that opening drive. So I see a lot of question marks. You look at the defensive roster and circle the players who you know are going to get the job done, and I have two -- Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. They've done it consistently. I still want to see another year from Brandon Meriweather before he gets put in that category. He made the Pro Bowl last year because of an injury situation, so does he think he arrived, or will he work to continue to get better? It's easier to make the Pro Bowl now. That's no longer a measuring stick.
Mike: Tedy, rookie Brandon Spikes has emerged quickly at your old position. What have been some of your impressions of what you've seen?
Tedy: He's obviously impressed the coaching staff to emerge as a starter and that's a tribute to the camp he had and the player he is. He's supposed to be very instinctive and that's what you need to be at the inside linebacker position. His challenge is only about to grow. As the regular season arrives and teams start game-planning, the defense changes and there are adjustments that change from week to week, sometimes day to day. So for example, coaches might say on Wednesday, "This adjustment is how we're going to attack a certain formation." Then on Thursday the coaches might find that the adjustment is no longer applicable, so you have to be on your toes and communicate adjustments to the outside linebackers and safeties. It's going to be very difficult. When Jerod Mayo was a rookie, he was sandwiched between me and Mike Vrabel. We let him play and we could make adjustments as he learned. Now Mayo is in a position where he is comfortable enough to help Spikes. It's a mental process and you have to think very quickly.
Mike: One of the surprising developments to me from the preseason is that 34-year-old Fred Taylor looks like the lead running back. At this stage of his career, he will no longer be a workhorse, but at least initially, I expect him to get the bulk of the carries.
Tedy: I don't think the running game is going to be a huge threat from this team. If you're an opposing defense, you don't look at them and say "I have to buckle up my chinstrap, here they come." That's not who they are. And when the Patriots attempt to do that, they know that's not who they are. They are about the passing offense. Whether it's Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris or Kevin Faulk, I think you can feel comfortable with them at running back. It's clear from the lack of playing time that Laurence Maroney received that the coaches aren't high on him now. Still, this will be about the pass -- Tom Brady throwing for 4,000 yards, Randy Moss vying for the league lead, Wes Welker's return to health. I would still worry about the offensive line because Logan Mankins' holdout sent a ripple effect through the entire offensive line. You had Kaczur out of position and that might have contributed to his injury, because you are absorbing contact from a different position. You lose Kaczur and now the tackle depth is hurt and you're also down to your third choice at left guard. You also have to ask if Stephen Neal can stay healthy, as he's had some health issues in the past.
Mike: I think you're right Tedy, but why shouldn't the Patriots be more of an offense where defenses say "We have to buckle our chinstraps and here they come"?
Tedy: I think defenders probably want them to run more, because every time Sammy Morris gets a carry, or Kevin Faulk gets a carry, it's one less pass attempt to Randy Moss and Wes Welker. The best players on the team are clearly Moss, Welker and Brady. As an offense, you want your best players to have the ball. The more passes they throw to the tight ends, the more times they hand it off, a defender will be saying "Great, they're not going to Moss 40 yards down the field, or Welker on an option route that he can turn into 20 yards."
Mike: I remember we were at the ESPNBoston.com draft party at Gillette Stadium in April and you mentioned that Bill Belichick was still searching for next Mark Bavaro at tight end. You nailed that one. It looks like Rob Gronkowski, at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, could be that big, physical, fast tight end that Belichick has been seeking.
Tedy: There has been good and bad with Gronkowski. The good is that he's a big, strong, physical guy with great hands. You saw how he could be a threat down in the red zone. The bad was seen right before he caught that touchdown pass against the New York Giants. The play before, he cut off a "7" route to the back left pylon of the end zone. Brady threw it there, thinking that he would be there. So that's where you see he's still a rookie. You don't quit running routes. He will develop over his rookie season, picking up the intricacies of the offense, which is difficult at the tight end position. You have to know pass routes and blocking schemes from different positions -- offset from the line, on the line of scrimmage, combo with the offensive tackle, pulling back across the line of scrimmage to trap a defensive lineman. It's one of the most difficult positions to learn.
Mike: Let's also touch on special teams, where the return game looks like it will get a boost from Brandon Tate. Special teams coach Scott O'Brien said earlier in the preseason that the kickoff return unit was one area where he'd like to see improvement.
Tedy: Special teams can be an X factor that helps them this year. We saw after the Giants scored, they got a huge kickoff return and that made it a short field, to set up the offense for a score. Also, Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best kickers. He deserves every penny of his contract extension. That's why I drafted him in my fantasy league.
Mike: Another hot topic this offseason has been the coaching staff, with no official coordinators.
Tedy: Offensively, Bill O'Brien looks like the unnamed coordinator. You could tell during the preseason who was calling the shots and who Brady was talking to. Defensively, second in command to Belichick looks like Matt Patricia. He appears to be the one who is consulting with Bill on the sidelines, making adjustments, and wearing the headset and communicating with players through the coach-to-player communication device. So he looks like the unnamed defensive coordinator right now.
Mike: Let's wrap it up, Tedy, and we'll come back later this week with a "Breakdown" specifically on the opening game against the Bengals. I've predicted a 10-6 season for the Patriots.
Tedy: From my experience, I've been on teams before where you look terrible in the preseason and come out gangbusters in the regular season. Looking at the Patriots this preseason, are there things to be worried about? I'd say, "Yes, there are." But perspective is important, too. There is a different tempo from preseason to regular season and playing four quarters. That's different than playing a quarter or a quarter and a half in a preseason game. There have been games where I've been on a team that played terrible in the first quarter, but by the fourth quarter it was a victory. Based on what's out there now, what's been shown, I expect the Patriots to be well coached and fundamentally sound. If you give the coaching staff this time to prepare, as well as some veteran players, it's plenty of time to address any type of problems they may have on the field. I anticipate a successful season.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.