Thursday, January 30, 2014

What the Patriots Need Besides Wide Receivers

For going on 2 weeks I've heard it and read it everywhere: The Patriots need wide receiver help. I couldn't agree more.

That being said, most of you sound like whiny little kids in the checkout line at the grocery store, pleading with their parents to buy them candy bars from the impulse item rack or else they'll throw a temper tantrum. "I want Larry Fitzgerald now!" "We want Anquan Boldin!" "Give us James Jones!" "We need Emmanuel Sanders!" and so on.

I want better receivers too and hopefully the Patriots get some. There are, however, other areas of the team that if improved, will dramatically increase the likelihood of another Patriots Super Bowl win...

#1 The Pass Rush
I'm surprised that after the Pats lost to the Broncos in the AFC Championship game nobody complained much about the complete and utter lack of a pass rush on Peyton Manning. I'm not talking about sacks. I'm talking about reducing a great quarterback's time to find open receivers. Manning had all day on almost every snap.

The one play Manning was truly pressured, he lobbed a ball to a double-covered Wes Welker. Had Kyle Arrington turned around to play the ball, he would have at least batted it down, and could have intercepted it. Pressure created a playmaking opportunity.

A pass rush forces bad passes, throws out of bounds, shorter routes. It makes coverage more manageable for DBs and lets them be more aggressive. It can reduce the effectiveness of a good/great QB (the type you meet in the playoffs), and can force a mediocre/poor QB to make game-losing mistakes. When the Patriots defense owned Manning back in 2003-2004, it was because the pass rush pressured him. When the Patriots went 18-1, it was a pass rush that defeated them.

How to improve the pass rush? Getting Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo helps, as these are guys who occupy attention and allow others to make plays in the backfield. Chandler Jones recorded 11.5 sacks, tied for 7th in the NFL. He's doing his job. Add another guy on the edge and not necessarily a guy who's going to get 10+ sacks. Just someone strong and fast enough who will put a clock in the QB's head and force him to get rid of the ball sooner than he'd like.

I'd also like to see the Patriots change their mindset on defense and be much more aggressive. They've tried the bend-don't-break approach for years. It does reduce opposing points, but it also lets the opponent stay on the field for far too long. It puts all the pressure on the offense to score points in fewer drives that start from poor field position.

I think the defense, with Mayo, Wilfork, Jones, and an improving secondary, is good enough to be given a longer leash. Let them loose, let them go after the quarterback.

#2 Another Experienced CB
Aqib Talib is the most irreplaceable defensive player on the team. And even if you retain his services, you still have to hope/pray he remains healthy down the stretch.

When Talib is out the Patriots miss his skills, but they also lose a guy who knows what he's doing. The Pats have a crop of talented young DBs, but you can't draft wisdom or coach experience. I'd like to see the Pats add another experienced corner. He doesn't have to be amazing. Just someone who's been around a few years and knows what they're doing. Someone who knows his own capabilities, knows how to play the position, won't get tricked, won't make stupid decisions that lead to big plays.

And if Talib gets hurt, the veteran can assume Talib's coverage responsibilities. He'll probably get burnt, but at least everyone else can stay with their planned assignments and losing one DB won't result in 3 mismatches (as it did against Denver this year and Baltimore last year). It's better to be burnt by one guy than toasted by an entire team. And if you have a smart player, at least he'll know what he's doing, and (in theory) won't be burnt as badly.

And obviously if you don't retain Talib, you either need to replace him or dramatically improve somewhere else, like the pass rush.

I know adding an average, veteran cornerback and reducing the time opposing QBs have to throw by half a second isn't as exhilarating or as emotionally satisfying as acquiring a 1,000+ yard wide receiver. It's sort of like getting socks for Christmas compared to an X-Box. But the Patriots need both. They need playmakers on offense, and on defense they need guys who can limit opposing playmakers.