I was pleased to be joined by Richard Hill from Pats Pulpit, our New England Patriots affiliate, to preview Sunday's game. Rich talks about whether the team misses Ben Watson at all, how the offense has changed without Randy Moss, the team's strengths/weaknesses defensively, and more.
Chris: "For years, Ben Watson was the Patriots' featured tight end. I know Aaron Hernandez has come on strong for New England, but are there any fans who miss Watson?"
Rich: "I don't think anyone really misses Watson. The main impression of Watson is that he had stone hands, was an average blocker, and never really reached his athletic potential. Of course, the Patriots had so many injuries at the offensive line that tight ends had to be blockers first, receivers second, in Watson's last season with the Patriots, but I feel like most people still believe that he was a tremendous underachiever.
The Patriots have a great receiver in Hernandez, a great blocker and receiver in Rob Gronkowski and a great blocker and leader in Alge Crumpler. Watson never really made a strong mark with the Patriots and I believe everyone has moved on."
Chris: "How has Tom Brady and the Patriots' passing game changed in terms of strategy, if at all, since Randy Moss was traded?"
Rich: "The passing offense is still trying to get back into its stride since the departure of Moss. The Patriots have been relying more heavily on the run game in order to take some pressure away from the younger receivers, and should look to run the ball on Sunday. Moss was able to draw double coverages out of respect for his athletic ability, but also because that's how defenses work- if a receiver runs a "Go" route, then the safety cheats over to that side of the field to help out in coverage. Moss only ran "Go" routes and, as a result, drew "double coverages."
The Patriots might start using Brandon Tate in such a manner, in order to stretch the field, but the Patriots seem content in playing small ball and picking up 7-10 yards at a time, just to move the chains. We call this offense "death by papercuts" and it looks to be gaining traction."
Chris: "Offensive guard Logan Mankins finally ended his holdout this week. Is he expected to play? If not, who has been starting in his place, and has that person been doing an acceptable job at the position?"
Rich: "Mankins is actually expected to play, if not start. He's been tapped to make the game-day active roster and there are rumors that he might start because he was taking first team reps at practice. If he doesn't start, it will be Dan Connolly who will play left guard. He's played very well for most of the season, but he isn't able to do everything Mankins was capable of doing. Connolly isn't very adept at running pull blocks, but he will definitely manhandle opposing linemen at the line. He's done well, but he's liable to miss a couple blocking assignments every game and is still learning how to be a starting left guard."
Chris: "What do you consider to be New England's weakest unit on defense (defensive line, linebacker, or secondary), and why?"
Rich: "I don't think I can label a weak "unit", but I can definitely say that the defense, as a whole, is extremely weak between the 20s. The biggest weakness for the Patriots defense is defending the underneath pass, which is every player's fault. The defense plays "bend-don't-break" defense, which means that the defensive backs will play a little bit deeper in order to prevent the big play. The inside linebackers will play a little bit deeper to have better vision of what's developing. The pass rush (defensive line and outside linebackers) will rush the quarterback and apply pressure to force the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly.
All of these aspects lead to opposing teams cutting up the Patriots defense underneath. Receivers just have to run hitch/hook routes in order to take advantage of the soft coverage over the top. Running backs need to get open to catch the dump pass and can take advantage of the open field because of how far back the inside linebackers are sitting. If the Browns throw the ball underneath, they'll be able to move the chains between the 20s and will pick up yardage and convert on third downs. That's a guarantee.
The strength of this defense, though, is in the Red Zone. When the field becomes short in the Red Zone, there's less of a cushion for opposing players and the defense becomes lock down. This defense is weak between the 20s, but stiffens in the Red Zone. Look for a lot of Browns' field goals."
Chris: "One statistic that shows how efficient the Patriots are is there high conversion rate on third downs. Are there any plays that New England seems to favor running in third down situations, or are they just very good at mixing it up every time and executing?"
Rich: "The Patriots are really good at running third down draw plays, as well as slip screens. RB Danny Woodhead, a player who's shorter than 5'9, can hide behind linemen and is shifty enough that he can gain 5-6 yards on draw plays. With the Patriots spread offense, defenses need to step back to watch the receivers, resulting in a lot of space in the middle of the field for Woodhead on the draw.
As for the slip screen, look for Wes Welker, Woodhead, Deion Branch, Brandon Tate, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski all to be given the chance to covert on third down. All of those players will be utilized in a quick pass play, with other receivers being used as blockers. The Patriots definitely favor the draw play and a quick pass to Welker on third down, but they have a very extensive third down play book that has strong results."
Once again, I'd like to thank Rich for taking the time to answer these questions.
I also answered some questions for a New England sports site, NESN.com. Tony Grossi and I were each asked the same questions, and both of us gave responses.