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Patriots Offense in Transition

Here’s this week’s Patriots Two-Point Conversion column:
The loss of Tom Brady to this offense in the first drive of the first week of the season puts the Patriots in some rare company. Only once before has a team lost a reigning NFL MVP for the entire season, that was back in 1991 when Joe Montana (coincidence? I think not) missed the whole season due to an elbow injury. The significance of the loss cannot be overlooked and Bill Belichick now has to steer the Patriots down a different path to success.

That starts with the quarterback position and goes all the way down the line. Cassel has been a backup since I was 14 years old and now must lead the league’s most prolific offense with many of the same weapons Brady had at his disposal. But the question remains, how good is this offense without No. 12 a part of it? I’m here to analyze the ups and downs of the offense we’ll see week in and week out in 2008.

Offensive Line: We’ll start with the offensive line who – as I stated in my season previews – has received a lot of bad ink since their sub-par performance in the Super Bowl. With Cassel brings added pressure to the line in some areas (like run blocking) but with pass protection they may actually have a little more leeway because of Cassel’s mobility. Brady has been so good with his right shoulder that fans don’t really care that he’s as slow as Drew Bledsoe was. As we saw against the Jets not only is Cassel willing to pull the ball down and run but he can do so with some decent success. The line has to keep Cassel upright also to keep his confidence level high; a sack prone line could kill Cassel’s poise in the pocket.

Quarterback: Then there is Cassel himself who kept it simple in his first start. Dinks, dunks and effective screens kept the overrated Jets defense on edge and Cassel never made the big mistake. While the generic principles of that offense will remain I think we’ll see offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels open up the throwing lanes a little more as time goes on. Randy Moss was not a factor against the Jets but Cassel nearly hit him for a big touchdown. The relationship will grow as time goes on, as will McDaniels’ faith in Cassel’s ability to throw the ball down the field. Throwing a few balls up for grabs keep strong defenses honest and not force the offense into tricky third and long situations. Screens and short passes will still be the majority, but opening it up is vital for long term success.

Running back: When Cassel is not throwing he’ll be handing it off to a full stable of running backs. Kevin Faulk made an immediate impact against the Jets (5.3 rushing yards per attempt, 4 catches for 50 yards) and his counterpart Lamont Jordan came in and ran the ball very hard, dare I say, Corey Dillon like (11 carries, 62 yards). Sammy Morris helped in short yardage situations and we all know what Heath Evans brings to the table. Then there is Laurence Maroney. He spun his tires against the Jets (8 carries, 16 yards) before leaving with an injury (surprise) but he did return, which may have something to do with Jordan running the ball straight at the hole and hard and Maroney fearing for his job, just speculation. Maroney is in his third NFL season and second as the teams No. 1 running back. The RB position is a young mans position so it’s disconcerting that he cannot stay on the field. Maroney is confident and shows bursts of greatness but his play this year has been disappointing. It’s not enough to say that he doesn’t get the blocking in front of him because Jordan was able to find them.

TE and Wide Receiver: As far as tight ends and wide outs go, Ben Watson has been banged up (like Maroney and Chad Jackson, what is it with these young kids) and like Maroney has never really taken that next step to become an elite player. The jury is out on whether Watson would become an Antonio Gates type player if he was in a different system, but the fact that he is hurt all the time has somewhat hindered his development. It’s still a work in progress with David Thomas but if he can make the most of his time he should be able to find space and open up the field a little. As said before Randy Moss wasn’t a factor last week and that needs to change. Wes Welker was great on screens and short passes but better defense will start pressing up on him and Cassel will need to be looking deep. It seems teams are roughing Moss up on the line more and more. Jabar Gaffney has been non-existent so far and the team really doesn’t have a reliable fourth wide receiver. Brady was known for hitting seven and eight different receivers a game but Cassel has not found that same diversity in his options. Moss can still run and jump with the best of them, and he and Cassel need to get on the same page.

Final Thoughts:

  1. Man, Stephen Gostkowski sure can boot the ball. His touchbacks are key to the Pats winning the field position battle
  2. Adalius Thomas is ready to bust out, his 20 yard sack on Favre was both amazing and hilarious at the same time
  3. According to Reiss’s Pieces, Jerod Mayo played every defensive snap, guy’s a stud
  4. Anyone else hold their breathe when Cassel came off the field limping?
  5. Did I really see Joey Porter guaranteeing a win? I hope he gets a mouth full of Heath Evans all day on Sunday
  6. I expect Cassel to get a great, supportive reception at Gillette on Sunday. He will have a pretty long leash to start the year

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