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Junior Seau: Rodeo Clown

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“You go from having great defensive leaders like Harrison, Bruschi, Seymour, and Vrabel to bringing in a rodeo clown to run the defense?!”

– Michael Felger

In the wake of an embarrassing first round playoff exit at Gillette Stadium, we take a look forward to what the New England Patriots must do to be better in 2010. It’s time to stop lamenting the past and look forward to how the franchise can return to a championship level. Tony and Michael discuss the possible changes the Patriots will undergo this off-season.

Felger: “There were times in that game where guys like Mayo, Guyton, Meriweather, and McGowan were just brutal this year. The playoff game included Tony. I can’t tell you how many times guys would fly though the line of scrimmage and have a chance to tackle Ray Rice for little to no gain, and just completely whiff on the tackle. The very first play from scrimmage when Rice took it to the house there were two ghastly plays in the Patriots defensive backfield. One was Mayo completely not being able to get off his block to slow Rice down. The other was Meriweather not being able to get hand on him even when he wasn’t blocked. He even had the angle on Rice down the sideline and was unable to catch up to the guy. There’s a lot for this team and this front office to work on and the worst part for them is now their going to have to spend some actual real money to fix this team. In order to get the locker room to buy in, they need to spend some money to show a commitment to winning now or else nobody’s going to buy in.”

Mazz: “This team got its face shoved in the mud in that playoff game Mike. I mean they got hit in the mouth right away and they never responded physically to what the Ravens were doing to them. Patriot teams of old used to fight back from adversity and be able to not only fight back into games, but pull games out of the fire. That clearly wasn’t going to happen from the start with this team. I think Brady said it best after the Miami game that the Patriots really needed to learn how to fight. Simply put, this team had no idea how to respond or how to fight back. During the whole year it seemed Brady questioned the toughness and leadership of his team. That’s something that needs to be addressed by the front office. They need to get back to bringing in football players and spending money on guys who buy into the way business is done around here. They need to focus again on guys who have a will to win like the Vrabel’s and so forth of the past. Because if a team actually showed up against these guys this year, and showed resistance to what the Patriots wanted to do, they acted like they wanted none of it. They just turned the other way and gave up. This year’s team never had the pride or the guts to punch back and to fight when they were pushed.”

The Collin-tary: When creating a wish list for the Patriots this off-season it’s difficult finding a place to begin. It can be difficult placing priority on one of the team’s many deficiencies. To better understand the challenges facing the Patriots this winter, I have broken down the roster and selected five key areas for improvement. They are ranked 1-5 with #1 serving as the most pressing issue facing the team in 2010.

#5 Better Front Office / Coaching Decisions
Firstly, the Patriots front office has to resign Vince Wilfork. He is the heart and soul of the Patriots defense. Big Vince occupies two and sometimes three pass blockers allowing room for others to make plays. Simply put he is what makes the Patriots defense go. He plays through injury, plays hard, is always productive, is a locker room leader, and quite frankly has paid his dues to the organization. The man deserves to get paid.
Secondly, we turn our attention to the head coach. It began with fourth and two in Indianapolis, continued with not kicking the field goal in Miami (could have used those three points), carried over to Houston where it was clear there was no personnel preservation plan (were they trying to win or lose?), and then culminated with the lack of creativity during the Baltimore blowout. The Ravens debacle was the worst, most uninspired football played by a Patriots team under Bill Belichick.
Not only was the team not prepared to play, but there were times when the Pats could have got back into it with a little creativity. They had two possessions beginning around midfield in the second quarter where they could have made it a two possession game before halftime. Later in the game, after making the score 27-14 with less than two minutes left in the third quarter, Belichick had a golden opportunity to catch the Ravens by surprise with an onside kick. The Patriots had five men to the kicker’s right and Baltimore only three. However, Belichick failed to pull the trigger even after it was obvious the Ravens special teams unit was weak. Back in October, they fumbled away the game’s opening kickoff against the Patriots and had already muffed a punt in this game.
Next, the Pats need to get an offensive coordinator! It’s clear that Bill O’Brien can’t call the plays for this team so Belichick and company need to find someone who can and give him the actual title this time.
Last but not least in this category comes replacing Dean Pees at defensive coordinator. Pees did the most with what he had personnel wise this season and the Patriots are now in a search for his successor.

#4 Find a Serviceable Left Corner
Jonathan Wilhite just isn’t cutting it. In his two full seasons with the Patriots he has tallied only three interceptions and ranked 49th in completions against in 2009. Receivers Wilhite defended caught 42 of 72 pass attempts for a 58.3% completion rate. While he may serve as a possibility in nickel coverage, he is not a reliable corner.

#3 Bring in a Dominant Edge Pass Rusher
Adalius Thomas has been a complete and utter disaster. Not only did he muster a measly three sacks last year, but his attitude stunk. He always seemed to have an excuse for everything. Don’t let the door hit out on the way out Adalius. As for Derrick Burgess and his whopping five sacks. He’s not the answer here friends, even if you can teach him to drive the snow.

#2 An Explosive Second Receiver and Reliable Third Receiver
The reality of Wes Welker’s situation is that he will likely miss at least half of the 2010 season. Even if he is to return for a portion of the season, who knows if he will be anywhere near as productive as he once was. The injury he sustained was much like that of Tom Brady, but Welker’s knee is a lot more important to his game being a wide receiver.
The Patriots need to find a playmaking wide receiver to line up on the opposite side of Randy Moss as well as a sure handed third wide receiver. Julian Edelman did an admirable job filling in for Welker, but is not a long term solution. He can likely be a solid third or fourth wide out, especially lining up in the slot. He is very adept at running bubble screens as well as short option routes, but is not a game changing force. The Pats need to find at least two other weapons for Brady.

#1 Addressing the Need at Linebacker
The Patriots were extremely thin at linebacker this season. Not only were they lacking in talent, but they were just plain old. In the 4-3 defense, the defense the Patriots have become famous for under Belichick, the most important position is linebacker. It had always been a lynchpin of the great Patriot defenses. Think of names like McGinest, Slade, Bruschi, and Vrabel then look at the roster now. There are no names that jump off the page at you aside from Junior Seau and he’s 40 years old!
Aside from Jerod Mayo I don’t feel comfortable starting any of the current Patriot linebackers next season. Even Mayo is questionable after his sub par second season in the NFL. Could it have been the sophomore slump? Could it have been the nagging knee injury that sidelined him the first half of the season? Who knows, but Mayo has at least shown flashes. He is a young, talented, aggressive force in the middle for the Pats and hopefully has a bright future ahead of him. A guy like Gary Guyton can also be serviceable in nickel packages especially in pass coverage with his speed, but other than that the Pats have squat.
They need to bring in real football players to play linebacker. Men who aren’t afraid to get their nose dirty and who will blow up a 350 pound nose tackle from time to time. Opposing wide outs should be scared once again to run crossing routes over the middle for fear of being decapitated. To put it plainly, the Patriots need to find backers with some stones. The best way to address this fatal flaw is by using some of their draft picks to select young linebackers. If they are able to draft quality not only will they get better right away, but they will get younger at their most important defensive position.

What is the most important need the Patriots must address this off-season? Who are some possible draft selections for the team come April? Can the Patriots return to championship form next season?

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