It’s hard to know at the beginning of the year what problems are real and which can be chalked up to September being more of an extension of the preseason. The Patriots experiment a bit, sit guys for even a minor ailment and are just trying to figure out what they have more than anything.
Of course, that never stops the overreactions but that’s what happens when people have been waiting seven months for football and then a shitty Patriots team gets lit up by some random team who won’t make the playoffs. It’s the same thing almost every year and there’s difficulty knowing what the real weaknesses of the team are.
But here we are five games into the season and the 2017 edition, like all teams have flaws, even if the 2017 betting odds for the next Patriots game don’t quite reflect it.
Here’s a quick hit list of the things that concern me with these Pats and what the real issues they’ll have to overcome are.
- Nate Solder – Solder’s been the target of just about everyone who takes any kind of in-depth look at the Patriots’ film. The Patriots protected him all summer and are now giving him non-injury related days off. In simplest terms, something looks off with Solder and the Patriots wouldn’t have kept four tackles if they were worry free about the position. As I said on Patshow this week, I wouldn’t be surprised if Solder doesn’t finish the season. If he starts out this banged out and in need of management what’s he going to look like in January? The Pats are already taking every step to protect him not only during the week but during the games as well. We’ve had a lucky run at the important left tackle position, with Brady having just two starters in his career, but with Solder in the last year of his deal and not looking like a player worthy of a long-term investment, it will be really interesting to see which direction they go at left tackle this offseason.
- The Van Noy-Roberts Venn Diagram – It feels like we’re back to 2011 as the linebacker corps has become so specialized. Opponents should realize Kyle Van Noy can be exposed against the run, just like the Bucs did with Doug Martin (and they should’ve done it more). By the same token, Elandon Roberts‘ pass defense is deficient so why not just plan the attack around which of the two are in the game? Van Noy is best on the edge, where Hightower’s return allows him to play more, but the Patriots must either hope the two linebackers improve in their weak areas or they’re going to be a target. If Shea McClellin comes back off IR it could be a boost or if we can find a way to make the two of them into one player named Kylandon Van Noberts.
- Adam Butler and the Pass Rush- Butler played just 18 snaps against the Bucs, his lowest total of the season. The Patriots really could use another pass rusher, and after a fast start, Butler’s quick get-off has faded a bit. I think they’re still playing with things which will ultimately lead to Dietrich Wise building on his snap totals. But Butler needs to bounce back and start making plays instead of hitting the wall, because Trey Flowers and Wise won’t be able to do it all by themselves. Same thing goes for Cassius Marsh who I’m still not sure about despite spiking snap totals.
- Brady Down – Tom Brady‘s taken way too many hits and, as everyone loves to point out, it’s a lot to handle when you’re 40 years old. The offensive line always gets better as the season progresses, but the downfield passing attack is stressing the protection more than ever and the team must find a way to not get Brady killed. I’d love to see the progression of the quick passing game with Chris Hogan to be developing quicker and that could help Brady avoid some of the hits and sacks.
- Amendola/Hightower – Aside from Brady no two players are more critical to the Patriots Super Bowl hopes than Amendola and Hightower (yes, I’d throw Gronk in there too). They’re just a different team with those two in the lineup. Amendola is critical on third downs and continues to be the go-to guy even with tight windows. Hightower moved back to the middle against the Bucs and the trickle-down effect on the rest of the defense was obvious.
No, I’m not concerned about the secondary since that’s what you’re probably wondering. They’ll figure it all out, they’re too experienced and talented not to. And if they can’t the coaching staff will figure out how to put them in position to succeed like they did against Tampa Bay.
Two final areas to really focus on, and I believe they’re heavily connected to the Solder-Brady concerns, are getting better in the red zone and on third down. They struggled in those areas as you’d expect without Gronkowski and Edelman and they’re critical to the offense’s success.