Eric Hartz: The Patriots seem to have done a good job adjusting to the loss of Tom Brady, but the offense looks a bit different than last year, when they picked up almost twice as many first downs through the air than on the ground. This year, the ratio is much closer to 50-50. Is this still a pass-first offense, or is there a new emphasis on the ground game?
Jon Scott: The trouble with the Patriots offense in 2008 is that the 2007 offense was exposed late in the season for being too vulnerable to a strong pass rush, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels didn't make enough changes to keep teams from keying on what the Pats are trying to do.
In 2007 the team could afford to run guys deep constantly because Brady would check off to a different route when he knew the pressure was coming. Matt Cassel isn't that experienced, so the team has to use the run to slow down the pass rushers. One benefit is that the Patriots get to control more clock and protect their questionable secondary.
EH: The New England secondary has long given Peyton Manning fits, but the Patriots have a lot of fresh faces back there this season. Tell us a little bit about the new guys and what we can expect from them.
JS: The first thing is that Richard Seymour has looked a LOT better this year than in recent years, which doesn't bode well for Manning. With Seymour demanding more attention, Manning must get rid of the ball more quickly than he wants. Otherwise, he could have a field day with the new faces in the Patriots secondary.
New England has been forced to rework the entire secondary. Only Ellis Hobbs and James Sanders return to a group of six in dime coverage. Rookies Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite have been learning on the job, and the veterans around them are trying to make up the difference. Unfortunately, that has lead to breakdowns elsewhere. Newcomer Deltha O'Neal has had hot and cold moments since being acquired after Cincinnati gave up on him. Lewis Sanders has been a mild surprise, starting in week one and moving into a solid nickel corner for New England. With Rodney Harrison out, it's now up to Brandon Meriweather to step up at safety, and Colts fans may remember Antwain Spann as the "other" guy who played in the secondary in that AFC Championship shootout a couple years ago. He's back by necessity.
WR Randy Moss is putting up solid numbers without Tom Brady
AP Photo/Winslow Townson
EH: Many wondered if Randy Moss would revert to some of his old, petulant ways when Brady went down. Although his touchdowns are down, his average yards per catch are very similar to last year. How has Moss adjusted to playing with Matt Cassel, is he doing a good job keeping himself motivated, and is his ankle injury affecting him at all?
JS: You have to wonder what gives with the national media. Much was done by CBS's Charlery Casserly and ESPN's crack staff to try to disparage Moss this year. Clips of his substandard blocking attempts were shown as if those were the norm.
It was an agenda presenting only one side (the bad side of Moss) and it was believable because of his past. Whether Moss saw those clips, or the coaching staff pointed out his deficiencies we can't confirm, but what we can report is that Moss is trying to make blocks downfield. He may not be the best blocker, but he's working at it, as evidenced by the compliments some of his backs have heaped upon him. His route running is the same.
I think the best indication of the real Randy Moss is a comment by a Miami defender who was burned by Moss last season. He said that Moss will look like he's loafing to try to lull you to sleep, then when you think he's dogging it, he blows by you for a big play.
Moss can't get away with being a petulant little boy in New England. There's no room for those kinds of players. Egos are shelved out here and people play for the good of the team. You would think that might get old, but when you see guys who have already "made it" like Bruschi, Seymour and Harrison working their socks off every day, it makes the new guys realize, this isn't Kansas, Toto, and you have to pull your weight.
EH: The Patriots return teams have been excellent so far this season, as the team ranks in the top five in both kick and punt returns. Covering kicks has traditionally been a weak area for the Colts, although they have shown improvement this season. What's the key to the Patriots' return success, and with Ellis Hobbs a bit banged up, who will the Colts see returning kicks Sunday?
JS: Another good point to watch on Sunday. The Patriots have worked hard on special teams. They had problems at points last year, but the team seems to have figured out their blocking assignments well this year. Ellis Hobbs led the NFL at one point, until teams saw how the Patriots burned them on returns. The Rams observed that the blockers shied away from the kick off too early abandoning their responsibility for an trick play. So St. Louis took advantage of that and made an onside kick that wasn't even close to covered by New England.
Kevin Faulk is a threat in the passing, running and return game for New England
AP Photo/Elise Amendola
With Hobbs out, expect to see a bit of rookie Matt Slater deep. When I interviewed Slater earlier this season, he told me by the grace of God he hopes to be able to return one for a touchdown. He's working very hard at improving his game. Slater is a very humble kid who has to make his father (Hall of Fame OL Jackie Slater) proud. The young Slater is fast, but not as fast as Hobbs. You might also see a bit of Kevin Faulk or Wes Welker deep if Slater isn't getting the ball. Regardless, those typically are the three when Hobbs is out.
EH: Last year, the Patriots were a top-10 defense in nearly every category. This season, they're much closer to the middle of the league. Other than the fact that the offense hasn't given them as many big leads, what's been the biggest difference from last year to this year, and what should the Colts look to attack?
JS: Most people don't realize the Patriots were in the bottom third in the league in defense at the beginning of last season. They habitually have a tough time getting going, at least the past couple of seasons. What helped significantly is the team's ability to crank out points in droves and make opponents one-dimensional.
2008 varies because the same defense is required to be more methodical and even for a longer period of time. Without a comfortable lead to sit on, the defense has to play hard all game long. Sometimes they do a good job (Denver, Kansas City) and sometimes they struggle (Miami, San Diego).
The Colts need to protect Peyton Manning to give him enough time to find the holes in the secondary. If that happens — as a result of play action or better blocking — Manning will turn in another stellar day and people will say he's back to his old self. If the play action isn't working because the Cotls struggle to run the ball, expect the Patriots to change their coverage and we'll see some of those uncharacteristic Manning turnovers. It won't be Peyton's fault, it's just the way the Patriots have a tendency to play him. The key is establishing a strong running game so Manning can do play action, which has typically killed the Pats.
EH: After coming up just short last season, the Patriots were one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl before the season began. Obviously losing Tom Brady has hurt those chances, but New England is off to a good start and looks like it will be a factor in January. So, what's the absolute ceiling for this team? Is it good enough to win the AFC — or the Super Bowl — without Brady?
JS: Once Brady went down, I had to revise my season pick for the team. 6/8ths of the team are the same (OL, RB, WR, LB, DL, TEs) as when Brady was at the helm. The DBs have gone through a huge change without Harrison, Samuel and Bryant, but they're adjusting. The QB obviously has been the biggest factor. Assuming that the Pats will have 3/4s the success as they would have had under Brady and Harrison, I moved my estimate down from 12 wins to 10. The holes on defense are basically still the same, and the playmakers on offense are still there. It's Cassel's ability (or inability) to get the ball in their hands, which has been the problem.
I still think the Pats challenge for the playoffs and they're one of the teams on the cusp at the end. It all depends on how well Cassel learns from his mistakes. At the rate he's taking sacks, it's not a good omen for winning it all (28 through seven games, compared to Brady's 21 all last year).
Jon Scott has covered the NFL since 1995, and is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider and Comcast SportsNet New England. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA), Jon has been a guest analyst on the NFL Network, Sporting News Radio, ESPN Radio and other outlets.