Jon Scott: Not really. The Patriots rank in the bottom third of the league on third downs. They've been like that all preseason, and have yet to correct it. Although the team is finding a way to keep the yardage down, and the points off the board — the only measurements that count — the inability to stop opponents on third down will come back to haunt them. You have to like what you see coming out of the front seven. Jerod Mayo is getting better, and Deltha O'Neal looks like the cornerback the Patriots needed months ago. How they fit in to the system will help determine how the team fares when facing better offenses than the Jets (25th overall) and Chiefs (27th overall).
Q: How has first-round pick Jerod Mayo, and what has been his role?
JS: Mayo has the speed the Patriots desperately needed in their linebacker group last season. He's picking up the defense better now than the preseason, and he has the athletic ability to make plays. He's not on par with some veterans around the league just yet, but it will not take long before he is. Though Mayo isn't quite as dynamic as, say, a Patrick Willis as a rookie, Mayo's ability to absorb the Patriots defense and contribute is huge. Veteran Victor Hobson wasn't able to do it, and the Patriots have had plenty of other veterans who struggled. Mayo doesn't appear to have those issues. He may not earn Rookie of the Year consideration, but the fact that he's starting on this defense speaks more highly than any award he may receive.
Q: The secondary entered the season as a question mark; can it be exploited?
JS: Absolutely. There are big holes in coverage, which the Patriots are working hard to fix. James Sanders blew coverage in Week 1 to almost allow the Chiefs to get into the game. Communication issues almost allowed the Jets to get big plays downfield in Week 2. Will teams be able to hit on those later on? Yes. Will those plays be game-changers? Probably. If the Dolphins can be efficient on third down — like the Jets and Chiefs (near 50 percent success rate), then there's little reason they won't be able to have a legitimate shot to exploit that secondary.
Q: Outside of Mayo, any new faces on the Patriots defense we should look out for?
JS: Look for Lewis Sanders (No. 29). Sanders started in Week 1 before Deltha O'Neal was able to get up to speed. O'Neal is the other. Both are new to the system this year with Sanders arriving in March, and O'Neal arriving in September after the Bengals made him a final roster cut. Both are bringing veteran leadership and experience to a cornerback group that was projected to see a lot of playing time from their two 2008 rookie draft picks, Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite. A lot of the Patriots' success — or lack of — will depend on O'Neal and Sanders. One other name is Shawn Crable. He's been inactive so far, but we expect to see more of him as the season progresses. Right now, there just hasn't been enough room on the active list to move him ahead of one of the other linebackers. The kid can play.
Q: How have the Pats special teams looked so far?
JS: The kicking game has been tremendous. Although the Patriots gave up a big return against the Chiefs, they completely shut down the Jets in Week 2. Stephen Gostkowski went 4-for-4 last week, and is showing better accuracy in the season than during camp or preseason when his field goals weren't down the middle. He put five of the team's kickoffs out of the end zone or so deep the Jets had to take touchbacks. The punting has been fairly solid with Chris Hanson. There were concerns with Hanson's average from last season, but he uncorked a 70-yard punt this year, demonstrating there still some life in that leg of his. The Patriots have brought in a number of punters for tryouts and on the practice squad, so a change isn't entirely out of the question — though it's unlikely. Coverage units have been OK. Gary Guyton is turning into the type of quiet contributor the Patriots find that show up on special teams. An UDFA, Guyton beat out Hobson for a roster spot, and has been active for both games.
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 around the web.