Chris Steuber: Who’s been the biggest surprise for the Patriots this season?
Jon Scott: While it’s tempting to list Randy Moss as the biggest surprise by turning in one of the best seasons in NFL history, I think there’s another more deserving candidate; Wes Welker. Welker has managed to turn in one of the best slot receiver performances in team history. He’s on pace to knock Troy Brown’s single season receiving record of 101 out of top position, unheard of for the team’s No. 3 receiver. Only T.J. Houshmandzadeh (76) and Derrick Mason (72) have more than Welker’s 68 receptions through 10 games. At his current pace, Welker will finish with 108 receptions for 1,166 yards and 11 TDs. Considering what he’s been able to contribute, his acquisition more than made up for the departure of the team’s former No. 1 receiver Deion Branch.
Steuber: What is the fans perception of Bill Belichick in New England? Is he beloved or are there skeptics?
Scott: Belichick has earned the respect of the fans. While they don’t have the opportunity to be around the team’s head coach on a regular basis, most of their perception is based on his record and the sound bytes the media provide. I don’t think you’ll find a lot of people who will come out and say he’s a great guy, like many coaches in the NFL, they will say they wouldn’t want anyone else running their team.
Steuber: Just when you think Tom Brady can’t get any better the front office decides to get him some legitimate weapons, and he’s now on pace for a record setting season. He currently has 38 touchdowns and just four interceptions… What does this all mean?
Scott: Brady’s lack of weapons on offense has held the team back in the past. It took late game heroics with last minute field goals for New England to win a pair of Super Bowls, and a solid rushing attack to win the third. When you think that Brady’s top receivers have been Deion Branch, David Givens, David Patten and Troy Brown you realize how much the quarterback play had to do with the team’s success. Although the Patriots tried to get Brady some legitimate weapons in the later rounds, it turns out, those picks weren’t as good as what free agency offered. With a legitimate No. 1 target in Randy Moss, the Patriots offense has opened up. Wes Welker is chewing up defenses over the middle and underneath while Moss and Donte Stallworth pose the deep threats.
Obviously the increased level of talent is one reason why Brady is on pace to shatter Peyton Manning’s single season TD record of 49. As Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said this week, it’s hard to find any weaknesses in their offense.
Steuber: Randy Moss has been the catalyst for the Patriots this season, but what has the addition of Wes Welker done for this team?
Scott: I think the previous answer of biggest surprise sums up Welker’s impact on the Patriots. If you think about the specifics of the offense, Welker adds a dimension to the slot that the Patriots haven’t had since Troy Brown was young. Smaller, quick receivers have the opportunity to create mismatches against a defense, and that’s exactly what Welker has done. Factor in the other receivers, tight end Ben Watson and the threat to run with Laurence Maroney or Kevin Faulk, and a defense has to be very versatile to keep up.
Steuber: When you can score as many points as the Patriots have this season the need for field goals isn’t necessary. But it appears Belichick hates kicking field goals even though he has a young star in Stephen Gostkowski. Instead of playing with arrogance on offense, why not settle for three-points?
Scott: There was a great point made earlier when the subject of “running up the score” came up, going for it on fourth down gives the defense the opportunity to stop the Patriots. If the opponent wanted to get some momentum, then stopping the Pats on fourth down would do it. Otherwise, kicking a field goal is just adding points. Going for it gives the opponent opportunity to make plays.
I’ve watched Gostkowski a lot the two years he’s been in the league. He’s not as accurate as you may think, and he’s not yet a star. The Patriots know this. While I don’t think it’s a lack of confidence in Gostkowski that causes the Pats to go for it on fourth down deep in the opponent’s territory, I’m not so sure they want to have to rely on Gostkowski.
Bills Coach Dick Jauron – one of the most well respected coaches who play against Bill Belichick – said after the loss to the Patriots. I don’t believe in that (running up the score). It’s not their (offense) job to stop; it’s our (defense) job to stop them. Call it arrogance, piling on, or whatever, but the Patriots used their 4th string and 5th string running backs along with their reserve offensive linemen against the Bills for most of the second half.
Steuber: Mike Vrabel has been an unsung hero for the Patriots for a long time, but this season he’s been tremendous defensively. What does he mean to the defense?
Scott: Vrabel has benefited from the addition of Adalius Thomas. With the middle of the field covered by Thomas – and Junior Seau – Vrabel has been able to switch back to his more natural outside linebacker position. As a former defensive end, Vrabel’s move back to outside backer for the Patriots is takes advantage of his size and power to get to the quarterback. His contributions have been significant to the defense when you consider the other talented linemen on this team. Vrabel’s impact at OLB has also been felt in the rush defense. Last year Tully Banta-Cain was called on to shore up the edge, and it was a mitigated disaster at times. With Vrabel on the outside, the Patriots have upgraded their defense on the edge, and added a better pass rush specialist.
Steuber: Everybody talks about the offensive firepower of the Patriots, but nobody discusses the play of the offensive line. How vital have they been?
Scott: I’m torn between giving the line more credit and giving the offensive formations more credit. Tom Brady has been hit a lot, but the line continues to do its job. The Bills game showed that when the Patriots are able to pick up a 5 or 6 man rush with blitzers coming from different angles, Brady can be devastating. If you go back and watch the tape, the Bills brought a lot of pressure at times, and the line was able to adjust protection to give Brady the time he needed. When they didn’t he just stepped up and either made a short scramble or tossed the ball to his check down receiver. I think running a 4 or 5 receiver set has put defenses on their heels. You can’t blitz or you’ll give the Patriots one-on-one matchups for Moss, Welker Stallworth or Watson. While you may be able to cover one or two of them with multiple defenders, the formation allows Brady to find the best matchup and get rid of the ball quickly.
With all that said, the line is still doing an excellent job pass protecting. It’s the rushing game which needs a little boost. You can seem them struggle to open holes against a good front seven.
Steuber: Is there any concern about Laurence Maroney and his injury history?
Scott: The media continue to focus on Maroney and his lack of production, something that’s warranted considering how well Sammy Morris ran early on in the season. A lot of Maroney’s struggles have been attributed to his absence due to injury. I think the Patriots want to see Maroney produce the tough yards on a consistent basis. Until then, there will continue to be concern over the former Minnesota Gopher’s durability.
Steuber: The Eagles are currently a 23-point underdog heading into Sunday’s game. How crazy of a line is this and is it warranted?
Scott: I’ve never seen that type of spread before. The Patriots deserve to be favorites for obvious reasons, but I thought Philadelphia was a better team that those points indicate. I do however understand that the Patriots are the wrong type of matchup for Philadelphia who is dealing with a ton of injuries, so that’s probably why the odds makers set the line so high. No one wants to bet against New England, including me, even with a 20-point spread.