1. Tom Brady has been very good this year, but a far cry from what we saw the last time he played a full season in 2007. What exactly has changed around him to cause the drop in production?*
Jon Scott: When looking at Brady's stats, the part that may surprise people is that Brady is having the second best season of his career – a career that included three Super Bowl victories. Despite his statistical anomaly, his best season ever, did not result in a Super Bowl win. So while 2007 is impressive from a records perspective, it has been widely labeled a failure for both the team and the QB who couldn't go 19-0.
Points are what matter, and Brady hasn't been able to capitalize on those opportunities when presented. Some of it is his receivers, some is that defenses have figured out how to defend Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Welker is performing on par with 2007, but Moss is significantly behind his pace from that season (2009: 81.7 ypg vs 2007: 93.3 ypg).
The most telling difference is the difference in target #4 (the 3rd WR). In this case; Dante Stallworth caught 46 receptions for 697 yards (43.5 ypg) in 2007, while Julian Edelman has managed just 26 passes for 228 yards (16.3 ypg) this season.
When there is no other target to take advantage of the coverage, the patriots offense grinds to a halt, and Brady seems to be having a bad day. Those Patriots who filled the role as No. 3 and No.4 targets have not stepped up.
2. Do you expect to see Fred Taylor play in Sunday's game, and if so, how much?
JS: Taylor has talked up a storm as if he were planning on playing. This week he has practiced the most since he was injured. Taylor's ankle injury has been a serious issue for him. Though the Patriots have missed his production – Taylor led all Patriots RBs at the time of his injury – Laurence Maroney has picked up his game in Taylor's absence. New England also has Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris active now. So the need to get Taylor back into the lineup isn't as great as it was a few weeks ago.
All indications are that Taylor will play on Sunday. If form holds true, we'll should see him in the running back rotation on Sunday. Depending on how the coaching staff plan to attack Jacksonville's defense, we may not see a lot of Taylor on Sunday with all of the other options the team has.
3. It was believed that weather, as well as the porous run defense last week by Buffalo was a main reason for the Patriots healthy diet of the ground game. Although it's expected to rain on Sunday, do you believe that the Jaguars 31st ranked pass defense will cause Brady to air it out quite a bit more?
JS: The Patriots offense fares well when they can run the spread – 4 or 5 WR/TE/RB targets who can go out in a pattern. Even in bad weather Brady has been known to air it out. The one type of weather, which will force New England to change their strategy, is high winds. The forecast doesn't call for that, though precipitation is possible.
In the Buffalo game, New England had success running the ball. Maroney was able to gain big chunks of yardage at times, putting the team in good second and third down situatoins. That success allowed the team to run playaction with more success, something the Patriots have been working on.
I would expect the Patriots to try to get the ball to Moss and if he's doubled (as I would expect), then to Welker and Watson. The Patriots need to get their passing game back on stride and things haven't gone so well lately. Then again, Jacksonville may gameplan to take away the pass by playing more DBs, so the Patriots could use Taylor, Maroney, Morris and Faulk to greater advantage.
4. How important is it for the Patriots to get Randy Moss involved early on? If he's not, will he shut it down like he did a couple weeks ago?
JS: I wouldn't say Moss will shut it down, but it is always important to get Moss involved in the offense. When he gets rolling, even in double coverage, Moss can be a game changer. Even the threat of Moss catching the deep ball is enough to give the other receivers opportunities they usually don't get. It's just a matter of Brady hitting his receivers when they're open. Part of the issue is the passes have been off.
5. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had numerous compliments for the Jacksonville Jaguars this week. So much so that it was hardly believable. Does he say this about every opponent every week?
JS: If he said they run hard, they tackle hard, they have playmakers on offense and on the other side of the ball and they are well coached, then yes. It seems like he says something similar every week. It's almost laughable when he complements a team that has obvious disadvantages in numerous categories, like Tampa Bay and Tennessee when the Patriots played them earlier this year. Instead of complimenting the QB play, Belichick compliments their toughness, and their ability to play hard despite the record.
While Belichick may be blowing roses at his opponents – in this case Jacksonville – you have to believe he's seen enough of them on film to know that they do a lot of things well. Jacksonville wouldn't be in position to make the playoffs with a couple of wins had they not played well. So instead of criticizing the opponent, Belichick just points out the good parts.
Belichick doesn't BS the media, as many claim, he just believes in understating the challenges, while overstating the dangers of opposing teams.
6. Although the Patriots had a solid season last year with Matt Cassel and they're likely to win the AFC East this season, it seems as if the air of invincibility was lost as the clock struck zero in Super Bowl XLII. Do you feel that team's are more confident when they play New England?
JS: There's certainly a comfort factor at home the team is used to, and one on the road they haven't been able to satisfy. Even at home, this team has been flat in their emotion. It wasn't until Wes Welker's emotions erupted against the Carolina Panthers that the crowd and the team picked up their intensity. Welker took a massive hit from one of the Carolina Panthers' defensive backs, and the whole stadium when oooohhhh. When he popped up, and jogged back to the huddle, the crowd watched to see if their top player was injured. Brady threw to Welker on the very next play resulting in another hit, but Welker held on for a crucial first down. He snapped upright, gave the signal he made the yardage necessary, pumping his arms as he strutted away. The crowd erupted, giving the team the support they needed. The play intensified and New England went on to win the game.
When watching this team, it seems that too often there is no spark, no leader, little emotion. Welker's display of intensity after taking a bone jarring hit from an opponent, was the most emotional we've seen this team. That intensity is what's missing from the 2009 club.
Are the Patriots confident? Sure. Are they lacking intensity from leaders who are no longer on the team? Definitely.
7. The Patriots secondary has been battered and abused from time to time this season. Was it a mistake to let Asante Samuel go in free agency?
JS: It probably wasn't a mistake to let Samuel go for monetary reasons, but it was a mistake to not have a plan in place the season the team made the deal not to franchise him. That's been the real issue at corner for the Patriots. Every team has key players who leave via free agency, retire or get injured. The good organizations usually have a player in development coming up the ranks to fill in the hole.
After Samuel departed, New England added a pair of relatively unknowns in the 2008 Draft (Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley). The time to draft cornerbacks was 2007, Samuel's last season in New England. Though the team signed Fernando Bryant, Jason Webster and Lewis Sanders to replace Samuel, only Sanders saw any action. Bryant was gone by the end of the preseason and Webster spent the year on I/R. The team signed Deltha O'Neal after the final roster cuts.
Obviously 2009 hasn't been much better; Wilhite and Wheatley have seen limited action. Sanders, Bryant, Webster and O'Neal are no longer with the team. Ellis Hobbs was traded. Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs were signed to fill the gap. The only saving grace this year has been the ply of rookie corner Darius Butler and veteran Bodden's improved play over any of the DBs the team has fielded since Samuel left.
8. New England has a slew of draft picks again next season. Is this particular version of the Patriots in somewhat of a rebuild mode as they are trying to blend youngsters after they lost key veterans, especially on defense?
JS: I think the rebuilding process is to fix the cap crunch the team is in. Mixing in rookies is a good way to get valuable players at reasonable pricing for a 3-4 year window. The departure of Richard Seymour ($6.1 million), Mike Vrabel ($1 million) via trade, combined with the retirement of Tedy Bruschi ($700K) penalized the team not only in a loss of leadership, but reduced cap space.
The danger of trying to rebuild with young players is what happens when they don't work out. WR Chad Jackson was classic example, the Patriots traded up for Jackson who was then cut. The team still carries a cap charge for him, as well as for QB Kevin O'Connell, another player they took earlier than his projected draft round because they felt there was something there.
When you miss on a 1st round pick, the impact is long lasting. When you miss on later picks the negative impact isn't as severe. With that said, the Patriots could have (and probably should have) selected a linebacker (Clay Matthews) or offensive lineman (Michael Oher) in the first round this year. Instead they traded down to use the picks on Players like Darius Butler and Ron Brace.
I would expect next year's Draft class to include another defensive lineman, a linebacker (pass rusher), another receiver and probably another offensive lineman.
9. With the struggles of the Jacksonville pass defense, would you expect a similar offensive strategy by New England to what they had in the divisional playoff game back in January of 2008?
JS: I do expect the Patriots to try to bring pressure on the opposing QB. Byron Leftwich had real trouble handling the edge pass rush in previous playoff matchups against New England. The 2007 season game was different with David Garrard passing for nearly 300 yards. The Patriots used a healthy dose of Laurence Maroney to keep the chains moving, as Maroney finished with over 120 yards on the day.
This time, I would expect a similar attempt to get points. Plenty of play action, some screens to Faulk, Welker and Maroney. If Brady can find a way to get the ball to Moss deep, that would be good, but weather may limit what they can do.
JS: I expect the Patriots to win the game, but I strongly believe the Jaguars have the ability to pull off the upset. New England has been vulnerable to the running game, as well as the passing game. Their total stats don't indicate an issue, but trust me when I say, the Jaguars could have a big day on the ground. If that happens, Garrard will have a much better opportunity to use playaction against a questionable Patriots' secondary. Ultimately, I feel New England will find a way to win, but I don't expect it to be in impressive fashion.
Final: Patriots 27 Jaguars 24
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