Ahead: Breaking Down the Patriots' 05-06 Schedule - Part 3
By Darren Kelly
The Patriots received a unique schedule this season. Their first six games are all against non-division opponents. They've got two division foes and three more non-division games in the second part of the season. And they finish with four of their final five games against division rivals, including two against the Jets.
Part 3 of our look at New England's upcoming schedule is a preview of the season's final five weeks. Included in this stretch are both match-ups with the division rival New York Jets, and the second game of the year against both Buffalo and Miami.
New York Jets
Sunday, December 4 (4:15 PM)
Law joins a defensive unit that allowed the 4th-fewest points in the NFL last year. First year defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson put all the pieces together to form one of the premier defenses in the league. Their run defense and pass rush were improved dramatically over the previous three seasons under coordinator Ted Cottrell (the Jets went from allowing 143.4 yards a game rushing in 2003 to 97.9 last season).
The Jets did not have a draft pick in the first round this year, and all of their defensive draft picks came in the later rounds. Nose tackle Sione Pouha was taken in the third round, while safeties Andre Maddox and Kerry Rhodes were taken in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively.
One area of concern for the Jets last season was in the secondary. After St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger threw for 450 yards against them in one game, Rams coach Mike Martz said the Jets had the "worst secondary" he had ever seen. If Ty Law is healthy, his addition should dramatically improve the secondary, and should also compensate for the bizarre retirement of Donnie Abraham. The 31-year-old Abraham refused to sign the one-year, $6.7 million tender the Jets had offered him for 2005 as the club's franchise player. Leaving that money on the table, Abraham retired last month, citing family considerations.
At linebacker, last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year, Jonathan Vilma, will be joined by six-year veteran Barry Gardner, who started the last five games of the season at middle linebacker for the Browns in 2004, and was also a huge part of the Browns' special teams. Dewayne Robertson will be joined by former Giant Lance Legree at tackle.
The Jets' top draft pick was Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent, taken 47th overall. Nugent was the winner of the Lou Groza Award in 2004, given to the nation's top kicker. He was 24-of-27 on field goals last year, and nailed five kicks of 50 yards or more. Cornerback/return man Justin Miller, the Jets' second pick, will eventually be a starter at cornerback, but most of his time this season will likely be spent returning punts and kick-offs.
at Buffalo Bills
Sunday, December 11 (1:00 PM)
When the #2-ranked defense of the Bills wasn't on the field in 2004, you just never knew what the offense would do. During their 1-5 start, the Bills averaged just 12.8 points per game. During their 6-game winning streak that got them back in the playoff race, they scored 38 points per game.
The offense was a key offseason focus for the Bills. They have handed the starting quarterback job to Tulane's J.P. Losman. The second year quarterback threw just 5 passes last season as Drew Bledsoe's backup, but the Bills' brain trust had faith enough in Losman to allow the veteran Bledsoe to walk. Their first three draft picks were all offensive players, but none were first rounders (the Bills traded this year's first round pick last year, and ended up with Losman in the deal). Wide receiver Roscoe Parrish was drafted in the 2nd round and he should add more speed to the passing game (when he returns from a wrist injury). Tight end Kevin Everett was taken in the 3rd round and center Raymond Preston was a 4th round pick.
One more year removed from his knee injury, and with NFL experience under his belt, running back Willis McGahee could be one of the premier running backs in the league. McGahee played in all 16 games for the Bills last season, racking up 1,128 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Receivers Lee Evans and Eric Moulds will be big targets for Losman. And if the special teams can perform the way it did last year -- the Bills tied an NFL record with five returns for touchdowns -- the offense just might be working with a short field most of the time.
[For a look at the Bills' defense, check out Part 2 of this series.]
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Saturday, December 17 (1:30 PM)
The Patriots' only Saturday appearance of the season comes against a Tampa Bay team that has not been the same since winning Super Bowl XXXVII. Since hoisting the Lombardi trophy, the Bucs have gone 12-20, missing the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. (The Patriots have gone 34-4 with back-to-back Super Bowl wins in that span.)
The Bucs still have talent on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly form the cornerstones of the backfield. Linebacker Derrick Brooks, along with defensive ends Greg Spires and Simeon Rice, continue to be the anchors of a defensive unit that ranked 5th overall last year and #1 against the pass. Second round draft pick Barrett Ruud has been impressive during training camp, and could become a key part of the Tampa defense.
Like other defensive-minded teams in the NFL, the Bucs' annual issues are on offense. The well-traveled Brian Griese (playing for his 3rd team in 4 years) will again be the starting quarterback for Tampa Bay. Last season, Griese completed almost 70% of his passes in the 11 games he played in for the Bucs. But he had 12 INTs to go along with his 20 TD passes. That type of turnover ratio won't fly on a team that needs to take care of the ball on offense. Dueling for the backup quarterback spot are Chris Simms and Luke McCown, and if Griese struggles, one of them could be the starter by the time this game rolls around.
Tampa should see some improvement in the running game, after finishing 4th-worst in yards gained last year. Their top draft pick, Carnell Williams, taken 5th overall, rushed for 1,165 yards in his final season at Auburn. Meanwhile, Michael Pittman, Mike Alstott, Charlie Garner, Earnest Graham, and rookie Derek Watson will all be fighting for carries. If the Bucs can put the right rushing combo together, the Tampa rushing offense could become formidable.
at New York Jets
Monday, December 26 (9:00 PM)
While the defense carried the Jets last year, the offense frequently disappointed. After scoring 30+ points in the first two games of the year, the Jets scored 17 or fewer 9 times over the next 14 games. They also scored just 17 in regulation of both of their playoff games.
The Jets have talent on offense, and with new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger at the helm, the Jets will try and put it all together this season. Quarterback Chad Pennington is coming off shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff that kept him out of three games last season. Pennington thrived in the West Coast-style offense that emphasized the running game and short passes over the middle. But Heimerdinger is looking to open the offense up and go down the field more. It will be interesting to see how Pennington and his shoulder respond to the new schemes. His backup this year is Jay Fiedler, who will no longer be splitting time in Miami with A.J. Feeley.
At running back, Curtis Martin might be 32, but last season he became the oldest running back to win a rushing title in 54 years. It was also the best season of his career, as Martin rushed for a career-best 1,697 yards. His 4.6 yards-per-carry average was also the best of his career, but his 371 carries was also a career high. The Jets will be looking to take some carries away from Martin -- especially in short yardage situations -- to help keep him fresh for the whole season. Those carries should go to Derrick Blaylock, but Jerald Sowell, B.J. Askew, and Cedric Houston could be in the mix as well.
The Jets brought back wide receiver Laveranues Coles, who had his best season playing for the Jets two years ago. He'll be matched up with Justin McCareins and Wayne Chrebet as targets for Pennington. At tight end, the Jets thought enough of the Raiders' Doug Jolley that they traded their first round draft pick to get him. Jolley has missed just one game in his three-year career, while averaging 30 catches and 324 yards.
Sunday, January 1 (1:00 PM)
Happy New Year! The Patriots will spend the first day of 2006 entertaining the Dolphins in the final game of the regular season.
There are big changes in store for the Dolphins on defense this year. By the time Week 17 rolls around, we'll have already seen the impact of their offseason decisions. The biggest of these was the trade that sent three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Surtain to the Kansas City Chiefs. In return, the Dolphins got the Chiefs' 2nd round draft pick. That pick ended up being Iowa's Matt Roth, a solid pass-rushing defensive end with good speed and quickness. Roth was in the 1st round on some draft day boards, so for Miami to get him at 46th overall seems to be a pretty good deal.
The Dolphins' 3rd round pick was linebacker Channing Crowder out of Florida. Crowder will spell Zach Thomas at times, but if he can steer clear of the off-field issues that plagued his college career, he could be an immediate asset for the Dolphins.
Miami added defensive tackle Keith Traylor to the mix. Traylor is a massive run-stuffing lineman who will play nose tackle in the Dolphins' 3-4 scheme. Traylor was part of the Patriots' Super Bowl team least year (starting 10 games and finishing with 33 tackles) and also won two Super Bowl titles as a member of the Denver Broncos in 1997 and 1998.
But cornerback is going to be a serious concern for the Dolphins. In addition to trading Surtain, the Dolphins lost second-year cornerback Will Poole to a knee injury in the offseason. Now it appears that either veteran Reggie Howard or 4th-round draft pick Travis Daniels will be the starting corner. But Howard was disappointing last season for the Dolphins and Daniels seems to lack the speed needed for the position.
Darren is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"
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