What happened to the Patriots running game during the last month of the season? The 1-2 punch of Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney was virtually non-existent in the playoffs and now a once formidable backfield tandem is surrounded by question marks heading into the off-season.
The Patriots' ground game had some strong performances this year but it was inconsistent in big games. The team decided to split carries between Dillon and Maroney throughout the year and that strategy was expected to keep both backs fresh for a late season playoff run. However, once the postseason began, the Patriots running game disappeared.
After recording 158 yards in their wildcard playoff victory over the Jets, the Patriots only managed a combined 144 yards against the Chargers and Colts. Maroney was particularly inept in New England's last two games. The rookie only piled up 18 yards on 13 carries. Just like last year, the lack of a running game put too much pressure on quarterback Tom Brady to carry the offense on his shoulders in the playoffs.
Dillon is now 34-years old and his future with the team is uncertain. Even if the veteran returns to the Patriots next season, Maroney is the guys who will need to carry the load on the ground. The rookie showed flashes this year but was never the same after returning from a rib injury that sidelined him for two games. Another offseason in the Patriots conditioning program should serve Maroney well heading into 2007.
Another area the Patriots need to focus on heading into the offseason is linebacker. There is speculation that Tedy Bruschi may retire but even if he doesn't, this is an aging group that got exploited by the Colts offense. New England inserted Eric Alexander into the lineup against the Colts to try and get more speed on the field. However, the young linebacker had his share of problems in his first extensive action of the season.
Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin will all be over 30 years old heading into next season. Tully Banta-Cain is an unrestricted free agent and could be one of many Patriots exiting this offseason. It's time for Bill Belichick to address the linebacking position, both through free agency and the draft.
Alexander and Pierre Woods are really the only young linebackers the Patriots have on their roster and other than Alexander's baptism by fire against the Colts, neither player has much game experience. Junior Seau could return for another year but he just turned 38-years old, so he's not any kind of long-term answer.
Ideally the team would like to keep Vrabel on the outside, where he's more effective rushing the passer. However, if Bruschi and Seau both retire, that would leave only Alexander at inside linebacker. The Patriots have neglected the linebacker position for far too long and if they don't address it aggressively this offseason, they could be in big trouble on the defensive side of the ball come next season.
This is a huge offseason for Belichick and the Patriots. Even though they made another run to the AFC Championship Game and were just minutes away from a Super Bowl appearance, there could be big changes facing this team in the near future. Dillon, Bruschi, Seau, Rodney Harrison and Troy Brown could all be contemplating retirement. Meanwhile, Banta-Cain, Asante Samuel and Daniel Graham are unrestricted free agents. Despite the fact they're coming off another great year, the Patriots could have an entirely new look in 2007.