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The New England Patriots are severely lacking at the Outside linebacker position. During the second week of training camp sessions, Tully Banta-Cain, who led the team with 9.5 sacks in 2009, limped off the field with what looked to be an ankle injury. Banta-Cain did not make the trip to Atlanta and neither did rookie defensive end Jermaine Cunningham. That's two potential starting backers out.
Derrick Burgess and Marques Murrell were available ot step in, but Burgess plays more of an end while Murrell is still learning the system. Other potential replacements have yet to prove that they have the explosiveness or versatility that has been missing on the outside for some time now.
Even with another preseason win, the Patriots are attempting to make it through without a top outside linebacker. It is difficult to see just how a defense with a glaring need at the position can hold up to dangerous offenses like the ones in Minnesota or Indianapolis.
2. Running The Game
Kevin Faulk has spent his entire career playing in New England and is unarguably a driving presence for the team's running game. As training camp unfolded, the Patriots' focus on the rushing game was hard to ignore. It was clear that the team was working towards a more diversified and multi-faceted offense.
One way to do this? Improve the rushing attack.
Faulk spoke of the Patriots' revived focus, "Your motto is to be a balanced team... Sometimes that may be focusing on the running [game] and sometimes that maybe on focusing on the passing [game]. In recent years it has been both for us but in previous years it has been [focusing] on the pass and second would be [the] running game."
The Patriots were ranked 12th last season in rushes and averaged 120.1 yards per game. Even with veteran running back Fred Taylor, the rushing attack was sluggish, hesitant and couldn't get into a rhythm throughout the season.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis had an impressive showing during the first preseason game when he received the majority of the game's carries. Laurence Maroney's carries were limited but when he was given the ball, he carried it straight into the end zone for two scoring drives.
New England spent several days during last week's practice solely focused on all facets of improving the running game. Ranging from 1-on-1 blocking drills for the offensive linemen to using wide receivers as possible rushing options, all eyes were on the running backs.
3. Derrick Burgess' Return to a Struggling Defense
Every year, a team deals with roster changes and it's always a challenge to continue the progress from the previous season. From the looks of the Patriots' final showing last season against the Baltimore Ravens, there wasn't much progress to work from.
As the team has lost key defensive players in the last few seasons, they've managed to collect some promising, young talent to build a defense around. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork has high hopes.
"They are hard workers. They want to learn. They want to learn this defense. They don't
make any excuses," Wilfork said of the new faces. "That's one thing I love: no excuses. We've started from rock bottom. We've started this whole thing over."
A fresh start is not necessarily a bad thing. As some of those making a "new" start in New England have some impressive experience in other teams. Defensive lineman Gerard Warren is a 10 year veteran acquired from the Oakland Raiders and Damione Lewis also brings a decade of experience from the Carolina Panthers.
Warren and Lewis bring experience but it was the re-signing, retirement and reinstatement of linebacker Derrick Burgess that could make an immediate impact. Wilfork also spoke of Burgess' return.
"I'm happy he's my teammate. He brings what we need to this team, a love for the game, and that's what we need."
Burgess's contribution to the 2010 defense has yet to be seen but with a couple more preseason games left, we'll see if he can provide what has been lacking for the Patriots.
|Holt made difficult catches look easy in Patriots training camp (Getty images/Elsa)
Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio announced earlier this week that veteran wide receiver Torry Holt will be placed on injured reserve due to a knee injury. In a year that would've marked as a comeback for former member of "The Greatest Show on Turf" will now end quietly one game into the preseason. Caserio further elaborated on the decision to place Holt on IR.
"I think the decision with Torry [was that] we just felt that was the best thing for the club at this point in time. Torry came in, he worked hard, and he did everything we've asked him to do."
Holt worked diligently and it definitely showed on the field. At the beginning of the first week of training camp, the 34-year-old was keeping up with top receivers catch for catch. In fact, spectators would see Holt make a grab, look on the roster, look back up at Holt and were simply confused. It was hard to believe that player with a career total of 13,382 receiving yards still had a quickness and bounce in their step.
Holt's comeback may be done for good since it has been reported the surgery required to repair his knee could end his football career. Holt may be gone, but his impact on the team's young receivers will have a lasting effect.
With Holt no longer in contention for a receiver spot, here are how I think the receiving corps will break down: Randy Moss will still be the top receiver for the Patriots as will Wes Welker as No. 2 when he returns to full speed.
The No. 3 slot, interestingly enough, will most likely be another top slot receiver. Second year all-purpose player Julian Edelman has been impressive during camp and during the preseason opener against New Orleans. Edelman has solidified himself as the third best receiver on the roster. Not bad for a kid who played quarterback in college.
Among the remaining receivers, Brandon Tate, Sam Aiken and rookie Taylor Price also have the best chances of recording catches in the upcoming season. Each of these receivers have differing skill sets. Tate has made impressive catches over the middle, on the sidelines and even in the end zone. Aiken was the Special Teams captain in 2009, contributed to the 2007's highly efficient punt coverage squad, and looks to be a solid asset for 2010. In 2007, the Patriots led the league in coverage allowing only 5.3 yards per punt.
The Patriots have focused on adding substantial depth to their passing game. With the variety of receivers on the current roster, it will make for an interesting competition to see who has the most impact behind the starters.
Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Peria Jerry (94) works against New England Patriots center Ryan Wendell, left, during NFL football training camp in Flowery Branch, Ga., Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Paul Abell)
5. Joint Practices Provide Overall Benefits
The Patriots have now practiced with two of their preseason opponents; three sessions with the Saints and two more with the Atlanta Falcons. Bill Belichick has stated that one of the Saints' practices was one of the most productive sessions that he's ever been a part of. It is no surprise that both teams greatly benefit from participating joint practices.
Other than having the chance to work with different defensive schemes, the chance to play against people other than your teammates in practice is what players enjoy most. Players get a chance to test their progress and see what they still need to work on.
Belichick elaborated on some of the most important aspects of joint practices.
"You don't know their defenses. You don't know the calls. You don't know their strategy," he said. "When you've done that two-minute drill against yourself 10 times, you can get into a little bit of a rhythm with it. This is more realistic."
During the sessions against the Saints, the Patriots gained a better understanding of their opponents running attack and also how they executed their deep plays. The Patriots hope that having experience against the Falcons prior to the game will allow for better execution on both sides of the ball.