Patriots Insider's Jon Scott spent a few minutes with VikingUpdate.com's Tim Yotter to share some insights into the New England Patriots team that stands at 5-1 as they prepare for the Minnesota Vikings. Scott, who has covered the Patriots since Belichick's arrival, provides a closer look at some trouble spots for New England.
Don't miss Behind Enemy Lines Part 1, where Tim answered questions about the Vikings.
1) The record says the Patriots have survived just fine without Randy Moss. Has there been a noticeable difference in the offense and how has it survived?
Jon Scott: The Patriots say they may be fine without Moss, but the real test hasn't come yet. I'm one of those in the camp that believes teams played the Patriots to eliminate their deep threat of Moss over the top, and that without Moss in New England, the defenses they face will play differently. In other words, in my opinion, I think that means defenses will have an easier time against the Patriots now. It's started to show up in the scores.
Moss's presence opened up things underneath for the Patriots' other receivers. Tom Brady struggled to complete mid-level passes against both the Chargers and the Ravens, though Baltimore allowed Deion Branch to run wild later in the game. If the Patriots don't start stretching the field, the offense will continue to slow down.
In three games in Minnesota, Moss has 166 yards on 12 receptions. In New England over four games, Moss managed just nine receptions for 139 yards. Though Moss totals were less in New England, his average was 15.4 per catch. More telling is that the Patriots averaged 7.4, 6.5 and 8.8 per pass play in the three games Moss was targeted this season. Since then, New England managed just 5.4, 5.7 and 3.6 yards per completion.
There's no doubt the passing game of the Patriots has been virtually neutered, despite what the talking heads say. It's only going to get tougher for the Patriots to get big plays downfield from here on out without a guy like Moss.
2) What was the fan reaction when the Patriots traded Moss?
Scott: It was divided. I've been around a lot of fan bases, and the Patriots fans tend to be both pragmatic and arrogant. Depending on whom you ask, the base was split. According to some reports, roughly 70 percent were for the trade, while other reports indicate that less than 40 percent thought it was a good move.
People up here tend to really frown on selfish players, or those perceived to be holding out for the money. This is Yankee thrift at its finest. The New England natives have a paper called the Yankee Pennysaver, pointing out bargains from all over. That mentality has permeated their love for football. Eventually, the fans have no problem saying "enough is enough, if you don't like it here, then leave." And that includes saying goodbye to guys like Logan Mankins, Randy Moss, Asante Samuel, and even (for some people) Adam Vinatieri.
3) We had the pleasure of "talking with" Bill Belichick on a conference call this week, underscoring his reputation as being aloof with the media. He has the consistent success to gain fan support, but what is the feeling in the New England area as fans weigh his personality against his success?
Scott: There was a mantra that permeated all football fan arguments here in New England: in Belichick we trust. That theory was severely tested during the Spygate days, and again when the Patriots started losing games they normally would have won easily. People judge the play-calling, the personnel moves (or lack of), and the concept that the team could operate without coordinators.
But with his success, Belichick gets a free pass for a lot of the negative parts of his public persona. Maybe it's just because we get to see a little bit of the real Belichick every once in a while that we tend to give him some more slack than the rest of the public. It's the same personality that caused many, many Cleveland fans to really dislike him.
4) Beyond Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, the defense isn't full of its normal long-time veterans. How does it continue to get it done?
Scott: The defense is near the bottom of the league in nearly every category, and they haven't even played the best teams in the NFL. I would say that the other units have carried this year's group a little bit more than in past seasons. Losing guys like Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrable and Richard Seymour to retirement or trade has hurt the leadership on this team. The defense is young. The veterans who could step up to lead are either new (Jarrad Page), or are out with injury (Ty Warren, Leigh Bodden).
What you see with this defense is a lot of younger plug-and-play type players. New England runs schemes, which is why they tend not to hold on to superstars. The scheme is set so that if one player isn't there that another can step in and keep the scheme intact. It has allowed them to weather the storm at corner and safety despite turnover every year at the positions. Wilfork is the unquestioned leader on that side of the ball, because he sets the example on the field. It also helps to have a bunch of high-character guys on that side of the field.
5) According to the rankings, the Patriots aren't dominant in any one area, but they are especially weak in pass defense. Is that just a function of their youth or what is going on there?
Scott: You nailed it, they're ‘especially' weak in pass defense and it has a lot to do with the youth of the group. As I noted earlier, the veterans on the team are either hurt (Bodden on I/R, Page new/hurt) or aren't that old. James Sanders, the oldest of the bunch, is just 26. Youth and turnover have been a big part of the issue.
At corner: The Patriots are starting rookie Devin McCourty, and second-year player (first- year starter) Kyle Arrington, who replaced second-year player Darius Butler this season. Last year Butler had replaced third-year player Terrence Wheatley who had been a starter alongside Jonathan Wilhite, with Shawn Springs and Ellis Hobbs (both no longer with the team). The season before it was Asante Samuel and Hobbs. The position has never been settled since Hobbs and Samuel left.
At safety, the Patriots are starting second-year pro Patrick Chung next to Sanders, who returns to the lineup after being supplanted by Brandon Meriweather last year. Chung was hurt and the team needed another safety so rookie undrafted free agent Sergio Brown is playing because Page is also hurt.
It's a rag-tag bunch to be sure, though there are some talented players. McCourty and Meriweather are first-round picks. Butler, Chung and Wheatley are second-round picks. Sanders, and Wilhite were fourth-rounders. Brown and Arrington went undrafted.
6) Tell us about Brandon Tate. He looks like an exciting playing on kick returns, but how is he incorporated into the offense?
Scott: Tate had a huge career in college as a kick returner, but ended up blowing out his knee in his final season at North Carolina. His draft stock was hurt, because he needed to rehab his as a rookie and began his NFL career on the PUP list. After a couple games he shut it down for the season because of the knee issue.
People wondered what Tate could do and were starting to get excited in the preseason after seeing him make some pretty good plays. I was told by one NFL scout that he could possibly be the best of the three UNC receivers taken in that draft class, which included Brooks Foster and Hakeem Nicks. It was because he was supposedly more ready to play, ran better routes and offered a higher upside.
Tate ranks third among kickoff returners with at least 10 returns on the season, averaging 31.7 yards per return, just behind Jets returner Brad Smith (31.8 avg.). Tate has broken a couple of big returns, resulting in two TDs to tie Leon Washington who leads the league with a 35.1 average.
As a member of the offense, Tate is just beginning to see more attention. He's pretty quick, faster than you would have thought for a guy with a blown-out knee. At 6-foot-1, he's the tallest receiver on the roster now that Randy Moss is gone. Like Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Deion Branch, Tate seems more like a crisp route-runner than a downfield threat. Still, he can stretch the defense a little, and I'd expect the Patriots to try to use him that way when he's not returning kicks. You'll start to see Tate outside, likely running a lot of the routes Moss ran in New England when he was here.
Prediction for the game (and why):
Scott: Patriots 27, Vikings 24. I expect we're going to see a number of big plays by both teams. The Patriots have done well against the run, but Adrian Petersen is an entirely different runner than those who New England has faced thus year. With Moss back in Minny, I'd expect at least one big play from him against the DBs he used to practice against. And Visanthe Shiancoe should enable the Vikings to keep drives alive. Still, I'm leaning toward Tom Brady staying strong at home, and recording his 24th consecutive win as a starter at home, to move one spot behind Favre, who leads the league at 25.
Again, be sure to check out BEL Part 1 for an inside look at the Vikings.