The return of Dion Lewis should improve the running attack (source: www.nesn.com)
Given the recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals that denied Tom Brady's request to rehear his case in order to overturn the 4 game suspension imposed by the NFL and Roger Goodell, it appears even more likely that Brady may serve his 4 game suspension to start the season. While many Patriot fans, media pundits, and Las Vegas odds makers will downgrade the Patriots chances in the first four games. However, The P-Men once again are among the favorites to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy when the season concludes.
But let's be honest here. Last year, the Patriots limped down the stretch and lost yet again another game in Denver due to the fact that their offensive line consistently got turnstyled by opposing pass rushers that chose to ignore the team's 30th ranked rushing game and rush Brady at will. Even when the team chose to max protect with extra linemen or TE's the result was often the same . . . Brady flat on his back. If this problem doesn't get corrected it's just a matter of time before the soon-to-be-39-year-old quarterback gets seriously injured . . . or at the very least posts a completion percentage, interception rate, and fumble rate that resemble that last quarter of the season.
In the meantime, if Brady serves the suspension, Jimmy Garappolo will make his first NFL start and the team does not want to subject him and his very limited professional experience to the relentless pass rush Brady was forced to endure down the stretch. So it would serve the team well to vastly improve its poor rushing attack in order to move the chains, to shorten the game by keeping the ball, and limit the pressure on Jimmy G. Because with the second year quarterback's inexperience, poor protection and obvious passing situations will certainly lead to worse results than we saw last season with Brady at the helm.
Re-enter Dante Scarnecchia. After 2 seasons of retirement, Coach Scar is tasked with piecing together the shambles of the offensive in order to turn the team's biggest weakness last year into a strength. This is not unprecedented in the Bill Belichick era. In the 2008 season, after Brady went down with a season-ending-knee injury in Week 1, Matt Cassel posted some nice statistics that helped the team to an 11-5 record. A major reason they were successful that season was that the team ran the ball consistently and effectively under Scar's tutelage. Their commitment to the running game led to over 32 rushes per game and a 4.4 yard/carry average. They relied on their defense and special teams more and tried to prevent the outcome of the game falling into Cassel's inexperienced right arm.
Easy said than done, right? Maybe not. BB almost always focuses on vastly improving a glaring team weakness in the offseason and preseason and the results are usually successful. Let's not forget that Nate Solder will return from the IR and Sebastian Vollmer will slide back to his natural RT position. Vollmer also was obviously not healthy down the stretch either but who was to play LT? Marcus Cannon? Egad! Bryan Stork, Shaq Mason, Josh Kline, and Tre Jackson all either missed time due to injury, played out of position (due to a teammate's injury), or both. While injuries do not tell the whole story, they indeed were a reason for their failure in the decline of offensive production in the latter stages of the season.
Again, back in 2008, and in other seasons where they were successful running the ball, the team ran the ball effectively using traps, counters, and power sweeps. Scar notoriously runs a tough camp with internal competition and attention to detail being key facets of his program. Additionally, the likes of Stork, Jackson, and Mason are all better run blockers than they are pass blockers. The team is also 2-deep at every OL position with players with multiple NFL starts so inexperience will not be a factor.
In the backfield, Dion Lewis and James Develin (a very effective run blocker) will return from injury, which will provide better resources to move the ball on the ground. The speed and shiftiness of Lewis and James White will add a dynamic aspect to their game since they can be used effectively in screens and oustide runs. Lagarrette Blount, Develin, and a 3rd tackle or TE can be used in more traditional power packages against teams that are notoriously poor against the run, such as the Colts.
If the team is committed to the ground game and utilizes their assets properly, the result should be much more wide open routes for the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett, and Danny Amendola since teams will have to respect the running game. Additionally, such as they did early last season, they will be able to work the play action more effectively and throw out of running formations. So the end result of their emphasis on the running game should be a successful season under both quarterbacks.