Forethoughts On Four Games: Third Quarter 2013

Bruce is out today. Check RedSoxLinks.com for all the coverage of the Red Sox 3-1 win in game five of the World Series last night. The Sox  now have a chance to close out the Series tomorrow night at Fenway Park. 

Well, the past month sure has had its interesting moments.

After a punch-in-the-head experience at Cincinnati resulting in their first loss, the Pats rebounded with a full 60-minute effort vs. New Orleans, scoring the winning touchdown with only five seconds on the clock. A painful, car-crash-in-slow-motion overtime loss at New York brought the Jets within one game in the standings. After spotting Miami a 17-3 lead at home, the Patriots rode a second-half resurgence to go 2-2 this month and 6-2 on the year, good enough for a two-game lead within the division after the Jets’ loss to the Bengals.

Despite the .750 record, fans have cited many reasons for trepidation. One, injuries: New England currently has as many Hurts as a 1980s film festival. With Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo on season-ending IR, the Patriots’ front seven has looked more like a front 5.5. Two, offense: or lack of it. Quarterback Tom Brady has worked hard just to look mediocre in the first half of this season.

Coming up, New England hosts Pittsburgh November 3, followed by a bye week. They head down to Carolina for a Monday night tilt November 18, followed by a Sunday nighter vs. Denver after a short week – hooray! (Note the sarcasm.) The Pats then open December down in Houston.

Some more thoughts on the November slate:

Can’t Bye Me Love: It seems that the bye week can’t arrive quickly enough. From cornerback Aqib Talib’s hip to Tommy Kelly’s knee to Brady’s hand, the Patriots’ injury report has become the lyrics to “Dem Bones.” The prospect of getting players rested and healthy sounds awfully good right now.

Scratch Their Temple: The on-again, off-again status of defensive lineman Andre Neblett out of Temple reminds us that the back end of New England’s roster remains flexible (something we touched upon in our Shadow Roster back in September). The team’s keeping its eyes open for help. While undrafted rookie defensive tackles Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have done solid work, they have shown their relative lack of size in the run game, especially vs. bigger, stronger O-lines such as New York’s. The team could use more bulk up front.

On that topic…

Hi-yo, Sealver! New England signed defensive tackle/armored car Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325) to their practice squad on October 22. The Utah product has only one game of NFL experience and has been in San Francisco, Denver and Seattle, who waived him in September. If he makes the squad, that could say something about New England’s depth. Not anything necessarily good, but something.

Carter Not The Precedent: Veteran pass-rusher Andre Carter rejoined the team, which makes a lot of sense considering New England’s young defensive ends have been keeping containment about as well as my daughter’s sippy cup. (Seriously, she drops that thing on the floor and it transforms into an apple juice sprinkler.) The Patriots kept constant pressure on Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the second half, utilizing a number of blitz packages to keep their O-line off-balance and notch six sacks on the day. Not sure how often they’ll employ that plan going forward, though it’s worth noting that Pittsburgh’s offensive front has had some trouble this year.

The Year Of The Receiver, AD: It’s been said that, this past summer, rookie wideout Aaron Dobson signed up for a class in Pass-Catching 101, but he dropped it.

Thank you. I’m here all week.

Considering “Dropson” had a couple of notable snares this past week, does this mean he’s turned the corner? Will we be seeing fewer slip-ups from the draft pick who was said to have successfully hauled in every pass thrown his way last year in college? Though Dobson didn’t exactly light it up vs. Miami (four catches, 60 yards), more performances like that will add confidence to an inconsistent passing game.

What Little Boyce Is Made Of: Speaking of rookie receivers, does anyone know anything about Josh Boyce? The most athletic receiver on the roster (check out his combine numbers here). Doesn’t it seem like the fastest guy on the team should get on the field once in a while, or at least make the game-day roster?

It just seems odd that Austin Collie can come in cold and contribute while a guy who’s been with the team for months cant’. Boston sportswriter/raconteur Chris Price  tweeted that Boyce might be going through a so-called “redshirt” season. If true, let’s hope his works out better than Jake Bequette’s.

Shane! Come Back! Man, third down has gotten pretty rough around these parts. The once proud owners of the best third-down conversion rate in the league now have one of the worst. (The Pats only converted two third-down attempts vs. Miami and only one in New York.) Getting Shane Vereen back should help the cause. Brandon Bolden has 17 catches in 2013 but only five in the past three weeks. In New England’s opening-day win at Buffalo, Vereen had seven receptions (playing with an injured wrist, no less). Little did we know that would be the last we’d see of him until November.

Brady In Red: Possibly the most frustrating aspect of the first half of this season (cue the newly-minted Brady Face) revolves around the Patriots’ play caller having a sub-par performance to this point. As tough as the drops and miscommunications have looked, when the young guys have managed to get open, it has appeared as though Brady has missed the opportunity for at least one big play each game.

Sure, his hand looks like a pomegranate with fingers. But that alone fails to explain completing under 50 percent of his passes in two of the past four games. Brady is working through a terrible combination of factors, including some shabby offensive line play in front of him.

Oh, more good news…

Tackle The Issue: We can add right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to the hurt list. Vollmer, whose right leg got tangled up in a pile of bodies, has reportedly undergone surgery. Vollmer, who has been a stalwart on the right side, will see Marcus Cannon taking his place. That necessary move subtracts bulk and depth from the middle of the line. So that’s fun.

Dont’a You Forget About Me: With Mayo out, second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower has taken over play-calling duties. While he has seemed comfortable in that role, we question his ability to maneuver his massive frame around the field chasing tight ends and running backs. Someone – a smaller, quicker linebacker – needs to take on those responsibilities. We nominate Dane Fletcher while wondering if rookie Steve Beauharnais might provide some assistance at some point. Meanwhile, we like Hightower attacking the line of scrimmage like fellow linebacker/jackhammer Brandon Spikes does.

Ryan Over You: Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan has come on strong over the past couple of weeks, notching a pick-6 against the Jets and compiling two sacks vs. the Dolphins and forcing a fumble. The growth of New England’s young defense, including fellow rookies Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and Michael Buchanan, must happen for this team to go far this season. Pittsburgh, currently 29th in the league in points scored, could provide an important springboard into the bye week as the defense tinkers with different looks to suit their younger personnel.

Actually, Not Half Bad: Listen, as rough as some of the first half of this season has been to watch, New England reached 6-2, good enough for tops in their division. Brady has struggled. The defense has lost two of their finest players and has missed Talib, their best remaining player. Still, as youngsters continue to develop on both sides of the ball, the Patriots have a chance to do something this year.

And maybe a chance is all they need. We’ll see.

Predictions? They can handle Pittsburgh and Houston, but should have a tough time stopping Denver. They haven’t played well in Carolina since 2002 (they’ve only played there twice, but still). Let’s say the Pats go 2-2 and end up at 8-4.

Chris Warner can be reached at [email protected] or @cwarn89