After taking a step forward against the Cowboys and Jets, the Patriots defense took two steps back last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that they took three steps back. Or maybe even that they curled up into the fetal position and rolled all the way down the hill.
Whatever your metaphor of choice, the 2011 New England Patriots have now allowed more yards through seven games than any team in the history of the NFL. However, amidst all the handwringing about the record-setting (in a bad way) defense, another disturbing trend has emerged. Here are the Patriots yards per play in each of their games starting in week one: 8.9, 7.8, 7.0, 6.8, 6.6, 5.6, 4.5.
It is entirely factual to say that this offense has performed worse in each successive week. Whether this is mere statistical noise or a real trend with predictive value remains to be seen. In either case it’s frightening. Barring an increasingly unlikely improvement on defense, the Patriots need an elite offense to be a Super Bowl contender.
The New York Giants come into Foxborough boasting an explosive offense and a front four that has historically given the Patriots offensive line trouble. In their first real meeting since Super Bowl XLII (since what? I don’t know what you’re talking about) the Patriots hope to right the ship, but it won’t be easy.
These are their keys to victory.
1. Slow Down Eli Manning. You can operate under the assumption that “offer some semblance of resistance in the secondary” will be a key to victory in each game from here on out. We all laughed when Eli claimed to be in the same class as Brady and big brother Peyton during the offseason, but he deserves credit for backing it up. Those who agree with him are still few and far between, but Manning has put up a 64.7% completion percentage, 303 passing yards per game, a 102.1 passer rating, and an interception rate of 2.1%, all of which would be career bests. Given that the immortal Mark Sanchez is the only opposing quarterback who failed to throw for 300 yards against this Patriots secondary, it’s a near cosmic certainty that Manning will eclipse 300. The Giants will likely be without star receiver Hakeem Nicks who is listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury, but Mario Manningham and local product Victor Cruz certainly have the talent to assume Nicks’ role. The Patriots got absolutely destroyed in zone coverage by the Steelers, so expect shorter zones and perhaps a little more man-to-man.
2. Emergence of Taylor Price. Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien has stated on several occasions that he wants to get the second year wide receiver more involved in the gameplan. It’s difficult for the third wide receiver to see many snaps in this offense due to their tendency to use two tight-end formations. The Patriot offense has been stymied in recent weeks by the use of bump-and-run man coverage. Wes Welker and Deion Branch have struggled to get off the line and separate from physical corners. Chad Ochocinco has struggled to even tie his shoes. Price saw an uptick in snaps last week, and on one occasion he was able to get open downfield against the Steelers, but Brady underthrew the ball. He shouldn’t be expected to put up big numbers, but this offense needs a shot in the arm and it appears as though Price may be the man to provide it. Welker is listed as questionable with a neck injury, and if his snaps are limited Price would be the beneficiary.
3. Patriot Offensive Line vs. Giants Front Four. The Giants lead the league in sacks with 26, and New England has struggled with teams that are able to get consistent pressure with a four man rush. Former first round pick Jason Pierre-Paul leads the team with 8.5 sacks, but he’s listed as questionable after suffering a concussion in practice. Even without Pierre-Paul, the Giants do not lack for pass rushers. Osi Umenyiora is joined by Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, who would move from OLB to DE in Pierre-Paul’s absence. Last week rookie Nate Solder split time with Sebastian Vollmer at RT, a trend that may continue given Vollmer’s still balky back. The Patriots need a bounce back performance from LG Logan Mankins, who uncharacteristically struggled last week in Pittsburgh.
Prediction: My gut says the Patriots just don’t have the secondary to hang with an improved Giants passing attack, but my head can’t ignore the Patriots ability to win in Foxborough and Belichick and Brady’s career record coming off of losses. Patriots 28 – Giants 24.