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Why rest of league still is afraid of Patriots

10.23.12 at 12:46 am ET
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The Tom Brady-Bill Belichick combo is enough to concern the rest of the league. (AP)

At 4-3, the Patriots have issues, but you won’t catch any of the other 31 teams in the league thinking New England isn’t still among the league’s elite.

To the contrary — one high-level NFL personnel man who has broken down extensive amounts of film on New England said the Patriots are just as dangerous as ever for two reasons: given some extra time (with the bye week) history tells us that they have shown an uncanny ability to self-correct and/or camouflage their weaknesses. They also have a healthy Tom Brady under center.

Sleep on the Patriots at your own peril, he warns New England’s critics, and adds that it’s likely the rest of the league feels the same way.

“The problems they face are legitimate, but they’ve shown an ability in the past to fix any issues they’ve faced,” he said. “And they still have Brady.”

Through the first seven games, the Patriots have struggled in several areas, particularly when it comes to pass defense. While he’s not sure what’s happened with the New England defensive backs, he believes one of the reasons the pass defense is struggling is that the Patriots — who preach team defense more than anyone — are failing when it comes to playing as a group.

“In the fourth quarter against the Jets, some of their defensive deficiencies were exposed,” he said. “You get a pass rush, that can mask a lot of those defensive weaknesses they’ve had. I saw [Bill] Belichick talk about it after the game, and some players said the same thing — we have to get better pressure on the quarterback.

“You have to be able to push the pocket and get after the quarterback, and right now, that’s one of the weaknesses of this team.”

As for their inability to take advantage of some opportunities and close teams out down the stretch, there’s a belief that the passing game isn’t quite where it needs to be with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski fighting injuries.

“At this time, the tight end group is not fully healthy — those two guys are playing through injury, and are not at optimum levels at this point,” he said of the Hernandez/Gronkowski combo. “I think it’s affecting their passing game. They are working their way through some nagging injuries at this point, but they’re playing. But the passing game is still working through some things.”

Offensively, one of several things working in New England’s favor is an increased balance. The running game is an aspect of the Patriots’ offense that now demands much more attention from defensive coordinators.

“One positive I can see from the New England offense that wasn’t there last year was that when they want to run the ball and stay committed to it, they can do it with great success,” he said. “They certainly have a lot more balance that they have had in the past.”

And then, there’s an offensive line that doesn’t appear to miss much of a beat, even when an All-Pro like Logan Mankins isn’t able to go.

“Another thing that really sticks out for me is the quality of the New England coaching staff and the level of self-awareness they have. They are a well-coached group, and well coordinated, particularly on the offensive line,” he said.

“Against the Jets, the offensive line didn’t have Mankins, but they were able to have success up front. That group is not in the top tier of talent in the NFL — their tackles are better now than in previous years — but that group does more with less particularly on the interior than most other teams. They’ve had guys come and go at center and at guard, and still have had success.”

In the end, this league source believes the combination of the Patriots’ own critical eye, as well as the continued high level of play from the quarterback, should be enough to minimize any problems down the stretch. The post-bye week stretch — which includes four games against teams currently at .500 or worse — should give us a good idea of where the Patriots will be positioned when the push for the postseason begins at Thanksgiving.

“The big picture in my mind? As long as they have Brady under center, they have a chance to win every Sunday, and that’s the bottom line,” he said. “I would look to how they do out of their bye week — that would be the litmus test for me. Then, you’ll be able to see how much they’ve changed and adjusted and they’ve been able to clean up. See how they come out after that — that will give you an idea of what this team will look like down the stretch.”

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Bill Belichick, Logan Mankins, Rob Gronkowski
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