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Some final thoughts on Patriots bye week, midseason awards and scouting Carolina

11.10.13 at 6:30 am ET
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1. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have a 10-3 mark coming out of the bye week. The likely post-bye highlight for the Patriots under Belichick was the Nov. 16, 2003 clash at a frozen (38 degrees) Gillette Stadium between New England and the Cowboys, who were led by former Patriots coach Bill Parcells. In that Sunday night showdown, New England got the better of Parcells and Dallas, taking a 12-0 win. In that game, Adam Vinatieri booted a pair of field goals and running back Antowain Smith added a 2-yard rushing touchdown (the extra point was off the mark). It’s worth mentioning that the three losses were all by eight points or less, with the last one coming in 2011 when the Patriots came out on the short end of a 25-17 defeat at the hands of the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Here’s a complete rundown of the Patriots post-bye week performances since Belichick took over:

‘€¢ 2000: OT loss to the Bills, 16-13
‘€¢ 2001: win over Panthers, 38-6
‘€¢ 2002: loss to the Broncos, 24-16
‘€¢ 2003: win over Bill Parcells and the Cowboys, 12-0
‘€¢ 2004: win over the Bills, 31-17
‘€¢ 2005: win over the Bills, 21-16
‘€¢ 2006: win over the Bills, 28-6
‘€¢ 2007: win over the Bills, 56-10
‘€¢ 2008: win over the Niners, 30-21
‘€¢ 2009: win over the Dolphins, 27-17
‘€¢ 2010: OT win over the Ravens, 23-20
‘€¢ 2011: loss to the Steelers, 25-17
‘€¢ 2012: win over the Bills, 37-31

2. With nine games in the books and the Patriots in the middle of the bye week, it’s a good time to take a look back and hand out some midseason awards.

a) We’re going to give the defensive MVP to defensive back Devin McCourty. (He just beats out Aqib Talib and Rob Ninkovich.) McCourty gets the nod because of his durability (he leads the team in defensive snaps), versatility (he’s lined up at both safety and corner) and his all around high level of play (as we have already pointed out, he’s at a Pro Bowl level). As for Defensive Rookie of the Year, it’s cornerback Logan Ryan just beating out defensive end Michael Buchanan — Ryan has played well over the last few weeks with 1.5 sacks and an interception, just edging out Chris Jones and Buchanan.

b) Our offensive MVP goes to Julian Edelman, who stepped into the void over the first seven games and became an important part of the passing game. (He leads the team with 43 catches, 473 yards and two touchdowns.) Other candidates include running back Stevan Ridley and left tackle Nate Solder. Our Offensive Rookie of the Year is wide receiver Aaron Dobson: the second-round pick out of Marshall had his struggles early, but his 31 catches for 454 yards and four touchdowns over the first nine games earn him the honors.

3. While Patriots fans get the chance to kick back this weekend, they’ll almost certainly be keeping an eye on the Panthers, who will host New England next Monday night in Charlotte. Carolina travels to San Francisco this weekend for a date with the Niners — the contest should serve as a good measuring stick when it comes to measuring their overall chances against New England. One of the surprise teams in the league this year, for the first time in five seasons, the Panthers are least two games over .500 with a 5-3 mark after eight games. A few things worth watching if you’re a Patriots fan scouting this contest: One, former BC linebacker Luke Kuechly is part of a stout defense against the run — entering Sunday’s action, the Panthers allow 79.1 rushing yards per game, the second-best figure in the league. Two, Cam Newton is a rapidly maturing quarterback, one who can beat you on the ground (he’s scored a rushing touchdown in three of the last four games and has 251 rushing yards on the season) or through the air (he’s completed 64.4 percent of his passes, and has a respectable 13-7 touchdown to interception ratio). And three, while the Panthers don’t have anyone in the league in the Top 50 in receiving yards, they do have four guys (Greg Olsen, Steve Smith, Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell) who all have at least 350 receiving yards, which will likely test the depth of the New England secondary.

4. LaQuan Williams, who was acquired this week, is a familiar face when it comes to the Patriots special teamers. The former Ravens receiver gained a small measure of infamy with a forced fumble in the 2011 AFC title against the Patriots, knocking the ball away from kickoff returner Danny Woodhead. It was a play New England special teamer Matthew Slater recalled when asked about Williams this week. “That was a big play for them in a big game,” Slater said of the 6-foot, 195-pounder. “He plays very hard. He has a high motor. He can run really well. He has a lot of experience and those guys in Baltimore are well coached and they play the game the right way. He was around some great players in [Brendon] Ayanbadejo and Corey Graham, so I’€™m sure he learned some things from those guys. It will definitely be a boost for us. We’€™re happy to have him. He was eager to work hard today and asked a lot of questions and tried to get caught up to speed.”

5. Williams raised some eyebrows a few days after he was picked up by the Patriots for what appeared to be a tongue-in-cheek Tweet about the New England playbook. In a Tweet that has since been deleted, Williams asked former New England receiver Chad Johnson for some help via Twitter, adding, “No joke at all. Any advice would be a step in the right direction.” As some noted, maybe Williams would have been better off asking someone like Deion Branch for help as opposed to Johnson, who had 15 catches for 276 yards and one touchdown in his single season with the Patriots.

6. This week will be a little different for the Patriots from a preparation standpoint: Instead of coming back to work on Monday — as is usually the case after a bye week — New England will return to action with a Monday Night contest in Carolina. And so, in an attempt to replicate that week-to-week schedule, Belichick has apparently given the team this Monday off to allow them to get back on a regular week-to-week cycle. That way, the Tuesday schedule (a traditional day off across the NFL) will follow the usual Monday routine, as if it was a normal week.

7. When it comes to offensive skill position players, it’s easy to equate more playtime with increased offensive production. But in the case of tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, that’s not necessarily the case. Through the first five games of the season, Hoomanawanui filled the void created by the loss of fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, and did an impressive job working as a blocker and occasional pass catcher. He showed a tremendous reliability, and as a result, he was able to become an important part of the New England offense. But it was still a surprise to take a look at the total snaps over the first nine games of the season and see that Hoomanawanui was second among all offensive skill position players in total snaps taken through the first nine games of the season. (Edelman leads the team with 545, while Hoomanawanui is second with 486. For comparisons sake, rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is third at 482.) It doesn’t get said enough: Hoomanawanui is dependable, consistent, a good locker room presence and he’s relatively inexpensive — in other words, a quality roster chip for New England at a position where depth is needed.

8. Following a stint on injured reserve-designated for return list because of a wrist injury he suffered in a Week 1 win over the Bills, running back Shane Vereen can return to the field this week. While his comeback will be greeted with open arms — he’s a multidimensional threat who can put pressure on opposing defenses on the ground or through the air — it’s important to temper some of the immediate expectations that could surround his return. In the cases of Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, the Patriots slowly cycled them back into action in their first game back after an extended absence. In his first game back after a groin injury in Week 1, Amendola played 39 of a possible 63 offensive snaps in Week 5 against the Bengals, and has built back up from there. And Gronkowski — who admitted to being gassed late in his first game of the season on Oct. 20 against the Jets — played 51 of a possible 79 snaps that afternoon. While Vereen has been working out with his teammates in the practice field since late last month, don’t expect the Patriots to lean on him too heavily right out of the gate.

9. I plan to write more on this over the course of the coming week, but against the backdrop of Ridley’s use in New England this season, it was interesting to start to dig into the numbers this week and really take a good look at the use of running backs across the league over the last 10 seasons. It’s often been said that the NFL has become a pass-first league, and that can certainly been seen when you look at the recent usage of elite running backs — specifically, how few teams are leaning on a feature back to hit 300 carries. Ten seasons ago, 13 different running backs finished the year with at least 300 carries — almost half the league had backs who could hit that 300-carry plateau. That included four running backs with 350 or more. Miami’s Ricky Williams led the league with an astounding 392 carries, while Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis (387), Green Bay’s Ahman Green (355), Deuce McAllister of New Orleans and Jacksonville’s Fred Taylor (345) rounded out the top 5. The numbers have ebbed and flowed over the last decade, but if fast forward 10 years, with more than half of the season in the books for most of the league, just two backs are on pace to hit 300 carries this year — Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (on pace for 307 carries) and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles (302). Locally, Ridley hit a career-high 290 carries last season, and would have become the only New England back to hit the 300-carry mark since Corey Dillon did it in 2004. This season, Ridley is on pace for 222 carries, a significant dropoff. The game continues to evolve, and it will be interesting to see how the running back position evolves along with it.

10. I imagine that many of you have seen this already, but ESPN did a very nice feature over the weekend on Belichick and his father and their relationship with the Naval Academy. Really nice work done by Hannah Storm. They’ve posted part of it online, but if you get a chance to catch the whole thing, it’s an enjoyable watch.

 

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