The Patriots come out of the bye week with some extra rest and a lot of season still ahead as they prepare this week for a road visit to Heinz Field to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. New England is 5-1 and holds the AFC East lead, but the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets are nipping at their heels sitting just 1 and 1 ½ games back respectively in the standings. So with eight weeks left in the regular season, it's report card time here at SB Nation. Let's take a look at who on this team is making the marks, and who is falling behind.
Patriots' Passing Offense: A
Patriots' Rushing Offense: B
Patriots' Overall Offense: A-
Deans' List -Offense: Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Nate Solder
Underachieving: Chad Ochocinco, Danny Woodhead
The Patriots are leading the league in yards per game; 1st in the league in passing yards per game and 10th in the league in rushing yards per game. They are second in the league in first downs with 161, rushing for 41 of them and passing for 106. They've also drawn 14 penalties for first downs which is good for 6th in the league. They also have the third ranked third-down conversion percentage in the league, something that is much improved from last year. Tom Brady ranks number two behind Aaron Rodgers in passer rating, and Wes Welker holds the same rank for receiving yards behind Steve Smith.
Meanwhile, both sophomore tight ends Gronkowski and Hernandez rank top 10 in the NFL for receptions. The only thing preventing this offense from getting an A+ are the few underachieving key players like Ocho, who has failed to make any type of impact on the field, and Woodhead who has battled injury off and on and has not had the explosiveness that he showed in 2010. The Patriots also have stiff offensive competition in the league from the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers, both of whom look to have solid paths carved to the postseason. But because they are both in the NFC, the Pats still hold a solid offensive advantage in the AFC even with the massive six-million dollar disappointment that is Chad Ochocinco.
A big difference maker this year for this team is their ability to effectively balance their dynamic passing with solid yards and first downs on the ground. Green-Ellis has developed a good rhythm over the last few games, aided by rookie Stevan Ridley who has a knack for exploding when finding the gap in the defense.
Biggest need for improvement:
Don't take this the wrong way, but the Patriots offense will be going up against three of the top four intercepting teams in the league; the Jets, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills. Obviously nobody expects Brady to have another four-interception abomination like he did in Buffalo, but he has already thrown 8 interceptions to his 16 touchdown passes, which is higher than normal for him. If they can cut down the interceptions and create a better turnover ratio, with an already high-powered offense and improving defense, this team will go into the playoffs looking more balance and well-rounded then they have in a long time.
Patriots Pass Defense: D-
Patriots Rush Defense: B-
Patriots Overall Defense: C-
Deans' List -Defense: Andre Carter, Vince Wilfork, Kyle Arrington, Kyle Love
Underachieving: Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo, James Ihedigbo, Shaun Ellis
Despite some forward progress in their games against the Jets and Cowboys before the bye, the Patriots have been far below average defensively. This is mostly due to their nearly non-existent pass defense, which is currently allowing 322.2 opposing passing yards and ranks as the worst in the league. Devin McCourty, despite leading team in tackles, has underperformed dramatically after his breakout rookie year. He seems to be lost, misreading offenses and blowing coverages, and only barely makes up for it with his size and ability to tackle to prevent yards after the catch, but he certainly is doing nothing to prevent the actual catch.
Kyle Arrington has really been the lone bright spot for the secondary, tying Darrelle Revis and Brandon Flowers with four interceptions on the season, good for 2nd in the NFL behind the great Charles Woodson with 5. At 5'10" and under 200 lbs., Arrington is small but has developed a great feel for reading the opposing offenses and putting himself in position to make big plays. In the Patriots last game before the bye against Dallas, he recorded 11 tackles and an interception against an extremely threatening pass attack. He certainly has put in his best effort this year and is clearly growing as a player.
The same can be said about Andre Carter, whose stat line is very to that of big name defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions. They are both tied with Michael Bennett for 11th in tackles from defensive lineman, and Carter also has 2.5 sacks. His presence on the defensive line has been vital in helping to secure success against the run. Vince Wilfork has also done some serious work in the past couple of games, as well as grabbing his first and second career interceptions already this season.
Biggest Need for Improvement:
Their biggest need for improvement obviously lies in the secondary and their defense against the pass. If they can't start limiting mediocre and below average quarterbacks from driving the field and scoring on them, it's scary to think about what they would look like against the other elite quarterbacks and receivers if they make it to the playoffs. And their offense will have enough problems of their own if they are matched up against a defensive team like the Baltimore Ravens in the post-season. Once again, if the offense has to carry this team to the postseason, they are doomed to suffer the same fates they did in 2009 and 2010.
Patriots Overall Special Teams: B
Gostkowski is still one of the best and most reliable and accurate kickers in the league, making 10 of his 11 field goal attempts and 21 of 21 point after attempts this season. Zoltan Mesko has done a decent job punting, although the punt yard numbers are low due to the offense' ability to score on a higher percentage of possessions that much of the league. Most of the return game is serviceable, but Julian Edelman is certainly no Joe McKnight or Ted Ginn.
Ironically, lightning-fast former Patriot receiver Brandon Tate is a top ten returner this year for the Cincinnati Bengals. Edelman does a fine enough job, but with all of the returns for touchdowns this year, it seems that the return game is missing a spark that could really give this team another edge of the competition.
And now for the biggest winner and loser of 2011 so far (as decided with help from followers on Facebook and Twitter):
Wes Welker - Of course Tom Brady is in the conversation as well, but it's Welker who is really having the career year and has been consistent in every facet of his game. If he continues on this path, he is set for the best career we've seen from a Patriot since 2007 Randy Moss/Tom Brady.
Chad Ochocinco - making double in salary what any other receiver on the team is making, he has been what his fiancé calls a Non-Factor . Nobody saw this kind of wretchedness coming from a guy who Belichick seemed to trust and like so much. He's looking at an exciting season with the Cleveland Browns next year if he doesn't get his act together.