Postcard from camp: Patriots
Chad Ochocinco is a nice addition, but the Pats' offense is good without him
Improving the team's sack total is a big point of emphasis this year
The team looks ready to top 14 wins for the fifth time under Belichick
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In heaven, according to Chad Ochocinco. That's how the former Bengal, acquired by the Patriots in a July trade, has taken to describing Foxboro, and the Boston area generally. Heaven, apparently, is a fairly featureless place (the Pats, as usual, are holding training camp on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium), and one in which its constituents are forbidden by a win-at-all-costs deity from publicly expressing anything beyond how hard they're working. It's also a place in which wide receivers drop more than their fair share of passes, as Ochocinco has at camp. "All of us are human," he explained the other day. True enough, but a day in Pats camp is enough to convince any observer that Bill Belichick's group, a few drops here or there aside, approaches the divine more than any other in the NFL.
1. Ochocinco might be extraneous. The Patriots offense will certainly benefit if Tom Brady can help turn Ochocinco back into the perennial 1,200-yard, seven-to-10-touchdown man of his Johnson days. But it's not essential, not nearly so.
Brady has so many other weapons at his disposal -- including up-and-comers like wideout Taylor Price, who had five catches for 105 yards in New England's preseason opener -- that the Patriots should fairly easily lead the NFL in scoring offense once again in 2011, with or without Ochocinco.
Not least among their contributors will be the best tight end tandem in the league, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, both of whom are entering their second year and both of whom are far too big for defensive backs to cover, yet far too fast for most linebackers. "Gronknandez" combined for 87 catches, 1,109 yards and 16 TDs last season, and those numbers could each increase by 50 percent this year.
2. The defensive line, last year a weakness, is now a strength. Belichick's camp features some 2.8 tons, as well as 119 feet and five inches, of defensive linemen, which ought to give you an idea of the area of his team that the coach felt was the biggest problem last season.
Yes, New England ranked 14th in sacks last year (36) -- but they were second in pass attempts against, because teams were so often playing them from behind. They were 11th in overall run defense, but 13th in yards allowed per attempt.
Last year's line's weakness became starkly clear against the Jets in the Pats' playoff loss, when Mark Sanchez wasn't sacked once and New York again and again ripped off chunks of yardage on the ground, usually right up the middle. That won't happen this year, not with Albert Haynesworth joining Vince Wilfork inside. And if Haynesworth's heart isn't in it, Belichick has his choice of 17 other very big men to try in his place.
3. Sebastian Vollmer has the best German/Texan/Bostonian accent you've ever heard -- and he might be the best right tackle in the league, too. Vollmer, a 6'8" native of Dusseldorf who attended Houston, was named a second-team All-Pro last season, but, strangely, did not make the Pro Bowl. That slight will likely be rectified this season. "He's big, he's tough, he's physical, strong, smart," says Wilfork of his third-year teammate. "Trust me, he might not have all the media giving him credit, but I'm pretty sure when people look at that film, they talk about him a lot."
Zoltan Mesko, P. Mesko is already The Most Interesting Punter in the World -- born in Romania, speaks four languages fluently (English, Romanian, Hungarian, German), interned at a private equity firm during the lockout. Now he'll try to become the best punter in the world.
The former fifth-round pick out of Michigan kicked well as a rookie in 2010 -- his 38.4 net average tied for 11th. But he plays for a team that, due to its potent offense, doesn't often require his services (25 players had more punts than he did last season), meaning each kick has a greater importance. "It's more quality over quantity," he says.
Shaun Ellis, DE. "Too much, a little bit too much with him," Belichick said the other day of his previous experiences with Ellis, a Jet between 2000 and 2010. Ellis recorded two of the Jets' five sacks in their playoff ousting of the Patriots (after totaling a dozen in 15 regular season games against New England). Now, after signing a one-year, $4 million deal, he's a member of what should be considered the deepest and the best defensive line in the NFL.
A 14-2 record is a distinct possibility. It seems unlikely that the Patriots will lose any of their first four games (at Miami, San Diego, at Buffalo, at Oakland) or their last four (at Washington, at Denver, Miami, Buffalo). If they suffer any losses at all they might come during a somewhat daunting eight-game stretch that runs from early October to early December. Games at Pittsburgh, at Jets and at Philadelphia seem particularly difficult. Still, New England should emerge with its fifth 14-plus-win season of the Belichick era. Three of the first four led to Super Bowl appearances.
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