The Patriots aren't perfect. If Super Bowls XLII and XLVI didn't prove that, one look at the stat sheet is all you need.
The defense was a punching bag on the field and in the media last year, and across-the-board improvements are needed. Head coach Bill Belichick basically acknowledged that with the addition of several free agents and with the selection of six defensive players in the draft.
At least we know they are taking it seriously rather than ignoring the issues as they have in offseasons past.
While the improvement may begin in the offseason, it's more important to improve on the football field on Sundays. Those improvements will (or won't) show up on the stat sheet.
And even where the Patriots don't improve, they can't afford to lose ground. Which stats does New England most need to improve, and which can't it afford to lose ground on?
Improve: Defensive Third Down Percentage
The Patriots gave up more first downs than any other team last year, and their batting average on third down was a big reason behind that.
In giving up conversions on 43.1 percent of third downs, the Patriots ranked 28th in the NFL. This is a problem that stems back years, including 2010 when the Patriots ranked dead last in the NFL in defensive third down percentage (47.1).
The pass defense has been a huge factor in that regard, with the lack of pressure and deficiencies in the secondary being exposed one third down after another.
The Patriots have been taking measures to improve their third down defense over the past few years. This year has seen them add several pass rushers, namely Trevor Scott, Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette. The rebuilding in the secondary has been a year-long process, but there are still question marks with cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling, and who's stepping up at safety.
But in big games, this has been their kryptonite. The Jets went 6-for-13 (46.2 percent) on third downs in the 2010 playoff game, and the Giants went 5-for-11 (45.5 percent) on third downs in the Super Bowl while tallying a whopping 26 first downs.
Improve: Defensive Passing Yards Per Attempt
To say the Patriots gave up a lot of big plays in the passing game last year would be an understatement. In fact, they own the distinction as the only team to get to a Super Bowl while giving up over eight yards per pass attempt.
That statistic ranked them 29th in the NFL.
Moving to the 4-3 defense last year was supposed to help the Patriots get after the quarterback a bit better, and it did in some ways; they improved on their sack total from 2010, 36, to 40 in 2011. But clearly, ranking 29th in the NFL in defensive YPA, more improvements are needed
Again, the Patriots are hopeful that a revamped pass rush and a healthy secondary will go a long way to help them improve on that number from last season.
Maintain: Net Yards Per Pass Attempt
That Tom Brady ranked second in the NFL in NY/A (7.9) without a deep threat says a lot not just about Brady, but the Patriots' offense as a whole.
But if their defense doesn't improve, they can't afford to lose any ground in the aerial attack.
This isn't just about Brady and the passing game, though. This is about an offensive line in flux. Left tackle Matt Light has retired, guard Logan Mankins could miss time, guard Brian Waters may or may not be back (though most think he will be), and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has had a hard time staying healthy.
Tom Brady has been one of the least-sacked quarterbacks over the past five years, and the Patriots finished ranked 11th in the NFL giving up 32 sacks. Their ability to protect the quarterback has been as essential to their offensive success as the skill position players.
Adding receivers Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth should help the Patriots get a few more big plays than last year, they hope. The reintroduction of Josh McDaniels to the offense could also mean big things to come.
Bigger than last year? Hard to say. But for now, it's easy to say the Patriots need to remain near the top of the league as a passing offense unless their defense makes improvements in leaps and bounds.
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