The New England Patriots kick off the 2012 NFL regular season this Sunday with a trip to visit the Tennessee Titans. Before we dive into the team's first clash against second-year starter Jake Locker and company, it's better to get an impression of what shape the Patriots are in for the coming year.
Despite some sections seeing another undefeated regular season on the horizon, the Patriots have some significant holes on their roster that need to be addressed entering the season. The strengths remain there, but not until the questions are answered will we know if this team can take one more step over last year and lift the Lombardi Trophy in February. State of the Offense:
When Tom Brady is your quarterback, there is generally little else you need to worry about on offense. This year Brady has as more weapons than he has had throughout his career, save for maybe 2007, but some question marks over his pass protection. Brady's interior offensive line protection is vital for his success. Even though Brian Waters is seemingly retired, Dan Koppen was released and Logan Mankins missed a substantial chunk of the off-season, the Patriots still figure to have good enough protection upfront. The addition of Brandon Lloyd diversifies the offense, while Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen coming into the backfield adds even more explosion.State of the Defense:
The Patriots defense was decidedly average last season as they ranked 15th overall in points allowed. The additions of Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson and the return of Ras-I Dowling should drastically change the identity of the unit. With Andre Carter and Mark Anderson gone from last year's team, Rob Ninkovich has moved from linebacker to defensive end. Ninkovich, Trevor Scott, Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette and Jones will have to replace the production that came from the two departed defensive ends. They should at least have more help from the secondary as Gregory, Dowling and Wilson should all play prominent roles in both base and nickel defenses. Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo will return as stout run defenders.Biggest Strength:
The Patriots' greatest strength is the matchup advantages that their offense affords to Brady. With Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd outside, teams are unable to double team each of Brady's weapons. Without the ability to double team, defenses face the prospect of playing zone against one of the most intelligent quarterbacks in the NFL. Brady will consistently pick apart defenses with ease. Often fans will complain if their team doesn't blitz Brady, the problem with blitzing Brady is you expose even more of your defenders in single coverage. That is not an appealing avenue against Gronkowski, Hernandez, Lloyd or Welker.Biggest Weakness:
The Patriots biggest weakness is definitely their offensive line. Nate Solder is taking over from Matt Light as Tom Brady's blindside protector. He may have impressed as a rookie, but there is a big difference between being a bit part player and a starter. Logan Mankins is returning from a torn ACL, while Ryan Wendell is slated to start at center. Wendell is very inexperienced and takes over from Dan Connolly who is moving to guard. Sebastien Vollmer is the Patriots second starter returning from last year, but he is also an injury issue aas he has chronic back issues to overcome.Decisive Player/Unit:
While the Patriots' offensive line needs to hold up, the unit is still very talented. With so many receiving weapons on the field, the one player who can push the offense over the top is Stevan Ridley. Ridley brings a lot more explosion to the backfield opposed to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. If he can translate that explosion onto the field, then he will balance the offense and add to the Patriots' already overwhelming offense.Cian Fahey writes for Irishcentral and the Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf