As the New England Patriots arrive at their perfectly-placed midseason bye week, it's a good time to take a look back and evaluate what we've seen from the Pats over the first half of the season and how the team has evolved since last year's squad, who fell just short of the Lombardi Trophy.
Let's begin on the offensive side of the ball where the two major changes in the offseason were the addition of Brandon Lloyd as an X-receiver and turning over the backfield from the work horse Benjarvus Green-Ellis to the youngsters Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. The offensive line has undergone some turnover as well, with Nate Solder taking over for long time left tackle Matt Light.
What stands out most about the 2012 Patriots on both sides of the ball is their versatility. Before injuries struck it was clear that Josh McDaniels wants to run his offense primarily out of 12 personnel (one running back/two tight ends). From this package the Pats can play any kind of game without changing who's on the field.
As a result they can push the envelope with a no-huddle that moves at a furious pace. When defenses get on their heels the Patriots can bury them with an attack that will seamlessly shift from one style of offense to another, and it all revolves around their tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
You want to shut down their passing attack by running a lot of nickel and dime defense? They're happy to run the ball, and they're running it better than they have in years. You want to stick to your base? No problem, they'll just spread you out and let Tom Brady go to work.
We saw some of this offense in 2011, however without an outside threat defenses were able to crowd the middle of the field, taking away the bread and butter of the offense that is the short-to-intermediate passing game.This caused problems, especially against defenses that could get pressure only rushing four guys.
Lloyd has had some inconsistency but has flashed with some spectacular catches, highlighted by his two touchdown performance against the Rams. He represents the final missing ingredient to this offense, a true X receiver, who can beat man coverage and challenge teams on the outside and deep. If he and Brady continue to click like they did in London, look out.
The Pats have also added an element of explosion to their ground game by handing the reigns to Stevan Ridley, something that has been missing since the days of Corey Dillon. They're not a ground-and-pound team, but in the right situation there is no team running better than the Patriots.
While only having four 20 plus running plays in 2011, the Pats have already racked up nine in 2012—a figure they haven't topped in a season total since 2007 (11).
However, though the Pats ground game has gained some explosion, it's lost a bit in reliability. Through eight games in 2012 they've already had 29 runs that have lost yardage—in all of 2011 they only had 28. So there is still some consistency to be desired there.
Not many teams can lose their starting left tackle and right guard and not miss a beat, but the Patriots have done just that. Nate Solder has stepped in and done an impressive job covering Brady's blind side. Dan Connolly slid to right guard after playing center in 2011 with Ryan Wendell winning the starting center spot out of training camp.
Despite missing Logan Mankins for the last two games, the Patriots offensive line has been impressive, and 2012 might just be the best feather in offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's accomplished cap. No matter who has been in there they've moved the ball and protected the quarterback. That's all you can ask.
Defensively the Patriots have gotten younger, adding two starters right out of training camp (Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones), with another two (Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard) being thrust into the starting line-up due to injuries.
This is by far the youngest defense Bill Belichick has fielded with the Patriots,and their youth has shown at times, especially on the back end of the pass defense. But in the long term the pieces are in place, especially in the front seven, for this to develop into a dominant defense like we last saw in the days of the dynasty.
Like the offense, the defense is versatile. In 2011 they switched to a 4-3 defense, and in 2012 they made some tweaks. Now the Patriots base defense is something I call the "Double Nose". By using two big bodies inside (Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love) and surrounding them with a collection of hybrid defensive ends and linebackers, the Patriots are vastly more athletic than they have been in the past and ready to defend, run or pass on any given down.
Rob Ninkovich was a strong side linebacker in 2011, but in 2012 he's been moved to defensive end, and he's excelled. There is no longer the need for wholesale substitutions on defense for different situations. It hasn't always looked perfect, but Sunday's victory over the Rams was certainly a step in the right direction.
There's no question the defense still has a lot to prove, and that begins with using the bye week to get healthy, especially at safety. They experimented with some different blitzes against the Rams, and that seemed to really help the coverage. Finding the right balance between pressure and coverage will be a big key going forward.
Once again the Patriots are pushing the envelope on both sides of the ball. On offense they've adopted a "blitzkreig" attack that can do whatever the defense is not prepared for. On defense they're still young and they've had some growing pains, but they've smartly evolved their defense to handle the problems modern offenses present. As the defense gets more and more experience playing together, they should only get better.
Both sides of the ball have flashed at times this year, now it will be just a matter of developing consistency, especially in the clutch moments. They still are living or dying off turnovers, and the offense has shown bad habits of going cold in crunch time, but as they showed against the Rams, if they put it all together, they'll be well positioned to make another run at a Super Bowl.
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist, and also runs PatsPropaganda.com. He co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast with AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.