Sports/freelance journalist and co-host of “Patriots Monday Aftermath” on Spreecast.com Chris Pollone (@ChrisPollone; Facebook.com\Cpollone) gave Jetnation his thoughts on the Patriots before their Thanksgiving Day matchup with the Jets. Pollone covered Southeastern Conference (SEC) football for over 15 years and hosts an SEC show Saturdays on Spreecast.com, this week’s show title “Tide and Tigers”:
JN: Patriots all-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a broken forearm against the Colts. How do you see the loss of Gronkowski affecting the Patriots offense?
Chris: It’s obviously a huge loss Gronkowski, along with Jimmy Graham, is one of the best tight ends in the league in terms of being a real weapon in an offense. They are lucky it happened now since Gronkowski could be able to return for the playoffs. The Patriots will have to adapt but they’ve had to adapt before being without Aaron Hernandez and have dealt with problems along the offensive line, others guys are going to have to step up.
JN: The Patriots offense usually relied heavily on the pass but they are 5th in rushing this season. Could you tell us about the team’s running backs and how they’ve created this more balanced offense?
Chris: Bill Belichick does not believe in the star system running back. He is not a guy who is going to go out and find the hot running back, because the Patriots have found that over the years that if you have capable runners who don’t fumble and have a good offense line you can have an affective ground game. In the past they’ve been quick to give up on that ground game and go more towards the pass, especially when the defense was struggling.
This year they’ve had many more attempts running the ball then they did last year, and part is the play of the offensive line, the play of the tight ends and then you have some dynamic runners. Second year player Stephen Ridley out of LSU has done a very nice job but the biggest surprise, who the Jets will not have to face due to suspension, is Brandon Bolden out of Old Miss, he has been a big bruiser, you’ll see Shane Vereen get some carries and he is pretty good in space. The Patriots use to have for years Kevin Faulk on third down and now the former Jet, Danny Woodhead, is filling that role nicely.
JN: New England’s offensive line has gone through some transition. How are the players currently on the offensive line performing?
Chris: Over the past few years the offensive line has been the biggest concern because everybody knows the key to disrupting the Patriots offense is getting to Tom Brady. In the preseason the line was having a real hard time coming together but the play of Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald filling in for guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly has been nothing short of surprising. Right now the play of the line is not a huge concern and as Mankins and Connolly get healthy the line will once again be an asset in terms of depth.
JN: The Patriots just released veteran receiver Dion Branch, can you give us your thoughts on the release of Branch and the receiving core as a whole?
Chris: It’s amazing how the Patriots tend to get good receiver play out of guys you won’t expect it from, with the exception of the Randy Moss years, they really haven’t had a head turner in the receiving core, and that is why guys like Hernandez and Gronkowski were so important. You’ve got an incredible slot receiver in Wes Welker but lining up on the outside you never really knew what you were dealing with.
The move to bring back Dion Branch was almost a security blanket type of thing for Brady, the guys played together for years, they won Championships together, when quarterbacks have a favorite receiver they know instinctively where they are going to be, how they are going to run the route, where’s the ball is going to be and that is how it was with Brady and Branch.
I think Branch was seen as expendable, this is the second time he has been released in the past year, and he is not getting much of a look from the rest of the league. Branch might have hit the end of his stride in the NFL and his skill to separate from the defenders, so to strengthen the defense they brought in (Aquib) Talib, let go of Branch and promoted (Greg) Salas.
At this point Brandon Lloyd is doing enough, he’s not the home run hitter that the Patriots expected just yet, but when you line up Lloyd and (Julian) Edelman or Lloyd, Welker and Edelman they could be very effective.
JN: Rookie first round draft choice defensive end Chandler Jones has 6 sacks so far this season. Could you just tell us about Jones and the other Patriots rookies?
Chris: It’s been a little bit of an up and down season for Jones, there are times when he is not generating the pass rush he needs to, but Jones is leading the team with six sacks as a rookie and does have games where he is very effective.
The other big rookie is linebacker Dont’a Hightower out of Alabama. I cover him for his entire college career and I think he has the potential to be a very special player in the NFL someday. He was a pass rushing linebacker at Alabama but is being used more in coverage with the Patriots. He is playing more and more snaps, the coaches are gaining confident in Hightower as the season goes along and he’ll just need to continue to improve.
JN: New England traded for cornerback Aquib Talib. How do you see the acquisition of Talib helping the New England secondary and are you concerned about Talib’s off the field issues?
Chris: I think you saw an immediate effect, the difference Talib makes is he moves (Devin) McCourty to safety, he is a much better player there. Now the secondary looks a lot better because McCourty is not lost, which will start to pay dividends and Patrick Chung, who has been injured, at some point will be back in playing opposite McCourty.
As far as the off the field issues the Patriots are very good at taking players under their wing, he has to understand this is his last chance to impress and get a new contract. The Patriots have some veteran leadership and Bill Belichick does not play, so he will not sacrifice a season for a guy, the second he makes a false move he is cut and may never play again.
JN: Can we get your prediction on the upcoming Jets v. Patriots game?
Chris: Jets did have some success passing the ball against the Patriots earlier in the season but I feel the Patriots defense is playing a little better now and possible the “real” Mark Sanchez shows up on Thursday night:
I have the Patriots winning – Final Score: Patriots 31 – Jets 24