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Thursday, January 14, 2010
Playmakers wanted

By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPN Stats & Information

Some of the problems that plagued the New England Patriots cannot be fixed during the offseason. No single free agent will fix a 2-6 road record. The Patriots blew four games in which they held a 10-point lead. No draft pick can solve that.

However, a few glaring weaknesses can be addressed through personnel. The Patriots have a lot of holes to fill, but the numbers reveal three that stand above the rest.

Looking for a workhorse

The Patriots' running game might not exactly be broken, but it could use a little sprucing-up. It's been a full five seasons since the Patriots had a 1,000-yard rusher. That was back in 2004, when Corey Dillon ran for a franchise-record 1,635 yards.

The five-season drought matches the Lions' for the longest in the NFL. The Buccaneers and Seahawks have gone four seasons. It's not a great time to be mentioned with those three franchises, which combined to go 10-38 in 2009.

By no means is a 1,000-yard rusher a prerequisite for success. After all, the Patriots went 16-0 in 2007 while led by Laurence Maroney's 835 yards. In 2008, no one managed even 750 rushing yards, yet New England rushed for more yards than in any of its Super Bowl seasons. Even this season, the Patriots finished 12th in the NFL in rushing, ahead of the Vikings and all-world running back Adrian Peterson.

Indeed, 1,000 yards is an individual statistic. However, it's also symbolic of something the Patriots have sorely lacked since their last Super Bowl victory: a workhorse.

No Patriots running back has been ranked in the top 20 in the NFL in carries since Dillon in 2004. Maroney, drafted in the first round in 2006, has yet to establish himself as a true feature back and has never reached 200 carries.

A traditional feature back gets stronger as the game goes on, punishing tired defenses and putting away close games. Like the ace of your pitching staff, he's the one you leave in to finish the job.

Unfortunately, Maroney appears to be more of a middle reliever: great for an inning, but not someone you want to leave in for too long.

Maroney has made a habit of wearing down late in games. This season, he averaged 5.1 yards per carry in his first five carries of a game. In all subsequent carries, that average fell to 3.1 yards per carry.

Along the same lines, Maroney averaged just 3.0 yards per carry in the fourth quarter this season. That ranked 41st out of the 48 qualifying rushers. When the score was within seven points in the fourth quarter, his average dropped to 2.6.

Compare that with Dillon, who in his three years with the Patriots averaged 4.1 yards per carry after his first five carries. Both Dillon and Antowain Smith were known to get better as the game went on, a reputation that has rightfully eluded Maroney, who has exceeded 25 carries only once in his career.

On top of that, Maroney's four fumbles (including two on the goal line) put him squarely in Bill Belichick's doghouse. That may be less of a concern, though. Don't forget Kevin Faulk's six fumbles in 2000, when he was the same age as Maroney is now. Faulk has fumbled only twice in the past three seasons combined.

The question remains: Can Maroney, still just 24, develop into a feature back? The Patriots' three other primary options average almost 33 years old. So if the answer isn't Maroney, look for it to come from outside the organization.

The hole at third receiver

The Patriots threw 501 passes from sets of three or more wide receivers in 2009. Only the Colts (552) had more. Yet, despite spreading the field so often, the Patriots never found a true third option.

In fact, of those 501 passes, 270 went to Randy Moss or Wes Welker, and 103 went to running backs or tight ends.

Overall, Welker and Moss finished third and tied for eighth, respectively, in the NFL in targets. Julian Edelman was the Patriots' next most targeted player, and he finished tied for 126th.

Signing Joey Galloway was perhaps the biggest of the miscalculations made by the Patriots last offseason. Counted on to fill the void left by Jabar Gaffney, he was ineffective and released after Week 6.

That left Edelman, a converted college quarterback drafted in the seventh round, and Sam Aiken, a seldom-used reserve and special-teamer, to fill the void as a third option. Consider what Tom Brady had to work with in 2007, as Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth -- both former starters -- filled those same roles. The difference could not have been more apparent.

Edelman proved effective when filling in for Welker but otherwise battled injuries and was not nearly as successful with Welker in the picture. In fact, Edelman had only 16 receptions in games in which Welker was healthy. Meanwhile, Aiken caught only 20 of the 41 passes thrown his way all season.

On the season, Brady had a 54.5 completion percentage when throwing to wide receivers not named Moss or Welker. In 2007, that number was 65.6.

Brady may never repeat 2007, but the Patriots failed to surround him with the weapons that allowed that offense to be as special as it was. Look for a complementary deep threat to be a target this offseason.

Finding a pass rush

Many of the Patriots' defensive shortcomings can be traced back to a simple inability to put pressure on the quarterback. Indeed, in their six losses this season, the Patriots recorded only eight sacks. That failure to get after the passer led to an average of 304 passing yards against the Patriots in their losses, compared to 175 yards in their 10 wins.

The Patriots have recorded only 31 sacks in each of the past two seasons. Since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, the Patriots have had just two seasons with fewer sacks. In their three championship seasons, the Patriots averaged more than 42 sacks per season.

Overall, the Patriots' sack total tied for 23rd in the NFL. However, none of the eight teams ranked behind them made the playoffs.

If you can believe it, New England's sack total actually masks how bad the problem was. Were it not for two games against the anemic Bills offensive line -- against whom the Patriots totaled 10 sacks -- things would look far worse.

Tully Banta-Cain benefited most from facing Buffalo. Five of his team-leading 10 sacks came against the Bills. In fact, Banta-Cain had only 1.5 sacks in the Patriots' six losses.

Banta-Cain's productivity underscores an alarming trend for the Patriots' pass rush. Increasingly, it is relying on specialists to get after the quarterback rather than more traditional every-down defenders.

Consider the last time the Patriots won the Super Bowl. In 2004, the Patriots' top four tacklers combined for 13 sacks. In 2009, they combined for only three. Ultimately, this may be where Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour were missed most.

So what is the solution? Currently the outlook is bleak. Banta-Cain is an unrestricted free agent. So is Derrick Burgess, who emerged with three sacks in the final four games. Add in Jarvis Green (one sack) and the likelihood that Adalius Thomas (three sacks) will be a cap casualty, and there is a realistic chance that 19 of the Patriots' 31 sacks won't be back. That doesn't even include Vince Wilfork's free-agent status.

It leaves Mike Wright and Patrick Chung -- both reserves -- as the only players with two or more sacks who are seemingly guaranteed to be back with the team in 2010.

Between the struggles of 2009 and impending personnel uncertainties, improving the pass rush could well be priority No. 1.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.