The Patriots kick off the season September 11 at Arizona. Clearly New England starts the year at a disadvantage. With Tom Brady suspended for the first four games, here's the top 5 things the Pats must do to succeed without him.
1. Jimmy Garoppolo doesn't have to be great
The 24-year-old has an opportunity of a lifetime. It's not often you get to replace a future Hall of Famer for a quarter of a season, but that's what Jimmy will do. Garoppolo is getting a shot to not only help his team, but prove he's ready to start and possibly earn a huge contract down the road. I covered the Broncos last year and see that situation similar to what the Patriots are going through. Brock Osweiler replaced Peyton Manning and they asked him to not make mistakes. This is what Bill Belichick is asking of Garoppolo. Don’t force it. Don’t hold onto the ball too long. DON’T TURN IT OVER! Punts are okay. Field goals are okay. Throwing an interception in your own territory is what can cost you the game. There will be opportunities to make big plays with all the weapons he has on the field. If Garoppolo can make them, then odds are the Patriots will win all four games. But even if he’s good and not great, 3-1 is completely realistic. That’s how it was for Osweiler and look what happened to him. Pay day!
2. The defense needs to be great
The Patriots were ninth in the NFL in overall team defense last season. This year they will be top five. And they have to establish dominance right from the start. Without Brady, they have to be the star of the game. Take the pressure off your young quarterback by getting turnovers and rattling the opposing quarterback. The D is dealing with injuries, but they are still stacked. Look at what they did to Cam Newton in the third preseason game. Yes it was a preseason game, but the defense made last year’s MVP look bad. The pass rush is dangerous and they are deep. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower could have a really special year. And the secondary is already proving they will be tough to pass on. Again, I’ll go back to covering Denver last season. The Broncos defense carried them all the way to a Super Bowl title. The Patriots not only will have a great defense, but imagine what they’ll be like with Brady returning? This defense just needs to be amazing right from the start to avoid being in a hole early.
3. Protecting Garoppolo
There’s already a lot of pressure on the kid mentally. He doesn’t need to deal with constant defensive pressure in his face the first four games. This offensive line got a boost with the return of coach Dante Scarnecchia. You can already see it at camp and in the preseason. Even if it’s a small upgrade, it’s a win. But expect things to be better and they have to be in the first four games. You don’t want Garoppolo to lose confidence early because the line broke down and he turned the ball over. They are healthier and getting guys back, so expect this position to grow each and every week.
4. Running the ball
This is another position that has to step up when you have a quarterback making his very first start. It won’t be the focal point of the offense once Brady returns, but it could be with Garoppolo. The run game took a hit even before the season started, with the news of Dion Lewis’ knee surgery. James White will take on that role and should be just fine. LeGarrette Blount will be the workhorse and he’s shown some flashes of excellence during the preseason. The question is who will be the third back? Tyler Gaffney or D.J. Foster? Gaffney has always had the potential, but can’t stay healthy. He’s healthy now and has been pretty good so far. Foster is the one that could be a breakout star. We just need to see what he’s capable of on the field.
5. Batman and Robin
Garoppolo should be ok with just Rob Gronkowski on the field. Now that the Patriots have added Martellus Bennett, this should be fun to watch. When in doubt, throw it to either guy. Both are talented, huge and have great hands. Add Julian Edelman to the mix and who are you going to double team? They should help Garoppolo ease into the world of being a starting quarterback.