2011 New England Patriots preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Haynesworth remains one of the game's most-gifted defensive linemen. (US Presswire)  
Haynesworth remains one of the game's most-gifted defensive linemen. (US Presswire)  

2010 RECORD: 14-2 (first, AFC East)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Jets, 28-21, in AFC divisional round

COACH (RECORD): Bill Belichick (126-50 in 11 seasons with Patriots, 162-94 overall)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill O'Brien

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Belichick

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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 9th rushing, 11th passing, 1st scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 11th rushing, 30th passing, 8th scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: WR Chad Ochocinco (from Bengals), DL Albert Haynesworth (from Redskins), Shaun Ellis (from Jets), OL Nate Solder (first round, Colorado), CB Ras-I Dowling (second round, Virginia), RB Shane Vereen (second round, California), RB Stevan Ridley (third round, LSU), QB Ryan Mallett (third round, Arkansas)

KEY DEPARTURES: DE Ty Warren (to Broncos), TE Alge Crumpler (not tendered), DE Tully Banta-Cain (released), OL Nick Kaczur (not tendered)

4-3 or 3-4? Bill Belichick said the differences between the 4-3 and 3-4 are a media fabrication, but the Pats will need to figure out their defensive identity nonetheless. How they'll best use the nearly 700-pound combination of Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth is job No. 1. The Pats drafted DE Jermaine Cunningham in the second round of the 2010 draft and tried to convert him to an outside linebacker, but he's a better fit at his natural inside position. Eric Moore, who the Pats signed in December of last year, can be a decent pass rusher in a 4-3 scheme while Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton could play outside linebacker in the 4-3 with Brandon Spikes in the middle. Regardless of what defense they play, the Pats probably don't have enough good defensive linemen and linebackers to be a top-rated defense. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see whether the Pats can improve their third-down defense, which was 32nd in the NFL last year. Hard to blame the secondary for the team's poor performance, given that CB Devin McCourty excelled against some of the best receivers in football.

OCHOCINCO AND ALBERT: Early in his New England experience, Chad Ochocinco has worked harder, by all accounts, than he did the past four years in Cincinnati. Haynesworth is also "buying in" to what his new coaches say, something he never did in Washington. Can each maintain that level of commitment? Haynesworth is still perhaps the most talented defensive lineman in the league. If he plays near his potential, the Pats will have another steal, similar to past relocators to New England like Rodney Harrison, Corey Dillon and Randy Moss. Ochocinco, 33, has one maybe two good years left in him and should be buoyed by the chance to play for a contending team, which is what he always wanted. His ability to separate from cornerbacks has declined and he will need to avoid dropping too many passes -– something he has done a lot of in training camp. As a great route-runner, he might be the extra possession receiver the Pats need.

RUNNING BACK BATTLES: When BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 1,008 yards last year, it was the first time the Pats had a 1,000-yard rusher since Corey Dillon in 2004. The Pats passed on Mark Ingram in the first round and drafted two running backs (Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley) in the second- and third-rounds, respectively. With Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead returning, it will be interesting to see who receives the bulk of the carries. Ridley should be a great addition in goal-line situations and Vereen likely will be a strong pass-catcher out of the backfield.

SAFETY FIRST: Brandon Meriweather has made the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, but true Pats fan know his play was inconsistent and disappointing at times. He's also in the final year of his contract. Meriweather will need to improve his anticipation skills and have better timing when he's trying to intercept passes if he wants to return next season. The question is whether Meriweather will show the leadership to be the Pats' top safety or whether that task will fall to third-year player Patrick Chung. Chung needs to work on his coverage skills, but his grasp of the defense is improving.

FINAL WORD: With the absence of offseason OTAs and a big personnel addition on each side of the ball, the Pats need to work hard to get their complicated schemes running at maximum efficiency. Tom Brady said the offense is behind where it normally would be, so running the offense in game situations will be critical. On defense, the Pats need to carve out an identity, mainly whether they will be more of a one-gap or two-gap team, and how best to utilize Haynesworth's skills.

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