We are now almost three weeks into the 2014 edition of Buffalo Bills training camp and Hall of Fame weekend is in the rear view mirror. By now, the happenings at St. John Fisher have been well documented by numerous news outlets, beat writers and fans in general. Other camps around the league have also hit the two week mark, so I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at what’s been going on so far in some of their practices.
Almost two full decades have passed since the Bills last claimed the AFC East crown in the 1995 season. This, of course, has been the New England Patriots’ spot in the standings for much of the time since. In fact, New England has been perched atop the AFC East an astounding 13 of the last 18 seasons since that 1995 campaign. Suffice to say, what happens in New England as well as the rest of the AFC East is vital to how this season will turn out for the Bills. There are many questions and story lines for all three of these AFC East foes, so I wanted to dig into two essential themes for each of those teams and how they are playing out so far in camp. Today’s Tour Around AFC East Rival Camps will focus on the New England Patriots.
Those Pesky Patriots
We must start with the team that everyone in the AFC East will be looking to finally leapfrog this season, the Patriots. As I mentioned earlier, New England’s dominance in the division has been prolific throughout the course of the past two decades, particularly recently, as they have finished atop the East in 10 of the past 11 seasons. The Miami Dolphins 2008 division title is the only exception throughout this time. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been the constants throughout their dominance in this decade-plus. Though not always producing the eye-popping stats that he once did, Brady remains one of the elite quarterbacks in the game and no one would argue that Belichick is still one of the premier head coaches as well. However, there are some other story lines in New England that have been very interesting to track this off-season and training camp. We’ll take a closer look at those now.
Reinforcements on Defense
Though the Patriot offense has been a model of consistency over the years, their once-dominant defense has been on a pretty steady decline over the past handful of seasons. This decline culminated last season with the team allowing 134.1 rushing yards per game, which checked them in at 30th in the NFL. The pass defense was only a little better than that, allowing 239 passing yards per game, good for 18th in the league. At no time was this defensive decline more evident than when Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos’ offense gashed them for 507 total yards in the AFC Championship game, which truly wasn’t as close as the 26-16 score indicated.
The Patriots clearly recognized the problem with their pass defense, as they went out and signed both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Now two years removed from surgery on an ACL tear, reports out of Patriot camp about Revis have been nothing short of glowing thus far. He should return to form as one of the top-5 cover corners in the game this season. Browner comes over from Seattle and more than fits the mold of what teams are now looking for size-wise out of corners. At 6’4″, 220 lbs, Browner can match up with the size of any opposing wide receiver and likes to play a lot of press coverage at the line to utilize his physicality. Two other returning players that should help them in pass defense are safety Logan Ryan and linebacker Jamie Collins. Ryan flashed many times last season and Collins showed his proficiency in pass coverage throughout the latter half of 2013 and in the playoffs. Both will have a large say in whether or not the Pats pass defense takes a major step in 2014.
New England will have Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork back from injury to help the run defense. Mayo is the heart and soul of that defense and is having a strong camp so far by all accounts. However, even when healthy, I think that Wilfork has lost a step at this point. They really didn’t make any moves outside of the organization this off-season that will bolster the run defense like they did in the secondary. The Patriots should be one of the best in the league against the pass in 2014, but I still think they can be exposed when teams decide to run a bunch of heavy sets against them and pound the football. That will be the formula to scoring points on New England this year.
Getting Gronk Game-ready
Perhaps the biggest story line in any NFL camp this summer (outside of Manziel-mania) is the health of Rob Gronkowski, who is battling back from a slew of injuries – most recently a torn ACL/MCL that he suffered this past December. More than any other player, Gronk is the guy that makes the New England offense go. In his last full season, he put up an insane 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. In the six games he played last year, the Patriots scored 27, 27, 55, 20, 31 and 34 points. Their offense is a completely different animal when he is on the field. He stretches the field down the seams, is one of the premier red zone threats in the game today and constantly demands attention, and oftentimes double teams, from opposing defenses.
Despite being just 8 months removed from that knee surgery, Gronkowski has been a constant presence at Pats camp so far this summer. However, he has been getting the proverbial “kid glove” treatment to this point. Though he has participated in all position and conditioning drills, he has yet to take part in any contact drills so far in practices. This will be a major test to see how his knee will hold up, and one would think we are only a week or two away from this happening. How Gronk responds to this will go a long way to determining whether or not he will be ready for game action come Week 1 of the regular season. If he is playing at full strength, the Patriot offense could easily be in the ‘elite’ category once again. If not, Tom Brady will have to depend on the rather pedestrian group of skill players that surround Gronkowski. The AFC East, as well as the entire NFL, will be eager to see how the next few weeks play out in Gronk’s recovery.
Come back tomorrow where we’ll discuss the New York Jets. Until then, enjoy the second preseason game in Carolina and, as always, go Bills!
Bills fans, where in the AFC East do you see the Patriots finishing? Share your thoughts and predictions about their record, personnel, coaching, etc. in the comment section!