Pats hope for improvement at receiver, defense
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- The New England Patriots lost just three regular-season games last season and didn't even have a deep receiving threat, a solid defense or a soft schedule.
How much better would they be if they had all three?
That question should be answered this year.
The Patriots reached the Super Bowl, losing to the New York Giants 21-17 on a last-minute touchdown, then spent the offseason adding players at positions of need.
Brandon Lloyd is the long-distance receiver they lacked. Rookie first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower could vastly improve the defense that gave up the second most yards in the NFL. And the schedule seems packed with pushovers with only four games against teams that had winning records last season.
So the Patriots are looking forward. Reflecting on the Super Bowl disappointment is just a distraction.
"I honestly don't think about last year much," quarterback Tom Brady said. "This is a whole different team and we're in a different situation. All of us have pretty much moved on from last year. You have to go out here and establish what this team's going to be all about."
The Patriots signed Lloyd as a free agent and he and Brady have developed a good connection. It helps that Lloyd picked up the complicated offensive system after playing the last two seasons under new Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, first when McDaniels was coach at Denver and then when McDaniels moved to St. Louis as offensive coordinator.
"We are developing as an offense and we're trying to integrate as much of the running game and pass catchers as possible," Lloyd said, "but I think what it is coming down to is that we all need to make plays and be more consistent."
The offense scored just six touchdowns in the first three preseason games. Two of them came on throws by third-stringer Ryan Mallett in the last five minutes of last Friday night's 30-28 loss at Tampa Bay after the Buccaneers had taken a 30-14 lead.
Once the regular season starts, Brady, whose 5,235 yards passing last season were the second most in NFL history, should have a strong group of targets -- wide receivers Lloyd, Wes Welker and Deion Branch and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
The running game should be more dynamic now that BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a sure-handed but straight ahead back left for Cincinnati as a free agent. Second-year pros Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen should get most of the carries, and both have greater breakaway potential than Green-Ellis.
The Patriots fastest player, though, is former Florida running back Jeff Demps. He signed after winning an Olympic silver medal in the 4x100 relay then ran three times for 41 yards against the Bucs.
Ridley, second on the Patriots last season with 441 yards rushing, has a simple goal: "That this team can depend on me at the running back position and that's (in) all aspects of the game. It's not just one thing. I just have to go out there and just be the player they know I can be."
The offensive line has struggled during the preseason since left tackle Matt Light retired.
Left guard Logan Mankins has played sparingly after offseason knee surgery, right guard Brian Waters hasn't reported and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has back problems. But all three could be ready for the regular season. And 2011 first-round draft pick Nate Solder, Light's replacement, has improved after a shaky start in training camp.
"They're doing their job and I have to worry about my job," Brady said. "Part of what our team has always been built on is guys having trust in each other to do what they need to do to be competitive."
The defense should be better with tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love and ends Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Young veterans Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes will be joined at linebacker by Hightower. New safety Steve Gregory, a free agent from San Diego, should stabilize the secondary.
"We're doing some things well, but it's a long way for us (to go)," cornerback Devin McCourty said. "The good part is that you have a lot of guys that have played that are building a good bond back there."
Improved coverage would help the pass rushers. New England had 40 sacks last season, 14th most in the NFL. But ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, who had 10 each, are no longer with the team. So Jones and Hightower must jell with the holdovers.
"You've got to have coordination of the rush," Ninkovich said. "You can't just be out there doing your own thing in this league. Obviously, you've got to have good rush lanes or else the quarterback can see down the field and scramble on you."
Fortunately for the Patriots, the opposition is hardly imposing. The first four quarterbacks they're scheduled to face are Jake Locker (Tennessee), John Skelton or Kevin Kolb (Arizona), Joe Flacco (Baltimore) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Buffalo).
Minutes after the Super Bowl loss, Brady said, "I think every guy in the locker room wishes they could have done a little more."
The Patriots appear better equipped to do that this season.