Patriots focus on football after rough offseason

A training camp filled with potential pitfalls went about as

smoothly as the New England Patriots could have hoped.

They addressed the Aaron Hernandez situation early, minimized

the attention on Tim Tebow and found promising young wide receivers

after losing their top two from last season.

And Rob Gronkowski may be ready sooner than expected after back

surgery.

Now the AFC East champions in nine of the last 10 years must

address on-field mistakes like those they made in a 40-9 exhibition

loss to the Lions last week.

”Regardless of what happened (in Detroit,)” coach Bill

Belichick said, ”we still have a lot of work to do on our football

team. We just have to take advantage of those opportunities to do

it.”

They can do that without being distracted by off-field

issues.

The Patriots cut Hernandez the day the star tight end was

arrested and before he was charged with murder the afternoon of

June 26. The day before training camp, Belichick discussed the

matter at length on July 24. The next day, Tom Brady talked about

it. And the next day Tebow, Hernandez’s teammate at Florida,

discussed it and his own evolving role on the team.

Gronkowski had surgery on June 18, about five weeks before camp

began, and was on the field Monday doing individual drills. It

appears the tight end is likely to miss no more than a few games

rather than start the season on the physically unable to perform

list, which would require him to sit out the first six.

The Patriots avoided another potential health problem when Brady

participated fully in practice the day after leaving the field

midway through a practice with a mild left knee sprain Aug. 14.

Bring on the regular season.

Here are five things to watch as the Patriots try to break an

eight-year championship drought:

SOFT SCHEDULE: The Patriots play only five of their 16 games

against teams with winning records last year. None of them are in

the division, so the Patriots should win the AFC East again. They

should make another run at the Super Bowl after losing last

season’s AFC championship game to Baltimore. And they tend to peak

at the right time with a 23-1 record in the last half of the past

three seasons.

THE KIDS BETTER BE ALL RIGHT: After losing Wes Welker and

Brandon Lloyd, who combined for 192 catches last year, the Patriots

are counting on veteran Danny Amendola and three rookies – free

agent Kenbrell Thompkins and draft choices Aaron Dobson and Josh

Boyce. Young wide receivers historically have had difficulty

learning the Patriots’ offensive system. But if they go to the

right spot on the field, Brady will get the ball to them. The

Patriots also hope another rookie, free-agent tight end Zach

Sudfeld, can continue his strong training camp in the regular

season.

GETTING TO THE QUARTERBACK: The Patriots were mediocre in

rattling the opposing passer with just 37 sacks, tied for 15th,

last season. But with end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a

Hightower having a year of experience after being drafted in the

first round last year, that should improve. ”This year I know the

playbook 20 times better,” Hightower said. ”I’m a lot more

comfortable now and whenever you’re comfortable, you’re able to

play the way you want to.” Jones missed nearly three full games

with an ankle injury and was second on the team with six sacks.

Hightower had four.

SECONDARY ISSUES: The Patriots were vulnerable to the big play

last season. The secondary improved when they acquired cornerback

Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay on Nov. 1, allowing Devin McCourty to

move to safety on a more permanent basis. ”Aqib picked up our

system very quickly when he got here last year and has been

confident and very fluent in it,” Belichick said. Starting

cornerback Alfonzo Dennard has been sidelined for part of training

camp and faces a hearing Sept. 6 for a potential probation

violation after his arrest in Nebraska on July 11 for first-offense

drunken driving. Rookie draft picks Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon

have promise but may not be ready for steady duty. Veteran safety

Adrian Wilson was added as a free agent.

STEADY LEADERSHIP: Belichick is the coach on the sideline. Brady

handles that job on the field. In their 13 seasons together, the

Patriots have reached the playoffs 10 times and won three of their

five Super Bowls. ”Tom’s like a coach out there on the field,”

Amendola said. ”He knows every intricacy of the offense. He helps

young guys out a lot. He’s a leader.” As long as Brady and

Belichick are around, a long playoff run is realistic.

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