Pats hope for improvement at receiver, defense

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 4×100 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.

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