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A five-point improvement plan for Patriots

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  January 23, 2013 12:52 PM

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The standards in Foxborough are what they are, to borrow a phrase, and we all know that football is part logic and reason, part emotion. Logic and reason tell us that reaching the AFC Championship is a success. Emotion tells us that the Patriots were frustrating, maddening and downright disappointing on Sunday night.

Regardless, the question is always the same in the wake of a season-ending defeat.

How do they get better?

Of course, we all have theories on what the Patriots need. Assuming that Aqib Talib and Wes Welker both return, what follows is strictly one set of thoughts.

1. A safety. The Patriots began the year with Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory at the position. By midseason, Chung had lost his job to Devin McCourty. On Sunday night, Gregory looked like a guy hopelessly trying to flag down a cab in a rainstorm outside Penn Station. (Wouldn't Chung actually be a better complement to McCourty anyway?)

By contrast, the Patriots were trailing by a 21-13 score and appeared to be driving when Ravens safety Bernard Pollard rocked Stevan Ridley's world and forced a fumble in the fourth quarter on Sunday. A quarter before, Pollard was the same guy who drilled Welker (and drew a 15-yard penalty) just a few plays before Welker's huge drop on third down. The Patriots simply do not have a safety that physically changed the game the way Pollard did, and complementing McCourty with someone of the like would make a huge difference.

The good news? By the end of the season, the Patriots had corners that were actually pretty decent. McCourty generally did fine at safety. But the other safety spot was a train wreck.

2. A linebacker. Respectively, Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes were drafted in the first, first and second rounds. They all offer something. But not a single one of them excels in coverage, which is part of the reason the Patriots had such difficulty defending tight ends and running backs.

For what it's worth, opposing quarterbacks this season completed 68.5 percent of all pass attempts to the tight end against the Patriots. That's a big number. The Patriots certainly tightened things up in the red zone once McCourty moved from corner, but Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta caught five passes (on seven targets -- 71.4 percent) for 55 yards and a touchdown on Sunday.

In this area, Patriots coach Bill Belichick seems to have some choices. Tavon Wilson was a surprise second-round pick because, in theory, he is a hybrid linebacker-safety who can cover the tight end. Rob Ninkovich is a hybrid defensive end-linebacker who is good on coverage.

Whatever the solution, the the Pats have to get better at this.

3. A defensive lineman. Maybe the solution is in house, but the absence of Chandler Jones, who played only in goal-line situations Sunday, left the Patriots without much of a pass rush, particularly on the interior. Jonathan Fanene was supposed to help with this, but the Patriots cut him in training camp. Maybe Myron Pryor can be the guy. Or Kyle Love. Or Armond Armstead, the former Southern Cal defensive lineman whom the Patriots signed on Tuesday out of the Canadian Football League.

The point is this: a year ago, Vince Wilfork dominated the Ravens. This year, in two games against Baltimore, Wilfork was virtually invisible. The Ravens offensive line manhandled the Patriots in this game and the Patriots got no rush against Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco.

Certainly, a healthy Jones will help. The combined absence of him and Talib was a huge blow to the Patriots defense. But finding a more consistent, complementary player for Wilfork on the inside wouldn't hurt.

4. A big wide receiver. Minus Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots are vulnerable to physical play from opposing secondaries. Wes Welker is tough, but he's small. Both Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez can be muscled. For whatever reason, Tom Brady never so much as attempted a pass to a tight end other than Hernandez in this game.

For all of the concern about Torrey Smith, he caught just four passes on nine targets on Sunday. Meanwhile, the more burly Anquan Boldin had five catches and two touchdowns. Interestingly, Belichick had Talib matched with Boldin early in the game, which should tell you plenty.

The point? The Pats could use a guy with Boldin's size and hands. When Gronkowski is out, Brady lacks a big target to whom he can throw in traffic. Nobody is saying the Patriots need All-Pro players at every spot, but the absence of more physical players on both sides of the ball is apparent.

5. An offensive tackle. Sebatsian Vollmer's contract is up, but let's assume the Patriots bring him back. As Globe football writer Greg Bedard noted, Vollmer had a tough night on Sunday against the Ravens. Nate Solder did fine overall, but he, too, has shown vulnerability at times. Both players are young and may still improve, but Vollmer also has had some history of injury.

At the start of this season, the offensive line was a problem. Against the Ravens on Sunday, the Patriots couldn't run and really couldn't throw. The Patriots appear to have a good complement of backs, but the inability of any offense to perform against more physical defenses usually starts with inadequate line play.

Beefing up the depth on the offensive line certainly wouldn't hurt.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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