Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patriots always about improving
The buzword swirling around Foxborough during this bye week has been "improving" - and with good reason. With the calendar having turned to November since they trounced the Rams to hit the midway point at 5-3, the Patriots have reached the point in the season when they traditionally separate themselves from the pack in the AFC East.
Over each of the past two seasons they're 8-1 in regular-season games played after Halloween, and they're a combined 40-3 in such contests over the five Super Bowl-bound seasons this century. In fact, since the first of those New England is 77-20 after Nov. 1, compared with 67-36 in games staged during September and October, so clearly Bill Belichick's system works best when the building process is steady and the team keeps improving - there's that word, again - deep into the year.
"The players have improved, and the coaches have talked to the players about what they need to improve," said quarterback Tom Brady, "and hopefully you move forward with more awareness of what you need to do so you can be that much better as the season goes along."
The idea is to be playing their best football when the games matter most - and obviously in order to do that, it's critical that individual players are peaking as well. To this point some have been more consistent than others, but down the stretch there are some whose ability to regularly elevate their performance could put this team in a position to get where it wants to go.
Here's a look at a touchdown's worth of guys who could be key to the Patriots' improvement over the second half:
-- CB Aqib Talib - Acquired from the Buccaneers shortly before Thursday's trade deadline, he comes with so much baggage that he'll miss next week's game against Buffalo because of a drug suspension. However, if he comes in here and plays up to the potential of a former first-round pick with 18 interceptions in 58 career games, he has the talent to completely transform the look of the Pats' defensive secondary. The trade was a risk well worth taking, and the reward could be huge.
-- CB Alfonzo Dennard - With Pat Chung's health a perpetual question, the Patriots' most stabilizing move might be moving Devin McCourty to safety full-time - though in order to do that, they need to be confident enough in their corners. That's where Dennard comes in, as assuming Talib contributes quickly, and Kyle Arrington mans the slot, the rookie is in position to take over as the primary corner on the right side. He's acquitted himself nicely the past few weeks, but still has a ways to go.
-- DE Rob Ninkovich - Like Mike Vrabel, he wears No. 50, and has a knack for making game-changing plays, too. There are occasionally games where he disappears, but if Ninkovich can continue to play at the level he has for the past month - since Sept. 30 he has 4.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles - Chandler Jones becomes all the more dangerous on the other side and Ninkovich could make an impact as major as anyone.
-- LB Dont'a Hightower -- The rookie first-round pick has been decent, both before and after missing three games with a leg injury. And based on the depth chart, it'd better stay that way. Tracy White hasn't played in three weeks, leaving only special teamers Jeff Tarpinian, Niko Koutouvides and Mike Rivera after Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Hightower. Ninkovich could play at outside backer if need be, but the Pats are better with him coming off the edge, so Hightower continuing to progress would benefit the entire front seven.
-- LT Nate Solder - There were concerns about his transition to left tackle during training camp, but Solder's excellent performance against St. Louis' dangerous defensive front shows how nicely he's progressed in his role. It's even more impressive considering Logan Mankins has missed significant time alongside him at left guard, though that only emphasizes Solder's importance. He's young, healthy, and playing a crucial position - all of which mean he bears a lot of the responsibility for stabilizing things to where Brady develops the requisite sense of comfort in his pocket.
-- RB Stevan Ridley - He's on pace to rush for 1,432 yards and 10 touchdowns - but there's still much room for improvement. That starts with consistency, considering Ridley has four games where he's surpassed 100 yards, but in the other four games he's averaged just 3.2 yards per carry. It's clear by now that when they're running the ball well, the offensive potential of the Patriots is incredible. It'll be up to Ridley (along with Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen, to lesser extents) to ensure that the ground game is a factor every week.
-- Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels - There have been weeks when the Pats' offensive game plan has made them appear unstoppable (vs. the Rams). But there have also been weeks where the scheme didn't appear to maximize the talent (vs. the Jets). The weapons are there, considering they're on pace to score a league-high 524 points despite missing Aaron Hernandez for four games, and if McDaniels can do a better job of finding run/pass balance without compromising by taking the ball out of Brady's hands, the Pats offense could be good enough to make up for some of its defensive deficiencies.
"We're in the process now of just trying to look back over the first half of the season, and maybe more specifically the last so many games here," McDaniels said, "and trying to focus on some things that we think can make us better heading into the last eight games."
Of course. Because at this point for the Patriots, it's all - and always - about improving.
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Dave D';Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @davedonofrio