EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 26, 2009

Two-minute drill

Hector Longo

Big Shows

1. Brandon Meriweather - Not just for the pick-six. Your average MVC safety sees that one coming and dances into the end zone. Simply for his presence on defense. He's setting the tone on the back line, much like Vince Wilfork is doing in the trenches.

2. Sam Aiken - Anything you squeeze out offensively from this career special-teamer is a bonus. Caught two balls for 66 yards, including a 54-yard TD.

3. Tully Banta-Cain - Look, teams are choosing not to block him, and Banta-Cain is providing the edge presence that Derrick Burgess and Adalius Thomas haven't. Love his motor, an overachiever. Tied for team-leading five solo tackles.

No Shows

1. Logan Mankins - Must have been the jet lag. He looked a step behind and rang up the penalties. Three false starts and a hold.

2. Sebastian Vollmer - He struggled when the rookie was left alone with no help. Allowed a sack with a pair of holding calls.

3. Jerod Mayo - Made the first big hit of the day, assaulting Cadillac Williams at the line for no gain, then he disappeared. Still can't cover anyone. After last year, you just expect more than five solo tackles.

Grading the groups

OFFENSE

Line (C-) - No real running room on running downs against a six or seven-man front. Then, you throw in eight penalties for 45 yards. The fact that the Pats could decimate Tampa in spite of these guys shows just how enormous the chasm between good and putrid is in the NFL.

Quarterback (B-) - Two truly awful interceptions spoil what could have been a perfect day against the game's least effective passing defense outside of Nashville.

Receivers (B+) - Somebody might have to try to make Randy Moss care. His thoughts were obviously on a potential meeting with Scary Spice in downtown London.

Running backs (D-) - Laurence Maroney's giant step in reverse, well in his case neutral, deserves the big fat "F." Kevin Faulk again saves this group.

DEFENSE

Line (A) - This group single-handedly stifled Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward (24 carries, 77 yards combined). Good pressure by Tully Banta-Cain and a garbage-time sack from Mike Wright.

Linebackers (C-) - They are space eaters, pretty much the Leon Powe of the Patriots defense.

Secondary (C-) - I love Brandon McGowan and Pat Chung slicing up into the box to play the run. They look like Bob Sanders. Then the opposition throws a play-action pass to a wide-open tight end. Look at the QBs this team has faced so far before you give them one lick of credit.

Coaching (B) - Superb game plan on offense combined with a simple scheme that confused an overmatched opponent at QB. Nice job of mixing personnel and not overtaxing key personnel.

If I wanted to worry about this team ...

Top five areas of concern as the Patriots hit the bye week at 5-2:

1. The running game, or lack thereof - The aberration that was Laurence Maroney's 123-yard rushing day against Tennessee aside, this is a team that struggles to move the chains on the ground. Maroney was back to the tip-toeing "1-800 East/West" self, with 43 yards on 13 carries.

2. A linebacking corps devoid of run-stuffers or playmakers - New England's linebackers owe a debt of gratitude to Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren up front. The linebackers don't attack and they don't pursue well. If the linemen don't disrupt the run with penetration, the linebackers got lost in the wash. Bill Belichick went so far as to try defensive end Derrick Burgess inside in the 3-4 yesterday. Talk about reaching. But this is the same guy who re-signed 40-year-old Junior Seau. He understands the hole at linebacker.

3. Corners who can't cover - Darius Butler might be good someday, but he also might be another Terrence Wheatley. "We're growing as a secondary," said Belichick yesterday. If growing means Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden getting benched for the likes of Jonathan Wilhite, than sure, they're growing. From this side, it looks like a whole pile of guys thankful they've played the likes of Kerry Collins and Josh Johnson the past two weeks.

4. No real third receiver - Julian Edelman, Sam Aiken and Brandon Tate are the candidates for third man in. Edelman has a reported broken forearm and is a rookie who catches the football like he played quarterback at Kent State. Aiken's TD catch was his first in seven pro seasons. And Tate joined the players on the field yesterday for the first time and didn't make a catch.

5. Rocky road ahead - Five of the final nine are on the road. Seven are against playoff-contending teams, with only Buffalo and Jacksonville projected as gimmes.

Quick final thoughts

After a healthy scratch last week, Adalius Thomas was active, at least that's what the stat sheet read.

The veteran was so motivated by the benching, he had one tackle and one QB pressure. ...

Wes Welker completed a spectacular run to the bye with 10 more catches for 107 more yards and a TD. Can you say Pro Bowl lock? ...

You have to watch the minor leg injury that Sebastian Vollmer suffered late in the first half closely, even though he finished the game. Vollmer wasn't sharp after it, and left tackles simply don't walk around on the streets in the NFL.