Patriots psyched for Super season

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“That’s why we compete. That’s why we risk failure, because we love sports and competition” quoth the

Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko.

2000 (5-11) Coach Bill Belichick’s first year.

2001 (11-5) Won Super Bowl, 20-17, over St. Louis.

2002 (9-7) Did not make playoffs.

2003 (14-2) Won Super Bowl, 32-29, over Carolina.

2004 (14-2) Won Super Bowl, 24-21, over Philadelphia.

2005 (10-6) Lost to Denver in AFC Divisional playoffs.

2006 (12-4) Lost to Indianapolis in AFC Championship Game.

2007 (16-0) Lost Super Bowl.

2008 (11-5) Did not make playoffs.

2009 (10-6) Lost to Baltimore in AFC Wild Card Round..

2010 (14-2) Lost to New York Jets in AFC Wild Card Round.

2011 (13-3) Lost Super Bowl.

The Patriots are seeking their 10th (and fourth consecutive) AFC East title since 2001. During Bill Belichick’s first 12 seasons as head coach, other than New England, only the Dolphins (2000), Jets (2002) and Dolphins (2008) have won the division crown.

New England opened its 2012 exhibition season last Thursday against the New Orleans Saints with a 7-6 victory. The regular season begins Sunday, Sept. 9 at Tennessee.

At Training Camp

Week three of training camp was highlighted by a three-day visit by the New Orleans Saints.  It was the second time in three seasons that the teams have worked against each other in Foxborough.

Practices were divided into about a dozen segments varying from five to 13 minutes. The first segments involved stretching, small group drills and all three quarterbacks throwing simultaneously to three receivers running patterns

The progression of drills (Patriots vs. Saints) was:

• Receivers and defenders going one-on-one

• 7-on-7 drills

• Full offense vs. defense with blocking, but no tackling.

• Kickoff & punt returns

• Field goals

At the end of practice, the Saints and Patriots came together in prayer in memory of Garrett Reid, the late son of Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid. After that, the standing room only crowd of 14,830, a Patriots’ record for a training camp session, gave a loud and appreciative standing ovation to a military contingent of several dozen men and women on hand for the practice. The soldiers walked by the crowd in single file before forming a receiving line to meet with players from both teams

High Powered Passing Attack

Start with quarterback Tom Brady, the only holdover from all three championship teams. In 2011, he completed 65.6 percent of his passes, throwing for 39 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His 5,235 passing yards was the NFL’s second best ever, behind New Orleans’s Drew Brees’ mark of 5,476. Brady, who turned 35 on Aug. 3, was sacked 32 times last year, 13th highest in the league. Tim Tebow, by comparison, was sacked 33 times despite having less than half the number of pass attempts as Brady. Alex Smith of San Francisco was sacked a league high 44 times, while Tennessee’s Matt Hasselback was dropped 19 times, lowest among quarterbacks with at least 350 pass attempts.

Brady has an exceptional quartet of returning receivers. Wes Welker was again the NFL’s leading pass catcher last season with 122 receptions, an amazing 22 more than his closest competitor. He has caught at least 100 passes in each of his five seasons with New England, except for 2010 when he returned from a major knee injury. The nine-year pro was tied for first in receiving first downs with 77 and his career high 1,569 receiving yards was second only to Detroit’s Calvin “Megatron” Johnson’s 1,681 yards. In addition to receiving duties, Welker was the team’s backup punt returner last season.

Third-year pro Rob Gronkowski led all NFL receivers in 2011 with 17 touchdown catches, was fifth in both receptions (90) and receiving first downs (69) and was sixth in receiving yards with 1,327. The 6’6” Arizona grad, who seems to be fully recovered from his playoff ankle injury, set a record for TDs and receiving yards by a tight end. Gronkowski’s 18 touchdowns (one came on a 2-yard rush) were second to Eagles running back LeSean McCoy.

Twin tight end Aaron Hernandez, who entered the league with “Gronk” in 2010, had a strong second season with seven touchdown catches, 79 receptions, 46 receiving first downs and 910 receiving yards. The athletic 6’ 1” Connecticut native made a jaw-dropping deep, one handed catch against a Saints defender during the one-on-one drill.

Veteran Deion Branch was a strong fourth option last season with five touchdown catches, 51 receptions, 37 receiving first downs and 702 receiving yards

The Patriots’ addition of free agent wide receiver Brandon Lloyd should allow the team to spread the field more. Last year with Denver and St Louis the nine-year pro had five touchdown catches, 70 receptions, 46 receiving first downs and 966 receiving yards. Lloyd is working closely with Brady and, unlike Chad Ochocinqo /Johnson (now with Miami), is making a smooth transition to his new team.

The return of former Patriot (2006-2008) Jabar Gaffney adds depth to the receiving corps. Last year in Washington, Gaffney had five touchdown catches, 68 receptions, 50 receiving first downs and 947 receiving yards

Julian Edelman has done almost everything during his three years with New England. The converted college quarterback had 37 pass receptions in his rookie season (but only seven and four in years two and three), is the team’s primary punt returner, backup kickoff returner (behind Danny Woodhead) and occasionally runs the ball from scrimmage. Last year the hard hitting 5’ 10”, 200 pounder filled in at defensive back and had 18 tackles.

Edelman was a run-oriented quarterback at Kent State in Ohio. He won the starting position there as a sophomore. As a senior, the native Californian completed 153-of-275 passes and led the team in rushing with 1,551 yards. Coach Belichick has said, “Julian’s good with the ball in his hands.”

Edelman has exemplified the “Patriot Way” since joining the team in 2009. When interviewed that year, Edelman said, “I’ve always had to kind of go (through) the back door. I just go where I’m wanted, where I have the opportunity to play. That’s what I’ve done throughout my career.”

Edelman was the busiest player at practice, fielding kickoffs, catching passes and running the end around. In the preseason game against New Orleans, the seventh round draft pick led the team with four receptions.

Punting Personnel

Third year pro Mesko was born in Romania and moved to Ohio at age 11, after his father won a green-card lottery. In eighth-grade gym class, Mesko knocked out a ceiling light playing kickball. The gym teacher told him, “You’d better play for the football team or you’re paying for that light.” Mesko grew to be a 6-5, 230 pounder and played at Michigan, Brady’s alma mater.

Mesko was the first punter taken in the 2010 draft and went on to set an NFL rookie record for net punting yard average. Last season, his net punting yard average of 41.5 was third in the league and his average return yards on punts of 8.5 yards was 12th. His average punt was 46.5 yards tied for 10th in the league

When asked about the shorter offseason resulting from the Patriots Super Bowl appearance, Mesko replied, “I mean it doesn’t take me a long time to get hungry again. I was just eager to get back here with my teammates. I just love being in a routine and working hard. It’s good to struggle together and go through the ups and downs in camp, that’s the way teams get jelling. We hope to come together when the season starts. That’s why we compete. That’s why we risk failure, because we love sports and competition”

Sidebar Elements

The New England Patriots’ newest fan favorite, bruising tight end Rob Gronkowski, poses with a visiting soldier at training camp.

Defensive end stalwart Vince Wilfork appears in midseason form.