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Bye Week Report: Five Patriots to watch

After a solid rookie campaign, Devin McCourty seems to have hit a sophomore slump in 2011.

It is almost undeniable at this point that quarterback Tom Brady is the most important player to New England’s success this season. So, with that in mind, what other players will be integral to the Patriots’ championship hopes in 2011? Well, the Patriot offense has been, for the most part, very good this season, while the defense has looked porous at best against the pass. For New England to take the next step to the Super Bowl level, it will need the pleasant surprises on offense to continue excelling, while also getting a major bump in production from players on defense that have been absent on the stat-sheet.

Hey, New England also needs a currently injured player to return, and return to form. So here are the five players that will most determine the fate of the 2011 New England Patriots(other than Tom Brady).

5. Jerod Mayo– While the Patriot defense has had some of its better performances since Mayo went down with an injury, the credit for that mostly goes to Mark Sanchez and Tony Romo for struggling and losing their coaches’ confidence. Mayo is the leader and best player on this unit, and it will be up to him to come back and make them good enough to win a championship. With Mayo out of the lineup, Gary Guyton has consistently played on his heels and made tackles in the secondary, while also being unable to cover opponents’ tight ends underneath. Mayo’s added athleticism and instincts will help New England against the run and the pass, and they it will need him at his best to reach the Super Bowl.

4. Dan Connolly– Connolly has been a serviceable part of a very good offensive line. So far, guards Logan Mankins and Brain Waters have been phenomenal, allowing Connolly to simply assist in double teams. That cost the Patriots last week against the Cowboys as the interior of the New England line was unable to get to the second-level on run plays and forced to overcompensate in the middle in pass protection, leading to single-teams on the outside against Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. If New England is to take the next step and be a consistently dominant offense, Connolly will have to be able to hold his own with an offensive line that has, otherwise, been an extremely pleasant surprise.

3. Rob Ninkovich– New England lacks and elite pass-rusher, but Ninkovich is their best edge player. Yes, Andre Carter has gotten to the quarterback more, but, as a linebacker, Ninkovich plays the flats in coverage and still provides pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He has been solid this year, but with Carter now being the focus of opponents’ blocking schemes, Ninkovich will have a real opportunity to go against single teams the rest of the way. If the New England pass defense is to improve to championship level, he will need to take advantage of those matchups.

2. Rob Gronkowski– The second-year tight end has gone from “reliable security blanket,” to “extremely frightening weapon” in one year. At 6-foot-6, Gronkowski can simply box-out and reach over most defenders, but his surprising speed and ability to run past them is what has really impressed. He has been somewhat quiet the past couple weeks, and the Patriot offense has slowed down with his lack of production. If the Pats are to continue rolling offensively, they will need to make better use of this human mismatch.

1.  Devin McCourty– No doubt about it, the pass defense has been the least impressive part of the 2011 Patriots. The scheme has called for a large amount of man-to-man coverage, and no player has been more exposed than second-year corner Devin McCourty. The quickest remedy for what ails New England’s secondary would be a big bounce-back from what New England thought was a top-flight corner in the making. The struggles of the pass defense fall partially on the pass-rush and the rest of the secondary, but McCourty’s ability to recover from his early-season struggles will be the biggest part of fixing what is wrong.

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