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September 19. 2013 10:34PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: A team under construction

GIVEN the natural newness of everything that comes with the season opener, and the general inexperience of their roster, the mistakes they made in Buffalo were understandable — even predictable. Then forced to play again four days later, with barely enough time to review the video, and no time for a full practice, it might've been unfair to expect they would be appreciably better last Thursday against the Jets.

As much of a gift as the schedule makers gave the Patriots by setting them up to begin the campaign by facing two rookie quarterbacks at the helm of below-average teams, condensing it so compactly they kicked off twice in 103 hours was a disadvantageous counterbalance for a team that needs to grow into itself.

But this Sunday there should be no excuses. By the time the Patriots take on the Buccaneers, 10 days will have passed since they squeaked by the Jets in their Gillette Stadium debut, and that means they will have had 10 days to improve, to study and — for the first time — to implement the lessons learned via real-game trial and error. They will have had 10 days to get themselves ready for this challenge.

It's not a short week. It's not a new quarterback. It's not a new coaching staff. They've had plenty of time to prepare, they've got plenty of tape telling them what Tampa likes to do — and, heck, they practiced with the Bucs for a few days prior to playing a preseason game against them just a month ago.

So if there's no sign of progress from the Patriots come Sunday afternoon, then maybe it's time to be concerned.

"Last week we didn't get to work on many fundamentals or techniques in practice, so you go out and you execute in the first week like we did against Buffalo, but it was a quick turnaround playing on Thursday night," quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. "Coach talks about improving and these weeks really being about improvement, trying to be a better football team, so we're trying to do that."

They need to do that. It's still very early, yes. They're 2-0, with both wins in the division, and Tampa doesn't even play in their same conference. They could lose a September game to an NFC foe and it wouldn't be a big deal, as losing to Arizona in Week 2 last year ultimately wasn't.

But this week isn't exclusively about winning for the Patriots. It's about building something. It's about proving to themselves and to everybody that given time they're going to put the work in, and they're going to get the Patriots back to the level of play that's become the expectation around these parts.

Through two weeks they've been nowhere near it, needing a last-second field goal to overcome their turnovers and beat the Bills, then getting shut out in the second half and relying on three fourth-quarter interceptions to hold on against the Jets. They've scored 36 points through two weeks, and won two games by a total of five points — after averaging 35 per contest and a scoring margin of 14 per tilt last season — and while there's nothing wrong with winning ugly, they need to show they've taken advantage of this break by demonstrating improvement in some important areas.

Brady and his 52.7 completion percentage needs to get on the same page as his receivers, obviously, but it's more than that. A running game averaging 3.6 yards per carry needs to show signs of life and alleviate the strain on the passing game.

The tight ends needs to be pertinent again — whether or not Rob Gronkowski makes his return. The offense needs to be better in the red zone, where they've converted only two of eight opportunities into touchdowns, and rate second-worst in the NFL. It also needs to be more efficient than a 28th-ranked 4.3 yards per play.

Defensively they need to be stouter against the run, having yielded the league's fifth-most rushing yards and 4 yards per carry. They need to be more disciplined, having committed an NFL-high 18 fouls on that side of scrimmage. And they could improve in their base defense so they didn't need to rely so heavily on the nickel package.

By no means is as any of that going to be near perfect, so that should not be the expectation. In most of those areas, it might still be unfair to think it should be good.

But it has to be better, and begin to show that the talent, the work ethic, the intelligence is here, and it's just a matter of time and reps until things are right. By the time Sunday gets here they'll have had 10 days worth of both.

So there's no excuse for it not to be.


Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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