FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Five weeks into their season with newcomers playing key roles, the New England Patriots are developing into a solid group.
The running attack has had two consecutive strong games. The defense had its best day of the year on Sunday. And, as usual, Tom Brady and Wes Welker were outstanding.
The Patriots are gelling. Or so it seems.
“You can’t really say that,” safety James Ihedigbo said Monday. “There’s a lot of football left to be played and our goal as a team is to get better each week. So, I guess, it’s to be seen how good we can be.”
The encouraging signs could dim as soon as Sunday when Dallas visits New England. Coming off a bye week, the Cowboys have plenty of time to prepare. They also have pass-rushing star DeMarcus Ware going against a team that allowed Brady to be sacked four times in the Patriots 30-21 win over their AFC East rival New York Jets on Sunday.
“I thought we did a decent job at times” on offense, Brady said, “but I thought we obviously left a lot of points out there.”
The Patriots had some problems on special teams, allowing an 88-yard kickoff return by Joe McKnight.
Still, it was their most complete performance of the season and improved their record to 4-1 with their 19th straight — and Brady’s 30th straight — regular-season win at home.
The defense had been dreadful in the first four games, giving up a league-worst 477.5 yards per game. They held the Jets to just 255.
The running game produced a total of 308 yards in the first three games and 335 in the next two.
With better offensive balance, Brady’s production declined from an average of 442.3 yards passing in the first three games to 273.5 in the next two. But Welker kept gaining huge chunks of yardage, picking up 124 yards on five receptions against the Jets for a total of 740, the most in NFL history through a team’s first five games.
“Guys came in very focused, understanding that this was a big game for us and it can really get us a jump-start in the division,” Welker said.
It’s taken a while for players to adjust to their new system and teammates.
There are a lot of different faces on defense— linemen Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth and Mark Anderson and safety Ihedigbo.
“I am very proud of the defense,” said tackle Vince Wilfork, in his eighth year with the Patriots. “Is everything perfect? No. There are a lot of things we could do better, but I think the penalties are down, we aren’t giving up big plays. We have to continue to grow.”
The offensive line has three new starters, right guard Brian Waters, rookie right tackle Nate Solder and center Dan Connolly, who took over when Dan Koppen suffered a season-ending injury in the opener. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and rookie running back Stevan Ridley also have had to learn a new system.
“With the new rules, we’ve been in one padded practice a week,” said running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who rushed for a career-high 136 yards with two touchdowns against the Jets. “It’s kind of important that we get those things taken care during the week when we do have those pads on.”
Before the season, Belichick said it would take about a month to get a handle on what kind of team he had.
So, does he?
“We’ve learned a lot. We’ve made a lot of adjustments over the first five games in some of the things that we’re doing because we want to stay away from some things and move more to other areas,” Belichick said. “We didn’t wait ‘til now to say, ‘OK, well let’s start looking at it.’
“We did it after the first game, after the second game and it’s a continuous work in progress,” he said. “It’s clear how some teams are trying to attack us in different areas and how teams are trying to defend us.”
The analysis continues this week in preparation for the Cowboys (2-2). The Patriots last faced them four years ago, winning 48-27 on Oct. 14, 2007. This will be only the third matchup since Belichick became coach in 2000.
It’s another chance for the Patriots to develop as a cohesive team or succeed in some areas and struggle in others.
“We’re focused on Dallas this week,” Ihedigbo said, “and another opportunity for us, as a team and as a defense, to really play to another level. So that’s what we’re working on.”