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New England could be soft up the middle. Can Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay feast?
The NFL didn’t have to give Bill Belichick another day to prepare for Vic Fangio’s defense, but they did it anyways. It leaves Broncos Country with more time to chew on this upcoming matchup. Fortunately the Pats’ Pulpits’ Managing Editor Bernd Buchmasser was gracious enough with his time that I could pick his brain.
1st and 10
Buchmasser: One of the Patriots’ core philosophies is building the team — or in this case game plan — based around the strengths of the available personnel. When I look at the offense as it stands right now, and the first four games of the season, I do believe the unit will try to play a game similar to the one we saw in Kansas City and even before that: New England will try to establish a presence on the ground in order to make life easier for whoever is lining up under center (most likely second-year Jarrett Stidham).
I-formation runs, as you mentioned, will be a big part of this attack, but I can also see the Patriots incorporate plenty of misdirection concepts in order to widen the field a bit and put some pressure on Denver’s linebackers to quickly diagnose the play. Building off of that, I can also see a lot play-action once the running game gets going. This is essentially what the team has been doing with Newton as well, with the only difference that the quarterback in this new scenario will not contribute as a runner: neither Jarrett Stidham nor Brian Hoyer have the same mobility to make this work.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) October 6, 2020
2nd and 14
New England hasn’t been known for their receivers since Rob Gronkowski was healthy. Are there any players or matchups that Broncos’ Country is sleeping on right now?
Buchmasser: Normally, I would point to Julian Edelman as the weapon of choice but he is a) probably not a player Broncos fans are sleeping on, and b) only the number three in terms of playing time at the moment. A knee injury that has limited him in practice may play a part in this, but he has also struggled with drops at times this season. This all said, he’s still the most established downfield receiver the Patriots have.
The other players, meanwhile, are more of a mixed bag when it comes to that. Damiere Byrd has led New England in snaps at the wide receiver position, but he has failed to consistently get open from the X-receiver spot or provide the team with a reliable downfield threat despite his solid straight-line speed. Second-year man N’Keal Harry is actually tied for the team lead in both receptions (18) and touchdown catches (1), so he might be a guy to watch: while he has yet to live up to his status as a former first-round draft pick, Harry seems to be getting more comfortable in the offense after a rookie season marked by injuries. He could be a guy to watch. Of course, the Patriots also might try to incorporate Gunner Olszewski after easing him back off of injured reserve last week. Another second-year receiver, Olszewski was a standout in training camp.
When it comes to reliable targets, however, I would also mention running back James White: White has caught 10 passes in two games this season — he missed two contests after his father was killed in a car crash — and is one of the best receiving backs in the game. He’s no downfield threat courtesy of his position, but a player who can serve as a safety net for whoever is playing quarterback.
You will notice that I didn’t mention the tight end position. That is because it is manned by Ryan Izzo and rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene: the former is more of a blocker than a receiver (he has caught three passes for 44 yards so far), while Asiasi has only seen limited action and Keene has yet to make his NFL debut. Maybe this all changes against the Broncos, but based on the first four weeks of the season, I wouldn’t count on it.
Julian Edelman led the NFL in drops last season. This is now his fifth this season, and the most costly one… pic.twitter.com/dT3B2WtuW1
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) October 6, 2020
3rd and 4
If Stephon Gilmore can’t play that’s a noticeable shot to the secondary. How will they adjust and are there any receivers on the Broncos that you’re concerned about?
Buchmasser: While he had a comparatively slow start to the season, Stephon Gilmore is still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL (he gave up just one 10-yard catch against Kansas City on Monday night, for example). Without him — and it seems likely he will be out despite the game being pushed back one day — the Patriots will likely turn to J.C. Jackson as their top corner. Jackson may not be a household name, but he has grown into one of the best cornerbacks in football since arriving in New England as a rookie free agent three years ago. He will surely play most if not all defensive snaps on Monday, and be joined by the following defensive backs: Devin McCourty (deep safety), Jason McCourty (perimeter and deep safety), Jonathan Jones (slot), Adrian Phillips (box safety/linebacker), Kyle Dugger (tight ends) and Joejuan Williams (tight ends).
The Patriots’ cornerback group, and secondary as a whole, is as deep as any in the NFL and should be capable of making life hard on opposing passing attacks even without its best player available. Losing Gilmore is obviously not ideal, especially given the cause of his likely absence, but if there is one group that can withstand such a blow in New England it is the defensive backfield.
As for the Broncos’ receivers, I would have said Noah Fant but his ankle injury might keep him out of Monday’s game. I’ll therefore go with Jerry Jeudy, because he has the speed to challenge the Patriots’ deep and in turn maybe open some holes underneath for other pass catchers to exploit.
4th and 8
Belichick has made a dramatic change in recent years to prioritize coverage over the pass rush. Do you think that leaves any room for the Broncos to find success on the ground?
Buchmasser: The Patriots have made a shift away from a rush-based defense to one built around an elite secondary, yes, but they have tried to make up for this. For one, they invested in big players to man the interior of the defensive line, in combination with some stout outside linebackers (like Kyle Van Noy) capable of holding a tight edge versus the run. Furthermore, they had instinctive off-the-ball linebackers to fill the gaps from the second level (like Dont’a Hightower). This approach has served them well in the past, but has led to some issues this year because of two reasons:
1.) The off-the-ball linebacker corps is rather thin: With New England losing three of its four off-the-ball linebackers since last season — Dont’a Hightower (opt-out), Jamie Collins (free agency), Elandon Roberts (free agency) — only Ja’Whaun Bentley remained as a somewhat established player at the position. The team did add Brandon Copeland in free agency as well as the versatile Josh Uche, who is now on injured reserve, and Anfernee Jennings via the draft, but has relied mostly on “star” safety Adrian Phillips to take over the second linebacker spot alongside Bentley. Phillips is a solid player, but at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds simply lacks size.
2.) The team currently does not have a big run-stuffing defensive tackle available: New England acquired 6-foot-3, 330-pound Beau Allen in free agency to fill the early-down/run role previously held by 6-foot-2, 345-pound Danny Shelton, but he has yet to step onto the field after missing virtually all of training camp and the first four weeks of the season with an undisclosed injury. We know he is still alive, but that’s about it. With Allen out, the defensive tackle rotation has mostly consisted of Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Byron Cowart. They have looked good at times and are a solid three-man group, but adding Allen would help especially considering the linebacker situation outlined above.
So, what does this mean for the game against the Broncos? I do think they can find success on the ground, but I believe the Patriots will prioritize taking away the run by keeping extra bodies in the box and forcing the quarterback — especially if it is Brett Rypien — to beat them with his arm.
Predictions for the game?
Buchmasser: I’ll start with this: I predict the game will be played on Monday (just having to say this is weird but, hey, welcome to 2020, I guess).
Other than that, I’m pretty bad at predictions, but I do think that the Patriots will come away victoriously on Monday. Why? They may be without their starting quarterback and best defender, but their defense is still good enough to slow Denver down and give the offense opportunities. That was the same against the Chiefs as well, but New England simply failed to capitalize. Having a week to prepare another quarterback — even if that week was mostly spent virtually — will allow the operation to run more smoothly and not make the same head-scratching errors that cost the team in Kansas City on Monday.