2022 Atlanta Falcons Offseason: Breaking Down the Edge Defender Situation

Atlanta Falcons edge defender Ade Ogundeji
Photo Credit: Steve Luciano/AP

The biggest issue for the Atlanta Falcons defense is a lack of talent at edge defender both in the pass rushing and run defending aspects of the defense. Atlanta’s defensive line has needs, but edge defender has more needs than the defensive line does. Atlanta will need to find two starters and a speed rotational rusher to take advantage of defensive coordinator Dean Pees coverage and zone blitzing concepts.

Under Contract:

EDGE Adetokunbo Ogundeji: 3 years, $3.0 million left on his contract

EDGE James Vaughters: 1 year, $965,000 left on his contract

EDGE Quinton Bell: 1 year, $825,000 left on his contract

The Falcons are in a great spot to completely remake their edge rushing corps. While Adetokunbo Ogundeji showed that he’s a good long-term rotational piece, he’s not a long-term starter. James Vaughters is another solid rotational piece that they should go year-to-year with unless he pulls a Shaq Barrett on them. Quinton Bell was a practice squad player last year and signed to a futures contract.

Unrestricted Free Agents:

EDGE Dante Fowler

EDGE Stephen Means

EDGE Brandon Copeland

Honestly, unless any of these guys will come back for the true veteran minimum, they aren’t worth bringing into camp for the Falcons in 2022. Dante Fowler was a disappointment all year and barely brought any pressure. Stephen Means is a pure run defender with no pass rush potential. Brandon Copeland is a run defense and coverage linebacker who is better aligned on the edge.

Current Need

The Falcons are missing two starting caliber edge rushers and one rotational edge rusher. They need true pass rushers. Bringing in someone in the draft and free agency has to be the plan. Right now, the focus should be on getting multiple guys who can be regular 10-sack players while they are with the Falcons, as well as at least a rotational guy who can come in and be a mentor.

Potential Future Need

There would be a potential future need if the Falcons had someone at the position. But right now, there is no potential future need. It’s all about fixing the pass rush right now and in the long term.

What the Plan Should Be Moving Forward

The Atlanta Falcons should look to get at least two starting edge defenders in free agency. Someone like Von Miller on a $9 million/year or so deal to start and be a mentor makes sense. Other options would include guys like Melvin Ingram as a rotational rusher or a Derek Barnett as a starter. Older, mentor types that could help in the mentor and rotational role include guys like Ryan Kerrigan, Pernell McPhee, Jamie Collins and Everson Griffen.

In the draft, there are a lot of interesting options. Ideally one of Kayvon Thibideaux or Aidan Hutchinson slip to the Falcons in the first round. However, options like George Karlaftis or David Ojabo could end up being great fits in the first round. Additional mid-round guys would include Myjai Sanders, Kingsley Enagbare, Zach Harrison and Nolan Smith. With such a strong edge class, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Atlanta go out and get multiple options in the draft and add just one veteran.

Patriots Beat Panthers to Get Back in Playoff Picture

Patriots beat panthers
Charlotte, NC – November 7: Patriots DB J.C.Jackson (27) walks on air as he crosses the goal line as he returns a third quarter interception of a pass from Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) for a touchdown. The New England Patriots visited the Carolina Panthers for a regular season NFL football game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Nov. 7, 2021. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The Patriots beat the Panthers and best pal Sam Darnold on Sunday to get to 5-4 and climb back into the AFC Playoff picture. The victory got them above .500 for the first time this season, and the first time since Week 3 last year.

The team has been firmly on the rise for the last three weeks and maybe even in heartbreaking losses to the Cowboys and Bucs but now are getting the results that matter. The good news for this team; if defense still wins championships then we’ll be seeing them play meaningful football in January. The bad news for them; the offense is still showing signs of needing to figure some things out with rookie Mac Jones at the certain of too many mistakes.

As I’ve said here before, a win is a win is a win and as long as that is the result on Sunday’s the Pats will continue to buy time to tinker with their formula. If they can get it figured out, there won’t be many teams wanting to see Belichick’s team come playoff time. And with a couple AFC front runners stumbling on Sunday (looking at Buffalo, Las Vegas, and Cincinnati) the division and conference are suddenly wide open.

Enough about the future and time for 15 observations from the game against the Panthers.

Matt Judon Has Another Great Game

Matt Judon signed a four year $54.5 million contract in the offseason that had many wondering if the Pats had overpaid. 9 games into his Patriots career and not only is he making that contract look like an absolute steal but he is making his case for the best free agent addition of Bill Belichick’s career. Judon is filling up the stat sheet and when he’s not, he’s impacting the play in other ways. He is the newest Patriot to receive “Gronk rules’-where the refs are essentially blind to most penalties against you.

Judon added 4 more tackles, 1 sack, and 1 tackle on Sunday, bringing his season totals to 36 tackles, 9 sacks, and 10 tackles for a loss. He has 40 QB pressures on the season and an incredible 17.2% pressure rate. He has single handedly changed the New England defense.

Pass Coverage

The pressure that Judon is consistently bringing is changing the Patriots into a successful zone coverage team. The Patriots have historically been a man coverage team under Belichick. On Sunday the Pats ran 8 cover-1 coverage snaps compared to 32 cover-3 calls and 10 cover-2 calls. Despite running more zone the Pats were effective in pressuring Darnold, affecting the ex-Jet on 51.4% of his drop-backs. That’s a recipe for success.

Jamie Collins Makes His Presence Felt

Despite only playing 16 snaps Jamie Collins again had himself a productive game collecting 3 tackles, a forced fumble, and an absolutely ridiculous interception. That kind of performance isn’t sustainable for a full snap count but he has to be close to getting more than a part time gig at this point. Collins intercepted the ball 0.17 seconds after release, the quickest interception since 2016.

Another Big Day for J.C. Jackson

J.C. Jackson switched his Instagram handle to Mr. INT and if that isn’t the CB1 energy you want there’s a team in New York that wears green and is taking fan applications. Jackson added 2 more picks on Sunday including his first career pick six-despite playing only 38 of 59 defensive snaps as he recovered from his bout with strep throat. Jackson now has 22 interceptions since 2019, most in the NFL. In a contract year he is becoming a bona fide lockdown corner.

Scoring Offense and Defense

The Patriots are now one of four teams in the NFL to rank in the top 10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The Pats have the number 10 scoring offense and number 4 scoring defense, joining the Bills (#4 offense, #1 defense), Cardinals (#2 offense, #3 defense), and Rams (#5 offense, #10 defense). Good company to keep.

Mac Jones Joins the C

Mac Jones joined Andrew Luck and Dak Prescott as the only rookie QB’s in league history to have 5+ wins, 10+ TD passes, and 2,000+ passing yards in their first 9 starts. More good company to keep.

Mac Jones Concern

For the first 8 weeks Mac made a living making sure he wasn’t the reason the team lost. Last Sunday against the Chargers he graded out as a net neutral, not hurting the team but not elevating them either. Unfortunately against the Panthers he was liability. The coaching staff agreed as Mac had a career low 18 passing attempts. The Panthers defense is no joke but the slowing momentum from Mac brings concerns that opposing coaches staff are figuring something out about the rook.

Mac was making headlines on Monday for his play on the lost fumble. Some among the Panthers have called him a dirty player and are calling for a suspension. Mac will probably be fined. The play in question isn’t great for Mac but also not as bad as people want you to believe. Take a look for yourself.

Offensive Line Excels

The Pats settled on a Wynn-Karras-Andrew-Mason-Onwenu offensive line for the first time against the Jets three weeks ago. Since then the starting five are third in pressure rate allowed (22.4%) and second in pass-blocking efficiency. They’ve also had their three best rushing outputs since installing this combo with a season best 151 yards on Sunday against a stiff Panthers defense.

Christian Barmore Has Another Great Game

If you’ve been reading along this season, you know we’re big fans of Christian Barmore. The rookie had another solid outing Sunday with 3 hurries, 2 run stuffs, and 2 batted passes. He ranks first among rookies in QB hurries and batted passes. His 23 pressures are nothing to sneeze at as his playing time has been increasing over the last few weeks. Barmore is consistently disruptive with his rare combination of size, power, and explosiveness. How he feel to 38 is a mystery but the Pats are very happy to be the benefactors.

Historically Good EPA

The Pats were historically bad in early down situations on defense last year. In 2020 the early down defense allowed 0.13 EPA (expected points added), good for 29th in the league. It’s extremely tough to win in this league if opposing offenses consistently find themselves in third and short situations. They have turned it around this year allowing -0.04 (!!!!) EPA on early downs. This largely has to do with Ja’Whaun Bentley returning to his normal role since Hightower’s return. He has been one of the better run stuffing linebackers in the league through 9 weeks this season. Add in do-it-all safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger playing in the box in nickel and dime defenses and the Pats have a very real recipe for success.

Myles Bryant Steps Up

Myles Bryant has done an exceptional job filling in for slot corner Jonathan Jones. He was involved in two more big hits on Sunday, a week after laying the wood on Keenan Allen for a big stop at a pivotal moment. He is starting to turn some heads around the league.

Former Patriot, Stephon Gilmore, Dominates

Stephon Gilmore played well against his former team, basically being responsible for all of Carolina’s points. His coverage on Jakobi Meyers forced Mac to hold the ball a tick longer on the Burns strip sack before later adding an interception of his own. Jones said after the game he needed to look at the film to see what happened but it appears Meyers was picked by the underneath defender allowing Gilmore a clean break on the ball. Without that contact it looks like Gilmore still would’ve had a pass defensed. He continues to be a top NFL corner.

Stevenson Puts on a Show Before Injury

Rhamondre Stevenson had his best game of his career, totaling 106 all-purpose yards (62 rushing, 44 receiving). Stevenson is a split-legged runner, making it tough for defenders to get a clean shot on him and allowing him to quickly change direction. His open field vision is also starting to show. His 41-yard catch in the second quarter was the spark the offense had been lacking for the first 20 minutes of game action.

Both Stevenson and Damien Harris left the game with injuries. Their status bears watching headed into a physical matchup with Cleveland this weekend.

Season Outlook

With week 9 officially over the Pats hold the final wildcard spot in the AFC playoff picture. Their next six games feature matchups with the Browns, Titans, Bills (x2), and Colts. A big opportunity for them to cement their status as a contender.

New England Patriots vs Dallas Cowboys Preview

New England Patriots
(Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The New England Patriots’ victory against the Texans was U-G-L-Y. While fans were not impressed, players and coaches were impressed with the team’s effort to fight through adversity. While it wasn’t a dominant effort, these ugly wins sometimes provide momentum. Case in point? 2001, Week 5. Patriots are 1-3 coming into the game and trail by 10 in the fourth quarter. A certain young QB threw his first career touchdown pass before the Pats won the game in overtime, 29-26.

This year? Pats are 1-3 entering week 5, trail by seven entering the fourth quarter, and get the comeback. The league, especially the AFC, is loaded with top-end-talented teams this year; maybe the comeback against Houston gets this team rolling. The Pats have shown to have the talent to lock down the Buccaneers and exhibit incredibly balanced offensive talent; they just need to execute better. If they do, watch out.

They’ll get their first chance to do so this Sunday against a very talented Dallas Cowboys team. Everybody knows the Cowboys tout an extremely talented core of offensive players, but their defense has been stealing headlines throughout the season. While it’s an extremely improved group over last year, their passing defense is surviving on takeaways. New England fans will appreciate that effort but know the dangers in playing that sort of game.

The only difference? Dallas has been truly elite in taking the ball away. Weird stat for this one? The Cowboys won the first seven matchups between these two teams before the Pats ripped off six straight of their own: historical standings head-to-head? 7-6, Cowboys. We’ll dive more into this in the breakdown below. So, without further ado and continuing the “who has the advantage when…” format, the breakdown!

The New England Patriots’ Passing Attack

Two shocking stats about Mac Jones and the Patriots passing game; Mac Jones has more 20+ yard completions than Patrick Mahomes this season and according to PFF, Mac only had two turnover-worthy plays against Houston. That second stat certainly felt like a lot more.

Jones hasn’t been an unstoppable downfield thrower, but he has become an opportunistic downfield shot guy and as long as he stays smart with the ball, the Pats’ offense is in good hands. The biggest complaint is McDaniels conservative playcalling once the Patriots enter the red zone. After his dime of a touchdown throw to Henry on Sunday, hopefully, Mac has shown enough to stop the three consecutive screen calls.

The Cowboys have given up yards in the passing game, ranking 31st in the league in passing yards allowed. However, their ability to get the takeaway is incredible. They have an incredible ten (!!) interceptions through their first five games. CB Trevon Diggs has six of the ten interceptions. It would be wise for Mac to look elsewhere in the passing game.

The good news? Diggs does not often travel into the slot meaning security blankets Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry should draw favorable matchups. The Cowboys often engage their opponents in high-scoring affairs and part of that is the plethora of yards they let up through the air.

Advantage: New England Patriots (as long as Mac avoids Diggs on the outside)

The New England Patriots’ Run Game

For how loose the Cowboys are against the pass, they are equally stingy against the runs. The Cowboys feature the fifth-best rushing defense while the Pats boast the sixth-worst rushing offense. While the Cowboys are allowing 4.2 yards per carry, this is not an area the Pats want to have to rely on to win the game.

The offensive line was a pleasant surprise last week and the return of Shaq Mason and Mike Onwenu hopefully means even more success. Ted Karras did a wonderful job standing in at LG against the Texans and perhaps a shuffle might lead to better results for the Patriots’ offense. Sliding Onwenu out to RT where he starred as a rookie and keeping Karras at LG might be the lineup the Pats need to move the ball on the ground while also being sturdy in pass protection.

The Cowboys feature an active LB corps and a stalwart along the defensive line in Demarcus Lawrence. The Pats had a ton of success of play-action against the Texans and should try to establish the run game if only for this reason. Mac has been fantastic off of play-action throughout the season, continuing that aspect of the game will benefit everyone in the Pats offense.

Advantage: Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys’ Passing Attack

Before the season most fans would’ve been extremely concerned to hear that Jalen Mills was the key to the pass defense while playing CORNER. Mills’ absence was apparent last week as the Texans picked on Joejuan Williams, eventually forcing slot man Jonathan Jones to play to the boundary. Mills’ return this week is going to be a must for the Pats.

Dallas’ talented WR trio of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup is a big test. In the last matchup, Stephon Gilmore erased Cooper while JC Jackson mirrored Gallup. They won’t be able to do that this year with Gilmore gone. The Pats should utilize a similar game plan as they did against the Bucs with “cat” coverage across the board. Jackson should draw Cooper, Jones on Lamb, while Mills’ return asks him to cover Gallup. It should be a battle on the outside all game long.

Safety Devin McCourty had an extremely rough game against the Texans and a return to the norm for him will go a long way towards the Pats defense having success on Sunday. The safeties will be involved in limiting the suddenly productive Dalton Schultz at tight end. He has become a security blanket for Prescott, seeing seven or more targets in the last three weeks, hauling in six in each of those contests.

Cowboys QB Dak Prescott has been fantastic in his return from a brutal ankle injury last year. To have success against him, the Pats must get pressure while also maintaining containment-something they have struggled with this season. Matt Judon continues to be a force on the outside, leading the league in tackles for loss (8), second in sacks (6.5), and sixth in QB hits (10). He’ll need to be at his best for the Pats to be disruptive here.

Rookie DT Christian Barmore is slowly rounding into form, and while his stat line remains quiet, he’s impacting the game elsewhere. He drew two holding penalties last week while facing the second-most double teams in the NFL. Sacks will eventually come for the talented second-rounder. Jamie Collins quickly reacquainted himself to the New England defense getting a sack in one of his three snaps. He should see more action this week.

Advantage: Dallas Cowboys (but not by as much as expected)

The Cowboys Run the Ball

This is where the game will be decided. The Cowboys are second in the NFL in rushing yards (864) while the Patriots are 15th against the run. The Patriots run defense comes as a surprise as they’ve been a sieve against the run thus far. The good news? Dont’a Hightower is rounding into form, playing his best game on Sunday. Hightower had five tackles, including four run stuffs. Hightower rounding into his normal disruptive forms will help immensely in steadying this defense down the stretch.

Thumper Ja’Wuan Bentley’s return will also boost the Pats’ run defense but expect to see some matchup utilization out of the Pats’ linebacking corps. With Elliot and his bruising running style on the field, expect Hightower and Bentley to man the middle. When the Cowboys deploy change of pace back Tony Pollard, Van Noy should draw the card and see some playing time.

The Cowboys no longer have All-Pros all along the offensive line but do have a sturdy group that can do the necessary dirty work. The Patriots’ defensive line doesn’t need to blow up every play but they must slow the offensive linemen from getting upfield. If the d-line can keep the linebackers clean, expect the Pats to be stingy.

They must also be disciplined in staying in their run fits to contain Dak and the designed QB runs and from keeping Dak from pulling it on an option read and skirting around the edge. The Pats won’t be able to completely stop the Cowboys running game but must contain it and limit the damage.

Advantage: Dallas Cowboys

Special Teams

The Cowboys have attempted only four kickoff returns this season, good for second least in the NFL. The Pats should try to take advantage of the lack of experience with a few kickoffs short of the goal line. The same goes for the Cowboys in the punt return game, only attempting five here as well. The Cowboys have struggled in the kicking game going 9/11 in field goals and 17/19 on PAT’s. The Pats would be wise to have the Cowboys going into the open end of the stadium in the fourth quarter in case it comes down to a field goal.

For the Patriots, Nick Folk has been incredibly consistent since joining the Pats last year and has continued to be this year. His four made field goals last week, including two from 50+ earned him AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Folk now joins Stephen Gostowski as the only Patriots kickers to make two 50+ field goals in one game. It was also his third time as a Patriot with four made field goals in a game. And in a “brag about your kicker” kind of way, he’s second in the league in points scored.

Belichick’s affection for special teams is well known and the mismatch here might allow for the Pats to steal a possession or get some very important hidden yards.

Advantage: New England Patriots

Coaching

The stuff of legends: Mike McCarthy vs. Bill Belichick. Just kidding. McCarthy was scared to answer questions from Boston Media on Wednesday for fear of Belichick gaining valuable information. While McCarthy isn’t a rookie coach, he has been prone to making rookie decisions. His decision-making process for going for two or going for it on fourth down is not based on analytics or old-school football knowledge but more in a “well why not now?” sort of way. As we saw last week, some coaches can’t help but get out of their own way against Belichick. There should be a couple of situations that fall into this category on Sunday.

Advantage: New England Patriots

Prediction

Despite obvious concerns regarding the New England Patriots, it feels like a “trap game” for Dallas. Essentially, the Pats will do just enough to get an ugly, if not signature win. Mac Jones has been steadily progressing and may be on the verge of putting it all together. Hightower rounding into form with the talent of Judon, Van Noy, and Collins will assist a typical Patriots defense while Belichick shows that the Texans game was a mere blip on the radar (he was honestly extremely proud of the teams’ effort last week, something that hasn’t been making the national media rounds).

A loss on Sunday would drop the Pats to 0-4 at home this season, something that feels unprecedented. The offensive line keeps Mac mostly clean while the defensive game plan reverts to the old bend-but-don’t-break.

Pats win 26-24

Patriots vs Texans Preview

Patriots vs Texans
HOUSTON, TEXAS – NOVEMBER 22: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots attempts to break a tackle from Justin Reid #20 of the Houston Texans in the fourth quarter during their game at NRG Stadium on November 22, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The Patriots look to double their win total vs a Texans team seeking the same outcome. After a hard-fought defeat to the Buccaneers last week, the Patriots look to take on a Texans team reeling from three straight losses, including the 40-0 smackdown against the Bills last week. It will be a battle of rookie QB’s when the two teams meet up, but how each rookie gained their starting job couldn’t be any more different.

Mac Jones beat out incumbent Cam Newton to win the starting gig coming out of training camp. Texans Rookie Davis Mills (Stanford) was picked in the third round with the Texans’ first pick of the draft to largely play backup to Tyrod Taylor. However, when Taylor injured his hamstring in week 2 against the Browns, it forced Mills into action. A week after holding a living legend to mortal numbers, the Patriots defense will again need to be active on Sunday to help the team win with a skeleton crew of a roster making the trip.

We’ll again stick with last week’s iteration of game preview, using the “who has the advantage when…” style. So, without further ado.

The Patriots Run the Ball

The Patriots are suddenly a team struggling to move the ball on the ground. Don’t expect that to change this week as the only returning starter along the offensive line is center David Andrews. The Patriots leading rusher a week ago was WR Nelson Agholor, who had a long of 4 yards. Collectively, the Pats totaled 8 carries for -1 yard on the ground.

That’s not a typo, a Bill Belichick coached had -1 rushing yard for an entire game. A week before, the Patriots had 49 yards on 17 carries. This has been a downward trend since the season opener against the Dolphins for the Pats. Behind a patchwork offensive line, the work won’t be getting any easier for the Patriots’ running backs.

The silver lining? The Texans have been extremely porous against the run, allowing an average of 137 yards per game to their opponents with an extremely generous 4.5 yards per carry average. While the Texans boast an active linebacking corps, the defensive line has been quiet through the first quarter of the NFL season. The lack of production among their down linemen has allowed the linebackers more than their fair share of chances to pad stats with tackles multiple yards downfield, which is exactly what has occurred.

Despite the Texans’ troubles defending the run, it won’t be an easy day in the office for the Patriots rushing attack. Expect this to be a difficult endeavor to get the ground game going. Damien Harris and the other Patriot’s running backs were having a difficult time executing the Patriots rushing attack behind the starting offensive line, it won’t get any easier behind the patchwork starting five against the Texans.

Advantage: Patriots (somehow)

The Patriots Pass the Ball

McDaniels embraced Mac Jones and his strengths last week against the Bucs. Facing a strong front seven but an injured secondary, the Pats spread it out, often going with three wide receiver sets. These personnel groupings not only plays to Jones’ strengths in the short to intermediate passing game, but it helps the rookie identify defensive play calls before the snap.

The Patriots would be wise to utilize this game plan again against the Texans. With Mac playing behind four new starters up front, putting him in the gun and letting him identify his mismatches before the snap will allow him to get the ball out quick and avoid getting killed. If the Patriots’ running game falters at all, expect them to replace it with a quick passing game to keep the offense in manageable situations.

The Texans’ secondary is largely comprised of “remember them” names. While they may have some notable names on their roster, the Texans’ passing defense has been middle of the pack. They have allowed an average of 260 yards passing per game but have buoyed that performance with timely takeaways and stiff red zone passing defense.

The Texans have allowed 6 passing touchdowns while collecting 5 interceptions. Safety Justin Reid leads the team with 2, while CB’s Vernon Hargreaves III and Lonnie Johnson Jr., and linebacker Christian Kirksey have one apiece.

The Texans pass rush starts with hybrid defensive end/linebacker Whitney Mercilus who has collected 3 sacks on the season. The team has a total of 7 sacks to this point in the season. Outside of Mercilus, these sacks are largely designed pressures and not one on one pass rush wins. Don’t be surprised if some of these schemes and games fool the Pats’ backup o-linemen and we see Mac on the ground more than we’d like.

It’ll all come down to protecting Mac. The Texans will know the Pats want to get the ball out of his hand quickly and would be smart to clog the underneath passing lanes. If so, Mac will need to have time to work through his progressions. If the Pats can afford him that time, then the passing offense will have success. If not, it could be a frustrating day in the office. A big game from the tight ends might be in store if the Pts can consistently get them lined up on the Texans linebackers.

Advantage: Patriots

The Texans Run the Ball

The Texans have been anything but a dominant rushing team this season. Paced by a veteran group (and I mean veteran with a capital V), the team has gained 332 yards on the ground. For comparison’s sake, the Pats have 274. The Texans had 48 rushing yards last week against the Bills, and it wasn’t because the game got out of hand quickly. The Texans trailed 16-0 at the half and 19-0 after three. Still, plenty of reason to stay balanced on offense.

The week before, the Texans rushed for 42 yards against the Panthers. Almost half of the Texans rushing yards (160) came in week 1 against the Jaguars. The Texans again were productive on the ground through the first half against the Browns before QB Tyrod Taylor got injured. The loss of a dynamic runner at the QB position has made the Texans run game one-dimensional.

Just as a porous Texans defense might be the medicine the Patriots rushing game needs to get back on track, facing the Patriots defense might do the same for a struggling Texans attack. The Patriots rank 20th in rush defense thus far into the season. Dont’a Hightower hasn’t been the same player since returning and was leapfrogged by Kyle Van Noy last week in playtime. The loss of Ja’Whaun Bentley hasn’t helped the Patriots rush defense either.

Bentley is questionable to play against the Texans while Jamie Collins is set to make his (third?) Patriots debut. The return of both Collins and Bentley could mean a bolstered Patriots rushing defense. At the very least, it should help keep guys fresh with a more active rotation.

A week after Belichick putting on a coaching clinic against one of the most talented offenses in the league, I have a feeling he keeps his defense on track with a resurgent effort against a struggling Texans run game. The best thing the Pats can do is overplay the run and force a rookie QB to try to beat them through the air.

For a game the features the two franchises planet-sized-defender-of-the-middle Vince Wilfork played for, it’ll be a game lacking in run defense.

Advantage: Patriots

The Texans Pass the Ball

Rookie Davis Mills was highly touted as a draft prospect. NFL evaluators loved his arm strength and ability to spread the ball around along with his above-average escape-ability. However, the negatives from his college tape have translated too easily to the NFL game. He frequently waited for the sure thing to be open, often leaving receivers waiting on his ball to arrive, and tended to be occasionally erratic with his accuracy.

Those negative traits are reflected in his professional stat line: 38/67 for 357 yards, 2 touchdowns against 5 interceptions while taking 8 sacks. The NFL level happens at a much faster speed than college, waiting for a sure thing to happen in the NFL is very rarely going to occur. His high sacks total in two and a half games shows he’s still waiting for his guys to break open while the interception total is reflective of his sporadic accuracy and receivers having to wait on the ball.

A week after making TB12 double clutch and doubt what he was seeing post-snap, the Pats defense should be able to tie this rookie’s brain into knots. Even with the loss of Jalen Mills (hamstring), the Patriots’ secondary should be able to scheme up confusing and effective coverages.

WR Brandin Cooks is the Texans leading receiver by a large margin (Cooks: 369 yards, next leading receiver: 73 yards) and should draw attention from CB1 J.C. Jackson or from a rat concept with slot corner Jonathan Jones and safety Devin McCourty over the top. Belichick is the king of making teams play left-handed and it’s never been so apparent as the Texans unbalanced passing game.

The Texans’ offensive line has long been an Achilles heel and continues to be despite significant investment. Patriots pass rushers Matt Judon and Josh Uche, along with rotating pieces Van Noy, Hightower, Collins, and Chase Winovich should all find success in one-on-one matchups. If the Pats can get Mills to second guess what he’s seeing and hold the ball the pass rush should have a VERY productive game.

Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams

The Patriots’ third unit finally got on track last week (outside of one Matt Slater penalty). They threw everything they had at the Bucs to try to gain an extra possession, but the Bucs handled it extremely well. I don’t think the Pats will be getting too exotic on special teams unless the game flow dictates it late in the matchup. Gunner Olszewski has had a quiet start to the season before a modest return last week, he might be due to break one. Nick Folk has been listed on the injury report since Week 2 but has yet to miss any time. He has been consistent and came ever so close to turning in a snow-bowl-esque kick last week in monsoon conditions.

Coaching

Belichick showed last week he still is the best defensive mind to ever don a headset. His work this week should be quite a bit easier than going against his understudy of 20 years. However, the best don’t let up against inferior opponents. Belichick knows and embraces that aspect of the game, often showing clips of Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods during team meetings to accentuate how the best never is content with simply winning, they want to dominate and embarrass their opponents. Belichick should channel that mentality in running a second consecutive coaching clinic.

McDaniels has been on the receiving end of quite a bit of criticism. None of which has been deserved. He has quietly and steadily been focusing the game plan on Mac Jones’ strengths and will continue to set the rookie up for success. After seeing how disastrous the downfield passing game could be against the Saints, Mac was happy to stay on script against the Bucs and had the best game of his young career. Hopefully, the Pats don’t need to break out Jakobi Meyers for two pass attempts this game.

Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick has been steady as long as the cameras aren’t on him….

Advantage: Patriots

Weather

It’s a dome. Unless the Chargers and Raiders decide to somehow get involved and postpone it, it shouldn’t be an issue. The Texans field is a natural grass surface that has come under criticism in seasons past but thus far in the young season has been in top shape.

Prediction

The Texans average 16.8 points per game, the Pats? 17.8. Seems a bit too straightforward. Mac Jones and the offense finally showed signs of progression last week in the red zone, going 2-3 but scoring points on every trip. The slow conversion of these trips into touchdowns is a welcome sign for the offense. The Patriots defense and special teams will need to help the offense in the scoring department, and I think they end up getting it done.

Mills will turn the ball over; the Pats just need to make them count. This is a game that has a distinct Patriots advantage in every aspect yet somehow feels will be ugly…or this is a game where the Pats outclass an inferior opponent despite having the odds against them and win going away.

Pats win 24-6.