Patriots Beat Panthers to Get Back in Playoff Picture

With another win Sunday the Patriots are sitting above .500 and in the AFC Playoff picture. Our writer @colbyfau brings 15 observations from a big Patriots victory.

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: Where do Moral Victories Count in the Standings?

Thought and observations from Pats nail biter against Bucs.

New England Patriots
Foxborough, MA – October 3: New England Patriots Matt Judon reacting after he sacked Tampa Bay Bucs Tom Brady during second quarter NFL action. The New England Patriots host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a regular season NFL game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

1-3 is 1-3 is 1-3. No way to slice it how you like it. It’s a losing record that places the New England Patriots in the bottom tier of NFL teams this season and puts them on track for a top ten pick next spring. So why is there a resounding amount of optimism surrounding the team after back-to-back losses?

Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen it before. November 18, 2001. The reigning world champions, the visiting St. Louis Rams, beat the Patriots 24-17 in Foxboro Stadium in a game that New England was outgained by their opponents 482 yards to 230. Newly minted starter Tom Brady threw for 185 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. The Patriot’s leading rusher was Antowain Smith with 36 yards. Troy Brown was the leading receiver. 

The Rams probably would’ve walked away with the game if Terrell Buckley didn’t have a 52-yard pick-six in the waning moments of the opening quarter. Despite the domination on the stat sheet, the 7-point loss was credited by many members of that Super Bowl-winning Patriots team as the springboard for the franchise’s first title.

Is the narrow defeat at the hands of the reigning world champion Buccaneers going to be the springboard that launches the 2021 version of the Patriots to Super Bowl glory? Probably not, but that story isn’t completely written yet. If the 2001 Patriots could find confidence in a game they really had no business being in, then surely the 2021 Patriots can find confidence in a game that they most certainly should have won.

The difference? The 2001 New England Patriots made the plays when it counted, in large due to a certain player in a number 12 jersey. That same number 12 was at it again on Sunday, only this time doing it for the opposing team. Football is a game of inches, often only a handful of plays dictating the outcome of the game. Against the Buccaneers that difference was apparent. The Bucs got it done when they had to, the Pats, always an inch or two off.

This team is headed in the right direction. It has not been more apparent than going toe to toe with the cream of the crop on Sunday night. Progress is good. Results are better. Hopefully, they’re just around the corner.

Observations from Sunday night’s homecoming game

  • Mac Jones enjoyed perhaps the best game of his career Sunday. Showing his prowess operating in a spread formation and making short-to-intermediate on-schedule throws. There continues to be lamenting and criticism for this kind of passing attack. The constant “short and safe” throws are being used as a means of criticism for the young gun. In a world where fantasy football and Madden rule supreme, the actual football job of a quarterback is often forgotten. While Mahomes may be able to sling the ball all over the yard with jaw-dropping arm angles and ridiculous extension of plays, the rest of the QB’s on planet earth have a few simple rules to being successful: take care of the football and get it into the hands of your playmakers. There was a streak of 19 consecutive passing attempts where Mac Jones did just that. He kept the team out of harm’s way with smart decisions and allowed his skill guys to make plays after the catch. And for all that average depth of target nonsense, Mac Jones has a deeper average depth of target than Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert and is right on the heels of Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of criticism about their “safe” style of play.
  • Jones’ passing chart shows his ability to attack the short-to-intermediate portion of the field. Doing this consistently will open up deep shots with more success.
  • With that said, the Patriots’ offensive line has to help the rookie out. Mac was pressured on 38% of his dropbacks Sunday night. This follows a troubling trend as in all of the Patriots’ losses this year Mac has been pressured on greater than 35% of his dropbacks in those games (against Dolphins 35%, against Saints 35.7%, and Sunday 37.8%). Regardless, Mac completed 10 of 13 attempts while under pressure for 86 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
  • After having 17 pressures in the first 3 games, the Bucs had 12 against the Patriots.
  • The Patriots might be employing two turnstiles at their tackles spots. Hard to tell the difference. While Trent Brown’s return should solidify one spot, Isaiah Wynn on the opposite side has been just as porous in pass protection. To this point in the season, RT Justin Herron and Wynn are tied for the team lead with 12 pressures allowed. Wynn also allowed 2 sacks Sunday night. Legendary coach Dante Scarnecchia isn’t walking through that door and after picking up Wynn’s fifth-year option, his inconsistent play is even more concerning.
  • Wynn and LG Mike Onwenu were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday. The vaccination status of either player is unknown so any prognostication on their return is short-sighted. Regardless, possibly being down 3 of 5 starting O linemen for a team allowing a lot of pressure is reason for concern heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Texans.
  • Onwenu had an uncharacteristic night Sunday being called for two holding penalties and having multiple errors before being replaced by Ted Karras in the second half.
  • Mac continues to be tough in the face of pressure but against the Saints and Bucs tried to force a throw while being hit that led to interceptions. Brady was king of “live to play another down.” Mac could take a few notes and understand sometimes punting is actually helping the team.
  • After a few weeks of sloppy special teams play the Pats were back to winning the third phase of the game. Jake Bailey was back to blasting punts and the coverage units again looked like the best in the business. The only negative play was Matthew Slater’s unsportsmanlike penalty that negated a forced fumble on a return. The broadcast did a good job of explaining the rule, but Slater took exception after the game explaining that there is little consistency to how the refs call it in games. Welcome to the club Matt.
  • By the way, that was Slater’s fourth penalty of his entire career. Drafted in 2008, his first penalty occurred in 2019. Just uncharacteristic for him and a big point in the game.
  • Speaking of refs-I’m not sure what more Matt Judon needs to do to get some calls. The guy was routinely in a chokehold throughout the night. His red sleeves should draw attention to the absolute manhandling occurring on the edges and a penalty could’ve been called on whatever poor soul was trying to block him on nearly every pass-rush snap.
  • Through this point in the season, Judon has 4.5 sacks, 17 pressures, and 8 quarterback hits. Insane numbers. Judon very well should be the best player on the field for the Patriots for the rest of the season.
  • Belichick was at his best Sunday, mixing pre-snap alignments, personnel groupings, post-snap coverage rolls, and coverages. However, the Pats went with “cat” coverage for most of the night with their top three corners. Interesting note: Ty Law came up with the term “cat coverage” — meaning “I got this cat, you got that cat.” Jackson vs. Evans: 6 receptions on 10 targets for 64 yards, Jon Jones vs. Antonio Brown: 5 receptions on 9 targets for 52 yards, and Jalen Mills vs. Chris Godwin: 3 receptions on 4 targets for 55 yards. 0 touchdowns. Against the GOAT and an amazingly stacked receiving corps.
  • Josh Uche has been great (3 sacks in 3 games). However, rookie DT Christian Barmore is actually second on the team with 8 QB pressures. Those will start turning into sacks soon enough.
  • The Pats have quite a bit of young talent on the defensive side of the ball. Kyle Dugger, again, was all over the field. While his game hasn’t completely rounded out at the pro level, his willingness to make violent contact with humans twice his size is noticeable.
  • Dugger has been an asset in the run game since his rookie year. But his coverage skills are noticeably improving, as well. It won’t be long before he starts getting noticed more on broadcasts.
  • Dont’a Hightower hasn’t quite looked like himself. Rumors of a knee injury have been swirling and he has missed at least one defensive series in every game. With Ja’Wuan Bentley sidelined with a shoulder injury and Kyle Van Noy suddenly playing every snap, the Pats are adding old friend Jamie Collins. Sam Darnold is on the schedule just in time for the boogeymen to get back together.
  • Bentley’s absence was felt in the running game against the Buccaneers but it wasn’t the first time the run defense has been a problem for the Patriots. The Pats have allowed 34 rushing first downs, 5th most in the NFL. After averaging four rushing attempts a quarter, the Buccaneers rushed 9 times in the third quarter, including for their only touchdown. With such a dominant passing defense, the Pats must shore up the run defense to become an elite unit.
  • While the final field goal will be remembered more, J.J. Taylor’s fumble in the third quarter was more costly. Taking over at the Tampa Bay 38-yard line, 3 points is a MUST for any offense in this situation. A touchdown is obviously better, but any competent NFL offense gets points here. Another uncharacteristically sloppy play for the Pats in a season, thus far, full of them.
  • The stuff of nightmares-the play before the Pats’ final field goal attempt. Game of inches.

Tom Brady: The Return

Tom Brady
FOXBORO, MA – JANUARY 16: Tom Brady #12 and head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots shake hands at the start of the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Sunday night, 8:20 PM eastern standard time.

That’s when the homecoming festivities will kick-off. Freshman Mac Jones faces incumbent Senior Tom Brady to see who will win homecoming court. Security will be on high alert to ensure class jokester Rob Gronkowski doesn’t pull off any shenanigans. Fun-loving-senior-favorite Bruce Arians is sure to get lots of love from the senior class for their favorite teacher while that grumpy old guy Bill Belichick lurks in the shadows and generally ensures no one has fun. There will be presentations and ceremonies. Fireworks and cheerleaders. Family, friends, and fans will gather to support their loved ones. And oh yeah, there will be a football game too.

The defending Super Bowl Champions visit Gillette stadium to take on the 6-time World Champion New England Patriots. The GOAT, the myth, the legend of Tom Brady returns to where it all started to face the team that it all started with and the coach who gave him his start. If you’ve listened to any sports talk, watched any sports coverage, or read any sports section you’ll have heard about this one. The RETURN. The uncomfortable family get together after the divorce. This is Brady vs. the Pats. Mano a manos. One vs. eleven. Right?

Well not really. It’s still football. Eleven on eleven. X’s and O’s. For the amount of attention Brady v. Pats is getting it still comes down to doing your job. Executing your assignment. Winning your one-on-one match up. A week after the Pats did so with little consistency, they’ll need a team effort Sunday to remain in the game and give themselves a chance at winning it.

After watching the film from the Saints game, the importance of all eleven guys executing their assignment was even more evident. A single play can become a failure because one guy made an error. Those single plays can snowball and accumulate into a poor showing for an entire game or sink a team’s chances of winning. That brand of football is foreign to fans in the Northeast and hopefully, it goes back to being an unfamiliar brand of football this Sunday.

So, let’s get to a breakdown of the game this Sunday and keep it as football and team oriented as possible. We’ve heard enough about Brady versus Belichick, and we’ll hear more before and during the game. We’re going to go with a new format this week with breakdowns in areas of the game. Each section will be presented in a “who has the advantage when the…” format.

Patriots Run the Ball

The Patriots were supposed to be a running team even before Mac Jones got the nod at quarterback. The first two weeks reflected that effort as the Pats racked up 226 yards against the Dolphins and Jets. Last week the running game was abandoned early and the team racked up only 49 rushing yards. This largely could be explained by the James White injury. Damien Harris saw a season-low in snaps (22)-fewer snaps than Brandon Bolden got (33)! Harris was embarrassed in a pass protection effort after the White injury and seemed to be faded thereafter. Bolder offers presence in the passing game which led to his increase in usage, regardless of his ineffectiveness with the ball in his hands.

Hopefully, J.J. Taylor gets a little more run this week. He offers more oomph as a runner than Bolden does but his issues in pass protection are what led him to be a healthy inactive most of last year. Harris has been a force when he gets the rock, trailing only Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, and Javonte Williams in forced missed tackles. The Pats would be wise to rely on Harris in the traditional running game, Taylor when running out of the gun, and Bolden in obvious pass pro situations.

The tight ends have been unspectacular in the rushing game. Jonnu Smith adds a little as a ball-carrier but much less as a blocker. And Hunter Henry, the prototypical T tight end, has consistently been knocked backward at the point of attack. Jakob Johnson has done his job admirably thus far into the season but isn’t a dominating presence at fullback.

The offensive line is where the success of the offense will always come from. The interior three (LG Mike Onwenu, C David Andrews, and RG Shaq Mason) have been above-average players. They haven’t jelled completely as a unit or played to their usual dominant level, but they have been better than most. The problem along the o-line has been at both tackle spots. LT Isaiah Wynn has suddenly turned into a penalty machine with inconsistent results while right tackle has been a nightmare since Trent Brown went down with a calf injury in the first offensive series of the season.

The Buccaneers’ defense has been dominant against the run statistically; allowing 191 yards TOTAL in their three games. This is a misleading stat however. The Buccaneers’ secondary has been much maligned through the first three weeks leading opponents to pass against them with success. The Buccaneers tout a talented front season that features a lot of speed along the defensive line and linebacking corps. DT Vita Vea is an absolute behemoth in the center of their defensive line and routinely keeps talented linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White clean to make plays.

Despite the success passing against the Bucs defense, they are averaging a very respectable 3.1 yards per attempt against in the running game. The Pats will want to establish an honest attempt on the ground to help Mac but expecting success in this area will be short-sighted. Expect the Pats running game to be a nonfactor in this match up.

Advantage: Buccaneers

Patriots Pass the Ball

After all the opining of lack of deep passing game after the win against the Jets, Mac let loose, throwing 19 attempts over 15 yards downfield and 11 over 20 yards downfield. The problem is Mac connected on 3 attempts over 15 yards for 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions and was 1 of 11 for 27 yards in throws over 20 yards. Hopefully, the fantasy football and Madden fans are happy with the “opened-up” passing game.

The Patriots have to play a smart brand of offensive football this season. Protecting the ball and staying ahead of the chains. When you are taking deep shots at that rate with limited success, it isn’t helping the team. In fact, it was actively hurting them last week. Mac should take the shots when they are there but forcing them for the sake of forcing them isn’t the game plan for success for this offense. Mac needs to get back to the plan from the first two weeks, taking what is there, and marching down the field with smart football.

The loss of James White will be felt. White leads the NFL in receptions and receiving yards by a running back since 2015.

The Buccaneers’ defense has struggled to hold up in the passing game. While they feature a talented pass-rushing tandem in DT Ndamukong Suh, LB’s Devin White, Lavonte David, and Shaq Barret, and DE Jason Pierre-Paul, the defense as a whole has been susceptible to the big passing plays. Opposing offenses average 7.3 yards per attempt against this defense with 9 touchdowns against 4 interceptions. And for all the talent they boast in the defensive front seven, they have only gotten home for three sacks as a defensive unit.

The Buccaneers added Richard Sherman this week in hopes of shoring up the defensive secondary. After confusing the likes of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs last year, the secondary has looked like the confused party themselves. A week after being added, don’t be surprised if Sherman joins that club this weekend.

There was optimism Trent Brown would return last week before being shut down in pre-game warm-ups. His return this week would be a huge boost to the Patriots’ pass protection and keeping Mac Jones upright. The more time Jones has to survey the field, the more success he should find. Spreading out the Buccaneers defense with three-wide looks will allow Jones to identify coverages and pressure pre-snap. Jones’ had his most success last week out of three wide sets. Perhaps we see Jonnu Smith in the backfield in gun formations this week.

Advantage: Patriots (but just slightly)

Buccaneers Run the Ball

The Buccaneers have 169 total yards rushing this season despite having talented backs in Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II. This is largely because they haven’t really tried running the ball, averaging four attempts a quarter thus far. They average 3.5 yards per carry, a respectable total, nonetheless.

The Patriots’ run defense has been poor thus far allowing 368 yards. Run stuffing linebacker Ja’Wuan Bentley was listed on the injury report early in the week but should be good to go against the Bucs (Bentley conducted an interview Wednesday-typically a sign a player will be active).

This is where the game will come down to in my opinion. The Pats haven’t been afraid to roll out dime packages against talented QB’s in the past, daring them to hand it off again and again. We saw it with Peyton Manning throughout the 2000s and have recently seen it when the Pats play Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. If the Pats can force the Bucs to run the ball and find success in stopping them, it will go a long way to dictating the flow of the game.

Not sure the Patriots will be able to consistently stop the running game if this is the route they choose to go. They had success against the Dolphins before the Jets and Saints both had success running the ball against the Pats. The Pats may struggle even more if they do utilize a dime package as their defensive base.

Advantage: Buccaneers

Buccaneers Pass the Ball

This is the juicy match up, where Tom Brady vs. Belichick becomes reality. This is also one of the better units on the Pats team versus one of the better units on the Buccaneers roster. The return of Antonio Brown from the COVID-19 list puts the Buccaneers receiving corps at full strength but the health of Rob Gronkowski bears watching. Gronk has been listed on the injury report with a rib injury all week and is officially questionable for his game-time status although it would be extremely shocking if he did not suit up against his former employer.

The Buccaneers run a straightforward passing game under Arians and have seamlessly incorporated concepts from the Patriots playbook to make Tom Brady more comfortable. It is about execution and not long developing crazy play design (ala the Chiefs). The Patriots run a straightforward single high man press coverage concept defensively, which also comes down to execution. Though the talent among the Buccaneers wide receivers may dictate some change of pace calls from the Pats. If Gilmore was available the Pats may be able to go one for one across the board with Gilmore on Evans, JC Jackson on Godwin, and Jonathon Jones of Brown. Without Gilmore, the Pats would be left asking Jalen Mills to cover either Godwin or Brown one on one for large portions of the game. Not sure that’s a game plan the Pats want to live with.

Belichick knows Tom Brady, his tendencies, and what makes him uncomfortable. The Pats won’t try to fool Brady all too often but will be switching up looks and movements after the snap.

The most important part of the game will come down to the Patriots’ pass rush. Brady has been sacked 6 times in three games. The Pats know Brady does fine against edge pressure but struggled against pressure up the middle. A key to success would be having the edge guys win cleanly while having Hightower or Judon coming up the middle. Rookie DT Christian Barmore has had an impressive campaign thus far but has failed to finish plays. Against a less mobile quarterback such as Brady, Barmore may a better chance at getting some sacks.

Tom Brady is going to be Tom Brady. New England fans know how seldomly a team has been able to make the man look mortal. The Pats will need to take advantage of the weaknesses along the Buccaneers’ offensive line if they hope to find success defending the pass. This week above any other, the marriage between coverage and pass rush has to be perfect.

Advantage: Buccaneers

Special Teams

The Patriots pride themselves in having one of the best special team units in the NFL, which makes this year’s performance such a shock. Nick Folk has been reliable (outside of a missed PAT against the Jets) but All-Pro punter Jake Bailey has been inconsistent, to say the least. He has mixed his fair share of shanks in with his usual booming punts and has also struggled on kickoffs. The last thing the Pats can do is give Brady the ball on a short field after a score.

The Bucs haven’t asked much of Ryan Succop, who has connected on two of his three field-goal attempts. Their punter, Bradley Pinion has enjoyed a strong start while averaging 41.4 net yards per punt. The Buccaneers coverage units have been so-so to date, not letting anything explosive by while also not being a suffocating unit. Sounds a lot like the Pats units.

The hope would be to see both Buccaneer specialists often Sunday night and take advantage of the hidden yards in the special teams game. With the caliber of player rostered by the Patriots for their special teams’ units versus what the Buccaneers have, the advantage here goes to the Pats.

Advantage: Patriots

Coaching

Let’s get this straight, it’s being touted as Belichick vs. Tom Brady for a reason. Brady went to Tampa and immediately became somewhat of a coach and general manager himself. Arians is a fine coach but seemed to get a Super Bowl ring last year in spite of himself, not because of his own doing. Belichick will continue to play chess while Arians plays checkers if it comes down to it.

The match up here is Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator against Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels has drawn the ire of many around New England for his lackluster play-calling thus far. My feeling is he is still feeling the offense and how to let Mac succeed while not putting him in a position to fail. The first two games featured bland and safe play-calling (outside of one double pass against the Jets) while he was forced into passing early and often against the Saints. McDaniels didn’t “open it up” against the Saints but the plays were a bit more aggressive than the first two weeks. A caveat here; Mac Jones admitted to changing plays at the line quite a bit and needing to trust the original play call more. Perhaps the frustration with McDaniels should be shared among all involved parties.

If we look strictly at the coaching staff, the Patriots have the edge. If we include Brady into the Bucs coaching staff, the dial swings ever so slightly in their favor.

Advantage: Patriots

Extracurriculars

There will be plenty of emotion in this game both from Tom Brady and from the Patriots. Newcomer Matt Judon was fed up with questions about Brady and he never even played with the guy. Van Noy and Hightower have both vocalized hoping to get a hit on him. McCourty would certainly love to add a certain ball to his interception collection. The pregame festivities and inevitable record-breaking for total passing yards give a chance to the Patriots to switch things up and maybe heighten some emotions for Brady. Hoping to distract this guy seems like a shot in the dark as his “laser focus” has been on display since he got into the league. Maybe Brady peppers in a few “f*** it” chucks downfield that the Pats can take advantage of.

Advantage: The Fans

Weather

The forecast for Sunday calls for showers in the evening before steady rain throughout the night. A sloppy field with sloppy conditions would benefit the Pats, even if Brady spent 20 years in sloppy New England weather with his scuba suit. Perhaps the Pats get that added element that helped them steal a game from the Ravens last year. A slick field and a wet ball could mean some fluky plays, something the Pats might be hoping for at some point on Sunday.

Usually, rain means running the ball more. If this is the case, the Patriots might find themselves at a disadvantage as they have to play their base defense more and Brady picks them apart with short passes. Even if Tom Brady is used to the conditions, hopefully, those receivers from sunny Florida aren’t.

Advantage: Patriots

Prediction

Based on the breakdown, the Patriots only advantages come in coaching, special teams, weather, and ever so slightly in their passing game. After last week’s performance, having to bank on the passing game to carry the team seems like a lost hope. McDaniels and Mac need to get back to efficient and safe play before they can hope to hang with Tom Brady and company. Brady will move the Bucs between the twenties before the Pats’ defense slows down their progress. A bend but don’t break defense will be in full force on Sunday night. In the end, the Pats just don’t have enough firepower to hang with TB12 as the Bucs pull away in the second half. Buccaneers win 31-21 with a late touchdown from the Pats to make the score a bit more respectable.

Week 1 Game Preview: Dolphins @ Patriots

Dolphins ATB and Patriots ATB preview the key matchups, QB battles and keys to success ahead of their NFL regular season opener in Foxborough.

Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
  • Date: Sunday, September 12
  • Time: 4:25 ET (21:25 UK Time)
  • Venue: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA
  • TV: CBS and NFL Gamepass

Acknowledgement:

Before we delve into this game preview, I would just like to thank and credit Colby Fauser of Patriots ATB, for his contributions and insights in putting together this Week 1 matchup article.

Expectations Going Into The Game

Patriots:

“After being a model of consistency for so long, the Patriots will be starting their third different opening day quarterback in as many years this Sunday. Offensively, I expect a return to the Patriots offense of old; a quick tempo attack that is balanced by the running game. I expect them to try to get the running game established early to afford Mac Jones an added layer of protection from throwing off of play action. If the Pats offense can stay on schedule and Mac Jones can avoid the big rookie mistakes, I expect them to be a fairly competent group this year. 

On the defensive side of the ball, the addition of Matt Judon and return of Dont’a Hightower has completely changed the composition of the front seven from the depleted group that was fielded a year ago. The absence of Stephon Gilmore cannot be understated, but the Pats catch a break as Will Fuller is still serving his suspension. While Gilmore is out, the Patriots defense will need to wed their pass rush perfectly with their pass coverage, as opposing offenses will try to pick on newcomer Jalen Mills early and often. 

I expect the Dolphins defense to give the Patriots offense some fits. They are a talented group and will make throwing outside the numbers especially difficult for the rookie QB. If Mac Jones can find consistent success in the middle of the field with his tight ends and slow receivers Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne, it will go a long way to determining this match up. If the Dolphins force Mac to consistently try to find success outside the numbers, the Patriots will be playing into the Dolphins strength. 

As for the Dolphins offense, I do expect there to be some trouble finding rhythm. The Dolphins offensive line was already a question mark before Austin Jackson was placed on the COVID reserve list. While his status for the game Sunday is yet to be determined, losing him would put an already shaky group into hot water before the game even started. The Patriots pass rush should be a matchup nightmare for every opponent this season and I look for them to start the season with a strong performance Sunday.”

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

It is quite the opposite for Miami. After years of mediocrity Dolphins fans are somewhat bemused about what to expect, going into a season a strong favorite as a playoff contender. Gone are the days of Chan Gailey’s archaic play-calling, with the new era of George Godsey and Eric Studesville bringing excitement over the possibility of a modernized attack. Last season the Dolphins thrived when they played up-tempo. The additions the Dolphins made this offseason highlight how speed will be an integral part of the 2021 Dolphins offense.

Where the Patriots emphasis will likely be to establish the run to help Mac Jones, it seems that the Dolphins’ offensive strategy is to pass to set up the run. Of course we will not see the full extent of Tua’s ability or the offense Week 1. Nevertheless, an opening game against a strong divisional rival will go a long way to answering some of the questions hanging over the franchise.

Aside from the addition of Jaelan Phillips the Dolphins front seven remains relatively unchanged. The shock cut of Bernardrick McKinney, a presumed leader of the defense and the answer to Miami’s problems stopping the run continues to leave fans perplexed by the move. Stopping the run was an area where the Dolphins particularly struggled last year, no game more evident than surprise Week 1 @ Patriots. In that game the Patriots rushed for 217 yards, averaging 5.3 YPC and 3 TDs. With Cam Newton no longer on the team and the Dolphins facing a more conventional pocket passer where the defense thrives, it will be essential to cut off the run game early on.

As Colby alluded to above how quickly the Dolphins can find rhythm on offense will determine the result of this game. Throughout preseason overall Tua and Miami impressed in moving the ball downfield effectively with consistency. This could very well be the first time since minicamp that Tua has most of his starting weapons at his disposal. It is possible that the disruption caused by injury to key skill players such as Albert Wilson, DeVante Parker and Preston Williams could result in the offense being a little out of sync to start the game.

Key Battles

Patriots:

“The biggest concern I have is Jalen Mills versus whoever he lines up on. While Gilmore spends his time on PUP, opposing teams will not often target JC Jackson or Jonathon Jones. This means Jalen Mills will be in for a very active six weeks. He must hold up and keep things in front of him for this defense to be successful. I expect a bit of a return of the “bend but don’t break” defenses for the Patriots. 

Last year the Pats were often beat by strong performances from opposing tight ends. Mike Gesicki has had strong performances against the Patriots in the past. I expect him to serve as the motor to the Dolphins passing attack. Throughout the preseason we saw Kyle Dugger cover opposing tight ends one on one with limited success. He always seemed to be in the correct position, but struggled to finish the plays. He got better as the preseason wore on but this is an area that he must continue to show growth in, especially this week against a talented tight end like Gesicki. With the expected success of the Patriots pass rush, taking away the safe and quick throws from Tua will be very important for the defense’s success.”

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

The Dolphins offensive line struggles are well documented. To make matters worse, it seems that the Dolphins will be without starting LT Austin Jackson who is out with COVID.

Jackson is not a world beater, and in fact during the preseason he was the worst on the line. Nevertheless, he was always the starter. Despite the versatility on the line, it doesn’t appear that the Dolphins have a clear contingency. To many it seems obvious to start Liam Eichenberg at LT, the position he played at Notre Dame. However, Eichenberg has stated this week that since camp started he has only taken a few snaps at LT.

Jesse Davis has in the past struggled switching to the left side of the line and will likely start RT. Thus, it seems that Greg Little is the presumed starter. Regardless of who is the starter, the offensive line will need to be well alert of the improved Patriot’s pass rush.

Tua v Mac

Patriots:

“Tua showed signs of progression as the year wore on last year. He has certainly looked like a different QB in the preseason. He is a dynamic playmaker when things are going his way. I am concerned about the offensive line keeping him clean. I cannot stress enough how much of a problem Uche and Judon are going to be for opposing offenses this year. The addition of old friend Kyle Van Noy and COVID opt-out Dont’a Hightower further boosts this group up front. If Tua is provided time, I believe he could be in for a strong day in the office, if his line proves to be porous I think he may be starting the season off on the wrong foot. 

Mac has shown all the correct intangibles to be a successful NFL quarterback….against backups and the vanilla looks of preseason football. The Giants supposedly threw the kitchen sink at him in joint practices and Mac had incredible success against them. Mac’s intellect for the game of football has been regularly touted as his most impressive talent. He’ll need to be at his best Sunday to keep himself healthy and keep the offense moving. I expect Flores to try multiple looks and Mac will be responsible for setting his protections. One misidentification will lead to free rushers and potential negative plays for the Patriots.

I expect the Pats to play a safe game plan with him that loosens the reins a little bit. The last thing they want is Mac dropping back 40 times against the Miami defense. This will be a fun rivalry to watch for the next few years. If each team has what they believe they have in their young QB’s, it could be a rivalry we watch for the next decade. Either way, chapter one is Sunday and will go a long way to establishing the narrative of the story.”

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

All of the pre-draft projections of Mac Jones being the ideal system QB makes him the perfect fit in New England. From a somewhat unconventional Patriots offense in 2020, they are back in familiar territory. While I am not disputing Jones’ ability throwing the ball or his mental intellect for the game, let us not forget who he is facing. Bill Belichick is notorious for causing rookie QBs to struggle. Since he took over in Foxborough he is 21-6 when facing a rookie QB. Tua had no such issues last season leading his team with a pair of rushing touchdowns to win 22-12.

However, outside of Belichick, it is very arguable that it is the defensive system of Brian Flores and Josh Boyer that would cause the most trepidation to a young rookie QB entering his first game in the NFL.

Justin Herbert had a fantastic, record breaking rookie season winning Rookie of the Year. A 4.01 GPA student and the winner of the “Academic Heisman”, Herbert is no slouch when it comes to his intellect for the game. However, the pre-snap movement around the line of scrimmage caused Herbert and several other veteran QBs nightmares. Being in New England, Jones will have an advantage under Belichick in what to expect against this defense. Nevertheless, I foresee Jones’ NFL debut being a baptism of fire and a very long afternoon indeed.

As for Tua enough has been said about last season, his development over the offseason into the preseason. Now is finally the time for him to showcase his abilities. Everything seems set for him to make a big jump in the NFL. As for this game, Tua’s experience and familiarity in the NFL, along with improved mechanics and weapons make him the better QB of the two. No doubt.

Keys to Success

Patriots:

“As mentioned above I believe this game is going to come down to who can control the line of scrimmage. For the Pats, getting the running game going early and protecting their young QB will be the key to the game. If the Patriots can force Flores to play a bit left handed on defense, it will go a long way to determining this outcome. Damien Harris must find success running the ball to keep the offense on schedule and keep Jones from facing many third and long situations against this Miami defense.

Defensively the Pats must show improvement from their porous run defense a year ago; that starts up front with ex-Dolphin Davon Godchaux establishing a point of attack in the run game. The Secondary will need all the help it can get in handling the Dolphins reworked receiving corp and that starts with the pass rush. If the Patriots can make Tua uncomfortable and rush some throws they may be able to force a key turnover or two.”

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

To anybody thinking that this game will be an easy win, think again. However, if the Dolphins can do the following then we will be in for a good afternoon.

  1. Stop the Run– As simple as it sounds and as relevant as it may be in any game, if Miami cannot stop the run, starting the season 1-0 will be very difficult. We know that the Patriots will be set up to run the ball first with Damien Harris alleviating some of the pressure against Mac Jones. Take the layer of protection away and exploit any first game mistakes from the rookie.
  2. Consistent Pass Rush– The Patriots offensive line is their best positional group. Last season PFF ranked them the third strongest unit in the league. Strong pass protection and a solid run game is the ideal situation for a young rookie pocket passing QB. The Dolphins pass rush must do everything they can to put as much pressure as they can in Jones’ face with multiple looks.
  3. Discipline- Takes no talent. Everybody knows that a Bill Belichick team does not make silly mistakes. Thankfully for Miami neither does Brian Flores. Since Flores took over in 2019, the Dolphins and Patriots are the two least penalized teams in the league. Having just watched the Cowboys & Bucs combine for 19 penalties for 161 yards, any such performances by Miami will only lead to defeat. Do not beat yourself.

For a more in-depth analysis into the keys to this game, go and check out Chris Spooner’s recent article.

Injury Concerns

Patriots:

“The Pats enter this game relatively healthy outside of the massive loss of Stephon Gilmore. Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are expected to play. The Patriots love their 12 personnel groupings and having both big offseason acquisitions healthy will be key to their offensive game plan. They just have to hope both stay healthy throughout the game. 

In years past the Patriots have used the first few games as an extended preseason; getting reserve players snaps and getting starters some series off as conditioning is often still a work in progress. With the makeup of the schedule (late bye week) and the potential to be in a playoff race at the end of the season, it will be interesting to see how Belichick approaches this. Resting guys early may help through the grind of getting to a week 14 bye, while losing any game early due to resting players may bite them in the back come December. “

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

At long last it seems that Miami have finally caught a break with injuries at the right time. It appears that the Dolphins will only be without Preston Williams, Austin Jackson and Adam Shaheen. As for New England, it seems that starters Jalen Mills and Nelson Agholor are questionable to feature. With the Patriots without Mills and Gilmore, while the Dolphins receivers are healthy, if Tua is afforded some protection by the line, the offense can roll. That is a big IF.

Score Predictions

Patriots:

“I may be drunk on the Patriots Kool-Aid but I do expect them to field a competitive team this year. The struggles of a Cam Newton offense will no longer be hanging over the offense and the hope of a young QB has us convinced that better days are on the horizon. Interestingly, the biggest factor in the game may well be who the Patriots kicker is. If Nordin is our guy going forward, I expect this game to have a unique score due to some missed PAT’s and field goal attempts on the Patriots side. Something like 28-26 Dolphins could be right. If Folk is elevated from the practice squad and plays in place of Nordin I think the Pats win a nail biter 27-24.”

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

In what could be a very defensively dominated game, not having certainty over your place kicker is not ideal to say the least. Thankfully though the Dolphins and Jason Sanders have no such issues. While I remain confident that Miami can pull of the win, as Dolphins fans we remain scarred by past experiences in Foxborough. Over the pat 20 years the Patriots have lost only 3 times in their home openers. Nevertheless I see Miami coming out on top 23-13. Check out the rest of the Dolphins ATB writers’ predictions below.

Hussam Patel- 21-20 Patriots

Matt Serniak- 27-23 Dolphins

Chris Spooner – 28-17 Dolphins

Rishi Desai- 24-16 Dolphins

Jared Vandermyde- 30-17 Dolphins

Tanner Elliott- 17-13 Dolphins

Tyler DeSena- 23-17 Dolphins

Previeweing Dolphins v. Patriots

Conclusion:

Once again I would just like to thank Colby for his help and insights throughout this article. Be sure to go and follow him on Twitter. The wait is over. The NFL regular season has begun and now we are hours away from real Dolphins football back in our lives. An old foe with a different feel and a different dynamic within the division. A lot of uncertainty has circulated over the past 9 months, but also lot of excitement and hope for the future. Now is the time for answers. As you sit there eagerly waiting for Sunday’s game be sure to go and check out the latest Around the Block-Miami Dolphins podcast. Fins Up!

Follow Bradley Davies on Twitter:

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Contract Talk: Comparing Xavien Howard vs. Stephon Gilmore

Admittedly, Howard and Gilmore are two of the best players Corners in the NFL. Without them, each of their respective teams can get significantly worse, and any available replacement player would be a major downgrade.

Background

Xavien Howard and Stephon Gilmore have been two of the leagues best when it comes to physical, savvy, ball-hawk pass defenders.

2019 defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore led the league with 6 interceptions, two for a touchdown and 20 pass deflections along with 53 tackles during the 2019-2020 season.

Howard logged an incredible double-digit interception season, which has not been done since Antonio Cromartie in 2007, he also had 20 pass deflections and 51 tackles.

Gilmore and Howard help each teams secondary rank at the top of the league.

In 2020, Gilmore had an 11 game season cut short by a torn quadricep in December. He is currently due $7.7 million in 2021. This is the final year of a 5-year $65 million dollar contract beginning in 2017. The former DPOY of the year is currently in a contract dispute with the New England Patriots but has shown up for camp.

Gilmore feels he should be paid more than what amounts to about half of what the top NFL corners currently make.

Stephon Gilmore was key to holding the Rams to only 3 points in Super Bowl LIII.

Xavien Howard is in a similar situation with the Miami Dolphins. After showing up to the first day of training camp, Howard posted his desire to be traded on his Instagram after contract talks with his agent David Canter went quiet.

He is set to make just over $15 million this year, which ranks 6th in the NFL. This comes after Howard signed a 5-year $75 million deal in 2019, making him the highest paid player in the league at the time.

Howard has expressed his interest in wanting to become the highest paid player on his team.

Xavien Howard expresses his desire to be traded via Instagram.

Similiarities

Admittedly, Howard and Gilmore are two of the best players Corners in the NFL. Without them, each of their respective teams can get significantly worse, and any available replacement player would be a major downgrade.

Both players feel they deserve to make more money than they do, and each has an extremely solid case to be made.

Gilmore is still a top-level talent, and while he won’t be expected to be paid as much as X is making, he believes he deserves more than a mid-level cornerback contract.

Howard on the other hand, is coming off the best turnover performance in the last decade, and wants to be paid accordingly.

Both players have shown a willingness to negotiate new contracts and have shown up to training camp. The $50,000 unconditional fine agreed upon through the latest CBA is a key factor in their decisions to appear on day 1. This comes after each player faced a $93,085 fine for skipping mandatory minicamp last month.

Differences

There are two very large differences between the two players headed into this season.

Age is number one. Stephon Gilmore turns 31 in September, and it is rare for players at the tail end of their career to recieve big money contracts, especially at the cornerback position.

Howard on the other hand is 28 years old and seems to be in the prime of his career.

This brings us to the second largest difference, recent performance.

Howard is coming of the best season of his NFL career. Starting all 16 games, Howard posted 51 total tackles, 10 interceptions, and 20 passes defended.

Gilmore is coming off a major quadricep injury, and posted 37 total tackles, 1 interception, and 3 passes defended in his 11 games.

A unique aspect of the Howard situation is that it appears to be over more guaranteed money, and not necessarily a larger contract. Howard feels he should be paid at least as much as teammate Byron Jones, who signed a 5-year $82.5 million contract last offseason.

In retrospect, Gilmore set to make a measly $7 million in the final year of his contract. As things stand, Gilmore’s $13 million annual average has him tied for 12th with Adoree Jackson, who signed with the Giants to be their No. 2 corner. That’s nothing short of ridiculous when you look at Gilmore’s overall body of work.

Unlike Miami, where they have contingencies in place if Howard is ultimately traded, the Patriots can not afford to lose Gilmore.

Final Thoughts

The two situations with both Corners are heading in two completely different directions.

Bill Belichick remains silent on what the contract negotiations are happening with Stephon Gilmore. It’s been radio silence in Boston as recent reporting has shown a new deal is in the cards for Gilmore and the Patriots.

Out of South Florida, Coach Brian Flores has publicly stated he wants Xavien Howard on the team and believe’s there is a way to work things out with Howard.

“I think we just continue to have discussions with him, his representation, and keep the lines of communication open, continue having dialogue and, hopefully, work something out. At the same time, we’ve got 90, 89 other guys that we’ll be working with, to include X. Try to build this team and improve on a day-to-day basis, build team chemistry. That’s where most of our focus is. The X thing is something we’re having discussions about, as well.”

Brian Flores on WQAM

Both stories are worth monitoring in the upcoming days.

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