For much of the first two-plus months of the NFL regular season, the undefeated Patriots were considered the unquestioned top team in football.
But a 37-20, pre-bye loss in Baltimore leaves Bill Belichick’s squad at 8-1 and facing questions during its bye week.
Some of those questions are bandied about by clear-cut Patriots’ haters, national pundits prepared to pounce annually at any sign of weakness in New England.
More objective analysis, though, does show that the defending Super Bowl champions have some obvious areas of concern heading into the second half of the schedule, a stretch of games against much more formidable foes than the first half of the year.
While New England’s players will get an extended break from work during the bye, Belichick and his coaching staff will also utilize the extra time for some self-scouting aimed at improvement down the critical home stretch of the season.
With that in mind, here’s a look at how the Patriots’ strengths and weaknesses stack up a little more than midway through the year.
1. Pass defense – Stephon Gilmore may very well be the best cornerback in football. Jamie Collins’ versatile playmaking has made him a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate. New England’s pass defense includes depth of personnel, experience and cohesive communication that made it the basis for a great deal of the team’s success in September and October. Even against improved competition – including legitimate opposing QBs – there is no reason the Patriots pass defense shouldn’t be a relative strength down the stretch. Interceptions, sacks, tight coverage, New England can do it all.
2. Short passing game – While there have been plenty of changes at receiver and tight end, New England’s short passing game built around Julian Edelman and James White is maybe the best in the game. Even when opposing defenses try to target those guys they still generally get their production. The additions of Ben Watson and Mohamed Sanu may even add to the depth and strength of the short passing game as the season wears on.
3. Coaching – There were plenty of questions regarding offseason turnover on the defensive coaching staff, all of which were seemingly answered by the unit’s performance through nine games. Belichick took on a more active role on defense and players credit that with improving the dominant, consistent results on that side of the ball. Jerod Mayo, Steve Belichick and the rest of the promoted assistants seem to be getting the job done. Offensively, Josh McDaniels runs a group with coaching continuity. He’s overseen late-season scheme changes and identity shifts before. There is no reason to doubt him or his staff’s ability to get the most out of the talent they have.
4. Tom Brady – Sure TB12’s numbers are down. But a lot of that is certainly directly tied to the talent around him. The G.O.A.T. remains capable of getting rid of the ball quickly with short, accurate passes. He continues to work with a new-look corps of weapons and the production should grow the longer he has to get comfortable with those various targets. The 42-year-old may not be quite as good as he once was, but he can still more than get the job done.
5. Experience – Both in terms of coaching staff and players, the defending-champion Patriots have been there and done that. As their playoff competition begins to stack up down the stretch, there is no team with more proven experience than New England. There is almost immeasurable value in that advantage.
1. Run defense – Many are talking about how Lamar Jackson ran against New England last Sunday night. Running back Mark Ingram was even more productive in that game and was the latest opposing back to find room to produce against a Patriots front that should now expect to be challenged on the ground each week. Dating back to Frank Gore in Week 4 in Buffalo, New England has had issues with both tackling and overall run defense at times. The coaches, defensive line and linebackers need to find a way to be a bit more stout up front.
2. Offensive line – Injuries have been a clear issue – losing both left tackle Isaiah Wynn and center David Andrews to injured reserve – stealing the continuity that legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia so desires. Journeyman veteran Marshall Newhouse has struggled at left tackle, putting a lot of focus on Wynn’s return even though the former first-round pick has played about five quarters in his NFL career. But even the mainstay veterans up front have not played well enough in the trenches. If the line doesn’t improve in both pass protection and run blocking, it could end up being a fatal flaw.
3. Running game – How much of it is the blocking? How much of it is Sony Michel failing to maximize runs? That’s up for debate. But clearly the running game hasn’t been a positive factor in the Patriots offense this season. A year ago Michel, the offensive line and the ground attack led the team through a three-game run to a Super Bowl ring. A repeat performance is probably extremely unlikely, but the rushing game probably needs to be a bigger contributor in the coming months, especially given the limitations in the passing game.
4. Passing game “threat” – Not every team has to have a Randy Moss to take the top off the defense. But there is something to be said for having a playmaker that opposing defenses have to fear. Sure, Edelman is a weapon. But it’s hard for either a slot receiver or a passing back like White to truly carry an offense with the game or the season on the line. A year ago Rob Gronkowski was a focal point for opposing defenses and even in a down year the tight end made huge plays in the playoffs to secure victory at the most critical of times. This unit doesn’t seem to have that type of weapon right now.
5. Kicker – Stephen Gostkowski is on IR. Mike Nugent was cut after four games. Nick Folk is the next man up, although he may not be the last guy to get a chance to stabilize the kicker position that’s been an issue all year. With Nugent, it seemed the team couldn’t even consider trying field goals longer than 40 yards. Folk has a history of a stronger leg, but who knows how he performs in the coming weeks? As the games become bigger and possibly tighter, it’s hard to imagine kicker becoming a strength down the stretch. How big of a concern will it be? Time will tell.