Patriots go ‘once more into the fray’ in quest for sixth ring

193 days removed from one of the most painful losses of his career, Tom Brady took the field against the Philadelphia Eagles with something to prove. The contrast in importance from Super Bowl LII and this home preseason tilt can’t be overstated, but for Brady, this was a chance to damper the over-analyzed noise of ‘discord’ between he and Bill Belichick during the offseason, as seen and heard on sports television and sports talk radio.

The GOAT’s performance (19/26, 172 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) was sharp. An A-minus level of quarterbacking against the team that thwarted his attempt at a sixth ring. With WR1 Brandin Cooks, do-everything back Dion Lewis and uber-clutch slot weapon Danny Amendola all gone, Brady will carry a heavier load this season. That’s something he’s done in past years, but as he enters his age-41 campaign, that’s certainly not ideal.

Still, the Patriots possess the ultimate mismatch-creator in tight end Rob Gronkowski, and will welcome back trusty slot receiver Julian Edelman in October after his four-game suspension for who knows what. In September bouts versus the Texans, Jaguars, Lions and Dolphins, Brady will have to rely on Chris Hogan as his WR1 with scatback James White and two former first-round picks Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson to fill the void. Patterson is the ultimate ‘gadget’ weapon capable of creating big gains off screens, reverses and the deep fly. Dorsett is a smaller target with blazing speed a la Brandin Cooks, but not as polished. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely try Dorsett in a variety of roles including in Cooks’ and Edelman’s spot for the first month of the season.

But what will the offense look like in general? McDaniels is known for creating a chameleon-type mentality within the Patriots’ complex offense run by Brady. One game New England might pound the rock in two-tight end sets (with the occasional play-action pass) while another matchup may bring out a spread set for much of the game, asking Brady to beat a top-end defense by throwing 50 or more passes — which he surely can do. It’s been documented many times before, but the Patriots use short passes to RBs and slot receivers as bonafide runs in that scenario. They move players like James Devlin out wide in no-huddle base-switched-to-spread formations and move receivers in motion to identify the coverage, and then Brady assess.

Many call it ‘dinking and dunking’ but what Brady does with timed and small window throws is a thing of beauty. As opposed to consistently looking deep to Cooks, Hogan and Gronkowski like last season, Brady will attack the short and middle spots of the defense before he attacks downfield with what can be described as the ‘jugular.’ This is reserved for when Brady looks downfield on either a play-action pass or unexpected bomb to hit the defense where and when it least expects it. The best example of this is Brady’s deep touchdown pass to Chris Hogan to defeat the Ravens on a Monday Night Football game during the 2016 season:

New England’s team-building philosophy allows them to find obscure or mid-level available targets to fit their system, without having to battle other teams for their services. These players are hired on affordable contracts, or traded for assets with slim value to the franchise. The latest example being Patterson, who may very well enjoy a career year in New England despite being dealt there, along with a sixth-round pick in exchange for a fifth-round pick. That’s practically nothing.

Likewise, the Patriots retained Burkhead on a three-year deal with $5.5 million guaranteed. With the Patriots handling of Michel’s injury and Lewis in Tenneseee, Burkhead may too, have a career year as the presumed feature back to start the season.

But the running back corps should rely on perhaps their best bargain of all, scatback James White. The trusty offensive weapon will be heavily relied on to start the season, and even may lead the team in catches. The player who has scored six touchdowns in his last four postseason games quietly signed a three-year extension last offseason that nets him just $12 million (not guaranteed) through 2020. The Patriots win in this scenario again.

But enough contract talk. Expect the unexpected when it comes to the Patriots attempt to score points on four familiar, stingy defensive foes in September, but after that Brady and company should find their rythmn with a mix of gameplans derived generated to attack opponents’ weaknesses.

In short, as long as Brady is running the show, and Gronkowski and Edelman remain healthy, New England should remain one of the league’s consistent scoring machines in 2018.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Tom Brady

RB — Rex Burkhead 

WR — Chris Hogan

WR — Cordarrelle Patterson 

Slot WR — Phillip Dorsett (Edelman will replace Dorsett after his four-game suspension; Dorsett would move back outside)

TE — Rob Gronkowski

LT — Trent Brown 

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — David Andrews

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Marcus Cannon

Situational positions:

FB — James Devlin

Scatback — James White

‘Move’ TE — Jacob Hollister

Blocking TE — Dwayne Allen

Gadget — Cordarrelle Patterson (Patterson projected to start in three WR sets Weeks 1-4)

Swing Tackle — LaAdrian Waddle

 

* * * * *

For the Patriots defense, the 2017 season ended just as it began, with the unit being thumped by a more talented offensive unit.. The ominous Week 1 loss to the Chiefs sparked early trouble, but as always the Patriots trekked along with the ‘bend-but-don’t-break’ defense for the rest of the season leading up to Super Bowl LII. Then, the wheels came off.

Now, Brian Flores takes over, filling in for Matt Patricia’s shoes. In two preseason games, Flores has appeared to mix in more exotic blitzes than the conservative preseason. But again, it’s preseason so that means little. The Patriots major hole in 2017 was a lack of a pass rush, and a below-average front seven in general. Players like Eric Lee and Marquis Flowers were thrust into starting roles down the stretch. Both Lee and Flowers were released Saturday, failing to make the 53-man roster. With the return of Dont’a Hightower and the additions of Adrian Clayborn, Danny Shelton and Derek Rivers, the team should see somewhat of a boost in those categories.

In the secondary, the Patriots again will have the experienced safety trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, but the group’s most important piece will be CB1 Stephon Gilmore. With a full season in New England under his belt, Gilmore should elevate into a top five cornerback in 2018. Belichick will utilize the former Buffalo Bill as a man-to-man piece with the ability to stymie opponents’ No. 1 pass catcher. Generally, Belichick’s defenses work well with a shutdown CB1 anchoring the backend — think Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis. With the exception of Samuel, who was smaller and excelled in zone coverage, the players on that list are elite, physical man-to-man defenders. Gilmore will be that.

The major question comes at CB2, where Eric Rowe will need to step up and provide solid play in man-to-man situations as we. Between Gilmore (6-foot-1, 202 pounds) and Rowe (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) the Patriots hope to lock up outside receivers with their lengthy, athletic cornerbacks, with less pressure on Rowe, as he’d be asked to cover the team’s No. 2 WR. In the slot, the Patriots will look to Jonathan Jones or rookie Duke Dawson at some point, but their often-used ‘big nickel’ package may be the most used. The formation employs the aforementioned safety trio with both Harmon and McCourty playing a traditional free-ranging safety position, and Chung playing in the as a nickel back who is able to jam receivers and tight ends who line up in the slot.

With Flores at the helm, the Patriots will still employ a mostly-conservative approach to their defense, as similar to recent years. But expect the young play caller to mix a few exotic blitzes into the mix, without leaving the defense vulnerable to getting beat deep by a running back in the passing game, like Cassius Marsh’s coverage assignment versus Kareem Hunt in last season’s Week 1 loss to the Chiefs.

To sum it all up, the defense should improve.

Week 1 Projected defense:

EDGE — Trey Flowers

Interior — Danny Shelton

Interior — Lawrence Guy

EDGE — Adrian Clayborn

LB — Kyle Van Noy

LB — Dont’a Hightower

CB — Stephon Gilmore

CB — Eric Rowe

Nickelback — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty

S — Duron Harmon

Situational positions:

Rotational Interior  — Malcom Brown

Sub Interior Rusher — Adam Butler

Sub Edge Rusher — Derek Rivers

Sub Edge Rusher — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

Slot CB — Duke Dawson Jr. 

 

Projected record: 12-4 (AFC’s No. 2 seed)

With the AFC’s (and AFC East’s) failure to keep up with the NFC’s level of emerging talent-heavy teams, only the Patriots, Jaguars and Steelers hold a legitimate chance at making Super Bowl LIII, with the Chargers, Chiefs and Texans being the conference’s sleepers. The Patriots will miss out on the AFC’s No. 1 seed via a Week 2 loss in Jacksonville. But with a season-long worth of meshing, and Edelman back in the mix, the Patriots will defeat the Jaguars on the road in the AFC Championship Game to advance to their third Super Bowl in a row, and fourth in five years.

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