The Patriots steamrolled their opponents the first 3 weeks of the season, winning by 16 points or more against the Steelers, Dolphins, and Jets. However, they looked mortal week 4 against the Bills’ tough pass defense, managing to earn a close win 16-10. The Patriots top-ranked defense has looked elite so far this season, allowing only one TD to opposing teams so far (week 4 by the Bills).
I asked Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit five questions to better understand the state of the Patriots and what to look for in this game.
1. What have been the Patriots most impactful injuries so far and how have they changed the way the team plays?
The Patriots entered the 2019 season with arguably the deepest roster in the NFL, and they certainly needed that depth early in the season. Every high-level injury has of course an impact of its own, but I would argue the biggest ones concern the Patriots’ blocking: the team lost starting center David Andrews before the regular season began due to blood clots that were discovered in his lungs; left tackle Isaiah Wynn is dealing with turf toe and was placed on injured reserve after Week 2; fullback James Develin — an integral part of New England’s ground game — hurt his neck and has also been placed on IR. While Karras has filled in admirably for Andrews and might actually have a case as the best backup center in the league, replacing Wynn and Develin has not been that easy in the grand scheme of things.
Wynn’s replacement is Marshall Newhouse, who has had his ups over the past two games but also his downs. That had to be expected, but the problem is that the entire chemistry up front suffered. That’s nothing against Newhouse, it is just something the Patriots need to be able to overcome until Wynn returns. You can see it in pass protection, with Tom Brady not getting sacked a lot but often having to move off the spot, and in run blocking: New England has been unable to get outside runs going with the exception of jet sweeps or other misdirection concepts. The run blocking is also where James Develin is missing. While undrafted rookie Jakob Johnson has a high motor and some good snaps on his tape, he lacks the versatility and athleticism of the man he replaced. This, in combination with an offensive line that has been inconsistent at executed pull blocks has led to a struggling rushing attack.
Of course, there’s also Stephen Gostkowski: the Patriots placed their kicker on injured reserve this week and signed veteran Mike Nugent to replace him. Only time will tell how this impacts how the Patriots are operating on offense (will they go for more fourth downs?) and special teams (will punter Jake Bailey do kickoffs?).
2. The Patriots seem to have a player acquisition philosophy that revolves around players who are tough, versatile, and smart. Do you think that’s accurate, are there other traits the Patriots look for, and how do those traits shape/enable the way the Patriots play?
I think if you ask all 32 teams in the NFL – well, maybe 31; #FireBruceAllen, am I right? – they will all say that they are looking for tough, versatile and smart players. What the Patriots do that differs from “just” looking for that, however, is that actively trying to fill roles and to put players in the best situations possible. I give you an example: Patrick Chung was drafted in the second round by the team in 2009 and was okay during his first four years with the club. He played free safety, some strong safety, and saw considerable snaps on special teams. He never stood out, though, and was let go during free agency. One disappointing year in Philadelphia later, Chung was re-signed by a Patriots team that has changed quite a bit during his absence: the team now had a clearer role for him in mind and used him almost exclusively as a strong safety/linebacker hybrid. This allowed him to flourish due to his strong tackling and physicality against both the run and in coverage against tight ends.
What I’m trying to say is that the Patriots are exceptional at identifying weaknesses on their team and/or creating roles that suit the players they already have on their roster. Chung is a very good example, because the club saw that it needed a box safety and did not try to have him play other roles like it did during his first tenure. Of course, a player needs the right amount of toughness, smarts and versatility — and on top of that the willingness to put the team first and the extra work in — but what makes New England so good at acquiring players, in my opinion, is the team’s ability to use all those traits and put players in positions in which they are comfortable. This, in turn, allows them to live up to their potential more often than not (there are some misses, but the team most of the time identifies them quickly and moves on or changes its expectations).
So to come back to your question: I think this all builds a natural trust between the coaching staff and the players, and creates a setting that enables both to do a lot more than what other teams are capable of in terms of play calling and execution.
3. The Patriots seemed fine letting defensive coaches Matt Patricia and Brian Flores go to become HC of other teams, but fought hard to keep OC Josh McDaniels. What makes McDaniels so special and what would happen to New England’s offense without him? How did they convince him to stay?
The final two parts of the questions are tough to answer, because it means we will have to venture into speculation. With that being said, I think that the Patriots giving him more money — there are rumors he is paid like a first-time head coach — might have played a role in his decision to effectively leave the Colts at the altar (although, to be fair, they did announce the hiring before he had signed anything, so they are not completely faultless either), especially in combination with the fact that McDaniels and his family have lived in New England since 2012; he has four young kids and it would not be surprising if he felt like uprooting the family was too much of a burden on them.
When it comes to New England’s offense without him, I would take a look at the next man in line. It would probably have been wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea, but he left the Patriots during the offseason to join Brian Flores in Miami. So now, it’s harder to see who could take over. Tight ends coach Nick Caley might be the leading candidate, but that is not a given. Either way, whether it is him or another assistant coach to replace McDaniels in this theoretical scenario, one thing is sure: whoever follows McDaniels as Patriots offensive coordinator one day or another will do so within a framework built by Bill Belichick. As good as McDaniels is — and he is one of the best offensive coordinators in the NFL — Belichick built the foundation and this is why all the defensive coaches were able to go without the operation taking much of a hit.
So, when it comes to McDaniels himself I think what makes him special in the Patriots’ eyes are two things.
1.) His relationship with Tom Brady, and ability to coach young quarterbacks (see: Matt Cassel Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett).
2.) His relationship with Bill Belichick, and ability to see the game in a way that he does.
The best reflection of point number two is the game planning process: McDaniels, according to Belichick, is responsible for 90-95% of the offensive game plan. Having somebody like that on your staff is incredibly valuable, as it allows Belichick to work with the defense — one that has no clear play caller after losing Flores in the offseason — without having to worry about the other side of the ball.
4. How do the Patriots stay so consistently good on special teams? How much does this contribute to winning?
Having coverage players like Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner in combination with good specialists and returnmen certainly helps, but, again, I think that the organizational structure plays an enormous role as well. Belichick can essentially do whatever he wants in New England — that’s the luxury you have when you win three Super Bowls in your first five years at the job — and it shows when it comes to roster construction: he likes to build a deep roster across the board, and one that is not filled with stars but little depth behind them. Other general managers are hesitant to do that, as they are often essentially living on year-to-year deals. Belichick never has to worry about those things, so he can invest differently and spend money not on big names or fan favorites but the roster’s overall depth. This also has an impact on special teams, because those depth players are often those seeing the most action in the kicking game. The better your depth, the better your special teams (at least most of the time).
How does this contribute to winning, though? I think what the Patriots like to do is a) don’t allow big plays, and b) consistently win the field position battle. Having good special teams play allows you to do just that, which furthermore plays into New England’s concepts on both offense on defense: control the tempo and the rhythm of the game, and force teams to string together plays in order to march down the field. Giving up big returns or always starting deep in ones own territory would make this a lot more difficult.
5. If you were HC of the Redskins, how would you gameplan for this matchup and what weaknesses would you exploit on the Patriots? Is there a safeword Jay Gruden can use to get Bill Belichick to take it easy on us when the game is out of hand?
Bon Jovi, that’s probably what he should use. Or just start a conversation about the Giants of the 80s before kickoff, that should work as well.
When it comes to game planning, however, it’s a bit more complex. I think there are a few things I would try to primarily focus on:
- On offense, try to isolate the Patriots’ linebackers one-on-one against running backs in coverage. They are very good, but I would rather test them than the best secondary in football.
- On offense, try to stay on the field and milk the clock. This helps to keep Tom Brady off the field and also tires out the defense a bit, an approach that worked well for the Bills last Sunday (even though they ultimately still lost).
- On defense, try to take advantage of the makeshift offensive line. Stunts. Blitzes. Overloads. Whatever you have in your back pocket to challenge the communication up front, use it.
- On defense, get physical with the wide receivers. Buffalo did that and it messed up the timing of the operation a bit and forced Brady to look to running back James White or the shorter routes more often.
- Don’t shoot yourself in the foot!
I think if the team can do all those things consistently, it should be in relatively decent shape (i.e. not losing by 50 points).
Thanks again to Bernd Buchmasser for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Patriots.
As of right now, Vegas has the Patriots as 15.5 favorites over the Redskins. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Patriots win by more than 15 points
Patriots win by 15 points or less
Redskins win outright
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 42.5 points. Which would you bet?
This poll is closed
More than 42 total points are scored (both sides combined)
42 or fewer total points are scored (both sides combined)