How’s this for a pick-me-up?
If you had to point out the Patriots two biggest weaknesses on Sunday against the Bills, you would probably point to the quarterback position and to the defensive line. Rookie QB Jacoby Brissett played like, well, a rookie and the defensive line broke down and failed to contain Bills QB Tyrod Taylor and RB LeSean McCoy.
So, coincidentally, the Patriots have two veterans returning from suspension that fill those very gaps.
QB Tom Brady is back as he has served a 4-game suspension for the league’s inability to admit they were wrong. He will slide in as the starting quarterback and even if he’s rusty he will be better than Brissett was on Sunday. Patriots wide receivers combined for 1 catch for 16 yards on 8 targets against the Bills; it’s difficult to be less productive than that.
QB Jimmy Garoppolo will likely be healthy enough to be the back-up and it wouldn’t be a surprise if all of a sudden Brissett’s thumb injury requires immediate surgery that forces him to the injured reserve (IR). In fairness, Brissett was battered around by the Bills all day, so any injury might actually be real.
The Patriots don’t have to name a player as “IR with designation to return”, so Brissett could be available to return later in the season if he is placed on the IR.
ED Rob Ninkovich is back after the end of his 4-game suspension for PEDs. Where he fits into the defense is a little more complicated.
Ninkovich has been a starting defensive end for the Patriots since 2010 and he always seems to rise to the occasion by making plays when they matter the most. He also offers the flexibility to drop into coverage and is best known for his ability to set the edge against the run.
But the Patriots have a solid three-man edge defender rotation in Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, and Trey Flowers, this past Sunday notwithstanding, and it’s hard to see any of them getting displaced. So where does Ninkovich fit in?
New England apparently had Ninkovich practice at linebacker this offseason so I expect that he’ll fill the strongside linebacker (SAM) position that LB Shea McClellin and LB Dont’a Hightower have filled at various points this season. The SAM role allows Ninkovich to play close to the line, play the run, and also drop into coverage to confuse the quarterback.
The insertion of Ninkovich as the SAM will bump Hightower back to his more natural middle linebacker (MIKE) role, while LB Jamie Collins has played the weakside linebacker (WILL) spot. This movement bumps Jonathan Freeny out of the starting lineup and should play to the Patriots strengths.
As a result of these two players returning to the field, the Patriots have opened up as 10-point road favorites over the Cleveland Browns in week 5, per Odds Shark. Brady and Ninkovich will go a long way to covering the Patriots shortcomings against the Bills and should allow the rest of the team to improve their level of play moving forward.