Death. Taxes. Chief criticizing Marshall Newhouse. Some things change. And some things always stay the same. Let’s get started with this week’s “State of the New England Patriots.”
State of the Game
This was a tale of two halves on offense. I said last week that I did not want to read too much into the offensive performance against the Buffalo Bills. Yes, the game legitimized my serious concerns about the offense but I did not want to overreact to a single contest. A Week 5 road game against potentially the best defense the Patriots will play this season is not the time for panic. Those are the conditions for an outlier.
My concern in the first half of the Washington Redskins game was that that last week’s performance may not have been an outlier. The Patriots offense was putrid. I had thought it would perform significantly better against Washington but it looked just as bad as it had against the Bills. I was worried that even my pessimistic analysis of the offense might not have been harsh enough. Fortunately, the Patriots were a completely different offense in the second half.
Did the game alleviate my serious misgivings about the offense? No. Did it reinforce my belief that the Patriots offense remain outside the zone of crisis? Yes. Regardless of what went wrong, at the end of the day, the team went on the road and routed a bad team. That’s what they should have done and that is what they did. The Patriots are 5-0.
State of the Offense
This offense must perform better to win a championship. I am not saying this offense cannot win a championship, I am saying it has to be better than it is now for that to happen. The Patriots gave up three sacks on three-man rushes. That is disgusting. I would have been angry writing that the offensive line gave up a single sack on a three-man rush from the likes of Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Chris Jones last season. For them to give up three sacks against this Redskins defensive line is a joke.
I enjoyed the cracks about my disdain for left tackle Marshall Newhouse last week but my suspicion is that fewer people will think his performance is a laughing matter each passing week. Still, Newhouse is not my primary concern exiting Washington. My primary concern is right tackle Marcus Cannon. I think it’s very possible that Cannon is playing hurt. And in that case I deeply appreciate his efforts to keep another street tackle from guarding Tom Brady’s right side. But against the Redskins this week, the line between him and a street tackle got thinner than I would like.
Cannon gave up pressures like it was going out of style. I mentioned last week that he had been in a steady decline from his 2016 high. That did not mean I was predicting his performance to plummet the way it did in the first half of the Washington game, though. An under-noted story line coming out of the 2018 championship campaign was that Cannon was the worst graded member of the offensive line by Pro Football Focus. That did not mean he was bad — he was playing on one of the best offensive lines in football — but he was the weakest link on the line.
I think his performance will be something to pay attention to moving forward. Cannon possesses proven pedigree. I’m not going to get too upset about a one-game sample size. But it is crucial that he improves. There is no reinforcement to replace Cannon and the Patriots are not going to be able to upgrade him. He will just have to play better than he did against Washington. Fundamentally, nothing has therefore changed relative to last week: the Patriots offensive line needs to play better. If it can this team probably has the horses for a championship run. If it does not the Patriots are going to have a disappointing season.
With that being said, here are some other notes on the offense:
- This is the second week Tom Brady has thrown an ugly red zone pick, but his overall performance was strong. He did perform better in the second half but the night-and-day appearance had more to do with the cast around him. It’s incredible what the 42-year-old can do when his offensive line actually performs. I have heard chatter that Brady has declined but don’t count me in that camp yet. I think it’s obvious he’s declined from his 2015-2017 run. But do I see regression from 2018 to 2019? Not yet. He may not be the best quarterback in the NFL right now, but he’s still a top-10 passer in the league.
- Julian Edelman, meanwhile, continues to be an incredible asset for the dynasty. There were times he played injured in the first half but he was an animal in the second. It’s good to know he can still string those dominant plays together.
- Brandon Bolden has caught more touchdown passes than Josh Gordon. He gained a mile of separation on a wheel route and took an excellent ball from Brady to the house. Just an excellent job by both players.
- Speaking of Gordon, the chemistry between him and Brady last year has not reappeared so far this season. I’m not going to get too bent out of shape about it and I expect it to improve. Anyone notice how freaking huge Gordon is now? He honestly looks like a small tight end.
- Phillip Dorsett’s injury is obviously disappointing but he’s not a consistent difference maker.
- Ryan Izzo is a bad blocker but he’s at least serviceable as a receiver.
- Sony Michel had his best game of the season and it’s not a coincidence that it coincided with serviceable run blocking and him being utilized (FINALLY) as a receiver. I’ve remained bullish on Michel so far this season and I am glad to see that confidence rewarded. The Patriots were successful with a fullback and two tight ends for maybe the first time all year. Sure, it was against a bad team but they struggled against bad teams in that personnel grouping in the past too, so it’s progress nonetheless.
Is this team’s ultimate identity the first half or the second? I’d err strongly toward the second. Still, my concern for the offense will remain high until they can string a few games together against solid opponents. It’s a long season. Let’s see what happens.
State of the Defense
The Patriots’ injury luck has been juxtaposed by their luck with the teams they play. Three of the victories have come against teams without a single win this season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have one. The only team with a winning record is the Bills who are a defensive-led team. The Patriots defense, meanwhile, can play only who lines up in front of it — and it has dominated everyone who has. That’s fantastic, but I’m very interested in seeing to what extent they can slow down a more competent offense.
In some ways this reminds me of the 2016 defense, which was similarly questioned due to the lack of quality teams it faced. The pancake schedule is making pundits question how good they are right now but they will have plenty of opportunities to prove their legitimacy in the second half of the season. The Patriots’ defense currently ranks first in scoring, first in passing, first in turnovers, and second in rushing. I doubt those statistics withstand the test of the full season but it’s impressive regardless.
When you are healthy having stars is eminently preferable to depth. When injuries hit, depth is the saving grace of the season. The fact that the Patriots rolled into a game without Dont’a Hightower and barely missed a beat is not a mark against him — he was excellent in his return to the field against Washington. It was a testament to the depth of the linebacker corp, however. I was trying to come up with the Patriots’ defensive equivalent to the Chiefs losing both their starting defensive tackles to injury and the closest I could come up with was the Patriots losing Michael Bennett and Chase Winovich. But even that didn’t seem like a 1:1 equivalent. I think to really make the analogy work you’d have to go back to the 2017 secondary and a hypothetical scenario where the Patriots lose Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore in the same game.
The depth is a big part of the reason I am confident the defense will still be a difference-maker by the end of the season.
Here are some more defensive notes:
- Chase Winovich notched another sack and continued his crusade to be the most productive draft pick from 2019. I don’t know if he will become the best player of the Patriots’ 2019 draft class but he was my favorite pick of the entire draft in terms of value. Thus far he has delivered. The defensive line is the thinnest position group on the defense, so getting a contributor from the draft is key. I still think Winovich is a long way from being a consistent playmaker, though. He’s benefited from below average competition just like the rest of the defense but he’s right where I hoped he’d be his rookie year.
- Stephon Gilmore is good. He is not as good as he was last year. That’s my take and nothing I saw against the Redskins made me change it.
- The Jonathan Jones extension is looking superior. He’s having a career year and his current deal will be a steal if he can continue to perform near his current level.
- Jamie Collins Sr. continues to make me look smart by dominating the competition. It’s gonna be tough to see him walk next year. I’m not a big fan of nicknaming a group that has yet to beat a top ten offense, but the linebacker “Boogeymen” have been every bit as good as I hoped. I thought they could be a top-five position group and so far that has been the case.
- Jason McCourty with a pick counts for Devin McCourty’s streak right?
State of a Trade
If you had asked me a day or two ago I would have said I was extremely bearish on a difference-making trade by the trade deadline. The Patriots’ cap space is virtually nonexistent and I just didn’t see a probable scenario where the Patriots would wing something. But with reports that the Patriots are aggressively seeking a trade for another receiving option and with them moving past Benjamin Watson, I am less bearish than I was before.
I don’t want to go as far as to say I am confident a trade will happen, but I do believe they are looking. From drafting N’Keal Harry, to signing Antonio Brown, to the recent trade rumors, it is clear the Patriots have identified a need at receiver. But trades require a partner and unless they get a rookie they will need to move draft capital and eat cap space if they want to sign a difference-maker. The Patriots tried to get the Broncos to do the same last year and could not get them to bite. That doesn’t mean another team will not bite but it highlights the added difficulty of the maneuver.
The only person the Patriots have been linked to that excites me and is at least tentatively plausible is Emmanuel Sanders. The Patriots have been linked to A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert too. Green and Eifert offer potentially greater upside than Sanders: Green was long considered part of the NFL’s wide receiver triumvirate along with Antonio Brown and Julio Jones: Eifert was essentially unstoppable in the red zone back in 2015.
However, both players come with major caveats. While Green has the most upside, he hasn’t finished a season healthy in years. Eifert, meanwhile, has basically been a ghost since 2015 — he would be the easiest to trade for out of the two. Both potential signings sound great on paper but I’m not sure they would hold up when the bodies start hitting the turf. We will see what materializes in the coming weeks.
State of the Competition
The Indianapolis Colts upsetting the Chiefs was a major coup for the Patriots. The Chiefs will probably be the Patriots’ primary obstacle for home field advantage throughout the playoffs and a surprising home game loss against the Colts could turn out to be very significant. But it’s important to contextualize that victory.
Going into the season, I knew Kansas City’s biggest weakness would be its defensive depth. The Chiefs have a lot more weapons than the Patriots but their entire defense is thin from cornerback to linebacker. The Chiefs had a difficult enough time entering a matchup with a team whose entire offensive philosophy centered around the run game. When they lost both starting defensive tackles during the game that challenge turned into a crisis.
But the Chiefs were the worst team in the NFL defending the run last year and they still managed to win the top seed in the conference. The difference is that this time their offense only managed 13 points.
NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger knows more about football than I do, but watching his “blueprint” to beat the Chiefs had me rolling my eyes. Four-man rush? Sticky man coverage? Pressure up the middle? Sound the trumpets. I think he just unlocked the cheat code to beating every single quarterback in existence. It was the same things you hear about Tom Brady. None of that is unique. You apply that formula to every single quarterback in the NFL and you are going to win the vast majority of your games. This isn’t Bill Belichick figuring out the Rams.
The reason Kansas City’s offense struggled was the exact same reason the Patriots’ offense struggled. Injuries. The Chiefs are currently without their left tackle, right guard, their backup right guard, and their top two wide receivers. To compound matters, Patrick Mahomes was injured during the game. It’s great to tell a team they need to play man coverage but I can count on one hand the number of teams that can play man-to-man reliably against the Chiefs when all their weapons are healthy. I don’t even need all five fingers.
I don’t say this to take credit away from the Colts or absolve the Chiefs of blame. The Colts’ pass rush played out of its mind. By far their best game of the season and that wasn’t just due to the quality of competition. Furthermore, their blitz schemes were excellent. They got Mahomes at least once on a corner blitz and got pressure a couple of times on zero blitzes. Great job by the Colts diagnosing and executing a scheme that Mahomes would struggle with. As I recall, the Colts got Mahomes twice on a corner blitz last year too.
I think the most compelling narrative out of this game besides injuries is the Chiefs’ inability to fix a fatal weakness. Three years ago, they lost to the Steelers when Le’Veon Bell ran them into the dirt. Two years ago, they lost in a surprising upset to the Tennessee Titans when Derrick Henry ran them out of the stadium. Last year, they were defeated in large part due to a dominant Patriot running game. Three years. Three playoff losses. Three crushing defeats delivered in large part due to the opposing teams rushing offense. And here we are again in Week 4 watching a fair-to-middling Colts team deliver another surprising upset through the force of its ground game. That is horrible. Injuries may be the primary issue the Chiefs lost, but it doesn’t absolve them of their overwhelming ineptitude when it comes to being a dumpster fire against the run.
Think back to when the Patriots lost in the 2006 AFC Championship Game in large part because of their lack of reliable receiving weapons. The next season, Bill Belichick traded for Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Rob Gronkowski retired last year and the Patriots responded this year by drafting a first-round receiver and signing Antonio Brown, and are still reportedly aggressively seeking another weapon. Belichick does not always get it right but one of his best abilities it to attack his own weaknesses with abandon.
Look, I still have little doubt the Chiefs will be the second overall seed in the AFC. After all who is going to stop them? The Steelers? Ravens? Jaguars? Texans? Titans? Eventually there will be another good team in the AFC but right now I’d take over half a dozen NFC teams before I’d pick the third best team in the AFC.
The Chiefs are similar to the Patriots in that they need to get their offense healthy. The big difference is that unlike the Patriots they have very little margin for error on defense. If they lose significant players on that defense there is nothing behind them. And it could easily cost them more than a Sunday night game down the road.
State of the League
Green Bay is gonna be scary if Aaron Rodgers can synchronize with the new scheme and the defense continues to perform.
I was a believer in the Philadelphia Eagles during the preseason and they have rewarded me by steadying the ship. Even healthy, the Eagles secondary is average at best but to the rest of the roster is great.
I love the roster Dallas has built but the most important positions in the NFL are quarterback and head coach. I do not believe in either for the Cowboys. They suffered significant injuries against Green Bay and it’s early in the season. Writing them off would be foolish, but I have a hard time seeing Dallas representing the NFC in the Super Bowl this year.
I like Cleveland’s roster. I like their quarterback in spite of his current struggles. I don’t buy into the Browns’ coaching staff.
Miami must be the happiest 0-5 team in the NFL. After trading Minkah Fitzpatrick for a first-round pick, the Steelers are currently 1-4. I have a hard time believing that Miami will get as lucky as the Browns did when they got two top-five picks but two top-10 picks is not out of the question. The Steelers are not that bad, they are just down to their third-string quarterback.
In another reminder that sports leagues, however fun and enjoyable, are still little more than money-powered automatons I point you to the recent NBA-China debacle. I won’t say anymore but if you take any notion with the idea that money strangles values and leaves it for dead anytime they come into contest I urge you to check it out.
It was really something to see the sea of Patriots fans at Washington. I can’t help but think it says more about the Redskins being a disaster of a franchise than it does about New England’s fans. Still cool as heck.