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Sunday Patriots Notes: New England aims to play its best football in November, December, January

Related: Patriots vs Cowboys preview: New England faces a tough challenge in Week 6

New England Patriots vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

The sixth Sunday of the NFL’s 2021 season has arrived, and there is a lot going on around the New England Patriots and the rest of the league. Let’s use this forum right here to go through some of the stories that have emerged over the last few days: time for our Sunday Patriots Notes.

1. New England aims to play its best football in November, December and January. Heading into their Week 6 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys at 2-3, the Patriots have been an inconsistent team so far. According to inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, however, the team’s goal is not to play its best football at this stage in the season. Instead, it should serve as the foundation for what is still to come.

“We’re still a work in progress. We have a lot of new guys and I would say, if you look at our team historically, if you take a 20-year slice, we’ve had very little turnover. We have a bunch of new guys and they’re all good players, but we’re still trying to figure each other out. In saying that, there have been stretches this year where we played pretty decent football, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Mayo said.

“We definitely have a long way to go. We have to get better, and we really always talk about September, you’re trying to figure yourself out; even early October you’re trying to figure yourself out. And then, hopefully, November, December, January you’re playing your best football.”

The Patriots have been no strangers to slow starts even with Tom Brady still leading the team as its quarterback. Still, this version is a different one: Mac Jones is a rookie at the QB position, with the team trying to incorporate a slew of offseason acquisitions as Mayo mentioned. It will be fascinating to see how quickly it all comes together — or if it does at all.

2. The problem with defending slants. One of the biggest issues for the Patriots during their Week 5 game against the Houston Texans was defending the slant pass. Houston repeatedly found success throwing slants, especially in must-have situations: the first fourth down of the game was converted on a slant versus Devin McCourty; Myles Bryant gave up another one on a third down at the end of the third quarter.

The team’s issues defending the play are not lost on the coaching staff either, as Jerod Mayo pointed out earlier this week. Speaking to reporters on a conference call, Mayo explained what the Patriots have to do better to find more success.

“Honestly, I would say part of it just has to do with awareness. Awareness of the play,” he said. “A lot of those have happened on short-yardage plays — like 3rd-and-1. Really, it’s a run call. It’s not just a normal slant pass. I don’t want you guys to think they’re just sitting back there, drop-back pass and throwing a slant. It’s a called run play and it’s what we call a ‘look’ pass. They can sling it out there. So, we’ve definitely self-scouted, and, honestly, just being at the game, we know that play is coming. We just have to play it better.”

3. Teams like to double-team Christian Barmore. A lot. When New England traded up to acquire Alabama’s Christian Barmore in the second round of this year’s draft, the general consensus in the media was that the team was able to get itself a steal. Barmore was seen as the best interior defensive lineman available, after all, and him still being available at pick No. 38 was one of the biggest surprises up until that point.

Five months later, Barmore has established himself as a valuable member of the Patriots’ defensive line: he has played more than half of the team’s defensive snaps and has proven himself a disruptive player. He also has seen his fair share of double teams according to a graphic posted by ESPN’s Seth Walder earlier this week:

Barmore having one of the highest double-team rates in the league can have many reasons, but above all else it shows how much opponents respect him at this early stage in his career. And given how New England likes to use its defensive tackles — they are asked to control the point of attack rather than charge into the backfield — he seems like a perfect fit already.

4. Gunner Olszewski explains the key to a good punt return. Voted a first-team All-Pro last season, Gunner Olszewski is arguably the best punt returner in football today. Earlier this week the former rookie free agent, who is in his third season with the Patriots, spoke about the art of returning punts.

“That play is a complete instinct play. It’s one of those plays where it’s so much fun because you turn your brain off for it,” he said. “I know you’re supposed to go right or supposed to go left, but you just read blockers’ leverage. No play is like any other. That’s special teams in general. You can’t be thinking. If you think, you’re too slow. Your brain will just slow you down. Might as well get rid of it before you go out there.”

This season, Olszewski has returned 9 punts for a combined 80 yards. His average of 8.9 yards gained per runback has him ranked ninth in the league.

5. Praise for Matthew Judon. One of the biggest free agency signings in Patriots history, Matthew Judon has lived up to the expectations so far this season. The former Baltimore Ravens linebacker, who was added on a four-year, $54.5 million contract in March, has been impressive. Not only has Judon been a force against the run, he also is ranked second in the league with 6.5 sacks.

“He’s clearly the most disruptive player in their front without a doubt. His numbers speak for themselves,” said Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy ahead of today’s meeting. Some high praise, and a preview of what will be a good battle between the Judon-led Patriots front seven and an impressive Cowboys offensive line.

6. Happy 50th anniversary, 4th-and-63. In Week 6 of the 1971 season the Patriots traveled to Dallas to take on the Cowboys on the day the new Texas Stadium was opened. What followed was a 44-21 blowout loss against the eventual Super Bowl champions — a loss that featured the statistically worst sequence of plays in NFL history setting up a 4th-and-63 for the New England offense.

In the second quarter of that late-October game, Patriots rookie quarterback Jim Plunkett was sacked on back-to-back plays for a combined loss of 20 yards. He was then taken down again, with a holding penalty added on to the play losing 26 more. The third down was repeated, resulting in a loss of 7 on a Bob Gladieux run. Add it all up and you get 63 yards between the line of scrimmage and the line to gain.

New England decided to punt, but the kick traveled only 39 yards — landing 14 yards short of the original line of scrimmage. Two plays later, Dallas scored a touchdown. They headed into the locker room at halftime up 34-7.

Almost on the day 50 years later, the Patriots and Cowboys now meet again.

7. The search for the next Jakob Johnson has begun. The NFL is actively trying to make the game more attractive for a global audience, and one way of doing that is giving international players such as the Patriots’ Jakob Johnson an opportunity to enter the league. The latest such opportunity came earlier this week, with the third ever International Combine taking place in London.

The International Combine is the first step in the process towards participation in the league’s International Pathway Program that has allowed players such as Johnson to enter the NFL. While not every player participating will have the same career trajectory as the Patriots’ fullback, the International Combine and Pathway Program give teams an opportunity to find diamonds in the rough.

8. The NFL is one step closer to playing in Germany... Speaking of the game growing internationally, the league has named three cities as potential candidates to host a game in Germany: Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich. The latter city appears to be a leading candidate, with a game there possibly taking place during the annual Oktoberfest.

The city has the infrastructure and one of the largest soccer stadiums in Germany — Bayern Munich’s 70,000-seat Allianz Arena — and also is located well within an international context: Berlin, Paris, Milan, Vienna, Zurich and Prague are all within an eight-hour drive (or less than that when traveling by train).

9. ...and New England reportedly wants to be among the first teams to play there. Ex-Patriots offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer is working closely with the NFL in trying to get his native Germany to host a regular season game starting either in 2022 or 2023. He recently also told German media that multiple teams have applied to be the first to play in the country. Among them, according to Vollmer, is his former team.

As was mentioned earlier this year, the Patriots seem like a strong candidate to open the NFL International Series in Germany. Not only do they have a German on their roster, they also are among the most popular teams outside the United States. Add the fact that New England has not played in Europe since 2012 and the timing might be perfect.