With a playoff spot now clinched, the New England Patriots turn their focus to Week 18, where they will travel down South for a matchup with the Miami Dolphins. Closing the year against a Dolphin squad that had their playoff hopes shattered last week will be a strong tune up for New England, as Brian Flores’ defense is a top tier unit that likely will throw plenty of man coverages and blitzes at Mac Jones and the Patriots’ offense on Sunday.
New England could turn to Tennessee’s game plan last week against Miami, who hung the most points on their defense since Week 5 (34). The Titans had success running outside zone — attacking former Patriot linebacker Elandon Roberts — using play action, and finding ways to move the pocket to avoid the blitz. Miami blitzed Mac Jones 21 times in their Week 1 victory, so the rookie will likely be under pressure again on Sunday.
One bright spot for the Patriots’ offense on Sunday is the likely return of Nelson Agholor. The speedy wide receiver has missed the last two games with a concussion he suffered Week 15 against Indianapolis. Without Agholor, the Patriots downfield passing attack has struggled, as opponents do not respect other New England pass catchers vertically.
If Agholor, who has been limited this week at practice, is able to return, the Patriots’ passing attack should see a boost. Not only will Agholor draw top cover guys, but Miami’s defense will have to respect his speed - allowing the intermediate areas of the field to open up.
Before leaving the game against the Colts, Agholor had a few opportunities of striking on the deep ball. In the clip below, he is open down field on a post corner, but Jones has virtually no time in the pocket to even think about the throw. Even without a target, his ability to stretch the field is noticeable, and will help open up the Patriots’ passing game.
With that, let’s get into the rest of this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag.
@kyle_vondruke Why do we never run hurry-up offense anymore? I know Mac’s a rookie but that shit works and keeps the defense in a base look that is easier to dissect. You’d think we would at least try it
More tempo is something that shouldn't hurt the Patriots’ offense going forward. But, it’s clear they like to play to their strengths of running the ball. However, it’ll be interesting to see if Josh McDaniels and Co. try to change things up to keep defenses off guard once the playoffs begin.
In a press conference earlier this week, McDaniels was asked about holding certain things back within the offense. “We never wait,” McDaniels explained. “You could wait and never earn the opportunity to use it.”
Whether you believe that or not is debatable, as this is the guy who waited until the second half of the 2014 Divisional Game against Baltimore to throw out the double pass and the infamous four offensive lineman plays.
"We waited until the second half, purposefully, so that they didn't have an opportunity at halftime to talk about it." – Josh McDaniels in 2015 on the Patriots' 4-OL plays against the Ravens. https://t.co/ZISHcpv4Ub— Bernd Buchmasser (@BerndBuchmasser) January 4, 2022
Moving to some new concepts in the playoffs would be helpful to the offense, and maybe some more tempo is part of that plan.
@tyler_bowles Will Nkeal Harry’s run-blocking ability be enough to keep him on the roster?
After practice squad wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson got the call-up over N’Keal Harry last week, Harry’s future with the team was again put into question. After a strong start to training camp was derailed by injuries, Harry’s offseason trade request did not come to fruition. Instead, he has suited up in 11 games this season, catching just 12 passes for 184 yards.
Over the past few weeks without Agholor, it seemed the offense was trying to get Harry slightly more involved. He saw 11 total targets against Indianapolis and Buffalo, but hauled in just four.
Moving forward, it looks like the writing is on the wall for Harry this year, especially after Wilkerson’s impressive game against Jacksonville. Now, he will likely stay on the roster this year as his run blocking skillset is still an important factor, especially heading into the playoffs. But, I would bet these are his last few games in New England.
@Vonte_Black You think we should play starters vs Miami or rest em?
The Patriots will play their starters against Miami on Sunday. They still have the potential to win the division and the AFC’s No. 1 seed if things get really crazy. Besides that, a win would lock them into the AFC’s 5th seed. Now, maybe they have a larger hook for injured players or if the Patriots start to run away with things like last week, but the starters will be out there.
@AYEDONSZN keys to beat Buffalo in round 1?
It is a possibility the Patriots could be in for round three against the Bills in the playoffs. If so, they will need to adjust off their Week 16 loss.
As we discussed in last week’s mailbag, Buffalo did an exceptional job of sending multiple crossers across the field to out-leverage Patriots defensive backs. The Patriots stuck to their man coverages for the most part despite constantly getting burned, so perhaps the switch back to the zone coverages they used throughout their earlier winning streak would be more successful.
It’s no surprise the Patriots’ personnel is not what it once was, as they traded cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones was placed on injured reserve. And while Belichick is known for his man-to-man tendencies, their zone schemes have been the most successful this year.
Against Jacksonville, New England played zone on 58 percent of their coverage snaps, recording two out of their three interceptions in that time. On the year, the Patriots’ zone defense has resulted in 11 interceptions to just four touchdowns allowed. With their success on the year and collection of versatile defensive backs, playing zone to slow down the AFC’s high-powered offenses should be expected.
Now, offensively, the return of Agholor will be a big boost. Buffalo did not respect New England’s down the field or outside the number passing attack at all, playing inside leverage the entire game. Agholor’s return would be a critical piece, allowing their passing attack more breathing room.
@quentinlees Any update on Kyle Dugger?
Dugger has missed the entire week of practice with a hand injury. We are not sure when or how the injury occurred, but it looks likely he’ll be out on Sunday.
@meatface55 Are McCourty and Hightower in their last year with the team?
I believe McCourty has another season under his belt as he still is playing at a high level in a prominent role. Hightower on the other hand is a different story. He is clearly no longer a three-down player, but it would be tough to see him signing elsewhere to end his career. If he does not decide to hang them up, perhaps a team friendly one-year deal would be on the table. His leadership and knowledge on and off the field would certainly be worth keeping around.
@BTaz617 Who’s going to be a free agent when the season ends?
Beyond McCourty and Hightower, the Patriots have a number of additional free agents - highlighted by cornerback J.C. Jackson. Here is a snapshot of the Patriots with expiring contracts, via Spotrac.
@DarylSting After picking up a strong haul of new players this past year - what should be our priorities in the Draft and FA this next time round...?
After 16 games this season, the early returns of New England’s 2021 draft class have been phenomenal. Now looking ahead, their offensive priorities likely line up to those in year’s past.
To really help Mac Jones and the passing attack, acquiring a true No. 1 wide receiver would be game-changer. Whether that comes in the draft, via a Chris Olave or Jameson Williams, or through a big ticket free agent, such as Chris Godwin, or neither is up in the air. Besides receiver, New England will likely continue to address the linebacker position, as Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Ja’Whaun Bentley are set to be free agents. 2021 fifth-round pick Cameron McGrone is an intriguing talent with serious speed, but continuing to evolve that unit would be no surprise.
Elsewhere, offensive tackle and cornerback could be positions of needs as both Trent Brown and J.C. Jackson are set to be free agents.
@BenBrownPL Who are your picks for the HOF this year?
Richard Seymour. Let’s end this nonsense already.
Besides Seymour, I would certainly give votes to wide receiver Andre Johnson and pass rusher DeMarcus Ware. I also believe receivers Steve Smith and Torry Holt, as well as linebacker Zach Thomas have strong chances of being elected in.
The only other player I'd bang on the drum for besides Seymour is Devin Hester. This is not just part of my Matthew Slater Hall of Famer propaganda, but it’s time to respect special team only players. Nobody played the returner position like Devin Hester, as his ability to change a game with one play was unmatched - just ask Tony Dungy. He’s the greatest punt returner of all-time, so why shouldn't he be a lock for the Hall of Fame?
@inconspicuousdk On a scale of one to ten with 1 being the last game, how toxic will the bills fanbase be if we do play them in the wildcard round?
They won't be toxic unless they win the game. Deep down inside, they know they are terrified.
@AJPtz1 What’s more contagious: Omicron or my love for Mac Jones and the Pats??
Love for Mac Jones, obviously. I mean he was fired up when he got a flashlight for Christmas. How do you not love him?
@PatsFanKev When is Mike Onwenu going catch his first touchdown pass?
The Divisional Round — book it. McDaniels will have no choice but to not hold it back. It also may be the best touchdown in the history of the franchise.
That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag, hope everyone has a safe and happy New Years! If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!