The 15th week of the NFL regular season is in full swing, and the New England Patriots will take on the Las Vegas Raiders to end their two-game road trip. Going against old friend Josh McDaniels, they will try to improve to 8-6 to keep their realistic playoff hopes alive.
Obviously, all of our focus these days is on that game. To keep you up to date with some of the stories that have emerged that we did not have time to cover elsewhere, however, please enjoy this week’s Sunday Patriots Notes.
1. New England’s defense is ‘nowhere near what we’re capable of’, says Jerod Mayo. The Patriots defense has been one of the better units in the NFL through 14 weeks, ranking near the top of the league in several important categories. Most importantly, it has helped the team stay alive in the race for a playoff spot even with the offense continuing to struggle.
Despite all of that, linebackers coach and de facto co-defensive coordinator Jerod Mayo feels like the group still has considerable room for growth.
“I would say from a defensive perspective, we’re nowhere near what we’re capable of,” Mayo told reporters this week. “Every game that we play, we go back and watch the film and we say, ‘These are the plays we left out there on the field.’ As you continue to progress throughout the season, you can’t leave plays out on the field. The better the team, the more you have to go out there and execute.”
Despite its success, the Patriots defense has had its issues this year. Most prominently, it struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks earlier in the year and also had a hard time going up against elite wide receivers such as Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs.
Nonetheless, the unit led by Mayo and fellow assistant coach Steve Belichick has proven that it can keep the Patriots in almost every game. One of the reasons for that is a potent pass rush led by Matthew Judon and Josh Uche.
Mayo, however, sees the unit’s growth over the course of the year from a holistic perspective.
“Uche and Judon and Lawrence Guy and [Davon] Godchaux, all those guys are doing a great job up front,” he said. “At the second level, those guys are getting better as the year progresses. [Ja’Whaun] Bentley is probably one of the most underrated linebackers in the league. Not sure why he doesn’t get much publicity, but he’s one of the best ‘backers in the league. And then you look at our safeties, they’re probably one of the best groups in the league.
“But at the same time, with all that being said, we just need to put it all together, and that’s on us as a coaching staff, that’s on the players to go out there and execute and really have that focus on a down-after-down basis.”
2. Highlighting one area of improvement for the Patriots D. As noted above, the Patriots defense has not been flawless through its first 13 games. One area it would likely improve is defending big plays, classified as rushing attempts of 10-plus yards and pass plays of 20 or more.
At the moment, the Patriots are tied for 12th best in big plays surrendered (via Pro Football Focus’ Arjun Menon): they have given up 29 long runs and 38 long passes. While he league-wide ranking is not necessarily a bad one, it still highlights where the team can grow in order to further improve its ability to play the preferred style of defense.
Under head coach Bill Belichick, after all, the Patriots like to force offenses to methodically drive down the field and play consistent football rather than generate positive yards through chunk plays. As the total number shows, however, teams have been doing that an average of five times per game.
3. The Patriots can count on fan support on the road. While not as prominently branded as other fan bases such as Buffalo’s #BillsMafia, New England fans are no slouches either when it comes to supporting the team wherever it plays. That much was obvious against the Arizona Cardinals last week, and noticed by the players themselves as well.
“I think the fans showed up today really well,” Mac Jones said after Monday’s 27-13 win. “Patriots fans were here and were loud and it actually really helped us bring up the energy. It’s always good when our fans can have our back on a road game. It’s really good to see that.”
Linebacker Josh Uche, who earned AFC Defensive Player of the Year honors after his three-sack outing in Arizona, echoed his quarterback’s remarks.
“Pats fans always travel well,” he said. “They did a great job tonight. It felt like a home game. I had to tell guys to chill out — some of the fans to chill out. They were getting a little too excited rooting for us. The game wasn’t over yet, but the Pats nation. The best fans in the world and I can’t complain.”
With the Patriots set to play on the road again versus the Raiders on Sunday, the hope is that they will once more give their supporters in the stands something to cheer for.
4. Matthew Slater sees Brenden Schooler as one of the NFL’s best special teamers already. The Patriots are as good as any team in football when it comes to fishing contributors from the pool of undrafted free agents. The latest player to fall in that category is Brenden Schooler, who is already establishing himself as one of the better special teamers in the league — at least according to someone in the know.
“I think he’s playing as well as anyone in our league right now,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “It’s been fun to watch him grow and develop. I would say he’s getting better every week, but he was pretty good from the beginning. So, he’s done a great job. I think this team is really fortunate to have him. And, hopefully, he’s here for a long, long time.”
That is some high praise from arguably the best special teams player of his generation. And with Slater’s career a lot closer to the end than the beginning, having somebody like Schooler in the fold to potentially take over is not a bad thing either.
5. If that is it for Isaiah Wynn, his Patriots career ends in disappointingly symmetrical fashion. After he already missed the previous three games with a foot injury, New England decided to place starting right tackle Isaiah Wynn on injured reserve on Saturday. That means that he will be out for at least four games — possibly ending his season and Patriots career.
Wynn, after all, will enter unrestricted free agency in March. It will be fascinating to see what market the talented but injury-riddled former first-round draft pick will generate, but him leaving the Patriots after five seasons would not be a surprise at this point.
If so, his career with the team would end in disappointingly symmetrical fashion: Wynn started his tenure on injured reserve when he suffered an Achilles injury in preseason of his rookie year. He would now also end his tenure in New England on IR, if indeed not activated or leaving the club in a few months.
6. Mac Jones likes what the wide receiver group brings to the table. Outside of Jakobi Meyers, New England’s wide receiver position — like the entire offense in itself — has been wildly inconsistent this season. However, the man throwing the football to its members likes what he has seen from them recently.
“Really happy with those guys and the way they fight and work through, we’ve had a lot of stuff happen this last game, some injuries and stuff like that,” said Mac Jones. “They’re just working together, playing different positions that they might not normally play and just trying to help the team. Pretty cool to have that group. I definitely feel like they’re definitely improving, just got to get them the ball and let them work.”
One of the players mentioned by Jones is Kendrick Bourne. New England’s most productive receiver down the stretch in 2021, Bourne has been mostly an afterthought in the team’s new-look offense.
When given the opportunity, though, he has made his fair share of plays; last week against Arizona, Bourne caught a season-high five passes for 47 yards.
“KB is a great dude,” said Jones. “Fun, loves the game of football. With him, it’s just making sure I can get him the ball and let him run with it. He’s a great route runner, great with the ball, yards after catch and all that.”
On the year, Bourne is averaging just two catches per game — down from 3.4 a year ago. His yardage and scoring output is also drastically behind his promising 2021 campaign.
7. Matt Ryan can another spectacular collapse to his résumé. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan is no stranger to his team blowing a seemingly unsurmountable lead. Most famously, he and his former team, the Atlanta Falcons, were unable to hold onto a 28-3 lead in the late third quarter against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI: New England scored 31 unanswered to win the game in overtime.
Fast forward six seasons, to the Colts’ 39-36 overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Ryan and company were beaten despite taking a 33-0 lead into the half and still being up 22 points heading into the fourth quarter.
And yet, Indianapolis collapsed in historic fashion: the blown lead is the biggest in NFL history. And once again Matt Ryan was the quarterback to come away on the losing side of things.