Week 2 of the NFL season is upon us, and it will see the New England Patriots play the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road. Needless to say that there is a lot going on around the team and the rest of the league these days.
Let’s use this forum right here to go through some of the stories that have emerged over the last week that we did not have time to cover elsewhere: welcome to this week’s Sunday Patriots Notes.
How will the Patriots replace Ty Montgomery? Even though he appeared in the Patriots’ season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, veteran running back Ty Montgomery was sent to injured reserve this week. With him out and James White retired, the team is looking at a void on its roster: there is no clear candidate to take over as the third down/up-tempo/receiving back.
Let’s take a look at the current group of players to get an idea how the team might be trying to fill it this week and until Montgomery’s return, which will come no sooner than Week 6.
Damien Harris: Harris has been the Patriots’ primary early-down back the last three years, and a productive one at that. While he has shown an ability to catch passes out of the backfield, he will likely not fill the shoes previously worn by the likes of James White and Ty Montgomery.
Rhamondre Stevenson: Throughout the offseason, Stevenson has been praised for the strides he has taken in all aspects of playing the running back position. With Montgomery out, the Patriots might rely on him more in the passing game; maybe not as a pure third-down threat but more of a Rex Burkhead-type change-of-pace option alongside Harris.
Pierre Strong Jr.: Fourth-round rookie Pierre Strong Jr. was a healthy scratch last week and then listed on the injury reported with a shoulder injury. Nonetheless, he is the only other back currently on the team’s active roster. That means that he will likely make his debut against Pittsburgh, and possibly be featured in the receiving and kicking games right away.
J.J. Taylor: With Montgomery on IR, Taylor was seen like a realistic candidate to be elevated from the practice squad to the game-day roster. No such move was made, however, which is an indication that both Stevenson and Strong Jr. might see increased action in a third down/passing game role.
Kevin Harris: Like Taylor, sixth-round rookie Kevin Harris also remains on the practice squad unelevated. That decision did not come as a surprising one, however: Harris is more of a between-the-tackles runner who will likely only see emergency action in 2022.
While it would not be a surprise to see J.J. Taylor elevated to the game-day roster at one point, the Patriots will roll with Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and Pierre Strong Jr. as their only running backs versus the Steelers. As noted above, Stevenson and Strong Jr. are the primary candidates to replace Montgomery’s role as the receiving back.
Kendrick Bourne is making strides. After his surprisingly quiet opening day output of a mere two offensive snaps, second-year Patriot Kendrick Bourne sang an optimistic tune this week. Speaking to reporters in the Gillette Stadium locker room, he mentioned that he would be feeling better and giving the coaches what they have been looking for in him.
Whether or not that results in some added playing time on Sunday against the Steelers is up in the air, but the expectation is that he will be more involved than he was in Week 1. Given the running back situation, maybe Bourne will even get some looks as a ball carrier, something he did on occasion as well last year.
Tyquan Thornton is waiting in the wings. Rookie Tyquan Thornton remains on the injured reserve list for at least three more games, but the speedy wideout is a candidate to help the New England offense down the line. At the very least, the second-round draft choice is putting the work in behind the scenes as was pointed out by co-wide receivers coach Ross Douglas this week.
“He’s doing a great job with our strength staff and our recovery staff,” Douglas said this week. “Ever since he’s been here, he’s been bought in. He did a good job picking up the playbook, being able to play a lot of different spots and learning from the vets that we have in our room. I expect nothing less for when he comes back. He’s injured, but it’s not like he can’t get better in this time while he’s off. He has to control what he can control.”
Thornton played his way into the wide receiver rotation in training camp but a broken clavicle suffered in the second preseason game versus the Carolina Panther put his debut season on hold. Still, he has left quite the impression on the team so far.
“I’m actually really excited for him to get back,” fellow receiver Jakobi Meyers said. “I just feel like he could help us out a lot. We’ve got a lot of good players, and I feel like he just fits right in. I can’t wait till he’s back.”
New England uses a team approach for the defensive signal-caller role. For years, linebacker Dont’a Hightower was responsible for calling the on-field signals for the Patriots defense; he had the green dot on his helmet, and the listening device in it. When Hightower opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns about Covid-19, however, the job first went to fellow linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and later safety Devin McCourty.
McCourty kept the role even after Hightower’s return last year, but when New England opened its season in Week 1 he did not don that green dot. Instead, the Patriots used a team approach to calling defensive signals. First up was Bentley, who rotated with linebacker Jahlani Tavai. In the second quarter and from the late third on, it was McCourty’s turn again.
Heading into Week 2 there is no telling who the Patriots will place the responsibility on, but them using a rotation is nothing new. Back in 2018, they had Dont’a Hightower and Kyle van Noy take turns.
Will New England avoid going 0-2 for the first time in two decades? The Patriots have gone 0-1 before during their dynastic run, but an 0-2 start has not happened in a long time. The last time the team lost both of its first two games in a regular season was in 2001, the year that saw Drew Bledsoe go down with an injury in Week 2 and Tom Brady take over at quarterback.
The Patriots’ 20-year streak of not starting a year 0-2 is the longest in the NFL. Following the lackluster performance in Miami last week, however, it is in jeopardy against the Steelers on Sunday.
Confidence in the Patriots is at a low in the Mac Jones era. SB Nation’s latest Reacts survey asked New England fans to state whether or not they are feeling confident in the team at the current moment. Only 29 percent of participants answered the question with “yes”, which is the third lowest optimism score in the entire league.
The number also is the team’s lowest ever since quarterback Mac Jones was drafted in the first round last year. During Jones’ rookie season, the low-point came after a Week 3 loss to the New Orleans Saints at 62 percent. This year, however, that mark has been cracked twice: after the preseason (46%) and following the 20-7 loss to the Dolphins now.
Mac Jones’ toughness catches the eye of his teammates. Patriots QB Mac Jones was evaluated after the game in Miami because of back spasms, but he will nonetheless start the game versus the Steelers on Sunday. For long-time team captain Matthew Slater, Jones’ willingness to quickly return to the practice and playing field in light of his injury is a sign of toughness — both physical and mental.
“Certainly, Mac has displayed over the course of his young career, not only a great deal of physical toughness, but mental toughness as well,” Slater said this week. “You love to see that out of your quarterback. We feel like we have one of the toughest guys in the league. He’s going to stand in there and he’s going to compete, no matter the circumstances, no matter his physical condition.
“I think a lot of it boils down to the mental toughness he possesses. You always appreciate that from your franchise player. You always appreciate when he’s willing to stand in there and fight regardless of the circumstances.”
Jones and the Patriots offense had a rough outing in Week 1, culminating in him taking X-rays after the game. Despite the issue and later missing one practice with an illness, the sophomore passer will lead the troops into Pittsburgh.
Stephon Gilmore has no ill will towards the Patriots. The Patriots decided to trade former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore to the Carolina Panthers last offseason, after refusing to meet his contractual demands. Gilmore is now on his second team since leaving New England, the Indianapolis Colts, but there is no bad blood between him and his former team, he told Ty Dunne:
Gilmore only has the best possible things to say about Belichick today. He still talks to owner Robert Kraft, too. Plainly, Gilmore says here that the team put him through “unnecessary workouts” and he was not able to return from the injury like he wished. The reason Gilmore wasn’t around that spring was that he knew what he would’ve been getting himself into.
“It’s kind of a respect thing,” Gilmore says. “It’s a business at the end of the day but I think you should respect someone who put the work in. You shouldn’t disrespect someone who’s been there for your organization. But as far as Bill, I love Bill. I love Robert Kraft. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be the player I am now. So, I’m very appreciative. If it wasn’t for those guys, I wouldn’t be the knowledgeable corner I am now. I wouldn’t be a Super Bowl winner. I wouldn’t be the defensive player of the year. So, it was a blessing to go to that organization.”
The last thing Gilmore wants is for anyone in New England to think there’s bad blood. He insists there’s none. Zilch. He’s proud of everything he accomplished and effusively praises Belichick.
Please make sure to head over to Go Long to read the entire story about Gilmore’s journey and his thoughts on his tenure with, and departure from, Patriots.