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Sunday Patriots Notes: Finding the keys to Ja’Whaun Bentley’s success this season

Related: With eyes on Patriots’ single-season sack record, Matthew Judon knows ‘I can’t abandon my duties’

Indianapolis Colts v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

The 16th week of the NFL regular season is underway, and the New England Patriots will take on the Miami Dolphins in a must-win game. If they cannot defeat their division rivals, they will officially be eliminated from playoff contention.

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.

Finding the keys to Ja’Whaun Bentley’s success this season: With Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy having left the Patriots’ linebacker room this offseason, the leadership role went to Ja’Whaun Bentley. The fifth-year man is now the longest-tenured player at his position group, and has proven himself capable of filling a prominent role.

Earlier this week, New England head coach Bill Belichick spoke about Bentley’s success this season and what has contributed to his growth.

“It’s been great,” Belichick said. “So glad that we were able to re-sign him in the offseason when he was a free agent. He’s been great on and off the field. Leadership on the field. Communication, very good communicator which is important in the role that he plays. Middle linebacker and free safety, and quarterback, center, like those are all — personal protector on the punt team, they’re all high-level communication positions and he does a great job of that.

“Very unselfish player. Does what’s best for the defense, what’s best for the team, not what’s best for him. So, that makes it a lot easier to somebody who always thinks what’s the best thing for the defense to be in, not what’s easiest for me. Devin’s [McCourty] the same way. Like sometimes those guys take on the hardest jobs. But that’s what’s best in that situation, then that’s what they do. So yeah, appreciate that. Works hard in the offseason. He was one of the first guys in every morning back in February, March, coming in to work out on his own. It’s been impressive. He’s really developing into a great career.”

Bentley originally arrived in New England as a fifth-round selection in the 2018 draft and served primarily as a role player early on. However, he took a sizable step forward in 2021 — setting himself up well for his first ever trip to unrestricted free agency.

The Patriots were able to bring him back on a two-year, $6 million contract and the investment has paid off so far. Bentley is playing the best football of his career, and he has successfully filled the hole left by Hightower’s and Van Noy’s departures.

What would the alternatives to Bill O’Brien look like? Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator position will be in the spotlight over the coming weeks and months. Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, who collaboratively led the unit this year, are no safe bets to return in the same capacities given that the unit has taken a step back in 2022.

If they are replaced, and a traditional coordinator brought aboard, Bill O’Brien is seen as the most realistic option. While he mentioned this week that he has not had contact with anybody in New England since the spring, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots pursue him after his contract at the University of Alabama expires.

There is no guarantee O’Brien will return to his former stomping grounds, though. Accordingly, the Patriots might also have to exploit some alternatives such as the following:

Chad O’Shea: O’Shea is currently working as wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator in Cleveland, but the outlook of him taking over an entire offense might be appealing. The 50-year-old already worked in New England from 2009 to 2018, and saw some play-calling opportunities in preseason.

Adam Gase: His head coaching tenures in Miami and New York were a disappointment, but Gase does have considerable experience as an offensive coordinator and working in a Patriots-like scheme: he served as wide receivers coach under then-Denver head coach McDaniels in 2009 and 2010.

Nick Caley: New England’s current tight ends coach was seen as a potential replacement for the departed Josh McDaniels last offseason, and barred from leaving the team. Maybe he will get his shot in 2023? For that to happen, though, the Patriots would have to sign him to a new contract.

Matt Patricia/Joe Judge: The experiment has not worked out so far, but there is a non-zero percent chance that Patricia and Judge will be given another shot. The hope in that scenario is that they would be able to show some improvement in Year 2 leading the offense.

Quantifying the difference between Matt Patricia/Joe Judge and Josh McDaniels: Speaking of offensive coordinators, Pro Football Focus’ Timo Riske posted a tweet this week comparing offensive success in 2021 and 2022. The Patriots, as can be seen, took a sizable step back in Year 1 after McDaniels:

Timo Riske

As was pointed out by Pats Pulpit’s own Rich Hill, the difference between McDaniels and Matt Patricia/Joe Judge is worth about 0.1 points per play, or about two points every three drives.

Other factors are of course in play as well — no two teams are truly alike — but the difference for New England is still concerning.

Jonathan Jones explains the difference between left-handed and right-handed quarterbacks: The Patriots will not go up against Dolphins starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa on Sunday; the third-year man is out with a concussion. In his place Teddy Bridgewater will take over, and while there are some similarities to their game one difference is easily spotted.

Whereas Tagovailoa is left-handed, Bridgewater is throwing the ball with his right. Does it make a difference, though? According to Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones, a bit.

“A lot of the tendencies change,” he said this week. “You have a left-handed quarterback, a lot more plays go to his throwing strength. You understand there’s going to be more plays to the opposite side. But as far as scheme, I would say they’re running the same plays just flipping them to the other side.”

Mac Jones gets fined twice for his actions in the Bengals game: One of the storylines emerging form the Patriots’ loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Christmas Eve was Mac Jones being accused of dirty play. The sophomore quarterback threw a low block on a fumble return that was eventually called back, and was later criticized for the play.

While he was not penalized in-game, the NFL has since fined Jones for the play: he has to pay $13,367 for unnecessary roughness.

That was not the only fine coming out of that game, though. The league also docked him $10,609 for pulling a player from a pile later in the game. That action was indeed flagged, resulting in a 15-yard penalty.

Matthew Slater disputes the notion of Mac Jones being a dirty player: Jones’ block against Bengals cornerback Eli Apple was in the headlines throughout the week, as was the question whether or not he is a dirty player. One of the NFL’s most respected voices came to his defense this week, though.

“I don’t see it as such in terms of him being a dirty player,” said fellow Patriots captain Matthew Slater. “That’s not the person I know. It’s not the young man that I’ve gotten a chance to spend time around the last couple of years. I understand that narratives are made up out of different people’s opinions, different people’s experiences with a person or an organization, whatever it may be. You can’t control those narratives. People are going to interpret events the way that they interpret them.

“I think we can’t concern ourselves too much with that because whatever we say is not going to change what people think or say about any particular player on this team. That’s our quarterback. I have a lot of respect for him. I support him. I think he tries to play the game the right way, but that’s just one man’s opinion.”

Slater has seen his fair share of narratives surrounding the Patriots since his arrival in 2008. He therefore also has experience dealing with them — something he is trying to pass on to his young teammate.

“I would encourage Mac to be confident in who he is,” Slater said. “At the end of the day you’re the person that has to live with yourself, look yourself in the eye in the mirror, and go about life in a way that hopefully represents you and your family to the best way.”

Matthew Slater is staying in the moment ahead of what might be his final home game: As far as Slater himself is concerned, the contest against Miami might be a big one for him: at age 37 and with him not under contract beyond the 2022 season, there is a chance this could be his final home game at Gillette Stadium.

Slater himself, however, is not looking too far into the future.

“I’m just trying to stay in the moment,” he said. “Only the good Lord knows what’s in store for me beyond this very hour, so for me, it’s just to try to stay in the moment, enjoy the opportunity that I have. I know my opportunities are fleeting as an advanced-aged football player, but I’m thankful to be a part of this team. I’m thankful for another opportunity to come out and play at Gillette Stadium.

“I’m going to try to make the most of it. Whatever happens after that, we’ll see. But I’m excited and thankful for this opportunity.”

Bill Belichick is a fan of Conor McDermott: New England’s right offensive tackle position has undergone quite the change from last year. 2021’s starter, Trent Brown, has been moved to the left side, with Isaiah Wynn initially filling in. Wynn is now on injured reserve, as is his former backup Marcus Cannon.

Yodny Cajuste, who entered the season as the primary OT3 on the team, did see some action but he himself spent time on IR. That led New England to poach Conor McDermott from the New York Jets’ practice squad in November.

Since then, McDermott has started four games and managed to leave quite the impression on his head coach.

“Thank God we have him,” Bill Belichick said. “He’s done a good job. He’s been dependable and tough. He’s been out there, been durable.”

McDermott entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2017, but was released during roster cutdowns that season. He was a candidate to be brought back via the practice squad, but the Jets ended up claiming him on waivers.

His career has since come full-circle, and McDermott has played some solid football for the team that originally picked him up out of UCLA.

“He played quite a bit in training camp. Then ended up losing him on a waiver claim,” Belichick recalled. “So, it’s good to have him back. He’s done a good job for us, and I’m glad we have him. Glad we have him.”