In New England, 'Next Man Up' Isn't Enough
The Patriots are thriving despite significant losses thanks to Bill Belichick's masterful coaching. But at some point in January, all the losses will catch up to them. Plus, more thoughts headed into Week 7
Before the season, we already knew the Patriots were going to have some struggles offensively, thanks to a nearly complete reboot of their pass catchers after not resigning Wes Welker, and Aaron Hernandez’s arrest.
What if someone told you, at that time, that Welker would be leading the NFL with eight receiving touchdowns, which is four times more than the number games his Patriots replacement, Danny Amendola, has finished (zero touchdowns)? Or that tight end Rob Gronkowski didn’t return until Week 7?
Or that defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, the heartbeat of the defense, would be lost for the season after Week 4 with a torn Achilles’ tendon, and the only other veteran defensive tackle, Tommy Kelly, would be missing games as well? Plus, linebacker Jerod Mayo, the brain of the unit, would suffer the same fate as Wilfork two weeks later with a torn pectoral muscle? Oh, and that cornerback Aqib Talib, the MVP of the team through Week 6, pulled up with another injury—a constant problem for him in his career—and could be in and out of the lineup for the rest of the season?
You’d probably wager on the Patriots not making the playoffs for only the second time in the past 11 years. Makes a lot of sense.
But like I said before the season, you’d be foolish to count the Patriots out. Even now.
But I’m not here to reemphasize the Patriots’ remarkable resiliency, mostly because Bill Belichick is the best coach in the game (it’s tough for most to admit, but it’s true).
The Patriots will make the playoffs, but they’ll suffer the same fate they have since 2004—they’ll be good, but not good enough eventually because of those injuries, which is what I suspected might happen before the season. They relied on too many players with troubling injury histories.
You can only beat so many teams without blue-chip players like Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. At some point the Pats are going to run into a team that just has better (healthy) players than they do.
How will the Patriots survive in the short term? At defensive tackle, they’re going to need to continue to get the high level of play they've received from backups Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. Most of the time you don’t notice the work they’ve done, but those interior positions are lunch bucket spots. The Patriots want their tackles to hold their gap, and shed blockers. Anything else is gravy. Both have done that surprisingly well.
Replacing Mayo at weakside linebacker will be more of an issue. He made many of the checks and calls, but his greatest asset was consistency. Mayo never left the field as the Patriots’ only good three-down linebacker—and the past two seasons he was improving with every game. Dont’a Hightower is a solid player, but not much more—and most teams would be looking to get him off the field in passing situations. Brandon Spikes, even as slow of foot as he is, is actually a very good zone linebacker. Just don’t ask him to cover anyone in space. Jamie Collins, the team’s top pick in 2013, is a raw and athletic prospect who might be ready later in the season.
I expect the Patriots to deal with Mayo’s absence by committee and gameplan, and with an increased role for veteran Dane Fletcher. Fletcher is smart, tough, athletic and fast, but he’s undersized at 6-2 and 244 pounds. That has relegated him almost exclusively to middle linebacker, where Spikes starts and often gives way in subpackages to Hightower, the starting strongside linebacker who is backed up by Collins. But I don’t see any reason, given the situation, why Fletcher can’t make the switch to the weakside. He has the athletic ability to play that role. Given his injury history, that might only be a band aid, however.
The other option, as far as base defense, is to move the versatile Hightower to weak and insert Collins at strong. But the rookie might not be ready for that. In subpackages, I expect the Patriots to rotate in most of the players and then settle into their preferred grouping for the fourth quarter.
Talib’s absence certainly hurts, but the Patriots have been dealing with a problematic secondary for years, and no one is better doing more with less. Plus, Alfonso Dennard has quietly been playing at a high level. His lack of size makes his margin of error smaller, but his play has been unfairly overlooked.
The Patriots’ ability to manage absences will certainly get them into the playoffs. If Gronkowski, Amendola, and running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen (designated to return) return to health at some point, their offense will rebound late in the season to cover up the issues on defense and likely deliver another AFC East title over the Dolphins.
But at some point, the losses are going to add up. The biggest postseason games often come down to which team gets top performances from their elite players. The Patriots had been on the losing side of that equation for more than a few years. It looked like they had a chance at the right formula this season, if things went right on the injury front. They haven’t, and you can only beat so many teams without blue-chip players like Wilfork and Mayo. At some point they’re going to run into a team that just has better (healthy) players than they do.
In the history of first career starts taking over a skidding team, there have been better situations than the one Houston’s Case Keenum will find himself in on Sunday: at Arrowhead Stadium, against the best defense in the league. But don’t be surprised if the second-year quarterback more than has the Texans hanging around for a while. I sang Keenum’s praises after watching his play in the preseason, and I’m excited to see what he can do. I think you’ll like what you see. Keenum has a strong arm and more athletic ability than Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates combined, which could jumpstart the Texans’ offense. But the Chiefs’ defense is about as good as it gets right now in all facets.
... And 10
1. Coordinator John Pagano and the Chargers defense had one of the performances of the season on Monday night against Andrew Luck and the Colts. There were several drops by Indianapolis players, but that shouldn’t cover up the fact that Luck did not play well, and that was mostly because the Chargers spun the dial defensively. They constantly changed coverages and pressure packages. Luck never had a clean picture of what San Diego was doing, and that caused him to leave plays on the field. Not a good sign going into the showdown with the Broncos, but Jack Del Rio’s defense is not nearly as sophisticated. The man who keyed it all was Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, who doesn’t get nearly as much attention as he should. I don’t know if there’s a safety, with Ed Reed in the twilight, who combines smarts and physical play quite as well. He was terrific against the Colts.
2. Speaking of the Chargers, my vote for one of the early plays of the year was the 22-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter from Philip Rivers to rookie Keenan Allen. Sure, the play was butchered by third-string safety Delano Howell (26), but what was amazing was that when Rivers released the ball (picture 2), Allen had another 15 yards to run with two defenders around him. It was a sensational play by both Rivers and Allen, and showed the immense confidence Rivers has in the third-round pick.
3. Impressive starts for the rookie receiver group this season. A.J. Green (65), Mike Williams (65), Justin Blackmon (64) and Kendall Wright (64) have set the bar in recent years for rookie receivers. Considering the improvement most first-year pass catchers show over the course of the season, Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins (25 catches), St. Louis’ Tavon Austin (24), Allen (23) and Kenbrell Thompkins (21) could all match or exceed those numbers.
4. Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis, the $96 million man, has to be the most bored NFL player. He played about two snaps of man coverage against the Eagles, continuing a season-long theme. It’d be fine if it was effective, but rookie Nick Foles completely ate up the Bucs’ predictable coverage looks. There are two reasons the Bucs wouldn’t just be using Revis in his normal man coverage role to benefit the rest of the unit: either coach Greg Schiano and coordinator Bill Sheridan are just that stubborn about running their system (then why spend all that money?), or the Bucs don’t feel that Revis, after ACL surgery, is ready for the stress of running man-to-man all game. Either is plausible.
5. That being said, Sheridan has to do better than this response to fan criticism over his handling of Revis: “Well, what I want to invite them to do is to join us. I get here about 5:20 every single morning and they’re more than welcome to hang around until about 11 for the first four nights of the week. And they can help us put the whole game plan together. We’ve got all the free Cokes you could want in the building and we’ll be happy to take their suggestions on how they can better use Darrelle. Trust me when I tell you we painstakingly game plan how best to use all of our personnel, not just Darrelle. But I appreciate the chirping.’’
6. A bigger problem for the job security of Schiano and Sheridan would be if some of the defensive players started to give questionable effort. It seems they are. NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell first brought up this possibility—without naming names—on his FantasyGuru.com podcast. After reviewing the tape, Cosell may be on to something, although it doesn’t appear to be widespread—yet. On the Eagles’ final drive of the game, linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster showed little interest getting off blocks or pursuing plays away from him. On his final play with 4:29 left, Foster gave his best effort on the drive and appeared to get fallen on. He left with a right leg injury and didn’t return. He didn’t appear on the injury report this week. If this is really happening, it’s a bad sign for Schiano. And it’s a shame for a player like David, who has played very well for the most part this season.
7. Also not a good look: Patriots team doctor Thomas Gill confronting WEEI.com reporter Mike Petraglia in the locker room over his Rob Gronkowski surgery article following the win over the Saints. Gill is certainly within his right to take issue if he thought something was incorrect or unfair, but if you’re not going to do it for the record, what's the point of making in a scene in the locker room after one of the most thrilling Patriots’ regular-season victories in recent memory?
8. Looking forward to seeing how the Packers deal with not having injured receivers James Jones and Randall Cobb against the Browns. That could end up being one of the more entertaining games of the weekend, as long as Brandon Weeden can resist the urge to throw backhanded or lefthanded. The Browns' defense is really playing well, and now gets Jabaal Sheard back—their most consistent pass rusher.
9. The Titans made the right call in replacing center Rob Turner with rookie Brian Schwenke. I'll be watching rookie right guard Chance Warmack after this switch. This could make the 10th overall pick’s struggles—he’s been almost nearly as poor as Turner—stand out even more.
10. I would be surprised if Michael Vick got his job back as Eagles starting quarterback when he returns from a hamstring injury. Nick Foles showed enough good traits against the Bucs to hang onto the job for a while longer. Being a leader seems to come naturally, and he sees the game from the pocket well, easily going through his progressions to find the right receiver most of the time. Eagles coach Chip Kelly may be going through the same thought process his predecessor, Andy Reid, did in 2010 when he chose Kevin Kolb over Vick at the start of that season. There’s value in knowing exactly what you’re going to get out of the quarterback position, especially in the passing game. The Eagles have that in Foles. Vick’s career has been marred by inconsistency and that continues.