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.
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.