The New England Patriots started off the 2018 season on the right foot outlasting a tough Houston Texans team 27-20 in Gillette Stadium in week one; however, their first road trip did not go as smooth as the Jacksonville Jaguars exacted their revenge after falling in the AFC Championship game in January. The Patriots struggled to move the ball on offense and the defense allowed Jacksonville to convert 10 of 14 third downs on their way to a 31-20 Jaguars victory (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted).
This week New England looks to bounce back with a meeting with former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Patricia’s Detroit Lions are 0-2 after being blown out by the Jets on Monday Night Football and then bounced by Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers last week.
This week’s Sunday Night Football match-up will be broadcast by NBC and can be seen locally on NBC 10 Boston. Al Michaels will handle play-by-play duties with Cris Collinsworth as the color analyst. Michele Tafoya will work from the sidelines.
On the radio, Sunday night’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on Westwood One. Kevin Kugler will call the with game with the always entertaining and knowledgeable Mike Mayock providing analysis. The Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
Lions head coach Matt Patricia needs a win and knows he will have his explosive offense ready to feast on a New England defense coming off a frustrating week. The Patriots forced just three punts while allowing five scoring drives with four ending in touchdowns. With starters Trey Flowers and Patrick Chung unlikely to play due to concussions, the Patriots defense needs to find a way to make stops on the road.
Find a Solution in the Secondary
The Patriots are likely without safety Patrick Chung after he did not practice this week while out with a concussion. This may require a scheme change as the Patriots traded his back-up and heir apparent Jordan Richards over the summer. New England usually has three safeties on the field with Duron Harmon deep and Devin McCourty deployed in different roles. Could newly acquired Cyrus Jones fill-in at safety?
New England may actually be better off without Chung as a more natural coverage player such as Eric Rowe or Jason McCourty may have to pick-up the slack covering the elusive Theo Reddick out of the backfield. Between Reddick and rookie Kerryon Johnson, the Lions have multiple receiving threats out of the backfield.
With a trio of solid wide receivers in emerging star Kenny Golladay, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, the Lions have multiple options in the passing game. While he allowed a touchdown last week, Stephon Gilmore has been head-and-shoulders above the other cornerbacks in coverage so far in 2018. Last week it was slot cornerback Jonathan Jones and Eric Rowe who struggled the most (Doug Kyed at NESN.com had them allowing seven catches on nine targets for 156 yards and two touchdowns last week).
Look for more Jason McCourty on the outside with Rowe inside. Cyrus Jones could eat into Jonathan Jones’ snaps as well if he struggles with Tate or Golladay in the slot. With Chung out, it was Rowe who picked-up his playing time at safety last week and where he and Jason McCourty ends up being aligned is something to watch this week.
Regardless of who plays where, the secondary has to find a way to improve on last week. The Lions saw the Jaguars crush the Patriots with crossing routes and will likely test them with those early and often.
The Lions also saw running back Corey Grant crush the Patriots in the passing game just as he did in the AFC Championship game. Look for the Lions to test the Patriots with Riddick and Johnson and see if the secondary can get locate and blanket the running backs coming out of the backfield.
Pressure on the Pass Rush
The Patriots are likely without defensive end Trey Flowers after he did not practice this week while out with a concussion. Flowers had seven pressures (per PFF) in week one and his missing much of the game with a concussion was a huge loss.
New England used Adrian Clayborn and Keionta Davis at defensive end (and Geneo Grissom–active over Derek Rivers due to Grissom’s role on special teams) and struggled to get pressure. Deatrich Wise was on the field, but was absent from the backfield as he was pushed around by the Jacksonville offensive line and failed to get near Blake Bortles.
New England had some early success blitzing Patrick Chung as well, and his being sidelined with a concussion pushes a less experienced blitzer into that role. Look for Dont’a Hightower to get more pass rushing opportunities against the Lions and Rivers to get more snaps at defensive end after being inactive in weeks one and two.
The Lions have 2016 first round draft pick Taylor Decker at left tackle and signed solid Baltimore Ravens right tackle Ricky Wagner to hold down that side. Right tackle T.J. Lang came from Green Bay and first round draft pick Frank Ragnow is at left guard. Graham Glasgow is average at best at center.
Lang missed the game last week after being injured versus the Jets in week one. Without him, Kenny Wiggins had to step in and he struggled against San Francisco. Lang returned to practice this week and is a game time decision. If Lang is out, it is a big advantage for the Patriots interior defenders.
Of course, the interior of the defensive line needs to play better for New England. Lawrence Guy was the best run defender last week, but neither he, Malcom Brown nor Danny Shelton could push the pile and prevent Bortles from stepping up in the pocket last week. The Patriots need to find an interior pass rush and this may be their best chance to have an advantage so far in 2018.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01