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 a tough task slowing down a motivated Tom Brady and a New England offense coming off a frustrating week. Still missing Julian Edelman for another two weeks due to his suspension, the Patriots will have to find a way to make plays against a defense whose leader knows their tendencies having been with the organization from 2004 to 2017.
Unleash the Beast(s)
The Patriots made news with the trade for Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon. Gordon is an amazingly talented game-changer on the outside who has speed, strength, power and athleticism. He has everything any team would want at wide receiver except for the ability to prevent himself from violating the NFL substance abuse policy.
Gordon is just 27 years old and incredibly has played just 11 games in the last five seasons. That said, that means less wear-and-tear but a lot of rust to work off. At six-foot-three and 225 pounds, he is a size mismatch on the outside who can exploit opposing defenses–if he can get on the field and if he can learn the offense and if he can stay out of trouble.
If New England activates Gordon for the game, he will likely play in limited formations with limited routes to run. That said, he can still make an impact in a short time if he is engaged and if he put in the work necessary this week. With Gordon and tight end Rob Gronkowski (another physical freak), the Patriots suddenly have two offensive weapons who make it near impossible to cover with single coverage (again, provided Gordon plays and is engaged).
Gronkowski was invisible against Jacksonville after a strong showing in week one. Gronkowski needs more than 12 targets through two weeks as he should be targeted eight or nine times a week regardless of the coverage rolled his way. The offensive game plan was not creative in getting him involved in week two.
Look for a lot more Gronkowski against Detroit trying to take advantage of him with former Patriots safety Tavon Wilson and linebacker Marquis Flowers in coverage. Neither has the size or skill to stay with the big tight end and he has had plenty of practice time over the years against the duo.
Run on the Road
When on the road, running the ball becomes paramount to success. The Patriots tried to run the ball against Jacksonville last week with five rushing attempts on their first ten plays of the game. Unfortunately, they scored no points and were behind 14-0. After that the running game was phased out of the game plan.
The pressure to run the ball well falls not just on the running backs, but on the offensive line. This week they will see a pair of veterans in former Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois and former Bronco Sylvester Williams in the interior. On the outside, Ziggy Ansah is the pass rush star and Kerry Hyder and rookie Da’Shawn Hand man the left end.
New England’s offensive line should be able to win individual match-ups with Ansah having missed last week with a shoulder injury and less than 100 percent healthy this week. Jarrad Davis is the linebacker to watch with his excellent blitzing ability in his second year. Look for New England to force him to account for running backs in coverage to keep him out of the backfield.
The other option is running right at him to slow his aggressive push forward. Between Davis and Devon Kennard, the pair of linebackers do not come off the field often. They are both strong pass rushers and tacklers but are vulnerable in space–particularly in coverage of tight ends and running backs. Their weakness has been with teams running right at them.
The Lions have allowed 359 yards rushing in two games in 2018–easily the worst in the NFL. New England has to be able to line-up and pound Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead into the heart of the Lions defense to slow the pass rush and make space for Gronkowski and the wide receivers in the middle of the field.
Any Chance of Separation?
Speaking of the wide receivers, even with or without Josh Gordon the Patriots need to see more out of their trio of wide receivers. They can help Brady by getting separation in coverage (if facing man-to-man) and recognize the soft-spots when going against the zone defense that Detroit defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni will mix in.
Whether cornerback Darius Slay plays this week after leaving the game last week due to a concussion will be a big part of the game plan for the Patriots. Slay is one of the more underrated cornerbacks whose time on National television is often watched through a tryptophan haze as the nation digests their turkey dinner in front of the television on Thanksgiving.
Other than Slay, the cupboard is bare with Detroit’s cornerbacks. Cornerback Nevin Lawson is not a starting cornerback but has been pressed into the role. Teez Tabor and Jamal Agnew are not household names–for good reason. Agnew was an All-Pro–as a returner. He has struggled when playing cornerback. Tabor–a second round draft pick last year–has struggled enough the Lions brought in retreads David Amerson and Demetri Goodson.
Detroit brought back DeShawn Shead this week after cutting him heading into the season. Expected to be the starter opposite Slay, the former Seahawks cornerback was unsigned heading into week three and found his way back to Detroit.
Safety Quandre Diggs is likely the best cornerback with Slay injured. Diggs slides into the slot on passing downs and Tavon Wilson comes on to cover tight ends and running backs.
Chris Hogan has only four receptions through two games but two touchdowns. Phillip Dorsett has been working out of the slot and leads the team in receptions with 12. Both receivers need to take advantage when matched-up with anyone other than Slay and get open and hold onto the ball.
Cordarrelle Patterson has continued to be an enigma in his latest stop. After flashing in the preseason, he has been quiet through two weeks with just four catches for 24 yards. New England needs to find a way to get the ball in his hands in space so he can take advantage of smaller and slower defenders trying to bring him down.
With tight end Jacob Hollister out with a chest injury his momentum is slowed after a strong game against Jacksonville. That just puts more pressure on Hogan, Dorsett and Patterson to make plays downfield against the Lions.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01