The New England Patriots were last spotted getting manhandled by the Tennessee Titans 34-10 prior to their bye week. The Patriots trailed 17-3 after one quarter, 24-10 at halftime, and then were outscored the Packers 10-0 in the second half for their third loss of season by 10 or more points. For New England, after a 1-2 start including losses to Jacksonville and Detroit, the Patriots had won six straight games before their letdown the week before the bye.
Looking back at Tennessee, New England was due for a letdown. However, it was again a motivated home team matching the Patriots’ aggressiveness and not backing down. Credit Mike Vrabel and the Titans for coming up with a solid plan on both sides of the ball and getting their players up to play in what was a huge game to them and their head coach.
Predictably, like the Jaguars and Lions before them, Tennessee showed why they are not a legitimate playoff team by building off all that momentum by going into Indianapolis and getting spanked 38-10.
Jacksonville followed up their “AFC Championship Game Rematch” by losing seven of their next eight games after beating the Patriots. Former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia followed up his win over the Patriots by losing to Dallas the next week and their weak performance on Thanksgiving versus Chase Daniel and the Bears to fall to 4-7.
There was much concern with the traditional media, on social media, and the talking heads on radio and television with the Patriots losing. New England was battered on the offensive line and that showed up with Tennessee disrupting Tom Brady all game long. With no Shaq Mason (who has been having an All-Pro season at right guard) and Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon and primary blocking tight end Dwayne Allen all dealing with injuries, it was ugly up front.
On defense, the Patriots failed to generate any turnovers and the pass rush was non-existent. After overpowering Green Bay’s offensive line, the Titans had a strong performance up front. Stephon Gilmore–who had been a top five cornerback all season–had his worst performance since early 2017 as Corey Davis lit him up. Patrick Chung also had a poor performance trying to cover Jonnu Smith.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in greater Boston and on WPRI Channel 12 in the greater Providence area. Ian Eagle will handle play-by-play duties with Patriots Nation once again subjected to Hall of Fame quarterback (but well past his prime television announcer) Dan Fouts as the color analyst. Evan Washburn will work from the sidelines.
Sunday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on ESPN Radio. Up-and-coming midwestern broadcaster Adam Amin will call the game with former University of Oklahoma and Chicago Bears nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek providing analysis (no East Coast bias here).
Locally, the New England 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 and talk radio star Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The loss to Tennessee broke a six game winning streak and was the second game this season where New England failed to score more than 10 points (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). The Patriots’ offense that was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three is still seventh in the NFL with 280 points scored in ten games (28.0 points per game).
Coming out of week three ranked 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs, the Patriots were in the top ten but have dropped to 14th in the league converting just 39.7% of third downs for the season. The Red Zone scoring percentage of 65.7 (23 of 35 drives) is good for tenth in the NFL.
Coming off a bye week is often a good omen for the Patriots. They are an NFL best 22-4 (84.6% winning percentage) including playoff bye weeks since 2003 in their first game after a bye (per TeamRankings.com). They have the young New York Jets in their crosshairs after a long, grueling first half of the season.
How do the Patriots plan to get back their offensive momentum against the young and aggressive defense of the New York Jets?
INVITE EVERYONE TO THE PARTY:
Tom Brady misses Rob Gronkowski. Get that fact out the way. Gronkowski missed three of the last four games and his absence has hurt the offense. Even with a less-than-100% Gronkowski on the field, his presence has helped draw coverages away from the his fellow receivers.
Gronkowski should be back on the field (although blocking tight end Dwayne Allen is out) and with the bye week behind them the offense should be at close to full strength. Having a healthy offensive line is an underrated key for the offense and getting Shaq Mason back would be huge. Just having Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon off the injury report this week is a huge win for the offense.
With all his toys back, Brady has to use them. Against Tennessee, Brady targeted Julian Edelman, James White and Josh Gordon 32 times. He targeted Phillip Dorsett, Jacob Hollister, Dwayne Allen, Chris Hogan, James Develin, Sony Michel and Cordarrelle Patterson a total of six times. That kind of discrepancy does not work in the Josh McDaniels offense.
Dorsett has played better in 2018 and should be taking snaps from Hogan. Patterson needs a few plays run for him each week because of his open-field running ability. Hollister is a potential weapon who needs to be added to the offense down the stretch opposite Gronkowski. With the big tight end back, he should get a few of the targets which were forced to Edelman and Gordon in heavy coverage against Tennessee.
When Brady is at his best, he is getting the ball out of his hands quickly and distributing the ball to whoever is open. Rather than locking in on his most trusted targets, Brady needs to get back to the theory of “whoever is open is my favorite receiver” and put his trust in the system.
That is only part of the offensive game plan–the Patriots also must get back to the running game:
PLAY-ACTION IS YOUR FRIEND:
Against Tennessee, the Patriots managed just 40 yards rushing on 19 carries. New England has topped 90 yards rushing six times in 2018 and are 6-0. They are 1-3 when held under 90 yards on the ground (Buffalo was the only win rushing for less than 90 yards).
With a quarterback who is 41 years old, the Patriots need to help him out by using a strong running game to set-up play-action and take the pass rush pressure off his shoulders. Yes, Tom Brady can probably still keep up with any offense even at his advanced age like he did in the Super Bowl last year, but why make him do that?
Look at New Orleans this season: second in rushing attempts, sixth in rushing yards, and first in rushing touchdowns despite being just 18th in yards per attempt. The Saint rushed for just 105 yards combined in weeks one and two (their only loss of the season to Tampa Bay and a game they should have lost to the Browns).
Since week three the Saints have rushed for less than 100 yards just once (98 yards rushing versus Washington) and in the past four weeks (scoring 45, 51, 48 and 31 points) they rushed for 141, 244, 173 and 150 yards. The running game is a huge part of the passing offense being so efficient with Brees 39 years of age. Brees is an MVP candidate with less pressure as he has completed 76.4% of his passes with 29 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
When New England can run the ball, Brady is his same efficient self. Getting rookie Sony Michel back to full strength keeps New England from having to use wide receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson as the primary running back. New England also may get Rex Burkhead back later this season which would be a huge boost to the running game (particularly at the goal line).
Look for Michel to get back to his usual role as top back this week with the goal to have him run the ball 15-20 times. That also allows New England to use James White less as a runner and more in his traditional role as one of the most dangerous pass receiving backs in the NFL.
If the offensive line and fullback James Develin can open holes for the backs, the offense should be back on track.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01