The last time that the New England Patriots failed to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl was the 2015-16 season suffering a loss to the Peyton Manning led Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. Fans who remember that game know that the undoing for the team was an injury riddled makeshift offensive line, ineffective running game which saw Tom Brady lead the team in rushing, and a key missed extra point. Is any of this starting to sound familiar Patriot nation?
Many of the issues that last saw the Patriots fail to represent the AFC in early February are starting to rear their ugly heads in 2019. To be clear, while there are concerning similarities between the two teams the result won’t necessarily be the same. There is still plenty of season left, and the Patriots historically start slow early in the year where they now find themselves undefeated through six weeks. What is giving this 2019 team 2015 flashbacks, and what areas can help them overcome these concerns? This is the week six edition of three up three down.
No, this isn’t a mistake. Time to take a breath Patriot nation. The concern is understandable; after all, the Patriots have played more games sans Brady throughout his career than they have without Adam Vinatieri or Stephen Gostkowski. Nugent has been serviceable so far for the Patriots hitting on all but one of his extra point attempts and all but one of his field goals.
Nugent explained his first kick with the Patriots, an extra point that’s missed badly, by saying,
“I just needed to loosen up a little bit and get a little bit of the rust off. (The final five kicks) felt good. And looking back on the day, I think I did a great job just learning from that one. When you’re just a little bit more relaxed and don’t try to aim the ball, just swing through it and it’s going to go.”
Nugent has only missed once since that first kick, a 40 yard field goal against the Giants that hit the left upright. On a particularly windy night, and with holder Jake Bailey failing to get the laces out, Nugent’s miss could have been more egregious than it was. Additionally what could be viewed as a vote of confidence for Nugent, practice squad kicker and emergency backup Younghoe Koo was released by the Patriots in a series of roster moves Tuesday. While misses anytime are uncharacteristic for the Patriots and the kicking position, they could have done much worse than Nugent.
Defense and Special Teams
The start to the season for these units is nothing short of historic. The Patriots are leading the league in takeaways, second in sacks, and have allowed opposing teams to find the endzone a total of three times in six weeks. In fact, the defense and special teams for New England has hit paydirt more themselves, five times, than they have allowed opponents to, three times. The defense and special teams were the more effective units early in Brady’s career, and what the team relied on in order to win the first three super bowls. Could this 2019 iteration of the team be trending in a similar direction?
When talking about historic defenses a couple of teams come to mind before others; the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and the 1985 Chicago Bears. @bostonsportsinf on twitter put together an amazing graphic comparing how this 2019 Patriots team stacks up against two of the greatest to ever grace a football field through the first six weeks of the season.
While this team has yet to face the toughest part of their schedule, facing teams that have a combined record of 10 wins and 33 losses, what the defense is doing still can’t be overlooked. Upcoming matchups with the New York Jets, turnover prone Baker Mayfield led Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Ravens should be a better litmus test for where this defense truly stands. Can the unit keep up this historic pace, or will stiffer competition knock this team off it’s record setting pace?
The New England Patriots entered week six shorthanded at the skill positions because of injuries, and it only got worse from there. Rex Burkhead and Philip Dorsett were unable to suit up against the Giants due to foot and hamstring injuries respectively. During the game the Patriots saw Josh Gordon, Matt Lacosse, and Jakob Johnson go down with injuries. By the time this game was over, Brady’s top three wide receivers were Julian Edelman and two undrafted free agents in Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski.
Surrounded by guys who primarily play special teams and undrafted rookies, with a makeshift offensive line in front of him, Brady managed to complete 31 of 41 passes for 341 yards and rushed for two touchdowns. The two turnovers are the blemish on an otherwise impressive game from the 42 year old quarterback, an interception on a deep ball where he and Edelman appeared to be on different pages, and a strip sack fumble that the Giants scooped up and returned for a touchdown when seventh round second year tight end Ryan Izzo whiffed on a block on Brady’s blindside, and failed to run the defender upfield. Brady never saw the hit coming.
Reinforcements are on the horizon for Brady and the offense however. Burkhead, Gordon, and Dorsett are all expected to be available for the week seven matchup against the New York Jets. Veteran tight end Ben Watson has returned to the team a week after the Patriots released him coming off of a four game suspension for performance enhancing drugs. First round rookie wide receiver N’Keal Harry has returned to practice making him a player the team has designated to come off of the injured reserve list. Isaiah Wynn is expected to return off of the injured reserve this season as well which will shore up the offensive line and Brady’s blindside protection. Brighter days are ahead, and Brady is already playing above average football with below average pieces around him.
If there has been one aspect of the team this season that could prove to be the Achilles heel for this Patriots team it has been the offensive line. David Andrews was placed on season ending injured reserve with blood clots in his lungs prior to the start of the season and the argument could be made that he was the best offensive lineman on the roster. Arguably the most important offensive lineman Wynn, the left tackle and Brady’s blindside protector, landed on injured reserve with a turf toe issue.
The last time this Patriots offensive line suffered so many injuries to key players was the 2015 season when the team started the most combinations of five starting offensive linemen in the history of the league. That shaky offensive line proved to be one of the many aspects leading to the eventual downfall in the AFC Championship game. Ted Karras, Andrews’ replacement at the center position, has had some issues snapping the football to Brady in the shotgun including a low snap that he was lucky to scoop up off of the turf. Marshall Newhouse was signed off of the street and has been a significant downgrade from his predecessor Wynn.
Brady has been sacked 11 times this season and seven of those have come in the previous two weeks. Offensive lines take some time to gel, but this unit seems to be trending down the more time they spend on the field together. Keeping Brady healthy and upright has to be the number one goal for this team rest of season and they need to do whatever they can to ensure that happens. This offensive line needs to improve if they Patriots want to have a shot at returning to the biggest game in football for the fourth straight season. Otherwise it could be another exit from the postseason earlier than this team expects.
Thursday Night Football Injuries
The Patriots have a mini bye week built into their schedule coming out of their week six Thursday night matchup having 11 days off before their week seven Monday night matchup with the New York Jets and it could not have come at a better time. This game saw several key contributors on both sides of the ball suffer varying degrees of injuries throwing their status for upcoming weeks into question.
Dont’a Hightower missed week four with a shoulder injury which he aggravated in his return to action. Tight end LaCosse has battled injuries all season long and added to that laundry list in week six suffering an MCL sprain which is likely to sideline him for at least a few weeks. Gordon suffered what appeared to be a potentially serious knee injury, although it was reported later by @RapSheet that it is believed to be minor and he may be available to the team for their week seven matchup. Johnson, the backup fullback that saw an increased roll when James Develin landed on injured reserve, followed suit landing on the list with a shoulder injury of his own. J.C. Jackson and Patrick Chung also suffered knee and chest injuries respectively in the victory.
Not only was this week tough for the Patriots from an injury standpoint but it’s also a hit to the NFL and their emphasis on player safety. It has been discussed many times by the players that Thursday Night Football is too quick of a turnaround coming off of a Sunday performance. The injuries suffered by the Patriots reinforce the concerns voiced by players. The NFL needs to take a long look in the mirror and reevaluate the future of Thursday Night Football, and this Patriots team needs to get healthy. The mini bye week is hitting at the perfect time for them to do so.
One of the biggest names added to the Patriots in free agency this offseason was Bennett. The veteran edge rusher came by way of a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. The pass rush of this team has been an area of concern in previous seasons, and Bennett was supposed to bolster one of the weaker positions on this team. That has been far from the case.
Playing time has been hard to come by for the veteran. Week one he played 37 snaps good for 55 percent of defensive plays. Ever since that number has fallen at a steady rate. Weeks 2-6 Bennett saw the field 25, 19, 24, 14, and 11 times respectively. It all came to a boil when news broke Tuesday of a one game suspension for Bennett after confronting his position coach about his decline in playing time.
According to @patscap, if Bennett is off of the team by the October 29th the team will save slightly over 2.3 million dollars against a restrictively tight salary cap. With the team rumored to be interested in help at the skill positions salary cap space will be at a premium. Bennett needs to get comfortable in his role with the team and be available to rush the passer in close contests, or he may find himself on another roster or the streets by the end of the month.
The bottom line is that this New England Patriots team is undefeated through the first six weeks of the season for only the third time in the Brady/Belichick era. The three previous seasons were 2004, 2007, and 2015. The Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2004, lost the Super Bowl in 2007, and arguably the three of those teams that has the most in common with this year’s iteration of the team is the 2015 team that lost the AFC Championship game to the Denver Broncos.
It may not be pretty or perfect but reinforcements are on the way. The Patriots first round pick in the 2019 draft, wide receiver N’Keal Harry, is eligible to begin practicing this week and can return as soon as week nine. Starting left tackle and 2018 first round pick Wynn will be eligible to return week 11. The Patriots need to keep their strong start to the 2019 season rolling in week seven when the division rival New York Jets, fresh off their first win of the season by way of the Dallas Cowboys, come to town.
–Adam Myers is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @AdamTMyers