The New England Patriots won their home opener against the Miami Dolphins 21 to 11 in week one but fell on the road 35 to 30 against the Seattle Seahawks. After a lethargic game one by both sides, the Patriots’ week two loss to Seattle lit up the airwaves on Sunday Night Football as New England’s comeback and dramatic final drive fell just short at the goal line.
The questions about Cam Newton as a viable passing quarterback were quieted as Newton completed 30 of 44 passes for 397 yards. Julian Edelman made a number of big catches downfield hauling in eight passes for 179 yards while N’Keal Harry (eight receptions for 72 yards) and Damiere Byrd (six receptions for 72 yards) added to the downfield attack (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
Surprisingly, it was the New England defense which faltered on Sunday night. After Devin McCourty returned a Russell Wilson pass 43 yards for a touchdown, it was all big plays from the Seahawks as Wilson threw five touchdown passes against last year’s number one ranked passing defense.
Things get no easier as the AFC West leading Las Vegas Raiders and head coach Jon Gruden arrive in Foxborough, MA (so many things in that sentence would have seemed wrong just five years ago). The Raiders bring a big offensive attack having put up 34 points on both the Carolina Panthers (admittedly, a weak defense) and New Orleans Saints (well, that is impressive because that is a pretty strong defense).
Quarterback Derek Carr is at the top of his game and last year’s first round draft pick running back Josh Jacobs has been running just as hard as he did during his 1,150 yards rushing rookie year. The break-out star is tight end Darren Waller. Waller languished in Baltimore for three seasons behind a deep tight end group, after a quiet 2018 he broke out last year with 90 receptions and 1,145 yards.
This season Waller looks likely to top those numbers with 18 receptions for 150 yards through two games. Speedy young receivers first round draft pick Henry Ruggs III, 2019 fifth round draft pick Hunter Renfrow and rookie third round draft pick Bryan Edwards are supplemented by veteran slot presence Nelson Agholor and Buffalo cast-off Zay Jones in the passing game.
The Raiders have struggled on defense in 2020 through two games, but their offense has picked up the slack. Two years ago, the defense was 32nd in the NFL. Last year was a slight improvement. This season, Las Vegas expects more from a unit full of youth and athleticism mixed with young veterans.
Last season’s other first round draft pick, safety Johnathan Abram is a budding superstar. The first of three first round picks last year, Clelin Ferrell is slowly progressing as an edge rusher. Last year’s fourth round pick Maxx Crosby appears to be the bookend to Ferrell for the future.
The Las Vegas secondary features young cornerbacks first round draft pick Damon Arnette and 2019 second round draft pick Trayvon Mullen. Both have shown athleticism and savvy and the Raiders are ecstatic about how both are coming along in their development and look like solid future pieces. Veterans such as versatile safety/slot cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, free agent Jeff Heath and Erik Harris make for a secondary that is slowly coming together after a disastrous 2018 and 2019.
As the Raiders have historically been since their inception, they welcome cast-offs from all over to get a fresh start. Raekwon McMillan (Miami), Maliek Collins (Dallas), Jonathan Hankins (New York Giants) and Carl Nassib (Cleveland) are all pieces of the defense after never living up to their potential in their original homes.
Linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski (Chicago) and Cory Littleton (Los Angeles Rams) were this season’s splurges in free agency to add both toughness and athleticism to a linebacking group in desperate need of both. Kwiatkoski has been injured and is out Sunday, meaning a bigger role for McMillon or special teams ace Kyle Wilber.
This week’s game will be broadcast at 1:00 p.m. by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and WPRI-12 in the great Providence area. CBS again sends their top crew to Foxborough, MA as Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will roam the empty stands at Gillette Stadium as the sideline reporter.
On radio, the game will be broadcast as always on 98.5 The Sports Hub.The flagship station for the Patriots Radio Network, it will also be found on the network’s 38 stations that carry each and every Patriots game live across New England and even into the Rochester region in upstate New York. Play-by-play broadcaster Bob Socci is back to call the action along with the ever-entertaining and always excited former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense and defense that will determine if the Patriots are able to emerge victorious on Sunday afternoon.
Patriots Offensive Strategy and Key Matchups:
Patriots’ WRs vs Raiders’ CBs:
Damon Arnette is going to be a top-flite cornerback. He has size, speed, maturity and excelled at Ohio State. Ditto for Trayvon Mullen who is long and slippery like his cousin Lamar Jackson. Both need experience and they should be wearing bulls-eyes when quarterback Cam Newton is in the pocket.
Las Vegas has deployed former Rams safety LeMarcus Joyner at slot cornerback. The Rams did not trust Joyner to cover Edelman in Super Bowl 53, so it should be interesting to see if he can keep up with the Patriots’ leading receiver. N’Keal Harry against either Trayvon Mullen or Damon Arnette is another interesting match-up where Harry will have some size advantage and is against another young player finding his way in the NFL still.
Supposedly, the narrative in New England is that the offense fell off due to a lack of weapons in the passing game. This year was to be more of the same. Instead, Cam Newton has sparked an offensive passing attack that blossomed in week two. Seattle was a tough match-up for running the ball, and it will be tough this week without center David Andrews.
The Patriots need to spread the ball around again and attack the Las Vegas younger cornerbacks. If Joyner cannot match-up with Edelman, this could be an offensive explosion for New England.
Patriots’ RBs vs Raiders’ LBs:
The Patriots had a rough go of it running the ball on Sunday. Jordan Reed and Poona Ford simply won the one-on-one battles up front. Forget the Sony Michel criticism for his 2.4 yards per rush average last week, there were no holes for him (or Rex Burkhead who had just two yards on six carries).
This week, Las Vegas is just a bit less imposing. Jonathan Hankins is solid, if unspectacular and Maliek Collins was a four year starter in Dallas and earned a captain role in his first season. However, he has been invisible through two weeks and back-up Maurice Hurst Jr. is pushing for more playing time.
The Raiders’ run defense struggled to stop Christian McCaffery in week one and Alvin Kamara in week two, but the Las Vegas offense kept those offenses throwing the ball to keep up. Keeping the Las Vegas offense off the field is important–especially if the Patriots can jump out to an early lead.
Cam Newton is the wild card after his performance in week one. If he can get the Raiders off-guard with his rushing ability, there will be lanes available for Michel and Burkhead. The Patriots showed they can go high octane with a passing attack, but they’re a better team when they can run the ball effectively.
Patriots’ OTs vs Raiders’ Edge/DEs:
I’ll come right out and say it here: the loss of David Andrews for a month with a thumb injury is a huge loss. There is no back-up center on the bench who would have been a starter on any other team like Ted Karras last season.That’s a huge loss.
However, with left tackle Isaiah Wynn landing on the injury report on Friday with a calf injury is potentially catastrophic. The Patriots already had right tackle Marcus Cannon opt-out of the season. Jermaine Eluemunor has been better than expected at right tackle but there is not a lot of depth at the position.
Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell are both young and loaded with potential. So far the production has not been there. Back-up edge rusher Carl Nassib has one-half of the one sack the Raiders have generated in two games.
Ferrell has played well against the run, which shows his growth as a young, developing player. Crosby has been the surprise as he has made zero impact in two games. He seemed ahead of Ferrell last year. He’s not on the injury report, so it is puzzling.
As Crosby and Ferrell fo, so goes the Raiders’ defense.
The Patriots’ offensive line had a tough match-up on the edge last week with Seattle’s experienced pass rushers and played well. If Wynn can go and be effective on Sunday, it is a huge win for New England. If Las Vegas’ edge rushers cannot get near Newton, the Patriots should be able to pick apart the Raiders’ secondary.
The New England offense faces a defense which can struggle, but with safety Johnathan Abrams healthy, they have a playmaker who can wreak havoc like Jamal Adams did last week. Points may come easier against this group, but running the ball effectively can keep the Raiders; potent offense on the sideline instead of marching up and down the field.
New England must focus on running the ball, controlling the field position and staying away from negative plays on early downs and, as always, no turnovers. It may be another “boring” offensive game plan for fans who got to see the exciting passing attack on offense last week, but it is the way to win the game, especially with injuries on the offensive line.
NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS SCORED: 24
Patriots Defensive Strategy and Key Matchups:
Raiders’ TEs vs Patriots’ LBs/Ss:
This game is going to see just how much attention Darren Waller receives from the New England secondary and linebackers. Waller has been targeted 24 times by Derek Carr. Like the Ben Coates era in New England, Waller is a one-man offensive show for Las Vegas.
Waller is a six-foot-six athletic freak at tight end who seemed likely to sabotage his way out of the NFL in his first three seasons in Baltimore. The Raiders scooped the speedy and athletic Waller from the Ravens’ practice squad (imagine Waller and Mark Andrews as two-tight ends with Lamar Jackson at quarterback in Baltimore today–thank the Football Gods that Waller is not still on the Ravens) and last year he blossomed.
New Orleans threw cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers and anyone else at Waller. Expect the Patriots to come in with a game plan for Waller. Remember Belichick took out Jimmy Graham in his prime in New Orleans with Aqib Talib. Stephon Gilmore? J.C. Jackson? Maybe.
My money is on Joejuan Williams. Size? Check. Athleticism? Check. Can he do it? Well, that is why he was drafted in the second round, right? Blanketing Waller with Williams could make for an intriguing chess match on Sunday.
The Raiders do not hide that the offense is going through Waller. It is a Bill Belichick strategy to try and take away the top weapon no matter what. If Las Vegas is going to win, they either force it to Waller or change up their plan.
For New England, it is a match-up that calls for Bill Belichick to dial-up a “Genius” game plan on defense. The cornerbacks and secondary got shredded last week by Russell Wilson. Shutting down Waller forces Carr to throw to rookie Bryan Edwards and second-year receiver Hunter Renfrow.
Raiders’ WRs vs Patriots’ CBs:
Speaking of those Las Vegas wide receivers, they will be without electrifying first round draft pick Henry Ruggs III. Ruggs has not put up big numbers but his presence as a deep threat was a big part of Waller having so much space to operate underneath and in the middle of the field.
Ruggs is out injured Sunday, more pressure falls on Bryan Edwards and Hunter Renfrow. Renfrow is the perfect fit for the Patriots slot wide receiver behind Julian Edelman. Unfortunately, he was drafted instead by Las Vegas. Tough, crafty, intelligent, he is a perfect prototype slot receiver.
Edwards is the big receiver on the outside–he can physically man-handle smaller cornerbacks. Figure Stephon Gilmore should get Edwards while JC Jackson or Jason McCourty cover Zay Jones. Jonathan Jones struggled mightily last week with Tyler Lockett and needs to bounce-back against Renfrow (or slot receiver Nelson Agholor).
The New England secondary had their worst performance last Sunday since…maybe Super Bowl 52 against the Eagles? They need a bounce-back game, but the Raiders are not an easy match-up. They catch a break with Ruggs out.
Gilmore, Jones, Jackson and McCourty all struggled last week to contain the quartet of Seattle wide receivers. Give Russell Wilson credit as he did not back down from a single throw and made some amazing deep completions. Carr is not Wilson, but he has been slinging the ball well in 2020.
Raiders’ OTs vs Patriots’ Edge/DEs:
The Patriots still have Chase Winovich and Shilique Calhoun. Derek Rivers leads the team with 1.5 sacks and after he went down in the third quarter against Seattle, the twitter timeline was blowing up with anguished fans.
Rivers has talent but has missed two full seasons due to injury and finally seemed ready to make an impact. Fortunately he returned to the game and is off the injury report.
New England again catches a break with the two best offensive linemen for Las Vegas out. Old AFC East “friend” Richie Incognito is on injured reserve. Former Patriots left tackle Trent Brown is out on Sunday.
Veteran Patrick Omameh has been elevated to the roster this week with Incognito down. Guard Denzelle Good is already filling in at right tackle for Brown. The rest of the line is solid with young rising star Kolton Miller at left tackle, three time Pro Bowl selection Rodney Hudson at center and solid veteran Gabe Jackson at guard.
Good is a potential weak spot (along with whoever is at left guard) and should give the trio of Winovich, Calhoun and Rivers to makes some plays flying off the edge. Forcing a turnover or dive-killer (interception, fumble, ending a drive with a third down sack or throwaway) could make the difference in this game.
The Seahawks’ offensive line was not great last week but did enough to keep the Patriots from getting to Wilson (though there were a few big hits just a half-second late). The New England pass rush has to make plays and create pressure to take some pressure off the secondary.
Fully healthy, the Raiders have one of the best tackle duos and one of the most prolific offensive lines in the league. This week, however, they may be banged-up enough for the Patriots to get some pressure and change the odds with some big plays.
Not touching on Josh Jacobs in this piece seems…well, kind of dumb. He is a huge part of the offense. However, the Patriots can scheme to stop the run (in most cases). Jacobs is banged-up and while he has 181 yards on the ground so far after two games, he is averaging just 3.5 yards per attempt. Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley should be a key player in slowing down Jacobs.
The Raiders offense may need to get creative. Running back Jalen Richard could make some big plays if too much attention is on Waller. Also, do not sleep on craft veteran Jason Witten from making a play. The Raiders have depth at tight end and could roll out Waller, Witten and Foster Moreau to put some pressure on New England’s defense.
NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS ALLOWED: 20
Expected Final Score: New England 24 – Las Vegas 20
This would be a great week for the Patriots to jump out early and take control of the game from the onset. Playing at home against an opponent on a short week (coming off a Monday night game) and travelling across the country is an advantage–even without a raucous fan base in Gillette Stadium.
The more I looked at the Las Vegas defense, the more I expect they’ll be coming in confident and with something to prove. Handily defeating New Orleans will do that to a team. The offense is clicking, though with so many injuries, it could slow them down.
This looks like a match-up that will be lower-scoring than anticipated as both teams will be looking to establish the run and control the clock. I predict low-scoring for most of the game until the offenses both open up in the fourth quarter. The Patriots should beat the beat-up Raiders.
However, these are not the 2017 or 2018 Raiders. They have a nice mix of veterans and explosive younger players on offense. If they get healthy again on offense, they could be a force to be reckoned with in 2020.
Of course, they need to get the defense straightened out to compete for a playoff spot. The defense should be just formidable enough for the Patriots to control the game and score just enough to pull off a win on Sunday.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01 and @FPC_Patriots for live tweeting and instant analysis during the Patriots games.