By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The third preseason game is the biggest possible test that NFL teams can get before the start of the regular season. By all accounts, the Patriots are taking Friday’s game very seriously, even if it’s still not much like the real thing.
Considering that the opponent is the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots should especially take this game seriously on defense.
Nothing will top Super Bowl LII among the Patriots’ worst defensive performances of 2017. But perhaps the second-worst day last year came in Week 4 against the Panthers. Cam Newton picked the Pats apart all afternoon in Foxboro, culminating with a final drive that took advantage of two ill-timed Patriots penalties en route to Graham Gano’s game-winning field goal.
The usually-stingy Patriots scoring defense allowed 33 points. A strong 30-point day for Tom Brady and the offense wasn’t enough.
Yes, Friday night is still the preseason and the game won’t say a ton about either team long-term. But the Patriots have a different-looking defense going into their dress rehearsal in Charlotte, and it would be a good sign for the group to show marked improvement from last time they faced Carolina.
In that Week 4 loss, the Pats both struggled to contain Cam Newton in the pocket and mostly failed to disrupt the passing game. Combine that with frequent breakdowns in coverage, and you have one of the ugliest days in recent memory for the Patriots on that side of the ball.
Among defensive starters for the Patriots in that game: Adam Butler, Malcolm Butler, Elandon Roberts. This year? Malcolm is gone to the Titans, Adam Butler moved down the depth chart, and even Roberts looks to be fighting off rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley for that third linebacker spot.
Beyond the starters, there’s also some key personnel differences that should help them this season and show on Friday night. Compared to last year’s loss to the Panthers, in particular, the Patriots could certainly play better at all three levels of the defense. Fortunately, there’s a reasonable chance that they do.
In The Secondary
The most improved unit on the defense should be the defensive line, but arguably the biggest change comes in the No. 2 cornerback role. Assuming Eric Rowe plays to his usual level, is that any worse than last season’s version of Malcolm Butler – who, Super Bowl controversy aside, did have more of an up-and-down 2017? Malcolm did make one of their only good plays against Carolina with an interception, but was also targeted on a touchdown to receiver Devin Funchess.
Particularly struggling in the secondary against the Panthers was cornerback Stephon Gilmore. He went on to play some of the best football of his career from there. Gilmore now looks like a completely different player than the one the Pats had in the first month of 2017. He has a chance to make the biggest difference against the Panthers offense. It’s possible that Gilmore’s main job is to simply neutralize Funchess 1-on-1.
But that defensive front. They’re poised to be much-improved against both the run and the pass. Especially after the Super Bowl, the team’s lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has become perhaps their most underplayed issue.
The presence of Adrian Clayborn, improvement from Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler, and the returning Derek Rivers have this group of pass rushers poised to make a clear step forward in that department. It’s important not to judge preseason games too strongly, especially the first two games, but they’ve looked way more disruptive than the Patriots looked at almost any point last season.
Trey Flowers, however, may not play on Friday, so there’s a chance that it’s not a perfect comparison to last year.
Running Backs and Tight Ends
Without Dont’a Hightower, the run defense took a hit as well. They also felt the effects of Alan Branch dropping off in performance, ultimately allowing the second-most yards per attempt (4.7) in the regular season. Danny Shelton should make a noticeable difference in his run-stopping role.
They also allowed the second-most receiving yards to running backs (844). That issue reared its ugly head both at the end of the season and against the Panthers, when Fozzy Whittaker caught a wide-open 28-yard touchdown that caught the Patriots secondary out of sorts. You can expect to see more of Christian McCaffrey in that role on Friday.
It’s also worth noting that the Panthers could deploy tight end Greg Olsen in the first half. Last year’s option for Newton was Ed Dickson, who chipped in against the Patriots last season with three catches – for 62 yards. So it would also be good for Patrick Chung and others to keep Olsen in check if and when he’s out there.
The Big Picture
Unless there’s another crazy rule change we don’t know about, NFL games still aren’t won with yards. The real letdown for the Patriots defense, both in the Super Bowl and against Carolina, came with their inability to limit points and stop big plays down the field. Newton completed five passes of 24 yards or more and the Panthers cracked 30 on the scoreboard, a good benchmark for any team trying to beat Brady in Foxboro.
The Patriots really tightened up on the scoreboard in between Week 4 and the Super Bowl, which once again put them in the top-5 in the league in that category. But Week 4 against Carolina and the Super Bowl were bookends that showed the worst of the Patriots defense. Like the Eagles, the Panthers looked unstoppable that day.
It may only be a preseason game coming up on Friday. But the first half, and some of the third quarter, of the game should have most of the Patriots’ defensive starters playing significant snaps. Those two glaring defeats in 2017 don’t necessarily define the 2018 Patriots defense, nor the Panthers offense. But a response to last year’s ugliness with a strong effort on Friday can only help. It would behoove the Patriots to at least look like themselves and take away the big plays while toughening up in the red zone.
Despite some personnel changes, both teams remain largely the same entering Friday. But it’ll be on the Patriots defense to give some kind of indication that this year will be different.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.