By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Unfortunately, the New England Patriots hit their Week 11 bye at their lowest point of the season. As bad as they played in a Week 3 loss at Detroit, it somehow got even worse in Nashville. The Tennessee Titans’ 34-10 shellacking will surely leave a sour taste in everyone’s mouths for the next week and a half.
But as the Patriots’ stunning “rock-bottom” moment (hopefully it doesn’t get any worse) festers, it’s important to realize they’re still 7-3, step back, and take a look at what’s worked and what hasn’t. As bad as it looked on Sunday and as disjointed as this team has felt at times, they remain in the driver’s seat for another AFC East title with a first-round bye still within reach. Some things have gone quite well.
However, the Pats could have an even better record if not for the shortcomings they’ve displayed so far in 2018. For a 7-3 team, it’s still fair to say there’s been more “good” than “bad” or “ugly”, but it hasn’t been quite as crisp as we’re used to seeing with this team.
That said, let’s take a quick look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from the first 10 weeks of the Patriots’ season.
James White. The running back remains on a historic pace as a pass-catcher. He’s on track to catch 106 passes this season, which would break Matt Forte’s single-season record for catches by a running back (102). It would shatter the Patriots franchise record; he could pass Tony Collins’ record (77) within the next 2-3 games. He’s averaging more catches per game (6.6) than the Steelers’ Antonio Brown. White has long been one of the Patriots’ most consistent and reliable players, and this season he’s risen to the top of that list.
Julian Edelman. Edelman has been better in his last three games than his first three since returning in Week 5. But in six games he’s totaled 40 catches on 56 targets for 426 yards and two touchdowns. Over his last three, he’s averaged eight catches and 93 yards. He’s been a drive-starter and chain-mover for the Pats, and has caught seven of his 12 third-down targets including both of his touchdowns. Like most of the offense, it hasn’t been perfect for Edelman. But as long as he’s healthy he should continue to be a dependable target for Tom Brady.
Offensive line. Recency bias may tell you that the O-line has not been good, because they were not very good on Sunday against the Titans. But these guys played their asses off over the course of the Pats’ six-game winning streak. They started opening more holes in the running game and did a good job keeping Brady upright, something they didn’t do well in any of their three losses. But if you’re looking for consistency on offense, this group has been as good as any.
Trey Flowers. Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like Flowers will end up exploring free agency next March. And if he keeps playing the way he’s played, he could get a very nice payday elsewhere. Flowers looks completely recovered from various injuries that slowed him earlier in the season, and he’s mostly been a disruptive force up front over the Patriots’ last four games in particular. For a defense that relatively lacks high-end talent, Flowers has certainly been one.
Stephon Gilmore. More potential for recency bias here. Gilmore had his worst game of the season out of nowhere against the Titans’ Corey Davis, and it was stunning because he’d been dominant in recent weeks. Gilmore may not be on the same level as a Darrelle Revis or players like this, but he can still be a very effective man-to-man corner against top outside receivers and Bill Belichick is likely to keep deploying him that way. There are areas of the defense to be concerned about entering the stretch run, but Gilmore shouldn’t be one of them.
Lawrence Guy. The Patriots’ interior defenders have been underwhelming as a whole this season. You’ve barely heard about Malcom Brown or Danny Shelton, in particular. But Guy has been a pleasant surprise as a steady presence on the inside. He’s a jack-of-all-trades who can contribute in numerous ways, and he made a major impact against the Packers in Week 9 when his forced fumble against running back Aaron Jones swung a tight game in the Patriots’ favor.
Tom Brady under pressure. By his standards, Brady has not had a great season. He’s only 16th in the league in passer rating at 94.6. But he’s been far worse particularly against blitzes, which is shocking given that he usually excels in those spots. NFL Matchup stats have Brady as the worst QB in the entire league against the blitz with a 59.6 rating. He certainly didn’t look good under pressure on Sunday against the Titans. There are multiple factors in this, not limited to Brady’s relative trust (or lack thereof) in the players around him. But no matter how you slice it, this is an area where Brady has not played at his typically high level.
Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots have still been efficient in the red zone, thanks to James White (or what he would call “good play-calling”). But Gronk has completely fallen off the map in the part of the field where he usually dominates, seeing just one target in the red area all season. To be fair, his one touchdown was from 21 yards out. But still … one touchdown in seven games is a staggering drop-off for a guy who entered this season with 76 touchdowns in 89 career contests. There’s a possibility that Gronk’s ankle and back injuries have slowed him, because he’s had trouble getting open all season. He’s still flashed his usual game-breaking ability at times, but he’s only looked like his typical self in Week 1 against the Texans. This offense will absolutely need Gronkowski to return to form in Week 12, after he will have had nearly a whole month to get his body right.
Chris Hogan. In one of the more mystifying developments of the 2018 season, Chris Hogan has gone from a presumed mainstay on the offense to a virtual non-factor. This was a player who was supposed to be one of Brady’s top targets for the first four weeks of the season without Edelman, and the quarterback barely looked his way. Only 23 catches through 10 games for Hogan, who ranks among 2018’s most curious disappointments.
Safety play. The Patriots’ secondary has been good overall, mainly thanks to the cornerbacks led by Gilmore, Jason McCourty, and Jonathan Jones. But the safeties have been a different, more unsightly story. Devin McCourty has taken a big step back after a mostly excellent 2016-17, routinely faltering in coverage against tight ends in a problem that has carried over from the Super Bowl. Patrick Chung has been up and down, most recently having his worst game of the season in Tennessee. And Duron Harmon has never been a guy who’s going to impact games enough to make up for the other guys. It could soon be time for the Patriots to infuse this positional group with fresh blood, and Obi Melifonwu might not be enough.
Performance on the road. Don’t let anyone tell you the Patriots haven’t played worse on the road than at home. They have, especially offensively. They’ve averaged 35.4 points in their five home games, compared to just 16.4 in their five road games. Their three losses have come by a combined score of 91-40. Even in their two road wins, it hasn’t been a complete effort, dependent on defensive and special teams scores against inferior offenses. This could be the most important big-picture area where the Patriots need to be better, because it’s shaping up to be a postseason where they’ll have to win on the road to make it back to the Super Bowl.
Special teams coverage. One word: woof. The Patriots have allowed the second-most punt return yards and sixth-most kick return yardage on average, and it wasn’t any better against the Titans. It’s led to a pretty big shake-up on those coverage units, with the Patriots recently swapping out Geneo Grissom and Nicholas Grigsby for Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber. Belichick appears to be hoping that they can provide some veteran stability for a special teams group that has been uncharacteristically bad.
To conclude, here’s a quick to-do list for the Patriots to hit their usual second-half crescendo:
— Brady: Start trusting other receivers and spreading the ball around more
— Gronkowski: Get healthy and productive again
— Special teams units: Execute better as a group, especially on the road
— Defensive front: Keep running quarterbacks in the pocket more
— For the safeties: Communicate better and prepare better for tight ends
Hopefully, for the offense in particular, these issues look resolved (or close to it) against the Jets.
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.