By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Back in March, I wrote about how the Patriots offseason moves hinted toward Bill Belichick building a throwback roster. Throwback, both to Belichick’s early years with the Patriots and the long gone days of NFL football where a power run game and physical secondary were the keys to success.
That roster-building strategy continued through the draft, with the team adding an athletic box safety in Kyle Dugger, three linebackers, and three offensive linemen. Even the addition of Cam Newton apparently didn’t alter the plan. If anything, Sunday may have proved he enhanced it.
How the Patriots played on Sunday may have looked immediately different to some, but to long-time Patriots fans, it wasn’t totally new. The game plan against resembled the early days of the Patriots dynasty, when defense was king and running the football was the primary focus. Sure, there may be some new bells and whistles, but it’s the same basic philosophy.
The Patriots ran the ball 42 times on Sunday. In the last ten years, they ran the ball 40-plus times in ten games. In the ten years before that, they had 19 such games.
It wasn’t excess for the sake of excess either, this team was built to run. Look no further than how they handled the right tackle situation on Sunday. While Jermaine Eluemunor got the start, the team regularly rotated in rookie guard Mike Onwenu to the right tackle spot. This isn’t a guy who has moved around a lot – he started at guard in college and played almost no tackle in training camp.
So why play not just any player, but a rookie making his debut, out of position? Because Onwenu is an excellent run blocker, and if you’re going to run the ball often, it makes sense to essentially have an extra guard (and a big one at that) on the field, instead of a traditional tackle.
On defense, the Patriots were constantly attacking the ball especially in the secondary. By building a dedicated run-stopping front in the offseason (which was helped immensely by Chase Winovich vasty improving that area of his game, as we saw on Sunday), Bill Belichick was able to sacrifice linebackers for strong, athletic safeties on the field. This allows the Patriots to create mismatches, which led to three Ryan Fitzpatrick interceptions.
It was the 41st three-interception performance of the Belichick era. But despite an increase in passing over the last decade, the Patriots had just ten such games between 2011 and 2018. Compare that to 25 three-plus INT games between 2000 and 2010. Again, Belichick is going back to his roots.
Will it work this well every game? No, probably not. Bill Belichick & Co. will face better teams than the Miami Dolphins (including next week, when they head to Seattle). But clearly, the 2020 Patriots have an identity that they can embrace and succeed with. Win or lose, it won’t be like last year when the team seemed to be fighting themselves, split between what they wanted to do and what they could do.
So I hope you like ground-and-pound, low scoring football games, because we’re in for a few this fall. Personally, I couldn’t be more excited.