By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
From replacing David Andrews to covering Darren Waller, the Patriots strategy on Sunday called for some significant shifts in personnel usage. Who were the beneficiaries, and who saw more time on the bench? Before getting into the positions that were impacted the most, here’s how the snap counts looked overall:
For the third week in a row, Damiere Byrd was the most-used wide receiver, although the targets did not reflect that number. He was thrown just three passes, and caught all of them.
This is the first week that Julian Edelman’s usage surpassed N’Keal Harry’s. Edelman was used sparingly in the first quarter, but was on the field for the majority of the rest of the game as the offense found its footing. His six targets were the most of any receiver, second on the team behind only Rex Burkhead.
Harry meanwhile took a step back after his impressive Week 2 performance. The second-year receiver was targeted just four times, catching two passes (he also had a designed run early in the game). After taking a beating in the game last week, Harry was reportedly dealing with an injury throughout the week and even changed his pregame warm-up routine, leading some to suspect he’d be inactive.
With a potential health situation in a game the Patriots had in hand most of the afternoon, it’s possible his lightened workload was just a precautionary measure. We’ll see how much run he gets next week in a crucial game in Kansas City.
Sunday also saw the debut of UDFA Isaiah Zuber. The Mississippi State product was elevated from the practice squad on Saturday, and six snaps during the game, mostly in the second half. It was interesting to see the Patriots deploy him in a running back-type role, often lining him up next to Cam Newton in the shotgun with Rex Burkhead on the other side. They also used him in motion, like on his 13-yard end-around carry.
An elite kick returner in college, Zuber is the kind of player who’s best when he has the ball in space, so setting him up for screens and option runs is a good way to get the most out of him. Those packages are worth remembering as we get later into the season.
For the first two weeks of the season, Ryan Izzo was not only the Patriots most-used tight end, he was the team’s most-used skill position player. No other tight end, back, or receiver played more than 90-percent of the snaps through two weeks, while Izzo was on the field for 133 of the Patriots 136 offensive plays (97.8 percent).
That changed on Sunday, when we got the first sizable look at rookie tight end Devin Asiasi. The third-round pick played a season-high 29 snaps (42 percent) against the Raiders, more than his first two games combined (20). Although he wasn’t targeted and struggled blocking at times, perhaps this is a sign that the Patriots are ready to start putting him out there with more regularity.
This didn’t erase Izzo from the Patriots game plan completely – he still played 43 of the Patriots offensive downs (62 percent).
Needing to replace starting center David Andrews, the Patriots elected to move Joe Thuney over and put rookie Mike Onwenu at guard. This obviously created significant change in the offensive line numbers this week.
Onwenu had been rotating with Jermaine Eluemunor through two weeks, but both played every single snap on Sunday. However, the Patriots didn’t abandon the tackle rotation all together, as rookie Justin Herron saw some time at left tackle, with Isaiah Wynn getting a series off in the third quarter.
Moving Onwenu to right guard also eliminated the Patriots ‘tackle-eligible’ formations that had been popular through two weeks. Herron, nor any of the other linemen, weren’t used in that capacity at all during the game. With Andrews out for at least two more games, it will be interesting to see if the Patriots establish a new ‘third tackle,’ or if they abandon those looks for the time being. It was easy to do so on Sunday given the lack of goal-line opportunities, but that won’t always be the case.
Guard Hjalte Froholdt, who early in the week had been tabbed as a potential replacement for Andrews (he played center in college), didn’t see a single offensive snap. James Ferentz, a true center signed from the practice squad on Saturday, didn’t enter the game at all.
The Patriots put a heavy premium of defensive backs in their win over the Raiders. Through two games, the team’s third cornerback hadn’t played more than 74 percent of the defensive snaps. This week, three corners played over 80-percent, with a fourth corner (Jason McCourty) seeing the field regularly as well (40 snaps, 68 percent).
As for the safeties, Kyle Dugger’s usage was down slightly from Week 2, but he was still deployed heavily – especially in the fourth quarter when he was regularly matched up on Darren Waller. The rookie was the third-most used safety in the game, behind Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips.
It was second-year hybrid defensive back Joejuan Williams who had the most interesting day, however. Nine snaps may not seem like a significant about, but eight of those involved man coverage on Waller, the NFL’s second-leading receiver entering Sunday. The majority of those eight came on third downs as well. So although he wasn’t in the game often, Williams seemed to have the trust of the coaching staff in the most crucial moments.
Facing an offense with a great tight end and plenty of speed at the wide receiver position, the Patriots loaded of on defensive backs and won the game. Next week, they’ll once again face an offense with a great tight end and plenty of speed at the wide receiver position. And while yes, the Raiders are nowhere near the offense the Chiefs are, perhaps we see a similar blueprint from the Patriots next week.