By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots don't have to make excuses for themselves, and rarely do. But if they were thinking of doing that, the time has already passed.
As they get ready for the 49ers on Sunday, the Patriots appear to finally have COVID-19 in the rearview mirror after the virus wreaked havoc on their locker room for three weeks. They took the field last Sunday against the Denver Broncos after minimal real practice time, and it showed. Bill Belichick is the best in the NFL at preparing his team for Sundays, but that comes with the assumption that he actually gets that time to prepare. So it shouldn't have been surprising that when the preparation is taken away from Belichick, the Patriots don't look as sharp as they usually do.
Just in time for San Francisco, though, normalcy has returned to Foxboro. Though the Patriots held virtual meetings on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday brought normal practice days. Quarterback Cam Newton is back to his regular workload. Key players on both sides of the ball returned off injured reserve, including starting center David Andrews and defensive tackle Beau Allen. Right guard Shaq Mason also returned, albeit in a limited capacity.
The time for excuse-making, at least as it pertains to practice time and preparation, has run out, and Newton knows it.
"Not making any excuses, I’m just saying we put ourselves in a better situation to win. I’ll just say it like that," Newton said Thursday. "Not saying we didn’t have capabilities of winning last week, because we did. We had our opportunities. For us, as an offense, we know that our excuse basket is running real low. We’re getting guys back that we missed for weeks. Even though we’re missing a couple other guys, but we got enough to compete with anybody. And I mean, anybody."
Newton made another point as part of the above answer: let's see how the Patriots offense looks with a turnover-free game. The unit has made at least one turnover in its first five games, 10 total. Even the anemic 2019 offense turned the ball over only five times in its first five games, comparatively. So the hope is that the Patriots have yet to play their best football, and Sunday against the 49ers ought to represent a major rebound from a bad loss.
They still should have beaten Denver last week, even with the lack of practice. The Patriots still didn't lack talent compared to the Broncos. But the chaos of COVID-19 certainly leveled the playing field a bit. That excuse is out the window. Now with a full, regular week to prepare, it's time for Belichick to get the Patriots back to the level of preparedness and sharpness that they showed at the start of the season.
"I think we all appreciate [a normal week] – maybe took it for granted a little bit from the way it was in the past because it was always that way," Belichick said Friday. "But, now having experienced the other side of it – you know, players dressing in a bubble and driving home and having to shower and things like that – it’s just a lot of little inconveniences that as a team, players and coaches, that we’ve had that we didn’t have here for a few days. And now that we have them back, I think there’s definitely an appreciation. I know there is.
"I have it and I know a lot of our players feel it, as well, just to be able to do things on kind of a normal basis. So, that’s been positive for the team and I think their attitude and energy has reflected that."
More on the Patriots in this week's Pats Extra ahead of the 49ers game on Sunday...
Belichick wants his own Kyle Juszczyk
Belichick had some good old-fashioned fullback talk for reporters on Friday. It's no shock that he's impressed with the 49ers' Kyle Juszczyk, who is much more than a traditional fullback. He can play that role, but he also moves around the formation and can play tight end or block anywhere on the field. He helps Kyle Shanahan disguise the Niners' offense and make their highly effective zone blocking scheme more unpredictable than others.
"He’s made some big plays in the passing game. He’s a pretty good runner with the ball in his hands and he’s got good size and he’s a competitive blocker, so he provides a lot of value and certainly a lot of versatility for them," Belichick said on Juszczyk. "The 49ers use the fullback more than any team in the league and they probably have the best fullback in the league. So, those two line up and he’s been very productive for them."
The Patriots have also appeared to be trying to find their own version of Juszczyk, a role they won't get out of Jakob Johnson. Free-agent addition Dan Vitale had a chance to be that guy, but opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. Rookie Dalton Keene, however, played that Swiss Army Knife type of role at Virginia Tech and could provide a Juszczyk-ian level of versatility.
Keene has yet to see the field in a Patriots uniform, but in the long-term, he has potential to be their own "utility" fullback.
Is it weird to say a rookie tight end who has yet to be targeted in a game has been impressive? We have yet to see what Devin Asiasi is capable of with the ball in his hands, or get the ball in his hands at all. But his workload has been on the rise and has rarely looked out of place as a blocker.
With Keene yet to see game action, Asiasi has played as the second tight end on the Patriots' 23 snaps in "12" or "22" personnel (two-TE sets) this season out of necessity. Last Sunday against the Broncos, Asiasi played as the lone tight end in "11" personnel on the majority of snaps after Ryan Izzo's costly fumble. While he rarely ran any route other than a 10-yard out in the flat, he often got open in those looks.
The next step is for Newton, who calls the rookie "Açaí Bowl," to actually look the rookie's way and throw him the ball. Asiasi has become so bizarrely under-utilized in the Patriots offense, it's like the Pats are telling Newton not to target him on purpose and let him get comfortable running routes before the ball goes his way. But conspiracy theories aside, it's possible the rookie is finally ready to make some plays against the 49ers on Sunday.
Sports Hub Sidelines Podcast
Ty Anderson and I discussed the latest with the Patriots and their upcoming schedule on the newest episode of the Sports Hub Sidelines podcast. Have a listen below. Patriots talk starts at 12:23.
Alex Barth and I talked football again before the Patriots play the 49ers. You can check that out below.
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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at [email protected].