By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
For the first time in a long time, the Patriots offseason is in focus before we set the clocks back for Daylight Savings Time. Holes on the roster were on full display in Sunday’s loss to San Francisco.
Some of these issues will need to be addressed in the offseason, whether it be through free agency, trades, the draft, or even the return of key opt outs such as Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung. However, Bill Belichick is not the kind of coach who is just going to lay down and take beatings while he waits for that to happen.
If the Patriots want to chase the playoffs and salvage this season, they will need to get creative and find short-term solutions to what’s ailing them. That starts with injecting life into an inconsistent and ineffective passing game. The first fix that comes to mind for that, of course, is quarterback.
Is Cam Newton the guy for that job? Belichick said after the game that Newton is still the quarterback going forward. But how long can that last? For the second straight game Newton was hesitant, looked flustered, and seemed shy about pulling the trigger at times.
Credit to Newton where it’s due – he is wearing his struggles. He admitted after the game that “In no way, shape or form did I put this team in a position to compete, and that’s inexcusable,” and that his energy hasn’t been the same since returning from his COVID case.
But football is a results-driven, ‘what have you done for me lately’ business. And what Newton has done lately, it hasn’t been pretty.
“It’s time to turn to Stidham,” many fans exclaimed during halftime of Sunday’s game. “He can’t be any worse than Cam is right now!”
He wasn’t worse, but he may have been just as bad (the two had nearly identical passer ratings – Newton at 39.7 and Stidham at 39.2). Including last year, Stidham has averaged an interception on every seventh pass he’s thrown in the NFL.
Newton certainly didn’t look like a starting quarterback on Sunday, but it’d be hard to convincingly say Stidham did enough once he came in the game to deserve a look as QB1. Unless Newton finds the spark he had early in the year, it appears the short term fix to the passing game isn’t at the quarterback position. That makes the odds against a turnaround steep.
So where is the answer in the passing game with an inconstant signal caller? Could it be in a shift in style, capitalizing on speedy players like Damiere Byrd and Isaiah Zuber to win in space, while getting the ball (and decisions) out of the quarterbacks’ hands as soon as possible – similar to a style the Niners used to gash the Patriots all afternoon?
Perhaps they could open things up for their rookie tight ends? Devin Asiasi played a season-high 42 snaps last week, and despite not getting targeted got himself open multiple times. Dalton Keene looked good in a limited role on Sunday, recording his first NFL catch.
That’s not to say either of those options will definitely work and jump start the Patriots’ offense. But it hasn’t yet been proven they don’t work, whereas the current game plan hasn’t. It doesn’t have to be a major overhaul. Minor tweaks could open up major opportunities if used strategically. But at this point for New England, the devil you don’t know is actually better than the one you do.
Then there’s the defense. Early in the season, it looked to be a revolutionary unit, playing in a base that resembled a nickel and at times even dime unit, shutting down the pass. The last few weeks though have shown teams can run on the lighter unit. The Niners specifically countered it well, getting the ball into their playmakers’ hands in the backfield outside the numbers, forcing the Patriots to set the edge early and attacking the secondary without having to throw into it.
The Patriots linebacker position took a massive hit during the offseason between free agency losses (Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy), and then opt outs (Dont’a Hightower). They also lost Patrick Chung, their best run-stopping safety. Entering the year they were perilously thin at the position, with only three guys who had NFL experience, none of which had served as a primary starter. On top of that, second-round pick Josh Uche hasn’t played yet this season due to injury.
Uche, in this instance, is the best chance the Patriots have as improving against the run. Part of the reason they’ve played with so few linebackers on the field is lack of availability. If and when Uche returns, he can join Ja’Whaun Bentley and the emerging Anfernee Jennings and help give the Patriots a presence in the second level.
Beau Allen’s return should also help the Patriots be more competitive against the run. Danny Shelton was one of the Patriots’ most valuable defensive assets last year, and Allen was brought in to replace him. A lower-body injury had prevented him from getting on the field until he joined the team and practiced this week. Expectations are he’ll be activated soon.
Whether it’s Uche or Allen, being better against the run at the initial point of attack will do wonders for the Patriots’ defense. Teams aren’t testing their vaunted secondary right now, mostly because they don’t have to. In the last four games, teams are averaging 4.6 yards per carry against the Patriots. In that span, opponents have called more runs (121) than passes (118).
The Patriots’ great secondary can’t do much if the ball isn’t being thrown their way. If teams didn’t feel as safe running the ball, it’d open up opportunities for the defense to change games the way they did at times last year.
While the offensive and defensive changes will take in-depth work to make happen, there is also a simple change the Patriots can make on special teams. Just stop running out so many kicks. So far this season, the Patriots have cost themselves 17 yards by running kicks out of the end zone, although that number was into the 30’s at one point.
It’s not that they shouldn’t run kicks out all together. After all, they invest relatively heavily in that unit and have a number of potentially explosive return options. But if they pick their spots a little better, it could help set the offense up with better field position. And in the instances where the offense can’t convert, the defense wouldn’t be defending as short of a field.
It all goes back to one of Bill Belichick’s favorite philosophies – complementary football. If the offense can become more consistent, specifically when it comes to holding on to the ball, the defense won’t be tested so frequently (they were on the field for almost 40 minutes on Sunday). If the offense can put more point on the board, teams will have to throw more and be generally more aggressive on offense, allowing the Patriots defense to play to their strengths. That all ties in to special teams and field position as well.
So yes, there will be plenty of talk this week (and possibly more than that) about what the Patriots need to do this offseason. It’s warranted. But don’t expect Bill Belichick and the team to start looking ahead to 2021. They’re going to do what they can to fix what’s broken, and do so with the pieces they have.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.