By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Sunday’s game in Buffalo seemed to be the perfect set up for a ground-and-pound contest. Instead, the Patriots showed up ready for a shootout. From a lack of a power run game to de facto erasure of the defensive front, here’s now personnel decisions made my the Patriots coaching staff impacted the final result.
First though, a look at the total snap counts from Sunday:
The curious case of Chase continues. For the fourth week in a row Winovich saw his role diminish, with a season-low in both total snaps (five) and percentage (nine) on Sunday.
Why isn’t Belichick playing his best defensive lineman? Some say it’s due to his struggles against the run. If that’s the case, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for two reasons. One, Winovich looked much more comfortable defending the run when he was playing regularly earlier in the year. Two, the Patriots faced more than five obvious passing situations against the Bills, yet that’s still as much as he played.
Some have speculated its due to his unnecessary roughness penalty and ensuing sideline argument with Belichick against San Francisco. However, his slide in usage began before that game. It probably didn’t help, but claiming that as the main reason Winovich isn’t playing ignores the timeline of events.
MORE: Winovich on Zolak & Bartrand
Could it be due to his weekly appearances on 98.5’s Zolak and Bertrand? It’s a theory some have floated. But would Belichick take one of his best players off the field to talking about aliens for five minutes a week?
Despite the dip in playing time, Winovich still leads the Patriots in sacks. He’s still proving to be effective when he’s on the field, teaming with Josh Uche (more on him in a bit) to force a crucial pressure against Buffalo.
Plus, it’s not like he’s truly been benched. While his defensive usage has dipped, his special teams usage is actually increasing. Winovich played a season-high 13 special teams snaps yesterday.
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Patriots fans won’t want to hear this, but a parallel is starting to show between Winovich’s usage this year, and Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII. People remember Butler being benched for the game, but he wasn’t entirely. He did play one special teams snap, covering a punt early in the second quarter.
It’s obviously not a perfect comparison, but once again the Patriots have a seemingly-obvious need that can be filled by a skilled player. Yet instead of putting that player in the game, he is left with a minor special teams role.
Will Winovich dig himself out of whatever doghouse he’s gotten himself into? It’s not like he can play much less than he did on Sunday. Or will the Patriots keep suppressing one of their best young talents?
Winovich wasn’t the only Patriots defender playing a surprisingly small role on Sunday. In fact, most of the front seven took a back seat against Buffalo.
The Patriots six most-used defenders were all defensive backs, with that group on the field for 93-percent of the snaps. That lighter unit allowed the Bills to rush for 190 yards total on the day, and five yards per carry.
Meanwhile, Ja’Whaun Bentley was the most used linebacker. He left the game early due to an injury, but was still on pace for a season low in snaps.
MORE: What was behind the onside kick in Buffalo?
When the Patriots did get success from the second level, it seemed to come from rookie Josh Uche, making his NFL debut. Despite Uche standing strong against the run and as a pass rusher, he played just 12 snaps – most coming after Bentley’s injury. Fellow rookie Anfernee Jennings, who had looked promising in recent weeks, played just one snap, which came on special teams.
If the Patriots want to be stronger against the run, they’re going to need to put more linebackers on the field. That means seeing what the rookie class can do, especially if Bentley is going to miss games. If the Patriots can get leads and force teams to throw, using safeties like Adrian Phillips in that role makes a lot of sense. But playing from behind against teams that will be running the ball? They need a nose tackle (Beau Allen is due to return soon) and strong play from multiple linebackers.
The Bills have been one of the worst run defenses in the league this year, especially against traditional power runs. Yet through the first three quarters of the game, New England repeatedly ran out of the shotgun, giving Buffalo’s front more time to get a push, and blow plays up in the backfield.
Over the first three quarters, the Patriots averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 22 carries. In the final frame, when the team changed their focus to more traditional power runs, that number increased to 6.9 yards per carry (12 carries). It also coincided with an increased usage of Damien Harris – eight of his 16 carries came in the fourth quarter.
Harris played the least of the Patriots’ three main running backs on Sunday (J.J. Taylor was a DNP) but was the most effective. While James White and Rex Burkhead certainly can still be effective, Harris appears to be the best option in the traditional power run role, which may be the most effective weapon the offense has right now. We’ll see if he gets a more extensive look next week.
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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.