By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Hopefully, you all enjoyed two straight weeks of people trashing on “Bill the GM” and “Bill Belichick the talent evaluator.” Because after Sunday night’s performance against the Ravens, those takes need to be put away for a while.
Key moment after key moment, it was one of Belichick’s recent draft and UDFA acquisitions stepping up to make a play. If any criticism of the Patriots head coach was validated in the game, it was that he may be (or had been) overly-hesitant to put young players on the field.
At the center of that conversation has been 2019 third-round pick Chase Winovich. After a promising start to the season, Winovich saw his playing time dip for four straight weeks, down to just five snaps against the Bills. Yet on Sunday night, he played a regular role.
The Patriots moved him all over the defense, lining him up on both edges and even as a middle linebacker at times. From both spots, he did a fantastic job taking away developing rushing lanes while staying disciplined and not allowing any big plays.
“Chase had a great week of preparation and played hard and we’ll see what the film looked like, but he was definitely aggressive and I think he did a good job in the role that we asked him to do,” Belichick told reporters after the game. He added Winovich was a key part of “handling” the Ravens’ rushing attack.
Lining up next to Winovich at times was fellow Michigan product Josh Uche. A second-round pick this past spring, Uche spent the beginning of the season on IR before playing a very limited role in his first two active games. On Sunday night though, he was dispatched as a situational pass rusher, coming up huge in a key moment.
After the Jakobi Meyers (more on him in a bit) touchdown pass put the Patriots up 13-10, the Patriots still had to stop the Ravens from answering to preserve the double score. With 1:03 to go until the break, three timeouts, and the reigning MVP under center, it was a real possibility. Yet on the first play, Uche came on a blitz off the right tackle, sacking Lamar Jackson and setting the Ravens back. They never recovered, and Jackson ended up throwing a pick to close out the half.
Oh, and the guy on the other end of that interception? That would be 2018 UDFA cornerback J.C. Jackson. He now has interceptions in five straight games – a Patriots record – and his six on the season lead the NFL. No other player has more than four.
Then there was safety Kyle Dugger, Belichick’s top draft pick in 2020. The Division-II product had also seen his role dip in recent weeks, although that was due to an ankle injury. But on Sunday night, he came back in full force.
The 24-year-old was around the ball constantly, leading the Patriots with 12 tackles. He had a few pass breakups as well, and may have been credited with an interception on a play late in the third quarter if Belichick had thrown the challenge flag. Drafted to be a hybrid box safety/linebacker and the heir apparent to Patrick Chung, Dugger proved Sunday night he can in fact fill that role against elite competition.
On offense, the Patriots were buoyed by a pair of skill players at positions Belichick has taken the brunt of the heat for, wide receiver and running back.
2019 UDFA Jakobi Meyers saw seven of the eight total wide receiver targets (Damiere Byrd had the other two), with five catches for 59 yards. It wasn’t quite his monster performance against the Jets, but for the third week in a row he proved he’s a crafty route runner who can get himself open mentally. While his physical skills are still coming along, his football IQ is well above most other 24-year-olds in the NFL.
Part of that is probably due to the fact that he played quarterback in college. After Meyers’ breakout game last week, Cam Newton called him “an easy target to throw to” because “playing the quarterback position makes you intellectually sound – cerebral by default because you know what the quarterback’s looking for.”
Being a college quarterback is a trait Meyers shares with long-time Patriot great Julian Edelman. Meyers did his best JE11 impersonation on Sunday – not just by proving to be a reliable volume target in the passing game, but throwing a touchdown of his own as well. It’s early, but Meyers is beginning to make a case to assume Edelman’s role in the offense when the 34-year-old moves on.
But the real story for the offense on Sunday though was the running game. Damien Harris led the way, with a career high 121 yards on 22 carries. Harris’ selection in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft was met with skepticism and second-guessing by Patriots fans due to the team’s recent high selection of a running back (Sony Michel), other roster needs, and his lack of playing time as a rookie.
Yet in the biggest game of the year, with Michel not available, Harris was exactly what the Patriots needed. They put the Alabama back center stage and played to his strengths, showcasing his skillset of both power and agility.
The Patriots found most of their success on the ground via stretch runs, which put Harris or Rex Burkhead behind the tackles looking to cut off the edge. 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn at left tackle and 2020 sixth-round pick Michael Onwenu at right tackle paved the way as New England ran for 4.4 yards per carry. Neither tackle had a hold accepted against them either. Given the Ravens impressive collection of EDGE talent in Derek Wolfe, Yannick Ngakoue, Tyus Bowser, Matthew Judon, and others, this was no small feat.
Belichick doubters will feel like they won ground in this game. 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel missed the game due to injury and will have an uphill battle to win his job back from Damien Harris when he returns. 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry played, but was the third receiver and didn’t receive a target.
Have those two picks proven to be less than ideal? It’s trending that way. But even the best talent evaluators aren’t perfect. It’s unfortunate that they happen to have come at the top end of the draft, but for every Michel and Harry there’s guys like a sixth-round pick in Onwenu, or 2019 fifth-round picks defensive tackle Byron Cowart and punter Jake Bailey, both who played key roles on Sunday night.
The idea that Belichick has “left the Patriots without talent” is a gross overassessment of the current situation. There are still holes that need to be filled for sure, and the future at quarterback is unknown, but there is a foundation to build on.
In the late 2000’s and very early 2010’s, the Patriots faced a similar dilemma, as their core from the first three Super Bowls aged out. As it looked like the run was about to come to an end, the team added a new, younger group of players to usher in Dynasty 2.0. Now that core is aging out, and without Tom Brady to ease them through the it, the transition is a bit rougher and more obvious.
This Patriots roster is far from a reclamation project or a tear down. On Sunday night, they went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams and the reigning MVP, and beat them at their own game with recent draft classes (and UDFAs) leading the way. With young players, there are going to be flashes, then the consistency comes with time. Once that kicks in, it may force some pundits to rewrite their draft scorecards.
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.