By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots found an offense that works for them in their win over the Ravens. The downside is that they de-emphasized arguably their most important receiver in the passing game.
N'Keal Harry may not be needed for the Patriots to beat the Houston Texans on Sunday, but they'll certainly need more receiving production out of the 2019 first-round pick if they want to go on a big run in the second half of the season. It's a fairly obvious statement after Harry played 35 snaps and had zero targets against Baltimore. It's not necessarily Cam Newton's fault, either.
When asked about the tightened three-receiver rotation that the Patriots employed against the Ravens, Bill Belichick described a blend of playing to the receivers' strengths and managing their workloads.
"We have a lot of confidence in all the players and all of our receivers and they work well together and handle different roles and can we try to take advantage of certain things that they do, but they're really able to do it all, "Belichick said Tuesday. "But, as you said, to kind of manage the group and let guys concentrate on specific plays or specific roles that we think they'd be good in, then we try to do that where we can – not be predictable and do the same thing all the time, I'm not saying that, but there are times you can take advantage of different combinations of people in there and what they do and how it fits together.
"So, I thought Josh [McDaniels] and the offensive staff did a good job of that. We use the people that we have all offensively and try to put them in positions where they can be productive."
For his first game back from a concussion, Harry had a reasonably large workload and played physically while avoiding another serious head injury (but he did pop up Friday with a shoulder injury). It would be irresponsible to even come close to writing him off at this point in his career, and it's encouraging to know that Belichick found ways to put him in the game where he could succeed. The concern is the coaches determined that Harry was mostly best utilized as a blocker.
Of his 35 snaps, Harry blocked or acted as a decoy on 24 of them. He ran 11 routes in the passing game, but got an appreciable amount of separation on only three of them. He did block well, including key blocks on Rex Burkhead's touchdown catch and Newton's run into the end zone.
The coaches are clearly showing more confidence in Harry as one of the two receivers in their personnel package of choice lately, "21" personnel (two running backs, two receivers, one tight end). They can clearly run the ball well out of those groupings. But if the offense wants to become more unpredictable and reach another level, they'll need to at least have the threat of Harry making more plays as a pass-catcher out of that package.
"I think it's always important to complement statistically what you've done," Josh McDaniels said on balancing the run game with more passes. "You look at yourself and you try to evaluate what you're good at, and you also understand that the defense is also looking at the same numbers.
"Most teams try to come in and stop the things you do best, so in order to be a productive offense as we move forward through the course of the season and you have more tape on film for everyone to look at, it's important that you're able to complement and play off the things that you've done."
The Patriots' play-action passing game out of 21 personnel was reasonably productive against the Ravens. Newton went 6-for-9 for 89 yards passing in "21," a 98.8 rating. But three of his completions went to fullback Jakob Johnson (two) and tight end Ryan Izzo. It's fair to wonder how sustainable that attack can be without Harry becoming more of a factor as a receiver.
Ultimately, it was a positive step for Harry to do well at what the Patriots asked him to do and avoid further injuries. The hope is that the coaches begin to show more confidence in him in the passing game, because they're going to need him.
Does Momentum Matter?
I asked Patriots running back Damien Harris if he agrees with teammate Devin McCourty that week-to-week momentum isn't a real thing that exists. It was a poor choice of words. What Devin actually said was that momentum "doesn't matter" as far as carrying over from a big win to the next game. So that may make for an interesting conversation when Harris asks Devin about my flubbed question.
But as for week-to-week momentum ... the coaching staff is almost certainly making sure the players don't get too high after a big win over Baltimore. The Patriots are still 4-5 and any momentum they may have built would go down the toilet if they stumble against the Texans on Sunday. Harris, who is quickly proving to be wise beyond his 23 years, understands that the Pats still have work to do and room to get better.
"The season's just not magically changed just because we got one big win," Harris said Thursday. "It's definitely nice and it gives us confidence moving forward and we want to keep trying to string these things together. But it was easy to come in here ready to work and ready to move on and use that as fuel to just keep going. We've been in some rough spots this year and one thing that we've told each other is just to remain true to who we are and just continue to put in the work and the season isn't over.
"And so now I think that it's equally as important, if not more, to have that same mentality after coming off a big win, the season's not over. We're still, if we're being honest, we're still not where we want to be as far as how the season's going. But we still have time to turn that around and that's what we're trying to do. We're very glad to have a good win at home against a very good team, like I said. But the challenge now is to just keep doing it and finding ways to continue to improve so that we continue to go out there and have success and string these things together."
Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore has been out for the past three games with a knee injury, but the mere fact he spoke to reporters on Friday indicates that he has a good chance to finally return to the lineup Sunday against the Texans. They may need him, as the secondary has to deal with a deep group of big-play receivers that includes Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, and Randall Cobb.
Gilmore has excelled as a Patriot because of his consistency as much as anything else. His one-week-at-a-time approach has allowed him to keep playing at a high level. Now the method takes on a different significance, as he returns from an injury amid a season where he wasn't quite playing at his best.
“That’s what you have to do in the National Football League – you have to be able to take things on, whatever comes your way, and be able to come back and keep fighting and keep playing," Gilmore said Friday. "So that’s what it’s about – forgetting about what happened in the past and preparing and making plays for your team. That’s how I look at it.”
Gunner Goes Home
Patriots wide receiver/punt returner Gunner Olszewski grew up in Alvin, Texas, about 30 miles southeast of Houston. He was already on injured reserve by the time the Patriots traveled down there in his rookie season, so Sunday presents his first opportunity to play in front of the proverbial hometown crowd.
"I didn’t play no high school games [at NRG Stadium], but I actually played like our TIFI [Texas Intercity Football Inc.] Little League football game," Olszewski said Friday. "We played during halftime of the Texas preseason game. So, you know, I played a few snaps on that field. Yeah. I mean, coming home, it's cool. You know, I had this circled last year on the calendar. You know, it's kind of rare we get to go to Houston two years in a row, but I'm pretty stoked about that. Yeah, I'm looking forward to being back in 'Tay-hass.'"
MORE: Patriots Week 11 Mailbag
Olszewski didn't play on offense against the Ravens, but he did play 12 special teams snaps without an opportunity to return a punt. He will certainly hope to get the ball in his hands this time.
As with every week, I talked plenty of Patriots with Ty Anderson on the Sports Hub Sidelines podcast, as well as the Sports Hub's weekly Patriots podcast with Alex Barth. You can listen to both of those 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].