By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Heading into Sunday’s matchup against the Texans, all signs seemed to be pointing towards an encouraging performance from the Patriots defense. They had just shut down the Baltimore Ravens, key players were returning from injury, and they were facing a very one-sided Houston offensive attack. That one side (one player) proved to be a runaway freight train, as Deshaun Watson & Co. established their would be no need for any running game.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots were left chasing a lead for most of the afternoon. How did the Texans handcuff the Patriots into certain personnel? And did the returns/debuts of players at key positions make a difference. Let’s get into that, but first here’s the total Patriots snap counts from Sunday:
Sunday marked the Patriots debut for tight end Jordan Thomas, going up against his former team in the Texans. With both rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene on IR, the Patriots have lacked an option opposite Ryan Izzo for the last few weeks, and Thomas’ addition to the roster looked to be a chance for them to get creative.
Early on, it looked like that would be the case. Thomas was on the field over Izzo a few times on the Patriots first drive, which was by far their best of the day. But as they moved away from the run later in the game, they moved away from Thomas as well, leaving him with only six snaps. They also never used any ‘x2’ personnel, putting Izzo and Thomas on the field at the same time.
It would have been unrealistic to expect Thomas to play a heavy role on Sunday given he’s only had one week of practice with the team. But there seemed to be no urgency in getting him involved. As Ryan Izzo continues to struggle, Thomas should have a bigger role, but he may not be ready yet. Next week will present a tough challenge to get him going, as the Cardinals have been one of the top teams defending tight ends so far this season.
Sunday marked the return of middle linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. The Patriots captain had missed the previous two games with a groin injury he suffered in the loss to Buffalo. In his place, second-year practice squad-promotee Terez Hall had been playing well. Going into the game, the balance between the two represented a new angle for the Patriots defense, who spent most of the season short on linebackers.
Despite Hall’s recent performance, Bentley assumed the main role in the middle of the defense. He played 72 percent of the Patriots defensive snaps, which is just below the rate he was playing before getting hurt. Hall did play some (17 snaps), and the two were occasionally on the field together, but it is clear Bentley’s job is safe for now despite the injury.
The question is how the dynamic will shift going forward. Clearly the defense had some issues with the mobility of Watson against Houston. With games against fleet-footed quarterbacks like Kyler Murray, Tua Tagovailoa, and Josh Allen still remaining, could the more athletic Hall see more playing time?
The big return for the Patriots on Sunday was cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore had missed three games with a knee injury, as rumors swirled about his future with the team.
Gilmore was certainly impactful, especially in the running game where he made a few tackles on stretch plays and tosses near the line of scrimmage. Yet even with Gilmore looking healthy, it was J.C. Jackson taking over the top cornerback spot in terms of snaps.
Jackson was on the field for all but two of the Patriots’ defensive plays (97-percent of snaps), while Gilmore’s usage lagged behind his usual workload with an 87-percent usage rate. Gilmore hadn’t played less than 95 percent of snaps in a game this year before getting hurt, and played wire-to-wire for three straight weeks before missing time.
Why the shift from Gilmore to Jackson? It could be a simple case of easing the reigning Defensive Player of the Year back into game shape. As has been the case with numerous Patriots players this season, the team seems to give them a smaller role in the first game or two back from injury. At the same time though, Jackson has been playing very well, and had interceptions in five straight games before the streak was snapped against Houston. Has we won the No. 1 job away from Gilmore? We’ll see how the distribution looks next week against a Cardinals team deep at wide receiver.
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.