By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Could this Sunday be déjà vu all over again for the Patriots?
After struggling against an athletic Texans team with a pass-happy offense and blitz-heavy defense last week, New England gets a similar blueprint opposite them this week in the Arizona Cardinals.
What will the Patriots change this week? Here’s a look at the key matchups they need to win to have an easier go of it this time around.
When New England has the ball: Cam Newton vs. Isaiah Simmons
Much of the talk since the Patriots loss to the Texans has been the offense’s ability (or lack thereof) to pick up the blitz. Arizona has the fifth-highest blitz rate in the league this season, sending extra pressure on just over 40 percent of their defensive snaps.
Complicating that is rookie Isaiah Simmons. The Swiss Army Knife defender out of Clemson can line up at any three levels of the defense, and has been used as a rusher more and more in recent weeks. He’s the ideal defensive piece to disguise blitzes.
It will be imperative for Cam Newton and the Patriots offense to keep an eye on Simmons at all times, and know where he is before the snap. Given how they struggled to block safety blitzes especially last week, New England can’t allow free rushes to come from the third level.
Along with Simmons, safety Budda Baker is a threat from the secondary as well, with two sacks on the year. The two may not be Arizona’s most potent pass rushers, but they can be the hardest to pick up pre-snap.
When Arizona has the ball: Stephon Gilmore vs. DeAndre Hopkins
Strength versus strength. Two of the best players in the game at their respective positions set to go head-to-head. That’s always must watch football.
Hopkins is just two weeks removed from his seven-catch, 127-yard performance against the Buffalo Bills that culminated in his game-winning Hail Mary touchdown reception. It was Hopkins’ fifth 100-yard game of the season, as the Clemson product continues to adjust incredibly well to his new team.
Meanwhile, Gilmore returned from a knee injury last week and didn’t miss a beat. He wasn’t targeted in man coverage against the pass-heavy Texans.
Who will grab the upper hand in this superstar matchup? If Gilmore can stay on track and limit Hopkins, it’ll go a long way towards a bounce-back performance for the Patriots defense. However, if Hopkins runs wild, it could look like a repeat of last week.
Bonus: Patriots Pass Rush vs. Kyler Murray
Even though he didn’t do a ton of damage on the stat sheet (24 yards on eight carries), Deshaun Watson gave the Patriots’ defense fits with his legs last week. He was constantly escaping contain, extending plays, and making throws on the run. It was a huge reason Houston won that game.
This week, the Patriots have a similar challenge in Kyler Murray. Murray has quickly proven to be one of the most elusive quarterbacks in the league, and in recent weeks has shown a regular ability to make something out of nothing.
For the Patriots defense, contain is key. Last week, it was Chase Winovich and Deatrich Wise assigned to set the pocket more often than not. When either would attempt an inside move, it allowed Watson to get around the edge. This week, whoever is coming from the end position in the pass rush needs to stay disciplined and attempt to close the pocket on Murray, rather than completely sell out to get to him.
Murray is still a young, relatively inexperienced quarterback. If the Patriots defense can force him to move instead of let him move, they may be able to fluster him into making some mistakes. I went in depth on that, as well as a full preview of the game, with Matt Dolloff on this week’s Patriots Preview Podcast, which you can check out below.
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.