By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Sunday saw the potential for plenty of lineup juggling by the Patriots. Their starting left tackle was placed on IR the day before the game, their Week 1 starting running back was returning from a two-month absence due to injury, and their defense was coming off of one of its worst performances of the season.
How did these factors shape the way Bill Belichick used his roster on Sunday? We’ll get into a few key positions, but first here’s a look at the overall snap counts against the Cardinals.
Sunday saw Sony Michel return to the Patriots’ game day roster for the first time since Week 3, but if you blinked, you may have missed him. The 2018 first-round pick played just a single offensive snap on Sunday. It came in a two-back set, with Damien Harris on the field as well.
There’s two ways to view Michel’s light workload. One explanation is that the Patriots wanted to limit his workload in his first game back, the other is the team feels more than comfortable with Damien Harris and James White as their two main backs.
Likely, it’s a combination of the two. We’ve seen throughout the season that Bill Belichick will ease players back in as they return from missing time. That’s applied to almost everybody on the team, including Stephon Gilmore last week. At the same time, based on what we’ve seen in recent weeks Harris and White should be getting the bulk of the touches at running back.
The real test will be next week, now that Michel has been back in an NFL game. Expect his playing time to increase, but eclipsing either of the backs ahead of him, especially Harris, would be a surprise.
As they did back in Week 1, before the offensive line injuries started to really pile up, the Patriots returned to a rotation at tackle on Sunday against the Cardinals. However, unlike the opening game rotation, which occurred at right tackle between Jermaine Eluemunor and rookie Michael Onwenu, this one was at left tackle, between Eluemunor and rookie Justin Herron.
This is telling for a couple of reasons. First, the team trusted Onwenu to go an entire game at right tackle against a blitz-heavy team. That’s a huge show of confidence in the sixth-round pick, who has emerged as arguably the Patriots best first-year player.
It also allowed the Patriots to get a good look at both Eluemunor and Herron in quality NFL snaps. Why does that matter? Because the Patriots will have three key decisions to make along the offensive line this offseason.
Due to age and expiring contracts, there’s a real chance that in the next two years the Patriots will need replacements at both tackle spots, as well as at left guard. In theory, Eluemunor, Herron, and Onwenu (a guard in college) could fill all three of those spots in a number of combinations.
Obviously, one game isn’t nearly enough to decide if the Patriots already have the future of their offensive line in-house. But getting to see those players get game action (or possibly games, if the rotation continues while Isaiah Wynn is on IR), gives the team something to work off of as they make those decisions this spring.
In his return to game action last week, Stephon Gilmore ended up being the Patriots second-most used cornerback behind J.C. Jackson. He played 90-percent of the teams defensive snaps. That may seem like a lot, but it was actually a season-low for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
The same questions applied to Sony Michel above applied to Gilmore last week. Were the Patriots just easing him back in (relatively speaking), or had J.C. Jackson ascended to the top cornerback spot with interceptions in five straight games?
It turned out to be the former, as Gilmore played wire-to-wire against the Cardinals. He looked good to, holding DeAndre Hopkins to just five targets, the second-fewest times Kyler Murray has looked his way in a game this season. A fully healthy, fully involved Gilmore will go a long way towards helping the Patriots finish the season strong.
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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.