By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Bill Belichick has mentioned numerous times this season how the lack of a preseason has made things difficult for some of the Patriots’ younger players. While making up four games (and joint practices) worth of reps just isn’t realistic during the regular season, Sunday’s blowout of the Chargers provided Belichick a chance to see some of his new pieces is live game action.
Sunday was the first time this season the Patriots did not have an active DNP, with all active players receiving relatively significant playing time. Who made the most of their opportunities? We’ll get into that, but first here’s a look at the overall snap counts.
Jakob Johnson is quietly becoming a crucial cog in the Patriots offense. The second-year UDFA played 42 percent of the Patriots snaps yesterday. He’s now been on the field at least 40 percent of the time in four of the Patriots last five games, and in five of their last seven. Through the first five games of the season, he never topped 33 percent.
Johnson’s increase in playing time has coincided with the Patriots winning four of their last five (the same four of five Johnson has played a regular role) as they find a new identity as a power-running offense. Sparked by the breakout performance of Damien Harris, the Patriots are throwing heavy personnel on the field, and daring teams to stop them on the ground. It’s a similar approach to the one they used during their 2018 playoff run.
Johnson and the Patriots rushing attack will be put to a new test on Thursday, when they have to push Aaron Donald and the Rams stout defensive front out of the way for 60 minutes. Another solid performance from Johnson in that game will go a long way.
Just a little over a month after young Patriots linebackers couldn’t get on the field, they were featured heavily in Sunday’s win. Josh Uche was the highlight, playing a career-high 50-percent of the team’s defensive snaps. The 2020 second-round pick was flying off the edge all afternoon, and hit Chargers’ quarterback Justin Herbert three times on his 36 downs played.
Third-round pick Anfernee Jennings was in on 61-percent of the plays – the second-highest defensive usage rate of his rookie year. He recorded a quarterback hit. The Alabama product also played nine snaps on special teams – significant after an ‘illegal block’ penalty he was called for last week wiped out a punt return touchdown.
While Terez Hall isn’t a rookie, he fits into this group as well. The 2019 UDFA spent all of last year on the Patriots’ practice squad, before making his debut in Week 9 this season. He saw a steady workload in LA as well, playing 39 percent of the team’s defensive plays. Considering the Patriots were up big most of the afternoon, it’s significant Hall – a primary run stopper – was on the field so much. When tasked in coverage though he was able to hold his own. That’s a promising development for both the player and the team.
Adhering to their typical personnel usage this season, the Patriots usually have two or three defensive players who are only used in spot situations playing less than 10 percent of the snaps. Those reps were nowhere to be found this week with the Patriots rotating heavily, especially in the secondary. Jonathan Jones was New England’s least-used defensive player with a 26-percent usage rate, and an injury limited him for a good chunk of the game.
Perhaps the most surprising workload was that of Myles Bryant, who was on the field for nearly half the game. A rookie UDFA out of Washington, Bryant has been a healthy scratch or played sparingly in recent weeks. But late in the game on Sunday, he was running up the field with the NFL’s leading receiver, Keenan Allen.
On the other hand, some of the Patriots more heavily-used players got much-needed rest with a short week ahead. Entering Sunday, captain Devin McCourty had only missed two defensive snaps all season, both coming in Week 1. He’d played wire-to-wire in 10 straight games, the only player on the team to do so. That streak was snapped against the Chargers, when he only played 81 percent of the downs, and for the first time this year wasn’t the team’s most-used defensive player.
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.