By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
As the Patriots season winds down, they still seem to be playing with different pieces, looking for fits on both sides of the ball. After a month of leaning on younger players, they turned back to their veterans Thursday night against the Rams.
Which positions saw the biggest shift? And what happened at tight end with Ryan Izzo now on IR. We’ll get into all of that, but first a look at the overall snap counts from Thursday night.
Ever since Sony Michel returned from IR, it appeared as though he was solidly behind Damien Harris on the depth chart as the early down back. Last week against the Chargers Harris played half of the team’s offensive snaps, a remarkably high number for a Patriots running back this year. Michel on the other hand got 33 percent of the downs, with most of those coming as mop-up duty late in the game.
Against the Rams though, it was a much more even split. Harris still led with 37 percent of the snaps, but Michel was right behind him at 25 percent. After Harris suffered a back injury late in the game, and with the playoffs all but mathematically out of reach, it’s possible Michel reassumed the main role for the final stretch of the season.
Meanwhile James White saw the field more than he has in just about a month, in one of his most involved games of the season. New England was forced into obvious passing situations from the early stages of the game, leading to a 46-percent usage rate for the Patriots’ captain. Still, they couldn’t do much to get him the ball and he finished with four touches (one catch, three carries) for 18 yards.
The Patriots’ lack of a true passing attack has limited what White has been able to contribute this year as a whole, and Thursday night was a perfect example. This team needs to run the ball to win games, and they have better pure runners for when they get ahead. When they do pass, opponents are able to focus on him near the line of scrimmage much more given the lesser threat of a downfield shot. It’s a departure from recent years, when he’s regularly been one of the team’s top receivers.
With Ryan Izzo going on IR before the game, and Devin Asiasi being activated, it appeared it was finally time for the Patriots rookie tight ends to shine. While they both got on the field, they didn’t do much.
The duo combined for just one target, a broken up pass to Asiasi on fourth down late in the game. However, they both saw regular playing time, which at this point feels like a big step forwards.
Keene proved to be the new TE1 with Izzo on the shelf. He played just over half of the Patriots’ offensive snaps, the first time either of the rookie tight ends was used over 50-percent of the time this year. Asiasi saw a usage rate of 39 percent, picking up where he left off when he last played in October.
At no point did the Patriots have both tight ends in the game at the same time, and four times lined up without a tight end in the formation (plus one more snap with rookie tackle Justin Herron at the lone TE). For an offense that usually relies on multiple tight ends to contribute, that’s not a recipe for success. Compounding the issue is this year’s added focus on the run game, where having extra tight ends on the field as blockers can open things up. Right now, outside of tackle eligible sets, it appears they’re not comfortable doing that.
During the Patriots stretch of four wins over five games, one of the more interesting developments was the rise of Terez Hall. The 2019 UDFA got a chance to break into the lineup following an injury to starting middle linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. Even when Bentley returned, Hall was still on the field a good amount.
That came to an end Thursday night, when Hall played just 19 percent of the Patriots defensive snaps – a season low since he debuted in Week 9. Meanwhile, Bentley was on the field 81 percent of the time, making it his most active game since returning from a groin injury.
On one hand, Bentley is the better run defender and the Rams kept the ball on the ground for most of the night. However, Hall showed promise through his first five games, and the hope should be his diminished role isn’t a permanent change.
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