New England Patriots

  • The Patriots have a chance to come full circle in the second half of their season. That opportunity kicked off with their 26-3 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

    Last season, the Patriots were rolling heading into their bye week. They faced the Colts in the first game after the bye, in a game that began a stretch of losing five of six to close the season. That game last year was something that was talked about in the building quite a bit this week, something multiple players alluded to after the game. “Obviously [we] talked a lot about last year and how we felt after the game,” Mac Jones said during his postgame press conference.

    This year, the Patriots were struggling heading into the bye, sitting at .500 before Sunday’s game. With this win, they’ve built up some momentum before their week off, as they look to close the season strong and make a playoff push.

    What allowed the Patriots to be successful on Sunday? What areas should be focused on during the extra week? Let’s take a look…

  • Sacks, sacks, and more sacks

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 06: Ja'Whaun Bentley #8 and Matthew Judon #9 of the New England Patriots celebrate after a sack against the Indianapolis Colts during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 06: Ja’Whaun Bentley #8 and Matthew Judon #9 of the New England Patriots celebrate after a sack against the Indianapolis Colts during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    Where else would we start? The Patriots tied a franchise record for single-game sacks on Sunday, bringing down Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger a total of nine times. It’s the fifth time they’ve hit that number, doing so most recently almost 21 years ago to the day – Nov. 4 2001 in a Week 8 game against the Atlanta Falcons in a game that had both Chris Chandler and a rookie Michael Vick under center on the other side.

    Doing most of the damage were linebackers Matthew Judon and Josh Uche, who both had three sacks each. Judon is now up to 11.5 QB takedowns on the season, which leads the league. He’s also one shy of his single-season career high from last year.

    Meanwhile, Uche tied his previous single-season career high from last season in this game alone. He’s now up to four sacks on the year. After missing two games in mid-October, he’s put together back-to-back impact performances. Over the last year and a half, one of the Patriots’ biggest holes to fill has been the pass rusher lining up opposite Judon. Uche has always been considered one of the leading candidates for that role, and is playing up to the job right now.

    Coming into the season the Patriots hadn’t had a player get three sacks in a game since Chandler Jones in 2015. They’ve now had three this year, with Judon and Uche joining defensive lineman Deatrich Wise who did so in Week 3. This is the first time the team has had two players get three sacks each in the same game since Andre Tippett and Don Blackmon did so in the 1985 season opener.

    In addition to those two players, the Patriots got sacks from linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Raekwon McMillan, with linebacker Jahlani Tavai combining with Wise for the other sack.

    It’s more than just the pass rushers who deserve credit for the pass rush though, as Judon pointed out after the game. “That the secondary covered their butts off today. It was a lot of coverage sacks. My sack probably was a coverage sack,” he said. “We just have to continue to feed off that energy and each other…When we do that, we just roll.. We’ve seen it in a couple other games and today we had it.”

    The Patriots will need their pass rush to continue to be a factor down the stretch as they face some of the league’s most prolific passing offenses. That being said, the pass rushers still should have a chance to make plays. Of the Patriots’ last eight games, only one is against a team that PFF grades in the top 10 in the league in pass blocking (Las Vegas Raiders, 69.3 grade, 9th best in the NFL).

  • Situational defense

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 06: Anfernee Jennings #58 of the New England Patriots reacts in the first half of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 06: Anfernee Jennings #58 of the New England Patriots reacts in the first half of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

    The rate in which they got to the quarterback wasn’t the only historically-significant part of the Patriots’ defensive performance on Sunday. They also stood up very strong situationally – especially on third downs. The Colts had 14 third down attempts on Sunday – and didn’t convert a single one.

    That 0-for-14 number is one of the biggest goose eggs put up in that category in the NFL in a long time. According to Pro Football Reference, it’s just the third time a team has had 14 or more third down conversion attempts without picking one up since they began tracking the stat in 1991. The Jets were actually the team on the defensive side of both of the previous two games, holding the 2009 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to an 0-for-14, and the 2012 Arizona Cardinals to an 0-for-15.

    However, in both of those games, the Jets allowed a 4th down conversion. The Patriots stopped both Colts fourth down tries on Sunday, resulting in them going 0-for-16 when trying to move the chains on later downs.

    As Bill Belichick pointed out earlier this season, getting third and fourth down stops are an all-down effort. That was the case on Sunday, with the Colts’ average distance to go on their 3rd downs was 8.5 yards. Of the 14 tries, they only gained positive yards on two – a 3rd & 18 and 3rd & 25. On fourth downs the average distance to go was a yard and a half, and the Colts gained nothing on either play.

    The defense stood strong in the red zone as well. They held the Colts to field goals on their only two trips, with the Colts missing one.

  • Yards per play

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 06: A general view during the second half between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 06: A general view during the second half between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

    Just how lacking was this game offensively overall? Neither team averaged a first down per possession. The Patriots averaged 3.3 yards per play (which would in theory leave them a tenth of a yard short on fourth downs), while the Colts averaged an even 2.0 yards per play in their first game since firing offensive coordinator Marcus Brady. It’s the first time two NFL teams have averaged at or under 3.3 yards per play in the same game since an early-season 2015 matchup between the Broncos and Ravens.

    For the Patriots, it was a bit of a rare effort to come away with the victory. Going back to 2020, there have been 30 instances where a single team averaged 3.3 yards or fewer in a game. Coming into Sunday, those teams were 4-26, with the Patriots’ win being the first such win of this NFL season.

    Coming into this game, the Patriots were averaging 5.5 yards per play, which ranked right in the middle among all NFL teams this season. Still, Sunday was a prime example of how this year’s Patriots offense can sputter, something Mac Jones noted after the game.

    “Every drive can’t seem like it’s so hard to get yards,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to skip some third downs and move the ball and get explosive plays.”

  • Goal line woes

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 06: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots huddles with teammates during the first quarter of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 06: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots huddles with teammates during the first quarter of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    One of the areas the Patriots’ offensive struggles were the most apparent was in the red zone. On one of their longest drives of the game, the Patriots had a 1st & goal from the 2-yard line. After two negative runs, Jones was sacked on third down and the Patriots were forced to kick a field goal.

    For the most part, the Patriots’ plays near the goal line were all runs. The team is missing its best red zone threat in DeVante Parker, but even with him on the field in recent games the red zone offense has become predictable at times this season. This should be an area the team looks to build on during the bye week.

  • The Rhamondre Stevenson takeover

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 06: Rhamondre Stevenson #38 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball during the second half of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 06: Rhamondre Stevenson #38 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball during the second half of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    It’s Rhamondre Stevenson’s world right now, and opposing defenses are just living in it. Stevenson put together another dominant performance on Sunday, as the continues to assume the role of the focal point of the Patriots’ offense.

    Against the Colts, Stevenson led the team in both carries (15) and targets (7). He finished with 18 touches for 70 yards and a score.

    Right now, he’s the playmaker on the Patriots’ offense. Just over 35 percent of the plays went his way on Sunday, which is a relatively large number in general but actually down from recent weeks.

    This setup is a bit of a double-edged sword for the Patriots. Stevenson is excellent with the ball in his hands – however he gets it – and seems to only be getting better as the season goes on. Yet all of that involvement comes with a physical toll, and the Patriots still have eight games to play. As much as they seemingly can’t afford to take him off the field, can the Patriots afford to keep Stevenson this involved right now, risking he’ll be worn down or injured for key games late in the season?

    Even just personnel-wise, the Patriots’ are still searching for an alternate option. Damien Harris has been banged up, and they appear hesitant to turn to either of their rookie backs, Kevin Harris or Pierre Strong. The latest player to audition for the spell back role was J.J. Taylor, who made his season debut on Sunday after beginning the season on the practice squad. He carried the ball five times, gaining one yard total, and caught one pass for eight yards.

    For now, it seems like Stevenson seeing usage rates into the 70s and 80s is here to stay. With that being the case, bye week rest will be important.

  • Figuring out the offensive line

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - AUGUST 11: Cole Strange #69 of the New England Patriots looks on during the preseason game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on August 11, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – AUGUST 11: Cole Strange #69 of the New England Patriots looks on during the preseason game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on August 11, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    As the Patriots head into the bye week, the offensive line may be the team’s biggest question. The juggling up front continued on Sunday.

    For the second week in a row, rookie Cole Strange was pulled from the game early. Strange struggled to hold up against multiple Colts interior rushers, with the final straw seemingly being an illegal hands to the face penalty on the Patriots’ second drive. After a strong start to the season, Strange has looked lost without center David Andrews, who has missed the last two games with a concussion, playing on his right hip.

    Filling in for Strange was Isaiah Wynn, who was available because he was replaced as the team’s starting left tackle by Yodny Cajuste. Cajuste got the start because Marcus Cannon, who had stepped in for Wynn following his benchings earlier this year, suffered a concussion this week and was placed on IR.

    The good news here is that at first glance (going off the live action before reviewing the film), Cajuste seems to have held his own in his game against a good Indianapolis defensive front. If he can continue to play that way, it would be a major development for a team that has had questions at right tackle all season.

    What the plan is at left guard will be a major question, though. The bye week comes at the right time for Strange, who now will be looking to avoid the ‘rookie wall.’

  • Special teams bounce back

    Nov 6, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones (31) is congratulated by wide receiver Matthew Slater (18) and linebacker Anfernee Jennings (58) after blocking a punt during the first half against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 6, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones (31) is congratulated by wide receiver Matthew Slater (18) and linebacker Anfernee Jennings (58) after blocking a punt during the first half against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    During the week, multiple Patriots talked about how the team’s special teams performance against the Colts last year was their worst of the season. Among those making that point was captain Matthew Slater, who referred to this year’s game as “a little bit of redemption.”

    “I know it was personal for Cam [Achord, special teams coordinator] and Joe [Houston, special teams assistant] this week,” Slater said after the game. “They did a great job of getting us ready and then I think guys stepped up and executed when they needed to. Kudos to everybody for embracing the challenge which was issued by coach early in the week. It was no mystery that we didn’t play the way we wanted to last year so it was nice to go and do it this year.”

    Some of Belichick’s answers after the game made it clear just how intimate the focus was on special teams this week. For one, rookie punt returner Marcus Jones didn’t have a lot of experience fielding the ball from lefty punters like Matt Haack of the Colts. To help get ready, he worked with practice squad punter Michael Palardy – a lefty himself who the team just signed this week.

    “This is kind of a big challenge for [Jones] this week with the left-footed punter. It’s something we really haven’t seen all year,” Belichick explained after the game. “We brought Michael here, Palardy, and that was – I think good for Marcus to be able to handle those lefty punts out in the kind of windy practice conditions all week. So I think that that helped him as well. Again, one of those little things, and Palardy did a good job. I think it helped Marcus’s ball handling on a left footed punter.” Jones ended up returning three punts for 34 yards, including a 23-yarder, and didn’t have any trouble fielding the ball between those three returns and two fair catches.

    That wind was also a factor when it came to Jonathan Jones’ blocked punt, a key momentum-shifting play early in the game. Belichick noted that it was “pretty strong to their [the Colts’] bench. Just about all the kicks went to their sideline.” On the blocked punt, the Patriots had Jones on a designed rush from the Colts’ sideline, knowing Haack would be angling in that direction and shortening how much ground Jones needed to cover.

    One player the wind didn’t impact though? Nick Folk. “Nick – didn’t bother Nick,” Belichick said. “He bangs them right through the middle. He’s amazing.”

    The only blemish on the Patriots’ special teams performance on Sunday was punter Jake Bailey. After a rough game two weeks ago it looked like Bailey was ready to bounce back given his performance against the Jets. However, he averaged just 34.4 net yards per kick including a seven-yard miskick late in the game.

  • Looking ahead

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 06:  Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on in the second half of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 06:
    Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on in the second half of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    The Patriots now head into their bye week, which carries some weight this year. As mentioned above, the team was clicking heading into last year’s bye, in first place in the AFC. They never regained their rhythm though, losing five of their last six games.

    While they’re not sitting as high as they were at this time last season, the Patriots have won two games in a row, four of their last five, and are back over .500 after a rocky start. Expect there to be plenty of questions over the next two weeks about what they’re doing differently this time around to avoid a similar fallback. They’ll return from the bye in two weeks, at home against a Jets team that just beat the AFC-leading Buffalo Bills.

  • 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 abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.