New England Patriots

Jun 10, 2021; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (50) talks to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels during OTAs at the New England Patriots practice complex. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots are officially in a post-Stephon Gilmore world, but the truth is it’s been going on for almost a calendar year.

Gilmore’s last game with the Patriots was Dec. 20, 2020, a 22-12 road loss to the Miami Dolphins. J.C. Jackson has been in the No. 1 role by default in the six games since, with mixed results. Now, his role is simply consummated.

Jackson got dusted by the Bills’ Stefon Diggs in a 38-9 loss in Week 16 of the 2020 season, but has compiled two interceptions and four total pass breakups in four games in his first full year as the top guy. He and the team are used to it by now, and they have a full vote of confidence from head coach Bill Belichick.

“Well, that’s been the way that it’s been for the end of last season and this season,” Belichick said Wednesday, when asked about his confidence in Jackson’s ability to step up as the team’s “new” No. 1 cornerback. Asked if he’s confident in the overall group without Gilmore going forward, Belichick snipped back: “Well, are you trying to relate the two situations? I don’t really understand the question. Do I think J.C. [Jackson] is a good player? Yeah. I think J.C. [Jackson] is a good player. He’s a very good player. He’s performed well for us, so yes. He’s a good corner. He’s a good player.”

Free-agent addition Jalen Mills came to New England having converted to more of a hybrid defensive back, but over the summer emerged as the team’s No. 2 outside corner. He was arguably the Patriots’ best cornerback in an admirable performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, limiting Bucs wideout Chris Godwin to three catches for 55 yards.

Oct 3, 2021; Foxboro, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills (2) celebrates a defensive stop of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 3, 2021; Foxboro, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills (2) celebrates a defensive stop of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay appeared to put up solid receiving numbers on paper, but the Patriots clearly employed a “bend-but-don’t-break” approach designed to keep them out of the end zone and minimize yards after the catch. It wasn’t enough to win, but holding the defending Super Bowl champions to 19 points and Tom Brady to 269 yards with no touchdown passes is impressive on its own. And perhaps a sign that the post-Gilmore Patriots are better off in the secondary than once believed.

“We’ve been pretty healthy at that position,” Belichick said Wednesday. “I’d say, overall, that group’s played pretty well. There’s always room for improvement. I’m not saying that, but overall, we’ve played the passing game fairly well this year and played the best passing game in the league last week and played that competitively, so I’d say there are other areas on the team that are maybe more, again, everything can be improved, but I’d say there are other areas that can improve more than that group.”

The Patriots still have slot corner Jonathan Jones, who held Antonio Brown to seven catches for 63 largely inconsequential yards, while playing a lot on the outside. Mike Evans caught seven out of 12 targets for 75 yards while being covered by Jackson, but like the others was kept out of the end zone. Other than one 28-yard catch, Jackson prevented Evans from burning him for big plays.

Rookie cornerback Shaun Wade remains a dark horse to contribute later in the season. He has yet to be active in a game, but Belichick said he’s progressing “good” so far and that the corners who haven’t played will “eventually help us.”

Third-year pro Joejuan Williams was a healthy scratch on Sunday against the Bucs, while practice squad DB Myles Bryant got elevated to the main roster and played nine defensive snaps. Williams has averaged just 11.4 defensive snaps per game since being selected 45th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. If his development had gone better over the first two seasons and change, the loss of Gilmore may sting less.

But Gilmore, besides being “Coach Steph” behind the scenes, has been largely a ghost in Foxborough for months now. The Patriots have forged ahead with Jackson atop the cornerback depth chart, and solid players backing him up. They’ve mostly performed to a respectable standard. The Patriots have allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards in the NFL, and the second-lowest opposing passer rating (67.6). Again, that’s after facing Brady and the Super Bowl champions, with a stacked receiver group.

The Patriots’ road to trading Gilmore was bumpy. But the post-Gilmore path should be smoother.

Here’s more from this edition of the 98.5 The Sports Hub Patriots Notebook

  • Jamie Collins Arrives

    LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 06: Jamie Collins #58 of the New England Patriots celebrates after causing Colt McCoy #12 of the Washington Redskins a to fumble the ball during the second half at FedExField on October 6, 2019 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

    LANDOVER, MD – OCTOBER 06: Jamie Collins #58 of the New England Patriots celebrates after causing Colt McCoy #12 of the Washington Redskins a to fumble the ball during the second half at FedExField on October 6, 2019 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

    Trading Gilmore for Jamie Collins looks bad on paper. But at least Collins is going to play. The veteran linebacker is back for his third stint in New England, appearing at practice Thursday in jersey No. 58.

    History suggests that the Patriots will get the most out of Collins, to start. The Lions released him outright, allowing New England to sign him to a fresh deal. So if Collins intends to play beyond 2021, he’s gunning for another contract.

    Collins signed a one-year deal with the Patriots in 2019. Here’s how his first eight games went: six sacks, eight QB hits, seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

    The one issue that has dogged Collins throughout his career is his overall consistency, which has led to him bouncing around the league. But if his third bounce into Gillette Stadium goes as well as his second, he could be an excellent pickup.

  • Opportunity Knocks

    PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 19: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots drops back against the Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 19, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Patriots defeated the Eagles 35-0. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

    PHILADELPHIA, PA – AUGUST 19: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots drops back against the Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 19, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Patriots defeated the Eagles 35-0. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

    The Patriots practiced without four of their five starting offensive linemen for the second straight day on Thursday. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn and left guard Mike Onwenu remain on the COVID-19 list, and it’s likely that at least one of them isn’t able to return in time for Sunday’s road tilt with the Houston Texans.

    Left tackle, in particular, is where a big opportunity could emerge for one of the Patriots’ most unheralded recent draft picks. Entering his third year healthy after injuries deprived him of his first two, Yodny Cajuste had been making significant progress throughout training camp and the preseason. He looked to be the top swing tackle candidate while backing up Wynn on the left side.

    A hamstring injury set that all back. Cajuste has been active for the past three games, but has yet to play a snap on offense, while Justin Herron and Yasir Durant have platooned at right tackle. If Wynn can’t play in Houston, it’s likely Cajuste gets his first chance to play left tackle – and it could be a blessing in disguise, as Wynn has not performed up to a standard we’re used to seeing this season.

  • No Rush

    HOUSTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 12: Whitney Mercilus #59 of the Houston Texans lines up during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at NRG Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

    HOUSTON, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 12: Whitney Mercilus #59 of the Houston Texans lines up during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at NRG Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

    Despite the Patriots’ pass protection problems, Week 5 is their best opportunity yet to turn things around: the Texans have arguably the NFL’s worst pass rush.

    Houston is dead-last in the NFL in QB pressure rate, only 16.4 percent, per Pro Football Reference. They’re tied for 23rd in sacks (7) and 31st in QB hits (15) and hurry percentage (5.3 percent). They’re also the most conservative pass-rushing team in the league, blitzing on just 15.1 percent of opponents’ dropbacks.

    They still have Whitney Mercilus, who has three sacks and three QB hits in four games. But even with a shorthanded offensive line, the Patriots should have an easier time with the Texans’ group than the high-end pass-rushing talent they dealt with when they played Miami, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay.

  • Josh Uche talks Xbox, Halloween candy

    Who says the Patriots don’t have any fun? Well, plenty of people, but they’re not exactly correct.

    Linebacker Josh Uche joined 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Zolak & Bertrand on Thursday, a spot that used to belong to his free-spirited teammate, Chase Winovich. The latter was well-known for his love of all things milk, so Uche had some big shoes to fill in terms of off-field quirks.

    In his free time, Uche told the guys he likes to dabble in MMA – in video game form.

    “I don’t know if I could live up to [Winovich’s] standards, but my free time, I just chill, I play a little Xbox, little Playstation action,” Uche said. “Me and [Patriots cornerback] Myles Bryant, we have a little competition on ‘UFC,’ any downtime we get, and we kind of just go at it. He was complaining to me, talking about how submissions don’t count as knockouts. I’m like ‘Bro, why would they put it in the game if it didn’t count?'”

    He was also asked his favorite Halloween candy, and he had a satisfyingly outside-the-box answer: Cookies & Creme Hershey bars.

  • Stats to watch for

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 03: Matt Judon #9 of the New England Patriots sacks Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter in the game at Gillette Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 03: Matt Judon #9 of the New England Patriots sacks Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter in the game at Gillette Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    — Linebacker Matt Judon has a chance to record a sack in four straight games against the Texans. He would be the first Patriot since (new teammate) Jamie Collins and Chase Winovich did it in 2019.

    — Kicker Nick Folk is five field goals away from 300 in his career. For the Patriots, the hope is it takes a few weeks for Folk to hit that milestone.

    — Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers has caught at least eight passes in consecutive games (nine vs New Orleans, eight vs Tampa Bay). Against Houston, he’ll look to be the first Pats wideout to catch at least eight in three straight games since Julian Edelman in 2016.