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5 Qs, 5 As with Pats Pulpit ahead of Seahawks vs. Patriots

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks’ home opener is on Sunday Night Football against the New England Patriots. In a non-pandemic year, this would be a raucous atmosphere as it’s a Super Bowl rematch and Cam Newton is coming to town. Also, these two teams have played nailbiters all three times in Russell Wilson’s career, so it’s a highly anticipated matchup worthy of SNF treatment.

There were a lot of unknowns about the Patriots after losing several key players to free agency or COVID-19 opt-outs, but it was business as usual in Week 1 when they beat the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. The offense was notably and unsurprisingly different with Newton compared to Tom Brady, while the defense shut down Ryan Fitzpatrick. But if you want to know more about the mighty Pats, we’ve got a great Q&A with Pats Pulpit Managing Editor Bernd Buchmasser for your reading pleasure!

Q1.) Dont’a Hightower is one of the marquee names and best players on the Patriots defense, but he opted out of the season. Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, and Jamie Collins all signed with other teams in free agency. What’s your assessment of the linebacker situation for the Patriots?

Losing Hightower and company is obviously a blow to the linebacker corps and the defense as a whole, simply because of the experience, communication skills and consistent playmaking abilities they all brought to the table. While it remains to be seen how the team eventually replaces them on a weekly basis, the Patriots’ Week 1 contest against the Dolphins did give us an impression of life without the four players mentioned: they do have some talent available, but it can be seen as a work in progress.

Third-year man Ja’Whaun Bentley is the number one off-the-ball linebacker, and Hightower’s heir as the defensive on-field signal caller. He actually had a very good game against the Dolphins, commanding the unit around him and being used both as a downhill defender and in coverage. The former fifth-round pick is a solid replacement option, but the spots around him are still up for grabs.

At the traditional off-the-ball/inside linebacker position, sixth-round rookie Cassh Maluia is a depth option but he a) has limited experience and b) was inactive last week because of a knee injury (he should be good to go on Sunday, however).

The Patriots also have some versatile “move” options capable of playing numerous spots both on and off the line — similarly to how Hightower, Van Noy and Collins were used: Brandon Copeland and rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, all of them in their first year in the system. While Uche was a surprise inactive last week, Jennings and Copeland played only nine and eight defensive snaps, respectively. The rookies are eventually expected to see more action and possibly earn starter-level roles alongside Bentley, but so far that has not happened.

As a result of this, New England actually turned to its defensive backfield to help out: cornerback Joejuan Williams and especially safety Adrian Phillips filled some of the linebacker assignments. In this way, New England almost played a 4-1-6 defense, with the sixth defensive back being a de facto linebacker.

While the off-the-ball and move positions are question marks at this point in time, the outside linebacker spots are relatively set: John Simon and Chase Winovich are the top-two, with the latter effectively taking over Van Noy’s former role, while Derek Rivers and Shilique Calhoun offer quality rotational depth alongside them. The edge does therefore not feel the offseason departures quite as much as the other two spots.

Long story short: the off-the-ball position is still somewhat of a question mark, but New England’s secondary depth has helped cover the most obvious holes in Week 1.

Q2.) I think it’s fair to say the Patriots secondary is the strength of the team and was a major reason they were an elite defense last year. What would you say is the biggest weakness on the Patriots depth chart?

Looking at the Patriots’ current secondary, it is hard to spot any glaring weaknesses. Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones and Joejuan Williams are as good a cornerback group as you’ll find, with Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Terrence Brooks and Kyle Dugger a solid safety depth chart. When looking at those players, the only true questions I have is whether or not they are actually as consistent as they showed on opening day.

The first player that comes to mind is Williams. A former second-round pick last year who saw only limited playing time as a rookie given the depth ahead of him, he was used primarily in coverage of Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki last week and fared well due to his size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and physicality: he allowed just one 9-yard catch all game. Nobody knows if he can repeat this performance on a week-to-week basis, however, and with teams likely trying to get him isolated more frequently given the talent around him.

The same also has to be said for the non-McCourty safety group. With Patrick Chung having opted out of the 2020 season, Adrian Phillips took over the majority of snaps at the so-called star position: he served as a box safety and additional linebacker for most of Week 1, and was solid in both run support and when dropping back into coverage. One good game does not a season make, however, and as is the case with Williams and fellow safeties Terrence Brooks ad Kyle Dugger, he has yet to prove that he can play at such a high level consistently.

Williams, Phillips and company have the skillsets to be successful, but they are the least established options in the team’s defensive backfield — and therefore my choice for weakest spots on the depth chart.

As for the roster as a whole, I would look to the other side of the ball: with the exception of the running back position, the offensive skill talent is questionable at best. The wide receiver group is Julian Edelman and a bunch of unproven players who have to show that they can successfully win their matchups when pressed at the line of scrimmage; the tight ends are led by former seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo and two rookies. This group is not striking fear into the heart of any defensive coordinator, and could be New England’s undoing if the team fails to get contributions out of it.

Q3.) What were your expectations entering the season for Cam Newton, and how do you think he fared in Game 1 in an offense that seemed tailored to his strengths?

During last year’s training camp, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked to describe New England’s schematic philosophy and gave a pretty telling answer: “Whatever style you want to be, it should reflect the talents of your team.”

Looking at the team before and after the season opener, I think he heeded his own advice and built the offense around what Newton and this supporting cast do best: force the defense to make decisions on the fly by the use of misdirection, with the running game as the foundation upon which this attack is built. Based on McDaniels’ previous statement, I did expect this to happen, but I have to say that I was still surprised at the overall efficiency of the group.

Of course, not everything was perfect. Newton’s diagnosis and line calls need to get better, as does his decision making: he allowed himself to be sacked twice by not checking out of a play based on the defensive formation, and on one of those takedowns pushed the team out of field goal range. Those are the growing pains that had to be expected — and it is something Seattle should very much try to attack by using quick shifts and showing either real or fake pressure — but at the end of the day I feel the Patriots and their fans can come out of this game feeling very good about what Newton adds to the attack.

If they can build on that and get the downfield passing more incorporated into the offense, the unit could at the very least become a solid complementary piece to one of the NFL’s best defenses.

Q4.) When the 2018 draft happened, the Seahawks went for Rashaad Penny over Sony Michel in their quest for a first-round running back in a class stacked with RB talent. Penny has had inconsistent performances and he’s now out for a while due to injury, whereas Michel can forever say he scored a game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. How has Michel’s performance been thus far and is he the undisputed number one back in New England’s system?

Fairly or not, first-round picks have sky-high expectations to live up to — no matter if they are named Penny or Michel. While the Patriots’ back has had more success in his career so far, he has yet to become the focal point in the team’s offense you hope he would be in his third year in the system. This is in part because he too has struggled a bit with injuries in the past: his knee bothered him in 2018 and during 2019’s training camp, and he underwent foot surgery earlier this offseason.

What also hurt him is New England’s approach to the running back position.

The Patriots use a running back by committee: Michel is primarily an early-down and short-yardage option within this rotation, with Rex Burkhead serving as an all-around player and James White as a receiving back. Michel and Burkhead are sharing early-down carries, and while the former first-rounder is getting the bulk of the carries he has yet to establish himself as a true bell-cow runner. He is solid, but lacks breakaway speed and shiftiness to make up for insufficient blocking (something Burkhead, for example, offers).

That said, he is also by no means a bruiser like Ezekiel Elliott or Marshawn Lynch. He follows his lanes, knows how to hit the hole, and is capable of getting to the second level — if the blocking allows him to. Don’t expect him to pull a Barry Sanders and make something out of nothing.

All in all, Michel has been solid in his first two years, which is not necessarily a bad thing: he helped the Patriots win a Super Bowl running behind an outstanding offensive line, and is certainly capable of doing it again. He is, by all means, a serviceable back. The question will be how his role evolves once 2019 third-round pick Damien Harris, one of the standouts performers during this year’s camp, returns from injured reserve as early as Week 4.

Q5.) How has it felt playing in a division where the other three teams have spent about 20 years failing to find good quarterbacks and thus usually don’t present much of a challenge to the Pats in the AFC East race?

20 years of unprecedented success felt good, thank you for asking.

In all seriousness, I do think that the topic of the AFC East being a weak division is a bit overblown. Yes, the Bills, Dolphins and Jets have failed to catch up with New England but it is a bit more complex than just saying the Patriots were good because they were gifted six wins and a division title each year. They were not, because as you very well know division games and the familiarity they bring are often a whole different level of competition. Just look at it this way: New England has not swept its division since 2012, despite routinely having the best quarterback, coaching staff and overall roster depth.

And herein lies the issue: the Patriots were better because they were better, and because they had stable leadership in the form of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Every now and then challengers did emerge nevertheless, though. The Jets of the early 2010s were a solid team under Rex Ryan, at least before they started to ask Mark Sanchez to do too much. The Bills of late are a competitor. The Dolphins actually won the AFC East in 2008. All those teams had their moments, but they failed to consistently compete either on a year-to-year or week-to-week — something the Patriots very much did regardless of who they played.

As for the quarterback position, or all others, I think this factors into it as well. With Brady playing as well as he has — between 2014 and 2017 he was playing on as high a level as I’ve ever seen a quarterback play — it put additional pressure on teams to invest resources into stopping him; which makes sense considering that all coaches and general managers not named Belichick were on a shorter leash: they needed to have success right away in order to keep their jobs, and were unable to build with a longer-term vision in mind.

This, however, led to bad cap management, plenty of roster turnover and scheme changes, and no gradual talent development. With the Patriots hovering over the division, the other three clubs were scrambling to catch up without having the patience to actually build teams capable of doing that — at the quarterback position and elsewhere as well. Only recently have the Bills (and maybe the Dolphins) started to reverse course a bit.

But the Patriots’ sheer presence and stability contributed quite a bit to their rivals’ issues over the years. And it felt good to see it.

John P. Gilbert will have his answers to Bernd’s questions published on Pats Pulpit and shared here when it’s up. Thanks again to Bernd for the answers!