If Patriots just did this, the offense would see a big improvement

If Patriots just did this, the offense would see a big improvement

Every week during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related topic. This week: Call me crazy, but if the Patriots would just do THIS offensively, they’d see a big improvement. 

Bang it to the tight ends. So far this season, the Patriots have 26 catches for 349 yards and a touchdown from Benjamin Watson, Matt Lacosse, Ryan Izzo and Eric Tomlinson. The 27 catches have come on 38 total targets. Tomlinson’s long gone and Izzo hasn’t played since Week 6 against the Giants. Lacosse, meanwhile, has missed five games. The 38-year-old Watson has been targeted twice in the past two games but has pulled in 12 of the 17 passes sent his way in the past six weeks. Last season, a dinged-up Rob Gronkowski caught 26 passes for 304 yards by himself and that came on 43 targets. It’s astounding that an offense that’s been as reliant on the tight end as the Patriots has only directed 38 passes to the position through 12 games. Even in 2016, when Gronk missed a big chunk of the year, the team was still able to get 55 catches and 701 yards from Martellus Bennett. I have a feeling the Josh McDaniels has noticed the absence of the tight end in their offense. I’m also sure that part of the reason it hasn’t been anything more than an afterthought is A) they’ve had a revolving door there with Lacosse injured and Watson suspended for the early part of the year; B) they’ve had woeful pass protection especially on the left while Isaiah Wynn was out and needed to keep a tight end in at times and C) they don’t have dynamic players at the spot. But last week, the Patriots got a much-missed seam pass to Lacosse for 23 yards and a 32-yard catch-and-run from Watson. Could that be a motivator to get the ball out there a little more often? Couldn’t hurt.

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I'm not sure there's anything they can do right now to see a BIG improvement. But there are improvements there to be made, no doubt. I'd focus on the red zone because that's the area of the field where there's the most obvious potential for growth for the Patriots. There really is no reason for the Patriots not to be at least a little more effective at scoring touchdowns when they get inside the 20. They're currently 24th in the NFL when it comes to red-zone efficiency at 48.89 percent. That's a tick below bad offensive football teams like the Giants (53.12 percent, 22nd), Bears (59.46 percent, 14th), Bills (63.64 percent, 9th) and Dolphins (67.74 percent, 4th). How do they improve? Go big. Go bigger in the passing game. Get those tight ends you mention, Tom, out there and allow them to use their bodies to post up on defenders in an area of the field where space is tight. Use N'Keal Harry, even if it's only as a specialty player in there, because he knows how to make a back-shoulder catch. Maybe give Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Meyers a breather when you're in there. And go big in the running game deep in opponent territory. Multiple tight ends. Maybe an extra offensive lineman at times. Since Isaiah Wynn's return, and since LaCosse has been healthy enough to be a factor as a blocker, the run game has improved. Especially out of two-tight end sets. In the last two weeks, they've run for 4.2 yards per carry out of 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends). That number was 3.4 yards per carry in Weeks 2-11 without Wynn. They picked up 3.3 yards per carry in games without Wynn this year, whereas they've averaged 4.4 yards per carry the past two weeks -- regardless of personnel package. They should be able to run it closer to the goal line with the offensive line and tight end spots healthier. And if they prove they can do that, that'll open up the play-action passing game down there. Poof. Just like that, the red-zone offense will be better and the Patriots will see more points on the scoreboard as a result.

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Point/Counterpoint: What's biggest free-agent priority on Patriots defense?

Point/Counterpoint: What's biggest free-agent priority on Patriots defense?

Every week during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related question. Here's this week's topic:

The Patriots historic defensive season keeps rolling on but at the end of this season, three of their most important defenders — Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins — are going to be free agents. Which player should be the highest priority?

What’s fascinating to me is the path each of these three traveled to get to this point.

McCourty was a first-round pick in 2010. Now 32, he’s at the tail end of a five-year, $47.5M deal that had $28.5M guaranteed. After contemplating retirement in the offseason, he’s having one of the best years of his career.

Van Noy is 28 and he’s at the end of a two-year, $11.7 million deal signed in 2017 when he was still emerging as a Patriot. A second-round pick, he’s made $16.3M in his career. He’s playing at a Pro Bowl-level at least, arguably an All-Pro level. The contract he’s in line to sign is the “big one” for him.

Collins is 30. A second-round pick in 2013, he’s here on a one-year deal worth a total of $2M. He’s made $34M in his career, $27.4M of which came from Cleveland. He’s Pro Bowl-level as well.

All three are vital to the team’s success but — as we saw with Collins previously and Trey Flowers this season — the Patriots can restock, reshuffle and survive. The one thing that can’t be easily replicated by anyone is McCourty’s leadership and institutional knowledge. He could play until 36 if he decided to. There are no diminishing skills. Further, there’s nobody behind him near as I can tell.

To me, it goes McCourty, Van Noy, Collins.

The Devin McCourty selection makes all kinds of sense. Especially when you use the argument I did last week, which is that coverage is more important than pass-rush. McCourty is the central nervous system for the secondary in New England. (Fun example here of the kind of games he can play with opposing quarterbacks.) That's the team's strength. Pay him what he needs to stick around.

But I'm not sure he requires the "priority" label because I'm not sure how desperate he'll be to play elsewhere. His brother has a year left on his deal. McCourty flirted with the idea of retirement before last year's Super Bowl. It feels like he and the team should be able to figure out something that works for both sides relatively easily.

The same probably won't be true for Van Noy. I'd say that, because of his age and the position he plays, he should be the priority this offseason. Though the Patriots parted ways with guys like Chandler Jones and Trey Flowers in the past, Van Noy is a little different edge defender.

First, he's likely not going to command the same type of deal those players did. (The contract Preston Smith got with the Packers, which pays an average of $13 million per year, might make sense.) And what he does as a player who can work in all situations on the edge of the Patriots defense is invaluable. He can set against the run, track running backs in coverage, and get after quarterbacks — with or without the help of games up front.

Collins, 30, is a great communicator himself and a versatile athlete who can play on the edge or in the middle of the field. But Collins is a little older and not quite as stout in the run game as Van Noy. That matters. And there's no one behind Van Noy currently on the roster who can do the same things he does. (Chase Winovich is currently more a pass-game specialist.)

If the Patriots can figure out a way to take care of Van Noy first, then come to terms with McCourty and Collins, that'd make the most sense to me.

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Point/Counterpoint: Pass rush or coverage more important for Patriots vs. Cowboys?

Point/Counterpoint: Pass rush or coverage more important for Patriots vs. Cowboys?

Every week during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related question. This week, they debate the key matchups that will decide the Patriots-Cowboys game in NFL Week 12.

What is the key matchup that will decide Patriots-Cowboys in Week 12?

The main reason Dak Prescott’s an MVP candidate and Tom Brady is the frontrunner for MDP (Most Disappointed Player) comes down to the people in front of them.

Prescott gets an exquisite amount of time from his offensive line. Enough to make potent washed-up players like Jason Witten and Randall Cobb. Enough time to help Amari Cooper go from Oakland bust to Dallas star. Enough time to throw for more than 400 yards three times. He leads the NFL in passing yards with 3,221, he is second in QBR (77.8), first in yards per attempt (8.82), fourth in completions (247), tied for second in touchdown passes (21) and eighth in passer rating. He’s only been sacked 12 times.

Prescott gets 2.9 seconds per attempt to get rid of the ball according to NextGen stats. He’s second in the NFL in average completed air yards (how far his completions went in the air before being caught) and is third in intended air yards with eight and 9.9 yards respectively. Those numbers speak to an offense that has the luxury of waiting for plays to develop so receivers can uncover and find space.

Can the Patriots speed up Prescott and – even if they don’t sack him – get him to be a little less accurate than the 67.7 percent completion rate he’s got? Last week, the Patriots got to Carson Wentz for five sacks. Wentz and Prescott are similar in terms of mobility but Wentz didn’t have the protection Prescott enjoys and he sure doesn’t have the offensive firepower at his disposal Prescott does.

The Patriots have 37 sacks in 10 games – a tremendous pace. The pressure up front is what’s helped the Patriots secondary be as effective as it’s been.

Can the Patriots’ front-seven (and assorted blitzers) get the heat on Prescott necessary to keep Dallas under 25 points? They need to.

Let's turn this into a good, old fashioned Rush vs. Coverage argument, why don't we?!? Of course the two are inextricably linked, but the way in which the Patriots have built their roster would tell you they favor one over the other.

They let Chandler Jones walk. They let Trey Flowers walk. They signed Stephon Gilmore to the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history. Coverage is what will determine whether or not the Patriots come away from their matchup with the Cowboys standing at 10-1.

More specifically, if the Patriots can erase Dak Prescott's No. 1 receiving option Amari Cooper, they'll win. It's that simple. Getting to Prescott with pressure will help, but don't overestimate the importance of his offensive line. They've shut down some of the worst pass-rush units in football, including Miami (32nd in sacks), Detroit (28th), Washington (24th), the Giants twice (23rd), and they got worked over by mediocre units in Philly (20th, sacked Prescott three times) and Green Bay (17th, sacked Prescott three times).

Against the blitz, a Patriots staple this season, Prescott's protection is decidedly below-average. The Patriots shouldn't be worried about their pass-rush. (Did we mention Cam Fleming could be starting at right tackle for injured lineman La'el Collins?) The key will be covering Cooper on the occasions Prescott does have time to throw.

Prescott's statistical explosion has coincided with Cooper's arrival last season, as the former Raider has asserted himself as far and away the team's most efficient wideout. If Stephon Gilmore does his weekly trick of making top options disappear, Prescott will be forced to go to Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb. Both are talented players, and both helped the Cowboys put up 35 points on Detroit when Cooper (three catches, 38 yards) was largely shut down last week.

But the Detroit defense New England is not. Despite having Pro Bowl corner Darius Slay (who shadowed Cooper), the Lions are arguably the worst pass defense in football, allowing 288.6 yards per game (30th) and a 7.3-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio (32nd).

Prescott is at his best when he gets rid of the football quickly. His 115.8 quarterback rating when he releases less than 2.5 seconds after the snap is tops in the NFL. There will be plenty of plays where the Patriots pass-rush has no chance. But down-to-down, the coverage will have to be on point. If it is, the Patriots win.

MORE PERRY: Imagining a world where Tua Tagovailoa falls to the Patriots>>>

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